Showing posts with label short stories. Show all posts
Showing posts with label short stories. Show all posts

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Later is Now.

I'm writing a novel. You know this already, especially if you follow me on Twitter. I never let a WIP crisis go untweeted. It's coming up to a year since I started (properly) working on the book, so it seemed like a good time to look back at what I've learned. There were two big lessons for me, one at the beginning of the process of writing the first draft, and one at the end.

1. Writing a Novel is a Very Much Like Eating an Elephant.

Which is to say, one bite at a time. As a dedicated, dyed-in-the-wool short story and flash fiction writer, the idea of writing a book seemed not so much daunting as unsurmountable. I struggled with anything over 2,000 words. How could I write something at least forty times longer?

The answer was not to look the whole thing in the eye, just at what was on my plate at any given moment (I'm not sure how much longer I can sustain this eating metaphor. For one thing, it's making me hungry). My eureka moment came when I decided for the umpteenth time to get to grips with Scrivener. I'd had it on my laptop for years. I had various first chapters written in Word. I didn't see how the two things worked together.

So I set the false-start chapters to one side and started over, this time using Scrivener. And the thing about Scrivener is that each scene is a separate document. Each scene. Each. Scene. Light bulb moment. I needed to write this book one scene at a time. I didn't need to think about whole chapters, let alone the whole book. Just one scene at a time.

This is perfect for me, because I'm a pantser, not a plotter. I had the vaguest idea of what I wanted my book to be about, but I knew the story and the characters would evolve in the writing. I had a clear idea what my opening scene would be, so I just sat down and wrote it. Then I asked myself what the next scene needed to do. Did it need to advance the story? Introduce more characters? Backstory? Flashback? Develop existing characters? Set up upcoming key scenes that I already had in mind?

In this way, the novel grew, in bites of between 1,000 and 2,000 words. Sometimes I'd be in the middle of writing a scene and realise it wouldn't work unless I added another scene earlier in the novel. The beauty of Scrivener is that you can skip back and slide in the bits you are missing. Or move scenes around when you realise they are in the wrong place. The key for me was knowing exactly what each scene was for before I wrote it. All those years of short story writing taught me that every word has to earn its keep. That's true whether there are 2,000 words or 80,000 words.

However, the more words there are, the harder it is to know which ones are really pulling their weight, which brings me on to:

2. What Do You Mean It's Crap?

The oft repeated advice about writing a first draft is to just get it done. And to get it done, you have to allow it to be crap.

Now, at first this made no sense to me. Why would I want to write something crap? When I write short stories, they don't differ much from first to final draft. Everything that is good about them is there in the first draft. Everything after that is polishing and perfecting.

Pfft, I thought. The first draft of my novel is not going to be crap. It's going to be refined, exquisitely written, needing but the lightest of editing touches.

Ladies and gentlemen, it's crap. Or rather, it's the kernel of a good book wrapped in crap (I'm liking this metaphor even less than the elephant one. Moving on…)

My characters are underdeveloped. Many scenes are underwritten, while in other places the prose is overwrought. Exposition has snuck in while my back was turned. At least 10 per cent of the words are superfluous.

Am I downcast? Not a bit (well, okay, maybe a little bit). The analogy I like best is this: when you're writing a first draft, you're just pouring sand into a box, to shape into castles later.

There are good things about editing, like stumbling across bits of writing that are really quite good. Like finding out how clever my subconscious is, making connections, echoing themes throughout the book without me even realising it. Like allowing myself to spend an hour or more on one small passage, staring out the window, writing, deleting, writing again, not worrying about clocking up the word count but making every word the right one.

Because that's the key difference between writing and editing. When you're writing,  you can always come back and fix it up later. When you're editing, later is now.

Monday, 24 February 2014

The First Draft Blues

When I was about 11 or 12 years old, someone told me they believed I'd one day be a writer. I believed it too. That fact that the person who told me this went on to be a successful and award-nominated novelist and screen-writer themselves only reinforced my confidence that one day I too would be a published novelist.

Gradually, though, it dawned on me, that I'd have to actually write a book to make that happen.

And then followed years and years of not writing a book and hating myself for it, of waking up every January 1st and thinking: 'Here I go again, not writing my book for another year'.

I did eventually start writing, of course, but it was short fiction. The shorter the better. I had some success and thought, okay, this is what I'm good at, this is okay, I'm still a writer. I told anyone who would listen (or asked) that I was pretty sure I'd never write a novel, because it just wasn't where my talents lay.

