From candyfloss to flesh-eating monsters

A friend - let's call her Peta - who writes successfully at the lighter end of women's fiction, including short stories for the womags, has just had one of the more baffling rejections: that her characters lack emotional depth. Her natural writing voice is light and lively, as she is herself, and she doesn't write or read heavily-charged emotional novels. But, as she says The irony is, I am a very emotional, sensitive person in real life! But yes, I do have a very jokey, lightweight side which is what most people who meet me see, and which comes across... Read more →

Running with Wolf Hall

When Wolf Hall was published, I was up to my neck (and frequently out of my depth) in writing a novel. I love Hilary Mantel's writing, but I didn't dare go near it. A novel about high politics and low violence set only fifty years after A Secret Alchemy, and built round real historical characters? Might it just make me throw in the towel forever? Well, yes: the book is astonishingly, magnificently good, in everything from the big ideas to the small words. When I put it down yesterday I was about half-way through, and it took two hours and... Read more →

Real readers won't notice?

Shortly after a bunch of aspiring writers start wrangling over the rules (which aren't rules, but tools, of course) someone will say, "But real readers won't notice, so why should I worry?" This is particularly true if some professional feedback has indicated that something technical is awry: point-of-view, say, or showing-and-telling. One way of fending off such feedback is to say that it's missing the point: who cares, if it's a good read? And it's backed up by the first handful of books you grab off your shelf. If it was good enough for Woolf/Rowling/Dickens/wotsername-who-wrote-50-shades-of-grey then it's good enough for... Read more →

Death doesn't always become you[r story]

A couple of posts ago, in Nothing but the truth, I found myself saying new writers and unconfident writers, paradoxically, seem to gravitate towards... well at one evening of short fiction readings, nine out of the ten stories read were centrally, chiefly, about death. And competitions sifters say the same. I used to think crossly that it was just a cheap thrill - some instant gravitas - but I'm a slightly nicer person these days. and a blog reader got in touch, because she's neither new nor unconfident, but often writes about death. Is it really such a Bad Idea?... Read more →

In other news: courses, competitions and fireside chats

I've been busy in various places lately, so just in case anyone's interested, here's some of it: On 25th February Debi Alper and I are running another six week online course in Self-Editing Your Novel. Debi and I have taught together for years, and it works brilliantly. Feedback from these courses has been terrific, so if you're at that stage, do drop by and see if you think it's what you need. For a taster, I did a "Prose Microscope" dissection on the Word Cloud, where the course is hosted, which will give you an idea of how it works,... Read more →

Why does it hurt more, the closer you get?

If you've been collecting standard rejections (wonkily photocopied, unsigned, spelling your name wrong) for your novel it's easy to believe that any squeak of interest would have you celebrating. And the maths and psychology of submissions (very well described here by Sarah Davies and Julia Churchill of the Greenhouse Agency) mean that you know you should celebrate - you DO celebrate - being asked for the whole manuscript. And you celebrate more if you get a long email about the novel, or are taken on by an agent, or hear a publisher is interested... Each step, if you've got any... Read more →

Reading like a reader, and the best feeling in the world

Back in the summer (remember summer? Difficult, isn't it...), when I was going to present the prizes to the winners of the Frome Festival Short Story Prize 2011 I was asked to talk about what made the winning stories win. And what I found myself saying was that I didn't really know. There wasn't a particular kind of story, a particular quality or technique: even retrospectively I can't see that the stories have anything obvious in common. What made the very best of this very good bunch win was that... I didn't notice how good they were. That isn't because... Read more →

Flashing, slipping and mixing things up

One of the most useful dicta (I won't say "rules" because there are no rules) I came across early in teaching myself to write was "start as near the end as possible". It was a propos short fiction, and of course it's not really as simple as that, but there's a lot to be said for remembering it in novel-writing too. Later I came across the thriller-writers' dictum "Get in late and get out early", which is the same idea and equally sort-of-true (see here for a discussion of the "getting out" bit). And I usually find that students' MS... Read more →

Jerusha Cowless, Agony Aunt: "I'm not a writer any more, I'm a failure."

Oh, Jerusha, I hardly dare write to you, because I'm not a proper writer, not any more. I don't belong on this blog, or the postgrad course I'm doing, or anywhere. Two years work on the novel, and it's a failure. I'm a failure. A friend has just bagged a two-book deal after an auction. My novel's been rejected everywhere it's gone out to. I can't start something new because all my mental and physical energy - my very breath - is on hold for this one. I know that my writing's good, and I've worked and polished and re-worked... Read more →

Jerusha Cowless, Agony Aunt: "Can I start with a character who isn't an MC?"

