In the past week, the winner and runners up of the Harpers Bazaar short story competition 2020 were announced. Huma Qureshi (@huma_quareshi_uk) tweeted about her win with her short story ‘The Jam Maker’ and posted a copy of the page which also gives the names of the runners up. Unfortunately, I was unable to zoom on and read the posted pages in full and cannot find it online so am unable to comment on the story or name the runners up. However,@BernardineEvari who judged the competition described the story as “fresh, lively & gorgeous” and given the popularity and profile of this annual competition, there is every reason in the world to look forward with great relish to reading Huma’s story. With a warm heart, I congratulate her for her success.
I am disappointed for myself though. I submitted to this competition and was not shortlisted.
Thanks to Steve Johnson @ Unsplash for the image
I set myself a task this year of writing for competition every month of 2020 and apart from a wee flurry of success back in January, haven’t won anything since so I am an old hand at rejection now. As my writing journey this year is a bit of a lark with the actual aim of improving my writing skills (rather than winning per se), and as I am thoroughly enjoying it and believe I am improving my skills, not winning comps has not stung at all so far – until this particular competition.
The story I submitted is, I think, the best thing I have ever written. It is not autobiographical but does draw upon family history. It is well researched. I am satisfied with the voice, the story arc and the literary quality of the piece. I am proud of it.
Without feedback from the competition judges, it is impossible to know why it was not successful. All I can do is learn and remember that rejection of this piece does not mean it is bad – it just means it wasn’t right for Harpers this year. I do, however, need to carefully think about whether it is in fact good enough. I will be sending it to more readers for feedback and appraisal. I may even pay an editor to critique it.
Rejection is a positive opportunity
Thanks to Hello I’M Nik @Unsplash for the image.
So, I am trying to focus on this being a positive opportunity. Edison, when creating the light bulb, famously said: “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”. So, time for me to take a deep breath, and get on with writing.
Longfellow’s poem ‘It Is Not Always May’ was meant as an encouragement to grasp the fleeting moments of life with a reminder that delights quickly pass. To be completely honest, with all the best intentions I struggled throughout the month to write or engage with anything other than novel reading (I read a lot of novels). Partly that was because my partner was on a fortnights leave and, in the context of lockdown, holidaying at home in what turned out the be the most glorious spring weather, had an easy appeal over sitting at my keyboard. That is not the full story though. Despite all good intentions discussed in my last post, I was still in a trough of being unable to write very much at all, and inspiration was thin.
Thanks to Chase Clark for Unsplash image
I did submit to one competition in May – the ‘Best’ magazine short crime story comp (up to 2.5k words and a prize, to be judged by Val McDermid). I enjoyed writing this story – it was fun. There are a great many excellent and arguably under-appreciated writers of short fiction for what are traditionally thought of as women’s mags. I would love to be one of them but it is more challenging than I imagined to get the narrative voice right and avoid the cliché’s such mags reject. Still… I got a submission in.
I got to the end of May feeling a little bit lost with my writing but fortunately, a pair of hero’s were waiting in the wings with a rescue! The fabulous women Sarah and Jo, who run Writers HQ emailed with an invitation to sign up for a free couch to 5k words writing challenge (C25K) course. I have attended a few of their writers retreats back in the days when we could discuss word count face to face and pass each other encouraging cake.
Like many businesses, theirs has been impacted by the damn virus but fortunately they have managed to navigate a safety rope (a very small funding grant) and are able now to offer this particular course for free. They encourage members of the writing community they set up to BE A WRITER. COMMIT. OWN IT. So that is exactly what I will be doing this June. I have signed on the dotted line and setting targets. I have a planner, I have a story, I have a goal, and I am going to get up unreasonably early every weekday morning to write because that is when I write best.
It is still not too late to join the C25K Words challenge – see the Writers HQ website.
I will mostly be working on my latest novel (currently at 36k words) but intend to enter at least one competition too this month.
In my last blog post ‘Writing (and not writing) in a time of Corvid-19’ I wrote about how despite the abundance of time given by lockdown I was still struggling to write. The deadline for a competition I had planned to enter for April was fast approaching, but my brain was sluggish, uninspired, floppy and dulled. Unless I could kick myself into gear somehow, I would miss the deadline.
