How Proust can change you into a best-selling author

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It seems that self-promotion is now part and parcel of being a writer, whether self or traditionally published. But where should the line be drawn?

Discovering that Marcel Proust, the creator of the iconic In Search of Lost Time, cunningly wrote a critic’s review citing the first volume Swann’s Way as a ‘little masterpiece … almost too luminous for the eye’ will hardly shock anyone in the business today. Proust was just ahead of his time.

Authors are bombarded with advice on how to promote their books, especially on social media. While it isn’t ever suggested that posting fake reviews of their own work is a good idea, the advice to authors is relentless, even ruthless, enough. There is no room for shrinking violets in this game.

Readers certainly like to be informed about a new book by an author but they may well begin to feel annoyed and manipulated if the chasing is too hard-boiled. Like ‘an insane cuckoo clock’ was the expression describing it that caught my eye when researching the subject on the internet. Is this what marketing on social media can turn into? The last thing many writers feel like being part of.

But I can feel Proust egging me on. Maybe not to write a lyrical review about a ‘little masterpiece’ of my own, but to point to a couple of prize-winning short stories in ninevoices’ writings. Maggie Davies’ Till Death Do Us Part won a Henshaw Press competition and Tanya van Hasselt’s Marshmallow Truth won the subscribers ‘Changes’ competition in Writing Magazine. Whilst the writing style in the latter story is nothing like that of my two self-published novels, it was both fun and fulfilling to try something new. Thank you Writing Magazine for this encouragement. 

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If God Spare My Life…

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My husband’s recent re-ordering of our modest library led me to rediscover this powerful book by Brian Moynahan about religious intolerance and the brave man who translated the word of God into English.

Moynahan’s heart-stopping biography of the young Gloucestershire tutor forced to flee England in 1524 in order to safely translate the Bible into English is as much thriller as history. It brims with exhumations, double-agents, whispered confidences, poisoned soup and brutal burnings. There are unfamiliar glimpses of Anne Boleyn alongside the familiar autocratic ones of Henry VIII. Sir Thomas More, sadly, does not come out of it well. Indeed, it is less familiar figures like Thomas Bilney, who show unimaginable heroism. It is not an easy read. There is faith. Hope. But scant charity.

The agents of Tudor England caught up with Tyndale in the end. On the 6th October 1536, in Vilvoorde, just outside Brussels, he was bound to a stake with iron chains, with a noose around his neck. In the brief period he was allowed to pray, Foxe tells us he cried out  in a loud voice: ‘Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.’ He was then strangled and burned, although it is said he was still living as the flames engulfed him. His executioner was instructed to add fuel to the flames until the body was utterly consumed, after which even the ashes were disposed of (probably in the nearby River Zenne) to obliterate any traces that might remain. His words, however, will surely survive as long as we have the English language. His prose has enriched the work of writers from William Shakespeare to Alan Bennett and has lessons even for stumbling novices like myself.

Tyndale’s unique contribution was that he was translating the Bible into English for the first time from the original texts in Greek and Hebrew. Moynahan ‘s biography makes particular mention of his use of verbs: ‘…he wrote at the infancy of the written language [for] it was common for people to read aloud, even when alone; and it is this habit, and Tyndale’s studies in rhetoric at Oxford, that accounts…for the charm and thunder that soar from the English Bible when it is spoken from the lectern.’ [Tyndale uses] ‘verbs where less flowing writers use nouns and adjectives…creating a cadence and sense of immediacy.’

This terrific book is still available, though now only on eBay or through specialist bookshops. It is not the easiest of reads, but it is rich with lessons, not only for those seeking to know how even the ‘boy that driveth the plough‘ came to have first-hand access to the Bible, but for those striving to write prose with a powerful punch.  We must follow Tyndale’s example: short words; short sentences, and, above all, those potent verbs.

This Friday will mark 481 years since Tyndale’s death. What better time to remember a brave and gifted man, and everything we English-speakers owe him.

