Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Writing Resolution

A new year is drawing closer. It's almost time again to start feeling guilty about the Christmas binge, resolve to be healthier, be more productive, be... a 'better' person. And then feel terrible when we slip back into habits (or, normality).

So this year I'm setting myself only one writing target:

Write at least 500 words a week.

This is based on these three rules of resolution setting:

1. Set a realistic goal. Change something small that will have a big impact.

2. Set a measurable goal.
Writing 500 words a week is more solid that just 'writing more'. Unmeasurable goals lack focus, and are quickly abandoned.

3. Don't over-burden yourself. There may be a lot of targets you want to set yourself, but if you set yourself too many, you'll become disheartened if you don't acheive them all.

Good luck in your goals for next year. If you've set yourself some, please share what they are in the comments - I'd be interested to hear. If you haven't set any, any particular reason why not?

Friday, 11 December 2009

5 Things That Helped Me Get a Job in Publishing

So, I've been working at Pearson Education for about two months now. I feel so lucky to have a job at the moment, especially in a competitive business such as publishing. I remember going to the interview, being extremely nervous. My voice probably trembled; I couldn't answer all the questions. But the interview lasted for nearly two hours, so I thought that had to be a good sign.

I really didn't expect to get the job. But luckily for me, I did. And I've been reflecting back on what I thought went right for me. What advice could I offer to others trying to break into the publishing industry?

Here are five things that I think helped me get my job as an editorial assistant:

1. An independent project

While I was looking for a job, I edited, created and (self)published an anthology with the writers of an online writing forum. (I wrote a post on this here: 'Shot Glass Stories - Reflections on Editing an Anthology'). I took a copy along with me to the interview. Even though I only had a proof copy (with a typo on the front page), and the story that my interviewers read was about a one night stand, they seemed pretty interested in it. I guess that this showed that I was enthusiastic about publishing, and capable of managing my own project. I imagine that it also made me stick in the minds of my interviewers - I wonder if anyone else they interviewed had anything like that?

2. My degree

More and more people these days are going to university and getting a degree. I went to a pretty decent university, and studied English Literature with Creative Writing. Fairly relevant to the publishing industry. I had considered trying to get a Masters degree in Publishing, but I was lucky enough not to have to do this. Some of the other editorial assistants at my work place have Publishing Masters, though; doing an MA in Publishing is still a good option if you are trying to get into the industry.

3. Work experience
I spent a few weeks gaining some experience by working for a small publishing house called Whittet Books. It was really great. I only did about four or five hours a day, and worked from the publisher's office in her house. Shirley was really, really lovely and I loved helping out with the books. If I hadn't done this experience, I would not have got my job at Pearson: it was Shirley's relative who told me of the vacancy. Plus, I learned some valuable inside information about the publishing industry.

4. Who you know
It is not just what you know, but definitely who you know, too. My mother's partner's daughter-in-law (yeah... I think that's right) works in a book distributor's. They recently bought out a small publishing house. They needed an extra pair of hands... thus, work experience at Whittet. You know the rest. So, my point is, exploit your contacts! Ask around. Socialise and integrate with people who are already in the business. They might be able to point you in the right direction.

5. Research and preparation
After submitting my CV, I was called for an interview. But I was also given a couple of research tasks to complete before the interview. I took the whole day off working for Whittet to focus on this. I took a good three hours or so researching these tasks, and then another good three hours or so writing it up and presenting it well. I wasn't confident that I had done this well enough, but my interviewers seemed to like that I had printed off copies of my work for them - I think they only expected me to talk about it. I also researched Pearson, since I didn't honestly know a great deal about them. I felt well prepared for my interview.

There are a few other things I think helped. But these are perhaps the main ones. And, as always, a little luck wouldn't go amiss!

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Interview with Vanessa Gebbie, Editor of 'Short Circuit'

A short while ago, author and editor Vanessa Gebbie very kindly asked me if I'd like to host an interview with her on my blog as part of her virtual book tour of Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story. I was more than happy to oblige. So, here is my very first interview.

Welcome to the blog, Vanessa. So, how did the idea for Short Circuit come about? How did you decide which writers would be included, and the topics that they would write about?

It came about during a wander round Cork in September 2008 with Salt director Jen Hamilton-Emery, after the Frank O’Connor Festival lunch with the amazing Jhumpa Lahiri. We were blathering, as you do, and I said, ‘You’ve got a gap in your provision’. Which did not refer to her coat being unbuttoned on a cold afternoon...
It was true. Salt had a how-to book for poetry, written by Jen’s husband, poet and fellow director, Chris. But nowt for the short story. Jen sent me an email a week or so later, saying ‘that idea of yours? Do it!’.

How did I pick the contributors? Easy. I had met a few short story prize winners on the circuit and through networking, superb writers who also happened to be experienced writing teachers– so I went to them first. (Er… when I say prize winners, I mean from the top comps - The National Short Story Prize, Bridport, Fish et al… it seems there are zillions of ‘prize winners’ these days, from comps organised by god knows who or what. It’s important to make the distinction, sadly.)

‘Please would you write a chapter for a new book?’ I said to them ‘Let me know what craft element you would like to talk about. And I also want you to talk about what it is like being a writer. Your writing processes. How to use the craft and how you work. And I want lists of stories you love. Oh, and a few writing exercises. Would that be OK?’

I asked 23 writers, and 22 said yes straight away. I think that’s right…amazingly, the craft elements panned out brilliantly without too much interference from me.

What was it like to edit Short Circuit? Tell me a little bit about the process. What were the challenges of the role, and what were the perks?

It was lovely. I just let them get on with it, after agreeing broad parameters for each contributor. It was important to have them speak, in their words, their voices, their thoughts. Not to have me interfering. I was just ringmaster, working with friends or almost-friends, people who were equally passionate about writing and about the short story in particular. The challenges have to include working to necessary deadlines, and herding writers is like herding cats only harder. I also had to shelve my own writing for a long while as I found I couldn’t do both at the same time. But it was fun. I got to know one or two of the writers better through the process, and I value that hugely.

There are quite a few books in the current market about the writing process. Specifically, what makes Short Circuit different? What do you think makes it stand out from the crowd?

There are some very good ones, but there are also some duff ones. I have found many how-to books unhelpful, purely because they are a single voice telling me how they write. And in the end, my response is ‘Oh OK, so that’s how YOU do it. But what about the others?’

Of course, that is a gross over-simplification. Many single-author books cover valuable craft information and guidance. But in the end, I often feel short-changed, and end up reacting against what I’m being ‘told’ to do!

When I was given the commission to do Short Circuit, I went back to first principles and decided to put together the book I would have loved when I started out. And that meant this:

1. It would be written not by one successful writer but by many.

2. It would treat the reader as an intelligent adult, not as a kid who knows nothing.

3. The writers would be top prize winners as well as well-published, (meaning they could write!) but also, I wanted them to be gifted writing teachers as well.

4. It would cover the craft elements in a systematic way, but from many different voices, different perspectives. It would allow me to discover which voices chimed with mine.

5. It would give me ideas for further exploration. Not ‘writing exercises’, as such… but ideas to expand my own experience, ways to broaden my writing practice.

6. The processes described would be totally personal. Each writer would reveal a little of themselves, talk about 'behind the scenes', if you like.

7. The writers would not necessarily agree with each other. Give me 100 writers and I bet you have 100 different ways of approaching the job.

8. The writers would be honest. They would talk about their own ups and downs and their own strategies for unlocking their creativity. They would not make writing out to be something easy, but something engaging and part of them as people.

9. It would be like sitting down with a series of friends, who just happen to be strong writers…friends who want to share their love of writing with you.

10. It would NOT be stuffy and academic. Although it would need to cover tough topics, it must do that engagingly – not make the newer writer feel small. Just fired up!

You tell me – Did I do any or all of that??

I'd say so, pretty much! You wrote a chapter of the book on short story openings. What made you decide to write about that, and if you could have written on a second topic, what would it have been?

I just waited until I knew what they were all doing, what topics they were covering -then added what was missing. A few had mentioned short story openings in passing, and their importance, but no one else wanted to concentrate solely on that. I think story openings are so fundamental, not only to the story but to the process of writing them… so it was a perfect one for me to tackle. And I put it at the end. Because you’ve never finished, with this writing stuff, have you? You just assimilate info and start again.

