Honest feedback is hard to find and hugely valuable to writers (and perhaps everyone else). You churn the book out; your lovely friends and family say it’s great, but in the back of your mind doubt always lurks, buzzing like the last mosquito in the holiday bedroom.
What we need is a professional, someone who knows our genre and the book business, who is tactful and penetrative and wise and who will prod us with gentle authority into seeing for ourselves the tweaks needed to turn the book into its very best self.
This week I received feedback from a set of competition judges. It’s a quick reaction from them, but they’re experts, so it’s gold dust. Exactly what I need.
I looked at the file in my inbox – and I must admit I quailed. It’s scary, that honest stuff. These readers are judges, they know what they’re about. There will probably be things in there I don’t want to read, I thought.
I know how this works because I’ve used editors in the past. They have been great, but it isn’t a comfortable process – it shouldn’t be. Their job is to find the weaknesses and point them out, which hurts!
And a special kind of selective eyesight sets in when you read a critical appraisal of your own work: negativity specs. These are opposite of the rose-tinted kind, where you see only the sunlit afternoons of your gift-wrapped happy past; negativity specs allow you to see only bad things. Enthusiastic words of fulsome praise disappear as you fasten like a terrier upon the few lines that nail the imperfections.
The very worst of it, in writing as in life, is that these critics rarely tell you something you didn’t already know. Like the dentist who taps the exact spot that makes you howl, you know they’re right. You knew that plot detail/character/setting wasn’t really working. You knew you’d have to change it one day. Now you know it twice.
1 Don’t use a predictable title. If the theme for the competition is, say, ‘Bridges’, and you call your story ‘Bridges’, you can be pretty certain that lots of other entries will have the same one. Call your story something original.
2. Don’t forget the word limit. It’s easy for the judges to check! Too long is annoying and unprofessional; too short feels arrogant.
3. Don’t rush the ending. A strong ending is a memorable burst of energy that stays with the reader. It doesn’t have to be a ‘twist’ or a shock, it just has to give either a feeling of completion or sometimes a sense of loss. Poor endings don’t offer this, are often rushed and send the clear message at this point I ran out of ideas, or time. Inexplicably violent or tragic endings are just as unsatisfying.
4. Narration unbroken by dialogue. A story without any dialogue has to work very hard indeed to help readers identify and care about characters. Even a tiny amount of direct speech makes a big difference.
‘It does, doesn’t it?’
5. No accidental clichés allowed. Deliberate clichés for mockery purposes might work, but be careful; it can be difficult to spot the irony.
6. Embarrassingly revelatory subtext. Watch out for subtext. Sometimes stories seem to reveal ideas the writer was probably unaware of. Are all your male characters rakishly attractive? Do all your female characters nurse resentment and plot revenge? Do all the women need rescuing by strong male characters? Are all the men/women/young people/foreigners/builders/white collar workers (name your population group) in your story wrong’uns, or dim? Stereotypes creep in. All these things are up to you, if you’re doing them by choice. If it’s happening subconsciously you might be revealing more than you intended!
7. Unexpectedly offensive swearing. If you use the rudest words in a story it can make it more difficult for judges to choose it because a) swearing has to be very finely calibrated to have the right effect on every reader. What seems an off-hand, mild cuss to one person is a disgusting outrage to another, and a lazy form of characterisation to another still. Powerful, if you get it right; disastrously off-key if you get it wrong. The power of cursing comes and goes between the generations too. Some 1950s rude words would seem daft nowadays but others would get you reported to the police.
b) Certain swearwords are picked up electronically online, and intercepted by family-friendly filters. In other words, it’s difficult for organisations to publish/publicise your story online, which is off-putting.
Cuss with care. Know your reader.
8. Sex (see Swearing, above. The same principles apply.)
9. Starting in the wrong place. Many stories take a long run-up before we get to the main point. School-aged writers are inclined to start a story about A Day at the Zoo with, ‘I woke up that morning…’ and a few more paragraphs of breakfast and bus journey before ever reaching an animal. Their writing improves hugely as soon as they get the idea that they could by-pass breakfast and go straight to, ‘The lion stared at me and licked his teeth…’.
10. Empty-hearted coldness. If there isn’t any sign of emotion, your story will be flat. For example, if your character is confronted by someone carrying a weapon, we would expect them to feel something. You don’t need to say they are scared/terrified/excited, it works better if you show it in the way they act, feel, speak or think. (Preferably without using the word ‘heart’!)
11. Make sure you write a short story, not a book condensed into the word count or something that reads like an extract.
12. Anticlimax. Keep the punchline to the end or towards the end, or things will trail off…
13. Retrofitting a story to fit a different competition theme. If you have a story already and re-purpose it by awkwardly shoehorning in something to make it fit the title, it’s often easy to see the join.
14. If something startling is going to come at the end, don’t forget to foreshadow it earlier on in the story. If someone’s going to be killed with the lead pipe in the conservatory, someone needs to mention the lead pipe early on.
15. And the reverse of this, which is if you refer to the lead pipe/Glock handgun/lost handkerchief/stray dog in a significant way early on, something has to happen with it later, or the readers all feel short changed and keep wondering where it is.
16. Make your characters memorable. Differentiate them. Make their names different. If they’re called Mike, Mitch and Mick, you’re making the reader work too hard. (This is surprisingly common.)
17. Unpronounceable names are annoying, even if we only have to read them in our heads. Unless it’s really essential for your character to be called Honzuezhan Xvextzwytlzch, please reconsider.
(With thanks to Patricia McBride for her contributions.)
