It is often difficult to assess your own work, but there is a way to see what you are doing.
Colouring! Yes really, grab yourself some coloured marker pens or coloured pencils and prepare to be enlightened.
I heard of this concept during a presentation that Natasha Lester author of The ParisSeamstressmade during the Rockingham Writer’s convention. This is how she explained her system. By the way, this applies to all popular commercial fiction but not so much to literary fiction.
Action – Coloured PINK
Thought– Coloured YELLOW
Transitions—BLANK -NOT COLOURED
Back story-Coloured ORANGE.
She suggested colouring action and dialogue first to show you the balance of those,
Ideally, they should be most of the page, at least 60% but not in huge blocks of colour. Interweave with other aspects of the story.
Doing this enables you to SEE what you need to change, to add or subtract.
If you feel this may be too confronting you can always photocopy two or three pages from a book and try it with them.
Your goal is not to emulate them, your goal is to see whether they get it right or wrong and to improve your own writing. The only person you need to compare yourself with is the self of yesterday are you learning, growing, progressing?
We all have limited time at our disposal so should you take time out to attend an author talk?
My answer is – it depends on what you want from the talk
Firstly, have you read any of the author’s books or do you intend to?
It’s true that you can probably learn something from every author, but if you don’t write fantasy you may not need to learn how that writer built their fantasy world
It makes more sense to attend a talk by an author of books in a genre that you enjoy. You will get more out of it and understand the nuances that he/she is talking about.
Do you want to know more about their books or their writing process?
Have you heard from others that their talks are entertaining and meaningful?
One fairly well-known crime writer gave a talk that was so self-congratulatory and self-absorbed that he barely had time to listen to questions, much less answer them.
In contrast, I recently attended a talk by author Rachael Johns international best-selling author and writer of both contemporary fiction and rural romances.
As a former English teacher Rachael is as you would expect is a big fan of both reading and writing.
Her first point was that ‘you have to be a reader to be a writer’
She quoted statistics from the University of Sussex, which showed that regular reading slowed the onset of dementia and also reduced stress by 66%. We readers know what we are doing!
Additionally, storytelling is important to society, offering escapism, relaxation, thrills, enjoyment and encouraging a capacity for empathy.
It is fascinating to learn how a story came about, what hunches or subconscious suggestions added to the tale.
In her talk she debunked many myths about their being ‘only one way to write’ and ‘you must plan your story in detail’
As someone who never fills out a character profile sheet (which is often recommended ), it was thrilling to hear Rachael say that she never uses them. Her stories grow organically, as she learns details about her characters.
The talk covered more topic such as what makes a book memorable? Why do we care about characters? We want them to grow and change to face up to challenges. She said that ‘people are products of their pasts’. Past hurts, emotional or physical leave their marks. In real life we want happiness but in fiction, we seek drama and conflict As Rachael said, ‘we need to torture our characters.’
It is inspiring how normal those rarefied creatures called authors are, how pleased they are to hear that you liked their book and want them to sign it for you. And of course, you can thank an author by leaving a review of their book on Good reads or Amazon
As a reader it feels good to meet your favourite authors, to thank them and say how much you enjoyed their book, but as a writer, it is encouraging to hear how scenes were deleted, how characters refused to behave, how the author struggled to completion.
An author talk can be a simple social event, with a chat and a cup of tea or a glass of wine afterwards, or it can be a lesson in what successful authors do that you could do too.
I took notes during Laurie Steed’s talk, but these are summaries of the advice that he offered and my interpretations.
But I Know the Judge!
Some contests will announce who their judges are, many are judged blind their identity only announced once judging is complete. It is highly unethical to contact the judge, and even more unethical to offer inducements. You could be disqualified for that alone. Laurie said one woman asked him which of three topics she should enter-he declined to answer.
Titles: The Good, The Bad and What The??
The title is the first impression the judge gets of the story. What are you writing about? Do you want to let it be known right away or keep a bit of intrigue?
Titles that are simple and direct, such as Rudolph the Reindeer might work for a children’s book but not necessarily for an adult reader.
Bland titles are not the best reflection of your creativity. So, Susan’s Day, The Picnic. My Dog Sam, or The Wedding and unlikely to fill the judge with much enthusiasm. Of course, if you are a brilliant writer you might just pull it off, but why risk it?
A better choice may intrigue the reader and invite them to read the story. You might find inspiration within the story itself or an idea may suggest itself when your story is written. You might even use a quotation such as Ray Bradbury did with Something Wicked This Way Comes. (Shakespeare) An example Laurie Steed gave of a good title was The Fantastic Breasts by Julie Koh.
Talking about Topics, what you should know.
Some topics are just more popular with writers than others. Does that mean you should avoid them? Not necessarily but be aware that many others will be writing on the same subject. You might have to be more creative in your approach so that your story stands out.
Popular Topics and the Less Popular Ones
Likely to get lots of entries) (Less competition)
Adolescence. Happy Stories (Hard to do well)
Romance. LGBT Romance
Cancer Urban Animal stories
Office Life. Speculative Fiction
War. Fantasy( Hard to do well)
His advice was to be original, subvert expectations, use your creativity and allow yourself to think beyond the obvious. Engage the reader, include sensory details and don’t be knowingly clever!
Two Additional Tips from Me.
Check and recheck the terms and conditions.
I did that this week prior to sending a contest entry off and it’s lucky that I did.
Most contests specify a size 12 font, but this one specified size 11 font. Who could have guessed, and will some entries be disqualified because they didn’t comply?
Retain Your Copyright- It’s Precious!
Check those terms and conditions again to make sure that you are NOT signing over your copyright. Who knows what your future holds? You might be the next big thing.
