When it’s better not to be shortlisted

Recently, I failed to make the short list in a competition* I had entered. It’s not the first time by a long chalk, nor is rejection by publishers or requests for revisions to something I thought was fine in its first iteration (often it turned out better in the end which reflects well on the editorial critique), so when I say I’m actually quite relieved, it isn’t a defensive swipe at the ones that made it. Maybe you’ve found yourself in this position too: you enter in good faith, you’re shortlisted, you cheer. Then you read the stories you’re shortlisted with and the only acceptable option is to win outright because to lose to any of them – especially publicly – would be horrendous.

More horrendous though is the danger of judging one’s work within the scale of any given list and not according to an internal yardstick for what constitutes ‘good’. While Grayson Perry in his Reith Lectures has made the amusing but spot-on point that ‘good [art] is what enough of the right people say it is‘ (and that ‘the right people’ shift according to what matters most – sales, popularity, income, or critical appraisal), establishing a sense of one’s own competence is a valuable way of avoiding being blown around by zeitgeist, popular opinion, those little rules that keep appearing via Facebook or twitter, and the Emperor’s New Clothes of defensive approval.

Writers are probably the group most vulnerable to these external influences when it comes to measuring their own talent and skill. That they usually work alone means there is no obvious way of developing a capacity for objective self appraisal. Add to this the tendency for women (on the whole) to make external attributions for success (‘I was lucky’) and internal ones for failure (‘I’m no good’), the landscape for self blame and being buffeted by unpredictable winds is more expansive than many can handle. No wonder we’re always on the hunt for the tips, tricks and aphorisms that seem to promise success.

I’m a self-confessed male-typical thinker which is the exact opposite of the way (most) women see things – if my stuff isn’t well received, my default position is that it’s nothing to do with me! I’ve learned to pull back from that over the years and to understand that other people might just have a valid point. Out of that has come a measured approach to feedback and criticism that allows for change but, crucially, doesn’t dent my self esteem. This seems to me to be a far better position than trying to accommodate everything and having one’s confidence perpetually steamrollered by the vagaries of opinion that might or might not have real validity.

So I wonder, are male authors more confident about their work in line with male-typical thinking, or does the isolation and introspection of the writing process and dependency on subjective, inconsistent feedback modify that bias towards the female-typical profile? Alternatively, does that isolation drive and hone self reliance for both men and women in a way that other kinds of appraised activity don’t?

Given that almost anything could be better and that we will edit perpetually given the chance, how do you decide something is good enough to go out, and if it’s rejected or attracts negative (or positive) feedback, how do you figure out what to take on board and what to dismiss? It’s a one star/five star world out there and perspective is everything!

* I won’t mention it because that would be churlish but I need to just exclude a few who might read this and think I mean them: it’s national but of an in-house nature, no I haven’t mentioned it anywhere, no it’s not Lascaux or West Sussex Writers or Steyning Festival.

Left brain, right brain – who’s really making it up?

Lobes of the brain, color-coded.


I am not a neuropsychologist so I’ve let the left brain-logic/right brain-creative issue ride. After all, that sort of simplification is not going to kill anyone and it might just help sometimes. But with the increase in focus – via everything from apps and exercises to meditation – on hauling your right brain out from under its mossy rock to perform in public, I’m pleased to see a nice clear and competent article that puts the matter straight.


Christian Jarrett is editor of The Psychologist – the professional magazine outlet for the British Psychological Society – and he busts the myth, critically without destroying hope. While the left and right hemispheres can certainly be shown to do different things – particularly when surgically separated – they are actually designed to work together and the right brain may not have the edge on its partner for creativity:


One of the most fascinating insights from the split-brain studies was the way the left hemisphere made up stories to explain what the right hemisphere was up to.


This is a short, easy read with no complex neuro-babble and it might just make it easier to give your right brain a break. A longer article might have discussed how left handers – some of whom have left/right brain functional reversal – fit into the picture. For instance, while language is largely represented in the left hemisphere in right handers, it is often located in the right for lefties, or even bi laterally represented. And visual stimuli aimed at the left occipital (visual) cortex and that right handers are unable to name, can often be identified by left handers. I found that out by messing up someone’s study as an undergraduate – reading words with my supposedly non verbal right brain and identifying images with my pictorially illiterate left.


The article also doesn’t discuss the role of unconscious processing. Ever wondered how it is you arrive, when speaking, at the end of a sentence with all the words in more or less the right grammatical order even though you hadn’t planned out the sentence before you began speaking? That’s your unconscious doing its stuff.


Abandoning the notion that only one side of the brain has anything to do with creativity frees us up to consider the value of the whole engine with its millions (maybe billions) of connections, all of which contribute to creative output. To me, that feels better than thinking I have to coax a shy genius out from under a blanket to make it dance.




