The view from up here

Just the other day, a fellow writer referred to me on their blog as ‘formidable’. I was delighted. And surprised. You see, I don’t think of myself as formidable. I set up the live lit night Flashers’ Club, but I’m running it by trial and error. I have had moderate success in finding publication for my short fiction, but I have only published three stories. I’ve won a competition, but it was a local competition. Though I was very pleased to win it, I wasn’t competing with the world. I entered the Bridport Prize and not only didn’t get longlisted, I didn’t even get the standard rejection e-mail. I’ve been rejected by Stinging Fly, Litro, Lighthouse and Shooter, and I’m pretty sure I’m about to get rejected by Unthology. I’m writing a novel, but it’s a daily slog and I have no idea whether it’s any good or not – or, rather, I veer between thinking it’s killer and thinking it’s dross.

That’s not to say I deserve sympathy. That’s the life of a writer. I’m quite proud to have been rejected by all those mags, in a badge-of-honour kind of way, and some of the rejection letters were even encouraging ones. Bonus. And there is a quiet voice underneath all the wobbling which says that the novel isn’t awful, but there is a chance it’s not good enough. While I don’t think of myself as formidable, I don’t think I’m useless either.

I’m not sure if this wavering confidence – or, perhaps, this honesty about wavering confidence – is something which is stronger in women writers. Women are socially moulded to take up less space, to be less forthright, less self-confident. Many of us still find self-promotion difficult, because we’re worried that confident words from a woman’s mouth are seen as abrasive or egotistical. Plus there’s the old, boring, but worth-restating fact that the majority of our most-lauded modern authors are white American men. They possess a particular voice, one which is bombastic and complex and artful and brutal. It is a voice which I enjoy, but it is not my voice, and nor is it the only way to write a great novel. Muriel Spark, one of my most beloved writers, does not sound like this, and it’s something I have to remind myself of. It is easy for writers to believe that we do not measure up because our voices are not brutal but subtle, not bombastic but playful.

Though women may be more susceptible to the inner critic, it’s a disease of all writers. In the business of promoting Flashers’ Club I had a conversation with a young writer who wanted to help promote the event. He read widely, he wrote, but he’d only shared his work with a handful of people close to him. He was nervous of reading to an audience. I felt his uncertainty, his fear that maybe his writing was just not good enough. I recognised it because it was my own. It was my own four years ago, and it’s still mine now – just in a different form. I know the fear that in exposing your precious work to the world’s arc-lamps, all its flaws will show.

I gave him some advice. I told him that the fear itself meant he probably wasn’t a terrible writer (most irremediable writers suffer from the Dunning-Krueger Effect), and that the best way to give himself confidence was to get his work out there amongst that of his peers. I told him that by only reading the most brilliant of brilliant writers, he was comparing his startpoint to someone else’s endpoint.

Then I got home, and started to wonder if I had been a dick. After all, who am I to give advice? I’ve had three short stories published. Three. I messaged him to apologise. ‘Honestly, it’s fine,’ he wrote back, ‘it’s always nice when someone offers some wise words.’

Wisdom. I’m not sure I have it; not across my whole life, certainly. But perhaps I have a little bit of it, in places. Perhaps I have a little wisdom for the writers around me right now, at the same stage or just that bit earlier on their writing journey. The thing is, the me from four years ago thought that being published was an impossible dream. Being published meant you had made it. I would have thought someone like me was formidable. I would have wanted to know how you did it, just as I, now, want to know from those just that bit further on that me how they did it. And I know now that they, too, will be sitting there thinking, ‘Jesus, I don’t know,’ or they’ll qualify their advice, because they don’t feel like they’ve ‘made it’ either. None of us do. Not even the most brilliant of the brilliant. There is no ‘making it’. No endpoint at which we are fully trained, incapable or learning more; at which we do not want or need to develop our art.

