Judging the Magic Oxygen Literary Prize

photo (6)I spent last weekend in a pleasant farmhouse in Devon with a bunch of other writers, editors and publishers, judging the Magic Oxygen Literary Prize.

It was the first time I have been involved in judging a competition – though over the years I have entered many of them and won some. I agreed happily when I was asked to be involved as I saw competitions as an important part in my development as a writer and was delighted to support other writers in the same way I received support.

It was a lot of fun to do and, as a fantastic bonus, the organisers are planting a tree for every entry in Bore, Kenya and working to provide a schoolhouse for Kundeni school.

I understand there were around 800 or so entries across the categories for short stories and poetry. That’s a lot to get through, even with a fairly large panel of judges. There was an initial round of judging in which some entries fell by the wayside but there were still many hundreds of poems and stories in the final round of judging when each one was read and marked from zero to five by four different judges.

photo (4)It was hard work I suppose but not like being down a coal mine or anything. We had meal breaks to put the world to rights, a nice glass of wine in the evening and even a little jaunt to Lyme Regis, over the border in Dorset.

The rest of the time we sat around on sofas and read, and read, and then read some more. I judged some of the poetry but mainly I stuck to short stories, there was no way I could have sight of all of them but I read as many as I possibly could in the time available.

As a result I have a few observations I’d like to share about the stories I read. We found some fantastic, high quality winners you can be sure but I would like to talk about the general mass of entries because I know that‘s where my stories sat when I first started entering competitions and because I would have liked to have the feedback. You can be sure I’m not talking about anybody’s story in particular here – all the work we judged was anonymous and these are just general impressions I got from reading them overall. They are points which might help you if you are entering other competitions.

Generally speaking a lot of what I read could be described as ‘okay‘. It wasn’t terrible, nor was it great – it was a two or three out of five. That’s a decent place to start as a writer, but it isn’t going to win you any prizes. There were some common problems I found with these stories which were just okay.

Don’t forget the plot
An issue which cropped up all too often was that there was just not enough plot in the story to make you want to commit to it as a reader. These were supposed to be short stories – yet sometimes there was no story. Instead we were offered a monologue or a think-piece or a ramble. Often, in the last few pars, there was an attempt at a conclusion, as if to try to convince the reader that what they had read was a narrative. It wasn’t. A lot more discipline should have been brought to bear in the planning stage.

photo (5)Porridge prose
Another common theme was that many of these stories could have done with a good edit. The style was regularly stodgy, lacking in bite or focus. These were supposed to be short stories yet many weren’t short enough. Yes, they fell within the 4,000 limit but that’s supposed to be a maximum, not a target to aim for. There were too many words doing too little work. This is partly a rewriting issue. Put your piece aside for a while after writing it, then take an honest red pen to it. Think of it as a long poem, make every word count.

Take risks
I was a little disappointed to find the writing style of many of the stories was quite conservative. I was expecting to find flights of fancy and metaphors which stretched themselves to breaking point. These are the mistakes young writers sometimes make but at least it shows they are trying. So many of the stories here refused to take risks with the language – they were plain almost to a fault.
So there we go, those were my personal opinions of course, not those of the judges overall. A final point – I learned a lot from not winning competitions, it led me to improve and up my game until eventually I did start winning some, so if you entered Magic Oxygen but didn’t get among the prizes don’t despair – just write another story or poem, and have a go at another competition!

Song of the Sea GodIf you get a moment to take a look at the (ahem) award-winning Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

Entering Short Story Competitions

800px-13-02-27-spielbank-wiesbaden-by-RalfR-037Should you bother?
It’s a yes in my view. I used to enter lots of short story competitions when I was first starting out as a writer, and for a good while after too. I got precisely nowhere in most of them of course, but I did win some, including a big one in the UK called the Bridport Prize which is quite well thought of among those who take an interest in such things.
I’d advise anyone to have a go at these competitions if they are currently piling up stories or have a few stashed away in a drawer. They give you something to aim for and provide a tremendous boost if you get a win, place or are shortlisted. Dare I say it, they also get you used to the disappointment of losing – and that’s quite a useful thing to learn when you start looking for a publisher.

