Competitions: NYC Midnight, Short Story Competition, Round 3

Catherine Day Sunrise

I managed to get through to round three and into the top 3% of the entrants in the competition, but alas my journey is over. A very worthy winner was selected, and I’m chomping at the bit to have another go! I thoroughly enjoyed the competition, and I now have three stories that I’d never have written otherwise, and plenty of useful feedback from the judges that I can use to improve them. I’d highly recommend entering this competition to a anyone who is stuck in a bit of a  rut with their short stories. Our final assignment was:

Genre: Open

Character: An undertaker

Subject: A sunrise

Of the three stories I put together, this one (despite having been written in 24 hours) was my favourite, and not having an assigned genre was better for me, because I generally don’t write genre fiction. I’ll be submitting this one to other competitions. The biggest challenge with this story was writing it in 1,500 words. I ended up writing far too many words and then I had to edit heavily, and I think I might have edited the heart and soul out of it. If I end up submitting it anywhere else, I’ll submit the unabridged version.

The story is about unhappy memories, and a man’s attempts to protect his elderly wife from them. This is an excerpt from the beginning:

THE DAWNING

We used to go ‘sunrise hunting’ whenever we went travelling. We’d plot out the route on our map the night before, estimate when sunrise would take place, set an alarm, and sleep in our clothes. When the alarm went off we’d rise groggily from our bed, one of us always needing to be coaxed by the other. We’d pour strong, black coffee into our chipped thermos flask and jump into the hire car to drive fast in the pitch-blackness; Gloria’s face obscured by a giant map as she barked out directions, yawns filling my mouth as I drove. We’d follow the line of the horizon, find a good spot and park up.

Gloria would spread out our old woollen rug. A rug we had picked up in India, that had lain on the soil of many different countries since, and pour herself a cup of coffee, huddling into her jacket. She’d smile a faint smile and watch the sky rapidly transform before us, whilst I ran around snapping photographs. Trying to capture every moment of the show, as the sky worked through whatever palette it had selected from its range that day- red, orange and yellow or pink and purple. Maybe shades of all of them. Better than a sunset any day. A sunset was an ending, a sunrise a new beginning.

Scary Times and Beta Readers

Waiting for feedback from my beta readers was one of the most nerve-racking experiences I’ve ever had. It was like I had a precious little kitten I’d nurtured from birth. Perhaps the little kitten had star potential, or maybe I was completely delusional (like many cat-parents are) about how entraining my kitten really is. It was like taking that vulnerable creature and handing it to a pack of wolves who would either be enamoured by it and nurture it, or tire of it and tear it to bloody shreds.

Many writing blogs/books recommend that you select only a few beta readers, and that you only select people who write. I pretty much ignored both pieces of advice. I’ve been unlucky with strangers reading my work in exchange for me reading theirs. Often my feedback would be more detailed, thoughtful and constructive than what I receive back. I’ve actually received feedback of ‘very good, really enjoyed it’ on short stories that I’ve written. This would be after spending forty-five minutes reading and typing up a critique on the work of the other person. I’ve just been unlucky, I know, but still, it made me think that taking a different path would suit me better.

I asked ten people I knew to beta read for me. In terms of their knowledge of writing and novels. I managed rope people in with a massive variety of perspectives to offer. Proofreaders, fans of the thriller genre, people with English degrees, people who write as a hobby, people who write for a living, to a psychologist, who offered a unique perspective on my characterisation. I agreed with many of their observations, and I’m making a number of changes to my final draft as a result.

My precious kitten came back a bit roughed-up, but mainly in one piece.

I knew that the risk of asking friends and family read it was that they wouldn’t be honest. They are more likely to ‘blow smoke up your hole’ as my uncle Finbar might say.

