The Rejection Diaries – and Why Persistence Might be More Important than Talent

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A writing competition spurned my entry last week. Well, they didn’t spurn the thing – they were too nice for that – but they gave it a firm thumbs down. No place on their shortlist; no place on their longlist. Not even a commendation. 

But do I care? I do not, for reasons you will find below.

Rejections are normally the occasion for private breast-beating and lamentation, however much we put on a brave front to family and friends. I recently received a rejection from an agent who added that they offered professional advice to ‘beginner writers’. As someone who has slaved not only over computer keyboards but, once upon a time, actual typewriters, that made me want to heave a brick through someone’s window.

But let me tell you a story. Back in 2015 I visited London’s Foundling Hospital for the first time. It is an incredibly emotive place and I couldn’t get the stories it told out of my head. So I did what writers do. I drafted a short story, The Gingham Square – about the tokens those tragic mothers left in the hope that they might one day be able to retrieve their precious child. The story was entered into a Fish Publishing competition and, while it failed to earn a prize, their senior editor said that she felt it had the potential for a book.

Reader, I wrote the thing. Not with either ease or expedition, because considerable research was needed and I had never tried to be a historical novelist before, but a year or so ago I started showing the result to agents and entering competitions. Many drafts had been taken apart at ninevoices‘ meetings. Many discussions had ensued about whether a ‘happy ending’ would dilute the story’s force. Many red pencils had crossed through purple prose and lamentable grammar. It went through four different titles.

I also sent it back to Fish for a professional critique by the editor whose vision had made it all happen. It was a sound investment, for her suggestions made it a better book.

This month I received the wonderful news that I had won the HWA/Sharpe Books Unpublished Novel Award and that my book, The Servant, will be published next year. I have actually signed a contract.

I am always nagging people to enter competitions and do not intend to stop since acting on such advice has, amazingly, worked for me. That, and being a member of a tremendously supportive writing group. So when you see my next Competitions to Enter post, I suggest you do not dither. Winning IS possible. And even if you don’t win, be inspired by Sylvia Plath’s famous quote: I love my rejections. They prove that I am trying.

What are you waiting for? It CAN happen. 

Oh, yes. A poem, for which I had high hopes, was also rejected in the middle of the week – and my longlisting for the Exeter Novel Award did not translate into a shortlisting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oh, yes. A poem I had high hopes for was also rejected in the middle of the week.

Love One Another…

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We live in difficult days. We should count our many blessings, enjoy the beautiful daffodils outside our windows and read and write to our heart’s content.

But, most of all, we must help one another get through this. 20180313_104851-1-1

Congrats to The Servant

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The Servant – the book we hope to be reading soon!  Many congratulations to ninevoice Maggie Richell Davies, who has won the Sharpe Books/Historical Writers’ Association Unpublished Award 2020.

The other eight ninevoices have heard this book progress (and change form) for some time now and we know how good it is.  We’re in 1765: and, to quote the HWA website, “Fourteen-year-old Hannah must go where she’s sent, despite her instincts screaming danger. Why does disgraced aristocrat William Chalke have a locked room in his house? What’s sold at the auctions taking place behind closed doors?”   The story evokes 18th century London and its squalor and brutality and also its redeeming features. 

It’s clear from the descriptions of the short- and longlisted novels how strong a field the judges had to choose from.  Our congratulations to all those authors in those lists!  See http://www.historiamag.com/hwa-sharpe-books-unpublished-novel-award-winner/

Don’t Get Hung Up on Your Beginning – Again

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I have just started reading Hilary Mantel’s long-awaited third book and am not disappointed – though it highlights my own insecurities about trying to write quality historical fiction. 

After collecting The Mirror & the Light from Waterstones, I referred back to something I posted on this blog back in March 2015 about learning from the opening pages of a masterpiece like Wolf Hall. Thoughts triggered by a quote from Joyce Carol Oates: ‘The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written‘. She was talking about not getting hung-up on your beginning.

