WRITE FROM YOUR HEART!

Wow! I felt like a movie star as I left the school, a large bouquet of flowers nestled in the crook of my arm. My mind was spinning, my heart was light with joy. I’d just had a most wonderful afternoon with a group of creative writers at a local school. Aged from eleven to fifteen, the eighteen students were brimming with questions, ideas and originality. Their enthusiasm knows no bounds (a soaring and liberating sensation).  From my talk below the top tip that remained with the students afterwards was to ‘Write from your Heart’ – one couldn’t ask or hope for more.

Here is my talk to them in full for your perusal and if new (or not so new)  to writing I hope it can inspire you and your work.

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A heartfelt thank you for the invitation to meet you all today. I’m thrilled to be here and can’t wait to learn more about all of you and listen to some of your work.

First of all, how did I become an author?

Writing has been my lifelong passion. Just as I cannot imagine a life without books, nor can I imagine a day without writing. An inspirational teacher at primary school instilled in me the joy of creative writing and I haven’t stopped since. Writing became a way for me to paint with words, layering them for texture, using bold dramatic language on occasions, other times capturing the gentle nuances of a moment with subtle word play. It is an art form, that can be crafted, shaped, moulded to an endless variety of formats.

Three years ago I had the opportunity to start writing seriously and a well-established writing course gave me guidance on developing my writing as well as advising me on how to become published.

There are countless short story competitions available and entering some of these was my first port of call. I bought the magazines, studied their stories, and also, this is critical, read the rules to competitions. It baffles me how many fail to do this!

Very soon I won first prize in a Writing Magazine short story competition and the success of ‘Biding Her Time’ proved to be the confidence booster I needed.

I quickly developed a love for short stories and I delight in crafting them. They require clarity, conciseness whilst not being abrupt or missing out on the artistry of language and they can often be a form of character study. Every word has to count!

I draw inspiration from all around me — conversations, everyday experiences, and even news items. If an idea strikes me I make a note of it as soon as possible; after all it’s proven that ideas can float in and out of our consciousness within three seconds. If a notebook is to hand, I’ll scribble in that, otherwise I’ll tap away on the ‘note’ app on my mobile.

I’ve kept journals since young and they are a quiet meeting place for me to jot down my thoughts, ideas, concerns and story possibilities in private; never to be shared or scrutinised. I return to some of these at a later date and sometimes find a gem of an idea for a story, poem or even article.

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A small memento of my visit for the students. May many new stories be written with these.

The first line of a story is critical to me. Once that is in place the rest of the writing flows. It is as if someone is ‘dictating’ the story, it becomes organic and takes on a life form of its own. Subconsciously I will be writing away, the first draft always on paper, and many times I will be wonderfully surprised by a twist in a story or the strength of a minor character forcing their way to centre stage. It is a magical surreal experience and one that can last for hours.

The voice of the piece is a major factor in writing. I feel there are always two voices.

Your voice as the writer must be just that — YOURS. Be true to yourself when you write; this is what makes your writing original and enables it to shine out.

The voice or point of view of a story can vary. Will the point of view be first person, which is often more immediate and direct? Or will it be in the third person, which allows you more scope to examine events beyond just one person? There is also the option of the second person – you – format which I experimented with in one of my short stories. Of course, many books feature multiple points of views and it is important to make each distinct and at all times clear whose head you’re in!

Although I have printed a one-off edition of my earlier childhood work and also been featured as part of my writing group’s anthology, ‘The Storyteller Speaks’, is my first published book. I was encouraged to publish some of my short stories in a book by the readers of my blog.

My blog was set up following the recommendation by my tutor for the need of an online presence! As a result, I have made wonderful friends across the globe and also connected with people within all aspects of the publishing industry. Through this networking, I ‘met’ the cover artist for my book who lives in Australia and a company in Ireland provided extensive formatting support. 

Furthermore, I increasingly use Twitter to interact with readers, writers and publishers.

Planning a novel is not something I’d considered before I started writing mine a couple of years ago. ‘Island Girl’ is now in its final editing stages and I recollect its early days with fondness. Then, as with much of my writing, I set out to write it with just the backbones of a few ideas, themes and setting.

However, my time-line was slightly array, details of my characters and places were forgotten from one chapter to the next. It was a lot tougher keeping control of all the elements of a full-length novel. Quickly I developed various techniques to avoid future faults.

One way to spot both grammatical errors and glaring mistakes is always to read your work aloud! Since it is a lot to expect to read a whole novel aloud I started using ‘Natural Reader’ app.