Are you better off submitting to magazines?

A writer asked me recently on Twitter whether the odds are better of getting your work published in magazines than they are in winning these competitions and to be honest I don’t really know. But what I’d suggest is there’s nothing to stop you submitting to magazines and websites and, at the same time, entering competitions.
If your aim is publication then it’s worth knowing that the competitions often produce anthologies which include not only the winners and runners-up but sometimes short listed entries too.
I used to submit to both competitions and magazines of various types – I found my rates of success and failure about the same for both.

800px-QWERTZ_swissShould you write stories specifically to win competitions?
For the most part I used to write the stories I wanted to write then try to find a suitable home for them. I did that rather than trying to write to order for particular competitions because my primary aim was to produce the work I had to to grow as a writer. Some competitions are very specific in the type of story they require in terms of theme, genre etc, but the majority keep things fairly vague, some just give you a maximum word count. Plus there are a lot of them so you can find a home for most things in the end.

Does it cost much?
Inevitably, it does cost money to enter competitions, but I used to see it as money well spent as it gave me a sense of purpose with my work. I wasn’t just filling up my computer hard drive with data, I was creating something with which I had a chance of winning glittering prizes.
If I’d not won anything I would still have considered that the motivation the competitions gave me to write made them worthwhile, but I did start getting among the prizes and of course that changes the financial situation in your favour – especially if you have a big win, running into the thousands.

Read the small print
One piece of advice I’d offer is to read the rules, tiresome as this may be, before you submit. For example, one reason I don’t enter these very much any more is that many don’t allow published authors. If you have a book out you count as a pro as far as the organisers are concerned – they treat me and Stephen King just the same, probably due to the huge sums of money we both make from our books (irony alert).
That’s just one example of a rule you might stumble over – there are many more, and it would be a shame to have your masterpiece ruled out on a technicality.

Where do you have more chance?
Obviously the bigger and more high-profile the competition the more entries it will attract. So if you are starting out look for:

  • new competitions,
  • ones which accept hard copy entry only,
  • ones which offer smaller prizes,
  • ones which are open only to people from your region. All of these will give you a higher chance of success.

Where to find them
Lists of these are all over the internet, but here’s one or two of my favourite places to look for the latest competitions.

Song of the Sea GodIf you get a moment to take a look at the (ahem) award-winning Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

Why Simon Pegg did not rip-off my idea.

Simon_Pegg_01There may well be a million stories in the naked city, but there are only so many plots to go around. That’s why, occasionally when you write something, you find you can trip over a story which has already been written.

Oddly, I’ve been on both ends of this literary coincidence. I have both written a story which resembles a much more famous piece of work produced years later, and I have written something which another author then claims to have come up with first. So here’s how I know it’s possible to come up with the same basic idea as someone else without plagiarising it.

Years ago I wrote a story called The Runner which won a big short story prize in the UK called the Bridport Prize. The Runner was about a divorced man who was separated from his young son. In an effort to win back the affection of his son, who was living with his ex-wife he runs a half marathon against his wife’s new partner who is younger, fitter and altogether more athletic than he is.

51wOdh7ByoL__SY300_A few years later Simon Pegg’s film Run Fatboy Run came out – and it has a very similar plot. Pegg stars in the film and is also credited with co-writing it.

Now Simon Pegg comes from Gloucester where I live – he doesn’t live here of course, he lives in That London, or in Hollywood or on the moon or somewhere. I don’t know.

But I do know that when my story won the Bridport Prize there was a chunk about it in Gloucester’s local paper, The Citizen – including the basic plot outline. And the same day there was a profile of Simon Pegg, local lad made good. So it’s conceivable he could have seen it – his family may have posted it to him at his house on the moon.

So do I think superstar actor, writer and movie mogul Simon Pegg took the idea for Run Fatboy Run from my story The Runner?

No, of course I don’t! That would be the ravings of a madman.

I think what happened is that we both had the same idea – assuming it was his idea anyway and not that of someone else on what, I imagine, was a big team who wrote the movie.