Psychoanalyzing fictional characters (via Linda Cassidy Lewis)

I have to say more about this, and so I will shortly. Linda is right, the psychologist’s hat is as difficult to remove as the headgear of the internal editor. More so, possibly, as most of us start out as uninformed nosey parkers and graduate (literally and severally) to become professional ones. When fictional characters are properly filled out, we are satisfied by them because, flaws and all, they are authentic. The trick is to allow them to be idiosyncratic, unpredictable, and downright annoying within that consistent authenticity. That’s what Linda has done with her characters, and why it became possible to unpick their psychologies, and even start to speculate on their futures. I aspire to that in my own writing, but I’m going to have to work pretty hard to achieve something that will pass muster, especially among my colleagues, some of whom are my very scary beta readers.

I also have to acknowledge the very nice comments about my review – blush!

Psychoanalyzing fictional characters Clinical psychologist Suzanne Conboy-Hill and I have been virtual friends for a year and a half. Recently she read my novel The Brevity of Roses. I was a little apprehensive when she tweeted that she had started reading it because I figured she might analyze my characters and find them wanting. This is how she reviewed my novel on Amazon: “There are two things you should know; I’m not a fan of romantic fiction so I would never have read Brevity i … Read More

via Linda Cassidy Lewis

The #Scrapslush campaign


Image via Wikipedia

I already knew this, I can’t say I didn’t, so why then do I feel  disquiet at the notion of the ‘slush pile’? It’s not the fact of being in a queue or of waiting for an evaluation of suitability, those are regular experiences in my world. It isn’t even the element of subjectivity, the lack of control, or the length of time invested in the wait because these too are familiar in matters such as applications for research funding.

In both circumstances, there are rules to be followed; this many words or characters, this kind of remit, and that configuration of topicality and market. Most publishers give a time scale beyond which you are free to enquire if you have had no feedback. All funding streams do the same although feedback now is largely automatic. Many of these also have a filtering system which determines whether or not the study is ‘in scope’ so you know quite soon if your proposal will be going to the full selection panel.

So it isn’t uncertainty, the waiting, or the fact that you can’t submit the same thing anywhere else at the same time. It’s the terminology – ‘slush‘. Slush is the semi fluid detritus that encumbers progress, messes up your boots, and trails muck into your house. How on earth has it come to represent the hours of painstaking work put in by people who are rarely paid, and may not be paid even if hauled out of this freezing mash, and who send in their product in good faith?

In a world where language and meaning are critical and communication is the primary aim, what, exactly, is ‘slush’ meant to tell us? It doesn’t sound respectful, it does sound casual, contemptuous, dismissive and derogatory and I am at a loss to see how that can be right.

I have been organising a professional conference and invited submissions for oral presentations. When they came in, they went to a scrutiny panel where we decided which would be accepted and which not. They did not go into a slush pile. For me, it doesn’t matter how many submissions, entries, or pieces of flash fiction someone receives and has to review or how scrupulous that process is, the language of contempt should have no place. Change, when it is just one word, is cheap. I vote for a language of respect, I vote for change.

Twitter #scrapslush

Authors and writers in Second Life

cafe in second lifeJust a little while ago, we were talking about the kinds of support we get from other writers and how we value the small communities that build up around blogs and tweets. Some of us are beginners with little to offer except awe for those who are into their third novel. Published or not, that’s tenacity, and if so far they haven’t hooked a publisher, this may say more about the vastness of the market than the quality of their work. If you can’t find ’em, you can’t impress ’em, and as the same principle applies in reverse, getting an airing for your product is an imperative.

But how to do this? How to rise above the sheer oceanic mass of other wannabes, float above the rest on the literary tide, and (to do the metaphor to death) avoid catching a crab of a duff publishing outfit? Self evidently, social networking has to be part of the answer although some balk at its apparent trivialising and intrusive drip-feeding of drivel into every minute cranny of our day. Like it or not though, it’s here and it’s probably staying, so we’d better buy it slippers and set a place at the table for it.

I have to admit I don’t find that too much of a problem. It took me a while to get to grips with twitter and blogs but now that I have, I really do see their potential for showcasing, communicating, supporting and generally getting oneself  ‘out there’. Assuming ‘out there’ is in any mood to listen, that is. But there’s another platform that takes the whole business one step further. Suppose you could hire a smart-looking venue and invite your writer/blogger community to come and listen as you read some of your work? Suppose you could engage in discussion with all of them at once wherever they were in the world? Imagine if you could see each other, sit next to each other, have a bit of a boogie to relax? And what if you could do this without any of you having to leave your homes?

For all sorts of reasons, I spend a fair bit of time in Second Life. I had a meeting there today with a research colleague to discuss doing a joint live seminar from our simulation next week – him from one part of the country and me from another. I’ve met artists and musicians who display their work at venues in Second Life, some by streaming their music live into a purpose designed club with a multinational audience. Indigo Mertal is a Second Life designer and artisan who is part of a group called East River Community which is one of the most beautiful areas in SL that I have seen. Indigo is very interested in thinking about hosting events for writers wanting a place to meet and talk about their work, and I’m interested in passing along the idea because I think this would be a fantastic development.