Deadlines matter – right?
As it was only a self-imposed deadline, and there were no consequences to missing it – what did it matter? There are more important issues facing the world at the moment. Only as the deadline loomed ever closer I experienced anxiety about letting myself down. I chose my annual challenge mainly to be an actual challenge. Failing before just half of the year had gone was, even in the awareness-raising context of Maslow’s hierarchy, demoralising
Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash
I recently read the book ‘Choose Yourself’ by James Altucher* (Lioncrest Publishing, 2013 – 99p on kindle). One of Altchuer’s central themes is that there are ways to become ‘an idea machine’. He proposes a method for generating ideas which involves concisely making a list of 10 ways to, for example, improve an item such as a frying pan. I don’t need writing ideas because I always have lots of them, but I did need a ‘kick start’ so I wrote a list of ten potential titles.
You can’t go far wrong with a list
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
According to research, ideas are constructed by our brains mixing and melding the symbols and images that collectively make up our human/social existence. I have no idea of the parts which created my list of titles, but there are certainly some which piqued my interest. I chose one with no real idea where it was going but the title – ‘The Garden Letters’ gave me a location and place to start.
Where it went – much to my surprise – was a Victorian LGBT love story. This is so far outside my usual writing arena it ended up being great fun to write. I had lovely little forays into the Victorian era – Christmas cards, important events of a particular year, the trial of Oscar Wilde for example. The most enjoyable part of the research was into the language used in love letters of the day – the ‘rose-leaf lips’, ‘the madness of kisses’. Re-creating accurate, believable letter-dialogue which also fit the story arc was fun and engaging.
I met the deadline for the competition (by just a few hours). I do not recommend working to a deadline to this extent. I could have used the dialogue to move the story arc along more tightly and engagingly but I ran out of time.
My competition challenge is about improving my writing craft. Professional writers tell us time and again that ‘turning up and putting words down’ is the most important part of writing. That is not a new story to me or anyone but in this case, when the Corvid crisis might have allowed me some slack, list creating gave me a way to achieve a word count and story I am happy with. Hopefully, I am back on track. I have another competition entry due in ten days. Wish me luck.
*There is a very good summary of this book at Nathan Lozeron’s excellent You tube channel.
Thanks to quarantine, many of us have been given the gift of more ‘free’ time than we have ever known.
When the lockdown was first announced, social media was awash with calls to see this ‘extra’ time as a bounty or opportunity. It was time to learn the ukulele or Japanese, develop those washboard abs, or write that book every single person in the world has within them – prevented only by the absence of time.
Lots of sites offering tutoring, support, ideas, editing and guidance to writers started generously offering loads of services for free. The world is in trouble and people wanted to help in the ways they could.
Indeed, initially, Twitter started glowing with word count achieved, five hundred words today, a thousand, five thousand this week. Over just a couple of weeks though, those Tweets celebrating word count achievement seemed to diminish in number. The voices of others started to appear much more frequently – people struggling to write, struggling to continue with WIP’s, to research or create new works. Writers on Twitter (in particular @WritingCommunity and @AcademicChatter) wrote of the absence of will, or ideas and the presence of fatigue, anxiety, fear and grief.
I have a writing plan for this year. I wrote about it on my first post this year’s blog. I intend to submit to a writing competition every month, and, post a writing process piece here on my blog. I have enjoyed it so far and been energised by some of the personal challenges I set myself (sonnet writing, for example) and the deadlines required by competition guidelines. It has been fun.
Competitions for April included one poetry competition which I submitted to very early in the month. I started two short stories – each with competition given themes, one with a target of 1500 words, the other of 3,000.
I love writing. As other writers know, it can feel like a delicious drug. I fall into the words I write about; I can see my characters, hear their words, smell their scent, know their flaws. I once saw it described as a writers playground, and this fits my own experience of creative writing.
One of my short story WIP’s (the 3k one) started strongly. I had to describe a tin box dug up in a garden and I could almost smell the soil and taste the leaf mould on my tongue. If I closed my eyes, I could feel the curved edges of the box under my fingers.
