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Welcome to The Literary Pig's blog - a safe haven for all those afflicted with
the unbearable urge to write.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The girl with the painted face - Gabrielle Kimm

Please welcome our guest author the talented Gabrielle Kimm (photo below - looking very thoughtful) who has taken time off writing her fourth novel to come along and chat to LitPig.

Gabrielle is the author of three historical novels, all published by Little, Brown. She lives and works in West Sussex with her two daughters and a (very) elderly Lakeland Terrier. Gabrielle Kimm is one of two new Royal Literary Fund Fellows at the University of Chichester and also teaches English part-time at a small Performing Arts school.

The Girl with the Painted Face is set in Modena, Italy, 1582. Where a young orphaned seamstress, Sofia, is falsely accused of stealing from a client. She's quite an innocent but thankfully is taken under the wing of a troupe of travelling actors, called the Corraggiosi, and finds herself falling for one of the group's most talented performers, Beppe Bianchi. At the heart of this novel is a charming story of first love and sexual awakening. I found Beppe and Sofia's developing attraction, and friendship, engaging and believable. Unfortunately, Sofia's beauty attracts the unwelcome attentions of an aristocratic bully. His murder is immediately blamed on Sofia, and she is arrested by the local militia. The actors seek to prove Sofia's innocence and we soon discover there are quite a few suspects ...
This is an excellent mix of romance and murder mystery, enhanced by the wonderful setting of Renaissance Italy evoked, as always, with genuine love by Gabrielle. I'm a history fan and really enjoyed learning about the actors and all their traditions. The Commedia dell’Arte is a form of theatre I'd never heard of before but now intrigues me. If I have to air any grumble it would be that I wanted to spend more time with the actors, a delightful mix of characters - so maybe there is material for a sequel here, please Gabrielle ...
Q. I've absolutely loved reading all your novels, Gabrielle, and one reason is the setting of Renaissance Italy. I've read a lot of historical fiction set in Tudor England so it was refreshing to read about a similar period but with an Italian backdrop. Where does your fascination with Renaissance Italy originate from?
First of all, thank you so much for having me on your blog! The reason that I’ve set my books in 16th century Italy is very simple – it’s all down to one person: Victorian poet, Robert Browning. The inspiration for my first book, ‘His Last Duchess’ was Browning’s wonderful dramatic monologue, ‘My Last Duchess’. This extraordinary poem is narrated by a sinister Renaissance aristocrat, who admits (seemingly without remorse) to having had his first wife permanently silenced because she annoyed
him once too often. It struck me with the force of a well-hurled grenade one day, whilst preparing a set of lessons for a GCSE English Literature class, that the back story to this poem would make a fabulous novel and I spent the next few hours madly scribbling down the bare bones of what quickly became my plot. 
At the time, I had no idea the poem was based on historical fact, and only thought I would be interpreting Browning, rather than history. But, as it turned out, early research for the book led me to understand that the duke in Browning’s poem is in fact Alfonso d’Este, the fifth duke of Ferrara, and that Alfonso married Lucrezia de’ Medici in 1559, and that by the end of 1562, the poor girl has vanished from the records and nobody knows how. Some sources reckon she was tubercular and that her demise was natural and inevitable; others suggest something like anorexia, but by far the majority (including Browning) are convinced that the duke had a hand in it. As I couldn’t find a definitive answer, the only solution was – to write one myself!
Given the facts of the case, I clearly had to set this first book in the era and setting in which the historical reality played out. My second book, ‘The Courtesan’s Lover’, features a secondary character from the first book as its central protagonist, so I stayed put in 16th century Italy, and then my publishers asked for another – and I was of course happy to oblige!

Litpig says: we've read both of these - they are cracking reads and highly recommended. Links to where you can obtain all of Gabrielle's books are at the end of the blog ...

