Tag Archives: Short story

Writers’ Week, Adelaide style

writers week 1

Adelaide Writers’ Week (photo by me)

This week is Writers’ Week in my home town of Adelaide, part of the annual Adelaide Festival of Arts. It’s a week I always take off work so I can make the most of the opportunity it offers – surrounding myself with people who love reading and writing, and hearing straight from the authors’ mouths what makes them tick, where their ideas come from and how they turn those ideas into the books on offer in the book tent.

It’s autumn in Australia and this week the weather is fine and ranging from 24-34 degrees Celsius (75-93 Fahrenheit), which can be a little warm on the hotter days but there is plenty of shade to be had. And people are making the most of it – I’ve not been to other writers’ festivals but we do seem to be bursting at the seams here at times. Most of the authors offer book signings after their sessions and if you try to get into the book tent between sittings you’re fighting a hundred other people to find what you’re looking for. And you know what? It’s fantastic. While  I was lining up to meet Elizabeth Gilbert yesterday I found myself in conversation with a bookseller from Queensland who had come down for the week to see what all the fuss was about; the family days on the weekend were packed out with kids dying to hear Mem Fox or Andy Griffiths read their works aloud (and can I say there is very little more satisfying than seeing a hundred eight year olds with piles of well-thumbed books, hoping to meet the author); Hannah Kent was still signing copies of Burial Rites a good 45 minutes after her session ended; and Alexander McCall Smith was seen wandering around enjoying the atmosphere before his first session today. Yes, we have an embarrassment of riches here this week, and the best part is it’s all free. So everyone can come and enjoy a session under the trees, listening to some of the best authors the world has to offer.

(As an aside, this is Australia’s ONLY free literary festival. If you are interested in helping it stay free, then please buy some books from the book tent on site, or if you are not in Adelaide (which I expect is most of you) then please consider making a purchase or two at the online e-book retailer associated with the event, which can be found here. Funds raised from book sales are what enables the Festival to continue to offer this event at no cost.)

The west stage

The west stage

I’ll be able to offer more commentary on it next time because I’ll have seen more of the sessions by then, but in the meantime I urge anyone reading this, who has a writers’ festival anywhere near them during the year, to go check it out. It’s fascinating, it’s eye-opening, and you may just discover a new favourite author or two. :)

 

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A NaNo-ing I will go

nanowrimo.org

nanowrimo.org

It has only recently occurred to me that November will soon be upon us again, and that means NaNoWriMo is on its way.

I have had mixed success with NaNo. I’ve completed it twice and failed dismally (at Camp NaNo) once, and I generally avoid it unless I have something pressing that I want to get out. This year, due to my ignoring most things writerly, I had completely forgotten about it until I saw it referred to on a website that I look out for very different reasons. NaNo? Already? I checked my calendar and it is indeed only a few days away.

My first reaction was that I’d ignore it this year: I’ve finished my novel and the short story I wanted to write, and was thinking of taking a break. But then I thought about Novel #2, which has been festering in my mind for over a year now. I’ve got about 10K words written for it, but I’ve done exactly nothing with it for longer than I care to think about. I have, however, started dreaming about its characters again, which is a sign I should probably get back into it. So, with NaNo coming along, I have decided to do the obvious.

Yep, I’m signing up again. The whole kit and caboodle. Fifty thousand words in a month.

I have no idea if I’ll be able to do it. I don’t know if I have 50K words of this story in me at the moment. But I figure it’s worth a try. And if I do, the more I write then the more I’m likely to want to write, as delving into that world is likely to give me more ideas, more tangents, and more scope than I’m thinking about now. In other words, writing is cumulatively addictive, and there is no better way to get new ideas for a story than to immerse yourself in it.

Am I stupid? No. Over-reaching? Quite possibly. But hey, the fun is in the attempt, and who knows? I might actually do it. You never know until you try.

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Getting there … kind of

Matej-writing

Yeah, yeah, I know. I said I’d be back blogging once a week, and that was three weeks ago. But my excuse is that it was school holidays and I was busy. I could perhaps have timed my comeback better, but so be it.

Anyway, I’m here today with my random update of how things are going. School holidays were MAD, but in a good way. I’m kind of glad I’m back at work this week so I can have a rest! We did a huge number of things and had a really good time doing them, but it’s so exhausting. But not to worry. The madness is now over and I can concentrate on other things.