My second story had an unusual and bold first sentence. I had no idea where it was going – I had no plan, just the good opening line – so I was amused to see how it would pan out. I tend to plot a rough arc, but for this story, I would travel where it took me. It promised a bit of an adventure.
I feel lazy, sloppy, inadequate, frustrated, confused. All this time, when so many people are in much, much worse circumstances than I am, I am wasting this valuable ‘free’ time and proving that old ‘imposter syndrome’ is true – I am not a proper writer. Tweets evidence that I am certainly not alone. Some people are rocking their word count. I am full of respect and admiration for them, but there are many more (writers in particular – both academic and creative – I am not sure if this has resonance with other creative endeavours) who report feeling lost, with low energy, no motivation and significantly diminished creativity.
A few days ago, I saw a tweet from Thrive Manchester (@ThriveMcr – April 17 2020). Thrive Manchester is a charity established to facilitate positive mental and physical health in the people of Manchester.
“This is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Wherever we were on it a few months ago, everyone is now at the bottom – fundamental needs; physiological survival & emotional & physical safety. So we’re having difficulty with higher needs, feeling connected, motivated, fulfilled, positive”.
This was such a useful and helpful tweet. It reminded me that as a society, we are actually operating in survival mode (the two bottom-most levels).
News stories over the past few days have discussed ‘survival’. There was the terrible, heart breaking story of Rajesh Jaysaseelan who died after trying to hide his illness for fear of eviction. He literally had no access to, or means to get, shelter, food and healthcare support. It is clear he did his best to survive but for reasons of poverty and inequality, forcing him to exist at the bottom-most level of Maslow’s Hierarchy he had no access to resources to help him beat Corvid-19.
In other stories, the press has delighted in scoffing at celebrities and royals who live in mansions with pools, expansive gardens and the luxuries wealth affords. Walks around one’s estate or a live-in nanny quarantining with the family is hardly ‘survival’, they sneer.
I had not thought of myself as ‘surviving’. I am safe, I have food and shelter but what the tweet from @ThriveMcr made me think of is that whatever our situation we share the commonality of being concerned about survival – of society, of the people we love, of ourselves. Will we die? We are all in an actual existential threat of a greatness most of us could never conceive. We are experiencing multiple anxieties about the impact of Corvid-19 on the society we know. In the context of a global plague the familiar is becoming ever more unfamiliar. Uncertainty and fear may be soothed by physiological and safety needs being met, but they are not eradicated, and these feelings bubble and fizz just under the surface for all of us to some extent or other.
Similarly, status and esteem as goals or life achievements – often hidden-but-there parts of writing for publication – seem now to have little currency or merit.
Of course, most of us would wish to have ‘self actualisation’ as our ultimate aim. Who would not want to become the best version of ourselves we can be? For writers, this usually (always?) involves actual writing – and more than that perhaps, having readers.
Amid Covid-19, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a reminder that in the context of such a huge individual and societal survival threat. it is not surprising that many of us are feeling wobbly! The Hierarchy has an inbuilt series of solutions towards the peak of the pyramid – including the need for friendship, intimacy, family and connection. Those arenas give the comfort I can take from and offer, and from which my word count will one day re-emerge. I hope it is soon, but it may not be, and that is fine too.
Many thanks to Thrive Manchester for the thought-provoking tweet.
When I do count the clock that tells the time, And see the brave day sunk in hideous night; When I behold the violet past prime, And sable curls, all silvered o’er with white; When lofty trees I see barren of leaves, Which erst from heat did canopy the herd, And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves, Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard, Then of thy beauty do I question make, That thou among the wastes of time must go, Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake And die as fast as they see others grow; And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.
Shakespeare Sonnet 12
Holland Park Press is running a poetry competition (open until 27th April so still time to enter) which must address the theme ‘Is royalty relevant?’ I am not a poet nor am I a royalist, so in the spirit of expanding my writing horizons, it seemed like a good comp to enter.