Q. In 'The Girl With The Painted Face' we learn about the Corraggiosi, a travelling troupe of actors (performing in the traditions of Commedia dell' Arte) through seamstress Sofia's innocent eyes;  like us she knows nothing about their world. I was fascinated by the traditions and rituals of the actors, can you share how much research you undertook to get inside this type of theatre and how you went about it?
It was great fun!  When I’m not writing, I teach – English and Drama – so as you’d expect, I’ve done a fair bit of acting and directing along the way. I had thought for some time that it would be fun to write about actors, but had presumed in my ignorance that, as in England in the 16th century, women’s parts in plays would have been played in Italy by boys. Given that I write for a women’s fiction imprint (and they like their novels to have strong female leads) I presumed that my plot possibilities in this area would be limited – until I chanced upon an article about a woman called Isabella Andreini, who was an extraordinary Renaissance actor and writer. I discovered to my surprise that unlike in Puritan Britain, in Europe, women played an equal part in theatrical enterprises alongside men, as writers, actors and directors.
I wondered first if I would have the fascinating Isabella as my central character, but decided against in the end, because I realised that I wanted my heroine to know as little about the traditions of Commedia dell’Arte as my readers probably would – so that they could learn alongside the character, if that makes sense.
Commedia dell’Arte is a very physical form of theatre, and the more I read, the less I felt able to depict it in writing. Knew I’d have to find out ‘how to do it’ by actually doing it myself. So, scouring the internet (as one does) I came across a website for a theatre company called The Rude Mechanical Theatre Company – who are, as their website proudly proclaims – a modern Commedia dell’Arte troupe. I emailed. Could I, I asked, possibly come and sit in on rehearsals, eavesdrop on a workshop, talk to the actors, find out what it’s like to put these traditions into practice?
The director of the troupe emailed back by return, hugely enthusiastic at the idea of sharing his love of the traditions with a writer.  He was, he said, in the area the following day – would I like to meet for a drink and a chat?  I grabbed at the chance, of course, and began an extraordinary journey of discovery, which ended up involving, as well as copious emails,  practical workshops (huge fun but exhausting!), attending rehearsals, helping set up the traditional staging, and generally immersing myself in the life of a travelling theatre company as far as I could.
(The Rude Mechanicals tour across the South of England every summer – their shows are amazing!  Check out their website - http://www.therudemechanicaltheatre.co.uk)

Q. One of my favourite characters from your first novel 'His Last Duchess' was the courtesan Francesca. She then returned to take the lead role in your second novel 'The Courtesan's Lover'.  Are there any characters you loved writing that you long to return to and write more of their story? (Can I drop in here that I also loved Francesca's castrato servant, from 'The Courtesan's Lover', as a character...)
It was strange, how Francesca ended up as the central character of the second novel. I hadn’t planned it at all – she just wouldn’t leave my head! As I finished writing ‘Duchess’, I was happy to leave my characters to get on with their lives – I’d completed what I wanted to do with them, and I knew they’d manage without me. But Francesca wouldn’t stay in the shadows.  I found myself thinking about her, wondering where she was and how she was coping, and a need to tell her story in more detail began to obsess me. 
I have to admit that I do love Modesto (the castrato servant) too. He came from nowhere in the writing of that book – I hadn’t planned him – and he’s remained as (I think) my favourite of all my characters.  He’s so stalwart and kind and loyal and funny, and so damaged from what happened to him in his childhood – he broke my heart as I wrote that book! I have planned a sequel to ‘The Courtesan’s Lover’, and I will write it at some point and Modesto will definitely figure large in it (along with Gianni, the seventeen year old who shatters Francesca’s complacent confidence), but I’ve been struck with a need to tell a different story just now, so that’s what I’m working on at the moment. 

Q. I had a surreal experience recently when the main character of the novel I'm currently writing sat down opposite me on a train journey - he was the spitting image! The poor man must have wondered why the woman opposite kept sneaking glances at him. So when writing your novels how do you picture your characters ... do you have a strong mental image or perhaps use picture/photos or even think of specific people of actors?
I had an experience like yours, while writing ‘His Last Duchess’! I was on about the third draft of the book, so had established the characters in my head, when I went to the cinema with my children. A trailer came on for a film about the Brothers Grimm, and a woman walked onto the screen and it was Francesca! I almost gasped. It turned out to be an actress called Monica Bellucci, of whom I had at that time never heard, and she was SO like my mental picture of Francesca it was quite surreal.
Yes, to answer your question, I do have a very clear mental image of my characters, though I don’t look for photographic references. When they crop up, they can be fun, but the characters exist in their own right in my head, and I don’t feel the need to reinforce that.
Having said that, one very strange thing happened, also in the writing of ‘Duchess’.  I had always thought that if anyone ever wanted to film the book (well, one can always dream …), I would want Ralph Fiennes to play my duke (photo left). Just that – a thought. Then, well into the writing of the third or fourth draft, I came across a portrait of Alfonso d’Este (see right) that I hadn’t seen before, and … well, what do you reckon? A likeness, or what? It was almost uncanny!