Various writing programs are a huge benefit.The free online thesaurus is always open on my tab as I’m working. Similarly, a grammar program such as ‘Grammarly’ helps me to fine tune work, but I never automatically adopt its suggestions. I write on a software program called ‘Scrivener’. This acts as a virtual binder and allows me to plan chapters, look at my ideas on a virtual corkboard, include research documents, as well as writing the novel chapter by chapter.

Not content with writing short stories and a novel, I have also completed two children’s books.

What other advice can I give?

Throw yourself into writing and relish the experience! Find the magic within you and share it! Write from your heart! This may be easier said than done, if like me, your head tends to rule. Don’t disregard your mind but just don’t overthink.

Once you’ve finished a piece, and this can be tough, put it aside for a while. Returning to it with fresh eyes will be key to the next stage; editing. Here engage that brain, tap into your creativity, look out for ways to improve your writing. Perhaps you’re ‘telling’ too much instead of ‘showing’? Not only is it more enjoyable for the writer to show through their writing, it will lift your story.

Never underestimate the effectiveness of dialogue to carry a story forward, to show emotions, even description. It’s striking when you can have a sequence of speech without the ‘he said’/‘she said’. Try to avoid always using adverbs with these; the anger etc should come out in the language where possible.

Never be afraid of feedback of your work; after all we learn through constructive criticism. Also start to read your own written work with a critical eye when necessary.

Play around with your writing. Writing outside one’s comfort zone is a great way to bring new life into your work. Try another unusual genre. Shift your work around — explore new vocabulary and if writing fantasy, maybe even make up a few new words of your own! Use different tenses, viewpoints. I felt a sense of liberation writing from a male viewpoint in some of my stories and using the present tense brought a welcome sense of rush and urgency to them.

When not writing, read lots! Not just in one genre but across the board. It’s a wonderful way to learn. See what works well, and also look out for writing that falters, flatlines … learn from other’s mistakes.

When you start a new piece of writing, remember that this is your first and rough draft. If you wait to write down the most I and absolute best version of your work you may never start at all as you will feel inhibited before even writing a word.

Write with your Ideal Reader in mind — recall your own emotions and feelings when you are swept away by a story. There is nothing quite like escaping into another world; when the present real-world fades to that of the fiction. My dream has been to recreate that experience for all my readers — and hopefully I have. Make your characters three-dimensional, so real that neither you nor the reader wants to leave them!

Through the nitty-gritty of writing, the joy and power of creating worlds, characters, stories should never be underestimated.

As one famous writer said of short stories: ‘(they) are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.’

©Annika Perry, March 2018

The Cost of Competitions

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To pay or not to pay?

Have you ever paid to enter writing competitions; either for short stories, poetry or even submitting a novel? Or perhaps you’d never contemplate having to pay for competitions? 

The topic of writing competitions came up at our last meeting of the local writing group and I was surprised at the varying opinions.

A couple of people seemed genuinely surprised that most competitions charged and that these were successful – I then had to admit to entering some myself with one win, a shortlist and a couple of long-list to my name. 

oldieimageAt first I was overjoyed to have my work professionally validated and deemed worthy to be read in print and it was the confident booster I so desperately needed. The deadlines, themes etc was a great incentive to sit down and write, producing a story in a day or two – then a few more days to re-write and edit. However, as I entered more and more competitions I quickly became disillusioned. Not only was it expensive but entering the competitions was eating into my novel time. Instead I took a break from them and concentrated on writing the first draft of my book; the thought of competitions filed away in the depths of my brain. Until the discussion. Until the latest issue of Writing Magazine (a top-selling magazine in UK aimed for all level of writers in all genres). Once again many competitions tempted me, my creative desire to write short stories rejuvenated. 

However, are paid writing competitions a scam as sometimes is implied? 

Starting out, my initial reaction was the same as some of my writing group members who were shocked you had to pay for them. However, at the same time I appreciate there is a cost to running them, the administration alone for example. Also the judges take considerable time and work to read through the entries. In the process though some competitions have become prohibitively expensive as they fight for prestigious writers to join their panels.  Free competitions can be great, particularly if you have researched them well although I think paid ones are here to stay.

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If you are interested in entering competitions, whether free or fee-paying, I quickly learnt there are several important issues to consider.