I also have a chapter on writing for competitions. It was commissioned originally by The New Writer magazine.

If I’d done another (which I wouldn’t…!) it would have been on theme. (On the ‘why’ of the writing, not the plot!). But that was already done far better than I ever could.

Some of the chapters in the book are interviews with other writers – with you as the interviewer. Could you tell me a little bit about your interviewing process? What, in your opinion, makes a good interview?

Yup. Two writers (Tobias Hill and Clare Wigfall) wanted to contribute, but time and work constraints meant they couldn’t write entire chapter-essays. So we decided to have conversations instead, with me wielding a pen and paper and scribbling notes. I had wonderful natters over the phone with Clare and with Tobias. Hours of phone bill! I had questions ready, after they decided what areas they would like to concentrate on. And then I just let the conversation run as they will.

What makes a good interview? One in which it is natural, flows well, and gets the information across in an interesting way, in which the interviewer probes a bit, perhaps? But in which the interviewee says exactly what they mean in their own words and voice. I sent both writers my draft chapters, and they tweaked the drafts. Nice people!

Each chapter in the book ends with some writing exercises. I’ve always thought that different writing exercises work for different kinds of writers. Do you do many writing exercises? If so, can you give us a few examples of the exercises you’ve personally found most useful?

Some of the writers added ‘ideas for exploration’ – and others didn’t. Salt Publishing decided they wanted them after each chapter, to standardise the book, and so either the writers had another think and came up with something, or I did.

I like trying different things, personally. I find it good to stretch the writing muscles, and try things out that you don’t do normally.

The best one, for me, is doing flash writing. It’s a great buster of writer’s block, and opens up all sorts of good things, if you let it.

The book’s subtitle is The Guide to the Art of the Short Story, but many of the contributors talk about flash fiction, too. What do you think are the main differences between flash fiction and short stories? Is the writing process similar, or vastly different?

The only difference is the length. Written stories come in many different forms – and we love to label them. For me, the best length for a story is the length it wanted to be in the first place, without to much interference from the writer. If you think about it, all a ‘novel’ is is a very long story. A novella is a slightly ‘less long’ story. Etc etc! But I think many of the writers here are aware of the power of using the flash process when they write, as I outlined above. Letting go, and spilling out, then editing. Or not even editing much… sometimes it is possible to write publishable pieces very fast using flash techniques. Watch out for workshops from two of the Short Circuit contributors working in partnership on flash and flashing!

Your anthology of award-winning short stories, Words from a Glass Bubble (Salt Publishing), has had great success, and I hear you’ll soon be publishing a new anthology of shorts. What is it about writing short fiction that appeals to you? Have you ever tried to write a novel?

Glass Bubble
came out in March last year, and has done fine. It is ranked 16th by Salt in their league table of ‘bestsellers of all time’. (Which is slightly gigglesome – they’ve not been going for all time, but it’s still nice to know it has done relatively OK.) And yes, Ed’s Wife and Other Creatures comes out in the Spring of 2010. Not sure of the date yet. Ed’s Wife is a series of some 80-90 micro-fictions that began life as a daily flash fiction exercise on Critter’s Bar, and they had such fantastic responses from everyone, especially the blokes, who loved them. So I thought, hmm, I’m on to something here...

Why do I like writing short? Short stories are difficult to write well, and I like the challenge. I like the challenge of creating a believable world with believable characters doing something meaningful, in a paragraph or so, so that the reader wants to find out…

I also get bored easily. I’m not sure I have yet found something that will keep me engaged for a couple of years – and if I’m not engaged, the reader won’t be either. So although am writing something I call a novel, (which is approaching 100,000 words!), it is actually a linked series of short stories, linked characters, all set in the same place. I’ve been advised to apply for an Arts Council grant to polish it… we’ll see!

It’s been said that there is not much of a market for short fiction; it seems that a lot of people write it, but not many people read it. Would you say there was much truth in that statement?

No!!! Read The Short Review, Tania Hershman’s site dedicated to the review of short story collections. There are so many being published by mainstream and independent presses, she can’t keep up. They wouldn’t publish them if they don’t sell. It’s a business, after all.

Pulitzer prizes have been awarded to two short story collections in the last couple of years, and the number of enormous cash prizes being chucked at short stories is amazing (Sunday Times, National SS award, Manchester). And that just the ‘literary’ end, if that means owt.

The genre short story market seems huge and lucrative. Women’s short fiction thrives, horror shorts thrive, fantasy shorts thrive. Erotica shorts thrive. They are just different to novels. There doesn’t seem to be any problem, to this reader/writer.

And lastly, ‘Short Circuit’ is full of musings and advice about writing short stories. But if you could give aspiring writers only one piece of advice, what would it be?

Short Circuit is about writing well, full stop. Sure, the advice is focussed on the short forms, as that is what we love, and what Salt is known for. But many of us also love longer work too. Advice? I’d say this. Just write. Forget the length.

Good craft advice is diamond stuff, and it applies whether you are writing a tiny micro-piece or a novel. It applies whether you write horror, fantasy, literary, crime, women’s romances or commercial. Just write. But write as well as you can. There’s no point in not.

My Mum used to say, ‘If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well’ Thanks Mum!

Thanks Sophie for such brilliant questions, and for hosting me and my new baby on our travels!

Thank you, Vanessa.

Click to buy Short Circuit from Salt Publishing with a 20% discount.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

7 Weeks as an Editorial Assistant

Time has flown. I can't believe it has already been seven weeks since I landed my job at Pearson Education, an international publishers. It's about time I wrote a post about it.

Firstly, let me start by saying that everyone at the company has been really nice - even the post guy, who learnt my name within a few days. Everyone has been so welcoming and patient and helpful. The building itself is extremely impressive - eco-friendly, spaciously designed, has a cafe, a restaurant, a gym... It's amazing.

I expect that the title 'editorial assistant' means different things to different publishers. As I work with educational books, I expect that the role of an editorial assistant who works with fiction would be fairly different.

These are generally the types of things I have been doing these past few weeks:

- Writing questionnaires about textbooks or book proposals; finding tutors to reviewer them; gathering up the reviews; writing review summaries to pass on to the authors. Quite a large chunk of my time has been spent doing this, so far.

Author Contact
- Keeping in touch with the authors; checking up on how their manuscripts are coming along, etc.

- Working with the contracts team to make sure the right information gets put into contracts, then posting them out and keeping track of them.

Supplement Handovers

- Many of our books have extra features (e.g. companion websites). It's my job to sort out the supplements that the author provides, and make it easily accessible and presentable for the sups team.

Manuscript Handovers
- I've only done one of these (and with a lot of help). Making sure manuscripts are presentable and everything is included, so that the production team can work on them.

Design Briefing

- One of my favourite parts of the job. Briefing the design team on cover ideas; collaborating with other team members and the authors on improving designs, choosing designs, etc.

Blurb Writing
- I quite enjoy this. Writing the blurbs for new books/new editions.

- Making sure the right people get paid the right amount for the right thing. Basically, I have to fill out the forms - the payments team deal with the actual money.

Prelim Checking
- Checking that the preliminary pages of a new book are all in order. Making sure all the rights are covered, and the contents list matches up etc.

- Putting together reports/data sets of potential markets for new books, that kinda thing.


- Putting data into the big database we use, to make sure that all the electronic information about books and their publishing schedules are up to date. Quite tricky - the database is huge and I'm still getting to grips with it.

Meeting Authors
- Haven't done this yet, but I'm meeting up with one of our author's on Monday with my boss to talk about his new book proposal, which I have gathered the reviews for.

- I post out a lot of books. Mostly to reviewers, but I recently had to post out about thirty books to a bunch of contributors as part of their payment.

Attending Meetings
- There are weekly meetings held to discuss whether or not a new book should be published. I don't say much in these meetings yet as I'm still learning a lot, and feel I don't yet have much of value to add to the discussion, but I find these meeting interesting nevertheless.

Drinking Tea
- This is a big part of the job. It is compulsory to drink at least three-four cups a day (many editorial assistants drink much more than this - but they've had more experience than me!).