 

Competitions to Enter in October

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The Dorset Fiction Award has a prize of £500, with anthology publication. Entries must be under 1,000 words, on any theme, and the entry fee is £7. You need not be resident in Dorset. Their deadline is 15 October and full details can be found on their website: dorsetfictionaward.co.uk

The National Poetry Competition has a first prize of £5,000, a second prize of £2,000 and a third prize of £1,000. All this, plus the chance to receive international acclaim for your work. There are also seven commendations which will earn £200 each. Entry is £6.50 for a first poem, with £3.50 per poem thereafter. Deadline 31 October. Details: poetrysociety.org.uk/npc

Southport Writers’ Circle has launched its Annual Short Story Competition for original, unpublished short fiction on any theme, up to 2,000 words. The first prize is £150, the Second Prize £80 and the Third Prize £30. Winning stories will be published online. Entry is £3 per story, or four for £10. Closing date 31 October. Details http://www.swconline.co.uk

Troubadour Poetry Prize for a poem of 45 lines. Entry: £6 for first poem, then £4. Prizes: £2,000; £1,000; £500. Deadline 16 October. Details: http://www.coffeehousepoetry.org/prizes.

RW Flash Fiction Prize. Up to 500 words in any genre except children’s. Entry: £10 for one entry; £18 for two; £25 for three. Prizes: £250; £150; £75; £15, plus publication.  Also RW Short Story Prize, for 1500-4000 words. Entry £15 for one entry, £28 for two; £35 for three. Prizes: £350; £200; £100; £20. Deadline 29 October. Details: retreatwest.co.uk/competitions/the-rw-short-story-prize.

NAWG Open Short Story Competition. 500-2000 words. Entry: £5, plus £5 for optional critique. Prizes: £200; £100; £50. Deadline 31 October. Details: http://www.nawg.co.uk/5658

There are also regular quarterly short story competitions by organisations such as Henshaw Press, who look for stories up to 2000 words. The Entry fee is £5, with prizes of £100; £50; £25. Details: henshawpress.co.uk.

As ever, we recommend that you double-check all details before entering.

 

 

Poetry, Please.

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How better to celebrate National Poetry Day than to share with you words penned by our resident poet, Jane, on the birth of a grandchild?

Reuben was one of the poems in Jane’s book Fragments of Love, the title poem of which was originally printed in The Times in February 2010 as Love’s Fragments.

Jane generously donated profits from Fragments of Love to the ‘Cinderella’ charity PMRGCAuk, which supports sufferers from the painfully debilitating condition, polymyalgia rheumatica.

Being any kind of writer is hard. Being a poet is almost impossible. Let’s celebrate every last one of them on this, their day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Congrat…s!

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For many of us there are new words or new usages that we love to hate – or maybe just hate. Some of us dislike the increasingly widened use of ‘curate’ (as in a museum, not an apprentice vicar!), or of ‘paradigm’ (I’m sure it has a proper meaning, even if what that is escapes me …). For me a recent one has been ‘Congrats!’. For some reason it has grated on me. Irritated me beyond measure.

Sir Cliff didn’t sing ‘Congrats!”. What would have come next – ‘And celebrats!’? I don’t think that’d have come second in Eurovision. Twenty-second, perhaps.

Which words or usages have this effect on you?

When you’re writing, can you bring yourself to put these words into the mouths of your characters? If you just hate the unliteral use of ‘literally’, would you make one of your characters use it as showing rather than telling an aspect of their characters? Or, perhaps, are you so annoyed by it that you wouldn’t want any piece of work with your name on it to contain this solecism? Tricky one, eh?

I’ve changed my mind on ‘Congrats!’, for two reasons. The first was seeing Rafael Nadal use it twice in his victory speech after having just won the American Open: if one of the best tennis players the world has even seen can use it, speaking in a language not his mother tongue, clutching one of the sport’s biggest prizes, then who am I to criticise …

The second reason is more prosaic. I was composing a tweet. I needed to cut some characters to keep within the magic 140. And, yes, it was ‘ulation’ that went. There. I’ve admitted it. I’ve used it myself. It’s not so bad.

Christmas murder stories

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Each year I try to write a Christmas short story, usually with a murder in it. With varying success. I find I have contradictory emotions on just having finished The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by the great PD James. On the one hand I realise that what I produce comes nowhere near the quality of these stories. On the other, I’m spurred to greater effort.

These four stories aren’t festive tales.  And at the same time they are so atmospheric. PD teases us about what we’re reading: in one she says that the butler and his wife, the cook, are “indispensable small-part characters in any country-house murder”; and in another Adam Dalgliesh is flagged down on a country road on Christmas Eve, when “… his first thought was that he had somehow become involved in one of those Christmas short stories written to provide a seasonal frisson for the readers on an upmarket weekly magazine.”

