Little Writing Distractions

I really enjoy having short writing challenges to turn to when I need a break from a longer piece. Last month I spent a few mornings working on this haiku for the Scotsman Hogmanay Poetry Competition:

Wings brushing wire mesh,
sharp beaks spray seed, pockmark snow
Birdsong in winter

I loved playing around with the words, exploring different sounds and rhythms. I think experimenting with different writing structures every now and again can give you the bit of creative energy you might be missing if you’ve spent a long time working with only one form.

Recently I’ve come across two mini writing challenges I thought I would share with you, in case you also like the occasional distraction. The first is A River of Stones, which I read about on Rachel Fenton’s blog. The idea is to write a “small stone” every day in January, which means taking a moment to observe something in precise detail and capturing what you see in words. The observations that Rachel has made in her stones are beautiful.

The second challenge is Next Best Page, a competition which aims to produce an innovative piece of theatre by uniting 52 different writers in the creation of one script. Every Monday a new page is added and you have until the following Saturday to write and submit the next page. The project will run throughout 2011 and resulting play will be staged in 2012. Page 8 was added today so check it out and see if you’d like to continue the story with your own page 9.

How do you like to take a break from your main writing projects? Are there any mini writing challenges you would like to recommend?

Inspired? Get Writing

EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT declares the neon blue sign emblazoned across the Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. My sister says that on a bad day, seeing that message makes her feel warm inside. Having read Fleur Adcock’s persuasive argument in Mslexia on why “all right” is two words and not one, the sign just makes me feel irritated.

Last week while visiting the gallery, a teeny newspaper clipping pinned to the noticeboard caught my eye. The National Galleries of Scotland are running a competition for short stories or poems inspired by one of the works in their collection. Entries can be up to 1000 words and the deadline is 22nd January 2010. Don’t worry if you are unable to get to Edinburgh to view the collections; many of the works are displayed online.

My favourite works in the Gallery of Modern Art were the Cindy Sherman photographs and the Liechtenstein painting. Funny though, that the work that sticks most strongly in my mind is that bloody annoying neon blue sign.

Heads Up

After a couple of years of entering writing competitions and becoming disillusioned with the whole set up, the only writing competition I am now prepared to pay to enter is The Bridport Prize.  It is open to everyone over 16 and is for poems of up to 42 lines and short stories of up to 5000 words. The entry fee is £6 per poem and £7 per short story and the first prize is £5000. The top 26 stories and poems will be published in an anthology. I have the anthologies from 2006 and 2007 and as well as enjoying reading the winning pieces, I have found the judges’ reports illuminating. Here are a few tips on writing for the Bridport, which I have assembled after reading what previous short story and poetry judges have to say:

Short Story Competition

1. Make it funny. “Humour was in short supply and so was beauty, human or divine.” Jane Gardam, 2006

“Sorely missing from the entries was humour.” Tracy Chevalier, 2007

2. Avoid writing about death, bad parents and religious faith if you can help it. Instead choose an uplifting theme for your story. “There was a grim uniformity about the worlds (the writers) described. I felt that if I were a Martian I would not want to continue with any space-probe that might take me anywhere near planet earth; a place of malaise, disillusion, infidelity, malice, cowardice, madness, cruelty, marital discord, damaged children with ghastly parents, drugs, booze, child-abuse, war, massacre, suicide and scant religious faith or hope for the future.” Jane Gardam

“It was fascinating, if not a little dispiriting to find out what subjects people choose to write about these days. Certain themes recurred with almost monotonous regularity: ageing and problems with elderly parents, suicide, road kill (yes, really!), illness, religious faith.” Tracy Chevalier

3. Nail the characters. Make them memorable and real. “It is character that is at the heart of everything…I decided to give my judicial self a rest, live my life and see which of the characters would continue in my mind.” Jane Gardam

“(short story writing) does have a purpose beyond entertainment, and that is to explore what it means to be human. I was very impressed by the many examples of good writing and the confidence and economy with which entrants established character, voice and scene.” Tracy Chevalier

4. Don’t rush the ending, spend time on getting it right. “Too many times I thrilled to a story, only to be bitterly disappointed on reading the last page. The reader demands the impossible (from an ending): to be both surprised and satisfied. Too often entrants didn’t give me either option.” Tracy Chevalier

Poetry Competition

1. Writing beautifully is not enough. ” There’s a lot of dead poetry about. Some of it is beautifully made. I’ve dismissed poetry that is beautifully made and nothing else.” Lavinia Greenlaw, 2006

“Lots of poems here sound like poems, and often very beautifully – but…they have no great imaginative or dramatic proposition that makes me excited about the prospect of reading them again. I want a poem with an interesting argument or point to make, or a compelling story to tell.” Don Paterson, 2007

