Is it bad to shout about writing successes?

Okay so, I may just have been Googling articles about how to publicly celebrate achievements without sounding like a braggy braggerson. Because, basically, I am really frickin’ proud of my writing achievements this year and I, like many of my fellow writing peers, would like the celebrate these!

We’ve all worked really blooming hard to achieve them, whatever they may be. Some have signed book deals (in my dreams!) and some have had a little gem of a 75 word story published on Paragraph Planet (yay!) So what is wrong with giving ourselves a big pat on the back?

20171229_134402When I think back to being me at the end of 2016, sitting at my laptop creating a new blog, with all the best intentions in the world, I could only dream of having a couple of writing credits to proudly add to my bio. I could only dream of being able to hold a piece of print in my hand with my story in it (that hadn’t come out of my own printer). And I could only dream of having written something that I would willingly allow another person to read. To little 2016 me, these seemed pie in the sky.

To be fair, I have definitely failed on some goals:

  • Blogging once a week (LOL)
  • Getting 25 rejections (oh well)
  • Taking part in NanoWriMo (ROFL)

But in 2017 I have actually achieved the following:

  • Been published 10 times including some of my favourite places Ellipsis Zine and Spelk
  • Made 47 submissions (compared to 2 in 2016)
  • Attended Swanwick Writers’ Summer School on the Topwrite programme
  • Placed joint first in a flash fiction competition at Swanwick
  • Received 10 rejections
  • Won first place in the Zeroflash competition
  • Judged the Zeroflash competition
  • Written 21 blog posts
  • Had 514 individual visitors to my blog from all over the world
  • Made countless connections to writers online and IRL who inspire me every day
  • Joined (and sporadically attended) a short story critique group
  • And probably some other things that I can’t think of right now

And I AM PROUD

If you’d shown me the above list this time last year I never would have believed it was about me. It’s been a roller coaster writing year of celebrations, disappointments and major confidence crises, but I’m pretty darn chuffed.

I guess now is the time to set myself some goals for 2018. Fingers crossed for another positive year of writing.

Anyway, enough about me. I would LOVE, LOVE to hear about your writing successes. Go on, I dare you. Let’s not hide our lights under bushels. You rock!

Here’s to a writerly and success-filled 2018.

x

Help. I’ve run out of ideas. I’ll never write again.

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I’ve just sat down to write a blog post about my recent tough writing patch. About how a busy work and life period has left me unable to scrape the barrel of my mind for any words or stories. Even writing this post seems like a daunting task right now.

I know, maybe a profound quote from a prolific writer will inspire me. I’ll fetch my copy of Jon Winokur’s ‘Advice to Writers’ from the shelf. (A nice little charity shop find a couple of years ago).

Aha. Page 190 is the section on ‘Writer’s Block’. This will be a good place to start.

But hang on a minute, all these quotes are so contradictory and confusing. Joyce Carol Oates says writer’s block doesn’t exist. Quentin Crisp says it does but we should just ignore it; ‘…you never stop speaking, why stop writing?’

That’s great. Now I feel less inspired and even more disheartened and confused.

Wait…I’ve found one I like. One that might give me that tiny glimmer of hope I need to trust that my well of stories hasn’t run dry. It comes from Toni Morrison.

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This. This makes me feel so much better. I’m allowed to sometimes not have ‘it’.

I’ve had a few successes this year which I’m really proud of and I guess it’s human nature to want more.

Unfortunately, other things have been sapping my energy and ideas recently and on the couple of occasions I’ve had time to write, nothing has come. Even brainstorming around prompts has led to zilch. I felt like a failure.

Balls to that! I’m going to stick Toni’s quote on my wall to remember it, but more importantly I’ll remember all the supportive, motivational and lovely words that have come from the online writing community. Thank you guys! It’s so nice to feel a part of this. To know we’ve all got each other’s backs in times of triumph and times of despair is a wonderful thing.