LitPig: the Indoor Writer adores Ralph Fiennes and he would be a perfect Alfonso! And yes the likeness is uncanny ...

Thank you so much for having me on your blog – it’s been such a pleasure chatting with you.

LitPig: thank you, Gabrielle for being such a wonderful guest. We can't wait for the next book to come out, so please can you now get back to writing it!

Here are some links to where you can obtain Gabrielle Kimm's novels and learn more about her and her writing:

His Last Duchess  http://tinyurl.com/3bl3sg3
The Courtesan’s Lover  http://tinyurl.com/d3u8abl
The Girl with the Painted Face http://tinyurl.com/p86zxah
Facebook: Gabrielle Kimm
Twitter:  @gabrielle_kimm

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

A poetry interlude

Now the MA course is on summer break the Indoor Writer was free to attend her poetry group's monthly workshop earlier this week. The theme was 'sound waves' and explored how words and sounds are used in poetry. One optional exercise was to write something in the style of Michael Ondaatje's poem 'Sweet Like a Crow' (if you don't know it then listen to him reading it on this clip, it is a terrific fun piece). If you recognise his name you may know it from the best-selling novel (and film) 'The English Patient'. Writing a list poem is wonderfully liberating. Have a go and let your imagination wander wherever it wants - it's a great exercise to help with prose too.

If you're interested here's the Indoor Writer's poem:

Maternal Thoughts From Abroad

Your voice sounds like candyfloss, pink fluffed with sucrose glitter,
like the golden crackling of creme brulee
like an angel singing in the bath
like someone drowning in kittens,
naked and doused in double cream.
Like a zealot on speed
with a belly full of hot fudge brownie.
A nightingale warming up behind the bike shed.
The vicar's tart on a Saturday night
chanting blessings in the confessional.
Like a blackbird singing on a sixpence
eating bread and honey
like chocolate melting on meringue,
where butter wouldn't.
Like the sound I heard in my own sweet voice
when I called my mother after the forbidden rave
to reassure all was fine and dandy,
the house definitely not trashed into smouldering shame.

[any parents reading the above may recognise that moment when you hear in your offspring's voice the unbearable sweetness of deception ...]

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Short stories on the radio

We were at the first ever London Short Story Festival on Sunday, held at the fabulous Waterstones in Piccadilly (worth a trip to London just to wander around this bookshop & it has wonderful cakes in the basement cafe too ... we recommend the beetroot & chocolate cake). It was a terrific event organised by Paul McVeigh and Spread The Word. I've been following Paul on Facebook and his amazing blog (which is essential reading if you enter writing competitions or looking for short story outlets, click here) for some time and he is genuinely enthusiastic about short stories, also a really lovely gent.
During the day we were delighted by readings and talk from so many short story writers, too many to mention, but the Indoor Writer was really excited to get to hear: Stella Duffy, Alison Moore, Tom Lee, MJ Hyland, AL Kennedy and Helen Simpson (she has nearly all of Helen's collections on her shelf).
One of the most informative talks was 'Short Stories on the Radio', involving Stella Duffy and Di Speirs (BBC R4 Producer responsible for selecting and producing stories for R4's short story slots, she's also a judge in the BBC National Short Story competition). Clare Wigfall read an extract from her BBC Short Story Award winning story 'The Numbers' and Lisa Blower read an extract from 'Barmouth', which was shortlisted for the same award in 2013. Stella Duffy read several extracts from short stories of hers that had been aired on R4. The Indoor Writer listened carefully as she's keen to learn what makes a short story perfect for radio and clearly a distinctive single voice is key.
Di Speirs talked at length about what she's looking for in a story suitable for broadcasting on R4, here are her top tips:
R4 slot is 13mins 20 secs so max of 2,000 words for reading aloud. Ideally aim for 1800-1900 words.
Make every word count. (Di said the story needs to 'go on a diet' - we'd liked that)
Try for one voice, monologues work well, and avoid or keep dialogue to an absolute minimum.
If more than one character then ensure the voices/dialogue are distinct and different enough for an actor to distinguish them when reading.
Don't underestimate the intelligence/cleverness of the listener.
Start with a strong opening to hook in the listener (as they are likely to be doing something else whilst listening to the radio), but don't make opening too complicated.
A linear story works well. Avoid time jumping if possible or keep to a minimum
Avoid using young voices. It takes a long time to bring in actors <16 years old. (Probably best not to have a child's voice for this reason).
Don't rant or use your story for a political platform.
Pay attention to the slot when stories are broadcast. Some are afternoon slots while others later in the evening - be sensible about content. For either slot avoid excessive swearing, sexual content or generally unpalatable subjects.
Edit and edit before submission - it's a highly competitive market so don't give her an excuse to drop a story through poor editing.
LISTEN to what is broadcast!