The view from up here, from this ledge a few feet up the infinite mountain, is this: writing is work. It involves reading, and submitting, and experiencing, and reading, and experimenting, and setbacks, and learning, and reading, and editing, and slogging, and probably some more reading (the importance of reading what you write might need another blog post). It starts as something hoarded close to the chest, something gloated over and feared for, and after that there’s a choice: keep it close and never know, or knock it into shape and send it out into the world. Then the real work starts, and the real rewards. You get knocked back. You retrench. You read. The writing grows, your mind grows. Like physical training, you need to do the thing over and over and over and over to get stronger, to develop flexibility and stamina. Your work gets better. My work has got better. And the wonderful thing about doing this is the world opening out ahead of you. It is the realisation that your ability to write is only 10% innate, and the remaining 90% is what you make it. Everyone else is just the same. No-one is born a brilliant writer. Everyone else is working for it too. You do not have to be frightened to put your work out there, because you know now that its rejection will not be a judgement on whether you can or cannot write, it is a reflection of the stage you’re at in learning your craft (or a reflection that you sent it to the wrong journal, or the wrong publisher, or your work’s wonderful but not saleable, or a reader really hates stories about divorce, or you went over the word count, or you used single-spaced Comic Sans and they threw it in the bin).

Without this exposure, this apprenticeship, my writing would have forever been a point rather than a line. I might have written, but my self-doubt would have been stronger, because I had no reference points – my own, or others’. The critic and the egotist would have loomed large, squabbling unchecked in my brain. They’re still there, but nowadays if they’re annoying me I can batter them with evidence.

Seeing yourself through someone else’s eyes is always revealing. It gives perspective. I tend to give the inner critic a bit more leash than the inner egotist, because the odds are on her side rather more. And I’ve seen what happens when writers don’t have that critic. Bad, bad things. But maybe the critic deserves a little less scope, because it turns out I’d forgotten how daunting those first steps were. How gruelling this little climb has been, and how lovely the view is when you look out, not up.

 

 

 

 

 

The results are here!

I recently wrote a post bemoaning the writer’s long wait for responses. I’m happy to announce that this month I’ve had a few of those responses, and it’s been good news.

Firstly, the new Fiction Desk anthology, Separations, is out on the 19th September. It contains my story Poor Billy, which came an honourable third in TFD’s 2015 Ghost Story Competition. If you haven’t come across The Fiction Desk before then I urge you to get hold of an anthology; if you’re a writer looking for somewhere to submit your work then I urge you to send it to them. TFD has been unfailingly friendly and encouraging to deal with, and I recommend them unreservedly. They are particularly keen on showcasing new writing, and were my first publisher. They are also one of the very, very few places which publishes well-written, intelligent and chilling ghost stories. Go get one!

Secondly, I applied for the Writers’ HQ competition (prize: free access to a year of online writing courses) and was very happy to make the shortlist. I’d have been happier to win it, of course, but you literally can’t win ’em all. Writers’ HQ is a fabulous organisation, from its sweary strapline (‘Stop fucking about and start writing’) to its mission to provide teaching and mentorship to writers low on time and money. I’ve been on one of their retreats and it was great. Another recommendation.

Thirdly, I found out on Friday that I’ve won the Gloucestershire Writers’ Network 2016 prose competition. This means I’ll be reading my story Shoals at (squeee!) the Cheltenham Literature Festival, on Sunday 16th October.

And finally, I’m very excited to say that I have organised an open mic night of new flash fiction, to take place at Smokey Joe’s Café in Cheltenham on the 10th November. More details, plus links and promo and all that stuff, to come very soon . . . .

 

 

The Wait

Writing fiction is not a pursuit which gives immediate rewards. Novel-writing is probably the worst. Even short stories, though, require a hell of a wait before they show results: results which may well be negative. There’s the initial rush of waiting for your beta reader to comment (and many thanks, here, to my beta readers: you are wonderful and I really should buy you presents some time soon), but after that there’s the wasteland. The three months, minimum, that it takes for publishers to respond. The even longer period you may need to wait for the competition longlist. If you’re writing and submitting consistently, then the wait only exists for the first six to eight months, after which there will be a steady flow of feedback. But when you stop and start again, you’re back to the beginning.

I stopped and started again when I had my daughter, now one year old. I started writing again in May, and I will not see any results until October. That’s kind of OK: after all, life’s busy enough with a toddler in the house. You look away for a second, and when you look back it’s July. But it leaves me with nothing to say to people who ask me, ‘How’s the writing going?’ If the person asking is not a writer, the only possible answer to this is:’OK. I wrote some stuff.’ Or, if things are going really badly: ‘I haven’t done anything in ages. No time.’ There is no day-to-day progress. No ready reckoner. No translatable marker for success. Other jobs offer this, even if longer-term goals remain elusive: ‘I went to Edinburgh for a conference.’ ‘We got the accounts finished.’ ‘I’ve prepared my teaching for the next term.’ ‘We’ve got the roof on.’ This is what people want when they ask you how it’s going: a titbit, a soundbite that will give a quick idea of what’s going on. Even ‘I got a rejection letter’ is better than ‘OK. I wrote some stuff.’