The Mistletoe Murder (1995) is set in wartime, at a Christmas house-party in a practically empty country house. The period is well evoked, as is a pervading sadness. A gruesome killing takes place and there are very few suspects. The clues are there for us, but I didn’t manage to work it out. The ending was beautifully unexpected. A story told with real atmosphere.

A Very Commonplace Murder (1969) is a sordid story set in Camden Town, involving a voyeur who spies on lovers in a house opposite his place of work. The scene of adultery becomes a scene of murder.

The Boxdale Inheritance (1979) is an Adam Dalgliesh story.   He is asked by an elderly Canon (his godfather) to investigate a murder that happened in 1902. An inheritance depends on it. That ancient crime took place in another gloomy large house, with a family assembled for Christmas, a family riven (as is de rigueur in such a setting) by jealousy and greed. Unbreakable alibis abound. The principal clue to the solution is presented to the reader but in such a way that I sailed straight past it.

The Twelve Clues of Christmas (1996) also features Adam Dalgliesh. One Christmas Eve he finds himself at an unwelcoming Harkerville Hall, deep in Suffolk, faced with a bizarre apparent suicide. Again, members of a divided family are in attendance. Our hero solves the mystery by spotting the twelve clues of the title.

He concludes that story by observing, ”My dear Aunt Jane, I don’t think I’ll ever have another case like it. It was pure Agatha Christie.’” You’re too modest, Lady James.

Talking of Agatha Christie – one of the few whodunits I’ve read a second time is Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, which I reread in order to see where the clues to the solution were. And yes, the main clue is there: as clear as day when you know its significance, but when read the first time it’s hidden in plain sight as just a piece of description. Similar to that in The Boxdale Inheritance.

So: if at this early stage you’re looking for a seasonal stocking-filler for a whodunit-lover, The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories would fit the bill. And if you’re yourself a writer of Christmas short stories, here’s a standard to aim for!

The most delightful competition ever

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If you are a fan of Barbara Pym and looking for the perfect short story competition to enter, the Barbara Pym Society’s 2018 Ellen J Miller Memorial competition could be made for you.

What could be more blissful than the brief which is that entries must prominently feature one or more characters from Barbara Pym’s published novels, in any setting or situation the author chooses? Readers of Barbara Pym know how her characters continue to live beside them, in moments of recognition, both painful and comic, while offering endlessly comforting human solidarity …

The prize for the winning entry is $250 and the story will be read at the Society’s annual North American Conference held in Boston March 2018. The deadline is 4 December. Details at http://www.barbara-pym.org/

 

 

Ninevoices Summer Competition – the winner!

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Ninevoices are delighted to announce that the winner of our Summer Competition is ‘The Last Walk’ by Karen Martyn. Congratulations, Karen! The prize of £100 will soon be coming your way.

In our competition entrants had to use one or more words taken from a list of little-known words with meanings related to nature, such as smeuse (Sussex dialect for a hole in a hedge left by the repeated passage of a small animal – see photo) or petrichor (the smell of dry earth and rock that comes before and during rainfall). The required length was 99 to 199 words.

Our decision came after much discussion (really!). Entries came from across the world – from three continents, in fact. We were impressed by the imagination and ingenuity shown in the way our chosen words were deployed.

A close runner-up was ‘Stop the Rain’ by Christina Dalcher.

Special mention should also be given to the following entries:

‘Before and After’

‘The Mangrove Mist’

‘The Scent of Descent’

‘The Gloaming’

Our thanks to all those who sent us entries. Sorry there could be only one winner!

Synopsis? What Synopsis?

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I’m almost purring with pleasure as I put the final tweaks in place for my entry to Mslexia’s Women’s Novel Competition 2017. Why? Not because I expect to win – though squeezing onto any long list would be awesome – but because THEY DON’T REQUIRE A SYNOPSIS. Thank you, Mslexia! I always knew you were great people.

This is almost unheard of, and most welcome. Writing a synopsis is worse than cleaning the oven after a blackberry and apple crumble has erupted and left a pumice-hard lava flow.

If you don’t have your own entry poised to go, you still have until 18 September. Plenty of time, especially as there’s no synopsis to agonise over.

Must go and wash my whiskers now, before having another tweak.

(The picture above, incidentally, is of Gizzie, our newish rescue cat – who spent most of her second day with us up a chimney. With a tail like that, maybe we should start a chimney sweep business…)