I hope you will agree that the post quoted below still has relevance:

                                                        ******

Recently I read Wolf Hall for the second time. I didn’t mean to, not quite so soon after my initial head-long rush through its pages, but I casually opened the book and Hilary Mantel hooked me in once again. But at least the second time around I was able to look at it with more of a writer’s eye.

‘So now get up.’

Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard… One blow, properly placed, could kill him now…his left eye is blinded, but if he squints sideways with his right eye he can see the stitching of his father’s boot is unravelling. The twine has sprung clear of the leather and a hard knot in it has caught his eyebrow and opened another cut.

What an opening. Our hero is in jeopardy. And from his own father. Hilary Mantel has drawn a vivid picture of that cobbled yard and the battered leather boot. The reader can imagine how easily that rough knot would lacerate tender flesh.

Three paragraphs later Hilary Mantel continues:

Inch by inch. Inch by inch forward. Never mind if he calls you an eel, or a worm, or a snake. Head down, don’t provoke him.

When digesting this the second time around it dawned on me that not only is the prose powerful, not only does it push the story urgently forward, but that here on the first two pages Hilary Mantel is foretelling Cromwell’s progress at the Court of Henry VIII. The tortuous, careful advance. The need to ignore hurtful insults. The danger inherent in provoking a man with total power.

Those first pages were surely the last that she penned – and the lesson to us must be to soldier on, to finish one’s book and then go back to craft that vital opening. So, no more delays trying to find that elusive opening sentence. It’s almost certainly too soon. Finish your book, then perfect the opening. Another Wolf Hall is too much to aim for – but one can dream.

Maggie

Writing Competitions to Enter in March

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STOP PRESS:  JUST LEARNED THAT THE WORDS FOR THE WOUNDED COMPETITION HAS BEEN CANCELLED BECAUSE OF ILLNESS.

 

Bridgend Writers’ Circle Open Short Story Competition for stories between 1,500 and 1,800 words on any theme. Prizes: £100, £50, £30. Entry fee: £5 for one, £7.50 for two. Closing date 1st March. Details: http://www.bridgendwriters.org

Windsor Fringe Kenneth Branagh Award for New Drama Writing. Unpublished and unperformed one-act plays (30 minutes or less, no more than six actors) by amateur playwrights. Prizes: Three winning scripts will be performed at the Windsor Fringe Festival, with £500 for an overall winner announced on the last night. Entry fee: £10. Closing date: 5 March. Details: http://www.windsorfringe.co.uk

BBC National Short Story Award for stories up to 8,000 words. Prizes: £15,000, plus 4 x £600. FREE ENTRY. Deadline, 9 a.m. on Monday, 9 March. Details: http://www.bbc.co.uk/nssa

Words for the Wounded Georgina Hawtrey-Woore 1st Chapter Award. First chapter of a novel on any theme, up to 4,000 words, plus synopsis. Prizes: £200 plus chance to appear in Frost Magazine. Entry fee: £10. Closing Date: 14 March. Details: http://www.wordsforthewounded.co.uk

Fowey Festival Short Story Competition for stories up to 1,500 words on the theme ‘Not After Midnight’. Prizes: £100, £75. Closing Date: 16 March. Details: http://www.foweyfestival.com

Harpers Bazaar Short Story Competition for stories up to 2,200 words (not the 2,500 quoted in Writing Magazine!) on the theme of ‘Summer’. Prize: a two-night stay at the historic Grantley Hall in Yorkshire, plus the chance to see your work published. Deadline 13 March. Details: shortstory@harpersbazaar.co.uk

The Henshaw Quarterly Short Story Competition for March is for a story up to 2,000-words. Prizes: £200, £100 and £50. Entry fee: £6.  Deadline: 31 March. Details: http://www.henshawpress.co.uk

