It seems like Melanie Whipman and Joanna Campbell are on a roll! Not satisfied with both having their InkTears Short Story Collections longlisted for the Edge Hill University Short Story Prize they have now both been shortlisted for the prestigious Royal Academy & Pin Drop Short Story Award. Best of luck to both of them, in both competitions :) If you still haven't bought their books, what are you waiting for?!
For a long time, I've suspected that poet's were different to other people. I'm talking about true poets here, not people that throw the occasional poem together, or like to read Ted Hughes or Sylvia Plath on an idle afternoon. There is something about the way poets think about the world, about the very way they experience events, that makes them different. We can get into the nature/nurture argument, and try to decide if being a poet alters your perception of things, or if you become a poet because you have a different perspective in the first place. While everything is a balance, I'm tempted to say that poets are 80% nature 20% nurture. Feel free to disagree - you can even right a poem about it, if you feel so inclined.
Here's the thing though, for the first time, I've begun to suspect that short story writer's may also be different to other people. I understand that most novelists are crazy - I've met enough to be able to discern that - but I always thought that short story writers were more like normal people, grounded, able to catch little slices of the world and record them for others to share. Sure, they may have a knack with words, perhaps they spent some time as a journalist or did an English Lit degree, but fundamentally they are good people watchers - often introverts - who like to see the world and then experiment with it on paper. You should always be wary if you spend time in the company of a writer, because anything you say may be taken down and used in their next story. Yes, even that highly traceable anecdote about your aunt's haemorrhoid cream being accidentally used as toothpaste.
As a short story writer myself, it may be that I'm delusional. I like to consider myself normal (don't we all?), and it is clearly everybody else that is insane. It has occurred to me that I may have this the wrong way around. My brain seems to trap and store little stories and fragments like a spider's web collects flies. I thought everyone was the same, but I'm slowly coming to the conclusion that this is not true. Writer's brains are wired for narrative, and while everybody loves a good story, it seems that only some people seem to grasp how they work. I wonder what a good metaphor for short story writer's should be? Are we like rock collectors, collecting shiny pebbles and polishing them until they shine like gems? Or perhaps butterfly collectors, trapping and pinning living things to a sheet of paper. There are some writer's I've read that are more like palaeontologists, scratching away at a large block of text, gradually revealing some huge monstrous beast that was previously hidden.
They say every person has a good novel in them. How many short stories does every person hold? The real question though, is whether these adages are true, or if most people have experiences, but only a few people are really writers, because it is a philosophy, a lifestyle, a species. What do you think?
We got an email from Bruce Harris last week - he has been a regular entrant in our writing competitions, and was shortlisted for the InkTears annual short story prize the other year. Bruce told us that he has published a collection of short stories called Odds Against, and all of the takings from the book will be donated to the Huntington's Disease Association, in recognition of its efforts to aid Huntington's Disease patients and carers. Bruce's partner of 30 years was diagnosed with HD in October of last year, and they are obviously doing everything they can to cope with a very tough situation. We encourage you to buy a copy of the book (it's only 8.99 GBP), and to tweet/post/chat and ask your friends to buy a copy too.
Can I admit now that the title is a trick, to lure you in to this post? Don't go yet though! I need your help! I'm a big fan of podcasts and audiobooks, I love listening to them in the car. My daily journey is about 40 mins, which is perfect for listening to something interesting, and to take my mind off the aggressive drivers that attempt to kill me every day (yes I'm talking to you, lady in a very large white car). Over the years, I've listened to many audiobooks (and being a book snob, I will only listen to unabridged works). Recently though, I had got out of the habit. So eighteen months ago, I set about downloading a few audiobooks for my phone. The trial has resulted in:
- Much more enjoyable journeys
- A doubling of the number of novels I have 'read' in the year
- Writing inspirations and ideas
Off the top of my head, and in no particular order, I have especially enjoyed: City of Thieves by David Benioff, Prey by Michael Crichton (an oldie, but his stuff is great for the car, and a lesson in fast-paced narrative), The Sellout by Paul Beatty, The Trespasser by Tana French (the long police interviews were fantastic in audio, and the narrator was great), and Slade House by David Mitchell (interestingly made, with different actors for each of the main narrative chunks).