When he died in July at the age of 93, Andrea Camilleri, had published about 90 detective stories, 30 of them the hugely popular Montalbano stories set in Sicily. Camilleri started the Montalbano series in his mid 60s. He was, as The Guardian obituary put it, “not so much an author as a one-man literary production line”. Some years, when he was in his 80s, he published as many as eight novels.
Maestro Camilleri was a fascinating and admirable character. He had a previous successful life as an innovative theatre director and teacher, but it was at the age when most would retire that he first achieved a bestseller with the first Montalbano story set in Sicily. After that there was no stopping him.
Commissario Montlbano is known to UK viewers through a popular TV series. The dazzlingly wonderful landscapes of Sicily feature, alongside the slightly grumpy police officer and his cast of colleagues, including a pathologist who loves cakes and a girlfriend who only ever drops in. Reassuringly, no crime is ever too dreadful to prevent Montalbano going for a decent lunch.
So, if Camilleri is anything to go by, it seems quite conservative to plan another 20 or 30 novels in your sixties – or another 90, if you really put your back into the work.
It’s an odd position – judging and being judged simultaneously.
The village I live in is running a short story competition and I’m organising the judging. At the same time, my novel has just been longlisted for a national crime writing prize.
Of course, being listed for a prize is great. Someone read it! Someone liked it! Such moments of reward are so few in the writing world (in my writing world, anyway – yours may be crammed with awards) that they need to be savoured and rejoiced in for as long as possible. That small burst of optimism has to last for many long and lonely writing months into the future; a lovely bright balloon of encouragement bouncing joyfully about. Even as I admire it, I know it will drift away or turn wrinkly and flat soon enough.
This has made me so acutely aware of the feelings of the writers being judged in the short story competition that I can hardly bear to choose one over the other. There is genuinely something to be admired in every story. And the range of them is huge; some profound and philosophical, others surreal, others hilariously funny. It’s not just comparing apples and pears; it’s more like comparing apples, Liquorice All Sorts and Chicken Vindaloo.
We’ll get there in the end, because that’s what judges do: compromise.
I was at the 7th Self-Publishing Conference in Leicester yesterday. There was loads to digest. Orla Ross from the Alliance of Independent Authors gave the keynote which was a rallying cry to indie authors, urging professionalism and dedication to publishing the very best. Thus inspired, I went to workshops on metadata (yes, that’s how dedicated I am), crime writing with Stephen Booth (17 successful novels to date) and blog touring, with lovely Anne Cater, who made organising a blog tour sound as easy as pie. (Speaking of pie, lunch was good, too.)
Morgen Bailey’s Promoting Profitably with a Podcast was my favourite, because I’ve fancied a Granny Writes Books podcast for ages, and Morgen’s talk made it sound perfectly possible. Her handout is a treasure trove of podcast know-how and as someone already equipped with a microphone and an endless supply of curiosity about how other people write, I reckon podcasting is right up my street. Admittedly, it’s a bit of a time-gobbler – here I am already dedicating time to it – but I’m keen to give it a go. If you would like to be interviewed on a podcast about the writing stories of older writers – let me know!
So thanks to Morgen, Orla, Stephen and Clive Herbert of Nielsen Books. You have filled my head with ideas and my bag with business cards.
But really, the best thing about conferences and writing events in general is sitting next to someone and asking “What are you writing?”. The answer is always a surprise.
Thanks Matador and sponsors, it was a great day. And isn’t the Festival Bookshop fabulous?
I never realised, when I started this novel-writing lark, that one of the main qualities needed would be patience, but as it turns out, it is the root and fundament of all.
You have to be patient with yourself and your writing; patient with your characters and the plot that is meant to be one thing, but turns out to be another; patient with your readers; patient with your publishers, agents, editors and proofreaders. You have to patient with the production process of ebooks, paper books and audiobooks. Above all, you have to be patient with reviewers and people you just meet who say daft things.
I’m not very patient. Get on with it, generally sums up my approach to life, but that is on the inside.
Outwardly, I’m usually the calm sort. I don’t tut or huff and puff in queues. An estate agent once said he admired my serenity after I discovered I was the 28th person to put an offer in on the same house. (It paid off; I got it!)
I’m a teacher. You can’t get steamed up at every little thing in education or you’d keel over in the first year. My patience has definitely developed big muscles since I began teaching. I can explain the core of a lesson in carefully planned detail to the whole class, then explain it all over again three more times as idlers amble in late for the lesson without committing any act more violent than rolling my eyes a bit. If they tell me the dog ate their homework, I just nod.
Both my children were born 10 days late. This means I have an automatic Doctorate in Endurance Waiting from Job College, University of Griselda.
But even so, waiting for agents and publishers to decide whether they want my next novel is the longest waiting ever in the whole wide world.
As he handed over the prize-winners envelope*, the Master of Ceremonies announced that he didn’t really believe in writing competitions. Writing isn’t a competitive activity, is it? he said.
The audience seemed to agree. I might agree myself, usually, but not this time – because I’d won!
This, dear readers, is the blog of the 2018 Winner of the Chorley Writers’ Circle Short Story Competition! (Pause as blogger stops typing and bows modestly to left and right acknowledging virtual thunderous applause.)
Excuse me if I bask for a brief moment. The last thing I can remember winning was the Girls’ Skipping Race at school – 2nd place.
But this time I won! Hurrah!
OK. That’s enough. Normal service is resumed. Marketing advisers tell me to stamp Prize Winning Author all over everything from now on.
I probably won’t. Well, perhaps just for today…
* the envelope was empty – the cheque’s in the post, apparently!
If I had to add a Latin motto to the winner’s medal above, it would be ‘multi labore, minima victoria’ (after much labour, small success).