Monday, 25 January 2016

Happy St Francis Day

Have you ever heard of St Francis de Sales? He is the patron saint of journalists and writers.

He was born in France in 1567, and originally trained in law. However, one day he fell off his horse several times and every time it happened, his sword fell from its scabbard, and together, they always landed on the ground in the form of a cross. Francis took this as a sign from God. He joined the priesthood.

As a priest, Francis travelled to Switzerland, in the hope of converting 60,000 Calvinists back to Catholicism: an impossible task in many people’s eyes. He spent three years, knocking on doors and having them slammed in his face. When he thought of giving up, another idea occurred to him. He sat down and wrote his sermons on paper, and then slipped them under the doors that had been slammed in his face.

It worked. Eventually, he converted 40,000 of his target audience back to Catholicism.

In 1608 he wrote a book called, Introduction to the Devout Life, which, apparently, became a bestseller. (I’ve tried researching which number on the Sunday Times bestseller list it reached, but so far I’ve been unsuccessful!) However, the reason it was so popular was because he wrote it not for other priests, but for lay people.

He was made a saint in 1923 by Pope Pius XI, and became patron of writers and journalists.

It doesn’t matter what religion we choose to follow, I think Frances de Sales should be celebrated for his skills as a writer. He faced rejection on a daily basis, but kept going, and eventually his ideas won through. And when he wrote a book, he wrote it with his target readership in mind. These are both characteristics today’s writers need.

St Francis de Sales day is 23rd January. Or 24th January. Or 29th January. (Different branches of Catholicism celebrate on different dates - something not helped by the historical joys of switching to the Gregorian calendar too.) But it doesn’t matter. That’s not the point. This week, if you feel despondent about your writing, just stop and think about St Francis de Sales. He didn’t let rejection get him down. And he always remembered for whom he was writing. Two lessons that we as writers shouldn’t forget today.

Good luck.

Monday, 18 January 2016

What Is A Competition?

A student recently queried with me the value of entering competitions. What’s the point, because, in her opinion, she didn’t think her entry was of a good enough quality. 

Well, let’s just hang on a minute there, shall we? There’s part of me that wants to remind entrants to ‘know their place’. You are the entrant. You do the writing and entering, and leave the judge to the judging!

But let’s just take a step back first, and remind ourselves what a competition is. According to my Oxford English Dictionary a competition is “an event or contest in which people take part in order to establish superiority or supremacy in a particular area.”

It’s worth remembering, therefore, that a competition is only between those who have entered. So avoid pre-judging your work. There’s no point in thinking, I’m not bothering to enter because my work will be nowhere near as good as everyone else’s … because you have no idea who is entering or what they are entering. You might not think your short story is as good as one of Stephen King’s, but if Stephen King isn’t entering then your story isn’t competing with one of his, is it?

Most competitions are judged blind, which means the judge has no idea who has written any of the entries, so each entry is treated without prejudice.

And a judge’s role in a competition is to identify the best work (in their judgment) from all of the entries submitted. There is not normally a predetermined quality threshold that all entries have to pass in order to be judged. (If there is … it will be in the rules. There will be a clause that says the judge has the right not to award a prize, if they feel not one of the entries is worthy of the prize.)

Writing competitions can be good for writers. They give you a deadline. They may help you get started with a theme. You have a wordcount to adhere to. And then there’s the benefit of the prize money. Some competitions can also be useful stepping stones to other writing projects.

So don’t dismiss writing competitions. If you’re submitting work to magazines then you’re already entering a competition, because submitting for publication means your work is competing with that of other writers for that limited space in the publication, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction.

Good luck!

And to get you started ... here are details of the Doris Gooderson Short Story competition, which has just been launched. We're looking for stories (in English) of up to 1200 words. Entry fee is £5. 1st prize is £200, 2nd prize is £100 and 3rd prize is £50. The closing date is 11th July 2016. Full rules and entry forms can be seen here:

Monday, 11 January 2016

Out Of Touch

So, how’s your New Year going so far? Mine’s been quiet. Literally. Nobody called on New Year’s Day (but then, I wasn’t around much to take their calls). At least that’s what my caller display told me. It wasn’t until my sister visited on 3rd Jan that she wanted to know why the phone had been engaged all day on 2nd Jan. Ah. 

I picked up the phone and there was no dial tone. I’d lost the broadband a couple of times over the past few days, and now the two problems seem connected. I rang BT and reported the fault, and because of all the flooding in other parts of the UK they couldn’t promise an engineer to investigate until 11th Jan (although, it subsequently transpired that over 100 other properties in my community were also affected, so I think we were bumped up the priority list).

Which meant for the first week of 2016 I’ve been working differently. (And I don’t just mean that I haven’t been on Facebook quite as much.) 