I've also listened to a batch of non fiction (including Bill Bryson's History of Nearly Everything), Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, and lots of varied podcasts - including most of the Freakonomics set. The number of short story ideas I've gathered from this hotchpotch of listening has been phenomenal. If only I had time to write them all!
One thing I haven't listened to, though, are any podcasts by writers (or editors) for writers. If you know any good ones, feel free to share the names or links below. See, I told you I need your help :)
At the weekend, I was interviewed for a new podcast series, all about....ah! I can't tell you (I did say zero spoilers). I love podcasts. They're fun to listen to, especially in the car, and just as much fun to take part in - although the editing is a b****. This is a series of podcasts based on a related theme, and to make it especially pertinent for the InkTears crowd, each episode will have a small flash piece or an excerpt from a short story (about 1200 words). We may, possibly, run a little contest for one of the pieces... don't send me anything yet though, because you don't know the theme!
I'm excited to tell you more about the project when I can. For now, my lips have been zipped shut by the editor who is called S*******!
PSSST I think she's gone now.As an extra snippet, I can tell you that it is related to my day job at Swarm Engineering
I came very close to being published in one of the leading literary magazines last week. They have a specific submission window, and last time I entered I was told they liked my story but it wasn't quite right for them. The editor encouraged me to try again in the next submission window, which I duly did (with a different story), and I was told that I'd been placed on the longlist. Sadly, I then received the dreaded 'Dear John' letter that writers know only too well. Very positively though, the editor had given specific reasons why they had decided against my piece. That is such a huge bonus, and allowed me to work on the story and make it much stronger. There's an instinctive reaction to criticism, (let's call it the knee-jerk), and then, when you sit down and consider the criticism properly - especially when it comes from an experienced editor who is reading a LOT of material - there is significant value. I have to admit that I agreed with all of the points made by the editor. She was telling me why my piece just failed at the last hurdle, and what I needed to do to improve it. I've subsequently edited the piece, and I think it is substantially improved.
I know not all editors have the time or patience to follow up with advice on rejected stories (and we don't do it at InkTears because of time constraints), but I would like to thank those that do. You don't know how much a few carefully chosen words from a professional reader/writer can help. Thank you.
You may not care whether I get bitten by a venomous reptile, in fact, the positive benefit might be that you don't have to read any more of my blog posts. Have you ever stopped to think though, about what would happen if something temporarily disabled you? Clearly it could impact your ability to work, your income (hopefully you have insurance), as well as your ability to drive, and much, much more. What might it do to your ability to read and/or write?
My colleague Luis and I were running through the SoCal hills during our lunch break, and with all the rain here, the trails are over-flowing with abundant vegetation. Unknown to me, a large rattlesnake was curled by the path, totally hidden beneath some leaves, and it set off the familiar rattle as I passed within a few inches. It could easily have struck and caused serious damage to my calf or ankle. While I would expect to survive such an incident, it would certainly stop me running (and possibly walking) for a while. I have some insight on that, because my wife suffered a very nasty foot injury nearly 2 years ago, and was on a knee scooter for some time. As I stared at the coiled snake today, I did wonder if I might get more time for writing if I was unable to move around so much. Perhaps I might write the great novel. Or finish my next collection of short stories, or those two non-fiction books I have sitting on my hard drive. That was the narrative I told myself. However, from seeing the reality of such an injury up-close with my wife, I can say that the real story would be one of frustration at not being able to get around, pain, multiple healthcare visits, and my free time would be taken up with trying to perform life's mundane activities at a much slower pace.
The stories we tell ourselves are compelling. As an experiment, try asking anyone keen on technology (especially if they work for a big company like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Oracle, or IBM) when they think autonomous vehicles will become a standard part of our daily lives. Then try asking your local Uber or Lyft or Taxi driver. You will find the answers are radically different. I've yet to meet an Uber driver who thinks it can possibly happen in the next 5 years, but the technology fans are convinced it is only a couple of years away, in fact, as they point out, autonomous vehicles are already out there... even the plane taking you on holiday or on your next business trip is largely autonomous. We live by our stories. I shall keep telling myself that it is highly unlikely I will get bitten by a rattlesnake. I mean, I've only encountered them three or four times this year, and I saw most of those from at least five feet away. I'm far more likely to get eaten by a mountain lion, aren't I? Now THAT would make a good story...