2. Make it surprising and imaginative. “The things I was looking for as I made my way through the entries were… surprise, precision, imagination and risk.” Lavinia Greenlaw

“Too many (of the poems) afforded me no surprise – which is the reader’s only test that the writer has themselves been surprised or excited or moved in the actual making of the poem. The poems I have in the final pile all have a sense of having built their own little imaginative planet.” Don Paterson

3. Pay attention to technical details.  “I was looking for…a proper attentiveness to and use of cadence, lineation, enjambement, metrics etc.” Lavinia Greenlaw

“There are three things that I really wish poems would not withhold or muddle or fail to signpost, through incompetence or misjudgement: these are literal context…, dramatis personae…, and chronological sequence.” Don Paterson

So now there is no excuse for not writing a bloody good entry for the Bridport. The closing date is 30th June so that gives you a little more than a month to get your piece ready. What are you waiting for? Get cracking!

Writing Competitions

I used to be obsessed with entering writing competitions. There’s nothing like a rapidly approaching deadline to give you the swift kick in the butt needed to start you writing. Many short story competitions specify a theme which means you can’t use that old excuse “I don’t know what to write about”, and they always have a word limit so writing for competitions gives you good editing practice too.

If this sounds like it might be your sort of thing, I suggest you go to Michael Shenton’s Prize Magic website which has a comprehensive list of writing competitions occurring in the UK and elsewhere. Pick out the competition that most appeals to you and write your entry. Enjoy your descent into madness as the deadline approaches. You will find yourself obsessively checking your word count, tearing out your hair as you realise you have shot past the word limit and are still nowhere near the end of your story. You will begin getting up at 5 am to to make the deadline, shaking from the caffeine overdose as you hack away at your keyboard, fourth mug of coffee in hand. You will even, to your humiliation, catch yourself talking out loud to your imaginary characters while on the train to work. All this is worth it for the moment when you are standing in front of the post box, clutching the polished, perfect manuscript in your hand. This is absolutely your last chance to get your story off and have it reach the competition by the deadline. Whatever you do, DON’T SEND IT.

The chances that you will win are very small; this is after all a competition and there will be hundreds or even thousands of entries for the judges to wade through. Judging is subjective. Even if your story is brilliant, a work of genius, there is no guarantee that the judge will recognise your talent. The most likely scenario is that you will pay upwards of £5 to enter your short story in a competition, go through months of agonised waiting, regularly checking the competition website for news, only to have your story rejected.

Even if your story is not rejected, you may still end up worse off for your efforts. Once I had a small bit of competition success when a piece of microfiction I wrote was selected to appear in an anthology. However, because it was neither 1st nor 2nd nor 3rd place but merely a runner up, I did not receive any prize money. As well as the entry fee, I shelled out £8.99 plus p&p for a copy of the anthology (yes, that’s right, not even a free copy of the anthology for the runners up). At the time, I thought having my name in print was a prize in itself. Now I have woken up to the sad truth that the only people who buy the anthologies are those whose stories are featured in them. No agents, no publishers, will have seen my little gem. I probably don’t even own the copyright for my story anymore, although I will have to check up on that. In the meantime, the competition runners are making a profit from the sale of the anthologies and I am not seeing any royalties for my story which is in it. Learn from my example and avoid this kind of scam.

So what are you going to do with the short story that you wrote for a competition which now suddenly doesn’t seem worth entering? Send it to a magazine or journal that publishes fiction. There are listings in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook or online at Jacqui Bennett’s Writers’ Bureau. Once again, chances are high that your story will be rejected but this time you will not have to pay for the pleasure. Editors of reputable magazines will not charge anything for reading your submissions, although it is expected that you enclose an SAE for the reply.

Please don’t go away with a completely negative view of short story competitions after this rather pessimistic post: there are a few which are worth entering, but how do you know which ones? Check out the previous winners of a competition. If they are well known authors today, it may be that the attention they received after winning the competition helped them make a name for themselves. The Bridport and Fish Short Story Prizes are good examples of prestigious competitions which, if your story is placed in one of them, may help you attract the attention of an agent. (Note that even runners up in these competitions receive a cash prize). The inaugural Mslexia Women’s Short Story Competition also promises to be worthwhile. All winning stories in this women-only competition will be published in Mslexia and read by an agent so there’s the chance for some wide exposure. This competition is being judged by Helen Simpson, another clue that it is a good one. No famous writer would risk tarnishing their reputation by being associated with a dodgy competition. If the judge of a competition is an unknown, be wary.

I’m sure that there are many other great writing competitions out there that I don’t know about. If anyone has any recommendations, or warnings about which ones to avoid, I would love to hear them.