  • First of all, check out who runs the competition? Is it reputable? Will your work be published in print / online?
  • What is the prize? Sometimes just recognition and being in print is enough, just be aware of this in the first instant. Another point to consider is that if it is a famous prestigious competition, such as the  internationally famous Rubery Book Award or the BBC Short Story Award, it will attract thousands of entries from across the globe and your work will have less chance to make an impact. 
  • Is there a particular topic/theme to the competition? It is important to submit work targeted to the particular competition and not be tempted to recycle old entries that nearly but don’t quite match the prerequisites.
  • There are some excellent free competitions, the Writers & Artists Yearbook Short Story Competition is one example and well worth entering and this year for the first time there is no specific theme. However other free competitions seem more set on getting your personal details for promotion. Just be aware.
  • Take the time to look up the judges. This can be more helpful than initially imagined. What type of books / poetry / stories have they written or promoted? What can you learn about them from their social media exposure? Perhaps your style and content is not something that would interest them and your entry would be better placed elsewhere. 
  • Do check out the previous winners. This piece of research can pay dividends in the long run and its importance cannot be emphasised enough. Early on I made this mistake and only too late, after submission, read some previous winners and realised that my story had no chance of winning. Very frustrating and I chastised myself for this lapse. Also if hoping to win a magazine competition read not only the previous month’s winner but also a few back issues to help establish a feel of the target audience.  
  • Reading the T & Cs (many times and preferably underlining!) is vital.  Always make sure to follow the rules of the competition – this is not a moment to rush ahead without reading the small detail. How should the submission be made? Post? Electronically? If the latter, in what format? In an attachment or part of an email? What are the font / spacing etc rules. What is the word count – and stick to it! The number of words, means just that! Unfortunately an entry can lose out for this reason alone and I know of one such case. Also send the correct money, in time! Also make sure you take note of any restrictions – for example there may be an age band or locality to consider. Finally be aware of the deadline. This is in itself an excellent incentive to complete your work for but do make sure the submission is in at least a few days ahead. Posting on the deadline date is not accepted by most competition rules. 
  • It is a good idea to consider how relevant is the prize for you? Financial reward is always welcome no doubt! Specific prizes such as a free book cover design will only be attractive to those with a book ready. Writing course prizes, such as a week on the prestigious Avron Writing course offered by the Bridport Prize, are also popular but again not ideal for everyone.

Hopefully by following these points you can save both money and time by ensuring your entry will be considered by the judges. 

oxoLately, some competitions have expanded their remit from pure competitions to helping others, whether locally or abroad. For example the Magic Oxygen Literary Prize  promises to plant a tree for every entry. The trees are planted in Bore, Kenya. Furthermore the competition money will help fund an extra classroom at a school nearby. Personally I cannot help be moved by their efforts but at the same time wonder if it is a bit of a gimmick, a con? 

Novel writing competitions are some of the most expensive ones on the market, often starting at £20. The Rubery Book Award costs £36 to enter with a prize of £1,500. Is this too much or is the possibility of a break into the publishing world worth the cost? Some offer feedback for an extra outlay. Is this worth it?  

Recently I have noticed an increase of competitions on blog sites and whilst initially sceptical I have followed some and seen their success. The writing is of a superb quality, the winners receive public recognition as they are published on the blog and shared further and the entry fees are far lower than anywhere else but still retain the incentive of a cash reward. As the number of entries are considerably lower than national competitions ones the chance of a win is exponentially improved. 

puppetWhat are your experiences with writing competitions? Have you entered any? Many? Paid ones or only those for free? Are you perhaps running a competition on your blog? Could you share your experiences? Have you ever been asked to be a judge for writing experiences? What was this like? 

I would love to hear from you and hope a lively discussion will ensue.

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Finally, in addition to the competitions already mentioned the following are just some of the many which have caught my eye and these should give you a feel of the range, expense and prizes out there.

  • Cinnamon Press runs competitions for Poetry & Short Stories.
  • The Telegraph newspaper runs a monthly ‘Just Back’ Travel writing Competition.
  • An audio transmission of the winning story is promised in this free and unusual competition run by soundwork
  • The Rialto is running a pamphlet competition. 
  • The London Magazine offers a prize  consisting of a number of pounds sterling equal to the current year (£2016 for year 2016)for the best Short Story submission. 
  • mslexia magazine, one of my favourite writing magazines, runs four competitions, open to women writers of all levels of experience from prose, Short Story, Novel and Poetry. Winners have gone on to secure publishing deals and literary agents.
  • Inktears Short Story / Flash Fiction competition.

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