My experience of writing poetry is limited to one or two free verse efforts and some genuinely terrible ‘woe is me’ early age 20-ish trauma ramblings. I truly love both the beauty and wit of much poetry though – which is one of the reasons I have rarely tried to attempt it. I cannot write poetry with the beauty of Maria Jastrzebska, the wit of Simon Armitage, the power of Carol Ann Duffy, the wisdom of Maya Angelou or the fun of Adrian Henri. (I mention these only among many other poets who’s work I have enjoyed) so it is a writing craft I mostly stay away from. In deciding to write something for this competition, I also decided to write a sonnet. In all honesty, in making that decision, I had no proper idea about what a sonnet is or how it should be structured. Obviously, I turned to Shakespeare for inspiration and immediately came across his Sonnet number 12. In the current context, it inspired and calmed. Life goes on and, we must engage with life as best we can. I think maybe sonnet 12 can be read as a call to being creative as life becomes challenging, and for me, writing is that.
I have taken the path of the English rather than the Italian Petrarchan sonnet (see diagram). Thus it followed the ABAB/CDCD/EFEF/GG line form. It had a thematic twist and ended with a ‘tada’! moment. It was hard to write a verse which adhered to the form and did not read as ‘forced’ – and to write about royalty (in my poem, about meeting the Queen) in a non-cheesy way. It was more challenge to write than I imagined it might be. I wanted the emphasis on certain syllables within the sentences to be fluid and to contribute to the overall cadence and rhythm of the piece without feeling contrived but I am not sure how well I achieved that. I doubt my sonnet will win any prizes, but I enjoyed writing it and learned something about poetic form.
One of my competition submissions this month was to the Pen to Print ‘book challenge’.
The Book Challenge is looking to provide a year-long programme of support to new writers of any genre. Writers will be offered (online) classes and guided by a mentor through the process of writing a new book and getting it to publication.
I submitted the first chapter of my current WIP ‘Everyday Wendy’. Creating a synopsis was a useful exercise in good, tight storytelling. A dictionary definition of a synopsis is ‘brief/condensed summary’ and this forced me to think – what is this book actually about? What is the essence of the story? What are its piths and pivots?. I could, of course, answer these questions because they had guided my planning and plotting but answering each concisely and succinctly was unexpectedly challenging and, ultimately, helpful.
‘Everyday Wendy’ is my current (primary) work in progress. I am about a third of the way through towards my projected final word count and, as most first drafts are, it is a mess. I think the premise for the book is good and, though out of my usual genre, I am enjoying writing it. The first draft is a very long way from submission and it almost felt too soon to be even thinking about submitting to this type of competition. I had to think carefully about whether to submit later if at all. There was a lot to think about and it seemed to me, pros and cons.
The idea of winning a prize is a key motivating factor. Who doesn’t want to win a prize and enjoy that one’s work and talent has been recognised? That said, was this prize one I actually wanted? The mentorship offered is from a ‘professional writer’ and I am keen to learn from peers and those with more experience but I do not want to waste their time, nor do I want demands made of me that I cannot, or don’t want to, meet (deadlines or changes in writing style for example). The competition needs successful outcomes so to be fair to it, and its organisers, I needed to be clear with myself that in applying to it, the prize – should I be lucky enough to win it – met my writing needs and take my writing where I want it to go? I also had to consider the (probably more likely outcome) stinging impact of not being selected.
(Image by Junmardun under Creative Commons Licence)
An important question I considered was my commitment to this particular WIP. This book is somewhat experimental – a writing exercise, outside my usual genre, light-hearted, comedic. Different to anything I have written before. It feels like writing in a lovely playground. If I was going to submit it for scrutiny, I needed to think about whether it was just a writing exercise or did I intend to see it through to a potentially publishable draft? Being conscious about my strong commitment to the story and its telling was motivating and uplifting – and a useful lesson in itself. It was something of a revelation to take time to ask myself whether I loved this work enough to see it through. I do.
After pondering for a few days, I decided it was a good opportunity for me and got ready to submit my first chapter. Even this caused pause for thought. My first chapter is adequately rounded and the quality of writing is good but does it say anything about where the book is going or what it is aiming to do? Is it a good ‘showcase’ for the planned rest of the book? I am not confidently sure. I wondered how the competition judges would arrive at their decisions based on single early chapters of works in progress and a synopsis. It made me consider how first chapters need to capture the reader. I already have notes about how to make the next draft of this chapter stronger.
