New Ideas and New Writers

Advertisements

Annalisa Crawford on Reasons to Enter Writing Competitions

Hi everyone! Today, I’m welcoming Annalisa Crawford to my blog to tell us a bit more about entering writing competitions. Also, I want to congratulate her again for placing third in the Costa Awards. I’m so proud of you!

Reasons to Enter Writing Competitions 

by Annalisa Crawford

I love entering competitions – I like the idea of having my stories out in the world without having to do very much market research, and I like the anticipation when the long- or short-lists are released, followed closely by the winners. And, occasionally, I win… which I also like. Okay, I lose, as well; it’s a bit of a lottery. But that’s not a reason not to enter.
There are several regular comments people repeat when I talk to them about competitions. It’s too expensive. It’s a waste of time, you’ll never win. Contests are scams.
You might have your own reasons for avoiding them, but I’ll take the ones above one by one, and answer any others in the comments.
1.      It’s too expensive.
oYes, some of them are. I’ve actually paid £17 for a single entry before. I don’t pay that much often, but I weight up the prestige of the competition, the overall judge, and the prize money – and then I decide whether I have a story/can write a story that is worth £17.
oSome are completely free – such as the Costa Short Story Award. But you have to bear in mind how many people will enter a free competition, which will make your odds of winning reduce.
oMost of the competitions I enter are between £5 and £10.
2.      It’s a waste of time.
oI tend to enter stories that I have hanging around, those that I don’t know what to do with or have been rejected by a couple of magazines. Competitions usually have a looser idea of the type of story they are looking for – whereas a magazine will have a definite style.
oThe story can be tied up for several months, but as long as you build this into your submission plan, it won’t be a problem.
oThe discipline of writing a story, refreshing it, submitting it to a deadline is important. It gives you something to work towards.
3.      You’ll never win.
oWell, firstly, someone has to – why not you?
oOn the other hand, you probably won’t. You’ll be frustrated and angry, but you’ll get over it, and you’ll write something else. If you’re sensible, you’ll try to work out why that story didn’t work but the 1st/2nd/3rd place entries did. You’ll learn without even trying.
oA lot of the larger competitions these days are being judged by literary agents and publishers. They are not just judging the competition, they are looking out for good writers. Even if you don’t win, they might see your name, and they might be interested in you.
oYears ago, when I was just starting out, I’d see the same names on the long-lists and short-lists, then I’d see them placing 1st, 2nd or 3rd. Then I’d see them publishing their first novels. One name I remember seeing was Helen Dunmore.
4.      Contests are scams.
oI haven’t heard British writers complaining about this quite so much as US writers. But, if in doubt, don’t enter – or spend some time researching.
oRead the terms and conditions – I know most people don’t, but in this case it’s very important. You need to make sure you are following the rules so you won’t get disqualified, but you also need to know what happens to your story if you win – do you retain copyright, will the story be published. The terms will also flag up areas where it feels scam-like, in which case, don’t enter!


How about you? Do you enter? Have you won? Do you have doubts that I haven’t covered above?

Annalisa Crawford lives in Cornwall UK, with a good supply of moorland and beaches to keep her inspired. She lives with her husband, two sons, a dog and a cat.
She writes dark contemporary, character-driven stories, and has been winning competitions and publishing short stories in small press journals for many years. She recently won 3rd Place in the Costa Short Story Award 2015.

A Mystery/Thriller trend I wish would die.

So I had a rough day today and did a crit for Unicorn Bell, and this was the result. I’m posting it here too, since it dovetails nicely into a topic I’m currently enjoying a lot: Genre Trends I Wish Would Die.

However, I would love if you were epically awesome and here instead. And please feel free to look around while you’re at it. It really is a worthwhile blog to visit for info on both indie and trade publishing and writing.

Okay. To the post….

Well that didn’t work out to plan. See the point here is for someone to send me something to critique, and if there was an interesting thing to point out, I focus on that, especially if I had to crit a chapter, since chapters plus my crit would probably run too long.

