Friday, 11 May 2012

Judging Flash Fiction

I just judged a competition for flash fiction in the North East. It wasn't easy, the standard of entries was high and I could choose only 2 winners from each category.

I had my husband print out all the entries so I could read them on paper (personally,I read better this way.) I wanted to be sure any names left on had been taken off so I couldn't be influenced if I happen to know the entrant. Since I live in Newcastle, and have been to loads of things over the years, its possible people I know entered - but fairness is a key value for me. I wanted neither to favour people I like, nor be influenced against someone who might been rude to me at an event or anything! What matters is the story, the best way to ensure this is not to know who wrote it.

Once the entries were printed I read them and made a long list pile. Then I read them again, sifting out ones I liked less on a second read. Then came the heartbreaking bit- I had a pile of 20 entries I liked very much. All of them were good enough to be published, but I could only pick two. I  read them and wittled them down to 10, then 5.

If you didn't make it don't worry, many wonderful pieces didn't make the final two. I wish i could have chosen more for publication in the paper. Many pieces could do well in other places, and just weren't for me. Here's my thoughts from the judging end of things, I hope may be helpful in entering competitions.

1. Research Your Market

 It's never possible to know what a judge will like. Even if you know who the judge is, they may actually enjoy work that is nothing like their own. But, one thing that may be useful is to think about, is who is running the competition? In this case, the work was to appear in a family newspaper. It may not be the best place to send a violent story, a story with sex in or one about self harm. It's just not suitable for a family paper. (There is a place in the world for darker stories, it might be worth looking up horror flash sites such as microhorror, etc.)

2. The I had the last laugh syndrome

Sometimes with flash fiction I read a story that has the, what i call, I had the last laugh syndrome. Some people call it a twist in the tale. Stories like this tend to have a very joke like last line, or a new piece of information. (For example: the story may seem all the way through it's about a woman having an affair, then at the last minute we discover what we have been reading about isn't actually an affair but a secret new hobby like hang gliding or something.) It's a bit sit-com.

But, I have seen stories like this on some flash sites and in magazines, so there is a market for them out there. Personally, though, they're not for me. They are clever, but that doesn't impart wisdom, emotion or something that stays with me. Some otherwise enjoyable stories were spoilt for me by this.

3. Subject Matter

There are alot of stories throughout history about the death of a loved one, etc. It's a subject that means alot to people and can be brilliant reading when done in a unique way, but if you send a story on a subject twelve or so other people have it's going to have to really stand out in some other way. It's going to be up against stories with subjects or perspectives the judge hasn't seen, which will give them the edge.

I have read story tips that tell writers to set stories in unusual settings and countries - I'm not much of a fan on this bit of advise for the sake of it (it seems a little Mrs Bing in Friends.) Ordinary places are fine, if the voice and how it's done are good.

When it comes to competitions think about how you've dealt with your subject. It it's about death and the setting is a funeral you better be an exceptionally gifted writer to make it stand out against 7 others with the same scene.


I like to read dialogue in a story. It can do a lot and liven things up, but formal, or overly revealing dialogue can be distracting in a flash. So can dialgue where people say what they are thinking really- it's not that often as a species we act this way with eachother! In flash, keep dialogue brief (unless people are talking shite for a revealing reason.)


Personally, I didn't exclude anyone for wrong spellings or punctuation for this particular competition. Had it been a competition with a fee aimed at professional writers and advertised in journals, I might have though. I have read judges reprorts in the past by judges who sift out any entries with a typo (it seems harsh, and it may be, but if a judge has a 100 good stories on their desk it does make their job easier.) Likewise, many comps will disqualify you for having your name on the work. I didn't, I had someone else take them off, but not everyone will bother.

There was only one entry where punctuation really mattered this time. In this case, it was a story I loved, that made it to my top five. But the sentence structure was very very odd and interrupted the flow. I had four other entries I loved too, all print ready, so, sadly, this one got weeded out at the end stage.