Dear Jerusha: Can you have an opening chapter in the point-of-view of someone who isn't the MC? [Emma notes: that's main character, not master of ceremonies] I'll try to explain. My opening chapter is in the point-of-view of a doctor. Her patient, James, is a main character, but is unconscious after an overdose of illegal drugs, and the scene is with James's family, in the hospital. The whole scene is from the doctor's point-of-view, but one of the family there, Edward, is also a main character. The reason I did it this way is because I needed a negative view... Read more →

The Thirty Thousand Doldrums

At the Frome Festival Writers' Question Time (click on Programmes > Frome Festival > Frome Festival 2011 Live Recordings) one question which came up was about keeping going: how do you deal with getting stuck? We all chipped in with our experience, from Debby Holt's Plotting Walk, to Matt Graham's printout of his mortgage payments stuck above the monitor. At one point I mentioned the notorious Thirty Thousand Doldrums: how for some reason, at least to judge by straw polls among my writer friends, round about the 25-30,000 words seems to be the sticking point for many writers. The odd... Read more →

Writers Question Time at Frome, and other stories

Just a quick post - because I'm not here, I'm still in Devon - to say that the two events I took part in at the Frome Festival were recorded by Frome's very own Internet readio station, Frome FM, and can be listened to here. Click on Programmes, and they both appear in the list of New Stuff. (If you're reading this after they've dropped off, just click on Programme > Frome Festival > Frome Festival 2011 Live Recordings) . Scroll down the list of programmes a little, then click on the one you want. I will blog at some... Read more →

Fragments of York: the Festival of Writing 2011

This is going to be a rather fragmentary post because, frankly, I'm feeling rather fragmented. Part of me is still back in York, part is enjoying being home, part is eyeing my desk and a very long list of What Needs Doing, and part of me - okay, most of me - is wondering if the only way to glue them all back together is to go and buy cake. Certainly cake, not drink, not after that Gala Dinner. So here are some fragments that I can hold on to, of what the 2011 York Festival of Writing made me... Read more →

Never apologise?

I'm having singing lessons, purely for fun. And I've made a decision: I'm not, ever, going to apologise for not having practised. Never. These are my lessons, I'm paying for them, how much progress I make is up to me (until my teacher wants to give up on me) and I don't have a parent breathing down my neck*. But it's surprisingly hard to keep my resolution, and not just in my hobby, either. I'm writing a story at the moment to send in for a short fiction workshop with Ali Smith, and I'm already constructing the apologies in my... Read more →

A rare insight

I'm in what's for me a rare state: I'm not writing a novel. But the other day I needed something to take to my writer's circle, the Clink Street Writers, for the likes of Sarah Salway, Pam Johnson, Ros Asquith and Michelle Lovric to sink their teeth into. So I did something else which is rare for me: dug out a short story which I wrote about five years ago, and which I never really got right but still think could be got right. It's a story that started as an exercise in a third thing which is rare for... Read more →

The York Festival of Writing 2011 #FOW11

This year's York Festival of Writing is two months away, on 25th-27th March, and I'll be there, along with dozens of other authors, plus agents, workshop leaders, publishers, editors and several hundred writers at varying stages of their aspiration. I'm leading a workshop on The Writer's Voices as well as a mini-course with my companion-in-crime, Debi Alper, on Finding Your Voice. I'm also doing Book Doctor slots, though they're filling up fast, I see. Last year was huge fun, in a head-spinning sort of way, and afterwards I blogged about it all in Ducks, Dreams and Cross-channel Ferries. But what... Read more →

The Hoops You Must Jump Through: an insider's view of writing competitions, part 2

This is Part Two of a guest post by short story writer and winner of the Scott Prize, Susannah Rickards. In Part One she explored the role of the First Filter Reader, who will be the one deciding whether your work should be seen by the named judge, and here in Part Two she discusses just what it is that separates the 94% of stories which don't make it onto the longlist, from the 2% which do. And just to make it even more fun, one reader can win a signed copy of Hot Kitchen Snow. Leave a comment by... Read more →

The Hoops You Must Jump Through: an insider's view of writing competitions, part 1

Susannah Rickards won the Scott Prize with her debut collection of short fiction, Hot Kitchen Snow and it's just out from Salt. She's also the teaching a workshop on entering writing competitions at the Claygate & Esher Short Fiction Festival, which is running 26-28th November as part of National Short Story Week. For many writers competitions are their first taste of trying to get their work noticed, but most of us have little idea of how they work and therefore little idea of how we might improve our chances of getting onto the longlist. So when I heard that Susannah... Read more →