Di also recommended writers check out their local BBC radio stations which may produce and broadcast short stories, as many are keen to use local sources. Also try approaching local production companies which work with the BBC. But she did warn writers not to submit stories 'on spec' to the BBC, only send where there is an open submission window.
In reality a lot of the short stories broadcast are commissioned, so you need to catch her eye in other ways. That's why it's important to shout about any short story successes or publications.

Annually the BBC open a submission window for new writers to send in short stories for radio. This is called 'Opening Lines', look out for the next window which should open up fourth quarter of 2014. The BBC's Writers Room detail all open opportunities, so sign up for their newsletter. Recently our writing chum Wendy Clarke learned she had made the longlist for 2014 opening, which was wonderful news. So clearly Wendy has a good idea of what it takes to write a story suitable for radio. (It was a terrific story).
If you are keen to have a go then there's another opportunity to have a story produced and aired on R4. Again with thanks to Paul McVeigh: Sweet Talk Productions seeking short stories for radio, with deadline of 18 July 2014. You can submit 2 stories of 2000-2200 words in length. Click here for full details.

The Indoor Writer has an idea stirring for a story for radio. All she has to do is get on and write it! No excuses ...

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Making 'Making the Grade'

Last week I had a story 'Making the Grade' in The People's Friend. Inspired by my writing chum's (Wendy Clarke) posts sharing the inspiration behind her published short stories I thought I do the same for this story. Basically I stuck with the old premise of 'write what you know' and the story is largely
based on a real experience. The story is about a mother and son both taking piano exams at the same time and then waiting for the results.

My teen son reached Grade 7 on the piano and much of his youth was spent at music recitals and festivals, all fun events. He still plays now. In fact he always plays when he needs to relax - so as he's in the middle of his A'levels right now he's playing daily, which is always a treat for us as he is a very good pianist. And I really did take my Grade 1 piano exam as an adult - my son's piano teacher at the time (he was already on Grade 3 by then) tutored me right up to the exam. But the exam was truly terrifying. In the waiting room I was surrounded by small children (all under ten) clutching the same Grade 1 book of tunes as me. At the grand piano my hands shook so badly I could hardly play. The lovely examiner, an elderly gentleman with an elaborate bow-tie, patted my shoulder and whispered it 'was all over now' and I could relax with a nice cup of tea. Something stronger would have helped more. I vowed my days of taking any exam were over - never again. Life was far too short to put myself through such stress.

The short story was an imagined event but containing several real experiences. It was written almost a year ago and the original feedback from the lovely Shirley Blair (Fiction Editor at TPF) was that she loved all the description, but wanted to know more about the mother's motivation for taking the exam in the first place. If I added this it would take the story over their minimum word count of 1200 words, as my original submission was only a 1,000. This point also demonstrates how important it is to read a magazine's submission guidelines! I hadn't checked them for sometime and didn't realise they had a minimum word count - lesson learned ...

