Very exciting news arrived in my inbox the other day – my work in progress, a novel, has been longlisted by Myriad Editions for their First Drafts competition.
First Drafts is an ‘annual event organised by Myriad to uncover exceptional new voices’. There are very few competitions that can be entered with a first draft or work in progress and apparently they had three times more entries than last year, so I’m very fortunate to be on the longlist!
I would love to win this competition, as the prize is a week-long writer’s retreat and editorial help as well as mentoring from an established author. But it’s an honour to be on the longlist in itself and makes me even more determined to stay on the path I’m on and continue writing full-time. Thank you to First Drafts for the amazing boost to my confidence as a writer.
I won the Almasi League Flash Fiction Award this year with my short story Beneath the Skin.
I wrote the flash fiction piece as a writing exercise during the Curtis Brown Write to the End of your Novel course. It is an online course which I took after completing the Start Writing Fiction course run by the Open University. Both courses are excellent – very helpful if you need more structure when you are writing and enjoy receiving feedback. The Open University one is also free.
The Almasi League run workshops and events for writers and after signing up for one of them I heard of their Flash Fiction competition and entered my flash piece. Courttia Newland, their judge said it was ‘full of emotion’ and ‘skilfully written’.
I went to meet Courttia and some of his writing students at the University of East London, Stratford. I had some great conversations with the group, who had clearly found their classes immensely helpful, and Courttia himself, who had some great advice for me about my next steps.
It was a hugely life-affirming event for me to win this award, as I had some serious health issues to contend with this year. Winning writing competitions is a real boost to writers who are mostly working alone – it helps us gain some recognition and feedback – and I am very grateful to the Almasi League for the opportunity to enter.
Storgy, the short story and arts magazine, have launched a Kickstarter for their first print anthology, ExitEarth. It’s already over halfway funded and they are offering some amazing perks for readers, writers and art fans, including collectible artworks, T-shirts, tote bags, the chance to have your short story professionally read and of course copies of the new print anthology.
Kickstarter were so impressed they’ve added it to their Projects we love section. I think you will agree. Hurry, there isn’t much time left to get involved!
Since I last blogged, I’ve joined the online literary magazine Storgy as Marketing Director. It’s a great opportunity to work with a team I really admire and help them bring exciting new short fiction to an even bigger audience.
Each year Storgy run a short story competition and our competition this year, rather fittingly in these turbulent times, is on the theme ‘Exit Earth’. It’s open to all writers in all genres. We are looking for fiction that explores life – be it past, present, or future – on, or off – this beautiful, yet fragile, world of ours.
The Storgy Short Story Competition will be judged by critically acclaimed author Diane Cook, the author of the story collection Man V. Nature, who was formerly a producer for the radio show, This American Life.
1st Prize – £1,000
2nd Prize – £500
3rd Prize – £250
Finalists will be published in The STORGY Short Story Competition Anthology
£10 Entry Fee
The deadline for receipt of entries is 11.00pm 31st May 2017
I went to some excellent writer lectures at the Write Idea Festival a couple of weeks ago, and I wanted to share with you what I learned from them about creativity and writing in general.
Shetland Noir and other crime
Ann Cleeves, whose crime fiction I enjoy a great deal, gave an interesting and witty talk about her working methods. I was relieved to hear her say: ‘I write like a reader, I write one scene, and then I want to know what happens next, and I write the next’. She doesn’t plot, and was happy to admit that her first story started with an image inspired by a bird watching trip she went on with her husband – looking at a bird on the snow, she imagined: ‘a dead woman lying on a bit of snow with some ravens’. This image was the seed for an entire novel.
Short stories, she said, were an exception to this: you need to know where your short story is going. Short stories give you a chance to experiment – for example, she has experimented with telling stories in the first person or with adding elements of the supernatural.
In novels, what drives plot is character, ideas and in her case, landscape. Themes, like the theme of buried secrets in her latest book, Cold Earth, will emerge during the writing process. ‘It’s like riding the wall of death on a motorbike, don’t think about it too much’.
When asked does she ever get stuck and have a crisis of confidence, she replied that this happened all the time, the trick is to just keep writing.
Amit Dhand, whose protagonist in his book Streets of Darkness is Detective Harry Virdee, said it was important to say something new. Virdee is an Asian lead character, who respects his cultural heritage but doesn’t let it define him. To him, right is right and wrong is wrong. He is suspended from work and is in a cross-cultural marriage, so there’s tension already in the set up.
Location is important too: his novel is set in Bradford. He used settings such as the Victorian cemetery, derelict mills and cobbled streets to build up a sense of menace. You need a well-fleshed out group of subsidiary characters too. ‘You need the reader to enter a world’.
‘Use what’s there to thrill you [the reader]. I want to thrill you and you to not know what’s going on. Use all the tools at your disposal’.
He also talked about Power, Pace and Passion as all important.