As I gathered the feedback from each individual reader, it became clear that the risk had paid off. The criticism I received was constructive, though occasionally brutal. Ironically, it was the harshest criticism that made me feel the greatest sense of confidence in my writing. It meant that I could trust my readers when they told me that they enjoyed the novel. I could believe them when they told me they couldn’t put it down. I don’t regret selecting people I know to beta read. It was clear to me that my readers took their job very seriously, and that they were invested in my success. I am grateful to each and every one of them.

I have a lot of work to do before the novel will be right, and I’m pretty nervous about launching into the final draft.

Over to you: What is your experience with beta readers? How did you find THE ONE(S)? What kinds of people did you use? Did you use friends/family or strangers? What interesting perspectives have they brought to your work?

Research Trip: Inishmore

Catherine Day, catherineeday Dublin, Ireland, author, novelist, writer
Inishmore Island, the Harbour

I think Inishmore was the island that sparked my love affair with islands. I’ve been three times now, and I can’t wait to go back. Of the many islands I’ve visited it remains the easiest to spent time on, for a number of reasons: there’s plenty to see and do and when you’re finished doing and seeing everything on Inishmore you can hop on a ferry from there to the other two Aran Islands and have three completely different island experiences.

It has plenty of amenities in comparison to the other islands I’ve been to, where I’ve had issues with restaurants closing early, shops being shut on a Sunday etc. On Inishmore there are lots of pubs, plenty of accommodation and pretty decent food. There are a number of craft shops and a decently stocked supermarket. Kilmurvey beach is lovely, as is the walk to the top of the Black Fort.

Catherine Day, catherineeday Dublin, Ireland, author, novelist, writer
Kilmurvey Beach

Inishmore has probably had the most influence on the shaping of my fictional island in my imagination, simply because I’ve been there so many times.

This time I came here with a singular focus: to find out as much as possible about the history of the island as I could from a bona fide islander. I booked a pony and trap tour, and embarked on the maiden voyage of Inishmore’s first, and only, female horse and trap tour-guide. She was young for a guide. Her name was Grainne, and she was incredibly knowledgeable, and told us stories about the island that were as funny as they were informative. As we clip-clopped around the island cars driven by proud island women tooted their horns at her. The Inishmore version of ‘you go, girl!’

Catherine Day, catherineeday Dublin, Ireland, author, novelist, writer

Grainne was born and raised on Inishmore, and after spending a number of years on the mainland completing a marketing degree and working in an office, she decided to return to her home place and become a tour-guide. She clearly loves the island she grew up on. She told me things about the island that fascinated me. She told me about local history, information about the culture and customs of the island, and the simple, informality of life here. Things that I wouldn’t have gotten from a perusal of WikiPedia, and much of which is likely to find itself in my novel.

Research: Trip to Galway City

Catherine Day, catherineeday Dublin, Ireland, author, novelist, writer

Galway City is only a half an hour’s drive from the ferry to Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands. As the island of Inish Dubh is based on various islands that I’ve visited, I decided that like Inishmore, my island would be reasonably close to Galway City. Galway is the biggest city in the West of Ireland. I wanted to write scenes set in a busy, bustling place that would contrast well with the sleepy insularity of Inish Dubh. I’m enjoying blending fictional locations with real ones, and that’s what I’ll be doing for the scenes that are set in Galway.

Four separate scenes in my novel take place in Galway City. They take place: in a cafe, a pub, Quay Street and Salthill Prom respectively. Though I love Galway, and I’ve visited it many times, my memories of it aren’t the clearest. Galway is a gorgeous place, and a really fun city to visit.

A really fun city, if you know what I mean.

A little too fun, really.

As a consequence, trying to summon up anything useful through the cloudy soup of memories that I had to draw on wasn’t working out very well for me. So I decided that the best thing would be for me to take a trip to Galway and walk the city alone. And take it all in. Totally sober.

Before leaving for Galway, I did some research on what Galway City and  the Salthill Prom looked like in the 1970’s. I found an amazing Facebook page (Galway Memories) full of old photos of Galway from previous decades, and I looked at videos from the RTE archives. I planned to walk modern Galway, and mentally superimpose those old images onto what I was seeing.