Retreat West Quarterly Flash Fiction Prize for a maximum of 500 words on the theme: Abandoned. Entry fee: £8. Prizes: £200; 2 x £100. Deadline: 31 March. Details: http://www.retreat-west.co.uk/competitions/quarterly-themed-flash

The Caterpillar Poetry Prize for a poem for children – no line limit. Prize: 1,000 euros. Entry fee: 12 euros. Deadline 31 March. Details: thecatterpillarmagazine.com

Short Fiction Short Story Prize for stories up to 5,000 words. Prizes: £500, plus publication; £100. Entry fee: £6. Closing date 31 March. Details: http://www.shortfictionjournal.co.uk

Not a vast list, but plenty to keep you out of mischief while sheltering from the rain and icy winds.

Remember to check EVERYTHING before entry. And don’t worry too much about that browsing history.

Troy

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The Trojan War has for centuries (millennia, even) inspired writers and artists.  We can think of so many writers – Keats, Byron, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Sophocles and Euripedes, as well of course as Homer and Virgil.  In our own time we can think of Margaret Atwood’s amazing Penelopiad (I wish I knew who it was I lent my copy to) and Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls.You can see how artists have mined this great seam at the splendid Troy – Myth and Reality exhibition at the British Museum.  But hurry – it ends on 8 March.

From a jar of 530 BC showing Achilles killing the Amazon queen to a poster of Brad Pitt as the same great warrior in Troy (2004), you can see in how many different ways art has portrayed the tale of Troy.   This picture of Helen boarding Paris’ ship for Troy was once on someone’s wall in Pompeii: what does that expression on her face mean?

This wonderful bowl shows Priam begging Achilles for the return of his son Hector’s body – it may well have been made in the time of Christ. We know that soldiers’ lives aren’t all danger and excitement, but there are long periods of boredom while the troops wait for something to happen. Here are Ajax and Achilles whiling away some time playing a board game.

 

 

 

 

 

Lady Hamilton’s life was lively enough without needing to call on the classics, but here she is as Cassandra (painted by George Romney).

And you shouldn’t mess with Clytemnestra – as her husband has just found out.  Look at her face and the step by her feet.  John Collier painted that.

The exhibition website is at https://www.britishmuseum.org/exhibitions/troy-myth-and-reality.

Like many others I first was taken with it as a child reading the Puffin books The Tale of Troy and Tales of the Greek Heroes by Roger Lancelyn Green.  I’m now much enjoying Stephen Fry’s so readable and entertaining retelling of the Greek myths – Mythos and, my current reading, Heroes.  This doesn’t get to the Trojan War – I hope there’ll be a third volume for that.

The naming of cats…. and dogs

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As an associate member of ninevoices, known to make my cuddly presence unavoidable on sofa or lap, it was suggested it was about time I made a contribution to our scribbling.

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter, It isn’t just one of your holiday games;”

See how my involvement with you literary guys has rubbed off.

The naming of cats, dogs, pets: Mr Eliot was right. I am fortunate that I adopted a family who believes animals should not be given human names. It seems that every cute little puppy that joins the dogs’ parliament on the Common has a fashionable human name. I have met three Hugos, several Charlies, Betsy – my sister’s name by the way but she adopted another family – Susies, Lucys, Alfies, and an Olivia.

I am pleased to say ninevoices seem to be in step with my family. We have Bamber, Gizzy, Rumble, Streak, Snowy, Flax, Keiko and Yuki. The last two work if you’re not Japanese.

Then there are the fictional pets: Bullseye, Flush, Jumble, Crookshank, Ginger and Pickles, Greebo, Mog, Tab, Buck. You’ve probably spotted Flush, a real dog who belonged to Elizabeth Barrett Browning. But my point is these are all distinctive names not borrowed by humans.

Queen Victoria’s childhood spaniel was Dash, but her great-great granddaughter chose Susan for her first corgi. Personally I think that let the side down.

