Words from the Writing Desk – Getting Organised

New Year is always a great time to make new plans. Let’s not call them resolutions – that’s just asking for trouble. I always get a spring in my step as I contemplate all the projects I want to start, and relish the prospect of having a full schedule of exciting ventures.

For a while now it has been on my mind to set up a proper, dedicated writing area, because sitting on the sofa with my laptop balanced on my… well, lap… is not really an ideal way to write. Too many distractions, most notably the TV, and the sense that this is not a real “work” place.

So this weekend I compiled a list of all the things I need to set up my Writing Desk and went into town to buy them. Nothing grand, just a few notebooks (one for each of my projects, in which I can scribble down hand written notes when I am away from the computer) a ring binder in which to keep my “To Do” lists and schedules along with notes and tips, new pens and other bits and bobs. My “desk” is the dining room table, which is fine because we don’t use it every day, and when we do I can easily “airlift” my stuff away and then move it back after eating.

I feel better now, like I have all the equipment I need to achieve what I want this year. I feel ready. One of my plans for this year is to Blog more regularly and frequently, so I will keep you all up to date with my progress and the highs and lows of my writing year. I’ll also be blogging more about my travels, past and future.

My first job today was to update the spreadsheet of competitions I have to enter. Now that I feel I won’t miss any, I can relax. A few days ago I entered a poem into two competitions, and coming up next are two short story competitions (Writers and Artists and Bath). Bath is one of my favourites; well run, friendly and informative. I am really looking forward to working with them again. Deadlines for the two are the middle of February and the end of March, respectively, so I will be putting my head down and getting on with it for the next few weeks.

Hopefully I can make “Words from the Writing Desk” a regular feature, with tips and ideas to maybe help others with their writing goals and ventures. Anyone who has any words of wisdom, advice, or stories to tell about your own foray into the writing world, please feel free to email me at dublinwriter@hotmail.co.uk or post a comment below, and I will be happy to include you in my blog and/or hand over a blog entry to you.

For now, I must press on. Completely fabricated worlds and events do not make themselves up! J

The Long and the Short of It (why you should not be disappointed that you didn’t make the list).

Writing contests are great. They instill discipline and make you take care about what you write. When you know you are going to be scrutinised (quickly – not like when you send to agents and publishers) you know you have to make no mistakes. You are going to be judged against (maybe) thousands of other people and the decision is going to be made within a matter of weeks or a couple of months. Unlike a regular submission, there is no room for manoeuvre. No one is going to say “This is fantastic but we need to edit it and then we are all systems go!” With a contest, if it is not right (or not “righter” than the ones above you), then you will not make it. Simple.

And of course, we buy into the whole thing. And we invest our hearts and souls. And no matter how “cool” we pretend to be about it, and how it doesn’t matter, we still lie sleepless the night before the results, and scan that longlist or shortlist to see if our title is on there. And when we have read the list and don’t see our story, we scan it again (3 or 4 times) just in case our brains suddenly forgot how to read our own language and we missed our title! Did the organisers misspell it? Did they put it in the wrong part of the alphabet because our title started with “The”?

But no. The truth is, we didn’t make it. And the disappointment hits like a kick in the stomach. Not because we are cocky and think we are the best writer in the world (although there is nothing wrong with thinking that, because indeed we could be) -but because for the few weeks that our entry is out there, we dared to hope and believe that we could be in the top 5 or so percent.

The only thing to remember is that there is no shame in not making the list. How is a list made? Who makes it? Humans do. And every human is different, and their tastes are different. They have a number – a percentage – to stick to. They have a line in the sand and when they make it with that cruel stick, they have to stand by their decision. Our story could have been the 47th best story in an absolutely rigid “sand line” of 46. (Bath Short Story Award longlist was 46 – congrats to all who made it!)

Also, when you consider the number of people who are entering the competitions, and the fact that a lot of them could well be popular, established authors (contests are anonymous so we could be competing with someone quite famous and well versed in the game), then the odds are stacked against us. But, not impossible to surmount.

All we can do now is to look at the story we sent in and ask ourselves: “How can I make my story even better? How can I make it grab that reader who has trawled through hundreds of stories, and make them gasp, laugh, cry, have nightmares?”

I am new to the short story contest world. And I’ve learned a few things. I have learned that you have about half a second to grab the reader. The title has to intrigue. Most of them are clever – although not all have to be clever and long. Two stories on the Bath list were simply titled “Flight”, so there’s the rule’s exception.

After the title comes the bait. The worm that will make the reader bite at that hook and have it imbed itself into their soft palate! Then there will be no escape.

So tomorrow, I am going to look at the stories I sent to Bath and see if I can tweak them for the next contest. Onwards and upwards is the only way we can go.

My brother sent me a little message on Facebook today that I would like to share with you. To commiserate with me (I am sure he will soon get tired of it when I am on my 50th contest!!) he sent this:

‘Chin up, Deb. Winston Churchill once said “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” And he beat the Nazis!’

Puts it all in perspective!