6. Titles

I've read that unusual titles are the best and stand out more. Personally, I don't mind a one word title if it feels right. I don't even mind a boring title, if the piece isn't at all dull. Again, its the work that counts. Sometimes a plain title does it for me.

7. Wrapping things up

I like a point to a story, that whatever has happened means something. I like things to be clear, but I like some of the things that are at stake, what it means to us as a reader, to our society, to whatever, left for me to think about. As readers we all enjoy discovering secrets in books, interpreting what a character is feeling, or what a story means beyond what we know it means (see or are told.) A couple of good stories suffered from a cosy last line, a 'it all turned out well in the end' feeling. It's great stuff of anecdotes, but as a reader it can leave me empty.

The stories I picked, and, sadly, some that couldn't make it through, made me want to read them again. They had something stake, atmosphere and character, but still left little mysteries I wanted to think about. I could, and did, read them several times and they didn't suffer from it. A good question to ask ourself is this, will this story be better, or worse, on a second reading? Competitions mean pieces being read more than once. We have to try and give people a reason to want to read something again.

Congratulations to the winners of the competition, but also all those who entered. I really enjoyed reading your work.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Esther Morgan's Grace- a review

Esther Morgan- Grace (Bloodaxe Books)

Esther Morgan’s TS Eliot prize shortlisted, Grace is a collection of epiphanies. They persuade us to ‘step into a moment’. Such moments are quiet glimpses of hauntingly still lives. Among Women is a poem about the annunciation; Morgan doesn’t explore the celebrated, but something not happening. Revelations are born from unheralded roles.

‘One evening I came home and everything was just as I’d left it/ except the bowls gleamed with a new knowledge…I shook out my life like a cloth/ and perhaps there is a purpose afterall in not being chosen.’

The poems scan clean rooms, often the domain of mothers and wives. What I loved most about the book is the domestic is never taken for granted. Sad wisdoms bless lonely kitchens with ‘cargos of white flowers.’ Everything hangs on doing the laundry, in the airing of spare rooms.

Enola Gay doesn’t excavate the life of the pilot, but his mother, who ‘irons away the long afternoons’ in a house of ‘blinding windows.’ Perceptions shift in the least public places. A woman moves her furniture around and the room and the furniture do not change, yet, ‘the permutations she has to work with do.’ (Shifting)

Morgan’s language graces the mundane with meaning, using religious imagery to stunning effect throughout the collection. Things Left Out All Night makes a nod to William Carlos Williams, the gravitas acquired by abandoned objects ends with ‘the wheelbarrow stood in long grass/ absolved by rain.’

There’s an evenness of tone in the collection, the pace rarely speeds. Slowing down is something a reader must adjust to. We don’t race into events, but consider interiors, inhabit the edge of things. It is a moving experience, in stillness we see small things and the impact is huge. ‘In the sun the shirts and summer dresses hang glittering/like the clothes of the baptised.’ (Summer Storm)

Poetry is a choice that isn’t always easy for a reader. These days, we are aware of the slim volume of a collection being more expensive than an e-book or a novel, yet, the nature of the writing here demanded that I could not put the book away as soon as I finished it. I read each poem again, slowly. I sat in stillness to let it sink in.

I kept the book in kitchen to pick up between domestic tasks when I had a minute. Such still moments of reflection are a gift. With the best poetry collections we know we will read them again and pick them up from time to time. Considering this, like this, poetry is not slim. There is nothing slight about it. And it’s a bargain. This was my favourite collection of last year.

Footnote: This is the first poetry review I've ever done, so forgive me if I missed something. I didn't know where to send it, but I read the book and just wanted to write it.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

One time only- Flash Fiction Fairytale

A Mermaid in Texas

She don’t know why, when she said yes to the legs, yes to the idea of dancing with a guy in a tux, all Fred Astaire, she wound up in Texas. The guy had a motorbike, but that didn’t stop her. When she considered dancing it was always old timey, he took off his leathers to Ginger her.

Hot as the devil’s fart, she thinks. The air con blinks. She gets beer out the fridge, wishing she could flop inside like a fish. She don’t do seafood, makes her sick. It arrives at mini-marts in dusty vans, all the sea sweated out.