In all, I feel like I've learnt a huge amount over these few weeks. And I still have a lot more to learn. I'm enjoying it and feel very privileged to be working for such a great company.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Tiny Tweeted Tales

By now, most net-savvy people will probably have heard of the social networking site Twitter - a place to connect to people by posting 'tweets' of 140 characters or less.

Flash fiction is extremely popular at the moment, but sites like Twitter are proving a platform for even shorter stories. Tiny, tiny miniscule stories. And these kinds of stories are becoming quite trendy in todays fast-paced technology-driven world.

Here are three Twitter-based micro-zines which I follow. If you have a Twitter account, you might like to follow them too.

@SixWordStory - For sale: baby shoes, never worn. Supposedly Hemingway's best work. Tweet your six-word story to @sixwordstory now!

- Twitter sized fiction for your entertainment. Stories by @sean_hill. Feedback welcomed. Send me a noun and I'll use the ones that inspire me in a story. Thanks.

@TweetTheMeat - Twitter Horrorzine. Fear in 140 characters or less.

If you've come across any good ones, feel free to share them in the comments.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

First Impressions of First Edition

A few weeks ago I picked up a copy of 'First Edition' magazine: issue 08 October. I was so excited to see a magazine of short stories and poetry on sale in W H Smith that I instantly bought it without even looking through it. The cover looked professional enough - the only dubious aspect being the big orange 'sticker' on the front that said 'Get yourself published for FREE!' which I thought was a bit iffy to say the least.

Anyway, have you heard of the saying 'If you don't have anything nice to say, then don't say anything at all'? Well, if you agree with that phrase, you better not read on.

I'm afraid to say that I have only read half of the magazine. And that's because after reading the first half, I simply didn't want to read the rest.

The first thing that struck me about the magazine while flicking through it was the odd little bright blue 'Did You Know?' boxes. Did I know that the collective noun for ladybirds is a "loveliness"? No, I didn't. But I didn't see what that had to do with the coffee-shop story on the same page. Do the editors really not have enough confidence in the stories they have chosen that they have to fill the magazine with these bright, child-like boxes of unrelated trivia?

As for the stories, this magazine has obviously endeavoured to publish the previously unpublished, or little published, writer. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, that's good. There are plenty of talented writers out there that haven't had much published. It's just a shame that the magazine has found so few of these writers. It's an even bigger shame that the editors haven't made the effort to advise a few of the writers of minor changes or tweaks to their work which would make all the difference - or perhaps they didn't know how. Things like removing repeated phrases or words in close secession, or removing redundant phrases. Some of the stories by international authors could have done with a bit of light editing to smooth out some of their phrases.

I couldn't finish one story because not only did the speech have too many exclamation points in it for my liking, but the narrator of the piece used several exclamation points too. As well as this, there was the double exclamation point (!!) and even the question-mark-exclamation-point (!?) - I don't much like having stories shouted at me, but at least they could try to be grammatically correct. This is something the editors should have caught.

Another thing that greatly annoyed me was the un-uniformed way that paragraphs were presented. Some stories had line breaks, and some had indented paragraphs. There really should be a house style to the magazine. It would have made everything fit more visually together.

The presentation of the magazine didn't seem overly professional on closer inspection. The justified text was often stretched to fit the line, especially when each word was on a new line to wrap around an image. And the pixilated advert on the back cover didn't look so sharp either.

Overall, the writing wasn't that great. There were a lot of tell-tale signs that these were inexperienced writers. I'm not claiming to have the greatest experience as a writer, but I noticed quite a lot of the following:

+ Semi-colons where there should be colons.
+ Commas where there should be full stops.
+ Many stories were comprised of too much 'tell' and not nearly enough 'show'.
+ Too much back story - some stories didn't really get started until the middle of the text.
+ Unnecessary detail.
+ Cliched subject matter - yes, there was a story about writers block. There was also a story that seemed suspiciously based on the Watchman premise.

These were the main things I picked up on. I could write more specific things about each story, but I don't think it is needed.

The magazine is also dotted with poetry. I am a fan of poetry, but I'm afraid I didn't much like many of the poems that I read. The editors seem to have favoured rhyming couplets, even when the subject matter is serious. Using rhyming couplets for a somber poem is very hard to do well because of the contradictory 'sing-song' nature of the rhyming structure. Saying that, I did enjoy a poem called 'Thingymebob' by Vincent Pryer.

A few of the stories I really enjoyed. I thought 'Burnt' by Joel Williams was very well executed. I also enjoyed the observant yet engaging prose of Brian Lockett in 'Ken, Doreen and Bernard'. 'Beautiful Jeanette' by Vanessa Woolf-Hoyle was pleasantly wacky, and a few other stories I thought had merit too.

It is a shame that not all of the stories were quite of the same standard. Nearly all of the stories had potential. But potential isn't a finished story. And I want to read a magazine that is full of great, polished stories.

As the title of this post says - these are just my first impressions of the magazine. I have spent a good few hours reading it thus far. I'm in two minds as to whether or not I will finish it.

I find it a shame that with so many great short story magazines out there, this is one of the only ones I've seen on the shelves of a mainstream store.

If you want to read some great short stories, I recommend you try this magazine:

Greatest Uncommon Denominator

At the moment they are promoting a great offer on all the PDF versions of the magazine where you can set your own price. Oh, and unlike First Edition magazine, GUD don't make you pay to submit your work to their electronic version - which I found out about over at Nik Perring's blog. Nik also posted First Edition's editor's response to this issue.

I hope I haven't offended any of the writers - that was never my intention. I simply feel that some of these stories may have been prematurely published.

In my opinion, First Edition could do with some redrafting. Perhaps a Second Edition is in order?

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Book Review: The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan

This is the first book by Ian McEwan I have read. It was a nice, quick read after getting through 'Cloud Atlas' by David Mitchell. I took 'The Comfort of Strangers' on holiday with me to Venice, completely and honestly ignorant of the book's plot: a couple go on holiday to Venice, where they become unintentionally involved with some strange locals.

As an Ian McEwan virgin, and as I'd heard so many good things about this writer, I wasn't disappointed. McEwan's writing style is both familiar and original. It flows easily, and is extremely observational - perhaps a little too observational at times, which slows the pace slightly. However, this book is so short that the pace could never be slowed for long. McEwan seems to effortlessly turn what first appears to be stereotypical characters into complex protagonists. By the time the novel reaches its horrific climax, the reader is totally shell-shocked by the empathy they feel.

By other half read this book in two days, and it is the first book he has read for years. He loved it, and I really enjoyed it too. Definitely worth a quick read.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Kreativ Blogger Award

This is quite exciting. After years of blogging, and nearly two thousand hits on this blog, after seeing these little blogger awards cropping up on other people's blogs... I've been awarded this little badge of honor!

(I'm asuming it has been spelt 'Kreativ' cos truely creative people don't follow rules like spelling... Ha ha, I jest.)

I think that passing these kinds of badges around is a great way to network between blogs, and drum up some awareness for the blogs that you enjoy and think everyone should read too.

So, thank you to Sage Darien for awarding me this badge.

Now to fulfil my badge-holder responsibilities:

Terms of acceptance include forwarding the same award to 7 other more deserving bloggers, who must follow the instructions below:

1. Copy and paste the pretty picture which you see at the top of this post onto your own blog.
2. Thank the person who gave you the award and post a link to their blog.
3. Write 7 things about yourself we do not know.
4. Choose 7 other bloggers to award.
5. Link to those 7 other bloggers.
6. Notify your 7 bloggers.

Seven things about me you do not know:

1. When I was little, I used to think that dogs were made entirely of fur, all the way through.

2. I love baths. The bath is the best place to read.

3. I heard this quote recently: 'Love is a misunderstanding between two fools.'

4. I'm rather fascinated by masks. I love all the carnival masks of Venice. I adore the masquerade scene in 'Labyrinth' - mimicing that is my idea of a perfect birthday party. I'm interested in the philosophies of masks...

5. I have a thing for pretty photo frames, but never know what photos to put in them.

6. I used to have a pet rabbit who I called Mary Jane (MJ for short) after a character from 'Spiderman'. I loved that rabbit.