Llama Sutra, the title story of Melanie Whipman's collection, was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2013, as well as being published as the winning entry at InkTears. If you missed it, you're in luck - as it's being broadcast again on BBC Radio 4 Extra on Tuesday 28 March at 11am. The story is very funny, moving, and beautifully read too. If you still haven't bought a copy of her book (which you can do here with a special InkTears reader discount), then you have to read this glowing review by Tracy Fells at Thresholds.
We discovered on Monday morning that both When Planets Slip Their Tracks by Joanna Campbell, and also Llama Sutra by Melanie Whipman, have been long listed for the Edge Hill University Short Story Prize - the only UK prize for a published collection of short stories. The prize is open to all, and there are some established writers on the list - so it is fantastic to see two InkTears published authors appearing. (In fact, the eagle-eyed may even notice a third person - another of our previous prize winners also made the list, although we didn't publish her collection...). We are utterly delighted for both authors, and wish them the best of luck in the next stage of the competition!
You can see the full long list here: https://www.edgehill.ac.uk/news/2017/03/short-story-prize-organisers-announce-diverse-longlist-2017-competition/
Before I get a cascade of flaming comments, can I just point out this is a bit of fun? All judging has been anonymous, so our judges don't know whether pieces were submitted by male or female writers... but curiosity got the better of me, and I wondered how many of our winners were from each gender. To be of real value, we'd also need to know the percentage of entrants of each gender too, and while we have the data, that would be a LOT of work, so just for fun, I thought you'd like to know that, in total across all of our contests ever:
Winners & Runners Up: 58% Male, 42% Female
Highly Commended: 79% Female, 21% Male
Winners & Runners Up: 81% Female, 19% Male
Highly Commended: 77% Female, 23% Male
So female writers win three out of four categories (by a big margin), but men, just about, hold a narrow lead at the top of the short story category - although a single winning story from a woman next year would tilt that result in the other direction.
I'd have to assume that men are not entering the flash fiction contest as much... or else we're really bad at writing less than 500 words. Men - please defend your gender and send us your best flash fiction now! ;) Link here.
This is the eight or ninth InkTears short story I've judged, and while there are variations on themes and quality year over year, some things stay the same. One common thread is that in our final judging round, when all of our 8-10 judges vote on their favourite stories (blindly, without knowing either the author or what other judges are voting), there is never a single winner... by which I mean at least half a dozen stories end up getting the top vote by at least one judge. Which really goes to show how subjective reading & judging a competition can be. Often (and this year definitely fit this pattern) the judges struggle to separate their top 3 or 4 stories, and decide which they prefer. What we also commonly see, is that the eventual winner and runner up are stories that nearly all of the judges voted for - at least one or two judges will have placed these stories in first place, but many others will have listed it as their third or fourth place. I can also tell you, that we had one story that was rated as a winner by one judge this year, which didn't even make it into the Highly Commended category (sadly for them). What can you take away from this? Well, I would say that it shows how fine the margins are for success in the final stages of a contest. Personally, I consider every shortlisting a 'win', and have come to the conclusion that the difference between 1st and 5th, or 10th, is often a matter of the judges personal preferences. If you made it to our longlist - give yourself a hearty slap on the back. If you made that list more than once (I know several people did), and yet didn't make the eventual winners list, given yourself two hearty slaps on the back and a big glass of wine. You did really well.
The themes for this year were as wide and varied as ever. Our winners included a ghost story (we'll save that for October), a moving tale of a challenging childhood, an intriguing and original story inspired by a photo found in a junk shop in Sarajevo, a sci-fi tale set in a small room that is really about a couple's relationship, a tale of summers past, and one with great local accents about the struggle to do better in life. The winning story, Da by John Holland, stood out from the crowd because it made us laugh - several times - despite being based on a very macabre subject, which is normally taboo, and because it felt so real - people behaved in a very human way, despite the tough situation. As a writer myself, currently entering many competitions and getting very few good results (=none), I frequently read the judges comments elsewhere, and one thing you will see repeated often, is 'no more deaths and depression!' It can be bleak to be a judge, living your normal daily life of stress and pressure (we don't get paid for judging - it's not a profession), and then in the evening, you read ten short stories and in every tale someone dies or is murdered by their partner. I think that was part of the joy of Da. This is definitely a story with death at the core, but the subject is treated with humour, and is uplifting rather than depressing. This is at the core of good writing for me - create something original, something people feel better about themselves after they've read it. If I could give one tip, that would be it. Now, I need to go and change the endings to at least half of my own stories...