Catherine Day, catherineeday Dublin, Ireland, author, novelist, writer

As soon as I arrived in Galway I drove to my hotel, dumped my car, checked in and immediately went out again and started exploring. Over two days I wandered the length and breadth of Salthill and Galway City. Breathing in the sea air of the Salthill Prom, examining cafe and pub fronts, strolling along the canal, drinking a coffee outside on Quay Street and generally soaking up the buzz of the city centre. I would stop every ten minutes or so to take photos and note down my impressions as went along.

It was incredible how vivid the scenes in my head became. Walking in the footsteps of my characters. They became more real to me than I could have ever imagined. My trip to Galway will definitely help me to add texture and realism to the scenes that I have set there. Given that I’m setting my book on a fictional island, it’s a welcome change to have the detail is right there, physically, for me to draw from.

Competitions: NYC Midnight, Short Story Competition, Round 2

I’m delighted to have been ranked 3rd in my heat in the second round of this competition, and am one of the top eighty in the competition, which started with over 3,000 entrants. Again, the feedback was good and very helpful, and I may actually adapt this into a screenplay of some kind. I found the genre was less appealing this time around. I find comedy hard to write, but I absolutely love funny writing. I’m not a big fan of action/adventure novels.

Genre: Action/Adventure

Character: A prison guard

Subject: Melting

The three elements of the assignment actually made sense together, which should have made things easy-peasy. Strangely, this had its own challenges. On seeing the elements of the assignment my mind was flooded with visions of imprisoned superheroes with special melting powers. Though ideas came easily to me at the start, I started and binned various versions of this story before finally accepting that the superhero I had conjured up was a totally lame-o. I just didn’t care about her at all. I actually love to watch the occasional superhero movie, but I found that writing my own superhero left me cold. For some reason, I prefer to write ‘human’ heroes. Perhaps it’s because I can relate to them. In the end, despite having three days to write the story, the idea only came to me a few hours ahead of the deadline. I submitted it just in the nick of time.  The story about a female sniper who is kidnapped, and faces an impossible choice: her son or her country.

Here is an excerpt from the middle of my story.

SHOOTIN’ GOOD

I hear footsteps coming down the corridor. The lock turns in the heavy steel door. The guard comes in, with a semi-automatic in his hand. He sits on an upturned crate, and takes an orange from his pocket. He begins to peel it. His fingernails sinking into its skin, juice running over his fingers. He slurps at it and I watch him. Mesmerised by the dripping juice. Wanting to stick my face under it.

‘You want some?’ he asks with a smirk. I say nothing. I won’t beg like a dog. He throws me a couple of pieces, and it hits the dusty clay floor. I look at it for a moment. Considering leaving it there until he leaves, but I can’t wait. I pick it up, wipe it against my shirt and stuff it into my mouth.

‘You’re thirsty. You’re hungry. Don’t worry, you will have whatever you need… when you make the right choice. You will even see Bobby again’. And I flinch. He nods at my arm. Bobby’s name in ink, and his date of birth. I thought it would be useful in identifying my body if I wound up dead, and I felt like it was a way to show my son how much I love him, before I left him for two years. Unthinking, I had etched my weak spot onto my body for my enemies to see.

‘We have snipers. Good ones. What we want is to use you, to kill one of your own…you pick the target, and put a bullet in his head… simple. Effective. Totally demoralising. Don’t worry. We will make sure they know we forced you to do it. We want them to know that. We want them to know how weak their soldiers are under pressure. You will go home. You’ll be a pariah, but you’ll see your son. In case you’re wondering what the alternative is… this is what happened to the last soldier we captured. Have you ever seen a human face melt?’.

Competitions: NYC Midnight and the Challenge of Writing a Screenplay

After my overwhelmingly positive experience with their Short Story Challenge I decided to enter NYC Midnight’s Screenwriting Challenge. I’d never attempted to write a script before, and as I’d like to adapt my novel into a screenplay at some stage, so I saw this as an opportunity to learn something new.