And then I had an idea for a book. Still I procrastinated, but the idea wouldn't go away.

Last April, my husband bought me a new laptop and gave me a deadline: 20,000 words by the end of the summer, or the laptop went to my teenage daughter. Ah, he knows me so well. I exceeded his target a month early and I was on my way. Writing a book.

Some ten months after starting, I've nearly finished the first draft of my novel. I should be cock-a-hoop, right? Punching the air, typing THE END in the biggest, boldest, most italic-y font I can find.

But I'm not. And that's okay.

The thing is, I have a lot of words, but they don't feel like a book yet.

I have a sort-of story, my protagonist goes on a journey, but I know it needs more narrative drive.

I've discovered what my book is about in the process of writing it, but I know I need to draw out the themes, strengthen them, weave them through the fabric of my book so it's less like crochet and more like a tightly-woven damask that shows different colours and patterns depending on how you turn it in the light.

I have characters, quite a few of them. Most of them are engaging and interesting. Almost all of them are more engaging and interesting than my protagonist. I need to make her more than just a sounding board, less reactive and more proactive in her own life. I need to find out what is unique about her AND what makes her like everyone else.

I have important scenes that are woefully underwritten and less important scenes that go on and on and on. I need to look at the balance of my book, the rhythm, the pace.

I need to do all these things, and more, before the big heap of words I've put together resembles anything like a book. And I'm itching to get on with it. Getting to the end of the first draft is a notable achievement, but it feels more like a mid-point than anything else. Hence the lack of air-punching.

My aim is to have a solid second draft done by the summer. If you hear whooping across the internet sometime in late June or early July, it'll probably be me, typing THE END.

And then, following feedback, I'll get cracking with the third draft. And maybe, just maybe, by then I'll have written a book.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Do Not Be Afraid: When Self-publishing Turns Good

Two things I heard on the radio yesterday made me think of the Stories for Homes short story anthology. One was a feature about the potential shift in power in publishing from the established publishing houses to agents and, ultimately, authors. With the rise of self-publishing, the question of who judges what is fit to be published has become a vexed one.

The other thing I heard was a review of this year's batch of Christmas singles. The reviewer all but apologised for reviewing the charity singles in terms of their musical worth, as if anything done for charity should be above criticism for quality.

Which brings me to Stories for Homes. It is a bumper anthology, with more than sixty stories, all donated by the authors, all on the theme of 'home'. All the profits from this book go directly to support the homeless charity, Shelter. I was one of the proof-readers for the book (as well as having a story included) and one of the things that struck me was the sheer quality of the writing. A book that is the result of an open call for submissions via Twitter and Facebook, produced in a matter of months by passionate volunteers - surely it can't be a good read, can it? And yet it is full of powerful, poignant, funny, clever, and moving writing.

One of the secrets to this quality is the fact that the book has two editors, Sally Swingewood and Debi Alper, who read all, yes all, the submissions. After many hours, cigarettes, cups of coffee, and a few cakes, they selected the best stories. There were a lot of them. And time was short. So (and this is the genius part), every writer was paired up with another writer to peer-review and edit each other's stories.

This is another feature of the new world of self-publishing and social media - the rise of the 'reader', by which I mean the trusted people who get to read and comment on my writing before I unleash it on the world. Thanks to the internet, I have a bunch of fabulous writers that I turn to when I need a properly critical eye turned on my words. And I do the same for them. I've had the pleasure of reading several novels recently pre-submission to agents. Writers, it turns out, are generous people. Generous with their time, their support, their skills.

And so it proved with Stories for Homes. Some people were new to the idea of peer-editing and were probably quite nervous. Others, like me, were old hands. We got stuck in, the stories were edited and polished and then they were sent back to Sally and Debi. Then began the Herculean task of deciding the running order, designing the cover and getting it ready for publishing on Kindle. The Facebook group was (and still is) alive with discussion - finessing the design and blurb, devising marketing strategies, exchanging skills and expertise.

It was at this point I offered to proof-read the ebook version. I didn't have very high expectations, to be honest. I've been involved in anthologies before. The quality of the stories is sometimes, well, 'variable' would be the polite way to put it. Sometimes I wonder what on earth the editors were thinking. Obviously my story would be top notch, but some of the others? Sheesh. Not so with Stories for Homes. As I read Mandy Berriman's exquisite opening story 'A Home Without Moles', I knew this would be a charity anthology with a difference.

