Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Winning and Losing by Helen Chambers


“You keep on winning,” said one friend. “You’re on a roll,” said another. True, I’ve had a run of good luck with my writing. Since 1st January 2018, I’ve won the Fish Short Story Prize, a free place on a ‘Fantastic Flashing’ course with Retreat West and had a flash story up online with Who Writes Short Shorts? and a couple of longlists and one shortlist.

But. But…

I’ve just counted my rejections. A rejection is where you get a polite email if you’re lucky (many thanks Spelk, who’ve politely let me know three times now), and if you’re unlucky, you just notice the absence of your story title from the published longlist (no names – but I’m talking about a prestigious flash competition!). It can be demoralising when you’re sure your piece really isn’t bad.

I’m hit and miss with sending things in. I have long periods when I submit nothing, then in a flurry I may have a week where I submit four or five pieces. I’ve been writing a lot of flash fiction recently, where it’s short, giving me a higher output than say, short stories. I’m also (obviously) trying to write new things too and can’t always spare the time, or money, involved to submit.

Looking at things from the academic year, as a good teacher should, I’ve had 34 rejections since September 2017. At least I tried! I read an article by Kim Liao on LitHub that you should be aiming for 100 rejections per year, because that way, at least you’re writing new things and sending stuff out… On that basis, I’ve got a lot of catching up to do on my rejections!

Friday, 27 July 2018

Fishy business

Photograph by Ben Russell  

So it’s 10pm when Marcus and I go into Ma Murphy’s Bar and Grocery Store in Bantry, as invited. Our eyes ache from tiredness (we got up at 4am this morning) and it’s noisy with Sunday-night locals, so we know it’s got the craic, despite its Facebook credentials. We congregate in the less-remarkable back room and shout, strain to hear each other, strain to remember whether we’ve read that person’s piece: ‘Oh, you’re THE Helen,’ and we reverentially pass round a single copy of the Fish Anthology 2018, surreptitiously checking for our own names. After half an hour I admit defeat and we slope away, only to find later that we weren’t the only ones to leave early.

On Monday at 6pm, cheered by a day spent exploring gorgeous Bantry Bay and the faded gentility of Bantry House, we congregate in The Windward Room of the hotel and receive copies of the Anthology. It is beautiful, and I flick back and forth through mine, reading the bios. What follows is excellent. All the attending writers in the Anthology – poetry, flash fiction, memoir and short fiction - are to read one page, and one page only of their piece. As winner, I go last. Some pieces are familiar – I remember them from when I read the proofs. They are varied and superb, and, ninety minutes later when it’s finally my turn, I have become very nervous. Everyone is so talented. My writing is no better than theirs. I was lucky the judge plumped for mine. They’ve largely funded their own trips, and mine is largely paid for (well, it will be, if and when I get my cheque!).

Some authors have just launched straight into their writing; some have explained and justified it; more frequently they have handed out bountiful thanks. They’re getting fidgety and they want to get to the bar by the time it’s my turn. I walk to the front aware I am shaking, and that my voice will wobble. I need to control myself. I pull an ex-teacher joke out of my foggy brain: ‘As a retired teacher, I can’t tell you how excited I am to be reading to a room of grown-ups who aren’t going to need the loo in the middle,’ and it gets a laugh and some friendly heckles. I laugh too. It’ll be OK. Now I can relax – I think this is the precise moment when the photo is taken, and I am smiling, thank goodness – and I read my page from Clippings, from the start, no explanations, no thanks (I did that when I found out I won), just straight into it. The applause at the end is far warmer.

After, that we mill around for a group photo and chat, and this time, I can match faces to stories. We chat longer in the bar. They are a fantastic group. I meet the radio-play writer who was shortlisted for flash fiction, the short-story writer who came second in the memoir, the guy who’d never written before, the accomplished writer who had two pieces in the top ten (and has been previously published by Fish). Some comment intelligently about my piece; some vow to go off and read it. This is a prize for ‘emerging writers’ but we’re none of us spring chickens! We connect on social media, such is the way of the world.

