Friday, May 07, 2010

A good week.. and a judge's BIG competition tip

I am in a good mood today. This has nothing to do with post-election euphoria, that's certainly not it - the politics here right now are rather too closely resembling Israel's political system for my liking and the results were not what I would want. But that aside, it's been a great week - I've come up with a Big Idea, as I mentioned in the previous post, and - while a little nervous about how to do it, and worried that maybe someone else has already done it - I seem to have found no evidence that it's been done. And, as several lovely Twitter pals assured me, I'll do it in my own unique way so not to worry. I also mentioned it to the researchers in the lab and they didn't think it was lame - and then I spent a fascinating afternoon watching a scanning electron microscope in use, just amazing!

I am also in a good mood because yesterday we had one of our 24-hour flash writing "blastettes" on the online writing group I belong to. Someone compiles 24 sets of prompts and posts one set every hour. Whenever you have time, you open a set of prompts, write for 20 minutes or so, then post up your first draft anonymously. I hadn't written anything for weeks. (Well, I did write together with the students I did a reading for at Bath Spa University last week - nearly scuppered by a sore throat but thankfully all was well -  but that was it.) I wrote 5 stories yesterday. Or 5 somethings. And I felt - as I have said here before - much, much better. Healthier. Saner. More energetic. I had been having very colourful dreams, and I think perhaps that was because I hadn't been giving my imagination its regular outlet, in fiction!

I went in to the Nanoscience and Quantum Information Centre, my base of operations for my writer-in-residence, and for the first time I used my desk and wrote there. It was great. No infiltration of nanoscience into what I wrote, but it is nice to have somewhere else to go. And... on my way out I noticed a poster advertising an upcoming event, in July, with a visiting speaker from Harvard, which is directly related to my Big Idea. Made me feel, once again, that something mystical is happening, that this is definitely the right thing to be doing.

This morning was thrilling too, despite having to get up at  - gasp! - 7.30am. I went to an induction day for the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) Ambassadors scheme, which sends scientists into schools to get students excited about science. I was the only writer there and I hope I might be able to do something combining English class with science! Many, many ideas whirring around my mind...

Ok, now on to the second part of the blog post. We had our first Bristol Short Story Prize judges'** meeting a week ago, it was lovely to meet the other judges. And we are now in possession of the longlisted stories. All is strictly anonymous, I am not going to say anything at all about specific stories, of course. I am enjoying quite a number of them, some have even made me laugh out loud, which is a rare thing for me. But.

But. Since I am judging another comp, the Sean O'Faolain, which is still open to submissions, then it might be worth your while to take heed of this next bit. I am sure all those in the same position as me would stress this.

I am going to repeat this just to hammer it home.
If you don't know what this means - 

There is nothing, nothing, that puts me off more than a spelling mistake in the first line of a story. And if there are then mistakes all the way through: 

YOUR instead of YOU'RE
THERE instead of THEIR

do you think I will be focussing on how imaginative your plot is, how compelling your characters? No, I will be gnashing my teeth. Pulling my hair out. Shouting at the cat.

The odd missing comma, I can forgive that. A paragraph not indented bugs me a little but if I am swept away by everything else, I can get past that too. But when it is constant - commas not where they should be, and many of them in places they don't belong, spelling mistakes far too often - then you've missed your chance with me, I'm afraid. A literary magazine editor would not be so patient either, I imagine. A good editor will spot a few typos, glitches. But anything more than that and this is just sloppy, this gives the impression that you didn't care enough to check.

I have just realised that I sound like the worst kind of English teacher. I'm sorry, but I don't care. I pick up every story and what I say as I begin is: "Wow me." You cannot go wrong by asking several friends to read your story, checking and re-checking. Don't lose the chance of your otherwise fabulous story not even being read just because you didn't bother. I am waiting to be wowed. Don't let me down.

**ADDENDUM: I just want to make it clear that this is in no way a comment on those fabulous folk who read and compiled the Bristol Short Story Prize longlist. This is just me venting about something that has struck me from all the reading of short stories I've been doing over the last few months, for Southword and others. I am one of those very picky punctuation people, an "Eats, Shoots and Leaves" kind of nerd, and this is what gets in the way of my particular reading experience!


TOM VOWLER said...

The only way you can get away with spelling and grammar errors is if you're already successful. An (unnamed) writer who submits to us sends wonderful stories, but they do take some editing. Without that initial reputation, there's a chance they'd not be read in full.

The odd mistake is, of course, acceptable, but as you say, Tania, once that number builds, it really suggests the writer lacks a certain respect for their story. It's a little like sending your children to school with holes in their uniform. Now some people obviously revise more than others, but personally, I wouldn't dream of submitting something without reading it ten or so times, and close readings at that. And I'll always finish with one out loud; the ear often reveals something the eye misses. Preferably someone else will read it too - to feedback on style, pacing, language etc, but also as a writer you can be so close to your work, you read the words as you expect them to be, so silly errors are often missed.

But, yes, if I've read four or five spelling or grammar errors in the first para or two, I'll probably not read on.

Lauri said...

As someone who once sent a story out with my terrorists wearing baclava on their heads, I can empathise with those poor, mistake-riddled writers. I think a boring story is far worse. I once had to read stories for an anthology and if I was bored I was gone- more than grammar and punctuation.

Tania Hershman said...

Tom, yes, of course one or two are fine, we all do it -and I am probably oversensitive to commas, I'm one of those!

Lauri, that would have made me laugh, which is always a good thing! And yes, a boring story is far far worse!

Ossian said...

Has anybody else noticed the phenomenon of the "over-edited" text? Some people seem to have hacked the text about so much that it doesn't flow right and has far too many commas. At least I think that's what must be happening. The concept of "finish" from art useful for writers as well. Things can be over-finished. They have to be finished but not over-finished. Better a little unfinished than over-finished, I think. For example, the unfinished Michaelangelo statues that are "still climbing out of the stone" are fascinating. Another stroke on a painting after it's finished is fatal. (No?) Better for the spaghetti be al dente than soggy.

Miriam Drori said...

Tania, I couldn't agree with you more. Reading a story full of mistakes is annoying.

Douglas Bruton said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jenzarina said...

You get annoyed by people not indenting paragraphs? But so many submission guidelines say not to! If in doubt stylistically I've always gone with the 'at least be consistent' advice.

Pippa Goldschmidt said...

Tania, totally agree with you. It is really difficult to get rid of spelling errors and apostrophes in the wrong place, but it's essential. I realised this when I was judging a short story competition last year; I just couldn't take stories with errors seriously because I didn't feel that the writers had actually considered how readers would respond to their work. The odd error is fine, but repeated errors are not.