Sunday, 25 January 2015

Judging Writing Competitions

Helen M Hunt interviewed me recently about the process of judging short story competitions. 

Tell us about the short story competition you are judging at the moment. How many entries have you had to read, and how did you find the process?

I am currently judging the 2014 Bedford Short Story competition. There were several hundred submissions, but I am not reading them all. A panel of readers chose a short list of ten entries from which I will select a winner. This is not the first short story competition I have been invited to judge. The process is always interesting, because I get to read some brilliant stories! 

For the CWA Debut Dagger Competition, I sit on a panel of judges. We read a shortlist of around a dozen entries chosen from hundreds of submissions by a large panel of readers. Last year's judges were two senior editors from major publishing houses, a leading literary agent, an independent publisher, along with myself as a bestselling author. We compared our opinions over lunch and reached a consensus. The discussion was fascinating, as we approached the reading from different viewpoints.

What appeals to you about the stories you think are worthy of winning, or being short listed? What sort of things are you looking for?
First of all, the writing has to communicate clearly, and have an impact right from the start. That is a prerequisite for consideration. After that, there has to be a hook. This could be an intriguing plot premise, an engaging character, or the lucidity of the prose. Any of these could draw me in and make me want to read on.

Is there anything that really turns you off a story? What should people avoid doing?
As with any reading experience, if the writing is confused, repetitive or poorly expressed, that would put me off. If you want to be taken seriously as a writer, you have to communicate well and engage your readers. Avoid cliches in your style, and stereotypes in characters. Plots should not stretch the reader's credulity too far, but nor should they be too predictable. It is a fine balance, and not easy to achieve.

Do you feel you can tell in the first few paragraphs whether a story will be any good?

What would your main advice be to people entering writing competitions, either for short stories, or any other sort of writing?
Enjoy the writing process for its own sake. If you don't love it, find something else to do. It's great to win a competition, better to be published, and even better to earn a comfortable living from writing fiction, but best of all is the experience of writing itself. 

Have you ever entered any writing competitions yourself, or would you want to?
I have not entered any writing competitions, although my publisher did ask me to write a short story for him to submit to a competition. We are waiting to hear how my story did. Since I am used to writing novels, I found the short story a challenge!

Thursday, 8 January 2015

On being a Late Bloomer

I've never discussed bloomers online before, but I suppose there's a first time for everything. An article in praise of 'late bloomers' set me thinking, being a 'late bloomer' myself. Here's the link
Our age is obsessed with the concept of age. Just about everyone in the public eye seems determined to resist or conceal the ageing process. Why? What are a few wrinkles weighed against life experience, maturity and the understanding that hopefully accompanies 'old age'. 
Shakespeare wrote of 'that which should accompany old age' which he described as 'honour, love, obedience, troops of friends'. Instead, our society regards the elderly with disgust and derision. Our young people show an unprecedented lack of deference or respect to their elders, and we are all expected to emulate youth. It is part of a wider issue. We no longer want to use obsolete technology. Youngsters insist on having the latest model of everything. Kids using last year's phone are ridiculed. Who ever tries to get a broken toaster fixed any more? Chuck it out and replace it. As Neil LaBute wrote, 'We live in a disposable society. It's easier to throw things out than to fix them. We even give it a name - we call it recycling.' And of course he goes on to say that we apply the same principle to our relationships. As soon as they stop 'working' for us, we quit. Separation, estrangement, divorce... what has happened to loyalty and commitment, seeing things through 'for better or worse'?
Because there always will be 'worse', along with the 'better'. Yes, it's better to be young and fit and healthy than old and physically weak. It's better for us as individuals, but why do we judge others for ageing? Because we do. Why does it matter? Why do we all have to meet some image of youthful perfection? Our teeth must be perfectly straight. Our hair can't go grey. We must strive to be popular and rich. What's wrong with crooked teeth? What's wrong with being shy? Why is it despicable to be ugly? Who makes up these rules and decides whose face is ugly anyway? 
I couldn't have written my books when I was younger. I hadn't lived enough or read enough. We all come to writing at different times in our lives. It doesn't matter. Unlike almost everything else in life, creative endeavour in any artistic field is a great leveller. When we read a book, we often don't know anything about the writer. We might gain an impression from the prose, but we could be wrong. It doesn't matter. When we write a book for others to read, or read a book someone else has written, we are human beings engaged in significant communication. That is all. And that is everything. 
I would have been proud to be a 'wunderkind', publishing great books before the age of 25, but I'm equally proud to be a 'late bloomer.' Age is immaterial. How we live, and what we do with our time is what counts.