When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Effanineffable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.”

That’s what we pets need, whether in the real or imagined world, an  inscrutable singular name.
Thanks for reading – Skipper   

In Love With Mr Darcy (and others…)

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I must have been thirteen or fourteen when I fell in love for the first time – with Elizabeth’s Darcy. Warm feelings that have not greatly changed in the decades that have passed since.

For that reason I couldn’t resist entering last year’s Val Wood challenge (details of which you may have seen in our September blog): to write an imaginary love letter.

I learned in the fullness of time that my effort failed to either win or be shortlisted, though I was able to comfort myself that the ultimate winner had submitted a series of letters, with an unfolding story, which gave her more scope. Undaunted by this, I’m concentrating on the pleasure I had in composing Darcy’s imaginary words and the break that it provided from the hard graft of editing my novel. No writing is wasted. It’s like sketching is for an artist, the exercising of skills.

If you share my soft spot for Fitzwilliam Darcy, you might like to read my effort at putting myself into his shoes, and breeches…

Dearest, Loveliest, Elizabeth, 

You know – who better? – the difficulty I have always had in expressing my feelings. So, I take up my pen again, on this our first anniversary, to try and do better – and to explain how having you as my wife has transformed my life.

To begin with, I am no longer the man I was. Had my mother lived, she might have prevented me from becoming the self-satisfied prig you met at the Assembly Rooms at Meryton. She might have taught me that a living, breathing woman is so much more than a pair of fine eyes (entrancingly fine though yours are) and that knowledge of the fair sex should not be limited by lack of imagination.

When you promised to become my wife, it gave me pleasure to think of all that I could give you. Time, however, has shown me how obtuse that thought was – and what, instead, you have been able to gift to me. For you have become the teacher, and I the pupil.

Jealousy, of Wickham – and even of my excellent cousin, the Colonel, – helped to open my eyes to the value of things not material. And although I began by despising that opportunistic adventurer (an easy mistake, I fear), those feelings have changed to pity, for Wickham has always chosen pinchbeck over silver. Brass over gold. Transitory pleasure over lasting joy.

While you, my dearest, darling Lizzie, have taught me to be a man of sense and sensibility. Have taught me how to laugh. At your perceptive wit. At the nonsensical habits of society. At myself, and the fools we men so often make of ourselves.

When I now consider the marriages of my friends and acquaintances, I see too many wives transferred from the charge of their fathers into that of their husbands. The partnerships seem contented enough. But how blind they are to what might be – an alliance of equals, a communion of souls and bodies, a joint fortress against the vicissitudes of life.

For whenever I have my arms around you, my dearest heart, I am whole. You are the star in my night sky. My birdsong in the morning. And now that the two of us are so soon to become three, I cannot but observe that while my dear friend Bingley habitually smiles, I want to laugh out loud.

Your devoted husband,

Fitzwilliam

If, like the Val Wood judges, you weren’t seduced by my Darcy letter, you may prefer something in a more modern style, as composed by another member of ninevoices…

From: veb@bott.co.uk

To: wbrown@rcomptonchambers.com

29 February 2020 21.34

Superman

That’s what you’ll always be to me. Superman. I don’t suppose any of us would’ve thought that you would grow up to become a human rights lawyer. Getting that awful unelected, manipulative toad convicted was just so brilliant. Superman.

But then to me you were super boy, always taking on the world with your colander tin helmet and wooden sword, righting wrongs. You were the leader. The Outlaws followed wherever you led them. Outlaws, that was ironic, seeing that you became an upholder of the law.

I wanted so desperately to join your gang. I don’t blame you for not letting me. Thanks to Mummy I was never appropriately dressed for games in the woods. You were always kind to me and I like to think that was your genuine good nature and not because I was the brat who threatened to make myself sick by screaming. Actually, I couldn’t. You probably knew that. You were so clever. And obviously you still are.