So, what other things, I hear you ask? Good question. I’ve given my novel to a few beta readers already, with some more waiting in the wings until I can give them a hard copy. (I have to print it out at work so I’m doing it 10 pages at a time. It’s taking a while.) I’m giving them until Christmas to get back to me so hopefully by the end of the year I have some very constructive advice as to what I need to do to improve things.  (My offer from last time still stands, by the way. If you want to see my romance novel as a beta reader, let me know.) I’m also preparing to write a short story (10K maybe?) in a completely different genre, in order to enter a short story competition my local writers’ centre has going. It’s going to be a kind of dystopian thing, and it’s based on a rather strange dream I had a couple of weeks back, so we’ll see how that turns out. After all, there’s only one way to find out if it’s going to be any good, and that’s to get started on it.

Other than that, I may have mentioned a while back that I’ve been writing a collaborative action/adventure/fantasy piece with some writer friends, so that’s a lot of fun. I’ve also done about 10K of my next novel, and I’ve been thinking more and more about that story lately so we’ll see how that goes when I actually pick it up again. I’m in no hurry with that – I find it good to break from my normal genre entirely for a while sometimes, so it might be a couple of months till #2 gets going again. I figure that so long as it DOES get going again, it’s okay. Some things you just can’t rush.

So yeah, that’s me for now. I’m hoping to post a book review next week so it may be a little while before you get any more incoherent rambles from me. ;) Either way, I hope that your writing / other creative project is going just as well as mine is.

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Book review: Little Known Facts, by Christine Sneed

Little Known Facts

Little Known Facts is the debut novel of author Christine Sneed, who has previously published a number of short stories. It follows the world of Renn Ivins, a fictional movie star of the ilk (and generation) of Harrison Ford or Pierce Brosnan – highly successful, multi award winning, and highly sought after by both studios and women.

I was not surprised to learn that the author was known for her short stories prior to this novel, because in reality that is what it is: a collection of short stories with Renn Ivins as the central theme. There are chapters from the points of view of each of his adult children, both his ex-wives, his current lover, a props attendant and wannabe biographer, and Ivins himself, all told in different ways and different styles. Yes, there is a kind of a narrative that follows throughout the chapters, but in many ways it feels much more like a series of essays about a central character than a novel as such.

I will also add here that I was a little surprised that the focus of the novel was, in fact, Renn Ivins, mainly because the blurb on the inside front cover implies that it’s more about his children. Yes, they each get two chapters (more than anyone else does), but it feels like it is Ivins’ story which is really being told, through them, rather than their own.

That being said, it is certainly an interesting read. There is a part of all of us which is curious about the lifestyles of the rich and famous: even if you don’t read the supermarket tabloids or gossip magazines, there is still that bit that wonders what it would be like to have that kind of life. Some covet it, others would hate it, but most of us have at least considered it. This book is one way to satisfy that curiosity: it’s a peek into the life of a very successful Hollywood star, and how that stardom affects those around him and those that mean the most to him. It feels slightly voyeuristic, but it does the job.

I was also impressed with the ease with which Sneed jumped from POV to POV. All of the chapters are styled in a different way – some in first person, some in third, one (from an ex-wife) told in excerpts from her tell-all autobiography, one (Ivins) as notes from his journals. They all felt distinct from each other which is no mean feat: many established authors struggle to change the feel and narrative style of their different POV chapters, yet in this it feels effortless. It may be, as I have noted, due to her background in short stories, but it was certainly noteworthy in a novel of this length.

All in all I thought this was an excellent debut novel. Well-written, engaging and just that little bit voyeuristic, it captured my imagination and made me stay up way past my bedtime so I could finish it. If you have any curiosity about how fame can affect one’s nearest and dearest, then this is definitely one way to find out.

 

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Little Known Facts, by Christine Sneed
320 pages (paperback)
Published by Bloomsbury
Available on Amazon as ebook, hardcover and paperback

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Author interview and novel excerpt: Chris Ward

Today I’m very happy to welcome Chris Ward, a native of Cornwall, England, who currently lives and works in Nagano, Japan. He is the author of 33 published short stories and the novels The Tube Riders and The Man Who Built the World. Chris has very kindly offered to answer a few questions for me and even given a preview of his novel, to whet the appetite of all who read it. So, let’s find out what the fuss is about!

