Aagh, I’m being bombarded…

…with tempting promises.  Every time I turn on my computer I get offers.  All I have to do, each advert assures me, is click on some flickering link and I’ll have a gift card for some class-appeal store.

Tenniel's 'Alice'

Tenniel’s ‘Alice’

I’ve checked in the Oxford English Dictionary, and the definition of gift is something ‘given willingly to someone without payment’. So this would be a present, not cash-back, easily forgotten, spent on mundane, sensible items.  This is about self-indulgence.

It’s FREE money, isn’t it? That’s got to be better than working. Especially in this heat.

I know, us Brits are always wittering on about our weather.  Here we are after a few days of sun and half of us are wilting.  In Washington, a newly-returned friend tells me, most people just don’t go out in it. Although, eighty degrees, he says, is considered quite a moderate temperature for summer there, where air-conditioned cars transport people from air-conditioned homes to air-conditioned work.

I linger in the chilled aisles of the supermarket while my car turns into an oven.  Yes, I did forget to get it’s environmental control system re-gassed, and now it’s too hot to face making an extra journey to sit in the garage waiting while they top it up.

Besides, teaching is pretty much finished for the summer, I won’t need to travel much until it’s cooler.  Better to return home, open the windows and doors and hope for a passing breeze, as I refill my glass with ice and water.

DSCF5356Summer, I like to claim, is ‘me’ time.  All through the rest of the year, when I have to snatch writing-hours from between class preparation and delivery, I anticipate this writing space.

I visualize myself, under the dappled shade of our tree, working through the heap of notes I’ve brought out from my desk. I’m comfortably cool, wearing a floppy hat and sunglasses.  Effortless, about sums the picture up.  Unhindered by a realistic recognition of my commitments to family, friends, dog,house or garden, in this idyll I will create a perfect first draft.  Seems like I’ve neatly sidestepped the usual displacement activities, doesn’t it?

The danger of such fantasies though, is that I forget these are as much a fiction as the gifts that the double glazing, insurance and internet companies offer me. While I wait for the perfect conditions for writing, the long lazy weeks of summer dissolve and that heap of ideas remain on the side of my desk.

‘Holiday assignment: a questionaire for modest story-tellers.’

See how many points you can score in this self-measurement test…

Question 1.


Are you going to do anything with that story you’ve written?  You know, the one at the bottom of a box/drawer/file list, where you put it some days/weeks/months/years ago.  You edited it, and made it work, you might have shown it to a friend who said they liked it, maybe two or three friends.  Then you put it away.

Question 2.

Why?  Was it really enough to know that your friends think you should be published?

It’s all very well being modest in some circumstances, but not with fiction.  I’ve just put on my pink tweed skirt and the frilly shirt like my infant school teacher used to wear, and I’m about to use my Joyce Grenfell voice, so I know you’re going to take notice of what follows.  Besides, you can be sure we’ll go over this again sooner or later.

small_2711240606Are you sitting comfortably?  Then we’ll begin.

Question 3.

Today we’re going to take out that piece of writing, dust it off and read it again, as if you’ve no idea who the author is.

Done that?  Good, now answer the following, truthfully:  Did it grab your attention from the first line?  Did it keep you reading all the way through?  Would you like more stories from this author?

Or are there a few changes you need to make?

Not many, I’m sure, perhaps a clumsy metaphor to trim, a repetition that nags, or line that just isn’t really necessary.  You know, the kind of niggling details that require the view of a fresh honest eye.

Question 4.

Actually, on the whole, you’ve surprised yourself, haven’t you? Bin modesty for the moment, doesn’t that story work well?  I bet it says more than you realised at the time.

Question 5.

So, why is it in that drawer?small_6059284197

Look around you, people are getting published every day.  Some have agents and advances and contracts with the publishers; others self-publish and a lot of us send our work out to magazines and competitions – yes, it is a bit of a lottery, but have you never bought a ticket?  Not even a raffle ticket for a hamper?

Well this is a bit less of a gamble than any of those.  Why?  Because writing competitions and submissions are not about a machine flicking up a series of random numbers.  Unlike the lottery, in this game there are a few things you can do to improve your chances of getting on the long list, and the first is in attention to detail.

Question 6.

You didn’t really think that having a good story would out-weigh sloppy presentation, did you? I suspect most of us have at some point.  Sadly, that’s far from the truth.

The first thing you need to do when sending work out, is to make sure you fulfill the entry requirements for competitions or submissions. Read them through carefully, because there are often variations on particulars.  Those in the know say that there are always manuscripts that don’t get read because the author has laid their text out wrongly.  So nitpick your manuscript and you’ve already increased your odds of getting noticed.

Along the same lines, is the advice to print-out a pristine new copy for each submission, if it calls for hard-copy.  Find another way to pay your dues to recycling, if this offends your principles.  Tired pages, especially with dog-ears, do not inspire the reader with the same confidence a well-read book might.

Question 7.

Okay, so one set of judges or editors may not like your story.  Then again, how will you know if you don’t submit it?  The real trick here, is to spend some time on research.  It’s been said before, but I’m happy to repeat this.  Check out who the judges are, and what sort of stories won or were placed in previous years.  If there’s nothing on the internet, buy or borrow a copy of the winning stories or a previous publication and read it through.  Be honest, are these the sorts of writing that you feel at home with?  Then what have you got to lose?