However, I just finished reading a short story someone sent me to critique and… well… there wasn’t much wrong. I had one suggestion to improve the big reveal (it’s a locked-room mystery), but then, even as it is now, the reveal has a surprising (although it makes perfect sense) twist that makes the reveal worth-while, even if it could have been a bit more of a surprise.

Would you like to read the chapter? Sure you do. Here’s the link.

Ooh. I actually do have an interesting point to raise coming from this crit. Plot twists and how they work. (Sorry if this is rambly. I had a 13 hour day thanks to a wedding where I have to arrange flowers. But I’ll try to remain lucid enough to get the point across.)

Right. So everyone loves plot twists. They make readers scream, squee, cry, laugh with glee…. They take readers from one emotional extreme to another, making the reading experience feel like a roller coaster the reader wants to take again.

The thing is, plot twists have been exploited so many times that they do lose some of their effect. Especially the “It’s a twist because you didn’t get to see the main character doing something incredibly important to the plot. Get it?”

No… No I don’t.

Mmm… I’m probably saying this because exhaustion lowers my inhibitions, but hey, it’s my opinion, so here it is:

Those aren’t plot twists. They’re cop-outs.

And they kept being used again and again. Oh sure, they do take the reader’s from extreme to extreme. But instead of: “OMG. OMG! OMG!! OMG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Ah AWESOME!!!!!” or even better: “OMG. OMG! OMG!! OMG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! OH SHIT!!!!!”

These “twists” are more of an: “OMG!!!………………. Oh.”

Horrid, horrid use of exclamations, I know. Guess they’re all escaping while my inner editor sleeps. Point is, taking readers to high stakes and massive tension and then dropping them on their asses is just lame. Really.

Sadly a lot of your run-of-the-mill bestselling thriller writers employ this tactic. I think people get dazed and dazzled by the adrenaline high followed by the crash after. Maybe it’s like eating candy. After a sugar crash you crave more sugar, don’t you?

Plot twists done correctly elevate stories to other realms entirely. It’s like 80% dark chocolate compared to a cheapy milk chocolate (I.E. fake twists).

Sadder than the fact that these fake twists get abused is the fact that with a tiny bit more effort, a much more effective twist could be achieved.

All it takes is leaving breadcrumbs of information, leading readers right where they think they’re headed, except you as the writer would be leading them somewhere else entirely.

Simply put, people are used to all sorts of information creeping into a story. So if  you put all the building blocks to your big twist out for them to see, in a way that makes them seem unrelated or unimportant, the reader will only see the whole picture when you reveal the twist, which basically acts as a way to put all the pieces together. And if that twist has mind-blowing effects on the characters/story/stakes… even better.

And truly brilliant writers can do this without hiding anything from the reader. A plot twist should be a moment of clarity when the reader sees everything they missed before, and is shocked because 1) s/he missed the clues and 2) at the MASSIVE repercussions those clues actually have.

So yes, PJ, if you’re reading this: I called you a brilliant writer.

You’ve got that scary feeling…

Hey there, new kid. You know that feeling when you’re about to start a new story?

That sense that you’re not prepared. That you’re never going to get the right story down and that the sentences will be all clunky and that your verbs will be weak and that there’s absolutely NO WAY that you’re going to make this story work.

Yeah. That feeling. The one that assails you the moment you face your first blank page.

Well… It never goes away. I’ve written for almost thirteen years now. I’ve finished… Two books to publishing standards, and five more rough drafts as well as four rewrites.

I’ve made all of those stories work except for one, and I’m working on it as soon as I put up this blog, because I now know what’s wrong with it.

But last night, I started working on my mystery project and… I spent about fourteen hours playing games, two watching t.v. one and a half sleeping… Yeah. You get the idea. The amount of time I actually spent writing was about an hour.

All because every time I wanted to start, that feeling hit me. And me, choosing terrible moments to be undyingly optimistic about my writing, assumed I could start when the feeling went away.