A human rights lawyer. My hero. You know Hubert Lane is a hedge-fund manager. Fitting. We could’ve forecast that one, but did you know he wanted Daddy to register his company in the Caymans? But Daddy was having none of that. ‘I pay my taxes, he said, ‘besides I have my work cut out planning how to reduce the sugar content in Bott’s Table Sauce.’

I think my early hero worship of you was the basis of what became my love for you. I should be more like your sister Ethel and wait for a man’s proposal. That’s what this is, dearest Willyam – I always think of you like that because that’s how you used to say it. Look at the date, my darling. Please don’t make me wait another four years to take advantage.

Darling, I’m not asking for a ring, a white dress and all that pomp. We’re a modern couple and don’t need it. Sweetheart, isn’t it time that you and I moved in together? You could come to the Mayfair apartment Daddy bought for me. I somehow think that is not for you though. I’d be happy to come to yours in Islington.

What do you say, darling, darling Superman?

Yours for ever, Vi

If any of our followers fancy sending us their imaginary love letter, either for Valentine’s Day or as a celebration of Leap Year – just for the fun of it, no prizes, unfortunately – we’d love to see them. Sometimes we need to be reminded that writing is what we do to enrich and enliven our days. 

Happy Valentine’s Day!

 

 

 

The Impostor Syndrome

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                                An imaginary cafe conversation

Leo:    Is this seat free? All the other tables are taken.

Franz:  I’m sorry. Let me clear my stuff away.

Leo:     Thanks. Haven’t I seen you here before? With your notebook?

Franz:  I expect so. I come because it’s usually quiet. And the coffee’s good.

Leo:     Forgive me asking, but you aren’t a fellow writer, are you?

Franz:   I only play at it. I studied chemistry at university, changed to law, then ended up in an insurance office. Writing’s what I do to keep sane.

Leo:     Tell me about it. I’m stuck in a bank, but dream of being a poet.

Franz:   My working hours are a nightmare: eight at night until six the next morning. That’s why I escape here. Though I sometimes wonder why I bother.

Leo:     Perhaps because of the people you’re going to inspire with your writing one day?

Franz:  I can see why you’re a poet. With that active imagination…

Leo:     I presume it’s fiction you write?

Franz:  Usually. Though I’ve also dabbled with journalism. Not very successfully.

Leo:     But you’re published?

Franz:   A few short stories.

Leo:     That’s great! Anything I might have read?

Franz:   I doubt it. The publications were obscure. I had one single review.

Leo:     Still, you mustn’t give up.

Franz:   My friend, I’ve THREE separate novels in my desk drawer. Not one of them finished, never mind published. And my health’s not good, which is a trial. I’d be better off spending my free time in the steam baths at the sanitorium.

Leo:     You must keep going. Think of all the creative effort you’ve invested.

Franz:   That’s what my friend Max says. My father thinks I’m a waste of space, but at least someone encourages me.

Leo:     Well, any time I see you in here I’d be honoured to do the same.

Franz: That’s generous of you. Now, I need to get going. But it’s good to meet another writer. Helps me feel less of an impostor.

Leo:     I’m sure you’re not that. But let’s at least exchange names. I’m Leo.

Franz:   And I’m Franz. Goodbye.

 

When Franz Kafka died of TB in 1924 in Prague, aged only forty, he was an unknown writer. His three novels were unfinished and unpublished. His few published stories had won no prizes and attracted a solitary review. It was only following his funeral that his writer friend, Max Brod, investigated his desk and unearthed genius. 

We are unlikely to become Kafkas, but hopefully we won’t need to be discovered posthumously and hopefully we will find friends to encourage our efforts.

 

(The excellent photograph above was taken by Ed, our solitary male ‘voice’, who often visits Prague with his lovely wife, Jitka, and presumably polished off that gorgeous piece of cake after setting aside his camera…)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Competitions to Enter in February

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Here is my picture of Jane Austen’s tiny writing desk at the Jane Austen House Museum at Chawton to inspire you.