I was surprised to discover that there are numerous very strict rules around writing a screenplay in terms of formatting and headings etc. This felt alien to me, as other than a specific font size or type, formatting was something that is generally left alone in creative writing. Thankfully NYC Midnight set out some really helpful guidelines on their website, in their post: How to Write a Screenplay. In terms of the formatting, at first I had a nightmare trying to draft the thing in Word, but eventually, I found an excellent screenplay template on Scrivener. I had to play around with it to get used to it, but once I had it, it meant that I could focus on writing the story, instead of tricking around with tabs on my page.

As with the Short Story Challenge, I was given an assignment:

Genre: A Crime Caper

Character: A Barista

Subject: A delivery service

Another tough assignment, but a fun challenge. I really enjoy crime capers, and the story came to me fairly quickly. The barista was a hard one to incorporate, but I got it in the end. The story is about a pair of losers living in a dead-end town in Ireland. They dream of money and a new life in Sydney. They decide to commit an armed robbery to get the money to travel to Australia, but it doesn’t go as planned.

Here’s a short excerpt from the middle of my first screenplay:

DREAMING OF THE EMERALD CITY

AIDO

I can’t even get a loan of more than a fiver off my Mam, I’ve such a bad credit rating. We have to get to get to Oz. Sydney. It’s like the Emerald City with all the Irish over there since the crash.

JONESY

Conor is having a great time in Sydney. The prick. Look at this sickening shite on Facebook. Look at this: #coffeebeanguru, #funinthesun, #livingthelife. I’m about the puke me ring up reading that shite. The smug, beardy head him. And can you believe this, he’s working as a barrister. That fella is so thick I’m surprised he manages to breathe and blink at the same time!

AIDO

Show me that.

(looks at J’s phone) He’s a barista, not a barrister you thick cunt.

JONESY

What the fuck is a barista?

AIDO

A person that makes coffee.

JONESY

A person that makes coffee? Are you taking the piss? So you’re telling me that if I go downstairs now and make you a cup of Nescafe Gold Blend that makes me a barista now does it? Isn’t that the fucking life, sitting on your hole making coffee? Why aren’t we over in Sydney being baristas? Sitting on our holes?

 

 

Competitions: NYC Midnight, Short Story Competition, Round 1

I’m over the moon to have been ranked 2nd in my heat with my story She Goes Down and I’m through to round two. The feedback from the judges was great and has definitely boosted my confidence during this difficult time in the novel-writing process.

My assignment was to write a short story, with max. 2,500 words, and it had to be a comedy, and incorporate the following:

Character Assignment: A martial artist

Subject Assignment: Prescription medication

I have to say, this was a tough one, but having a week to do it definitely helped. I couldn’t for the life of me find a way to incorporate the martial artist into the story. I went down many blind alleys with this one, until I realised that the martial artist didn’t have to be the main character in the story, so I made him the love interest, Josh. This freed me to create the young but cynical, acid-tongued Amy, who seeks out happiness in all the wrong places, and manages to alienate everyone she comes in contact with.

My novel is quite dark and certainly isn’t a comedy, so I found it hard to switch into comic mode, and I think this is a bit on the black side as a result, but that’s the way I tend to write comedy anyway. I find comedy really hard, incidentally. Magicking up laughs out of nowhere, I admire anyone that can do it with ease. I really do. It is a real gift.

Here is an excerpt from the first half of my story:

SHE GOES DOWN

Before long I sink into the sweet oblivion of sleep. I wake up twenty-four hours later to the sound of my phone alarm. The noise of it hacks through my dreams like an axe.

Work. I can’t afford to lose another job. My flatmate comes in to check on me.

‘It’s 7am’ she chirps, she’s smiling.

Smiling.

At 7am.

