Last month I was thrilled to hear that I’d won the Bare Fiction short story prize. For those who don’t know, Bare Fiction is a wonderful literary magazine that’s been going a few years. The pieces in it are very, very well-written and I’ve discovered many fantastic new authors by reading this. It’s also quite high-profile, attracting some very well-known names both as contributors and judges for the competition. This year the short story entries were judged by Courttia Newland, which gives you a sense of how thrilled I was to hear I’d won!
The prize-giving was held in Birmingham, so I promptly hopped on a train for what was to be my first real visit to the city. I thoroughly enjoyed it! I didn’t get loads of time to look around, but am hoping to head back for a mini-break soon.
Waterstones hosted the evening, which was super well-attended. We had people coming from great distances, most notably Ireland! (Ireland seems to produce some fantastic poets, incidentally). Here’s a few sample pictures from the night:
Me and Xanthi Barker, who read from her amazing 2nd prize story.
Robert Harper, who is the brains and the energy behind Bare Fiction. Fantastic to meet at last!
We’re listening to one of the poets here… look at all those spellbound faces.
All the way back in March, I entered the City Writes short courses competition. This is a regular competition open to everyone who’s studied on one of the City Writes short courses. City offers loads of these creative writing courses throughout the year, and I’d always fancied going on one. They’re run in the evenings, so fit nicely in around a day job. In 2013 I got my act together and enrolled on their wonderful short story course. It’s probably what really sparked my interest in short stories!
Anyway, I was very pleased to hear that I’d been selected as one of the competition winners! Along with three other winners and the amazing Emma Claire Sweeney (who tutors City Writes Novel Studio course), I was invited to give a reading at City’s competition event.
It was a brilliant evening, although sadly I forgot to take many photos – here’s one from Jonathan Ruppin (a founder of the English PEN Translated Literature Book Club, and someone who also takes good photographs!)
I was reading an extract from “I See You In Triplicate”, which was published in Structo. The other three competition winners were amazing – fabulous writers, fabulous readers – and Emma Claire Sweeney was wonderful. I bought a copy of her book, “Owl Song At Dawn”, and devoured it in a single sitting! I can thoroughly recommend it, and if you are lucky enough to get a chance to hear her read, do take it!
The next iteration of the competition is now open for entries, closing 16th June. The judge, Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone, was the course director for the Novel Studio and is also (unsurprisingly!) a very good writer herself. Check out her reviewing blog to see what she looks for in a good story, and if you’re an alumni of the City short courses, do think about submitting before June.
As it happens, I’ve been reading a lot of short story submissions recently – some of them as a judge for the wonderful Hysteria short story competition and others for a number of courses and publication opportunities.
So what’s leapt out at me from all this? A lot of mental notes for the number of ways “housekeeping” issues can result in wonderful writing failing to make it onto a longlist or shortlist. There are hundreds of “How to win short story competition” blogs out there and I’m not convinced of the utility of these. The real answer – write a good short story – is not, perhaps terribly helpful…
So, most of these tips have nothing to do with the quality of the writing. I’m not sure that it’s possible to teach people how to write a good story, and I’m certain that I shouldn’t be the teacher. But here are the other tips – the ones that’ll stop even your best story from winning, being accepted or being shortlisted. Most of them will seem like common sense, but I find that sometimes my common sense needs an explicit reminder.
- Check your spelling, formatting and word count on your final copy. I know this sounds silly, but seriously – do it. It’s particularly important if you’ve been asked to convert your manuscript into a format that it wasn’t originally (e.g. pdf). I’ve sadly seen at least two very good stories that got mangled in the conversion with only half the story actually arriving for submission. I’ve also seen problems with fonts and tracked changes being visible on the final copy, and with stories having to be rejected as they weren’t anonymised. Don’t trust your computer to take as good care of your story as you do 🙂
- Keep a submission tracker. A lot of competitions, magazines etc. have strict submission guidelines. They may not accept simultaneous submissions, or may want a period of exclusive consideration, or might have different opinions about what constitutes “previously published”. For each place I’m considering submitting, I like to note
- When the deadline is
- What the restrictions are on submitting this story elsewhere
- When I might expect them to tell me if it’s been accepted or rejected
- The theme (if any)
- Whether I’ve submitted before, and whether I’ve withdrawn anything from submission (you don’t want to get into a habit of withdrawing submissions after the deadline – people will notice!)
- Bring the deadline forward. If a story’s due on Monday 30th, mark it in your submission tracker as Sunday 29th. Submission websites can get very full and very slow just before a deadline.
- Put your story away for a month! This might not apply to everybody, but I need a “time-out” from a story after it’s been written and edited. A month is about the perfect time for me to spot the little issues here and there that need a final going-over edit.
- If your story isn’t ready, don’t submit. The number of drafts that a story goes through varies from person to person (I’m usually at about 6-7 drafts before something’s ready, but on occasion it’s been a lot more). Still, if you know your story’s not ready yet, don’t submit. There’ll always be another competition or submission opportunity – and you want to be able to feel proud of every story that’s accepted.