On a final note, I want to thank from the bottom of my heart, the organisers of the Bath Short Story Award who have been kind and human and enthusiastic about the competition. They informed us at every turn about what was happening with the competition and engaged with their Twitter followers with great dignity and humour. They genuinely do not know who has written which story, which makes their friendliness and openness even more genuine and endearing.

I look forward to bombarding them with stories on 1st November, when the next contest opens.

#randomlonglistfacts

So went the hashtag tweeted by @bathstoryaward today on my Twitter feed. This hashtag excited me, because of course I have been constantly refreshing my feed all week waiting for the “teasers” they promised about who made the longlist etc.

This Saturday (27th April) at 10am, everyone will get to know the 46 story titles on the longlist. Facts that we know (of the random nature previously stated) are that stories being starred for the list included one set in Africa, one Sci Fi, one very dark theme and two written very convincingly from a child’s point of view. And today, the news from the finalised list is that one writer has TWO stories on the list, and two stories have exactly the same title.

#randomlonglistfacts indeed!

The fact that I sent in two stories should not get me excited (because at least a hundred writers may have sent in two or more) but of course it does get my heart pumping.

Hats of to the wonderful people of @bathstoryaward who – being writers themselves, and thoroughly nice human beings, not automatons – totally respect the writers entering the contest and understand how it feels to send your heart and soul out for scrutiny.

To find out which stories made the first cut, go to the Bath Short Story Award website on Saturday at 10am.

And if you entered, good luck!

Brevity is Key

At the moment I am in the middle of building my portfolio of short stories for the competitions I am entering this year. Two of my stories are currently out and awaiting their fate. This will be revealed on Saturday 27th April at 10am when the Bath Short Story Award website reveals its longlist of about 40 to 50 stories.

I am new to the world of competitions, and whilst I know that beginners luck can count for a lot, I am not holding my breath or expecting great things so soon. But who knows? At the moment there is no way of knowing how many stories have been entered into the competition. People can send more than one – as did I. So the level of competition is basically a mystery.

The main thing is that I am enjoying the process, and in writing these stories I am learning a lot. I am finding that I really love the short story and am actually quite good at writing them. In the past I always believed that I could not do it; that for me, my ideas were too big and…. “extended”, and could not be contained within the confines of a word limit.

I was wrong. And really, it was a logical stage to come to after years of being a writer.

Any writer worth his or her salt will at some point (early on) in their career, realise that they need vast improvement. Writing is like any craft; you need to learn it, practice it, hone it, over many hours, days, weeks and years of sweat. You have to work your apprenticeship. And – most importantly – you have to take critique and advice from those who have gone before.

I remember about 30 years ago being proud of a sentence I had written that contained 138 words! I believed it to be a genuine, honest to god masterpiece of prose and I would have died defending it!

Reading it now, I blush with embarrassment. I have served my time and have seen every mistake I ever made. I believe I am a better writer for it. Today, my writing is concise, clear, no word is wasted. At least, that is what I try to do.

I guess I have been thinking like a short story writer for years. When I am writing, I almost think of my novels as a series of shorts, each scene a complete picture – a flash fiction all its own. And these stories link to make the whole. Thinking of my work in this way makes it tighter and certainly more satisfying to write.

So, my portfolio grows! I am writing my fourth story and hope to be entering the Bristol Prize next weekend.

Sending them into the world

I couldn’t make my mind up about which story to send to The Bath Short Story Award Contest today. I was lucky enough to have two that qualified for the word count, and I simply couldn’t decide between them. It was like trying to decide which of your children to send off to University! Could you wave only one off at the station and have the other sitting with its face pressed against the car window, watching its sibling leave to make its way in the wide world? Of course not.

So I sent them both packing, across cyberspace, with their lunchboxes and high hopes.

One of them – my eldest – carries a woeful tale of fear and physical and mental abuse. A story about how dangerous love can sometimes be. There are ways to escape that kind of life, however, and the protagonist finds a way. A shocking way.

My youngest is a raw account of loss and longing for loved ones passed. A story of how sometimes, looking is simply not enough; you have to be open to see, or else you will never find what you seek.

And now, a waiting game, as my children settle into their new digs, and are assessed by those that can make them great. I hope those assessors are kind, and see the spark of genius in my offspring. They both carry a big part of me, a fragile part, within their souls.

Good luck to anyone else who has entered this contest. See you on the other side.

It’s Done!!

Phew! It’s been an intense weekend, but finally, at 9.15 on Sunday, I can let out a sigh of relief.

My entry is winging its way to the Dundee International Book Prize, so for better or for worse, it is done.

I spent the best part of the weekend preparing it. There is nothing like a deadline to make you pay attention to small details.

Five minutes ago I had my email ready, all the attachments on it, and my finger hovering over the button. Why is it so hard to hit send? My heart pounded as I sent it.

Wish me luck. I will keep you all posted about how I do. I guess I will know by 1st June. Only three long months to wait.

Okay, what’s next? Oh yeah, The Bath Short Story Award. No time to rest!