She limps down the steps, never got too used to the walking thing. It’s too early to stare at application forms. She don’t write good. Everything she ever needed to know came in waves.

She sniffs, dips her feet into her paddling pool the kids a trailer over probably pissed in. Bastards, won’t leave it alone coz she don’t yell- just looks, eyes grey as caught carp.

Sometimes, she misses her voice. It seemed a fair trade. She weren’t much using it. Water talked for her. Then, when it didn’t, when she got the legs and the man, her mouth got kept too busy to chat. It’s good, he said, to be a woman who don’t bitch.

Somewhere, on a shale beach lies the conch with her voice in, surrounded. She imagines kids picking it out to take home in plastic buckets. Maybe, someone is holding her shell to their ear. Hears. She wonders if it still sings, likes to think she has a song out there.

The paddling pool stagnates, flies drown. She drags bleach from under her deckchair, pours it in the water and gets in. Sniffs. The neighbours don’t speak, hate her, coz she stinks. She scrubs bleach on her thighs and lowers herself, lets it clean the gutted bit between her legs, because she stinks. She knows it. That’s why he stopped touching her, never came home.

(This is my entry to the Once Upon a Time flash fiction competition.)

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Farewell Small Stones

A month into the new year already! I decided to start the year by taking part in small stones- a simple act of observing something very closely each day. It could be in prose, could be poetry. I thought it might be a nice start to 2012, so every day in January I tweeted my stones. I chose tweeting to keep them short and to MAKE myself stick to it. I got a few things from it I think

1. Even on cold boring days there was something to see.

2. Discipline- Even when I'm not in the mood I had to write a little something every day.

3. Stepping Outside my Comfort Zone- For me, the act of writing and letting people see it fresh from my head to a tweet was unknown. I like to hold onto work and edit for a long time before anyone gets close. It wasn't possible with small stones, people got to see lines even before the work is finished.

4. The creation of beginnings of little bits of work I feel may lead to teeny flash fictions or poems when i go back and work on them to see which stone sinks or floats.

Not a bad start to the year. The act of small stoning allowed me to send out a couple of 100 word stories in January too. One call had only a week to submit- this would be UNTHINKABLE! How can I write something and edit it 30 times in a week? I'm supposed to let it sit for ages first! Yet, I did submit. I'm glad I did. (Exciting Caroline Smailes anthology of teeny stories based on songs, all for charity.) Once I did that, I let go of another new piece of work too (this is so outside my comfort zone.) So January brought me two accptances for work I wouldn't normally have sent anywhere for months. I have stones to thank.

Thank you to tweeters who bore with me. I appologise to non poetry folk who hate seeing poetrylike tweets. Me too sometimes. It can seem needy and isn't for everyone. It can seem like poems become adverts. I was torn between the spirit of small stones and this fear. I'm still not sure of the consensus of poetry editor and publisher opinion on work self published on-line, but it generally feels frowned upon. When it comes to self publishing on-line how much is enough? How much is too much?

I don't know the answers to these questions. I just know small stones was helpful. I tossed them not knowing where they'd land.

Saturday, 31 December 2011

New Year

It's that time again- new year. We all tend to look back over the last year and wonder what we've done. Did we achieve anything? Was it a good year? What will we do different next time? It's tempting to compare ourselves to others and feel we didn't do enough. We didn't lose the weight or write a blockbuster. We didn't do this or that. Sod that. The best way to end the year is by thinking about what you did do and what was good about it. It could be just this: I survived. I learnt. And I'm ready.

For writers, new year is a great time to think about what you may like to do next. I started 2011 with only two goals- to keep writing and get placed in a competition. The reason? If I want to keep writing I need the occasional bit of encouragement, so I best do something to try and find a little validation. My goals seemed organic. I was unsure if they were small goals or unrealisitic. The trick to new year goals is keep them small, make them seem achieveable. If you're going to judge yourself, judge yourself on the steps you took to try and reach your goals, not the end result.

