New York City Midnight Short Story Challenge 2019

Are you looking for something to kick-start your writing in 2019? Are you resolving to enter more competitions and get feedback? Do you like the excitement of a tight deadline?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these, the New York City Midnight Short Story Challenge might be just the thing to get you energised for 2019.

There are three rounds to the competition. In the first round you have eight days to write a 2,500 word story, to a given genre and prompt (time to get out of your comfort zone!).

If you make it to round two, there are three days to write 2,000 words using different prompts.

In the final round there are twenty-four hours to write 1,500 words.

Every story submission receives feedback from the judges, plus you can choose to post it on a special review forum to get feedback from other competitors.

There are cash prizes for the top ten winners, ranging from $5,000 to $125.

As you might expect, given the size of the prizes, this is not a cheap competition. If you register before 13th December (be quick!) it’s $45 and after that it’s $55 but there is a $5 discount if you post on Facebook or Twitter to help advertise the competition.

This is a competition with no time for procrastination. Why not ask Santa for the entry fee?

With thanks to Alison Jean Lester for recommending this competition during her Improv for Writers course . She took part in the competition last year with some success at progressing through the rounds.

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Why Book Tokens Make Great Presents

Which would you prefer to unwrap on Christmas Day, an Amazon gift card or a Book Token?

I’d go for the Book Token every time, for several reasons:

  • A Book Token means that I have to indulge and buy a book. On Amazon there’s a danger of being ‘good’ and buying something boring that you need, like an iron or a set of saucepans.
  • A Book Token promises me an outing to a real bookshop where I can enjoy the smell of new books. I can pick them up and read the blurb. I can sit in an armchair and try out the first few pages. And if I’m in one of the bigger stores, I can enjoy a coffee before deciding on my final book selection. ‘Looking inside’ just isn’t the same.
  • Buying online means clicking straight through to the bestseller everyone is talking about or automatically buying the new release of an author I know I enjoy. A Book Token offers the luxury of browsing. Other authors, new to me, will be sitting alongside the familiar – and maybe I might be tempted to step out of my comfort zone and try something new.
  • Book Tokens create business for bookshops. Do we really want a future where all our book buying has to be done online?

National Book Tokens began in 1932 when publisher Harold Raymond noticed that very few books were given as Christmas gifts because people were afraid of buying the wrong book. In 1982 the Queen attended National Book Tokens’ 50th birthday party and in 2010 National Book Tokens changed to a gift card format.

National Book tokens are not dinosaurs. They do have an online presence and they can be spent (on books not irons!) online in selected book chains. Have a look at Caboodle from National Book Tokens for offers, events, competitions and to buy tokens online (you can even design your own).

Which would you prefer to unwrap on Christmas Day, an Amazon gift card or a Book Token? Which will you be giving to family and friends?

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How to Converse with a Writer

Writers are tough people, we are used to rejection and stonewalling from editors, agents and the like. We do not take criticism personally because we know it is only a particular submission that is not up to scratch or does not fit the publication, not the writer herself.

But when it comes to conversing one-to-one with strangers outside of the writing industry we become defensive and touchy about our work. This is especially true of the many thousands of us yet to hit the big time. So, non-writers, when you are introduced to Fred, a writer, at a party, please observe the following rules otherwise he may run away screaming:

  1. Do not say to Fred, ‘Have you written anything I will have heard of?’ Unless you are speaking to J.K. Rowling or E.L. James, the answer will be no. If you are speaking to J.K. Rowling or E.L. James, they will have been introduced as such. It’s far better to ask Fred, ‘What type of thing do you write?’
  2.  If Fred says, ‘I write short stories’, do not dismiss that as ‘not proper writing’. The craft of bringing life to character and plot in a very short word count is difficult. Even more so when writing to the guidelines and themes of specific publications or competitions. Show admiration for the fact that Fred knows how to make every word earn its place.
  3. Do not ask Fred how many books he has sold or why you’ve never seen his books on the display tables in Waterstones. Most writers are not big sellers. Think about the millions of books available on Amazon – it’s impossible for us all to be in the top ten. It’s impossible for every book shop to stock us all. Low sales do not equate to a bad book. Low sales may just be symptomatic of a low marketing budget.
  4. If Fred says he is self-published, do not lose interest. In the past, self-publishing may have been tainted by amateurish books, now this has mostly changed for the better. Self-published authors are power houses of industry. They write, they seek constructive criticism of their manuscript, they use professional editors and proof readers, they learn to format a book, they take on the task of publicity and marketing AND they get on with the task of writing the next book. If Fred says he is self-published ask for his card and make a point of ‘looking inside’ his book on Amazon. It might tempt you to buy.
  5. Don’t tell Fred you’ve written a great a book and ask him to read the manuscript and give an opinion on it. Most writers won’t have time. They will either have a ‘day’ job or several writing-related irons in the fire in order to make a living. Writing on its own rarely pays a living wage. Instead say, ‘Fred, I value your opinion. How much would you charge to read my manuscript?’
  6. DO say, ‘Wow! A real life writer. Let me jot down the title of your book. I’ll give it a try. If I like it I’ll write a review and tell my friends.’ Then keep your word – you’ll make a hardworking writer very happy.