- Think carefully about where you submit. Will you be happy if your story’s accepted there? Is it the best venue for it? I know that it isn’t possible to subscribe to all the literary magazines out there, but many of them make back issues available for free, or have digital versions you can get more cheaply. Knowing what sort of stories tend to be published in each place means that you can tailor your submissions more accurately and not be too dispirited by rejections.
- And speaking of rejections… these don’t mean your story was bad! If you’re submitting to join a writing group, chances are that they only have one slot and are looking for a “good fit” in more ways than the stories alone. If you’re submitting to a magazine or anthology, then they may have just accepted another story along the same theme. If you’re submitting to a competition, you may get the pre-reading judge who just doesn’t click with your story.
- Get a version tracking system! When you go through multiple edits, you’ll end up taking out whole passages, putting them back in, editing, rearranging and generally doing the hokey-cokey. If you don’t save multiple versions of your stories, then when you want to go back to that perfect phrase that you’ve just remembered you used before, you won’t be able to find it. I save different versions using the date, but there are lots of programs out there that’ll do the same thing for you. (And if you find a good one, please do recommend it!)
- If this story is part of a linked set or a previous collection, do make sure it can stand by itself unless the whole collection is being submitted. Send it to a friend who hasn’t read the others and ask if they understand it. A little bit of mystery is good, but do make sure the judges or readers can work it out from what you give them!
- Excerpts from novels are hard to turn into short stories. It’s often very obvious when something’s part of a wider whole – and see the above point. This might not matter if it’s the quality of your writing that’s being assessed, for example if you’re joining a writers’ group. However, not all chapters have a sufficient narrative arc to make a short story – which doesn’t matter if they’re not intended to be! But if you’re submitting something as a short story, make sure it really is one…
I’m a member of The Whole Kahani, a collective of South Asian writers. Earlier last year, we are approached by Dahlia Publishing to put stories forward for an anthology that the press was considering putting out.
We workshopped quite a number of stories, and although not all of them could be included, finally came up with what I think is a pretty good, thematically consistent collection. The overarching theme was “love, longing and friendship” – so a fairly wide range of stories could be considered eligible!
Once the stories had been workshopped, Dahlia Press considered our list, and put together a working copy of the anthology. After a good few iterations, we’re proud to have had the launch of The Whole Kahani’s first anthology: Love Across a Broken Map!
The launch took place in May in the Nehru Centre, which is a fantastic location. Authors read excerpts from their stories, and took questions at the end. There are some official photos coming soon, but here’s a sneak preview of me reading from my story, “Watermelon Seeds”. Many thanks to Dahlia Publishing and to the other members of The Whole Kahani for putting together such a fabulous anthology!
And to continue catching up, way back in March I was very pleased to be included in the third Words and Women anthology. These showcase the work of women writers in the east of England, and are published by Unthank books. Unfortunately, I seem to have put my copy of the anthology in a Very Safe Place, so here’s a picture of the first one instead:
The launch was held in Norwich, so my husband and I went up for the weekend. If you haven’t been, it’s definitely worth a visit! There are loads of literary events on this summer, and the Norwich Writers’ Centre is a great site for information.
Of course, there’s also the Words and Women blog itself. This has information on competitions, festivals, submission opportunities and workshops. Have a look, and for those of you who are eligible, keep an eye out for next year’s competition call.
So it’s been a very long time since I posted anything here – long enough for me to have forgotten how to actually log in!
So what’s been happening since then?
Firstly, I’ve enrolled in a Creative Writing MA at City University, to begin in September. The City MA is slightly different from many others, because it focuses on completing a novel. To that end there are no modules on writing plays, articles, poems or short stories. Each year the students publish an anthology, and I’ve been lucky enough to grab a copy of last year’s. Curiously, I can’t actually find out where you’d buy them – if you have any idea, let me know!
Friday was the launch of the Fugue II anthology, from Siren Press. The editor, Lucy, organised a fantastic evening of reading, wine, nibbles and – of course – books, at Enitharmon Editions in London.
Fugue I had some wonderful reviews from, amongst others, Sabotage Reviews. Reading the other stories on the tube home, Fugue II seems a worthy successor. The stories include a macabre and beautiful Northern-set tale of an abbatoir, a zombie outbreak, Edvard Munch, a lesson plan gone wrong and a dream house that is far from what it seems. As well as me, the other authors are Catherine McNamara, Sally Oliver, Clare Fisher, Brandon Robshaw, Darren Lee, L.D. Lapinski and Alyson Hallett. Very pleased to be in their company!
I’m also pleased to have found a home here in Fugue II for my story Spring Tides. This was a very enjoyable piece to write, and I think it’s a perfect fit for the offbeat nature of the Fugue anthologies.
The stories were supplemented by some absolutely amazing artwork by Alexandru Savescu. Here’s me with the picture he drew for my story:
All in all, a fantastic evening, and many thanks to Lucy and the Siren team for all their hard work! Their website is definitely worth checking out at http://www.thesiren.co.uk/ for some more books and upcoming event info.