The next day, Marcus and I head North up the Wild Atlantic Way to the beautiful Dingle peninsula – County Kerry proper, and holiday proper – before two nights in fascinating Cork city. I read the Anthology at every opportunity and now it means so much more. I exchange messages with other writers and receive and send unsolicited messages of praise. I have had a fantastic time, and truly have had the luck of the Irish. Thank you, Tilly Emmerson and Fish Publishing!

Copies of the Fish Anthology 2018 will soon be available at the Wivenhoe Bookshop, and direct from fishpublishing.com.  The anthology is the 'culmination of a year's work, trawling through thousands of submissions to the Fish Short Story, Short Memoir, Flash Fiction and Poetry Prizes. The judges were Billy O'Callaghan, Marti Leimback, Sherrie Flick and Ellen Bass respectively.'

Friday, 6 July 2018

My Story - Memoir and writing from life

My Story 

A 6 week course with www.wordafterword.org.uk

Taking Word After Word’s course, ‘My Story – Memoir and writing from life’ has been my first sortie into this genre, apart from a little travel writing, and it has been both interesting and revealing. I realised early on that I hadn’t read many memoirs or biographies and therefore had a lot to learn. I signed up to the course with the idea of getting started on a new project I was planning, to write about the life of my maternal grandmother Lucy (1898-1982). Fiona, our tutor, had other ideas and I soon found I was writing about myself.
     Initially it felt self-indulgent to repeatedly use the words ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘my’ but it became easier with practice. It was liberating to be encouraged to do personal, free-writing exercises, where the words just flowed on to a page. Here we were encouraged not to edit or re-read, but to allow the stream of thoughts and memories, arising from suitable prompts, to develop without interruption. These could be private words, not necessarily to be shared, though with an option to do so if we wished. As the small group of students got to know each other we felt braver and more able to share our personal stories and it became therapeutic, even cathartic, to read out our stories in this safe environment. It could almost have been a counselling session (life-writing often being used in the counselling process) and as we wrote about our lives, our insightful tutor supported us with skilful professionalism.

         So what did I learn from the course? What did I gain?

 Th      The course was an opportunity to stay connected with people and the wider world, and I realise that is one of the reasons I write. Although the process of writing can be isolating, writers can through their work connect with others, in writing groups and communities (alongside the many online forums that also exist).
    I learned to value the concept of bearing witness, when writers ask readers to support or endorse an experience, so both writer and reader might reach a new level of understanding.

     I learned that truth can have many aspects; the truth (for sure), the truth as we see it (feasible), and the truth we tell others (fiction).
    I acknowledged the benefit of using all the senses; to try to ‘show and not tell’; to be true to myself and find my voice; and (as always) to be careful with point of view.

     I hope I will keep by me the list of opening ingredients for a story, be it fiction or memoir:
-a character
-a question
-a clear voice
-a vivid setting
-and an action.

     I will hang on to the good advice Fiona gave us at the end of ‘My Story’ about editing – to get the words down, then rest, leave them and come back refreshed, with some distance and new objectivity.

     I was reminded to try to write something every day if possible and to regularly exercise my writing muscles.

          I feel better prepared to get on with writing about my grandmother’s life, but might approach it slightly differently now. I hope I will be more respectful of whose story I am telling and considerate about how I might mix fact and fiction. It could be an interesting piece of social history, but I will write it primarily for my family to appreciate. They will be my audience and the first to bear witness but who knows where it might go from there.

Philippa Hawley

Friday, 22 June 2018

Running a poetry workshop about the Menopause

My poem 'The Change' appeared on a postcard for the Off the Rails project and was spotted by a writing friend who was involved in running a series of lectures about the Menopause at the University of Essex.  It was a pilot event to enable discussion about a difficult subject. I was asked to lead a creative workshop.
My original poem was in response to a portrait by Robert Wiseman and a theme of 'Change.'.
It's difficult to create a workshop when you have no idea of numbers or whether your audience has any experience of creative writing or in fact, the confidence to take part.  I decided to keep it simple and to base it on the 'symptoms' of menopause.
I also decided to use Acrostic poetry as a way to help people to express the feelings associated with the Menopause but also not to have to worry about rhythm and style (impossible in half an hour!).

