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Fantastic material, but I'm not worthy

Just got back from a fantastic summer holiday, exploring the 'wild west' of America. The quantity of amazing short story material was incredible: we did horse rides up and down very steep hills, rode through streams, saw bison, deer, bears and wolves. We sat in a cafe where Wild Bill Hickok was shot, stayed in Buffalo Bill's hotel (where he auditioned Annie Oakley), toured a gold mine and learned why many miners lost fingertips (and most were poor, but the blacksmiths became very wealthy). My little black moleskine is crammed full of story notes and ideas. The problem is, I don't know that period of history, and I don't have an authentic American voice (still think in English - you'd be amazed at the number of differences - did you know a UK cow pat is a US cow chip?). So do I write a story that will be riddled with historical and linguistic errors, or do I stick to what I know...? Over to you, dear readers...

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Meet a prize winning author on Thursday!

If you want to meet Melanie Whipman, reading from her Rubery Prize winning collection Llama Sutra, she's appearing as one of several authors at a short story event this Thursday (10th Aug). It's at the Cherry Reds, 88 John Bright street, Birmingham, kick-off at 7pm. I believe entry is free too.

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Llama Sutra wins International Rubery Book Prize for Short Story collections

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We are proud and delighted to share the news that Melanie Whipman has won the International Rubery Book Prize Short Story Category for her collection Llama Sutra. Here's what the judges said:

This is a varied collection in terms of genres (fantasy, crime, romance) and themes, tending towards YA characters in an attractive and very well produced hardcover volume. There are entertaining characters and compelling plots here, dealt with in a skilful and subtle manner. The writing is assured and striking with some wonderful turns of phrase. Some of the stories are quietly moving. The reader particularly enjoyed the title story and "The Deer".  

Congratulations Melanie! You can see all of the category winners on the Rubery site here.

 

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Deadline extended for Flash contest

Good news - you have two more weeks to polish up that piece of flash (or write something new!). Why have we done this? Well, I'm always suspicious of contests that extend deadlines, because it suggests they don't have enough entries... in this case the answer is much simpler. We always get a flood of entries (and questions) on the final couple of days, and given that the bulk of our team is on vacation, with limited online connectivity, we decided it would be wise to prevent stress all around by extending the deadline until everyone is back :)  Don't worry though, the short story contest will start immediately afterwards, so if flash isn't your thing, you will soon get a chance to enter your longer fiction.

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Feeling brutal

I killed a darling today. In fact, I killed several. One of my stories, that was 3500 words long, had some nice writing (at least I thought so), but I noticed I was never sending it into contests. Why not? Because it had a prolonged dream section, that I felt uncomfortable about, because nobody likes stories with big dream sequences (except for Rebecca and 'Last night I dreamt of Manderley...').  I was censoring the story, holding it back from competitions as I knew it would be rejected. Eventually, I would retire the story and it would slip into my archive folder. However, I had a contest to enter, which needed exclusive stories (i.e. not entered in any other competitions - see this blog piece to learn more), and all of my stories were out there lingering in rejection piles (OK, so maybe a couple were edging towards shortlists). I had the sudden idea, of chopping out the dream sequence and seeing if I could turn it into a 'normal' story. After much hacking, I managed to achieve something reasonable. The story went from 3500 words to 2000. It will probably not win or even get longlisted, but it may get entered into a few more contests now. We're all told, as writers, to kill our darlings, and it can be tough. Today I did it. I feel good.

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How do you feel about cheating in contests?!

A long time ago (but in this galaxy), I came in the top three of a writing contest, and was invited to the Award Ceremony. It was a great event, and I swapped notes with the other writers, judges, and authors. The person who won first prize told me that the same story had also won first prize in another contest - in fact, I later discovered it had won first prize in three competitions that summer! Obviously an excellent story :)  Interestingly, as an entrant to the same three contests, I also knew that each of the competitions had a rule that said they would only accept previously unpublished stories AND two of the contests had a specific rule that said your story could not be currently entered into any other competitions, while the other had a rule which stated that if you won, you had to notify the judges so they could take your entry out of their contest. As far as I know, nobody ever raised a fuss, and the writer escaped with three wins. It did make me very sensitive to rules though, and I began to pay close attention to them. It seems to me you can sail pretty close to the wind, and still be 'legal'. I've heard various opinions from different writers though, including those that blatantly ignore the rules, through to those that religiously follow not just the letter but the spirit of the rules too.

Here are a few slippery ways I've heard of people entering contests:

1. When it says the story can't be entered in another contest... it says nothing about not being submitted to a magazine for publication (as long as that's an open submission window, not a contest).

2. If there's a date cut-off, 'Story must not have been entered into a contest before 30 Jun 2017', you can juggle dates to ensure you enter stories a day or two apart, and squeeze them into contests (e.g. if the other contest has a 15 Jul cut-off, make sure you enter in July even if they accept pieces from May)

3. What classifies as 'the same' story? If the story has been substantially edited (e.g. cut from a 2500 word piece to a 2000 word version), is it the same story?

4. Changing the story title. It may have the same text (or be edited as in 3 above), but if you change the title, it will only really be noticeable if/when the story is published in full. This is a good option, until you win...

I'm sure there are other options here (like lying). As writers, we want to maximise the chance of our story being published, and I understand the compulsion to sail close to the wind. From a contest organiser's perspective, it is frustrating to be in the final throes of selecting a winner to have the writer pull the plug and tell you the story has/is/will be published elsewhere, or (even worse) needs to be withdrawn.

I'm interested to know what other writer's do about this dilemma. Feel free to share your thoughts, anonymously if necessary! Incidentally, you don't need to worry about our contests - we allow simultaneous entries, and previously published pieces (as long as you still own copyright). We do ask that you let us know if you win a contest with a story currently in our system. Sometimes, this is not a problem and the other organiser is open-minded too (just like the Brighton Prize last year, where we both published a story). We do need to know, and generally will be delighted for you.

 

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Congrats to Mel and Jo!

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?!

When Planets Slip Their Tracks by Joanna Campbell

Llama Sutra by Melanie Whipman

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Are Writers a different species?

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?

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Odds Against: 15 award winning stories

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. 

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Best Audiobooks & Podcasts for writers

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:

  1. Much more enjoyable journeys
  2. A doubling of the number of novels I have 'read' in the year
  3. 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 :)

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Sneak preview, with zero spoilers

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 

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Close, but no cigar

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.

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A rattlesnake nearly bit me today

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...

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BBC Radio 4 Extra, here we go again! (28Mar, 11am)

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. 

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Edge Hill: the best way to start the week!

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/ 

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Men vs Woman InkTears Results!

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:

Short Stories 

Winners & Runners Up: 58% Male, 42% Female

Highly Commended: 79% Female, 21% Male

 

Flash Fiction

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.

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Judges' Report - 2016 Short Story Contest

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...

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When to archive a story

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.

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InkTears Short Story Winners 2016

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.

 

WINNER

Da by John Holland

 

RUNNER UP

The Fox by Hannah Persaud

 

HIGHLY COMMENDED

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

 

 

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Open for flash

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.

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