And maybe also because I quite like the idea of going ‘out’, meeting up with nice people, having a great time, and not needing to run for the last bus in impossible heels. Actually, I’ll be there anyway, all you have to do is sign up and teleport over!

Here are some more photos to pique your interest:

second life cafe area second life cafe area

Did you read ‘Madness’?

If you did, just out of interest and in relation to the post on profanity, what is your impression of the language used in that story? I won’t remind you because I’d like your thoughts based on what you recall rather than a dissection of the words themselves. We talked a lot in various exchanges about realism and the kinds of expressions particular characters might use and this is clearly a situation in which the main character might be expected to let rip. I wonder, then, how far the impression of authenticity was affected for you by what was or was not said?

You may turn over your papers, your time starts now…


Writing as cabaret

sketchHere’s a thought. Ever seen those sketch artists on the street or at local fayres who produce a portrait of you in a matter of minutes and you love it just because of the unique focused attention it offers? Well, how about an equivalent for writers/wannabe writers? Quite a few talk about doing their writing in cafes or bars (here, it would be the local pub – wey hey!) which presumably means either buying quantities of coffee or beer or trying to avoid attention while making just one last three hours. What about trading your services for a bit of free sustenance? What about offering punters a 250/500 word story with their name in it in exchange for the odd freebie drink? Netbook, mini-printer, instant profile raising, and a comfy seat for the afternoon in convivial surroundings, what’s to dislike?

I live within walking distance of several pubs so that’s my summer sorted out!

Writers and writerly things: Part 2

Appended to my last post (the text, not the bugle) was a suggested link titled ‘Aww man, we gotta blog?!‘ An unpromising catch at first glance but, being trapped in the middle of an edit for a clinical journal, I was tempted as if to chocolate and made the click. This was it, a blog about blogging for PhD candidates (PhD.umpingground) which neatly articulated my drift of yesterday and collided it with another from my research world. So, writing blogs are for writing, practising writing, practising writing for an audience, marshalling thoughts, expressing ideas, asking questions, learning how to present arguments, and keeping a running commentary of your progress without trivialising either the work or yourself. Staggeringly useful, staggeringly relevant. Unlike the ‘People who bought this also bought that..’ nonsense you get on shopping sites, although I do feel for the author whose book brought up no suggestions at all. I mean, could they not find even a pamphlet that might fit?!

Writers, writing, writerly things

You know those mornings when you’ve missed the alarm and you very slowly become aware of increasing levels of light filtering through your eyelids? Assuming you don’t now have 30 seconds to wash the dog, post a sandwich, and comb your lipstick, this is a moment of dawning. A dangling of consciousness between the loose freedom of unstructured sleep and the linear organisation of strategic necessity. Left foot, left knicker leg, try to get the bra the right way round, remember to remove spotty dog slippers before leaving the house. That kind of linear. Dawning is a moment of minor epiphany, a realisation, a peek into the mirror of self scrutiny. I think I just had one. I think I just figured out what I’m supposed to be doing here. On these blogs, other writers write about writing but I just write. I add my two penn’orth to these other blogs, amateur burblings (mine) about tasks I know little of in practical terms, then I come back here and tell tales of rats and wellies. Hm!

To be fair, and I should be, after all it’s me I’m writing about here so I could just give myself a break, this blog’s primary purpose is (was?) to get me writing something, anything, that isn’t academic, and to do it frequently. I also wanted somewhere to put all those little products of writing exercises that were born of creative sweat and so deserving of their place in the sun whatever anyone else might think of them. But is that enough? Do I need now to start addressing the process and art of writing itself? What evidence do I have that this would be in any way illuminating – even to me? Does it matter?

Actually no, I don’t think it does matter. Largely because I believe that dialogue is always better than insularity when it comes to ideas and philosophies and even if I am my only audience, the act of framing, articulating, and exposing my thinking can hardly be detrimental. If someone else stumbles over it and is entertained, all well and good. Maybe they will feel moved to add to the body of debate. I found and now very much value Linda’s blog for its frequent questions that confront all of us and give us reason to reconsider or review something. I doubt I will come up with anything as insightful in the forseeable future but I hope to improve the quality of my own contributions there in reflection of those others who are clearly writers first and foremost.

Back here, I will do a bit more thinking about what it is makes writing such a driving force, what readers want from those of us who try to produce, and how best to get the product in front of the consumer. I will need to interpolate the Deep and Meaningful with my idiot ramblings though. I like my idiot ramblings. And anyway, I can copy and paste them into a letter at Christmas to send to my tech-phobe relatives. Recycling or what?!



Dennis is a case alright. Big, thick-set, yellow hair thinning on top now he’s hitting forty. I’ve known him for years; first when his exasperated mum hauled him into the Centre hoping to get him fixed and him trailing behind with a wicked grin tweaking his mouth in which was stuffed the Mars Bar he’d half-inched from our shop. Dennis was a LAD…continued on Nano fiction page