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.

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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.