It’s not until you lose something that you realise how much you use it. Those of you who happen to be Writers Bureau students will know that assignments tend to be submitted by email, from wherever in the world you are based. Thankfully, with a bit of jiggery pokery between my smartphone and my laptop, I was able to keep on top of these.

But I’ve been working on a travel piece that required naming street names as I guided readers round a particular location. Normally, I’d just go to Google Maps. Thankfully, I still have paper maps, and could use them. I would also use the Internet to double-check facts about a place … but again, I always buy guidebooks from tourist attractions, and so I used them to continue with my work.

And it has to be said, I did much more writing last week, without the distractions of TwitFace and other social media websites. And I know I wrote the first draft of a piece I wouldn’t have done, purely because the idea hit me and I sat down with my pen and paper and started writing. (Before, I’d have jotted down the idea, and then Googled some research material, with a view to writing it up later … possibly.)

This forced way of alternative working also generated several other ideas. At one point on Wednesday I felt stuck, and so went off on my daily walk … helped because the sunshine had come out, and we haven’t seen that since before Christmas. At the top of my local hill, I took a photo on my smartphone, and the irony hit me that my smartphone had a great 4G signal there. (So, great connection to the Internet on top of a hill, but no connection at my work desk!) I uploaded the photo to the BBC WeatherWatchers website, and seven hours later it was used on the local BBC regional news programme. (That’s what not having the Internet does!) 

But being at the top of a hill, in gloriously warm sunshine, with Internet access, gave me an idea for an experiment that I’m saving for the summer months.

I also managed to turn my BBC Weather picture into a short filler item for a magazine. And I worked up two other pieces too, one of which involved the need to watch an old film. (Well, who needs the Internet when you’ve got it on DVD?)

So, despite it being a quiet week, it was a productive week. I had to think a little differently in order to achieve what I wanted to achieve, but I did it.

So, the next time your plans go awry, don’t panic. Just take a step back and think about how you might be able to achieve your writing in a different way. Being out of touch has its benefits. 

Good luck.

Monday, 4 January 2016

Ideas Are Like Outfits

I’m no party animal. (Anyone who knows me will testify to this.) But this New Year I’ve been to three New Year gatherings in the space of 36 hours.

It’s all because we have new neighbours, who are keen to get to know everyone, and to apologise for all of the noise and disruption they’ve created when they’ve had builders, decorators and landscape gardeners in (and their associated vans and pickup trucks) to turn their new properties into their dream homes. Anyone who follows me on Facebook will be aware of my occasional mention of SONAW - my desire to establish a Society Of Noise-Affected Writers. Actually, I often don’t hear the noise going on out in the street, except the occasional pneumatic drill.

But then, when I think about it, I’m rarely affected by the noise outside, because I have always had an ability to block myself off from the rest of the world when there’s something far more interesting going on in my head. Which is why, at the age of four, I spent many sessions at the audiology unit having hearing tests. My mother was convinced I had some sort of hearing impairment, but even now I can remember the audiologist turning to her and saying, “I’m sorry, Mrs Whaley, but there is nothing wrong with your son’s hearing. He just chooses not to listen to you.” Ahem!

And it was an element of this that was behind my latest story that has just been published in the February 2016 issue of Fiction Feast, entitled But I’m Not Deaf!

As with many stories, there were several other ideas that came together to produce this one piece. (It was originally set as some homework for a writers’ group I go to, and it also drew upon a few overheard snippets of conversation.)

Often, when it comes to ideas, it’s not a question of finding ONE idea that sparks an article, or a short story, but a combination of two or three that produces something that will work well. For example, an article about where to go in Shrewsbury is an idea for an article, but it’s not a particularly strong one. However, bring in another idea about Charles Dickens, and it becomes an article about where to go in Shrewsbury to see all of the film locations used in the 1984 production of A Christmas Carol. That is stronger (which is why I’ve been commissioned to write it).

Which brings me back to my New Year parties. At each one, somebody said something interesting that generated an idea, but on their own they didn’t amount to much. But when I brought all three together I produced a much stronger idea.

Ideas are a bit like items of clothing (although as a bloke with no fashion sense whatsoever this analogy could fail). One piece of clothing (shirt, T-shirt, blouse, trousers, skirt, underwear) rarely makes a stunning outfit. It takes two or three garments to produce something that makes others take notice.

So the next time you feel a piece of writing isn’t working as you’d hoped, rummage around in your sock-drawer (or wherever you keep those extra ideas) and find another one or two ideas to throw into the mix. Alternatively, try going to a few more New Year parties!

I hope 2016 is a productive year for you all.

Happy New Year.

Good luck.