It’s a long, dry wait for those answers. Often writers suffer from imposter syndrome anyway, and having nothing to report feeds into that. What you do is intangible, solitary and hard to quantify. You find yourself fantasising about the moment when someone will say: ‘How’s the writing going?’ and you’ll be able to answer ‘I WON A PRIZE.’ Or ‘MY STORY’S BEEN ACCEPTED.’ Or, unlikeliest yet, ‘I’M GETTING PAID.’ An answer that reassures people that your pursuit is not a potential embarrassment to be wary of. An answer, basically,  that justifies your lack of a proper job.

One of the best ways to survive the drought is the company of other writers. This is when I wish I lived somewhere else. London would be great, Brighton even better. I need a peer group. I need writer’s retreats. I need open mic poetry nights, and constructive criticism, and people to rave and bitch and laugh with. Twitter is a good proxy, but it’s no substitute. So next week I’ll be heading off to a writer’s retreat run by the wonderful Writers’ HQ (tagline: ‘For badass writers with no time or money’). Not only should I meet people who know exactly what I’m talking about, but I know I’ll come away with fresh ideas and a shitload of stuff to work on. It’s on Sunday, so given that I’ll need to take a Southern train back, I should be back by Tuesday. Wish me luck.

Going pro

It’s finally here: the week that I sit down at my dining table a desk and Start Writing.

I’ve spent the last year as a full-time mother, but next week my daughter will be going to her grandmother’s for one day a week, and shortly after that she’ll be starting nursery. I’ll have a luxurious two-day window in which to write. This is a wonderful thing: I’ve got a notebook stuffed with ideas I’ve had no time to process, and I’ll have time alone, in the quiet, to work on them. On the other hand, I’ve never had dedicated Writing Time before.

In my procrastination moments I’ve looked up a lot of Advice to Writers stuff on the internet, and one of the rules that constantly crops up is that you should sit down at a desk for a set number of hours a day and make yourself write. This does not work for me. It works if I have revisions to make, or a roughed-out piece to check over, or a story to get into submission format; but not for the actual process of creation. Maybe it’s different if you’re writing a novel, but for short stories most of my work is done by what Stephen King calls ‘the boys in the back room’*: a part of my mind below consciousness that’s constantly processing faces, and phrases, and symbols, and will eventually spit them back up into my everyday brain in the form of an embryonic story.

There’s no forcing this process. Trying harder will not make it happen quicker, or better, or bigger. Once the resource is tapped out, that’s it. Sometimes the idea’s out there and it’s lost its way a bit in being laid down on the page, but the best way for me to deal with this is to do something else. Gardening or walking will usually sort it. The boys get back to work, and a solution pops up. But charge into the back room straight away, bothering them, shouting about deadlines, and they’ll go on strike.

So set ‘creation time’ doesn’t work for me. This is not to say it doesn’t work for anyone; it obviously does, and this is one of the reasons I’m a bit suspicious of those Twenty Rules Of Good Writing articles. They pull me in every time (tell me the secret!) but I know they’ll just leave me confused (I can’t stand that author that A. Famous-Novelist says is essential! Shit, I’ll never make it).

Set writing time will work for me, though, once I have critical mass. Once there are enough roughed-out stories, I’ll have something to do even when the fresh writing has to be left alone for a while. And the enforced downtime of motherhood will mean that the back room gets plenty of productive time (in your face, Cyril Connolly).

For the moment there’s so much time to make up: the months that it takes competitions and publishers to respond to manuscripts will leave me with a half-year delay at least between the start of work and any action related to it. But this is a lifelong pursuit, and not something I could stop doing even if I knew none of it would ever see the light of day.

So here goes: my first new flash fiction piece has been submitted to the Gloucestershire Writer’s Network short story competition, verdict in October. In the meantime there’s that notebook with its pages of barely legible biro scrawl, written with my left hand whilst cooking dinner, or holding a baby, or drinking wine, or all three at once. Let’s give it til Christmas.

 

 

 

*I can’t actually find this quote online so it probably wasn’t Mr King who said it. There are 184 quotes on Goodreads by him about writing, but if I have to read one more of them then my eyes will fall out**, so if I’m wrong just correct me in the comments section.