Power: You need to set up a power struggle e.g. in his book the hero has 11 hours to solve the crime, there’s a tense situation in the city and he’s been suspended from his job.
Pace: He recommends 1700-2000 words maximum per chapter
Passion: for example, in his hero’s relationship with his wife – she’ll be in danger at some point. The reader has to care about characters.
He recommended that if you have several plot strands to combine in a short space, try alternating chapters: for example with three separate plot strands, alternate 3 plot strands in chapters 1,2,3 and so on.
Abir Mukherjee, author of A Rising Man, talked about his hero, Captain Sam Wyndham, who is investigating a murder in Calcutta in the 1930s. ‘It has to be a story that you want to tell, a story that has to be told’. Abir Mukherjee felt that this setting was really fascinating and hadn’t really been explored as much as it could have been.
Crime writers want to address social issues so you need to think about what is it about society that upsets you. Redressing a wrong – that’s what detectives do.
In India an official’s been killed, Wyndham realises the main suspect isn’t guilty. He is a good man forced to uphold a corrupt or evil system– that’s the setting of the book.
Vaseem Khan talked about what stops beginners becoming published. His book, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra was inspired by his first visit to Mumbai and seeing an elephant walking down the street. His hero inherits a baby elephant and his adventures begin.
‘Self doubt is the worst thing – you keep writing it and finish it, don’t read it. Don’t doubt yourself’
‘Show don’t tell. Don’t say the man was fat, describe how he looks’.
Don’t tell the reader anything. Let them ask questions.
Persistence keeps you going, he said. He wrote his first novel aged 17. It was rubbish, he wrote six more before he was published. Slowly the rejection letters got better!
Abir Mukherjee was very fortunate to win a prize with his first 10,000 words and got a book deal, but his editor helped him through four drafts before it was published. He admits it’s hard to find time to write with a job and family but is hoping he will be able to write full time soon.
Brix Smith Start on creativity
Finally, I listened to a talk given by Brix Smith Start who wrote The Rise, the Fall and the Rise, a memoir about her life. She is a bit of a heroine of mine and had a lot to say about creativity.
‘Follow your passion and what you have fun doing. Can lead you into dangerous situations but they make you stronger.’
‘From the dark places the spark of creation is born… this too shall pass and you get to move on’
‘Where does inspiration come from? I don’t rule anything out- a collective consciousness – non physical energy that was once physical….’
And her final tip – no social media when she is writing!
I’ve just had another short story published in Storgy Magazine as a Finalist in their Halloween Short Story competition! They described it as ‘beautifully eerie’ – it’s a ghost story, with a twist. I love ghost stories and have read many over the years, my top favourites of all time are probably the Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and The Rocking-Horse Winner by D. H. Lawrence – but there are so many writers whose ghost stories I love it’s hard to list them all.
Anyway, please check out Swing Me on Storgy and if you follow them on Twitter they will link to a horror or ghost story a day by each competition finalist until Halloween, when they will also announce the winner.
While I’ve been busy writing (nearly up to 15,000 words on the novel, which I am very pleased about) I’ve also been joining various writers’ groups. Two of us are writers who met on Nick Quentin Woolf’s writing retreat and another one from playwright Judith Johnson’s excellent creative writing group at the Idea Store Bow. We meet up informally in East London to critique each others’ work.
I’m happy to say that this has been a very supportive and fun experience, we’re even planning our next meeting in the pub which is bound to make things go with a swing. The format is that we read each others’ work before each session and then take turns giving our opinions, notes on text and character development and anything else that occurs to us.
One thing I’ve missed, though, is being in a book group. I was in a fantastic one a couple of years ago, but it died away as these things so often do, and I hadn’t found a substitute. Recently Judith Johnson emailed me to say she had started a Reading Round group (supported by the Royal Literary Fund) in Whitechapel Idea Store. I joined it after her creative writing group finished and we’ve just started meeting on Mondays.
The concept of a Reading Round group is that a professional writer leads the group reading in the session (usually short fiction or poetry in our group) and it is explored and analysed in quite a focused way, similar to practical criticism. I have to say that it has been very helpful to my own writing to do this close reading in a group again, and it’s a great opportunity if you are either a passionate reader, or a writer.
I’m very happy to announce that Brick Lane Tales, an anthology I have a short story in, will be published on November 30th this year. The short stories were chosen as part of a competition, and each one had to mention the Bow Bells and explore certain themes. My theme was ‘wealth and poverty’ and I wrote about a City trader.
I’m interested in the way London has always attracted people to trade and still does today, and how the flow of money alters the evolution and physical fabric of the city. As someone who grew up on Brick Lane, I’ve seen a lot of change first-hand.