Chris Ward

Tell me about the book. What inspired you to write it? What has the response been like?

I always had a rule in my writing never to write the same book twice.  While it looks like this is going to leave me poor and unknown forever, when I came to write Tube Riders I decided I wanted to write a big, epic sci-fi adventure because, while I had often written short stories in that genre, my novels had always been more mainstream.  I didn’t have much inspiration, so I looked through my short stories and came across one about a group of kids who hang from the side of trains for fun and get in trouble with a rival gang.  A couple of hours of brainstorming later I had expanded it into a sprawling dystopian novel.

The response … well, the handful of people who have read it have loved it.  I’ve had rave reviews, and I’ve even had fan mail.  However, so much stuff is being self-published that it’s been utterly buried under a slag heap of junk.  I’ve sold perhaps 40 copies.  I’m hoping it’ll be a slow burner and that by the time the second and third parts come out (tentatively summers of 2013 and 2014) it will be starting to catch on.  I guess time will tell.

How did you go about creating the dystopian landscape and atmosphere for The Tube Riders? Is it cautionary – it could happen if we take a couple of wrong steps along the way – or purely fictional?

Parts of it are very fictional, such as the scientific advances made by Mega Britain’s scientists.  I’ve very aware that it is impossible to cross a dog with a human due to the difference in number of chromosomes, but this is where it goes into Star Wars/X-Men territory and suspension of belief.  However, the world itself, with the perimeter walls, the restrictions on travel, the secret police, is very much based on real situations.  I live in Japan and am very influenced by the situation in North Korea.  We in the West can barely imagine living in a society where you fear for your life every moment of every day or are born into slavery because your grandparents dared to criticise the government, but there are hundreds of thousands of people currently in that situation.  Mega Britain is a kind of reflection of that and I tried to make it as realistic as possible.  That’s also why everything is in a state of disrepair – the Huntsmen don’t work properly, practically everyone is corrupt … I wanted readers to see beyond all the jumping on and off of moving trains to the dark underbelly of the world beneath, to understand what life is like in a failing society.

When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How long had you been writing before you began to take it seriously?

I was about eight years old the first time I remember writing anything.  Through my early teens I dreamed of being a young sensation, but I was eighteen before I finished a novel.  It wasn’t very good and has never been edited.  Nor has my second or third.  I started collecting rejections on my fourth novel, written when I was 22.  By that time it was my dream to be a famous writer, however I’ve always been someone who liked trying new things so I kept my options open.  That’s how I ended up living and working overseas.

Why did you decide to self publish? How has your experience been?

It was pretty much a last resort.  I’d been collecting agent/publisher rejection letters for fifteen years and always saw self-publishing as a vanity way out.  I was at the point where my writing was good enough to sell to professional magazines and it was this that gave me the confidence in my work to try self-publishing, and the belief that had I been born thirty years earlier I would probably have broken through.  I still feel strange about it, because for me it was always about walking into a bookshop and seeing my books on a shelf.  That might never happen now.

As for my experience, it’s been slow.  I don’t sell much.  One thing I’ve learned is that quality has very little to do with what sells and what doesn’t.  Luck, coupled with a marketing brain seems to be far more important.  I’ve read poorly written rubbish that’s selling hundreds of copies a week.  A lot of the bigger selling authors I come across are retired or don’t work, meaning they have the hours to put into all the boring stuff.  As someone who works full and part time I have time for the writing but not much else.  Plus, I enjoy the writing whereas spending an hour trawling through Twitter kills me.  I’d much rather write five pages of another book than bust my gut trying to get one person somewhere to click on my book link.

What advice would you give to any aspiring authors out there?

Write and publish, but don’t get all whiny when it doesn’t work out.  Quit complaining about not selling and getting bad reviews.  The only way to make sales is to work hard to get your book noticed, and the only way to get good reviews is to get better.  Even then, you’ll occasionally get canned.  One of the best books I’ve ever read, The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffeneger, has something like 500 one-star reviews.  That book brought me to tears and the story broke my heart.  I thought it was a masterpiece, but clearly at least 500 people strongly disagreed.  Now, with self-publishing, you get people publishing five or six years before they can even write properly, then jumping up and down and having a fit if they get anything less than a four-star review.  It’s very childish.  Along the same lines, it’s really poor form to be jealous of someone else’s success.  Some of the arguing I see on author’s forums borders on playground behaviour.  These are supposed to be grown adults attempting to be professionals and they’re writing bad reviews of each others’ work, arguing, stalking, and basically acting like little kids fighting over who gets to go first on the slide.  Just don’t do it.  Switch off the internet, grow up, and use your time to write more, write better.