I'm finishing the year by making a list of things I liked about 2011. Give yourself a pat on the back for the things you did and liked, even if they are small. Build on them next year, so you can do more of what you liked, and less of what you don't need.

Things I liked in 2011

A big bag of felt & having a go at making little felt things for the first time without a pattern.

Winning Inkspill Magazine's Short Story Competition.

Learning to drink lemon green tea instead of too much hot chocolate.

Writing a poem for the Naked Muse charity calender

Making a pineapple upside down cake for the first time (quick like a cat, tip, and yes! gooey goodness!)

Being a runner up in Mslexia poetry competition.

Gaining bookshelf space- bags of books to Amnesty = lots of room for lovely new books.

Pushing my safety zone by doing more reviews.

Apples! Making apple wine & caramel apple cake I'd never done before.

Sending a story to Metazen I decided no one would ever like & getting it published.

Wasting less- donating more, buying less stuff I don't need.

Getting shortlisted in Mookychick's Feminist Flash competition.

The bumper tomato crop- making homemade tomato soup, tartlet, & roasted toms for the first time.

Getting a story in Pank

Becoming a red panda on cold days

Getting a story in Spilt Milk

FINALLY, getting jelly to come out the rabbit jelly mold in one piece! (soak in hot water very briefly, scratching the perimeter impatiently doesn't cut it.)

Kozyndan rabbit prints

Sloe gin, making our own liqueur

Getting a poem in Emergency Verse

Twin Peaks pencils

Getting two stories in The Journal

Giving a couple of things I haven't done before a go (f*ck doubt, sometimes, just do it, let how it goes decide if you can)

Writing a poem for an anthology

Coming second in The Short Story Competition 2011

Finally tackling the sewing machine (it's not a perfect straight seam, but so what? I made a bolster and some curtains that cost me nothing- why, oh why, did I spend a week sewing curtains by hand in 2010!)

Learning to be patient (I had a nice offer but turned it down after some thought- no regrets- being a writer is sometimes about patience, you don't have to take the first offer, if your gut isn't onboard, or the opportunity isn't right for right now- politely decline. Wait till you have the opportunity of something that feels right for you, or create one.) If someone wants you enough, they'll be happy to hear from you at a later date if you change your mind (by then your work will be even better, right? :) If not, they never had much faith in you anyway and you made the right decision.

Favourite Book of the Year: The Tiny Wife, Andrew Kaufman (they don't get much more beautiful than this)

Artist I played more than any other this year: Neko Case

Favourite Poem of the year: Jo Shapcott, I Tell the Bees

What I'm looking forward to next year:

We got halfan alotment plot in October. I've discovered the zen of digging. If nothing grows, well, I still dug.

Happy New Year to you all.

Friday, 30 December 2011

Felt Robot & Friends

Craft is on the rise at the moment. It's of little wonder, in these frugal times. Beyond that, there's a great satisfaction from cobbling together something from little scraps that cost nothing or very little. Its fun. I rarely post pictures of what I've made, but in the spirit of a new year approaching... Here we are. I love dicking about. That, a little time and bits of stuff is all anyone needs. A bag of felt off-cuts was donated to me by my friend Karolyn's mum, so I set about thinking of a use for them.

I have a thing for fairytales, so I did Red Riding Hood in felt

Finally, I couldn't resist, 'What big eyes you have', and putting grandma inside the cross dressing wolf.

I wasn't sure what to do with little felty fellows I'd made, so at the end of the year I put ribbon hoops on and hung them on the tree.

A jammy dodger biscuit..

And, finally, a little felt robot..

Hope everybody had a wonderful Christmas. Enjoy the year to come.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

bringing in the new

Oh dear. I had a blog on blogger for years, but unfortunately i started it so long ago i no longer have the email address i used initially (you know how it is, you try to log in, do it wrong, have to set up a yahoo email to do it again, then never use that one again.) I can't get my password reminder, its going to a defunct account- all year I've been trying to get in. I offiially give up and am starting again.

I used to enjoy blogging and catching up with people, but everyone left myspace and me behind! It's lonely over there! So here I am, hoping to make friends.