Whoever came up with the idea for Run Fatboy Run went through the same creative process as I did. What would you run for? What would the prize be? The motivation? They arrived at the idea that winning the affection of your estranged son by beating the rival for his affections in a race might be a good plot device.

And it also bears pointing out that, beyond the basic synopsis, the two stories are in no way similar – his is full of broad humour and slapstick, mine is wry and witty and a little sad.

I admit it is irritating that sometimes, if I tell someone the plot of The Runner, they say ‘Oh yeah – like that film Run, Fatboy Run – is that where you got the idea?’ But that’s life, and I can always say ‘no, it was written several years before that movie came out’ after which they give me dubious looks, secretly thinking that I have just ripped-off Simon Pegg’s brilliant concept.

But it’s a coincidence. That’s all there is to it – there’s no such thing as a new idea.

It happens, and that’s why famous writers have to take precautions against it I’m told. If you are JK Rowling and you are going on a book tour of America then you are instructed by your agent not to take any of the pieces of paper members of the public try to pass you as you are signing their books. Because on these slips of paper are people’s story ideas.

And if one of the notes says, for example: “Boy wizard goes through series of coming-of-age adventures, has crush on girl wizard, fights scary magical ghost monster and emerges victorious.” Then later when old JK writes Harry Potter and the Goblet of Hallows, or whatever, the person who wrote that note will come out of the woodwork shrieking ‘she stole my idea’ and hire a lawyer.

644586_10151128774778167_2119918862_nIt even happens to us non-famous authors. When Song of the Sea God was published, the local paper where I am from – The North-West Evening Mail, did a story on me and my book. Page three, since you ask, with a teaser on the front page, picture of me looking ruffled on a windy Walney Island beach, holding up my book. Incongruously also a picture of Thomas the Tank Engine, the only other literary thing ever to be associated with Walney.

Anyway – the story also went on the newspaper’s website where it attracted a grand total of one comment. Here is what that comment said:

“This book, The Song of the Sea God sounds an interesting read. But it must be said it bears similarities to a book I myself wrote, some years ago. At the time I was using the pen-name Ivor Moore, and the book was called A Dawn of the Moomins. This was set in the Barrow Docks.”

I mean, I’m not making this stuff up – this is real – this is what my life is actually like. Apparently Ivor Moore believes I have ripped-off his book ‘Dawn of the Moomins’. For the record I have never heard of Ivor or Dawn of the Moomins – heaven knows if it was 51LHPSsMhlL__SX385_even published. I have heard of the Moomins though – they appeared in a series of children’s books by Swedish author Tove Jansson – they looked like little hippos walking on their hind legs. I think Ivor might have just ripped the name off and used it in his (possibly imaginary) book.

So there we have it – me and Simon, Ivor and I, all making pots from the same clay and, as a result, sometimes making pots which, from certain angles, look similar to each other.

If this stuff happens to me you can imagine it happens to famous writers all the time. So for the record I want to make it very clear – Simon Pegg did not rip-off my idea!

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

What we talk about when we talk about writing

Raymond_CarverThe peerless short story writer Raymond Carver wrote an essay called ‘On Writing’ which is worth anyone’s while to study I would say, especially if that someone is a writer themselves.

It’s a piece I go back to now and again and enjoy reading over – even though there are parts of it I disagree with.

If you’d like to read it you can find it in Fires, a collection of Carver bits and bobs, along with some of his other essays, stories and poems – it’s also available online here.

‘On Writing’ is essentially a Carver manifesto, dealing with what he thinks makes a good writer.

He tells us: “Ambition and a little luck are good things for a writer to have going for him. Too much ambition and bad luck, or no luck at all, can be killing. There has to be talent.”

But talent on its own, he says, is not enough – in fact, he’s never met a writer who didn’t have talent. What picks out the best from the rest is a way of looking at the world, and describing it, which is different from everyone else’s way. Every good writer makes the world over to their own specifications.

“It is the writer’s particular and unmistakable signature on every­thing he writes. It is his world and no other. This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another. Not talent. There’s plenty of that around. But a writer who has some special way of looking at things and who gives artistic expression to that way of looking: that writer may be around for a time.”