Needless to say, it didn’t. So by about 7 p.m. last night, I thought back to my previous drafts. With Doorways (the two publish quality books), I was all out terrified! I delayed starting by six months. SIX MONTHS. Because the thought of writing a story so epic and complex paralyzed me. ES, the book I’m writing yet again, has given me this feeling three times. Every time I tried to write it. With last year’s NaNo, I got such terrible cold feet on October 31st that I almost gave up before I started.

But you know what? Whether something takes me a day, a week, months or even years, I always start an idea I have. Because if I didn’t, nothing I ever wanted to write would get written, and my life would have been emptier for it.

So if you’re about to start a new story and that feeling hits you, just chill. But do work through it. Because the only way to make the feeling fade for long enough to finish a story is to actually start writing it. Any you know what? Most of the time, those fears are unfounded anyway.

What was the worst time you got hit by this feeling? How long did it take you to start writing?

By the way, I posted more details on my query, synopsis, first chapter critique at Unicorn Bell. So if you need a fresh pair of eyes, please do check it out. 🙂

Plot and Kevin Bacon

Hey all! Today, I’m welcoming Elizabeth Seckman to my blog. She’s going to tell us what Kevin Bacon taught her about plotting.

Take it away, Elizabeth. 🙂

Thanks for having me over Misha! I feel a little like a kindergartener coming to the high school to share knowledge, but I will try to sound like I know what I’m talking about.

The most critical part of a good tale is the plot. The plot is the bones everything else in the story hangs on. No bones, no book.

And everything I learned about plotting, I got from Kevin Bacon.

Applaud me, Kevin. I am brilliant.

Yes, Kevin Bacon, the actor.

Ever heard of  the game, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon?

Here’s the game, in a nutshell: Link any actor to Kevin Bacon within six connections.

Okay, so here is how it works. Let’s take Madonna. How is she connected to Kevin Bacon? She was married to Sean Penn, who starred with Kevin in Mystic River. So, that’s a quick two degree separation. And the legend is you can link almost anyone in Hollywood to Kevin within six degrees.

Yeah, yeah…fun little party game, but what’s it got to do with plotting?

I say plots MUST also be that tight. Let’s pretend the plot is Kevin Bacon. Everything that happens in that story must, within six degrees, have something to do with the main plot. No tangents. No meandering. No superfluous characters to bog down the reader’s memory. Every conversation and every action move the story along.

For example: let’s say it’s a romance. A single dad and his son. Dad needs a love interest. Now, pick the kid’s sub plot…let’s say he’s learning disabled. Voila! Dad dates the teacher. Need some more conflict? Bring on dad’s ex-wife. Now you have an antagonist who is bringing back story. See? Subplots + Plot are connected.

Keep it tight. Keep it moving.  Kevin will applaud you too.

Fate Intended is the third book in the Coulter Men Series.  Trip is the last of the Coulter sons to find
love. He’s a handsome man with all the skills a young spy needs to succeed. But when it comes to love, he misses the target. Jane is a sweet beauty who may or may not be wanted for murder. She’s hiding out as a cleaning lady when chance brings her and Trip together. It looks like a happily ever after is in the cross hairs until reality tries to destroy what fate has intended.

Elizabeth Seckman is a simple chick with a simple dream…to write stories people want to read.

photo credit: titi- via photopin cc

The Secret to Sparkling Dialogue

Recently, I’ve started to read a book. By all estimations, I should have loved it. The synopsis was awesome. The cover was beautiful. And I believe the person who wrote the book is talented. 

