Competitive writing – why bother?

At the start of the year I try and get organised; regular readers may remember I have a new (pink!) diary to note deadlines in. There’s a flurry of activity in January, some years it lasts well into February but by March I’m slacking off and then I wonder why I’m bothering anyway.

I’ve entered quite a few writing competitions over the years, and other than coming second in the Morpheus Tales flash fiction competition in 2009  I haven’t had any success with them. I keep coming back to competitions, but I can’t help wondering why, and I find myself leaning towards the idea that it might be the same reason people play the lottery. Yes I’m extremely unlikely to win the Bridport Prize, but wouldn’t it be marvellous if I did.

Quite often there are only a handful of stories mentioned (shortlist, or placed plus highly commended) and only the winner is published, but if the competition is respected enough it’s a good thing to be able to point to on your writing CV. If the prizes have a cash element it’s usually the top three stories only. Entering a competition isn’t that likely to get your writing in front of an audience, or swell your bank balance.

There is something to be said for the discipline of a deadline, however. A magazine, even if it has regular closed periods, will still be there next week or next month when you might have more time. Competitions, in general, are not. This might explain why I intend to enter many more than I actually do, but even so entering competitions probably does coax more work out of me than the vague idea of a magazine submission.

At this point, I should probably grab the pink diary and head over to http://blogs.chi.ac.uk/shortstoryforum/submission-calls/ to write down some more deadlines.

What’s the collective noun for writers?

I joined a writing group yesterday. Not a comfort-of-your-own-home, mug of tea in one hand, cat on your knee kind of online group like the Telegraph Short Story Club (which regular visitors will know I’ve been a part of for a couple of years) but an actual group of people in a room, talking. Not my forte (who’d have thought that of someone with degrees in maths and physics?), but thankfully the gathering was friendly and varied. There was an interesting mix of poetry, flash fiction, short story, novella, novel and non-fiction works in progress, for children and adults, by those with agents, the published, the self-published, and enthusiastic hobbyists. Some compulsive and prolific, others waiting for that boot up the backside to get going. The aim is to meet monthly and prove to each other we’ve actually written something in the meantime.

I’ll have to stop there because OneMonkey has just declared that the world’s a better place for the existence of Twisted Sister and I need to check if he’s sickening for something…

Spring and surroundings

Spring’s officially here, though we’ve had a heavier frost this week than we had all winter. Naturally, I’m reading a novel set in mountain country when the first of the winter snows are sweeping in and causing problems, but then I have a habit of being contrary.

There has been the odd burst of sunshine lately, plenty of flowers are appearing (mainly purple, in my garden) and the longer days mean it’s not already dark or dropping dark when I get home. It struck me as a good time to have a fresh look at things, while everywhere’s refreshing itself and throwing off the winter blankets.

Tomorrow on the way to work, or while you’re peering bleary-eyed from the kitchen window waiting for the first pot of tea of the day, take a good look at your surroundings. Maybe the winter storms have opened up the view by half a tree, or you’d forgotten there were daffodils on the roundabout. Maybe it’ll make you smile, or bring back memories. Maybe it’ll only remind you of some crucial maintenance you’d been putting off. Hopefully though, it’ll put a spring in your step.

In Pale Battalions by Robert Goddard

I wasn’t familiar with the name Robert Goddard and would have been highly unlikely to pick this novel up, left to my own devices. However, that’s what recommendations are for, and on my last trip to the Library of Mum and Dad (like the Bank of Mum and Dad, but easier to come by and more edifying), this was handed to me as a good starting point into Goddard’s back catalogue.

The edition I read (Corgi paperback 2010) would have benefitted greatly from the attentions of a diligent proof-reader; the vast number of typos began to irritate me but thankfully the power of the story drew me on. In Pale Battalions is a finely-paced novel of family secrets, sacrifice and lies, where the nested narratives mirror the nested mysteries. Certainties are periodically overturned. The answer to some burning question swims into view, trailing in its wake a whole shoal of questions of a different hue.

Leonora Galloway is a seventy year old widow taking her daughter to visit a First World War memorial in France in 1986. It is the cue for an unburdening, a lifetime of living within the confines of a web of secrets being cast aside. Throughout the novel there is a theme of withholding information to protect someone, even if they don’t need that protection. What right has anyone to decide when is the right time to reveal surprising truths, and if the revelation comes too late would it have been better not to know?

The bulk of the novel takes place during the First World War, which might make this year a particularly suitable time to read it since commemorations are taking place all around. The quiet dignity of the prose and the unpacking of a mysterious past put me in mind of The House at Riverton by Kate Morton. I think readers of that novel would enjoy In Pale Battalions, as would anyone who enjoyed Kate Atkinson’s novels Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Human Croquet.

Reading habits and class

A survey by Booktrust this week appears to reveal a class divide in reading habits. No real surprise there, education generally exhibits some form of class divide and there’s no obvious reason this would be different. I haven’t seen the survey itself, only articles on the BBC and Guardian websites (and public comments thereon), but it does seem quite a small sample, it’s not clear whether they include e-books in their definition of books (doesn’t sound like it, oddly) and I would argue about cause and effect. As well as the class definitions they use. However, it does lead me to a few observations.