7. The sky is spectacularly beautiful, in my opinion.

Here are seven bloggers, in addition to Sage Darien who continually entertain and inspire me:

1. Vanessa Gebbie's News - Vanessa is a great writer, whose short stories have won so many prizes I've lost count. I loved her collection 'Words from a Glass Bubble', which is available from Salt. Her blog is always interesting.

2. Writerly Type - This blog is full of snappy, interesting posts from a great creative writer.

3. Robert Aquino Dollesin - News, thoughts, memories and recommendations from another great writer.

4. Inkygirl: Daily Diversions for Writers - Does what it says on the tin. I love her cartoons.

5. Sandra's Blog - 'One writer's journey to fulfillment... and stuff.' An entertaining and insightful blog.

6. Unspoken Words - Bob Jacobs set up and ran the writing forum crittersbar.com but has now taken a step back from that to write his first novel.

7. Steven J Dines - Writer of dark and literary fiction. I always find Steven's opinions both interesting and intelligent. Oh, and he's a great writer, too.

Well, there you go. I hope you enjoy those blogs as much as I do. There are so many more I could have added to this list.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Review of an Online Critiquing Service

My fellow creative writers out there will all know the value of a good critique. I usually post my work to an online group to get some feedback, but I thought I would try out a 'professional critiquer'.

I found 'Constructive Critiques' (www.constructivecritiques.com), the site of Karlyn Thayer, Writing Instructor. On her site, Karlyn offers a free critique of 1000 words, so I decided I had nothing to lose.

I sent her the last 1000 words of one of my longer short stories. I was very impressed with the speed at which Karlyn processed my request. By the end of the day I had a confirmation email, and by the end of the next day I had my critique.

Karlyn wrote me a two page critique, and at the end added a highlighted version of my 1000 words to pick out exactly where I was going wrong. She started by picking out what she thought the strong points were. My initial reaction to this was that it sounded a little too complimentary, but perhaps I am used to receiving harsher crits. Anyhow, it was quite nice and she wrote in a way that made me feel confident in my ability.

Then Karlyn picked out a relevant quote which lead smoothly into her criticisms. She picked out three main areas of improvement and presented them in an easy-to-understand and logical way.

Karlyn highlighted some problems with my writing that I was unable to see, and that my online critiquing group had also missed. After she had picked them out, they seemed so obvious to me, yet I'm sure even after ten re-reads I would not have seen them! I think this reinforces that it is always a good idea to get a fresh pair of eyes look at your work, and even better than that a fresh pair of professional eyes.

The critique ended with a polite, quick and complimentary summary.

Karlyn's critiquing rates are very reasonable (check out her website), and her free critiquing offer is definitely worth a go. I may use her services at some point in the future.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Book Review: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Holy frick, I finally finished it.

I bought this book about two years ago. Started reading it, got confused, put it down, picked it up several months later, got confused, kept reading, started loving it... but it's rather dense and has taken me many, many months to finish. I am rather a slow reader, though.


I'm not going to give anything major away in this review, but I am going to talk about the gist of the plot and the structure quite a bit.

Cloud Atlas is a literary masterpiece. It is hugely creative in terms of both plot, style and structure. It is always great to read a piece of creative fiction that has tried to do something different in terms of not just content, but style and structure too.

The book is comprised of six different narratives that span across time, from the 19th century to a post-apocalyptic future, and then begin to collapse back in on themselves so that the first and last narratives form a story, the second and the second-from-last form a story... etc.

These stories all link in strange ways, and are unified through little phrases or items or philosophies that crop up in each. The ending left me a tiny bit unsatisfied as I expected a more profound link to be made apparent, but on reflection, it did actually produce a satisfactory conclusion. In response to the last line (which I will not type): indeed, what is Time but a multitude of narratives? Something like that, anyway.

Each different narrative is written in a completely different style. Hats off to Mr. Mitchell for being such a diverse writer. Unfortunately for me, I found the first/last narrative, set in the 19th century South Pacific, to be the most boring, and I found it hard to get into the language. I find it strange that I could find the post-apocalyptic language easier to follow. Let me give you an example of this:

O, eery'n'so beautsome'n'blue she was, my soul was achin'. Suddenwise the ghost-girl vanished back into that egg an' a man took her place. A ghost-Prescient he was, this'un COULD see me an' fiercesome he speaked at me.

However, by the end of the book I had eventually become immersed in the first/last narrative, and was glad about it as I didn't want the book to end on a low point for me.

The sudden changes in narratives did slow the pace a little. I often find it hard to 'get into' a book, so when I'm just becoming familiar with a story and it suddenly stops and throws me into another, I find it slightly difficult to adjust. However, Mitchell always creates hooks, and always leaves cliffhangers, so you do want to read on. And the reader is greatly rewarded for doing so.

While reading this book, I really felt as though I was exploring the world through limitless time, exploring an 'atlas of clouds'.

Buy your copy here:
Cloud Atlas

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Venice & New Job

Don't worry, my dear readers, I have not deserted you! I have two reasons for not updating much recently (reasons, not excuses! ...kinda). Firstly, I have been to Venice, which has been my dream for a while now. It was so beautiful. Would love to go back, but perhaps only for a weekend instead of week as everything was so damn expensive. Which I may be able to do thanks to...

... becoming an Editorial Assistant at Pearson Education! I've just finished my third day. Everyone is so nice, and the building is amazing. I just hope I can do all the work to the standard they need. Slightly nerve-wracking. And I think it is going to take me a while to adjust to the 9-5 lifestyle.

In other news, I just checked my emails to find that one of my 'Hint Fiction' submissions have been accepted for publication. The anthology will be out later next year. I'm really happy about this one.

In conclusion: WOO!

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Quality, Not Quantity

I have a word document with a big list of magazines, competitions and anthologies I want to sub to, all with deadlines. I've had a bit of a string of rejections over the last few months. I keep thinking 'Oh no, I have to write something for this publication - the dead line is in a week!' But hang on a minute. I think I've lost focus a little bit.

I keep thinking 'This is my only chance to submit to this...', but that's simply not true. With a lot of contests, there's always next year. With a lot of magazines, there's always next issue. I've been rushing myself, thinking that if I'm not subbing then I'm procrastinating - but what about the middle ground?

So it's time for a new approach. I'm going to pick a few places to sub to and focus on the stories for those. I have two in mind right now. The rest can wait. There's no rush.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Not Forgetting... To Support Each Other!

A while ago, I mentioned Jennysha, a graduate who blogs for Prospects, in my post Ugly Betty is Stealing My Job. Well, she repaid the favour and mentioned me in her blog! (Jennysha's Blog.) In my post, I mentioned that all us graduates looking to crack the publishing industry are, in essence, all in competition with each other - there are very few jobs about, and too many people applying for them. Jennysha raised a much more important point: even though that is the case, we should all be supporting each other, too. And yes, I couldn't agree more, Jennysha. Publishing is a tough business, and so it is always nice to have some friends who are in the same position. We can share stories and experiences, ultimately making ourselves feel a little less isolated during quite a lonely period!

'Shot Glass Stories' Reviewed

A big thank you to David Hebblethwaite for reviewing the anthology over at his blog. You can read his review here: "Shot Glass Stories and Other Small Indulgences (2009), ed. Sophie Playle".

And if you want to see what all the fuss is about, don't forget you can order your copy for just £3.10, or get a free download, here: 'Shot Glass Stories'.

Monday, 14 September 2009

'Shot Glass Stories' - Reflections on Editing an Anthology

As many of you will know, I belong to an online creative writing group over at www.crittersbar.com. About three years ago, the members started running a weekly challenge to write a story in no more than 200 words, inspired by a one-word prompt. The winner would then post and judge the next week's contest. The challenge has been a big success, and continues to run. It's a great way to nudge you into writing something if you've been a little lax, and there have been some great stories produced.

Last year, Skive Magazine's Matt Ward (one of our members) put together an anthology of stories from Critters Bar within 48 hours: Critters Bar Anthology 2009. Matt made a very smart looking publication, but because of the challenge of creating it within 48 hours, the copy wasn't edited, and there was no submission process. It was a case of the writers having to submit their best work. On reflection, many people thought that for future projects it might be better to edit the content, as writers kept spotting mistakes they wish they had caught before the anthology was printed. Of course, this meant a lot more work.