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Excerpt from The Tube Riders:

As the others said their goodbyes and left, Marta stood for a moment, looking out across the park towards the huge elevated highway overpass that rose above the city to the south. Half finished, it arched up out of the terraces and housing blocks to the east, rising steadily to a height of five hundred feet. There, at the point where it should have begun its gradual decent to the west, it just ended, sawn off, amputated.

Years ago, she remembered her father standing here with her, telling her about the future. Things had been better then. She’d still been going to school, still believed the world was good, still had dreams about getting a good job like a lawyer or an architect and hadn’t started to do the deplorable things that made her wake up shivering, just to get food or the items she needed to survive.

He had taken her hand and given it a little squeeze. She still remembered the warmth of his skin, the strength and assurance in those fingers. With his other arm he had pointed up at the overpass, in those days busy with scaffolding, cranes and ant-like construction workers, and told her how one day they would take their car, and drive right up over it and out of the city. The government was going to open up London Greater Urban Area again, he said. Let the city people out, and the people from the Greater Forest Areas back in. The smoggy, grey skies of London GUA would clear, the sirens would stop wailing all night, and people would be able to take the chains and the deadlocks off their doors. She remembered how happy she’d felt with her father’s arms around her, holding her close, protecting her.

But something had happened. She didn’t know everything – no one did – but things had changed. The government hadn’t done any of those things. The construction stopped, the skies remained grey, and life got even worse. Riots waited around every street corner. People disappeared without warning amid tearful rumours that the Huntsmen were set to return.

Marta sighed, biting her lip. Her parents and her brother were gone. Marta was just twenty-one, but St. Cannerwells Park was the closest she would ever get to seeing the countryside, and the euphoria of tube riding was the closest she would ever get to happiness.

She gripped the fence with both hands and gritted her teeth, trying not to cry. She was tough. She had adjusted to Mega Britain’s harshness, was accustomed to looking after herself, but just sometimes, life became too much to bear.

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Thanks Chris! If people are interested in reading more, you can find The Tube Riders (and Chris’ other works) at Amazon. Chris himself can be found on Twitter as @ChrisWardWriter, on Facebook, and (naturally) his own blog.

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Book review: I am an Executioner, by Rajesh Parameswaran

 

I am an Executioner, by Rajesh Parameswaran

This is a review of the book I am an Executioner, by Rajesh Parameswaran, a series of short stories purporting to be about love. I say “purporting” because, while they are indeed love stories – even if you stretch the definition somewhat – I found the title of the book very revealing, because most of them seemed to be as much about death as they did love. In addition, while love did feature heavily as a theme, romantic love did not, so using the term “love stories” on the front cover could be interpreted as being misleading.

The stories are in many ways disturbing. As a mother with a baby, I had trouble reading the first story from the POV of an escaped tiger and its treatment of the “human cub” it comes across. The story of the repressed wife who goes to Thanksgiving dinner with her husband dead on the living room floor is, again, something out of my comfort zone. But then again, this isn’t a bad thing, and I find it helpful to leave my comfort zone occasionally. The tone was helped by the liberal helpings of humour, often black and certainly always dark, but nonetheless there, which was a welcome distraction. There is perhaps an over-reliance of the experiences of Asian migrants living in the United States, which is part of Parameswaran’s own story, but then again if one does not write what one knows – to some extent at least – then the work can come off feeling contrived and unbelievable. These stories, even those from the perspective of animals, are neither of those.

My one criticism is that some of the stories felt unfinished. Four Rajeshes I thought was too open at the end, and Elephants in Captivity (Part One) did feel like it would have benefited from Part Two and perhaps even Part Three. Even the final tale, On the Banks of the Table River, left a little too much unanswered for my taste. Perhaps Parameswaran’s writing is too subtle for my palate, which is certainly possible, but it did leave a sense of vague dissatisfaction upon completion of the book.