Here is what Brick Lane Publishing say about the book:
“A mysterious man destroys a stranger with one whispered sentence; a lonely
little girl pines for her absent mother; a drug-addled rogue trader dodges
trouble; a hopeful, young Bangladeshi struggles in vain to fit into a vast and foreign city; and can a person be famous and not know it?
These are just some of the remarkable tales of everyday Londoners as they
fumble with their flawed lives. Each story in this collection is the result
of Brick Lane Publishing’s short-story competition, and explores the East
End’s rich diversity.”
I’ve just been lucky enough to spend six days in Bordeaux in La Tuilerie at a writers’ retreat run by N Quentin Woolf. I booked this retreat on impulse several months ago. I’d attended one of the writers groups he runs briefly so I knew they usually had a relaxed atmosphere, and I decided what I needed was a short period away from everything in order to focus on writing a larger-scale project than I’ve attempted so far – ie a novel.
Our little group of writers (there is no collective noun – why not? Perhaps it should be a wrangle of writers? ) included a crime novelist, two short story writers and a non fiction writer as well as myself. We all had different life experiences, ages and day jobs but were united by a common sense of purpose, as well as (we discovered) a taste for country walks, lazing around the pool, drinking Bordeaux and playing very competitive games of Star Wars Monopoly.
Alison, who runs La Tuilerie, is a fantastic host. We ate some spectacular meals around the huge round table made from a giant wine barrel, including
cucumber soup and a lasagne I shall dream about. There are some very friendly dogs living in la Tuilerie and we saw deer, horses and rabbits in the area as well as a wild Dratini which I caught in my very first Pokemon Go excursion.
We had a workshop on story structure, some detailed group critique sessions, which were very helpful and informative for me and detailed individual critiques from Nick on whatever we were working on, which gave me some strong steers on how to improve the quality of my work. I think most new writers are afraid of exposing their work to criticism, but the scalpel was handled very delicately and I hardly felt a thing 🙂
We also enjoyed some interesting debates, ranging from who should be the next Bond to whether violence is an inescapable part of human nature, or not. At such a sad time for the world, when we seem to read more and more distressing stories in the news, one little bit of hope I took away (as well as my two completed first draft chapters) is that trying to create art, whatever it may be, is something that unites people rather than divides them.
It’s been a little while since I left full-time employment to focus on my creative writing for a while and I’ve made a few discoveries. The first was that it’s remarkably easy to find other things to do when you are trying to write – I’ve set up this website and started fundraising for Macmillan for example.
However, I have managed to write five short stories and one poem so far since I took the plunge. That’s about 10,000 words, or so. It’s not a huge amount as it breaks down to about 3000 words a month, but of course I do a lot of editing and redrafting and sometimes life gets in the way. I’m planning to increase the amount I write each month and have downloaded Scrivener and signed up for a one-week writer’s retreat next month to work towards this.
I’ve also discovered that rejection still hurts, damn it all, even if you are old, wise and know that it is statistically extremely likely and ABSOLUTELY not personal. So far, I’ve been entering short story competitions because it gives me a deadline to work towards (this is by far the best way of motivating myself that I’ve found). I’ve had two fail to get anywhere so far.
Disconsolately Googling something like ‘discouraging entering writing competitions’ I came across this excellent blog post by Rachael Dunlop from a couple of years ago which had a bracing effect and persuaded me to keep going. As she says, it’s a numbers game.
So I’ve decided to continue to enter competitions, trying to choose them as carefully as I can but to start sending short stories to magazines as well, to give myself better odds of publication. I should end up with at least ten complete short stories, by the end of the six to nine month period I’ve promised myself for writing, even if none are published during that time it will be more than I’ve ever achieved before in terms of writing fiction.
I’ve also decided to become more organised since I realised I was already losing track of where and when I had submitted work, and came across another excellent blog by Jo Bell talking about this very problem, this time for poets but it’s applicable to any writer who is submitting work.
To get more feedback on my writing and learn from others who are on the same journey. I’ve joined a writing group in East London where we’re currently reading each other’s stories and novel extracts (it’s my turn this weekend) and I have also started an Open University course for creative writing which gave me the helpful suggestion to take a writing notebook everywhere I went.
I’m using Notes for this on my iPhone as I am the kind of person that clutches a phone everywhere she goes, not a notebook. Already, I’ve found this works as a way to collect and remember random ideas and scenes some of which might spark something off later.
I’ve just finished reading Serious Sweet by A.L. Kennedy and Meg, one of the two main protagonists, keeps a notebook describing encounters she’s had – or just little scenes she’s glimpsed – in London. The cumulative effect of these throughout the novel builds up into a portrait of the city and its people. I suspect these vignettes of London life probably began as a writer’s notebook, although I could certainly be wrong. I’ve never had the patience to keep a diary but a notebook seems manageable.
So in conclusion, keep writing, keep sending things off (because why not?) and be organised about it, use a notebook and join a writers’ group are the things I’ve learned so far. And try not to be afraid!