The revised story was posted and after a couple of months I received another lovely email from Shirley (she is a joy to work with) buying the story. Another good thing about TPF is they reject stories quickly, usually within a week. This can be a bit of a shock, but is preferable to waiting the 3-4 months, or longer, (I'm not naming them) from many other magazines just to hear bad news. It means you can re-work and re-sub somewhere else quickly - always a bonus.

Okay, this is only the second story I've sold to TPF so my success is not exactly prolific, but I do wait until I have something I think will suit their needs as the editors really do know what their readers like. If you want to submit then read the weekly and monthly special editions to find out the range of stories they accept. You will notice Wendy Clarke's name in just about every issue. Read any of her stories to understand that TPF want a well-written story with great characters and satisfying endings.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Before the Fall by Juliet West

I'm delighted to welcome Juliet to the blog today to talk about her debut novel ...

Juliet West’s debut novel Before the Fall is described as a ‘compelling, moving tale of a love affair, set in the East End during World War One and based on an unforgettable real life story’. And yet it is so much more.
When my proof copy first arrived a terrifying thought sprang to mind: what if I hated it? What if I couldn’t finish it? Suddenly reviewing a friend’s debut novel wasn’t such a good idea. But then I started reading and all these silly fears dissipated before I’d turned the first page. I was gripped by Hannah’s voice and story, reading the whole book over a couple of days.

The novel weaves between Hannah’s narrative (first person) and Daniel’s story (third). It was the genuine voices of the main characters that hooked me. They are complex and intelligent, yet both outsiders not really ‘fitting’ in with their working class friends and family. Hannah is struggling to find any meaning in her life. Her husband volunteered early for the army leaving her and their two children to live with Hannah’s sister. Daniel has a protected job in London’s dockyard so hasn’t been called up. Being a fit young man he’s the target of malicious gossip and the white feather brigade. The two outsiders are inevitably drawn to each other, with tragic consequences. I don’t want to give anything away, but I finished this book with tears running down my face. The story seems even more poignant when you learn it’s based on a real story – more on this in Juliet’s interview below.

Juliet’s writing has the same melancholic and haunting atmosphere of Helen Dunmore. Honest storytelling, lyrical yet fluid and so readable. If you enjoy Dunmore’s novels then I think you’ll love Before the Fall.

Here is an excerpt: “ I think the war is everywhere in the rain, in the river, in the grey air that we breathe. It is a current that runs through all of us. You can’t escape the current; either you swim with it, or you go under.”

I’m sure you’ve guessed, but I highly recommend this novel. And if you’re already suffering WW1 overload then please don’t overlook this novel. It is intriguing to hear the stories of those who endured the Great War at home. I found it refreshing to read about the war from a domestic perspective.


Juliet West worked as a journalist before taking an MA in Creative Writing at Chichester University. Her poetry and short stories have been published in various magazines and anthologies including The French Literary Review, Ink, Sweat and Tears, and The Sunday Times online magazine. Juliet’s debut novel, ‘Before the Fall’, is published on May 22nd 2014 by Mantle/Macmillan. She lives in West Sussex with her husband and three children.

Twitter @julietwest14

Q:  Hannah and Daniel are complex main characters, but come across as very real to the reader. I also understand Before the Fall is based on a true story. Can you tell us more about the background to the novel - without giving too much away of course. How did you first come across the story?
I first heard about this story nearly eighteen years ago when I was working as a newspaper journalist in London. During the First World War, a young soldier’s wife had fallen in love with another man while her husband was abroad fighting. Their affair ended dramatically in 1918, leading to a murder trial at the Old Bailey. Police and court documents relating to the case had been released by the Public Record Office in Kew, and I co-wrote a feature which appeared in January 1997 under the headline: ‘A soldier at the Front, a wife at home and a tragic betrayal’. 

The story was so poignant and shocking – it haunted me for years, and I really wanted to explore it in more depth. But it wasn’t until 2010 that I finally started to research and write the novel.