One is that this kind of survey (particularly the bit about the numbers of books owned by different types of household) should tell the powers that be all they need to know about why closing down public libraries is a Bad Thing. I suspect they know this already, sadly.

Another is that class or income don’t go hand in hand with reading habits, it’s attitude that matters. All three of my grandparents that I knew were avid readers, library users, and encouraged my reading as a child. Though not all of them would have admitted it by the time I was on the scene, they were all working class and had different levels of formal education, gained by different routes. Presumably the common thread was that they saw, or came from families who saw, education as a good thing and reading as a perfectly reasonable pastime. It’s not likely that anyone will choose to read for enjoyment, however well-off or middle-class they are, if they know they’ll be looked on as odd by the people around them.

Thirdly, and this is where the now-obligatory mention of Richard Hoggart appears (see my post about The Uses of Literacy here), who says reading a book is the be-all and end-all? The articles about the survey mention (the horror!) that The Youth prefer social media and the internet to a book. Now unless I’ve missed the popularisation of truly sci-fi technology whereby images are beamed direct from the internet to a teenager’s brain via subcutaneous wi-fi nodes, surely they will be reading during (some of) this web-surfing. Does reading the latest unauthorised biography of a teen pop sensation in hardback require more thought and effort than reading daily update articles on the same topic? Don’t they read blogs (obviously not this one as it’s not cool enough… Having said that, I’m sure I have some followers who at least claim to be under 21), gig reviews, wikipedia?

Fourthly, has anyone looked at the benefits of reading per se? I’m in the middle of a MOOC on The Challenges of Global Poverty from the economics department at MIT and I’m rather keen on the idea of randomized control trials at the moment, but has anyone systematically looked at how all this book stuff helps? Does reading absolutely anything (fiction, magazines, recipes, blogs) exercise the mind in some fundamental way, or is there something specific to reading longer texts (a novel, a biography), and does listening to the audiobook have the same effect? Or is it all just correlation – households with lots of books tend to be populated with people who will (when they’re not reading) have a serious conversation with each other, provoking thought even in the member of the household who would honestly rather be playing World of Warcraft?

There was a fifthly, but I got distracted by OneMonkey and the prospect of a cup of tea so (as you all sigh with relief) I’ll raise that cup of tea to the memory of Tony Benn, and shut up.

World Book Day. Kind of.

It’s World Book Day, apparently. But only in the UK. And though various book-related twitter accounts are asking everyone what they’re reading (In Pale Battalions by Robert Goddard, since you ask), the event itself seems to be aimed at children and to be run through schools. Though most of the parents I’ve spoken to today (not that many, admittedly) have children who weren’t taking part.

Nonetheless, any encouragement to read, particularly for children who are bombarded by the competing distractions of the modern world (cue the headshake and ‘it weren’t like that in my day’) has to be a good thing. Niche as it seems to be, there is no reason not to take World Book Day at something more like face value and use it as an excuse to read a book from a different country. It could be in translation (or, if you’re multilingual, in a foreign language) or you could dive into the world of English language books from other places like Canada, New Zealand, Ireland.

I have to admit, I don’t always know (or indeed care) where the author hails from, when I read a book. If it’s set in the south of England, like In Pale Battalions, I’ll probably assume the author’s English (having just looked it up, Goddard is indeed from the south of England), and maybe it’s the setting that’s the key, not the author’s nationality. You can go anywhere in the pages of a book, experience other cultures and viewpoints, other priorities and ways of whiling away the day. You could go around the world in 80 books. Maybe that could be an aim for the next World Book Day.

Mixed genre messages – a bad idea?

Let’s assume you’re thinking of buying a short story collection, then you notice it’s a mixture of SF (science fiction, fantasy and the like) and what you might call mainstream, general, non-genre fiction.

Why do I ask? you ask (pretend you asked).Two reasons, one to do with writing and the other to do with reading. To take the latter first, I’ve recently read a Brian Aldiss collection, The Moment of Eclipse, and though it’s labelled as science fiction and most of the stories in it do fall firmly in that category, I’d say at least one doesn’t and a couple of others are tenuous. If the author hadn’t been ‘a science fiction writer’ I doubt anyone would have thought to label them that way. I enjoyed them, but it reminded me of when I read Pattern Recognition by William Gibson (as discussed here), shelved as sci-fi despite being nothing of the sort, which brought disappointment to my reading corner.

Which brings me to my vague thoughts of compiling another short story collection. When I put The Little Book of Northern Women together there was a story I toyed with including, but since it was strictly revolving round a northern female android I left it out (it’s since been published in Kzine issue 6). Undoubtedly there will be a crossover audience for my SF and non-genre stories but I figured people are often in the mood for one but not the other, and besides it would have been an unbalanced mix. Now I’ve accumulated a mass of SF, plus non-genre stories that don’t have a strong theme running through them. Should I consider blending them in the same publication, or keep to the segregation?