“Not a money-making lark:” short stories with Ann Burnett – 18 January 2017

We stepped aside from plotting and characterisation. We didn’t discuss how every single word should work its socks off or how too many characters can confuse. Instead, last Wednesday evening Ann focussed on how to be most effective in getting our writing “out there;” whether aiming for publication or competition success,

To capture everything she shared would be impossible. As usual, Ann’s workshop was packed with advice, anecdotes and plenty of nuggets of information that get you flicking back through scribbled notes and moaning at the state of your handwriting. Having successfully deciphered most of my post-keyboard scrawl, I’ll simply share some of those key messages that meant something to me: and maybe they’ll resonate with you as well.

How many of us read short stories? It was more of a challenge than some direct advice, but the point was well made.

Read the guidelines: from the nuances of punctuation, through the bluntly obvious word counts, to the practical means of submission. Competitions and magazine publishers each have their “rules of engagement.” It may be frustrating to know that My Weekly and Take a Break Fiction Feast only take material from writers who have sold to them before, but it saves on that inevitable disappointment.

Before starting to write a competition entry, get a flavour of the adjudicator. What do they write? What is their background? Have they made explicit statements about their likes and dislikes? In this age of social media and web-presence, the answers aren’t too difficult to find and may save a lot of wasted effort.

But the creative juices did get flowing.

We started with five minutes of free-writing to clear the mind. Anything, something, just keep the pen moving and slip into a spot of written waffle until the brain finds a tangent to pursue. I rarely do it at home when faced with a blank screen, but always come up with something interesting when prompted in a workshop.

And we ended with more than just writing. We’re often told to “read it out loud.” Clumsy dialogue or the cumbersome construction of a sentence will stick out like the proverbial sore thumb, even as we do it in the privacy of our own room. But Ann wanted to take it a step further: prepare us for reading to the group.

Watching for those little, or not too little, mannerisms by standing in front of a mirror; slowing down to the BBC’s newsreader’s rate of one hundred and fifty words a minute; raising your chin and your voice will follow; spotting a face towards the back of the room and talking to them; engaging eye-contact.

“There’s nothing nicer than the sound of your own voice,” said Ann. “Enjoy it.”

So finally, eleven people bit the bullet. Some photographs of random faces prompted ten minutes of furious writing and we heard about near-death experiences, harpooned cats, rolled-up trouser legs, surprise separations, and the confidence a trilby can bring: “believe in me: I’ve still got it.”

Well, on the basis of Wednesday’s performance, let’s trust we all have and watch for the publication plaudits and competition congratulations that will follow.

Nigel Ward

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