Unagented writers yet to publish a full-length work could receive £1,500 an Arvon Course and mentoring in Spread the Word’s Life Writing Prize 2020. Send up to 5,000 words which may be a complete work or the beginning of a longer piece. In addition to the first prize, two highly commended writers will receive £500 and a mentor. The competition is free to enter, and the closing date February 3rd. Details: http://www.spreadtheword.org.uk/projects/life-writing-prize/   (Please refer to entry rules, since this writing must reflect ‘someone’s own life journey or references…and is not fiction.’)

Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook Short Story Competition for a 2,00-word story. Free entry, but you must register on http://www.writersandartists.co.uk Prize: Arvon residential writing course worth £1,000, plus publication. Deadline 13 February. Details: http://www.writersand-artists.co.uk/competitions

Spotlight First Novel Competition for a one-page synopsis plus the first page of an unpublished novel. Prize: mentoring package and website showcase. Entry fee: £16. Closing date: 14 February. Details: http://www.adventuresinfiction.co.uk

National Flash Fiction Day Micro-fiction Competition Story: up to three unpublished flashes of 100 words. Deadline 15 February. Entry fee: £2; £3.75 for two; £5.25 for three. Prizes: £100; £50; £25. Details: http://www.nationalflashfictionday.co.uk/index.php/competition

CWA Margery Allingham Short Story Competition, for stories up to 3,500 word, fitting Margery Allingham’s definition of a mystery story*. Prizes: £500, two passes to CrimeFest. Entry Fee: £12. Closing date: 29 February. Details: http://www.thecwa.co.uk/ShortStory/rules.html (*Note: “Mystery remains box-shaped, at once a prison and a refuge. Its four walls are, roughly, a Crime, a Mystery, an Enquiry and a Conclusion with an Element of Satisfaction in it.”)

CWA Debut Dagger Award for crime novels. Submit 3,000 words, plus 1,000 word synopsis. Prizes: £500. Entry fee: £36. Closing date: 29 February. Details: http://www.thecwa.co.uk

Exeter Writers Short Story Competition. 3,000 words. Entry fee: £7. Prizes: £700; £250; £100, plus £100 prize for writers in Devon. Details: http://www.exeterwriters.org.uk/p/competitions.html

Scottish Arts Club Short Story Competition for stories up to 2,000 words. Entry fee: £10. Prizes: £1,000; £500; £250; Deadline: 28 February. Details: http://www.storyawards.org

Fiction Factory Short Story Competition, maximum 3,000 words. (No children’s/YA stories) Entry fee: £6 (with optional critique £10). Prizes: £150; £50; £25; publication. Deadline 28 February. Details: fiction-factory.biz

Fish Flash Fiction Prize, maximum 300 words. Entry fee: 14 Euros for one; 8 Euros for subsequent entries. Prizes: 1,000 Euros; 300 Euros; online writing course; publication. Deadline 28 February. Details: http://www.fishpublishing.com/flash-fiction-contest.

Flash 500 Short Story Competition, 1,000-3,000 words. Prizes: £500; £200; £100. Entry fee: £7 for one story, £12 for two; £16 for three; £20 for four, plus optional critiques. Deadline: 28 February. Details: http://www.flash500.com

Kelpies Prizes for Writing and Illustration – Novel for children. Send the first five chapters plus synopsis: 11000-3000 words using a given sentence start. Writers must be Scottish and aged 18+. Prize: £1,000; mentoring; publishing contract with Floris Books; writing retreat or Picture Hooks 2020 Conference ticket.Deadline: 28 February. Details: discoverkelpies.co.uk

Please remember to check all details before entry in case we’ve misinterpreted or misread anything.

There’s plenty of potential here to let those imaginations run free – and I thought the Margery Allingham definition really helpful for almost all kinds of fiction writing…