I then wrote my own example, keeping in mind that anything too laboured over, tends to put novices off.   I wanted the workshop to create discussion without any awkwardness.
There were some great poems created during the session.  Some of the writers used their own words like 'Power', and others used a symptom and twisted it on its head. The one conclusion from the day was that we don't talk enough about the Menopause, despite the fact that more than half of the population have to deal with it, especially in the workplace where symptoms can be debilitating.  
Menopause is change and it can be a change for the better.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Reading Refresher - FutureLearn

When it comes to reading I am rather slow, both mechanically and intellectually. I am often conscious of reading in a superficial and non-analytical way, although clearly there is a difference between reading for pleasure, entertainment and relaxation and reading as an active process of discovery, enlightenment and challenge. Writers need to be readers and I recently felt in need of some kind of ‘refresher’. So I followed one of the free courses offered by FutureLearn, called How to Read a Novel, https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/how-to-read-a-novel#section-overview
at which a few of my friends laughed and commented. ‘Don’t you know how to do that already!’

What attracted me to the course was the fact that it involved no cost, was online and allowed participants to do as much or as little as they pleased. Also, and more importantly it featured four novels and two writers I had never heard of, but which were shortlisted for the James Tait Black fiction prize 2017: C. E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings, Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You, Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians, and Jo Baker’s A Country Road, A Tree. These were books I would never have chosen to read, (ranging as they did from a large American ‘saga’ type novel, to an erotic gay work) but guided by the excellent presentations by the course leader (Dr Alex Lawrie, University of Edinburgh), short articles and interviews with the writers, I was able to appreciate, if not to like, the particular qualities of each book.

The course took a fairly standard approach to the study of fiction, by considering the elements of plot, characterisation, dialogue and setting, but I liked being reminded of these basic ingredients and found the extracts used to elucidate them revealing. Whatever else the books did for other readers, for me they provoked a response and triggered some important questioning around the use of the certain techniques in fictional writing. Participants (from anywhere in the world) were invited to comment and answer questions at certain points in the course. Some of these offered very useful insights too. Overall, I found this course a refreshing and stimulating experience and I was also motivated to experiment with different techniques in my own writing.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Fish short-story prize-winner- Helen Chambers of Wivenhoe Writers!

I want to scream this from the rooftops: I’ve won the FishShort Story Prize for 2017/18 and this exciting, overwhelming, wonderful news has had to remain below the radar for nearly three weeks. I’m just about bursting!

The email, when it arrived (I’d submitted the previous November and, as advised, forgotten about it), was so unexpected and such a surprise, that I asked Marcus, my long-suffering husband, to check I’d understood it correctly. He agreed with me – I’d won! This means that it’ll be published in their 2018 anthology, that I’ll hopefully get to visit the West Cork Literary Festival in July and meet some of the other shortlisted writers and hear their work, but also so much more than that. I’m aware that it’s a prestigious competition and it’s going to make my writing CV look so much more impressive!

I’ve been walking around in a daze since then. I’m truly delighted. It’s a huge boost to my confidence, which, as a writer (I can definitely say I am a writer now!) tends to fluctuate wildly. Writing can be a lonely activity, so feedback – from friends, other writers and especially competition judges, is always welcome and helpful. I’m glad that judge Billy O’Callaghan liked my story ‘Clippings’ as I’m aware that a preference for one shortlisted story over another can be rather subjective. I’m especially fond of my protagonist, Tilly, as I’ve spent so much time with her, and I’m sure she’d be pleased for me.

The judge said:
'Clippings – Just exceptional. I was a bit sceptical at first of the structure, but the story unfurls wonderfully. Incredibly emotional, truthful and heartfelt. Beautifully drawn characters. I read this several times over the past two weeks and as I sit here now, I want to read it again. It’s a story that has left a deep impression on me.'