I started this challenge year of writing for competitions to develop my writing craft. Obviously, I hope to win every completion I enter through the year but think it more likely that I will win few if any. Still, the act of thinking through whether to submit and the quality of work which might fit the bill is so far, proving to be a productive learning process.
Thanks to supportive fellow writer @PatsyCollins for the alert about this challenge. In a similar spirit, I share it too. This opportunity is still open for subs – the deadline isn’t until 25th September, so there is still time to enter. Good luck!
Two competitions caught my eye this month. The first is the Arundel Festival Theatre Trail competition which is free-to-enter and with fantastic opportunities for the winner. In addition to a small financial prize, the play will be performed as a part of the Arundel Festival in 2020. The submission date is 31st January 2020. (photo Arundel Festival. Copyright. Charlie Warring).
The second is the Scottish Arts Club short story competition with a good financial prize and publication in an anthology for the winners.
Both have their downsides: I have never written or even attempted to write a script. The deadline for the Arundel Festival submission is the end of January so leaves me very little time.
The second competition also (already) breaks my own rules for free-to-enter competitions but it still tempts because of the calibre of entries it attracts. The stories in the previously published anthology ‘The Desperation Game’ (Eds: McBean, SC and Munro, H, 2019) are excellent.
Also, I have a bountiful collection of story ideas filed away in my Evernote folder, each hankering to be called upon. In truth, creating stories is not difficult for me (telling them well is the challenge). Writing 2,000 words does not feel as intimidating as writing in a form I have never even thought of tackling before and yet I lean towards having a go at a script. I think it highly unlikely I can produce a script worth submitting but the goal of my blog this year is, for me, writing-craft development so here goes – the script it is.
My ‘how to write a play script’ notes
The invitation to submission says scripts must be for a play of 30 – 40 minutes, easily staged with minimum props and a maximum of five performers. Although there are caveats to the general rule, the consensus in on-line blogs seems to suggest that a page of script equates to a minute performed.
The script must be presented in a specific way. It must, of course, have the dialogue – how the actors tell the story. The stage direction about what needs to be on, or happening on a set. The script itself must delineate between each element through how the script is formatted (i.e. use of italics or capitals). Fortunately, I have some help with this as I use the excellent Scrivener which has a script template I very much hope will make the process easier.
I have a story in mind, and I think I can best organise this around two acts but think I will need at least four or maybe even five scenes to tell the story. Before I even begin to write, I wonder if this will make such a short script far too busy. I may need to give this more thought.
Research suggests plays must consist of five parts
The introduction of the characters and ensuring the background information about the aspects which needs to be known is shown. This stage of the play should also set the mood and connect the audience with the material. In such a short play, it seems to me that the story must be relatively simple but the exposition must be quite a hook to ensure that the characters are relatable and of interest. I have what I think is a strong idea for a setting for my play and a well-formed set of distinctive characters who I can already see in my mind’s eye (I find myself already liking some of them which is a good start).
I have a clear idea of the first and perhaps most crucial incident that causes a ‘moment’ – a ‘tension’ in the plot and is the hook upon which the rest of the story unfolds. The initial tension must be followed by other relevant conflicts between and within characters to carry the overall story. I am less clear at this point about how to hold onto the tension beyond the initial action point and will need to do more story crafting on this. I vacillate between being a plotter and pantster when writing stories anyway so although, for a new type of writing, I would rather be clear about where the story is going I will try to enjoy the ‘let’s see what happens’ element of writing it.
There must be a critical turning point which changes everything for the key character(s). This might mean drawing upon alluded to, but hidden, inner strengths of the character. In my story, lives must change – there is no option, and individuals must themselves change to accommodate the broader situation. In doing so, some characters will draw on others for support. I can articulate this as a general story, but at this point, I have no idea how to tell this exclusively in dialogue and within the constraints of acts and scenes! I am not sure whether I am excited or intimidated.
This part of the story is where the story wrap takes shape towards the outcome. In this part of the story, it should be clear that something has happened and there has been a shift or a significant change. This part of the story needs to lead to the resolution of the story. My pre-writing story planning is woolliest here. I can imagine all kinds of elements to it, but they seem somewhat wishy-washy. I hope this can be resolved in writing.