I keep a meticulous record of all the stories that I send into contests, on a large spreadsheet. I can see how many times a story has been entered, which competitions, and I can see where it has been shortlisted, and (hopefully) I flag where it was published. Some stories go through this process quickly (although never as fast as I think they did), so that within a year of the first draft they have been published. Most stories take 2-3 years. Some take 4-8 years. Then there are some, that never quite get there. So every now and then, I take a look at my spreadsheet, and I decide to archive some stories. The funny thing is, that when I take a close look, most of the stories that haven't been successful have been entered into very few contests. Which sounds pretty obvious, doesn't it? I should simply keep sending the story out, and eventually it will get shortlisted. Perseverance, and all that jazz. However, the reason it hasn't been entered into many contests is probably because there is something about it that makes me feel uncomfortable. May be the theme doesn't work for a lot of the target magazines, or perhaps I'm just not happy with some element of the writing. Before I archive the story, I open it up and re-read, to see if I've been mistaken, if the story can be salvaged so that I can start sending it out again. I have a few stories that I've rescued this way, stories that I think should be OK, and perhaps I'm being too harsh on them. I should send them out and let survival of the fittest test their capabilities. I have several other stories that I decide simply aren't good enough, and reluctantly I retire them.
The really challenging stories though, are the ones that I like, that have been sent out multiple times (I'm talking 20+ competition entries) and have yet to make their way on to a single longlist. I read these stories again, and I think they are as good as many of my other stories, but for some reason nobody wants to publish them... what do I do with those? The answer is edit, edit, edit and keep sending out. I think that ultimately a writer needs to know their own work. I can see when something isn't as good as it should be, or doesn't work for some reason, and I will retire it. When I have a story that I believe in though, I will stick with it. One day, someone will see it the same way I do. It seems like faith or confidence (or arrogance?!) is a positive trait for a writer.
Congratulations to the winners of our 2016 annual short story contest. Here are the full results. More details in the newsletter, but each of these stories will be published in our monthly newsletter.
Da by John Holland
The Fox by Hannah Persaud
A Community Service Announcement by Melanie Napthine
Dispatch Rider by Peter Newall
Games O'Clock by Stephanie Hutton
Honeysuckle Close by Maureen Cullen
Oysters by Sophia Barnes
Today we've opened the portal for our 2017 flash contest, which runs until 31 July. If you read the February newsletter (or the December one), you'll have seen some examples of the flash we publish. If you're looking for a few other pointers though, you could take a look at our interview with Ingrid, this year's winner and a finalist in previous years, or you could take a look at the judges comments from a couple of years ago here, or what we learn from reading your flash about you.
Whatever you do, have fun, and we shall look forward to reading your entry. Competition details and the entry form are on this page.
We're into the final stages of judging, but we can announce the long listed writers... note that story names are not included as the judging is done blind, and that doesn't work if we publish both! Congrats to those on the list, and commiserations for those that missed out this time. If your name appears more than once (and several writer's do...) then you have two entries on the longlist!
Alex Reece Abbott
Alex Reece Abbott
Riona Judge McCormack
Ingrid Jendrzjewski was the winner of the 2016 InkTears Flash Fiction contest, and has been a prize winner in our previous Flash contests too. We thought we'd have a chat with her, to learn more about her approach to writing, and see if we could uncover a few secrets about how to write good short fiction.
Ingrid, you have been very successful with our InkTears judges. Looking back over your entries, they often seem to centre around very intelligent dialogue - either internal, or between a couple. Are those real conversations, or dialogue that runs in your imagination only?
For the most part, the conversations are made up, although I really did have a debate about the relative fishy-ness of Moby Dick with an ex-partner. With a little tweaking, that piece could move into non-fiction territory! ‘Heat Death’ was based on two people I saw on a train one day; the girl was fanning herself with a thick book and nattering loudly about being hot to a young man who looked utterly disinterested. I wrote the first draft right there on the train. I felt a bit sneaky, putting words in their mouths while they were sitting just across the aisle!
Do any of the people you've written about know they have appeared in print, and did they approve?
As for Moby Dick, I’ve all but lost touch with the person in question. In the unlikely event he came across the piece, my suspicion is that he wouldn’t remember the conversation. However, even if he did, I doubt he’d mind; we may have been ill-suited, but he was a lovely person. As for the couple on the train, well, I imagine the story is so different from reality that they’d never recognise themselves.