It’s boosted my enthusiasm too – to revisit a novel I’d put on hold, to carve out proper writing time for myself instead of letting it drop down the priority list, and most importantly, to keep writing. Don’t any of you ever give up – you never know what’s round the corner! Many thanks to friends, family and writing friends for their support and encouragement, and most especially to The Wivenhoe Writers, who all know Tilly too.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Talking about Style by Pauline Rendall

New writers are often told that they must try and find their own voice. Whilst clearly true, it’s not always easy to establish this, at least to begin with. It’s also true to say that, the more one writes, the more likely it is to find one’s own voice.
            One way of getting a grip on this is through style. It doesn’t have to be unique to you, but it does need to convey, not just what you want to say, but the spirit of it too. It’s about developing your natural tendencies and polishing them to be the best they can be.
Unfortunately there are a few errors that can get in the way of good style. One example is in the use of clichés, which have a tendency to deaden style.
Some examples might be:
Leave no stone unturned
The luck of the devil (or the Irish)
What’s done is done
No good crying over spilt milk
Pangs of remorse.
Heartstrings tugged
The silvery light of the moon
He stood stock still
Tears stung her eyes
Her heart pounded
Petite and vivacious
White as snow
Black as coal
Soft as silk (or swansdown)
I’m sure you can think of loads more for yourself. And this doesn’t mean you can never use them, but if you do, you need to be sure exactly why you are using them. For instance, perhaps you might use them in dialogue, maybe to show that a character doesn’t have much education, or is an incurable romantic (there you are, there’s another one!). This is where the clichés belong to the character and not the writer.
There are also cliché situations, for instance:
Beginning an novel or short story with someone looking in a mirror
A suicide note on the mantelpiece
Someone dropping a glass (or anything) when they hear bad news.
The story that ends ‘it was all a dream’
And don’t forget cliché characters. These and the cliché situation are often referred to as ‘tropes’. The usual meaning for trope is an overdone literary device. Think back to Hollywood movies in the forties. How many Westerns have a dark-haired, often Hispanic, saloon girl. She’s kind and well-meaning (the’ tart with the heart of gold’ trope), but usually gets shot protecting either the hero or the golden-haired heroine. Or the gangster/bandit/highwayman/contract killer who has a change of heart, but who has to die by the end because we’ve come to like him and we don’t like to think of him languishing in jail. Up to a point, these tropes help us identify with the film or book. We’re comfortable, we know that right will prevail in the end. But haven’t they been done to death? Don’t we groan when we see it happening all over again?
            Here are some more:
            The handsome prince
The body in the wardrobe/deep freeze. (anybody remember Francis Durbridge?)
Twins brought up apart
The butler did it
Finding a long lost letter
The unloved fat boy
The solitary geek
The femme fatale
The picture/ornament under the sink that turns out to be worth a fortune
The broken down horse rescued from slaughter that turns out to be a famous show-jumper (I did that one!).
The country house murder with the final dénouement in the drawing room (only Agatha Christie can get away with this because she was among the first to do it).
Crime novels abound with them, as I know to my cost. How often is the body found by a dog-walker? The trouble is, that’s very often how it happens in real life. So do it once if you must, but no more than that.
Fantasy and horror stories also abound with them: the room suddenly going cold, the dog growling into the corner, the window bursting open,  the lights suddenly going out… there are people who do this brilliantly, but today it’s all a bit old hat.
One simple adjective to describe all of the above is ‘corny’. Try not to fall into the trap. This isn’t to say you can’t use clichés or tropes, but if you do, you need to find some way of making them fresh. Maybe you can use them but subvert them in some way. Maybe Puss-in-Boots’ feet are being rubbed raw by the boots and he refuses to walk any further, maybe Sleeping Beauty is male and is rescued by the princess. Existing examples might be many of the female characters in George R.R. Martins’ A Song of Ice and Fire’, where, for instance the little girl Arya Stark, orphaned and abandoned becomes, first of all, an adept swordswoman and then a trained assassin, while Brienne of Tarth is a typical ‘knight in shining armour’, displaying all the knightly values of honour and chivalry, yet is a woman, and mocked for her knightly attributes by the men around her.
But whatever voice or style you settle on, be sure to make it so fresh that your reader wants to turn every page. After all, that’s why we do it.