That said, however, it is an exceptional first collection of short stories. They are well written, original, inventive and ultimately believable, if occasionally unnerving, and are certainly not the bland tales which one may expect from a debut author. Ultimately, if you are looking for a collection which will stay with you long after you finished the last word, then I am an Executioner is a book for you.

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I am an Executioner, by Rajesh Parameswaran
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing
260 pages (paperback)
Available from Amazon.com as ebook or paperback

 

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Interview: David Vernon, from Stringybark Stories

Today I am very pleased to introduce David Vernon, judge and editor at Stringybark Stories. Stringybark hosts a number of short story competitions each year in an attempt to find the new voices of Australian writing. If you’ve ever been curious about how writing competitions are judged and what people are looking for, then this is for you.

Tell me about Stringybark Stories. What makes you different from other writing competitions?

I established Stringybark Stories in 2010 after I became disillusioned at what was available for Australian writers.  There seemed to be (and in fact still are) two tiers of competitions — the big ones with big prizes and a myriad of little ones with tiny prizes.  Both have problems.  The big ones are bureaucratic, monolithic and unfriendly.  Once you have submitted your story that’s it.  Unless you win something you never hear again from them — they rarely even acknowledge your submission.   The small  ones are bureaucratic in another way — they often require paper-based submission, cheques and once again you never hear anything until the results are announced — and when they are announced it is in the local newspaper and not even on a website.

The other issue is that even if you win a writing competition your story goes into limbo.  You may receive cash, a glow of satisfaction and then that is it.  With Stringybark we publish (in paperback and as an e-book) the winning entries and the highly commended stories.  Hence we support the author by saying categorically, “Your writing is good enough to be published.”

In short, I created Stringybark Stories to encourage short story writing by:

  • being friendly and easy to interact with;
  • being contemporary (we have a large website that is easy to navigate and all entries are accepted electronically);
  • being transparent — all our judging criteria are clear, easy to understand and available and perhaps most importantly we offer the option of receiving feedback on every story entered.  Each entrant can see exactly what each judge thought of their story.  Continuing the transparency theme — we publish the names of all our judges and small biographies about them, so once again writers can see who is judging their work;
  • having more than one judge (quite a few small competitions have only one judge — we have three and often four);
  • helping writers to improve — we produce a free newsletter that comes out once or twice a month;
  • rewarding those who write good stories by ensuring that their story is published, both electronically and in paper form; and
  • celebrating writing success by giving the winning authors a profile page on our website.

Since our first competition in 2010 we have run eight competitions, judged 1127 entries, given $4,190 in prizes, published 273 short stories in 10 e-books and 9 paperbacks.

Our competition themes are set by writers and readers themselves by us seeking regular feedback from writers and that way we know we are meeting the needs of writers and readers.

What do you look for when you’re judging a short story?

We make it very clear on our website what we are looking for — all part of our transparency — but in short we want stories that match the genre of the competition, have a strong and internally consistent plot, good characterisation and deal with interesting subject matter.  In addition, competent punctuation and grammar don’t go astray either!  Everything people want in a novel, we want in a short story.   We do publish submission guidelines which should make it easier for both the submitter and the judge but it is constantly amazing how few people read them and that even fewer writers follow them.

How subjective do you find the process? Is there a way of keeping things as objective as possible or does it just come down to taste?

We do our very best to make a subjective assessment objective.  We mark each story out of fifty — ten marks for interest, ten for plot, ten for style, five for setting, five for characterisation, five for spelling/grammar and five for the judge to allocate on the basis of whether he or she thinks the story should be published.  Thus with four judges each story is marked out of 200.  We find that  by having multiple judges individual judging quirks tend to get ironed out.  We also produce a comprehensive guide for the judges to provide them with clear advice on how to rate elements of a story.  Having said that, it is clear that individual judging taste is very important.  If a judge doesn’t like a particular plot/theme/style then we find that the story tends to be marked down on all criteria.  But then this is no different to reader’s reactions to stories.  If you like something very much then most sins are forgiven.  “What?  Poor punctuation?  No, just a typo.”  Conversely, if you don’t like something then there is little the author can do right.  Human nature, I’m afraid.