Onwards!

What I learned from judging a flash fiction competition

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A few weeks ago I received an email with the subject ‘WINNER!’. Like any  intelligent email user, I immediately dismissed this as spam until… I noticed the sender: Zeroflash. It turned out I had been selected as the winner of September’s Zeroflash competition. What!? And they wanted me to judge next month’s competition. What what!?

I felt like a fraudster. I couldn’t judge a competition. I’ve just been muddling along with writing myself, how could I possibly judge other people’s work?

But in the spirit of the flash community I just replied saying yes, I’d love to.

There were 42 entries to October’s competition, which was aptly Halloween themed with a nature-related twist. Here’s a few things I learned from my first foray into comp judging.

They were genuinely all good

I was expecting to be able to whittle the entries down easily by crossing out the badly written, typo-riddled, head-hopping, tense-switching pieces. But actually, there weren’t any. Each and every one had real merit. It was actually really hard to whittle them down to a shortlist (which was 16 pieces at first).

People have similar ideas. Don’t always go for your first one.

I was however quite surprised at the number of similar entries. The theme was Halloween and nature. A few people stuck to this quite literally with a ‘Trick or Treat’/ fancy dress-based story and there seemed to be a few about storms. The entry I selected as the winner (Scavenger by Patrick Widdess) was completely original. I have never read anything like it and it really stood out from the pile.

This has got me thinking about my own competition entries, particularly those based on a theme. The first idea might be similar to other writers’. Perhaps I should keep digging and go for the seventh or tenth idea.

It’s about the writing AND the story

I’m a big fan of lyrical writing, so I was drawn to some of the pieces immediately due to the beautiful poetic language. But actually, some of those didn’t have the strongest plots. And vice versa. Some had great plots that made me want to whizz through and read very quickly, but the writers could have spent more time polishing the words.

In flash fiction, concise, powerful writing and tight plot arcs are so important. I’m going to be extra critical of my own work now and make sure I’m nailing both so it’s not style over substance.

It genuinely is subjective. It’s luck!

Like I said earlier, I felt like a bit of a fraudster. Don’t you need some sort of qualifications to be a judge or something? I was basically judging the entries on whether I like them or not, bringing my own tastes and biases to the table. I tried not to, really, but it’s pretty impossible.

This made me think about all the times I’ve entered something and been disappointed. The chances are, it wasn’t because the writing wasn’t very good, but that someone else’s work ‘spoke’ to the judges more than mine did.  A piece that didn’t make the longlist in one competition, could be a winner somewhere else. There’s a lot of skill and hard work that goes into our writing, but lots of luck too!

It was a great experience. Thanks David at Zeroflash for the opportunity. It’s definitely something I’d like to do again. I learned loads and all I can say is, I have a newfound respect for competition judges!

Details of November’s Zeroflash competition can be found here. It’s all about laughs. Good luck!

My very own story artwork – by Jon Stubbington

I’ve ticked off another writing first this week. I’ve had some wonderful bespoke artwork created to accompany my flash fiction ‘His Chair’, which won first place in last month’s Zeroflash competition. (I still can’t quite believe that one). It’s amazing to see how someone else has interpreted my words and the images the story conjured up in the illustrator’s mind. I’m delighted with it. Thank you so much, Jon Stubbington.

Jon Stubbington - His Chair (1)

This was also a lesson in never giving up on a piece. My winning story was actually written for another competition but it got nowhere. When I saw the theme for September’s Zeroflash competition was ‘love’ and realised I wouldn’t have time to write something new, I submitted the piece and forgot all about it. A few days later I got an email to say I’d only blooming won!

I’d highly recommend entering Zeroflash or at the very least reading the entries. They’re always brilliant. It’s a great way to get some words down based on a prompt. Plus, every entry is published, which is pretty cool.