Some entry money, maybe, although there are still a few free competitions about. Other than that there’s only printing and posting, and if we’re talking short stories here then neither is so very much.  Over a year it would probably add up to less than you would spend if you did play the lottery every week.

Question 8.

You’ll probably have some rejections.  Most of us do.  Is it worse to receive a polite rejection-letter or to reach the results date and find that you’ve not made it to the long-list?  Who can say?  One way to alleviate that pain is to submit multiple stories to sites, comps and calls from magazines – just note that I’ve said ‘multiple stories’ here, not the same story to a variety of outlets, unless the submission guidelines allow that!

For each submission, make a note of the long/short-list announcement date in your diary, then forget about it.  Go away and write another story to submit somewhere else.


Question 9.

On the other hand, you could just leave your story in that drawer, but if it is finished, I’ve a final question:  Why would you?

Photo credits:

typed page – http://www.flickr.com/photos/thomashawk/93821727/

Blackboard – photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/lapstrake/2711240606/”>Tom Gill.</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

Drawers photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/caliorg/6059284197/”>cali.org</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

Typist from: photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/spike55151/32374451/”>spike55151</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

The Hiatus

I don’t know if you’d noticed, but I’ve been away from the blog for the last two weeks.  All the wise women of my family are standing behind my right shoulder at this moment, murmering about pride, and falls.  I can’t duck it, the truth is, I boldly wittered on about managing deadlines on here, a month or so ago, and then succumbed to a rising workload.

The Wisdom of Fools, by Ann Gover.

The Wisdom of Fools,
by Ann Gover.

My instinct is to make excuses.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to.  Because actually, once I’d missed the first deadline, and that was hard, it felt good to let go of the second one too.  Sometimes, I admitted to myself, I do take too much on.

For the last few days though, as my time for blogging grew closer, and with that backlog of reading and research completed, I’ve been wondering how I could set these posts into gear again.  Perhaps, I thought, I’d just launch in on a new subject, ignoring the gap.  With no explanation, it might seem that the missing entries existed somewhere, but had been mislaid.  However, since the feasible solution to that scenario is that I would be more likely to have accidentally deleted them than the nice, competent people at WordPress had lost them, I rejected that.

So, perhaps I could create content and pre-date it, I thought.  Then it would appear that the posts had been there all the time.  Silly readers, did you really miss my words of wisdom for two weeks?  Well, not to worry, I’ll let you off this time.

Smoke and mirrors, I thought.  Just like the worst crime fiction.  The author includes an obscure poison delivered by a character we’ve never heard mention of until the moment when the solution to the crime is revealed.  Surely I’ve more respect for my readers than that.

Time passes in fiction.  Sometimes it moves minute by minute, sometimes there is a break in the action.  We don’t need to see every cup of tea consumed or slice of toast buttered.  The action is implied in the writing at the ending of one paragraph and/or the beginning of the next.  Things that have no relevence to the dramatic arc might also happen.  The story steps round them and carries on.

So, ‘two weeks later, she returned to her routine, refreshed, after her short break.  She took out a new sheet of paper and began to make another list.  Perhaps this time, she might find time to spring-clean the office.’

Some thoughts on using Time Frames

I woke up at seven this morning, or was it eight?  Decades ago someone decided that daylight needed to be taken control of.  A committee agreed, no doubt, and lo, here we are with BST and GMT.

I cannot be the only person who finds the first 24 hours a little unsettling, haunted as I am by the idea that I’ve forgotten to re-adjust some timepiece that will prove crucial tomorrow, or the next day.  Although I suppose with our increasing technological efficiency, we will soon be able to rely on an automated system.

Is it a little bit of a leap to move on to talking about time in fiction?  Probably, but what the heck, it’s on my mind at the moment.

I’ve just finished a book that used a framing device to deliver an imaginary memoir.  I suppose the author may have read Penelope Lively’s novel, Moon Tiger.  Both have characters who are old and dying in hospital, both frame each chosen episode from the past with something that happens in the present.

It’s a useful technique, but needs a great deal of skill and care to pull off.  How often have you been so immersed in a story, either on the page or the screen, that the sudden return to the frame at the end of the narrative has shocked you?

The usual solution for this is to have the story jump back and forth between past and present, regularly.  The problem comes when the return to frame is done purely for the sake of reminding us that there are two time strands in play. If one of the stories is weak I’m left with the feeling that the frame was added as an attempt to hide holes in the plot, or the characterisation.  Frames can be more than that.

In Wuthering Heights and The Great Gatsby, for instance, the narrators provide a contrast to the protagonists of the stories.  Lockwood and Nick remind me that the story is being told and set up questions both during my reading and after.  Do I believe these narrators?  What do they want me to see?  What haven’t they understood?  Are there events they have missed out? Why?

The frame is integral to both these novels.  What kind of story would either be without one?  Clearly there are a lot of reasons for creating a frame narrative.

But the other thing that frames can do, is accidentally confuse.

Controlling time in fiction is notoriously tricky.  It is necessary to ensure that time passes equally for all characters, and that the reader understands how much time has elapsed between events.

Anomalies, unless deliberate, and justified in some way, tend to make readers lose respect and interest in a story. So each change of frame has to contain enough detail to re-orientate the reader as well as move the story forward.  Otherwise, like me, they spend the first few paragraphs of the new time frame stumbling around, checking the clocks to see what time it really is.