A few years ago, people would have turned their noses up at a self-published book, even if it was for charity.  But I'm sitting at my kitchen table looking at a fat paperback book, with a gorgeous cover and even more gorgeous content, and I'm thoroughly proud to be a part of it.

Oh, yes, did I mention? Stories for Homes is now available in paperback. You can buy it from Createspace or Amazon. Every single penny of profit is paid directly to Shelter. Every. Penny.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Losing is Not the Same as Failing

In 2012, I made twenty-four entries to sixteen writing competitions. I tried to be targeted and strategic with my entries, to maximise my chances of success. The net result was one win, one runner-up place, one fifth place and one honourable mention. The prize money from the win just about covered my outlay on entry fees for the year.

One of the competitions I entered was the newly founded Costa Short Story Competition, run by the Costa Book Awards. This competition was exciting because it was open to all writers, whether they had been previously published or not, had a substantial prize pot and was associated with Costa's very high-profile book awards. Twitter and other social media meant that we hopefuls knew a lot more than usual about what was going on behind the scenes: we knew that several hundred stories had been reduced to a short list of sixty. We knew when the celebrity judges were reading these stories, when they were meeting to decide the shortlist of six, when the decision had been made. We just needed the official announcement. And then the wave of disappointment hit. We didn't (still don't) know who those shortlisted writers were, but we knew it wasn't us.

Reactions varied according to the experience of the writers involved. The comments of some of the competition 'newbies' reminded me of myself when I first started entering writing competitions and made me realise how much I have learned about the process, and about myself as a writer over the years. So I decided take all my experience to date and offer it as a guide to understanding what failing to win a writing competition really means. Here it is.

Why Losing is Not the Same as Failing

So, you’ve written a kick-ass short story and you decide to enter it into a writing competition. It’s your best work ever, and while you don’t exactly expect to win, you feel there’s a good chance of getting on the short list, or the long list at the very least. You watch the competition’s website, follow them on Twitter, start checking your inbox every five minutes as the deadline for the announcement approaches. Finally, finally, the shortlist or winners are announced, and your name’s not there. Not anywhere.

This leads you to one of two conclusions: either your story was rubbish and you are no judge of your own work, or the judges are idiots. Right?

Wrong. Here’s why:

But I wrote such a good story!
Yes, you probably did. But so did many, many of the other entrants. A small-scale competition will attract maybe 150 to 200 entries. Larger competitions will get thousands. Say, for example, in a small-scale competition, half of the entries are just not up to scratch – poorly written, ungrammatical, or disqualified for not adhering to the entry guidelines. If your story is still in the competition after those have been eliminated, you’ll still be up against at least fifty other stories and probably many more.  The judges can award prizes to maybe three of those stories. Does that automatically mean the other forty-seven or so stories were no good? Of course not.

The best story always wins, right?
No, the story the judges like best will win. What judges are asked to do is rank stories in order of preference, and ultimately that is a matter of opinion. This became apparent to me when I entered a competition where the entrants posted their stories online while waiting for the judging to take place. We were able to read and critique many of the other entries, so when the results came in, we could compare the peer-reviews to the judges’ rankings. Needless to say, they didn’t always concur.

The competition involved some 500 writers, placed into groups of twenty, competing over several rounds, with competitors progressing according to how many points they accumulated. In the first round, the top ten stories in each group of twenty writers were awarded points. If you didn’t make the top ten, you got no points. Now, many of the writers on the online forum felt that big fat zero against their entry meant the judges had read their story and thought it was worth... well, nothing. Zero. Nada. Zilch. But of course, that’s not what a score of zero meant. It just meant that in that group, there were ten stories that the judges preferred. It’s the same in any writing competition, although not always as transparent as in this example.

The crucial lesson is that while winning a writing competition means you’re doing it right, not winning doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing it wrong.

It’s a numbers game
So, how do the judges really decide who wins? Understanding how writing competitions are judged can help get both your wins and your losses into perspective.

In smaller competitions, the named judge or judges will probably read all the entries, but in larger competitions, the entries will be read first by ‘slush’ readers. The first job of these readers is to weed out the stories that are ineligible for any reason (word count too long, requested format not adhered to, theme not followed, etc).  Don’t underestimate how important these details are. Plenty of stories are not even read the whole way through before being eliminated. An experienced slush reader told me:
‘I reject any that are littered with typos, grammar or spelling mistakes. If the author can't be bothered to polish and perfect their story, why should I spend my time reading it?’

