Monday, 27 October 2008

Mondays

Why is it so difficult to make the transition from weekend to workday? It really is like trying to shift your brain into a different gear, and some Mondays the clutch just crunches and grinds and it takes forever to get the creative gear engaged. Today has been a complete washout as far as the Work in Progress is concerned.

Never mind. Here’s a book review to pass the time:

The Bromley Boys by Dave Roberts
Most football fans (except my brother, who refuses to have anything to do with anything that has anything to do with the Arsenal) will have read Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby. It’s the definitive book on what it’s like to be a bloke who also supports a football team. It’s also quite funny. It influenced every subsequent book about what it’s like to be a football supporter. It also gave birth to a genre of writing that was subsequently termed ‘lad lit’. Despite its imitators, nothing has been as good as Fever Pitch. Until now.

Okay, Dave Roberts may not be in the same literary class as Nick Hornby. But The Bromley Boys (billed as ‘the true story of supporting the worst team in Britain’) is well written enough, and it captures absolutely to a T what it is like to be a pre-pubescent football-mad boy. It is also laugh-out-loud funny. The fact that it is not a book about a top-class football team is a plus point, too. Because Bromley Football Club aren’t big enough to be disliked by supporters of other football clubs the book will even appeal to the most partisan of supporters (like my brother). And, best of all, The Bromley Boys is a hilariously funny read.

Read my full review at The BookBag.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Beginnings and Endings

The latest issue of Cadenza magazine is now out, as you will have gathered from editor Zoe King’s comment on my blog, below. And, as promised in my response to Zoe, I wanted to say something about the feedback on competition entries that she and co-editor Vanessa Gebbie provide in each issue. In her comment, Zoe said that while she agreed that literary competitions were ‘up to a point’ like lotteries, by reading the winning entries in conjunction with the judges’ comments, a writer would be in a far stronger position to do better in future competitions. She’s right. Last year I had a story longlisted in one of the Cadenza competitions. I rewrote it, taking account of the comments in the judges’ report, and subsequently sold the story to a national magazine.

This thing works!

In this issue’s report, beginnings and endings get a special mention. Along with the middle, I find beginnings and endings the hardest parts to write. One of the lessons I learnt from writing for women’s magazines was to get the essence of the story into the opening paragraphs. Often that means cutting away the first paragraphs you write and starting further into the story than you intended. Sometimes, you won’t know how far to cut away until you’ve finished the first draft and know how the story ends. The beginning should pose a narrative question of some kind; the ending should give the answer. Doris Betts said the first page of a story should have a lot to do with the last page, in the same way as the first line of a poem relates to the last line.

Easier said than done, but one ever said writing a really good story was easy!

Oddly enough, a week before the latest Cadenza came out, I gave members of my writing group a copy of Margaret Atwood’s story Happy Endings to study – if you don’t know it I can thoroughly recommend it.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Literary Prizes

I know Zadie Smith doesn’t think much of them, but I quite enjoy the razzmatazz of awards like the Man Booker. Anything that gets people reading has to be a good thing, and anything that gets people reading stuff they might not ordinarily read is even better. [UPDATE: But if you're thinking of rushing out and buying a copy of Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger perhaps you should read this post from the Literary Salon first!]

I’m particularly in favour of small literary prizes – especially prizes for short stories. There just aren’t enough outlets for short fiction (as I’ve mentioned recently) so small literary prizes are what my grandmother used to call ‘a real boon’. And the bonus is that, when and if you win one of these prizes, the taxman lets you keep all your winnings. According to my local Revenue and Customs office, literary prize winnings are treated in the same way as a lottery. Which, considering that’s exactly what they are, is fair enough.

I know quite a few wannabe writers who say they never enter writing competitions because they are ‘simply lotteries’. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper (as my other grandmother used to say). But if these writers were to consult the results tables of these competitions they would spot the same names coming up time and again. For example, I heard this morning that I came third in the Wellington Short Story Competition, held in conjunction with the Wellington Literary Festival. The winner, Penelope Randall, had previously been shortlisted in the HappenStance Press International short story competition (I know this because Jo Field, my colleague from Deal Writers, came second in the same competition). Hats off to her for persevering, I say. Her success is a lesson to all those other writers who think there’s no point in entering competitions or, more pertinently, who give up if they don’t win (the competition-world equivalent of the rejection slip). As Churchill himself said, ‘Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm’. And while writing competitions may be a lottery, like any lottery you’ve got to be in it to win it!