Given that you say many of the conversations were made up, are you crazy?! [At InkTears, we once met a famous author with a prize winning book, who told us she'd written the entire book in her head over the course of a year, sitting in a chair imagining other people sitting in the other chairs in the room, and holding a dialogue with them. We came away thinking that if she wasn’t a best-selling author, she might be in a care facility!]
Yes. No. Wait, um, probably. Aren’t we all a little bit crazy? I guess I do imagine a lot of conversations between people and, erm, things. Although I am aware that it is completely illogical, I’ve bought loads of broken things from stores because I feel bad for them, and I don’t like to eat sweets or chocolate shaped as bears or Easter bunnies or Father Christmas. I would never admit this, however. Unlike the famous author, I’m usually just listening in on the conversations, not participating.
I realised rather recently that most of my stories involve inner monologues, reported speech, or descriptions of people thinking or doing things – there is almost never direct speech. ‘Sign, Signifier, Signified’ was an attempt to break out of that and try to actually make two characters communicate with each other on the page, but even that story is about some of the latent difficulties in communication!
There is also a split between art and science in your work, and between your characters - and also in your qualifications! [Ingrid studied Creative Writing and English Literature at the University of Evansville before going on to study physics at the University of Cambridge.] Do you find many people are comfortable with both art and science, or do you think these are two sides of a different philosophical approach to life that causes conflict?
Oh, what an interesting question! Personally, I think it’s strange when people see art and science as such different entities. Writers, scientists, artists, mathematicians – we’re all concerned with creativity, inquiry, speculation, investigation, beauty, truth. If you look at the ‘Beauty in method’ section of the Wikipedia article on ‘Mathematical beauty’, half of the bullet points describing what factors make a mathematical proof ‘elegant’ could also describe a poem or a piece of flash fiction: ‘unusually succinct’, ‘derives a result in a surprising way’, ‘based on new and original insights’. [Link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mathematical_beauty#Beauty_in_method]
Certainly, studying physics has made me a better writer. I don’t think much has changed about the way I approach the initial burst of writing, but my editing is much more ordered, rigorous, and precise. I think of each piece as having an internal logic that can be identified and developed during the editing process, much like the setting or solving of a puzzle.
I find a lot of people who don’t have a science background sound somewhat intimidated when they talk about maths and science, but often enjoy reading about it, if the author can explain concepts clearly. When I write about science, I always run it by my critique group to make sure it makes sense and is interesting to non-scientists. I’m lucky in that although it’s a reasonably small group, there are two other regular attendees with backgrounds in physics, so they can review the science in my stories as well as the writing! (And no, none of us knew each other before we started writing.)
Why do you write fiction?
I really don’t know. I had a little health scare in my mid-thirties which made me stop and re-evaluate my priorities. I discovered that there were two things that I cared deeply about that weren’t part of my life at the time: children and a regular writing practice. Now, I’m the mother of a dear, cherished four-year-old and I spend the vast proportion of my free time writing. I’m also happier than I ever remember being.
Do you prefer writing flash fiction, short stories, or are you secretly working on a novel?
Oh, busted! There is indeed a novel hiding in the closet.... It’s currently a dreadful mess, but now that I have a little more dedicated writing time chiselled out each week, I’m trying to dust it off. I actually started writing flash fiction when my daughter was born and I was failing at making progress with the novel. My writing and edits were terribly bitty and disjointed and I couldn’t keep track of the whole story in my head, so I decided to take a step back and set myself some short writing exercises so that when I did have longer stretches of time, I’d be ready to hit the ground running. Before long, I found I was enjoying writing these pieces as much, if not more, than novel writing. In April 2014, I heard about a 100-word story competition and thought I’d give that a try. I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t even know what flash fiction was at that point – I was just looking for a deadline and a challenge – but I managed to get an entry together, and I won third place. ‘The Bird Women of Wells-Next-the-Sea’ was written not long after [Editor: a prize winner at InkTears].
The older my daughter gets, the longer my average word counts get. I still write plenty of flash, but I’ve now finished multiple short stories and am halfway through a novella. I hope to get this novel into shape one of these days, but at this stage, I don’t think I could give up flash if I tried.