October’s competition theme is horror…with a twist. More info can be found here. And I have the honour of being October’s judge. I’m really looking forward to this. Well, apart from the fact that I scare easy…

You’ve got until All Hallows’ Eve to enter. Do it…if you dare.

 

 

 

My story in Ellipsis Zine

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After a few weeks of struggling to find the time, energy and head space to write, I’ve just had a wonderful motivational kick courtesy of the brilliant Ellipsis Zine, which has published my flash fiction piece, The Angel Dress.

Having been truly moved and impressed as each week goes by and new stories are added, I’m very proud to see my piece sitting along side them. I’d highly recommend going through the archives.

Thank you so much Steve at Ellipsis Zine and to those who have taken the time to tweet me feedback.

Now…where’s my notepad?

 

 

Post-Swanwick blues

We’ve all heard of the back-to-work blues. Well I’ve got a serious case of it. More specifically, the post-Swanwick blues.

Until a few months ago I had never even heard of the Swanwick Writers’ Summer School. Fast forward to June and a lovely email arrived in my inbox to say I’d been accepted onto this year’s TopWrite scheme. I cannot speak highly enough of this initiative. It deserves a whole blog post of its own, but essentially it enables young, aspiring writers to attend the week-long event for a vastly subsidised fee which includes loads of  workshops and talks and the opportunity to meet other writers.

I signed up for the week with the attitude that I had nothing to lose and rocked up with no real expectations. I actually arrived a day later than  the other delegates, so at lunch on Day 1, I just plonked myself down at a table with a spare seat. My white badge indicated that I was a first-timer. The (very lovely) lady I sat with informed me she had been attending for an amazing 41 years. “This definitely won’t be your last,” she said to me with a knowing smile. A few days later and I couldn’t agree with her more. At the risk of sounding completely cliche, it really was an amazing week. 

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I attended workshops on everything from writing popular fiction, to memoir, paid markets for short stories and entering writing competitions. My mind is absolutely buzzing with inspiration and ideas. Here are five of the biggest things I’ll be taking away from my first Swanwick experience.

I’m a planner

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Sue Moorcroft

I had a bit of a planning epiphany whilst at Swanwick. I’m quite the planner in my life and at work, yet with my writing I’ve often just tried to start a story and see what happens. (Aka ‘pantsing’). Thanks to the likes of Sophie Hannah, who explained in her brilliant evening speech how she spends 2-4 weeks writing her entire novel in note form before drafting and Sue Moorcroft (seen here with her epic novel plan) I feel like I actually know how I would approach writing my own novel. That alone has made the whole week feel worthwhile.

I’m not alone

Writing can be a lonely endeavour, but it really doesn’t have to be. Swanwick epitomises this. Everyone there is completely passionate about their writing which was such a breath of fresh air to me. I didn’t have to worry about boring people or feeling like I’m doing something silly. I’ve made genuine friends during the week and met some truly inspiring writers. Something which I really wasn’t expecting but feel so grateful for.

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Topwrite class of 2017

It’s about the story

The good thing about attending multiple classes led by different writers is the ability to recognise common themes. Aka stuff that must be quite important if everyone is saying it. I feel I’ve left the school with a much stronger concept of story arcs, what makes a story work and what gives it that ‘page turning’ quality. Sue Moorcroft summarised this brilliantly. A story is about a character who needs something (their goal) but conflict is standing in their way.

Playing the competition game

I enter quite a few competitions, not with the expectation of winning, but to provide prompts and all important deadlines. However, thanks to Ingrid Jendrzejewski, writing comp winner extraordinaire, I now feel armed with the tools to make it onto long lists, maybe even shortlists. Having been on the writing side and the judging side, Ingrid explained how writing prowess is just one part of the puzzle. Have I selected an obvious response to the theme? Am I writing about something the judges will read again and again? Can I submit before the deadline? (Sometimes the judges like to start getting ahead of the game with their reading).