Thursday, 9 October 2008

National Poetry Day

Today is National Poetry Day and to celebrate I've written a poem! It's called Strandgade 30 and it was inspired by the recent exhibition of Vilhelm Hammershoi paintings. Don't worry, I'm not going to inflict the poem on you - I've entered it in the Save As poetry competition. It's not too late to enter a poem or a short story (up to 4000 words) yourself. Go to the Save As website for full details.

Good luck!

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Off by Heart

There was a story in the Sunday papers this week that caught my eye. The BBC is organising ‘Off by Heart’, a national poetry recital contest for primary school pupils. Every primary school in the UK can enter a child aged 7 - 11 to compete for the title of UK Poetry Recital Champion. This, it seemed to me when I read it, is a Good Thing. It took me back to my own childhood, way back in the middle of the last century, when learning poems by heart was something kids were expected to do. I’d like to claim I can still recite all the poems that I learnt, but I can’t. But I can still remember quite a lot of quite a few.

Then, last night, I attended the inaugural meeting of the new committee elected to run my writer’s group, Deal Writers. Until last week, I was Chair of the previous committee and last night the new Chair presented me with a ‘leaving gift’ – a bottle of Scotch and a rather wonderful book of poetry. Poem for the Day Two contains 366 poems set out by date, so that for every day of the year there’s a different poem to learn off by heart. Spooky, or what?

So this morning saw me searching through my recycling bin for the Sunday Times review section that carried the story about ‘Off by Heart’, because contained within it were some very helpful tips for learning verse. For anyone interested, you can find the tips here, at the end of the very article by Daisy Goodwin.

My poem for today is First Lesson by the American poet Philip Booth. Maybe when I’ve learnt it I should think about trying to learn a few of my own poems by heart!

Monday, 6 October 2008

The Short Story: Alive and Well?

There’s an article in the latest edition of Writer’s Market UK that grabbed my attention. The Short Story: Alive and Well by Graham Mort claims that, despite being unpopular with major publishers, shunned by the reading public and eclipsed by the novel, the short story is in remarkably good health. I wonder. The article makes much of the ‘burgeoning’ presence on the internet of short story websites. But who reads the short stories on these websites, apart from other writers of short stories? Short story writing might be in good health, but where are the short story readers?

We Brits don’t seem to much like the shorter form, preferring to read a novel (if we read anything at all). At best, we see the short story as a stepping stone – a practice ground for a writer who really aspires to being a novelist. This is a mindset that comes through in Graham Mort’s Writer’s Market article, advocating as it does the short story as ‘an ideal apprenticeship for writers’. ‘The novelist who has developed a track record of publishing short fiction,’ he says, ‘is far more likely to command the respect of a literary professional’. True. But if writers themselves treat their own short story collection as nothing more than an apprentice piece how on Earth can they expect the short story form to command the respect of their readership?

As a writer of short fiction myself I have often peered longingly across the Atlantic to a land where the short story is appreciated for what it is, a unified distillation, rather than always as a poor relation to the more expansive novel. Kurt Vonnegut once suggested that writers should demand better readers, and he has a point. Having read three tremendous short story collections this summer by the Americans Jhumpa Lahiri, Lorrie Moore and Tobias Wolff it made me wonder whether one of the reasons why the US produces such great short story writers is because Americans respect the short story. Valerie Shaw once pointed out that the novel and the short story are separate entities which share the same prose medium but not the same artistic methods, something American readers seem to understand. I’m afraid we Brits do not.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Writing Competitions Ending This Month

Mainly for the benefit of the members of my writing group, but for anyone else who may be interested, here is a list of some 18 writing competitions (poetry and prose) that have closing dates this month. Happy writing – and good luck!

Prose

H.E. Bates Short Story Competition 2008 – up to 2,000 words on any subject. Closing: 6.10.08. Prizes: £200, £150, £100. Entry Fee: £3. Website: http://litnorthants.wordpress.com/opportunities/

Tall Tales & Short Stories Competition – between 3,000 and 5,000 words. Closing: 15.10.08. Prizes: £350, £150. Entry Fee: £5. Website: http://www.felicityroberts.co.uk/tlc/storycompetition.htm

Bookworms Short Story Competition – up to 1,500 words. Closing: 27.10.08. Prize: £100. Entry Fee: £5 (includes crossword book and entry form). Website: http://www.beanpolebooks.co.uk/comp.html

Criminal Tendencies Short Story Competition. Crime stories of up to 3,000 words. Closing: 31.10.08. Prize: Publication in the Criminal Tendencies anthology. Entry Fee: £5 (includes a donation to the Genesis Appeal). Website: http://www.cremedelacrime.com/criminal.htm