There was a lot of talk about creating an anthology for the 200-word challenge, but we couldn't reach a decision that everyone was happy with, so the idea was buried.

After finishing university, and after deciding that I wanted to crack the publishing industry, I thought it would be a good time to take on the project. I probably didn't handle it the way everyone wanted, but I guess you can't please everyone. I received a lot of support, which was great.

Selecting Stories

I decided that there should be a selection process in order to try and get the best content. However, I also decided that everyone who submitted to the project would be guaranteed at least one accepted story. After all, this was a non-profit community project that, on the most part, would serve as a nice souvenir to the members of the site.

Selecting stories was hard. I had wanted to get a small team together to help with the process, but I ran out of time to do this properly. Instead, I sought the opinion of one of the writers (Diete Nickens) if I was very unsure of something, which helped greatly. I didn't want the project to be too biased towards my preferences.

I accepted roughly 75% of the content, and asked the writers to change a couple of little things in some of them.


The next step, after reading through everything myself, was to send the document off to my proofreaders, Kate Louise and Amy Roskilly, another two members of the site. They did a great job of spotting things I had missed.

Cover Design & Title

While they were doing this, I designed the front and back cover. I had the members brainstorm titles, and we voted for 'Shot Glass Stories and Other Small Indulgences'. That gave me a good idea for the cover image. The back cover was harder to design; it seemed so simple, but was actually quite tricky!


While all this was going on, one of our other members, Rich Sampson, who had been away for a while due to becoming a dad for the second time, returned to the site. He posted some of his artwork, and I asked him to draw a few illustrations for the project. I let him choose the stories he wanted to illustrate, and he provided three great pictures for the project. By this point, I had realised that the project was very much catered towards adult readers!


During all this, I was trying to order the stories into a sequence that flowed well. I downloaded a Word template from Lulu to get the document size right, and started laying up the content. That was trickier than I thought it would be. Word is a little bit rubbish sometimes. I had to figure out things like section breaks, which I hadn't had to use before.

Once all the files were ready, and I'd put the illustrations in, created the content list and the prelims etc, I tried uploading it all to Lulu.

Using Lulu

I wasn't looking forward to this part. I'd never used Lulu before, and I didn't trust it one bit... Right away I ran into a problem. Even though I had downloaded the correct size Word document for the publication size I wanted, I was told that my document had been re-sized because it was wrong. Great. I had a peak, and it had mucked up the whole layout.

So I had to change the size of the product from 'pocket size' to 'standard US trade' size, as this required the minimal amount of change from the (seemingly) random sized document that Lulu gave me in the first place. That took an extra hour to format.

Next was the cover wizard. That took a long time to load, was quite fiddly, and I wasn't given the option to design the spine (it might have been too thin).

Hard Copy Proof

I made it a private project so that I could order myself a hard copy to make sure everything looked okay. I was pleased that it only cost me about £2.60, but was then hit was a stupidly expensive postage and packaging charge of nearly £5. Sickening.

Despite the postal strike, here, the book arrived within a week. Right away I noticed a terrible typo on one of the title pages that I hadn't spotted on screen! I also noticed a few spaces where there shouldn't be spaces. I felt that I had been looking at this text for so long that I had become blind to it. A good argument why having more than one person look at your text before publication is essential.

Final Product

I made the changes, uploaded the file again... I tried to choose the option for getting a free ISBN, but annoying Lulu only do this if you are in the US.

Then, because I made the file public, Lulu decided to add roughly another 50p onto the price for seemingly no reason. I made the item completely non-profit (I wanted to keep the cost down as much as possible and I didn't like the idea of Lulu getting 25% of any profit anyway), and I opted for a free download to be available.

And now it's live!


You can get your copy for a very modest price of £3.10 (plus a nasty postage change, unfortunately - please write nasty letters to Lulu demanding this to be reduced) or you can download it for free, here:

Shot Glass Stories - various authors


It was definitely a learning experience for me. I learned that this sort of thing takes a lot more time and effort than I had first anticipated. And that it is essential that more than one (preferable more than two, three, four...) pair(s) of eyes looks at the copy before it goes to print.

Lastly, a BIG thank you to all those involved, and for all the support.

Everyone should at least go and download the free version as there are some great stories to be read :)

Friday, 4 September 2009

Review: Inglourious Basterds

I like Tarantino's style, most of the time. I'm not usually a fan of war films, so I didn't let myself get too excited about this film. Tarantino, however, has created one hell of a movie.

The story builds scene by brilliant scene. Tarantino has a knack for taking his time with a scene while subtly building the tension until you realise that you're holding your breath. He has great control over human reaction and interaction - something that I loved about Dusk Til Dawn. And man, are there some great characters in Ingloirous Basterds.

Tarantino is famous for his vanity and boldness: he does what HE wants with a movie. And you know what? It works. The soundtrack, the humour, the dialogue, changing the course of history... It could have all fallen apart so easily, but everything in this film works so brilliantly to create something stylistic and original.

The only downsides to this film were that I couldn't understand half of what Brad Pitt's character was saying... and that they really took the piss out of the English. But oh well, I can forgive that. Every now and then I thought that the Nazis said some things that they probably wouldn't have (e.g. Col. Hans Landa saying that he could 'think like a Jew' - a Nazi probably wouldn't want to admit that they are like a Jew in any way; and another Nazi mentioned 'Hitler's propaganda' - they would see it as information, not propaganda, which has more negative connotations. But I guess I'm being picky.)

Anyway, go see this film. It's brilliant. I do find it slightly worrying that I was quite absorbed in the last scene whereas everyone else in the cinema were reeling with disgust.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

First Line (Meme)

The rules...

From the biggest bookcase you have, pick out one book whose author’s last name starts with each letter of your last name. If you have no books by an author whose last name starts with a particular letter, go to the next letter. If you have two of the same letter in your last name, get two separate authors, not two books by the same author.

Post the first sentence of each book, along with the author and title. Feel free to skip prefaces and such, especially if they’re by a different writer.

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. - Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have know that trouble was brewing not alone for himself, but for every tide-water dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego. - Jack London, The Call of the Wild

Despite the fact that Carol Jackson has to sit in a pram, she and her mother are going out together, while mine is downstairs whispering with a perfumed woman in an animal skin. - Trezza Azzopardi, The Hiding Place

I can't find a book for this one!

When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. - Harper Lee, To Kill a Mocking-Bird

*backwards writing* This inscription could be seen on the glass door of a small shop, but naturally this was only the way it looked if you were inside the dimly lit shop, looking out at the street through the plateglass door. - Michael Ende, The Neverending Story

Yes, and the moral of the Meme is that first lines are important. Remember that!

Review: Words from a Glass Bubble - by Vanessa Gebbie

Just like a certain famous ogre, this book is like an onion: it has layers. These short stories have more depth to them than first meets the eye, and they leave quite an impact. They will make you cry, too, sometimes - both tears of laughter and tears of sadness.

Don't be fooled by the innocent skipping girl on the front cover. Even though many of these stories are poetic and subtle, some of them are gritty and dark.

It took me quite a while to read this book, simply because I wanted to savour each story. I can certainly see why Vanessa has won so many prizes for her short fiction.

Thank you, Vanessa, for my signed hardback copy - I will treasure it. In a climate where most emerging authors are discouraged to write short story collections, you are an inspiration.

Buy it here:

Words from a Glass Bubble (Salt Modern Fiction)

Friday, 28 August 2009

A Foot on the Ladder

Yes, after four months of job-hunting, I have actually been offered a position in a publishing house!

My mum's partner's son's wife (!) works in a book distributor. They recently bought out a small publishing house, and she kindly passed on my CV to them. They emailed me yesterday and have offered me some part-time work there. I guess it really is about who you know, not what you know.

I start on Wednesday afternoon. It seems so perfect for me - it's about half an hour's drive away, and I don't have to commute to London. I don't have to get up early. It's casual dress code and part time. Really is the perfect way to ease me from the unemployed life of leisure I've been leading recently, into the world of work.

I'm really looking forward to it. But I'm also extremely nervous. My biggest fear is that I won't be able to do the work they ask me to... But I'm sure it will be okay after I've settled. It's the not quite knowing what to expect that is making me nervous. Once I know my way there, I've met the people, I know the surroundings and what work I'll be doing, I'm sure I'll be fine.