If you could give other writers 5 tips on how to write great flash fiction, you would say…
- Ideas. Embrace exercises, prompts, challenges, constraints, or whatever gets you writing outside your comfort zone. Really amazing stuff can come out of the most unexpected places, and flash is short enough that the pain won’t last long.
- First drafts. The bum-on-seat method works nearly 100% of the time for flash. If you sit there long enough, a first draft will emerge, even if the first draft of something other than what you thought you were writing. You may have to free-write absolute nonsense for a while, but eventually something will start taking shape. (Long-form writing may require walks, hot baths, mind maps, outlining, etc., but with short pieces, I don’t find these things to be anywhere near as reliable or efficient as sitting down and pushing through.)
- Shaping. Leave enough gaps that the reader is drawn into the story, but not so many that confusion sets in. Trust the reader to flesh out the skeleton you provide. Connect the bones; remove the fat.
- Editing. Cut. Stuff. Out. Then cut out some more. Quite often, the beginning and end are the first things that need to go. Most explanations can go. When you think you’ve cut out enough, read the story aloud until you find more things that need to go and cut them too. Then, put the thing in a drawer for a couple weeks. When you finally take it out again, try to find at least one more thing to cut.
- Framing. Not everything needs to be a story. If you have something a little less narrative and you’re having trouble wrangling it, you might find it easier to move it forward if you recast it as a poem, a vignette, a description, some sort of hybrid, or something else entirely.
Which writers inspire you most?
Oh, there are so many! This is such an impossible question! Jorge Luis Borges is close to my heart. I didn’t know what hit me when I found my parents’ copy of Labyrinths on their bookshelf, and I’m not sure I’ve ever recovered. Those short stories exploded my concept of what fiction could be. I can’t remember how old I was, but my guess is 13 or 14. It was my first foray into magical realism, and I fell in love. In terms of flash fiction, I’m a huge fan of Lydia Davis. She uses language like no one else I know. It’s precise and it’s understated and it’s clever. It is never tired or sloppy. Even when I don’t like one of her pieces, the way she deploys the English language sucks me in.
Some of your writing is quite intimate (which makes it powerful). Are there boundaries you won’t cross?
I don’t think about boundaries when writing, but I do when thinking about what to do with work once it’s written. I try not to publish things that would hurt a living person. For example, I’ve written a piece that includes a detail from someone else’s life that the person might recognise, even though the characters and situations in the story are very different from reality. I’m not meant to know this detail, and I suspect this person might be upset if they saw it. I’ve not published the piece, although I am considering submitting it to print-only publications (which I am certain they would never read)....
I also don’t tend to publish work about my loved ones out of respect for their privacy, although this isn’t a hard and fast rule. An exception is my parents; they’re both visual artists and I’m confident they understand that a representation is just a representation and nothing more. (Besides, there have been many instances where I’ve gone to one of their gallery openings only to discover an image or two of myself hanging on the wall. Turnabout is fair play!)
Would you ever give up your day job to write full time?
Short answer: in a heartbeat. Longer answer: it depends on what you mean by day job, and what you mean by writing full time!
I find writing extremely fulfilling and when I have time to myself, it’s the main thing I want to do. I’m not particularly interested in trying to make it as a freelancer or blogger or anything that actually brings in regular money, but I’d happily give up pretty much any form of paid employment to write the things I enjoy writing full time. That being said, if I’m able to have another child, I’d be delighted to have parenthood as my day (and night) job again, even if I have to moonlight with the writing for a spell.
Thank you so much for talking with us Ingrid. We are sure that your daughter will inspire many interesting stories in the future, and while we hope that you continue writing flash and short fiction, we look forward to reading your novel!
Some competition's have a well known 'celebrity' author as the judge. What that actually means, is that they are typically given the final shortlist to pick a winner from. I'm quite happy with that approach, and it has had three outcomes for me:
1. I've got to meet a couple of well-known authors when I've won a contest, and felt exceptionally flattered that they liked my work.
2. Many of these authors were kind enough to endorse my book when I published it
3. Sometimes, I've NOT entered a contest, because I knew the judge and thought that even if the results were blind-read, there would be some awkwardness and suspicion of insider dealing if I'd won.
At InkTears, we like to plough our own furrow, as they say (although I'm sure I've got that metaphor slightly wrong). We have ten judges, some of which have been with us since the very first contest, and others that change each year. The judges are a mix of writers and readers, of all age ranges (from 21 through to 80!). We don't announce our judges, although we are highly appreciative of their efforts.