51n7gmbPbEL__SY300_The essay also includes a bon mot which Carver picked up from the writer Isak Dinesen which he likes so much he say’s he’s going to write it on a card and pin it to the wall above his desk. Dinesen said that she “wrote a little every day, without hope and without despair.”

I like that too – ‘without hope and without despair.’

There’s plenty more in there to cherish – but now to the bit in the essay I can’t quite go along with – Carver’s dislike of ‘tricks’ in writing.

He says: “No tricks.” Period. I hate tricks. At the first sign of a trick or a gimmick in a piece of fiction, a cheap trick or even an elaborate trick, I tend to look for cover. Tricks are ultimately boring, and I get bored easily, which may go along with my not having much of an attention span. But extremely clever chi-chi writing, or just plain tomfoolery writing, puts me to sleep.”

It’s easy to be seduced by the way Carver writes – but I can’t go along with what he’s saying here. For many of us, short stories are the place where we try out ideas, do mad things – they are our space to be experimental, even if those experiments don’t always work.

Also, there’s the question of what constitutes a trick – Carver himself was prone to the odd literary device, and particularly to the ‘trick’ of leaving a vacuum in his stories so the reader was left to fill it with emotion. It was an astonishingly successful trick which worked at times like magic.

Hmm – so it’s like the president of the magic circle saying: ‘All these other magicians, they do tricks. Not me! I’d never stoop so low as to fool you with trickery.’

So I don’t agree with every word in there – but it’s still a remarkable manifesto. And it extols the virtues of working hard at your craft, taking pride in making each piece as good as it can be and finding precisely the right words in the right order. Who could disagree with that?

Last word to Carver of course – here he tells us how the short story writer should go about his or her task:

“He’ll bring his intelligence and literary skill to bear (his talent), his sense of proportion and sense of the fitness of things: of how things out there really are and how he sees those things – like no one else sees them. And this is done through the use of clear and specific language, language used so as to bring to life the details that will light up the story for the reader. For the details to be concrete and convey meaning, the language must be accurate and precisely given. The words can be so precise they may even sound flat, but they can still carry; if used right, they can hit all the notes.”

I can’t promise you no tricks at all – but, if you get a moment, take a look at my book Song of the Sea God. You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

What we say vs how we say it

Which matters most then – what we say or how we say it?

I bet I can guess your reply. The first thought most of us will have is that, of course, what we say is most important – the message is always more important than the medium.

But we are readers of fiction, writers of fiction some of us too. Surely we are seduced by the beauty of words? If not, then why bother?

Winston_Churchill_cph_3b12010And anyway, isn’t everyone seduced by beauty? Aren’t we all stirred by eloquence? Otherwise why did Churchill slave over his wartime speeches? He could have had a civil servant bullet point the facts for him and read that out on the radiogram, without all the three-part lists and falling cadences.

Don’t bother saying:

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

Just say ‘We will fight wherever necessary,’ and leave it at that.

It was the poetry which mattered – in tough times, with little food and too much work and bombs raining down – it was the poetry which counted.

And why do advertising agencies exist? Surely a brisk summary of a product’s selling points would suffice?

170px-TrumanCapote1959Here’s something Truman Capote once said:

“To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.”

He was one of the most beautiful prose stylists in the language on his day old Truman. Not so much with In Cold Blood where he was trying to fit in, be liked, impress. Instead read his stories, and read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, his crystal clear paean to a beautiful boy, who he had to pretend was a beautiful girl – because of the times.

02p/43/arod/15356/P2774143One of Truman Capote’s childhood chums was Harper Lee, another wonderful writer, though by no means a poet. Her one novel was To Kill a Mockingbird. Well, I suppose, if you are only going to write one, you might as well make it a fantastic one.

It’s a curious book in some ways – more like two bundled together. One, a gentle rural remembrance, Cider with Rosie in the deep South, the other, a gritty courtroom drama about racial tensions and cultural upheaval. Both are brilliant.