I should mention that ‘Before the Fall’ is a fictionalized version of the story, and that the names Hannah and Daniel are not the real names of the people involved. Although I remained very true to the key events, I did invent a wider cast of characters in order to create believable worlds for Hannah and Daniel. So characters such as Hannah’s best friend Dor, Daniel’s landlady Mrs Browne and his neighbour Sonia are all fictitious.
Q: I was intrigued to learn from the novel that London had been bombed by German Zeppelins and planes during WW1, air raids are something you associate with WW2. Before the Fall is distinctly set in the Eastend of London where Hannah lives and you've captured the setting and people so well. How much research did you undertake for the novel? Can you share some of your research process, for example did you do all the research before you began writing?
Initially I was very daunted by the prospect of research. I’d studied history at university, yet I’d never attempted to write historical fiction and hadn’t a clue where to begin.

In the end, my approach was unsystematic (polite way of saying ‘chaotic’). I researched as I wrote, usually from home, reading history books, biographies, memoirs and browsing countless World War One sites on the internet. I also had several field trips to the East End, especially around Docklands and Whitechapel, walking the streets and visiting local history archives and museums. In fact the research wasn’t a burden at all. I absolutely loved it and found myself more and more fascinated by the period.

Of course the difficulty of becoming immersed in another world is that you end up with so much material that it’s hard to know what to leave out. I wanted to avoid the clichés of rattling trams and flickering gas lamps, but ultimately these were very much part of the London landscape one hundred years ago, so the odd tram has crept in…
Q: You read a beautiful but poignant poem at a recent poetry event and I know you enjoy writing poetry. As well as working on novels can you tell us more about other writing projects and successes.
Thank you, Tracy, I’m glad you enjoyed that poem. I do love reading, writing and discussing poetry, and a couple of my poems have been published. However I’d hesitate to call myself a ‘proper’ poet. One day I’d like to study poetry in greater depth – I want to know about spondees and anapests! - but for now I just dabble when the mood takes me. I probably write only two or three poems a year. Must do better.

While I was studying for my MA in Creative Writing (at Chichester University), I concentrated on short stories and started submitting to competitions. For ages I didn’t have any luck, and then my short story ‘Beauty in the Bog’ won the H E Bates prize and went on to be published in the Sunday Times online magazine. This was a massive confidence boost. I’d definitely encourage other writers to submit to competitions. If a story isn’t placed, don’t lose heart or take it personally. Toughen up, tweak, and re-submit!
Q: I believe you have a 2-book deal with Macmillan. Now Before the Fall is out in the shops are you working on book 2. Can you tell us anything about it and when it will also be available?
Book 2 is another historical novel, but the setting and the characters are very different to ‘Before the Fall’. This book is set in Sussex and London during the summer of 1935. It’s about love and family loyalty, set against the political backdrop of this era. It’s not a war novel, but certainly the legacy of the First World War, and the fear of a future conflict, are relevant to this book.

I hope to complete the first draft by the end of this year, but I don’t want to jinx my progress by suggesting a publication date!
Q: Finally, Juliet, if, or should I say when, Before the Fall is optioned for film or TV who would you choose to play Hannah and Daniel? If you could have a part then which character would you like to play?
Ha, you never know! It’s a difficult question to answer, though. Because I’d seen a photograph of the real-life Hannah, this was the only face I pictured when I wrote the book. She was a petite woman with beautiful wide eyes and dark hair. Audrey Hepburn circa 1953 is the closest I can get.

I have no idea what real Daniel looked like - the only description is that he was a tall, broad man. But I’m sure he must have been very attractive for Hannah to have fallen for him, given everything that was at stake. Jon Hamm with a Cockney accent, perhaps?

As for which character I’d play, this is even trickier as I haven’t acted since I was about twelve (in a school assembly - a Coronation Street spoof, in which I played Deirdre Barlow). Probably I would be the café owner, Mrs Stephens, grimly chopping onions in the kitchen.

Thank you, Juliet for stopping by today. Hope you are recovering after the launch party yesterday - it was a great "do" and a terrific venue for a book launch (The Library at The Proud Archivist, Haggerston)
Top right photo:  Juliet giving her speech
Bottom right photo: Juliet and Tracy with a copy of the book!
Finally, here are some links to where you can buy Before the Fall

Wishing Juliet every success and many sales for Before the Fall. It deserves to do well!