The company I'll be working for is Whittet Books. They are a small publishing house, and I'll be working from a home office (I believe). They publish wildlife books, and I'll be working on one about squirrels! Sounds brilliant!

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Waterstones Endorses Plagiarism

On Twitter yesterday, Waterstones held a quick contest: whoever 'tweets' the best piece of student advice gets five free books.

This blog post is not a bitter retaliation because they didn't choose my pieces of advice, but because the piece of advice that they actually chose was, in my opinion, very bad advice, and if students followed it, they could end up in a lot of trouble.

I'm fairly sure that Waterstones didn't realise this, but I messaged them several times and they have ignored me.

The tweet they chose as the best piece of student advice was from a university drop-out and read:

"My moto (chant this!): Copy and paste and you'll be caught out, but paraphrase and you'll get straight A's!!!"

(Here's another few pieces of advice: don't use multiple exclamations marks, and learn to spell 'motto'.)

My problem with this piece of advice is simple: it is teaching students the best way to PLAGIARISE.

I have been taught, right from school through to university, that if you quote OR paraphrase another person's words, you MUST cite the source. Regardless whether you are quoting or paraphrasing, you are still taking someone else's words and ideas, and they should be credited for them.

I am hoping that Waterstones did not intend to teach students how to plagiarise, but I think they really should know better. And rewarding someone for suggesting this piece of 'advice' with free books is a bit unfair when lots of people suggested much better pieces of advice.

Here are some good ones:

@jetowey - Get a bottle of antiseptic gel - not everything is as clean as it looks in the common room or bar

@lesleyparsons - The Three S's of student years... sleep, study, celebrate!

@Gem_Lou - Do your share of chores in halls - you'll be unpopular otherwise, & it might encourage others to do the same!

@Gem_Lou - Put bag with everything you need for lecture next day, sunglasses, paracetamol and water by your bed before night out!

@Jobelfield - Make friends, play hard, work harder!

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Ugly Betty is Stealing My Job

So, while I was in the middle of designing my website (it's taking a lot more time and effort than I thought it would), I was half watching 'Ugly Betty' on television, feeling too lazy to channel hop and find anything better. And it reminded me that Prospect's grad blogger Jennysha had said in one of her posts that Ugly Betty is her idol.

Betty works as an assistant editor in a fashion magazine. Granted, I am not particularly interested in the fashion world, but it dawn on me today that Betty is on the same mission as me: climbing from assistant editor upwards in the publishing world.

With Miss Betty's world fame and popularity, has she inspired more people to enter the publishing world? Has she been persuading people all these years to become my competition?

Have people who have be Betty-lead to the publishing industry been getting the jobs I've been applying for, while I'm still sat watching the telly?

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The Woman in Black - Theatre Review

Thanks to the mobile phone company O2, I managed to get hold of a two-for-one offer on theatre tickets. I've been wanting to see 'The Woman in Black' for a very long time, so now was the perfect opportunity. I booked a week in advance and was delighted to get second row seats. However, on arriving at the small, cramped Fortune Theatre in London's West End, my partner (his first time at the theatre!) and I discovered that perhaps they were not the best of seats. The stage was three feet above us.

But as soon as the show started, we forgot about our slightly craning necks and was swept away by the story. An old man arrives and begins to dryly narrate from a manuscript. A young theatre producer/actor interrupts him and teaches him how to make his story come alive in the Victorian theatre. The story that unravels is a very dark and horrifying ghost story, one that the old man thinks he only relives in his nightmares...

I don't want to give too much away. My older sister had seen the play years ago and warned me that it was scary. I find ghost stories the scariest kind of narrative, so I was a little nervous. The first half did not scare me much at all. Even when The Woman in Black swished past my aisle seat, I didn't jump - I saw her much more as an actor than a ghost.

However, after the interval the fear was turned up more than a notch. With an impeccable sense of timing, lighting, sound, and brilliant acting, the whole audience was screaming and giggling to relieve the fear. I squeezed my partner's hand pretty tightly in some parts, and I admit I screamed at one point.

The theatre was the perfect place to tell this story. It was part way between reading a book and watching a film: the audience's imagination had to be engaged, to imagine Victorian streets and galloping horses, but many of the visuals were there, the sounds were there, the people were there in the flesh. The ghost could have reached out and grabbed you, if she wanted to...

The story was chilling, and reminded me a little of Henry James's 'The Turn of the Screw'. The acting was brilliant. I highly recommend seeing 'The Woman in Black', but be prepared for a sleepless night or two after the experience...

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Call for Submissions: Hint Fiction

I've seen this around on a few people's blogs and have been meaning to re-post for a while. Looks like a great opportunity! I'll get my thinking hat on for a few stories.

hint fiction (n) : a story of 25 words or less that suggests a larger, more complex story

Anthology Guidelines

Tentatively scheduled for the fall of 2010, W.W. Norton will publish an anthology of Hint Fiction. What is Hint Fiction? It’s a story of 25 words or less that suggests a larger, more complex story. The thesis of the anthology is to prove that a story 25 words or less can have as much impact as a story 2,500 words or longer. The anthology will include between 100 and 150 stories. We want your best work.

It’s possible to write a complete story in 25 words or less — a beginning, middle, end — but that’s not Hint Fiction.

The very best Hint Fiction stories can be read many different ways.

We want stories we can read again and again and never tire of. Stories that don’t pull any punches. Stories that make us think, that evoke some kind of emotional response.

Take a look at the winners and honorable mentions of the Hint Fiction Contest for examples.

Payment is $25 per story for World and Audio rights.

Reprints? Sure, but unless you’re one hundred percent confident in the reprint, why not try to write an original piece?

For formatting purposes, you must include a title (which actually works in your benefit, as the title helps give a better “hint” of the overall story).

Writers can only submit up to two stories, both embedded in the same e-mail. Don’t worry about a cover letter. We don’t care where you’ve been published or what graduate program you’ve attended — all author identification will be stripped by a third party so we will only see the stories and nothing but the stories.

To make everyone’s lives easier, embed the stories like this:





Your name.

Submissions will open August 1 and close at midnight Eastern time August 31. Submit only to this address:


(An auto responder has been set up so you can get immediate confirmation that your submission has been received. On the off-chance you do not receive an automated response within an hour, submit again. If on the off-off-chance you still receive nothing, e-mail me at my personal address and we’ll get it figured out.)

Please note that due to the expected volume of submissions, we will be forced to respond with form letters.

Thank you, and good luck.

***For a limited time, if you link to these guidelines on your blog or Twitter, you can submit a third story. These must be posted between July 1 and August 15. Include the link at the end of your e-mail. If you don’t include a link, the third story will be deleted unread.***

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Maybe You're Not a Writer...

I was watching the brilliant TV show 'Six Feet Under' last week, and there was a particularly interesting conversation between the character of Claire, who was previously an art student but now works in an office, and her Aunt Sarah.

SARAH: Maybe you're not an artist.

CLAIRE: Why would you say that?

SARAH: Did it hurt your feelings when I said it?

CLAIRE: Ah, yeah!

SARAH: Maybe I'm right. Maybe if you were an artist, you'd have laughed when I said that. Like if you told me I was purple, I would laugh because I know I'm not purple. But when I said you weren't an artist you felt bad, maybe because you know there is a grain of truth in it.

So, if I told you that you weren't a writer, how would you feel?

Friday, 31 July 2009

Sneaky Words - another reason I should get rid of my television

The obvious reason I should get rid of my television is that it is far too easy for me to sit in front of it, watching the same old rubbish every day instead of doing something productive. But another reason to get rid of it is so that my brain isn't subconsciously assaulted by adverts every ten minutes.

It really bugs me how nearly every advert, whether it's about face wash or compensation lawyers, uses sneaky words like 'COULD', 'APPEAR', or indefinite quantities like 'THE AMOUNT YOU DESERVE'. Listen carefully enough and you'll see that most adverts promise NOTHING about the product they are trying to sell. Even phrases like 'RECOGNISED by the British Skin Foundation' mean nothing.

Words can be powerful things. Sometimes they seem like they are full of promises, but look a little closer and you'll spot the sneaky ones that snatch those promises away.