**Which he would probably enjoy.

The Fiction Desk’s Writer’s Award

I’ve had a couple of stories accepted by the lovely people at The Fiction Desk, indie publishers of short stories. TFD puts out several anthologies of new fiction every year, and also runs a Ghost Story Competition (closing soon, so if you’re interested, get moving!)

The writers featured in each anthology vote for their favourite story in the collection, and the winner receives the Writer’s Award and an £100 prize. In 2014 I was lucky enough to win the award for my story The Stamp Works, which featured in the anthology There Was Once A Place, and this year I was kindly asked to judge a tie-break between two stories in the collection Long Grey Beard and Glittering Eye.

It’s a cliche to say that it was a hard decision. But man, it was a hard decision. Both of the stories were well-written, pacy and original. I’m not a better writer than either of the authors, and it felt a bit odd to decide between them. The reason I was asked to make the final choice, though, was not because I’m any authority (I’m really, really not) but because a sense of place was central to both stories.

Place is something that features strongly in my own writing, with buildings almost becoming characters in their own right. I’m not sure whether this is because I’ve worked as a buildings archaeologist and a cathedral stonemason, or whether my job choices have reflected an underlying fascination with places: either way, it’s a part of me. It was that fascination with the built environment which led TFD to choose me to deliver the final verdict.

The story which I chose, eventually, was The Cobble Boys by Adam Blampied: a story based in Derry, about how the choice between violence and non-violence is often not a choice at all, but a question of whose terms the violence will be on. There’s the odd wonderfully comic line, little spots of light in the claustrophobic surrounds of the story (‘They’ve got about two faces and one haircut between them’), which belie the fact that the author also writes comedy. I’d love to see it.

The runner-up was Before There Were Houses, This Was All Fields, by Mark Newman, which concerns the disappearance of a young girl during the construction of a new housing estate. It’s atmospheric, gripping and packed with multi-layered symbolism.

Congratulations, then to Adam Blampied, and many thanks to The Fiction Desk for putting my name in front of their readers again. If you’ve got a spare minute and you’re not already a subscriber, do get hold of one of their anthologies (there’s a bit of self-interest going on here as I’ll be featuring in their next collection with a new ghost story, Poor Billy).  

 

 

2016 Cheltenham Literary Festival short story competitions

This year there are two short story competitions associated with the Cheltenham Literary Festival: the Gloucestershire Writers’ Network competition and the new Cheltenham Literary Prize.

The GWN competition has been around for a while, and this year interprets the theme of the Festival (‘America’) to offer the competition theme ‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’. I’ve found it tricky to get the competition details online, so here they are in full for anyone who’s interested in entering:

The Literature Festival has America as a country theme this year so this competition is looking for poetry and prose that responds to the theme in the broadest possible ways.
 
Entries are invited from writers who live or work in Gloucestershire. There will be two prizes of £100, one for poetry and one for prose.
All the winners and runners-up will be invited to read their work in October at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.
  • Please give your entry a title that is different from the competition theme. Entries must be identified only by title, do not put your name on the entry.
  • Your name, address, telephone number and email address should be on a separate sheet of paper.
  • Poems should be no more than 50 lines.
  • Prose items should use double spacing and not exceed 750 words.
  • Entries must be typed on A4 paper. Handwritten copies will not be accepted. 
  • GWN prefers each winning writer to read his or her own work.  If you are selected but subsequently cannot read your work at the Festival, your work will be withdrawn unless you can provide a substitute reader.
  • To enter costs £2 per item. Please send a cheque or postal order to the address below, payable to Gloucestershire Writers’ Network.  If you wish to know the results of the competition, include your email address or a stamped, addressed envelope.
  • Entries may be made by post to GWN, c/o 33 Sandford Leaze, Avening, Glos. GL8 8PB, or by email to:  ronagwn@yahoo.co.uk.  If posting, please send two copies.    If you email your entry, you will still need to send your cheque by post clearly identifying the entry for which you are paying. Emailed items should be attached as a Word document or sent within the text of the message
  • Please ensure that you put the right value of stamps according to the size of envelope as GWN cannot pay for excess postage.
  •  Closing date: 30th July 2016
 
 The Cheltenham Literary Prize is an all-new competition organised by the Cheltenham Writers’ Circle. It’s national, with a smaller prize allotted to the best entry from a GL postcode. Entries should be 2000 words or fewer, and it’s open now until June 4th. Full details here.