That book staked Harper Lee’s claim as a great novelist, what she wasn’t, I don’t think, was a great prose stylist. Her writing was functional rather than beautiful, it was more about the message than the medium. And when her book came out, Truman, her old friend, couldn’t really understand what the fuss was about. Where was the poetry, the sublime music of the words – where was all that useless beauty?

But it was a book which meant a lot, still means a lot, to many, many people, including me. And yet, so, quite rightly, does Breakfast at Tiffany’s. So which wins – the medium or the message?

Which matters most, what we say or how we say it?

I’m calling it a dead heat.

Don’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God. You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

Words of advice from Ray Bradbury

Here’s a link to a fantastic lecture by the late great Ray Bradbury on how to become a better writer.

Watch Ray Bradbury’s lecture here.

488px-Ray_Bradbury_(1975)_-cropped-Bradbury was, of course, a sci-fi genre writer but he produced work which still resonates and has had a significant impact on the culture. His first novel Fahrenheit 451 is named after the temperature at which paper ignites and presents a future where books are burned and freedom of speech and thought are banned. It’s a ‘fiction’ which is all too real in parts of the world today.

In this lecture Ray Bradbury was speaking to a room full of writing students and it’s a fascinating insight into the mind and work of a hugely successful author. His number one tip for writers who are starting out is this: write lots of short stories to practice rather than spend a year writing a novel which might be no good.

That’s strong advice I would say. Old Ray points out that if you write a story each week for a year then you are going to have 52 stories by the end of the year – and, chances are, not all of them are going to be bad!

“You are learning your craft – that’s the important thing.”

This craft, this habit of treating writing as something which has to be learned and practiced, is so important I think.

An issue which concerns me a little about the current trend towards self-publishing is that, for all the opportunities it brings, it can encourage people to publish work before they are really ready and to release books which are simply not good enough to be published. Knowing you face rejection encourages a writer to have self-discipline. Once you remove the possibility that your work might not be good enough some writers might believe there is no such thing as bad writing – the reader will be under no such illusion.

Ray also says: ‘writing is not a serious business, it is a joy and a celebration.’

It’s not work, he says, if it feels like work then stop doing it and do something else. His cure for writer’s block is simple – put down whatever you are writing and write something else instead, because you’ve picked the wrong subject.

Being true to yourself, and to the subjects which mean something to you, is the important thing he feels. During his lifetime he certainly put his money where his mouth was, turning down lucrative script writing jobs for movies because the subjects did not move him to write.

His advice to all of us writers is clear and honest and something we should all take heed of I think. He says, don’t concern yourself with what is commercial or what might sell, but write what you really ought to be writing.

“Your true self, your true fear, your true hope, your true love.”

Don’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God. You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

Show don’t tell

Chekhov, now there’s a big name. Of course, we all know and respect his work. Without his deft navigation skills the USS Enterprise would have been pointing in the wrong direction all through the first few series of Star Trek.

Apparently there was some other guy called Chekhov before him though – he was much less well known, more literary, and didn’t provide me with an opportunity to include the term Star Trek in my blog tags, but he did know a thing or two about writing.

anton_checkovThough Anton Chekhov was rightly lauded for his plays – The Cherry Orchard, The Three Sisters and so on, the 19th Century Russian writer was also master of the short story and he provided one of my favourite quotes about writing.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

What’s that all about then? Well basically what he’s summing up in powerful and poetic fashion is what has come to be known as ‘show don’t tell.’ That’s a technique much beloved of creative writing courses where would be writers are encouraged, for example, to focus not on telling the reader directly what a character is feeling, but instead on showing the reader things which allow him to make his own mind up.

For what it’s worth, my view on this is that a better phrase would be ‘show and tell’. The trouble with being prescriptive in writing is that it excludes  – and while excluding some terrible writing it might also exclude some great, experimental work.

So it never does to be too closed minded. Still, it’s a useful point to bear in mind I think, show don’t tell.

Whether you are describing moonlight or a character’s state of mind, the route one, blunt description is likely to be less involving, less evocative for the reader, than showing them something which draws them into the text and allows them to decide for themselves what is going on. Do it that way and you have given them a stake in the action – you have made the reader part of the story.

Don’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God. You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.