I can write

To give us some practice, Ingrid encouraged us to enter her mini competition on the theme of ‘an unexpected visitor’. Before submitting, I enlisted the help of two of my new writing buddies to cast a critical eye on my piece and I did the same for them. Having got to know them well over the week, it was a privilege to read their work. On the final night when it came to announcing the competition winners, let’s just say the TopWriters smashed it! We came joint first and got an honourable mention! In a room full of such seasoned writers and a pool of 70 entries, this was a huge confidence boost and was the cherry on the cake of an amazing week.

Needless to say, I have just booked annual leave at work for next year’s 70th anniversary Swanwick Writers’ Summer School. A huge thanks to the Swanwick Committee and Friends of Swanwick for inviting me this year. Roll on 11th August 2018!

Publishing day! Little Acorn Short Story Anthology

I’m doing a little dance at my desk right now. Because…it’s publishing day! My story, along with 14 others by talented, new authors, features in the Little Acorn Short Story Anthology.

It’s available right here in paperback. (The current price is a limited time offer). 

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I’m proud to have had my short story Un-friending, selected for this anthology. The only reason I even sent anything was because (amazing writer) Michelle Green dared everyone who took part in the Comma Press Manchester short story course last year to submit to a particular opportunity. I just so happened to pick the one with the very tight deadline. I didn’t have much confidence in my piece but I figured there was no harm in sending it. A few months later it’s available for the world to read. I’m super chuffed and looking forward to the postman arriving so I can read all 15 short stories. Massive thanks to Michelle and to my course buddies who critiqued the piece.

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What TV can teach fiction writers – A masterclass in characters from BBC drama ‘Broken’

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©BBC

I can barely see the screen as I type this because I am sobbing. I am gasping for breath and sobbing…about fictional characters. I am crying because they were so deeply real to me. I have just finished watching a BBC series which was on earlier this year. Broken, starring Sean Bean and written by Jimmy McGovern. (Yes, I know I am totally late to the party). I hadn’t even heard of Jimmy McGovern before watching this. Now I want to meet him and give him a massive hug.

If you asked me to choose between books and TV I’d always pick books. I usually watch TV when I’m tired and just want something to numb my brain.  I’m definitely not a TV ‘fan’, but a family member recommended I watch Broken. We normally have similar taste in telly (soppy period dramas and the like) so I thought I’d give it a whirl.  I had no idea what I was in for.

As someone who is learning how to tell stories, Broken is an absolute masterclass in characterisation. I feel I’ve learnt more about creating characters from watching this six-part series, that I have from all the writing textbooks I’ve read, workshops I’ve attended and podcasts I’ve listened to. Or perhaps it has crystalised everything I’ve learnt so far.

The main character in the series is Fr. Michael Kerrigan, played by Sean Bean. He is a middle aged, Catholic priest who is a well known face in his community, a deprived North West suburb. He never hesitates to help people who are suffering for whatever reason.  It soon becomes clear why Michael makes the decisions he does and what he is striving for. He’s had an extremely troubled childhood, having been abused by people he trusted, and we see how his past is still so raw and current for him. He is traumatised by bad things that have been done to him and feels deep guilt for bad things he has done to others. From what I’ve read about writing fiction, the key to creating a believable story and a three dimensional character is to ensure that they are striving for something. I think ultimately, Fr. Michael just wants to be a good man but he is racked with guilt and shame.

“Words are rungs on an emotional ladder.” – Jimmy McGovern

Throughout the six episodes we also meet a number of parishioners who Michael is helping in his role as a priest and we see how much he becomes intertwined with their stories. He spends most of his energy and spare time helping others. He takes on other people’s suffering as well as struggling to deal with his own. As a viewer, these were not just side characters to help move the narrative along. Each one of them was completely three dimensional too, each experiencing a painful dilemma and each striving for their own goals. As in any good story, every character had conflict in their life and was trying to overcome barriers to get to a resolution. From the mother who does the unthinkable to keep food on the table to feed her family to the police officer completely torn between telling the truth and providing for his family, to the healthy, middle class woman who has the perfect life on paper but who has been destroyed by a gambling addiction. I was completely invested in each of these characters, which is why I found myself in tears during every episode.