Even if your grammar and punctuation are impeccable and you have adhered to the required font and formatting, your entry might still end up in the reject heap without the slush reader making it to the end of the story:
‘An experienced reader can tell very quickly if the story might be a contender. It needs to grab my attention straight away and that's largely down to whether there's an engaging voice in the opening sentences.’

So the first cull can be brutal, and you really need to be at the top of your game to survive it. Even so, each slush reader will still have a big stack of stories to read in full and winnow down.

How do slush readers decide which stories to put forward to the ‘named’ judges? Most commonly, they will use a score sheet. The slush readers will score the stories, and put forward the top scoring ones for the next stage of judging. The score sheet will list a variety of qualities that the story should be judged on, and a maximum score available for each criterion. Points can be awarded for voice, tone, characterisation, engagement of the reader, plot development, how satisfied the story leaves the reader, and many other qualities. The balance of these scores is often reflected in judges feedback, where it is available: stories that fail to make the grade may be praised for a ‘lovely voice’ but lose out on character or plot development. Or a story may have a great story arc, but the main characters feel wooden or lacking. Or the writing might be just sublime, but the story underdeveloped. In other words, if any crucial element leaves the slush reader feeling ‘meh’, no matter how strong other elements may be, the story is unlikely to make it to the next round.

These readers will be well qualified for the job – they are often writers and editors in their own right. They will know ‘good’ writing when they see it, and will have the experience to analyse and score the stories fairly and knowledgably. But, even bringing all that experience to bear, there is no empirical way of measuring which story is ‘the best’. Judges are readers with opinions and personal taste, just like anyone else.

The same applies all the way through the judging process. In a larger competition, there will often be a panel of ‘high profile’ judges and the final selection will be made by these judges coming together and discussing their favourite entries until they arrive a consensus. And consensus can sometimes mean compromise. It is safe to say that all the stories being considered at this point will be ‘good’ stories. Yours might well be one of them.

So what do I do with that ‘failed’ story now?
It’s always disappointing when you send your beloved story out into the world and the result is a resounding silence. Just bear in mind everything I’ve said above, and remember, it’s not that your story was no good, it’s just that there were three, or five or whatever number of stories that the judges liked better. That’s all you can really infer from ‘losing’ a writing competition.

So what now? Enter your story in another competition, if you know in your heart it’s a good story. I won a competition recently with a story that had been entered into at least half a dozen other competitions over several years and had never so much as been long listed before. Another story that had been doing the rounds for a while finally got shortlisted in a competition where the winning and shortlisted stories (including mine) were subsequently published in an anthology. In that case, the judge was looking for stories that would work well together as a collection. Many an excellent story may have not made the cut because it didn’t fit that theme.

If you are suddenly doubting whether the story is any good, get other writers to read it and get their opinion. Don’t ask your mother or your best friend. Join a writing group or online writers’ forum and get honest feedback. It’s hard to maintain faith in your writing if you are working in a vacuum, and failure to win competitions is no way to accurately judge the value of your work. Some competitions will provide feedback on your story for an extra fee, and this might be worth considering.

Finally, bear this in mind (and this applies to all sorts of submissions, be they to competitions, magazines or publishers): your work is not judged in isolation, but in relation to all the other entries. The judges may want the winning and short listed entries to contrast with or compliment each other, to work together in an anthology or to reflect the style of the sponsoring body. It’s as if they are putting together an outfit and what they really need to complete it is a nice pair of black boots. But you’ve sent them a red dress. They already have some red dresses, and one in particular suits them better than yours. So they politely decline your offer of a red dress. Does that mean your red dress is any less lovely? 

Further reading:
Since I first posted this, I've found or been directed to some other great posts on the subject. I'll add them here as I go along.
  • A great post here by Tracey Upchurch on why you are never too small for the 'big' competitions.
  • Two fabulous accounts of what it is really like to be a slush reader: Susannah Rickards on Emma Darwin's blog here and Dexter Petley recounting his experience here on Lesley McDowell's blog.
  • Feel like giving up after five rejections? Ten? You'll never give up again on a story you believe in after reading this article on submitting to magazines. Success is like getting all the numbers right in a combination lock. Rejection might mean only one number was wrong.