Monday, 27 July 2009

How to Avoid and Correct Dangling Participles

“Thou art a yeasty, onion-eyed, whoreson rabbit-sucker, and I shall remove from thee a pound of flesh if thou dost permit thy participles to dangle."
~ Shakespeare (Cannibal) on dangling participles

I toyed with the idea of writing a wittier title to this post - but I personally find the phrase 'dangling participle' humorous enough. I don't know quite what that says about me. Besides, I think the Shakespeare quote introduces the topic nicely.

Everyone wants to tidy up their writing, but most people (myself included) get a little confused with all the technical mumbo jumbo in grammar guides and the such. So what is this little bugger, the 'dangling participle'?

Firstly, 'participles' are the -ing and -ed forms of verbs. So a 'dangling participle' is a participle (usually at the beginning of a sentence) that apparently modifies a word other than the word intended.

It becomes a lot clearer with examples.

'Flying across the country, the lake came into view.'
- I didn't know lakes could fly...

'Cycling down the road, the dog knocked me over.'
- That dog should be in the circus...

'They said it was going to rain on the radio.'
- Well that might break it!

The best way to AVOID writing dangling participles is to understand the structure. If you understand the structure, you are less likely to get it wrong in the first place. However, if upon re-reading/editing your work you do come across a dangling participle, they are pretty easy to CORRECT. It's just a case of simple logic - rewording and reorganising the sentence.

'As we flew across the country, the lake came into view.'

'While I was cycling down the road, the dog knocked me over.'

'On the radio, they said it was going to rain.'

As the confusion created by dangling participles has much to do with the intention of the writer verses the understanding of the reader, it is often best to get a friend or an editor to read through your work. Since you already know what you mean, the dangling participle might not stand out to you as much as it would to a fresh pair of eyes. However, the better you understand dangling participles, the easier they become to correct, or better still, avoid completely.

Friday, 24 July 2009


About time I wrote an update. Exactly one week ago today, I graduated from university.

To be honest, I was completely underwhelmed by the experience, and wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible. Most of the way through university, I pretty much knew what grade I would end up with: it seemed that if I tried really hard on a piece of work, I'd get a 2.1 grade, and if I didn't try too much, I'd also get a 2.1 grade. On occasion I produced work that was of a First grade, but because of averages, for every unit I did, I got a solid 2.1. So I wasn't surprised with my final grade. Part of me is a little disappointed, though. Perhaps I could have tried really hard...

Typically for Norwich weather, it was a grey day. Luckily, though, the rain held off until the journey home. I felt pretty ridiculous in my gown. And the gown was a horrible colour: navy blue and orangey-pink. Very disappointed that it wasn't black.

The hall was also underwhelming. It was the exam hall, so full of pleasant memories, and it was underground. It used to be an old gym. There was a big blue curtain to act as a backdrop. Nothing like the grand old halls or cathedrals that many other universities use to hold their graduation ceremonies. A shame.

I hated going up on stage to get my degree. All I was focusing on was not tripping over.

My partner thinks that I don't value my achievement as much as I should. I think that's true. It just seems to me that so many people have degrees these days, and they don't play as big a role in getting a job as I had previously expected. I didn't particularly enjoy my time at university. I wish I could do it over, better. I'm mostly relieved that it is all over now.

The aspect I most miss is my creative writing seminars. The group I was in for my final-year was brilliant: a good bunch of people, and a great tutor. I really enjoyed the work-shopping structure.

Previously, I thought that the course hadn't really done much to improve my writing. We weren't 'taught' as such, more 'guided', or self-taught through discussion with each other. However, I recently looked back at some of my first-year work. Compared with the last piece of creative writing I submitted (my dissertation), it was shockingly bad! So, on reflection, I have improved. However, I don't believe it was all down to the course content/structure, but also due to the simple fact that I was constantly practicing my writing skills. Writing is like a muscle, and the more you exercise it, the stronger you work will become.

As for the literature side of the course... I felt slightly mislead. Before I started university, I was lead to believe that there was a lot of choice about what you got to study, and what you got to write about. I had in my head all these exciting ideas about writing essays on 'Gormenghast' or Angela Carter. None of that ever came about because, really, my unit choices were very restricted. Out of all the units I had to do, I think I only really wanted to do about a quarter of them. And the reading load was completely unrealistic, at least for me. I'm a slow reader, and there was no way I was ever going to get through four books a week, excluding secondary reading.

Going to university definitely had value. I enjoyed part of it. I guess it just wasn't what I had expected. Something must have gone right though, because I'm still itching to do a Masters degree...!

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Join Us...

Already dizzy from a heavy night out across the interweb, you decide to take a short-cut home. This alley looks like it cuts some time off your journey. Your footsteps echo as the sounds from the street are left behind. A trashcan clatters over; a cat screeches. The shadows shift suspiciously. You become lost - this wasn't the simple short-cut you had anticipated.

But then there, piercing through the darkness in electric blue, a neon sign flickers: Critters Bar.

The name sounds familiar, you think. It's one of those phrases that you read somewhere, and once the name is implanted in your mind, you hear it mentioned in passing whispers. But... Critters? Who are these Critters? Little creatures that scuttle in the shadows?

Curiosity draws you closer, and you feel like the proverbial moth.

'Can I help you?'

You hadn't expected there to be a bouncer at the door. Perhaps this is some kind of secret cult.

'Can... I come in?' you ask, a little unsure of yourself.

'Of course. Everyone is welcome.'

You step towards the door, but the bouncer blocks your way. You look at him, confused.

'Sign here, first,' he says.

A registration form? Sure, can't hurt. Nothing too probing is asked. You don't even have to give your real name.

You feel a tingling sense of excitment as you step past the bouncer. You climb the narror stairs. The sound of low music and chatting voices invite you up. You open the doors and see...

a regular bar, with a regular bunch of people. Some people are standing in small groups, holding martini glasses or pints of beer, laughing and joking. Others are huddled round tables, deep in conversation, taking notes. Many sit on their own, furiously scribbling stories onto paper napkins, or into little notebooks. It dawns on you who the 'Critters' are... They are writers. You've joined a creative writing group.

Suddenly the conversations stop. A barrage of writers shuffle towards you, extending welcoming hands to shake, offered drinks to take. Someone puts their arm around your shoulder and leads you to the bar.

'So, what'll it be? Post a story? Critique someone else's? Try the poetry challenge! Want to submit to the anthology?'

Yup. I'm plugging the writing forum Critters Bar again. This time with a whole post all to itself.

Critters Bar is an intimate writing forum of about a hundred members, all with different writing backgrounds. We welcome everyone. Here are just a few of the exciting things happening at the moment:

Story-a-Day July Blast

In the Creative Corner forums we have a Story-a-Day area. We're currently running a July Blast in there, where a small number of us are trying to write a story a day throughout the month. You don't have to write every day, just to average one a day, hopefully lasting out to the end with 31 freshly written stories (or poems, or non-fiction). Quality isn't an issue. The main thing is to sit down and write. If the work posted is a rough draft, that's fine. If it's polished, that's fine too. Typically, some of these will find their way to being published somewhere later.

Weekly 200-word flash challenge

A weekly 200-word challenge has been running for almost three years. Each week the previous challenge winner posts a single word prompt. Anyone wanting to take part that week posts a piece of flash, no more than 200 words in length, based on the prompt. The person who posted the prompt selects the winning post. Usually just for fun, but now and then a small cash prize (or some other prize) is on offer.

Weekly poetry challenge

Runs on the same lines as the flash challenge, above. The previous winner picks a theme, a style, and anyone participating writes a poem to suit. usually for fun, sometimes a small cash prize. Critters Bar evolved from a Short Story (only) site over at the East of the Web site, and more poets are always welcome.

Critters Bar Anthology

Last year, with support from Matt Ward, the editor of Skive Magazine, an anthology of members' short stories was self-published through Lulu. This was a souvenir anthology produced in 48 hours, after several aborted attempts in the prevous few years. This year we're planning to produce another anthology, selecting quality stories from the members. Exact dates and details still to be determined, but we're planning to have it available in time to fill people's Christmas stockings.