In an interview, Jimmy McGovern, said he cries when he’s writing his scripts. This doesn’t surprise me at all and has really made me think hard about my own work. After all, I am the first reader and if I don’t feel anything, how can I expect another reader to?  

As fiction writers, there’s so much we can learn from studying television and film as well as books. Robert McKee, author of Story, is the absolute expert in this area. I’d love to go to one of his seminars one day. In the meantime, I’m still basking in the brilliance of this series. Now all I need to do is harness this inspiration, inject it into my own work and remember this from Jimmy McGovern -“Words are rungs on an emotional ladder.”

 

Five things I learned from a book I hated

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I’m travelling at the moment and am using the time off to read and write as much as possible. Thank goodness we’re in a car so I could bring a stack of paperbacks with me.

I’m making my way through books I’ve had on my list for a while. This included a YA novel which has been a runaway bestseller and has attracted thousands of five-star reviews on Goodreads. I couldn’t wait to get stuck in. Unfortunately, it took me a while to get into it. Towards the beginning, I felt quite neutral towards the book, as I got towards the end I actually felt anger towards it! I don’t really remember ever having such a strong negative reaction towards a book (bearing in mind I’m definitely in the minority and the book isn’t aimed at a 27-year-old woman). But, I decided to take this as a learning exercise.

Here are five things I learned about my own writing from a novel I hated.

  • Characters – The protagonists felt like characters rather than real people

I struggled to get lost in the story because characters seemed to lack depth for me. They often felt a bit like a series of traits and flaws, rather than real people.

This reminded me of the importance of knowing everything about my own characters, most of which will probably never make it into the final stories. If someone were to ask me who my character’s biggest influence is, their religious beliefs of their earliest memory, I should know this. I find it helpful to go through a list of questions about my characters, a resource I was given at a creative writing workshop. I’m sure there are similar things online.

  • Plot – It sometimes felt like a series of scenes rather than a flowing narrative

I found the format of the story a bit clunky and often it felt like certain scenes had been ‘put’ into the story to romanticise the plot. This was another element that distracted me from immersing myself in the world.

In my own work, plotting is probably the area of writing I find most challenging. It’s such an artform. I often read back my drafts after setting them aside for a while and find a number of obvious plot holes. This is why it’s been so vital for me to share my work.  I’m just too close to it and don’t always see the blindingly obvious. Also, a tip from the Write Now Podcast has always stayed with me. To simply ask myself, what is the most interesting thing that could happen next?

  • Research – I felt it tackled serious subjects in a simplistic way

There were some very serious themes tackled in this book and at times I felt they were glossed over or sentimentalised. Clearly, for the majority of readers, the book has resonated with them very strongly and in many cases helped them. I am not the target audience for this book and am definitely in the minority but I couldn’t help feeling a little uncomfortable about how some of these issues were put across.

This has got me thinking about the importance of research. So far, I haven’t stretched too far outside the realms of ‘what I know’ with my writing. I actually find the thought quite overwhelming. Readers will notice immediately if anything in my work is factually incorrect or unrealistic, so getting these details right is really important.

  • Voice – The voices of the characters didn’t always feel authentic and sometimes I forgot which one was talking

This is a YA book, written from the perspective of young people. I am no longer a young person (sob!) so who am I to say, but the character’s voices didn’t always feel authentic to me. There were two main characters in the book and sometimes I didn’t find them distinct enough and I forgot who was talking.

I am definitely guilty of letting the ‘author’s voice’ slip into my work. Quite often my characters come out with things that they would never say if they were real. Getting a second pair of eyes to read my work is essential to wheedle these out and also putting my work aside for a few days/ weeks and re-reading brings glaring errors to the fore.