What if J.K Rowling had signed away her copyright? She would have lost book rights, foreign rights, film rights, digital rights, adaption rights, merchandising rights and possibly others that I am unaware of.
Contests challenge us to produce our best work, to think laterally and to enjoy our writing. Even if your story didn’t win it’s probably a perfectly good story, it just didn’t suit either that judge or that contest.
You may submit it elsewhere, or you may decide it needs more work. Your story, your choice.
Last weekend I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop focussing on why stories win or don’t win competitions. Experienced short story writer and author of You Belong Here Laurie Steed was the presenter.
He began with the basic and obvious pointers.
Follow the rules. If they ask for a 2,000-word short story don’t send one word over that limit.
Read all the terms and conditions. It would be awful to be disqualified on a technicality. Some contests are open to anyone, some to residents of certain areas, or age groups. Some stipulate no one who has earned money from their writing is eligible.
What a judge hopes to see.
A strong opening to the story, with an engaging or relatable character, strong stakes, and some sort of closure. Not necessarily a ‘happily ever after’ but an ending that satisfies the reader.
Laurie Steed made that point that people now have so many other choices to entertain themselves, so if they devote their time to reading it had better be good. Everything matters in your story-there is no space for a digression, your reader has chosen to be with you, it’s your job to keep them.
Writing on Topic: If a picture or story prompt is given-try to avoid the obvious approach. Strive for an unusual or unique perspective with good details.
Pacing. Keep an eye on the pacing and sentence length strive for balance neither too slow or too fast. Appropriate to the story that you are telling.
Don’t try telling a story too complex for the word length or with too much back story or irrelevant details.
The next post will summarise further advice relating to creating strong and weak titles, and story topics.
From 500 entries submitted to one contest, he estimated that about 10% were serious contenders. Learn how to make yours one of them.
‘The past is a foreign country they do things differently there.’ LP. Hartley ‘The Go-Between’
It’s a question that every writer hears ’where do you get your ideas?’ At times it is tempting to say something flippant like ‘Oh I pop down to the App store and pick a few.’ But it’s not that easy.
So where do writers get ideas? The answer is probably as individual as the writers themselves. Some writers are meticulous planners and know what they will write about. They are known as Plotters and have inciting incidents and compelling storylines at their fingertips. They have detailed plans and character profiles and timelines all prepared. At times I wish I was more like them, but I am not.
My stories begin who knows where? Although the term Pantsers is applied to writers like me, I prefer to think I am an organic writer. One who builds as she goes, capturing a fragment of a sentence, an intriguing snippet or topic, an overheard remark or a sliver of memory.
Recently, I entered a short story contest and the picture prompt didn’t initially inspire me. The trick was to let my imagination roam, to go beyond the obvious. In one story I used three incidents I knew about, things that had happened to me, or to friends. Sibling rivalry, an attempted drowning and person with mental illness. The facts bled into the fiction, hopefully giving it an authenticity.
Writing the second story I began with a fragment of memory of clearing the attic and as I wrote a long-forgotten memory surfaced. I must have been about six and we were at the beach. My father dived in and rescued a woman who was attempting to drown herself. I remember her sobbing, with dad’s jacket placed around her shoulders. And then it’s a blank- what happened next, I have no idea.
I’d forgotten about it until now, so many years later, when I fictionalised it and used it in my story. If memory chooses not to come at my call but returns unprompted it is still a valid memory. The trick is to hold on to that image, that memory, and see if more will follow.
Nowadays, I think of my past as a place to explore. I can get there from here. The route may be unfamiliar, the recall imperfect, but it is uniquely mine. Others may recall the same events, but not in the same specific way. What attracted me, what was important to me, may not have mattered to them. My stories begin here, and I realize that the things that matter to me always have.
Do you make many promises? And if so, do you keep them? To me, it is important to keep my promises, so I don’t make many.
I hate being let down and equally, I hate letting people down.
There was one person I routinely let my promises slide for. Can you guess who it was? That person was me.
Maybe you are like that too? Discounting your own needs and wants and importance.
Last week I had a tech crash and was without my computer for the week. Any week it would be annoying, but I had planned to enter a short story contest.And the deadline was Friday 13th – what could be more apt?
I got my computer back on Monday. It was just the basic setup, and a year’s worth of work was gone. I’d promised myself I would enter at least two stories in the contest.
I had two-thirds of one story written and a vague idea for another. The word length for submission was from 1,000 to 4,000 words.
A writer friend cast an eye over the first story. I thought I had completed it and I’d listened to it through the read-aloud function. That read aloud alone picked up fifteen tiny mistakes. My eagle-eyed friend found missing commas, redundant commas, as well as making some pertinent comments. More work! I respect her judgement, so I made the changes. I submitted it with a day to spare. It was about 3,500 words.
What about story two? I had roughed out ideas in a notebook while I was without the computer.
I decided to go for it. I knew my story wouldn’t have the care and attention that the first story had. But my promise to myself was to submit two stories.
I had the germ of an idea and I worked hard on it, and my wonderful friend was even able to have a quick look at it. Again I made changes. Story Two was submitted at 6.30pm on Friday 13th. It was just over 3,00o words.
It’s likely that neither will win a prize, many accomplished writers enter this contest. I felt wiped out, exhausted and yet exhilarated. I’d done it! I hadn’t let myself off the hook. Yes, there were difficulties, but nothing that I couldn’t overcome. It had been hard work, but I felt and feel terrific. Finally, I was giving my writing, my work. the respect that it deserved,
Is this a female thing or a generational thing? Is it the sign of a classic procrastinator?
What about you? Do you find it easy to keep the promises that you make to yourself?