The end of the story. Conflicts and tensions are resolved, the story and character arcs are complete, and the audience must feel that this story has come to a good stopping point, but with a hope of more that could be told. The resolution needs to make sense and be rationally in-line with what has happened (no ‘and they were unexpectedly kidnapped by aliens’ moments). There should be a sense of satisfaction and completion for the audience
Story and plot
My story fits firmly in an ‘up-lit’ genre. It is a story of community, kindness, friendship and hope. I aim for it to be tenderly funny in exploring complex connections between a diverse group of people and to show how such an environment can engender calm over chaos and smooth frictions. I like the story, which also takes me right out of my writing comfort zone (I more usually write crime stories). This is by no means a new story but, of course, so few are. What will hopefully make it worth telling is how I manage to deliver it – or in other words, the plot. I am less clear about the plot – the not necessarily chronological events within the story that come together to enable the parts of the play to meet a dramatic and satisfactory conclusion. I know it depends mainly on how I show relationships between characters. I have a lot of work to do over the next ten days.
I will publish my entry on this site, whatever the outcome, once the competition has been concluded. Wish me luck!
In 2019 I wrote a blog which reviewed monthly recommendations made by the Guardian Review in their ‘literary calendar of books and events to note in 2019’. For this blog, I read and reviewed one book a month from the list, and I also researched and wrote about the dates the list recommended we note. I read and reviewed 11 books I almost certainly would not have otherwise read, and I learned about events and people mostly new to me. It was an adventure I enjoyed very much. More importantly though, I stuck to a disciplined writing schedule.
As a hobby writer, it is too easy to allow one’s effort to become secondary to housework, other hobbies, and putting the pen down when things go wrong. My journalist cousin once reminded me of the well-known adage that that journo’s cannot wait for the muse – they have deadlines or no job. Creative writing as an amateur, especially when stories won’t form or words will not be tamed, is far too easy to walk away from. It’s just a hobby, right? No-one cares if the book or story isn’t finished. Only I do care and am often frustrated by the whims of my hard-to-tame procrastination monster (who looks a bit like this!)
At least once in every month in 2020 I intend to enter a creative writing competition. Once the competition deadline is over and/or the results have been announced, I will post my submission. For the most part and unless there is a very good reason to deplete our bank account and exasperate my partner, I will enter free competitions which means the likelihood of me posting any winning submissions will be low. Free competitions attract a lot of submissions.
Writing competitions have a huge internet presence across all genres. They present the opportunity to have one’s work recognised and valued, perhaps be published, possibly result in a prize of some kind. Critics have argued competition outcomes mean little: Judging panels are so small they cannot represent potential readers to any significant extent and judges’ credentials, criteria and fitness to judge is not always transparent. Feedback is often poor (when any is offered at all). Competition winning, it is said, is no alternative to the more usual efforts to be published by a reputable company. (see Geoff Ward’s interesting article on competitions for Medium).
In December 2019, on a whim, and as part of my research for this blog, I entered two small competitions. I gave my entries literally minutes thought and sent each in within fifteen minutes of first seeing the posts. I won prizes for both! (Thank you to Patsy Collins for my much-appreciated book – and also for how very supportive you are to other writers).
I am cheating a little by posting my other competition success in December as my first ‘comp’ post outcome of this blog. The competition was hosted by Ink Pantry which is a marvellous platform for writers – do check it out. I was astounded to achieve a ‘highly commended’ for poetry as the last effort at poetry (fortunately lost forever) was no doubt about unrequited love, spots and/or hating school.
Writing for competitions will encourage me to write outside my comfort zone – whether this is about required word count; genre; style; requirement to include reference to specific items etc.
My 2020 blog will consist of two-part posts each month. Part one will be about the writing process. I will give details of the competition – about why I chose it. The genre and anything else I think is relevant, interesting or useful. Part two will be the piece I submitted. Often writing competitions require submissions to be unpublished, so I will only post my submission once the competition has been concluded.
I hope this blog, like the last, will be another writing adventure I will learn from and enjoy. I hope others might too.