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Clink, clink

We're still celebrating the Indoor Writer's good news. Have you heard she's made the shortlist for the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize? You can laugh at her picture and read all about the writers involved here. As you can imagine she's rather proud to be part of such a distinguished group of writers.

We had to keep the news quiet for almost 3 weeks and I was sworn to secrecy. But once the shortlist
was released we celebrated in the usual fashion. And I believe she's
off to munch teacakes with her writing buddy, Wendy, this morning.

Trotters crossed for the next round - the regional winners will be announced on 14 May...

Please be assured that no Literary Pigs were harmed in the making of this blog post.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Judging a competition by its judge

If you regularly enter writing competitions then will a 'named' judge make a difference to you? I have many reasons for entering particular competitions and confess that a big name judge makes a difference to me. I've entered several of Retreat West's short and flash story competitions (read more here) solely because of the judge involved i.e. Jane Rusbridge, Paul McVeigh, Tania Hershman to name a few. I came runner-up in the 'A Pet' themed competition judged by Jane Rusbridge (July 2013) - the voucher was a bonus as for me the best bit was receiving her comments, all very constructive, on the story.

Amanda Saint is the brains behind Retreat West and I'm pleased to welcome her as a guest on the blog today. She's kindly agreed to answer some questions ...

Q. Do you think having a named judge makes a difference to a writing competition? What impact does it have on numbers of entries for Retreat West competitions?
Personally, when I enter my work into competitions I'm attracted by the judge and would always try and send something if it's a writer whose work I admire. When I started the Retreat West short story comp I wanted to have established authors as the final judges for two reasons: to attract more writers to enter and to give them the opportunity to have their work read by writers that they like. The competition has been growing steadily and each time the number of entries increases, sometimes only slightly but I'm hoping that I can keep growing it and keep getting great judges involved.
Q. You've had some big names (and more to come) judging. How do you know all the judges? (I'd kill for your address book!)
In the first year of the competition I knew most of the judges personally. I try to attend events and workshops as much as I can, mainly to keep learning but also to get out and meet people as its a very solitary life working at home, so had known most of them for a while. But other authors, such as Nicholas Royle, who's judging the next flash competition, I've just approached and asked them to take part. I'm very lucky that, so far, everyone's said yes! Social media is also a great place to meet and get to know other writers, and that's how I knew Tania Hershman, who judged the first flash competition earlier this year.
Q. Your writing competitions are usually themed. Is this something you let the judge choose or do you propose the theme to the judge?
I choose the themes but I'd be more than happy for a judge to choose if they wanted to. Some of the themes from last year's competition I tried to tie in with the judge. For example, Shaun Levin launched his Writing Maps project last year so the comp he judged was a map theme. Alison Moore is judging the June competition this year and I asked her to read fear themed stories as her writing is often cited as sinister. It must be catching as when she ran the workshop at the lighthouse retreat last year, most of the work we created through the exercises also had a sinister undertone! Will be interesting to see if it happens again at the literary fiction retreat workshop she's running this year.

Q. Are there any contemporary writers you'd love to have judging a competition, and why, but haven't reached out to yet? 
One of my favourite authors is Margaret Atwood and I'd love to have her judging a dystopia themed competition. I love a good dystopia story but really admire how she writes really great stories across so many different genres. I haven't reached out to her yet as I doubt very much if I could afford her fee! Maybe if things keep growing and going well...

Blimey, I'd be first to enter any competition with Margaret Atwood as the judge! Keep us posted on that one, Amanda. And thank you coming along today.

Keep an eye on Retreat West's competition listings as coming up in the next couple of months they have the following judges:
Nicholas Royle - Flash Fiction <500 words, theme: Medicine, closing 31 May
Alison Moore - Short Story 500 - 1500 words, theme: Fear, closing 30 June.

You can read the 2013 short story competition winning stories in the anthology:
The Colour of Life and other stories
Available from Amazon here.
Here comes the plug ... containing my short story ‘Monsters’.

Keep writing ...