200 Word Anthology

Since the 200-word weekly challenges have been so popular over the years, we are now putting together a small anthology of various stories which are no more than 200 words in length. Choose your favourite challenge submission, or write something new. Only three more weeks to get your submissions in!

Hopefully, I'll see you at the bar. My username is Capulet. Drop me a PM if you join, or need any help, or want to have a chat.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Mslexia Poetry Competition Results

A few months ago, I entered the Mslexia poetry competition on a whim. This was the first time I'd entered a poetry contest. I wasn't that hopeful, but you gotta be in it to win it, right? And poetry, gah, such a subjective thing to judge!

Well, yesterday I got my new issue of Mslexia. I hadn't heard back from them, but I flicked through just to make sure. Nope, none of my poems in there.

The judge, Ruth Padel, gave a bit of feedback in her introduction for all those who weren't chosen. She said that she rejected many poems because of tiny imperfections. In essence, these were some of the reasons for rejection:

- Too many unnecessary adverbs/adjectives
- Clumsy line-ends
- Lapses in tone/form
- Over-reliance on very short lines for impact

Obviously she went into much more detail. I would recommend the magazine, and you can buy it online at mslexia.co.uk

Here is one of the three poems I submitted. I wrote it as a response to a challenge at Critters Bar and, as I said, submitted it on a whim. In hindsight, it probably didn't quite fit in with the tone of the magazine. Well, that's my excuse. Perhaps I abused the first point listed above. Perhaps all of them...

The Mouth of the Jungle
by Sophie Playle

I have come too far
into this wet and wild place.
Sweat sticks to my face like a
second layer of hot skin. Birds sing
a violent war cry, and insects roar
as one angry gnawing mouth.
The forest tastes me, takes tiny bites,
tests my flavour. It does not starve,
it swells with might, and tests the brave
or the foolish.

I have been deemed worthy for devour;
I see it in every pair of narrowing eyes,
every bright flower. Fixed eyes, cold,
unblinking and alive with vibrant shards of
gold, stop me in my tracks.
I have come too far, they say, and now I must
pay with my flesh, my bones soon to be reduced
to toothpicks for the king.

My damp fingers curl around the hilt of my blade.
I am not afraid – I am ready for this test, I feel
my heart swelling in my breast and my breath
is steady.

He growls, an echo of the forest’s hunger.
Muscles tense and ripple as he leaps.
Claws, teeth; sharp, wide.
The eyes grow large as my blade strikes
upwards. Blood covers me
like a third layer of skin.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Busy Week

Just a few bits and pieces for you today, dear reader, as I've been quite ill this week.

Judge bans 'Catcher in the Rye' book sequel
Some of you may remember from my June blog post that author JD Salinger was suing a writer for trying to release a book called 'Coming Through the Rye' which contained a character extremely similar to Salinger's Holden Caulfield. Well, the judge has ruled in Salinger's favour. Salinger's lawyers called the attempted sequel a "rip-off pure and simple".

The BBC says:
"Mr Colting's novel sees 76-year-old Mr C - who the author has admitted is based on Caulfield - escape from a retirement home and head to New York."

You can read the full article HERE

Fastest Writer in the West
Last week, I wrote a story in response to a challenge at Critters Bar, a writing forum. Every week we have a 'write a story in 200 words using this prompt' contest. The prompt for that week was 'sand', and with the blog-zine Six Sentences in mind, I wrote a response in about twenty minutes, and sent it off for submission to 6S. Within the hour I had received an acceptance and the story was up on the site! The fastest response I've ever received. You can read the micro-story HERE - 'A Sandy Found Sock'.

Twitter helps find me work
My cousin Tracy Playle, who runs her own business, Picklejar Communications, saw my unemployed plight via Twitter and offered me some proofreading work. I spent a few hours proofreading Nottingham University's student handbook. This was my first paid proofreading job, so I'm really pleased and very grateful for my cousin for taking a chance on me :)

I score a creative writing column in new youth magazine
Some people from my university course who used to run the student newspaper are setting up a brand new newspaper/magazine for the young people and students of Norwich. It's called The Project, and I was asked to write an article about submitting short stories to horror magazines. I suggested that I do a more general article about submitting stories as well, and they said go for it. Then I suggested that I could write another one on writing forums, and another one on entering writing competitions... They said sure, why not? And after sending my first two articles, and asking if they needed any more help with the creative writing section, they offered me the job of Creative Writing Commissioning Editor. That sounds uber-impressive, and I'm just waiting now to be sent a list of duties. It's not all official yet, but it would be really fun to be a part of this project.

WordVooDoo kicks off again
I've been volunteering as a creative writing moderator/tutor for an online project called WordVooDoo for the past year. This is where pupils of the George Mitchell School in London post their responses to set tasks and various university student moderators post encouragement and gentle criticism. This year I'm working on the new sister project, Junior WordVooDoo, too. This means I'm working with kids from ages 8-16, I think. We're not told the ages of our pupils so that we judge their work based solely on what is written. I really enjoy it, and some of the kids are really talented. I think it's great that creative writing is being encouraged so professionally at this academic level. I only wish I had the chance to be involve in such a scheme what I was their age!

And oh yeah, I got my uni grade
I got a 2.1, which is one grade below a first. I was expecting this as nearly every piece of work I wrote was marked a 2.1, with only a few pieces marked as a First grade. I really wish I had tried a little bit harder, but I do have a string of reasons/excuses that I think hindered me a little throughout the three years, including getting glandular fever, food poisoning, my nan dying, and breaking my foot which meant the ten minute walk to campus took me over half an hour of pain. So yeah. A 2.1 isn't too bad.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Completing a Creative Writing Degree... What's Next? Masters Degree?

This is the question that is plaguing many creative writing graduates at the moment, myself included.

Creative writing is a very, very broad topic. There are hundreds of things you could do as a creative writer, which can actually be more confusing than if there were only a few directions to take.

To MA, or not to MA?

One thing I have learned from my three years at university is that being taught by writing professionals, as well as mixing and workshopping frequently with other writers, greatly improved my writing. Last week I read through my first year work, and then looked at my short story dissertation - I was actually quite shocked at how much I had improved without realising it.

Not only that, but I loved being around other writers, and having tasks and assignments gives me that extra bit of motivation to write. I would LOVE to do a Creative Writing MA. But is now the time to do one?

There are three main issues I think need to be addressed.

Finishing university with £20,000 of debt, no job, and with no government funding for an MA, £5000 is perhaps a little steep... There is no way I personally can afford to do an MA at the moment. Others may be in a different situation. However, I fear that the longer I put it off, the higher the fees will creep...

Is it the best idea to go straight from a BA to an MA? Much of our creative writing roots from personal experience. I don't mean all our stories actually happened to us in some way, but being in the world and experiencing it as much as possible adds richness to writing, whether it's through meeting lots of interesting people, to observing different cultures while travelling, or simply discovering a giant ant nest underneath your BBQ (this happened to me last week!).

As time goes on, your history of life experience inevitably increases. This is not to say that young writers have nothing to say - by no means! But maybe now is a good time to have a break from taught and assessed writing schemes and go and do something different. I guarantee your writing will benefit from it.

(In fact, I heard that Andrew Cowan, one of the directors of the UEA's Creative Writing MA, prefers students who have spent time doing something different between a creative writing BA and MA for exactly these reasons.)

This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately. If I had money to burn, I would do a creative writing MA at some point simply for the pleasure of it. However, since I'm having to scrape my pennies together, I'm wondering what the best education is for my career path. If I am one hundred per cent set on becoming a full time writer and author, then yes, I would probably do a creative writing MA in a heartbeat. However, the reality is that most writers don't make it big enough to live off their writing alone. And writing full time is a lot tougher than people think.

So, would I be better off doing a creative writing MA, or perhaps a business MA, or a publishing MA, or would it be better to spend my money on some other kind of education or course altogether? Right now, I have chosen the latter option. I am currently enrolled in a long-distance learning course to obtain a copy-editing qualification. This cost me about a tenth of the price of an MA, at £550. So, it's important to look at the bigger picture. I can still be a writer without having a MA in writing, while also increasing my job prospects in other areas.

If you would like to see what types of creative writing MAs are out there and where, Prospects has a great database HERE.
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