This year though, I thought it worth mentioning that we have 5 published authors in our judging panel, including writers of short stories (four have at least one short story collection published), novels, and even a couple of best-selling Amazon self-help books! What's more, between them, these judges read all of the stories. Everyone's story will be read by both a 'reader' and a professional writer, to see if it makes our longlist. At the final stage, our shortlist is read by every single judge, and the winner is decided by a vote.
So there you have it! Not sure if that helps or hinders, but thought you might all be interested in the secret machinations that take place behind the curtain!
As well as the illustrious event in London to launch Llama Sutra, there was a little get together at Melanie's house for her friends & family... and I had to share this photo that was teasingly sent to me... since I couldn't attend :(
These are either fantastic miniature creations, or else they're the biggest cup cakes I've ever seen, and come with a free copy of Melanie's book...
Every year, I seem to find myself reading several hundred flash fiction entries over a period of a week, as we head into the final rounds of judging our annual FF contest. I'm not sure quite how that happens, how the planning, and the arrangements with the other judges works out, but for whatever reason, it seems to be the normal pattern. It can be quite stressful (especially because this is not my day job...) but also very rewarding. As a writer, I find it fascinating to see the clusters of themes and styles that are in vogue each year (it really does change), but what I noticed most of all this year was what I learned about you, the writers.
You see, this year, I allowed myself the luxury of reading through the bios (after the judging was complete). That was fascinating. Some of the bio's were as interesting (OK, some were MORE interesting) than the short pieces they accompanied. A few were substantially longer than the pieces they accompanied. There were several heart-tugging profiles that made it clear where the fiction had emerged from, and how deeply connected you were to the piece. There were some that were so different from the protagonist in the fiction that I was impressed by the empathy and writing skills displayed. There were also some writer's names that came up repeatedly in our longlist; people like Mandy Huggins, Jude Higgins, Susan Howe, Carolyn Lenz, Victoria Hunter, and of course Ingrid - our winner. Regular readers may recognise some of these names from previous contests too. Yet as I have told these authors, our judges read the stories blind, and we also rotate the judges each year (although we do have a handful of steadfast experts that remain for consistency). Which tells me that these writers are regularly producing high quality material.
Sometimes, I find a bio from an author that has a terrific track record, but when I go back to re-read their piece (wondering why it didn't make the long or shortlist), I am disappointed. My suspicion though, is that these writers are constantly refining their work, and a rejection will only spur them on to edit, edit, edit, and enter the piece elsewhere. I know some of my own work surprises me, by how bad it actually is (!) when I look at it again after the first, or even third or fourth, rejection. I actually take it as a compliment that a writer sends a piece to our contest, and uses it to help improve their writing. I wish we could provide critiques, and we do get asked each year, but we simply don't have the time or resource - although there are some other contests that do this (typically for a substantial fee).
What else have I learned this year... well, I know this from every year, but it bears repeating. (Or does it bare repeating?! I'll leave that to the grammar police...) Here's the thing: the difference between a piece that makes the longlist and one that drops out can be very, very small. Which is the same sized gap between the long and the shortlist, or the short and the final winners. Now clearly, if I look at the winner and compare it to one of the first rejected stories, there is (as you would expect) a big difference in quality. However, along the way, I know for certain, that some very good stories just slipped out of one stage, and yet perhaps could have gone all the way if that judge had made a fractionally different decision (or eaten one more piece of chocolate before making a choice). I tell you this because there are a couple of inescapable truths in judging. 1) It is entirely subjective 2) Quality (like the aforementioned writers) do eventually rise to the top. If you are consistently doing well in our contest (or others - judges' tastes differ), then well done. You know you are a writer, and you probably know what you need to do to improve. If you haven't made it yet, then keep trying, because you may be much closer to success than you realise.
We are hosting a (free!) event in London on 9th December, to celebrate the launch of Llama Sutra by Melanie Whipman, and the success of When Planets Slip Their Tracks by Joanna Campbell. Both authors will be in attendance and reading excerpts from their collections, and the event will be hosted by Agnes Meadows. We will even serve some wine and nibbles! There's a Facebook event page so you can share the good news with your friends.
Come along and get in the Christmas spirit!