Sunpenny Christian Writers Competition – up to 3,000 words with a Christian theme or message. Closing: 31.10.08. Prizes: £100, £50. Entry Fee: £4. Website: http://www.sunpenny.com/competitions/Oct2008/christianwriters-oct2008.html

Sunpenny Open Writers’ Competition – up to 3,000 words on any subject. Closing: 31.10.08. Prize: £150, £75. Entry Fee: £4. Website: http://www.sunpenny.com/competitions/Oct2008/open-oct2008.html

Southport Writers Circle Open Short Story Competition – for unpublished stories of up to 2,000 words on any subject. No entry form needed. Entrant’s name should not appear on the story. Include a separate cover sheet with the title, word count and your name and contact details. Closing: 31.10.08. Prizes: £150, £75, £25. Entry Fee: £3. Entry Address: Short Story Competition, Southport Writers Circle, 16 Ormond Avenue, Westhead, Lancashire, L40 6HT.

Speakeasy Open Creative Writing Competition – up to 2,100 words. Closing: 31.10.08. Prizes: £125, £50, £25. Entry Fee: £5. Discounts apply for multiple entries. Website: http://www.mkweb.co.uk/Speakeasy/DisplayArticle.asp?ID=58082

Ballista Open Short Story Competition. Ballista is a magazine that publishes tales of dark fantasy, the supernatural, modern horror, the paranormal, and all things macabre and bizarre. To enter the contest, submit a suitable story of up to 3,500 words. Closing: 31.10.08 Prizes: £60, £30, £20. Prizewinners will be included in Issue 6. Entry Fee: £4. Website: http://www.mucusart.co.uk/short_story_competition.htm

Dark Tales Autumn Short Story Competition – up to 3,000 words. Closing: 31.10.08. Prizes: £250, £50, £25. All shortlisted entries published in Dark Tales. Entry Fee: £3. With tick-sheet critique - £5. With full critique - £15. With full critique and post-critique therapy in secure institution - P.O.A. Website: http://www.darktales.co.uk/

Short Story Radio Competition – up to 3,000 words Closing: 31.10.08. Prizes: 1st - Your own website worth £250, your story professionally recorded by a British Equity actor and broadcast on Short Story Radio, plus 5 CD copies of your story for personal use. Three runner-up stories will appear in the online Short Story Magazine and their writers will have a web page profile on the Short Story Radio website. Entry Fee: £8. Website: http://www.shortstoryradio.com/


Poetry

Debt Free Poetry Competition. Closing: 31.10.08. Prizes : £300, £200, £100. Entry Fee: None - free to enter. Website: http://www.talkaboutdebt.co.uk/community/2008/09/debt-free-poetry-to-inspire-action/

Poetry Society National Poetry Competition – up to 40 lines. Closing: 31.10.08. Prizes: £5,000, £1,000, £500. Entry Fee: £5 for the first, £3 thereafter. Website: http://www.poetrysociety.org.uk/content/competitions/npc/

Ragged Raven Poetry Competition – of any length on any subject. Closing : 31.10.08. Prizes: 1st - £300. Runners-up (4) - £50. Entry Fee: £3 each, £10 for four. Website: http://www.raggedraven.co.uk/competition.htm

Speakeasy Open Creative Writing Competition – for poems of up to 60 lines. Closing: 31.10.08. Prizes: £125, £50, £25. Entry Fee: £4. Discounts apply for multiple entries. Website: http://www.mkweb.co.uk/Speakeasy/DisplayArticle.asp?ID=58082

Leaf Books Poetry Competition – of any length on any subject. Closing : 31.10.08. Prizes: 1st - £200. Runner-up - ten pocket-sized Leaf Books. Entry Fee: £3 each, £10 for four. Website: http://www.leafbooks.co.uk/New/For%20Writers/CurrentCompetitions.html

Black Horse Poets Open Poetry Competition. Closing: 31.10.08. Prizes: £100, £50, £20. Entry Fee: £3 for the first, £2 for the second. Two further entries free. Details (send sae): The Competition Secretary, 25 Wycliffe Street, Ossett, West Yorkshire, WF5 9ER.

Cannon Poets Silver Jubilee Competition. Poems on the theme of Play between 20 and 40 lines. Closing: 31.10.08. Prizes: £150, £80, £40. Entry Fee: £4 for the first, £2 thereafter. Website: http://www.cannonpoets.co.uk/16901.html