Problem is, I don’t like it. In fact, I’m struggling to get through the book because of one big issue. 
Dialogue. 
Don’t get me wrong. Dialogue is awesome. It serves a great purpose by the plot along speedily. It’s a great way to have characters bounce off each other. It’s a great indication of conflict between characters. 
But ONLY is used simultaneously with narrative. In other words. Unless you’ve written a play, don’t only use dialogue. Incidentally, even plays give us clues like: angrily. caustic. sing-song. etc. which give us readers a clue as to visualizing what’s going on. Even then, most plays are a lot harder to read than to watch. For a good reason.
Dialogue, no matter how good, is dead if it doesn’t have description and/or narrative. See the thing with reading is that we aren’t “seeing” things the same way one would watching t.v. We need clues from the writing. So if there aren’t any, it “looks” like the characters are standing stiffly and talking. It “sounds” like the characters are speaking in monotone. 
For example. 
“My baby died,” I said. “From SIDS. Long ago, but it still hurts.” 
“I’m sorry,” Mike replied. “I can’t imagine what it must be like to go through something like that.” 
“The worst is that people thought I killed him.” 

Yeah. Serious stuff, right? Emotional dynamite. Except… it’s not. Because the reader has NO idea how the character’s feeling as they talk about it. And them saying that it hurts just doesn’t have as much impact as it could. Without these clues, the reader is lost. 
So let’s see how much the dialogue changes by adding some narrative. 
“My baby died,” I said. Years had passed and saying those three words made my throat burn. My eyes stung from many tears I still hadn’t managed to finish crying. “From SIDS. Long ago, but it still hurts.” 
“I’m sorry.” Mike’s expression softened and he reached for me. I kept my distance, hugging myself instead. After all this time, I still couldn’t let someone share in my pain. If I went to him now, I’d break down.
He averted his gaze, slowly lowering his arm. “I can’t imagine what it must be like to go through something like that.”
No. No one got it. Only people who lost people knew what true pain was. At least Mike acknowledged that he didn’t know. Unlike quite a few people who callously insisted that I get over the death of my first and only child.  
“The worst is that some people thought I killed him.” 
Immediately, the narrative parts give the dialogue depth. Now, we know the POV Character deals with some crushing pain at losing her child. We also see some sort of tension between her and Mike. He obviously wants her to be there for her, but she won’t let him. All this information in a neat dozen sentences. 
“But MISHAAAA,” some of you might say, “That slowed the pacing down!”
Firstly, it’s important to slow the pace down for important bits. Readers need to linger there, to absorb what’s going on. 
Secondly, if you really want to cut on the narrative, feel free, but never cut it out completely. Even if you only have brief flashes of thought, or mentions of facial expressions, actions etc. 
Those little bits you add could make the difference between a dead book and a sparkling one. 
Do you tend to write more narrative? Or are you a dialogue-heavy writer? 

Five ways to get back into the writing groove.

A lot of people take time off from writing during the Christmas season. If they’re anything like me, it means that getting back into writing mode can be a bit tricky. So I thought I’d share some of the more efficient ways I use to get my writing groove back. 

Music. 

I play music reminding me of the stories I’m writing, even when I’m doing something else. These are also the soundtracks I use while writing, so hearing the songs again stirs some creative thoughts up. 

Writing prompts. 

It’s great to be able to just write for the heck of it, without worrying about what you’ll be able to use later. So if you haven’t written in a while, starting off with some low-pressure writing might be exactly what you need to get going. 

Character interviews. 

Starting off just chatting with characters can give amazing inspiration in surprising directions. This also works extremely well when your story’s starting to feel dull. 

Reread what you’ve written. 

Not recommended if you’re an over-editor, but sometimes, all you need to get back into writing gear is to relive the awesomeness you’ve penned down before. Remember to look on the bright side and to ignore the nitpicky issues. 

Start off by writing something totally random. 

The hardest part about writing after a long time away is starting. Writing something random tends to open up the writing channels, letting you think what you actually write down. I once broke a six month writer’s block by opening a chapter with: “The gunk stuck to his mouth like peanut butter. He hated peanut butter.” Funnily enough, those sentences ended up in the final cut of The Vanished Knight. 

As you might see, all of those suggestions have to do with chilling out before you start. Forcing yourself works too, but it’s much easier to want to write. It’s always trickier to start when you’re panicking about how to do it. And the how’s and why’s almost always come when you’re not looking for them. 
I hope this helps! 
Anyone else have pointers for getting back into writing routine?