  • Takeaway – It was sickeningly sentimental

By the end of this book, I was making fake vomiting noises. It just reminded me that I was reading a story and I felt like I was being manipulated into feeling a certain emotion. This is from someone who loves happy endings and often finds myself bringing my stories to a ridiculously idealistic close. More often than not, this isn’t what readers are looking for. This is where it is vital to understand audience and ensure the work is suitable for the places I’m submitting to.

This just shows you that once your work is out in the public domain, you have no control over how people will interpret it.  Getting a novel published is a huge achievement, one which I dream of in my wildest fantasies. I am just one individual and I have a completely subjective opinion on this work, one which seems to be at odds with everyone else. But, I’m glad I read it in its entirety and learnt about how I can tackle certain issues in my own creative writing.  It certainly makes me question putting my own work out there, but I can’t really think of any books that are universally well received. This is what makes art wonderful and challenging.

Have you ever felt this way about a book? Did you learn anything from it? Does it make you cautious about putting your work out there? I’d love to hear about it, if so.

 

Learning from the curiously charming writer, Phaedra Patrick

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There’s nothing more motivating for fledgling writers than hearing from other writers who’ve been in the same position and have gone on to ‘make it’.

I immediately warmed to author, Phaedra Patrick, at a Read Regional event earlier this week hosted by The Heatons library. She started off by talking about ‘those people’ for whom everything falls into place. They write their first novel in a year, immediately get accepted by an agent and have publishers in bidding wars over the book. “It wasn’t like that for me!” she quipped.

Talking to a packed audience of bookworms, Phaedra took us on her journey, from her first writing jobs at a double glazing firm and a locksmiths, to her six ‘rejected’ novels, to the short story competition win that reassured her she is a writer. What inspired me was her relentless work ethic, the fact that she had a dream and she kept pursuing it day after day, year after year. Holding down a day job and writing whenever she had the chance.

However, when Phaedra set about writing The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, she told herself this was her ‘last’ book. Pouring her heart and soul into several year-long writing projects, none of which had gone anywhere, had taken its toll. Phaedra committed to writing one more novel, then she’d draw a line under the writing dream she’d spent so many years pursuing.

What was different about this book, she told us, was that she would write this for herself. She’d been advised that all publishers wanted were books about “sex, midwives and thrillers”. She’d steered clear of sex and midwives, tried her hand at a thriller that was “too chatty” and had her books revolving around female characters rejected. For the first time, she would stop trying to write something to get published, and focus on writing a story she loved, that she would love to read herself. Her lovable protagonist, 69-year-old widower, Arthur Pepper, was born.

The novel starts with Arthur taking the step to clear out his late wife’s belongings. He stumbles across a mysterious charm bracelet which he’s never seen before. It holds clues to Miriam’s life before they married, a ‘secret’ life she’d never spoken of. Arthur sets off on a journey to discover the story behind each charm, learning more about his wife and himself in the process. I borrowed the book from my local library a couple of weeks ago, having heard about it through the Read Regional scheme. I devoured it in a couple of days, taken in by its pacey plot, honest language, and Yorkshire roots.

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The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, the book Phaedra wrote ‘from the heart’, is going down a storm with readers, it’s been translated into more than twenty languages and has even been optioned by American film company. What a fantastic achievement!

Phaedra has completed book two, Rise and Shine Benedict Stone, which is out in the UK towards the end of this year, and is cracking on with her third book. If that isn’t motivation to keep going, I don’t know what is.

If I take one thing away from Phaedra’s talk, it would be to replace the word ‘confident’ with ‘determined’. All writers have crises of confidence (at least that’s what I tell myself!). I was reassured to hear Phaedra does too. To get around that she tells herself that, while she might not be confident about her writing, she can most certainly be determined. I’m totally nicking this!

Phaedra has also very helpfully gathered some writing tips she’s collected over the years. Check them out here http://www.phaedra-patrick.com/writing-tips/