Why did you decided to focus on short stories and writing competitions?

Short stories are a wonderful form of literature for writers to practise their art.   In a short story, every word counts and so a word needs to mean just what you want it to mean — nothing more and nothing less.  Similarly, everything else needs to work — characterisation needs to be powerful, the plot clever and the style appropriate.  In longer forms of writing, it is less necessary to be precise and writing can become sloppy.  Dare I say it, but the latter Harry Potter books would be vastly better with being a little shorter.  However, by then JK Rowling was so successful that nobody would dare to suggest pruning of her words!

We focus on writing competitions because it is clear from the interviews we do with authors that writing competitions are an important way for them to receive feedback on their writing.  It is a relatively objective and independent way of finding if what you write is worthwhile.  Friends, relatives, lovers and children never quite manage to provide unbiased advice about the worth of a piece of writing.  They are simply too close to the author to be without any conflict of interest!  Therefore if our overall objective is to encourage Australian writers then supporting them through running a writing competition seems to make sense.

What advice would you have for any aspiring and novice authors out there?

Our author profile section on our website is full of writing wisdom.  However, there is one piece of advice that has always been with me.  The only way to learn to write, is to write.  Just do it!  And then do it again and again and again…

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Thanks David! Sage advice, and some really interesting comments about writing and the competition process. I’m not sure that it will help me win when I eventually get around to entering, but it’s certainly worth knowing. I’d also like to thank David for launching Stringybark, and commend him for the policy of transparency in the competitions. :)

If you would like to know more about David then please either visit his website or the Stringybark Short Story Awards. If you’re an Australian writer, I strongly advise you check out the different competitions. Currently they are looking for flash fiction stories, due in about seven weeks time, so if you want to try your hand at that then by all means do so. I’m even considering putting a story together myself! :)

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The long and winding road

Winding road

Winding road (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the weekend, I had an email from a writing buddy.  One of a number of people I met on another website under another name, she is part of a small group who have decided to hold their own writing contest. The idea is to write as many chapters as possible, in the month from 7 May to 7 June. No new projects, just WIPs, are eligible, as the idea is to get a move on with things we have already started. Each participant would offer some kind of prize to the winner, and encouragement of fellow competitors is mandatory. Would I, she asked, be interested?

Would I what! With the school holidays recently I’ve dropped back my writing output of late, though that was remedied a little by the rush of inspiration (and frantic scribbling) I had last week.  The only trouble was, I wasn’t sure I would be able to meet their criteria. The thing is, you see, that I don’t write in chapters.

Actually, I don’t write in order at all. Well, sure, for short stories (up to 7000 or so words) I do, but anything longer than that I’m all over the shop. I write scenes as they occur to me, then put them in order for the story I have vaguely in the back of my mind, and then fill in the blanks. Sure, this means that a lot of what I write eventually gets scrapped, as many scenes either turn out differently than I originally envisioned them, or end up not being included at all, but it’s the way my mind words. Key events first, filler later.

The result of this is that I usually have to write the whole novel, and then split it into chapters. There are some natural chapter breaks, of course, but if I want any consistency of chapter length then I occasionally have to move scenes around in order to get them at the end of the chapter. (And I like consistent chapter lengths. One of my foibles, I think.)

I know that I’m not alone in this – I’m told that Stephen King, no less, writes in much the same way – but I also know that there are a lot of writers who start at the beginning and go right through to the end. To me, this is a completely alien way of writing, but I can’t help but admire it. I know that some of these people are “pantsers”, who don’t know where their story will end up until they get there, but others have planned so meticulously that they can tell you exactly what will happen in any given chapter, and could even write it if you asked them to, even if they’re nowhere near that in the story as yet. The sheer weight of planning involved in that makes my head spin.

I’ve told myself that one day, I’ll try to write a story that way. I’ll fill notebooks not with actual scenes, but notes about scenes, what they’ll involve, with meticulous details about story order. I’m not sure that I’ll do a very good job at it, but I want to see what it’s like.

In the meantime, though, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing. It’s worked for me so far, and it’s the way I feel most comfortable as a writer. And the writing competition my friend suggested? Well, I’ve come up with a compromise. I’ll nominate a set number of words per chapter – say 2500 – and I’ll write as many blocks of 2500 words as I can. It’s better than nothing, right?

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