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Speaking About Writing

Over the past month I’ve done a few speaking engagements. Audiences have included a reading group, a writing group and a couple of social groups for the over fifties. Speaking at Tamworth Writers

I’ve noted down a few of the things I’ve learned along the way:

  1. If using a microphone hold it close to the lips. If you move your head, move the microphone as well – otherwise your voice will fade out!
  2. If you open the floor to questions at the end and none is immediately forthcoming, jump in with, ‘One question I’m often asked is …..’ and then you can talk about whatever you want.
  3. Forty-five minutes is a long time to talk and a long time to listen. Maintain attention and renew your speaking energy by breaking the speech into modules or topics. Every time you change module you’ll get a new burst of enthusiasm and the slight change of subject will keep the interest of the audience.
  4. If you pose a question or ask for a show of hands, be prepared in case you don’t get the response you’d hoped for. A quick quip up your sleeve can be useful in this situation.
  5. Keep readings from your work short.
  6. Use as few notes as possible.
  7. Project your enthusiasm.
  8. Remember the audience is on your side. They want to enjoy your talk.
  9. Enjoy it!

The picture was taken at Tamworth Writers’ Group by the lovely Debbie Murphy of Missfit Creations.

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BBC Radio 4 : Any Questions

Birmingham Literature Festival 2018 is currently underway and one of the first events was an edition of the BBC Radio 4 political panel show, Any Questions. It was broadcast live from Birmingham Repertory Theatre last night (5th October) and repeated again today. I was in the audience for the show (if you listen carefully I’m sure you can pick out my particular clapping!) and, although I’m not a political animal, I thoroughly enjoyed it. BBC Radio 4 Any Questions

When we arrived, the theatre was surrounded by men in high-vis jackets clearing away the security cordons (fences and concrete bollards) that had been put in place for the Conservative Party Conference – the theatre is only a few paces from the International Convention Centre. We were reminded of the conference again by the ‘warm up’ lady, Midlands BBC political journalist Kathryn Stanczyszyn, who did a great job of recapping the week’s main political events and taking us through the clapping warm-up. We did polite clapping, middling clapping and extremely enthusiastic clapping.

On arrival the audience were asked to write down any questions they’d like to ask the panel. Ten questions were chosen and the questioners brought down to sit in the front row. Then the chair, Jonathan Dimbleby and the four members of the panel were brought on to the stage, Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott, President of the Greater Birmingham Chamber of Commerce Saquib Bhatti, MP for Rutland and Melton Sir Alan Duncan and the SNP Health Spokesperson Philippa Whiford. With minutes to go before live broadcast, an audience member posed the warm-up question, “What is your favourite Abba track?” The panel’s answers were used as a sound check. We heard the 8 pm pips, the news headlines and then Jonathan Dimbleby was live on air introducing the panel.

Lively discussion followed on Brexit, Theresa May, austerity and the possibility of cyber rather than physical warfare. As opinions bounced from the panelists, the audience graduated through the three types of clapping and added shouts as well. The final question book-ended the warm-up question, “Theresa May came onto the conference platform to ‘Dancing Queen’. What song would you choose?”

Verdict on the evening: Very interesting and I was amazed at how calm the production team and panel were, given it was a live broadcast. I would’ve been a nervous wreck! If you get the chance, go along (it’s free!) or apply to host the show at a venue near you.

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Sustainable Societies Competition – Advance Notice

In 2019 the University of Southampton will be launching a writing competition based on the theme ‘Sustainable Societies’.

Why am I telling you this now, so far in advance? Because most of the competition categories involve longer forms of writing that take time to develop. Among the categories are:

  • Novel
  • Stage Play
  • Radio Drama/Comedy Series
  • Screenplay
  • Short Film
  • TV Series

All the competitions are free to enter and the prize pot for each category is expected to be £1000 distributed across the first, second and third prize winners.

All entries must, in some way, touch upon building a sustainable society with a positive angle. All genres are welcome. The competition website also says:

“The story doesn’t have to be about sustainability or climate change directly. A rom-com, for example, could be set in a society that replaces ownership with borrowing and the heroine goes to a clothes library to pick up a posh dress and borrow jewellery for her big date; or the hero in a crime drama could use a carbon credit card and hear the news in the background reporting on the wellbeing index instead of GDP; or the characters in a legal drama could live in a city where everyone has gardens on their roofs and generates energy from their own waste.”

So, there should be no problem writing in your preferred genre but including some mention of how the characters and society are living in a sustainable way.

If you’re looking for a new, long-term writing project, why not give this a go? Who knows where it might lead!

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Live Fiction

Have you ever tried reading aloud to an audience?

Picture by A.A. Abbott

Recently I took part in my first fiction evening. It was organised by thriller writer A. A. Abbott (aka Helen) and held at the Gunmakers’ Arms in Birmingham (worth a visit – it’s a lovely traditional pub). When Helen invited me to take part I was a bit dubious, talking to an audience is one thing but trying to hold their attention for several minutes while reading aloud is another. It’s far easier to build audience rapport when you can make constant eye contact, talk with your hands to make a point and ask rhetorical questions to get the audience thinking. Reading aloud means the audience has to concentrate all the time, if they tune out they lose the thread of the story – it’s essential to keep the audience with you. But I decided to give it a go – the worst that could happen would be seven minutes of boredom for the audience.

On the night Helen was a great compere, introducing us all with enthusiasm, live tweeting photos and making sure it all went smoothly. I chose one of my shorter stories (worried about holding audience interest!) that had been published in The Weekly News and also appears in A Coffee Break Story Collection. I practised it several times at home, getting the hang of looking up at the audience without losing my place. I think it went OK – nobody shuffled, people had their eyes on me when I glanced at the audience and there was clapping at the end. The other seven performers were terrific with great stories and some haiku too.

Would I do it again (if invited!) ? I think so but I’d choose a different kind of story. For me the stories that worked best on the night were those with a very strong central character going through an unusual event/experience and very few minor characters. It’s essential that the audience is immediately interested in the main protagonist and not distracted by other characters. Possibly that’s how all short stories should be written anyway.

If you’re going to be reading aloud in the near future take a look at these Tips for Reading Aloud which Julia Thorley kindly gave earlier this year.

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