The woman is clearly a lunatic. I am living with a fucking lunatic.

I give her a baleful look. She walks away. She can’t afford for me to lose my job either. I’m already behind on rent. I get out of bed and survey the imprint of my face on the pillow and my fake tan on the bed. Like the Turin shroud only with a lot more sinning. The guy left his number.

Brad.

I go to the bathroom and face myself. My hair is a ball of black curls on my head, and is as fuzzy as my brain. There’s mascara all around my eyes from Saturday, and lipstick smeared across my face. I look like a homicidal clown. Brad must have zero standards to want to hear from me again. I won’t be calling him. I scrub myself clean, brush my teeth and go about trying to make myself look presentable. I pop various pills. One for the headache, one for the nausea, one for the fatigue and finally, and most importantly, two for the self-loathing. I get dressed, grab my handbag and get a coffee before taking the subway. By the time I reach the office the drugs have kicked in and I feel alive. I have my game face on. Operation ‘Get Naked with Josh’ is back on.

Loneliness and Four Benefits of Writing Groups

Given that for five days a week I spend about seven hours day completely on my own, the walls can start to close in on me. I start to feel a bit  like Chuck Noland in Cast Away. Isolated, forgotten and I have to resist the urge to speak to inanimate objects. I’m currently not speaking to my stapler, but that’s mostly cos he’s a conceited arsehole.

The thing I miss most about working in an office environment is the busyness of it. The hustle and bustle. The noise and human interaction. The  gossip and office politics. That’s how I got into going to writing groups. I needed to be among kindred spirits. I don’t go to a writing group every week, or even every month. I go when I need to, and I recommend joining one for the following reasons:

1. You’ll connect with other people who love writing:

Because I came so late to the writing party, I don’t have many friends that like to write. I’ve met some really interesting people through writer’s groups: actors, playwrights, poets. People that I can learn from, and that I’d never have naturally encountered in my own social circle. Spending time with others who are passionate about writing reinforces your feeling that it is something good and worthwhile. Also, in my experience, writer’s groups are incredibly welcoming and inclusive spaces, full of friendly, supportive people. A writing group is a great place to go when you need a boost, but it is also a place where you can make new friends and have a lot of fun.

2. You’ll write something new:

In both writing groups that I go to the chairperson supplies writing prompts. We are then given a set time to produce something inspired by the prompt. The prompt might be a line from a poem/a quote/a line from a piece of literature, other times it’s an object or a picture. I find that the prompts definitely fire up my imagination.  I end up producing something completely new that might need a lot of work, but nonetheless something that I wouldn’t have produced if I’d stayed in my office/cell to have a chat with my hole-punch.

3. You’ll be invited to share your work:

I’ve learned that reading your work aloud is a good practice. It gives you a sense of the cadence and rhythm of your writing, and what will jar with the reader. Reading your work aloud in front of a group of people, though nerve-racking, is good practice. Open mic sessions are a good way of building your audience. If you ever plan on doing an open-mic reading your work in a room of people you know and trust is a good way to build your confidence before taking the plunge.

4. You might find yourself a good beta-reader:

I know lots of writers recommend that you get complete strangers to beta-read for you on the basis that you’ll beta-read for them in exchange. I find that approach to be a real gamble. If you find someone in your writing group who gives good, constructive feedback on the work of other people in the group you’ve struck gold. You’ll have found yourself a potential beta-reader, and most importantly, one worth asking.

Over to you: Are you a member of a writing group, and why? What benefits have I missed? What are the negatives of writing groups in your opinion?

Competitions: NYC Midnight

I’ve decided to enter a couple of short story competitions to keep me writing while I’m letting the novel breathe. I love short stories, but I find that I keep tricking around with the old ones rather than write new stuff. To remedy this, I’ve entered a very interesting competition with NYC Midnight. NYC Midnight host a number of competitions throughout the year, one of which is a Short Story Competition.

The competition organisers divide the entrants into heats, and assign a genre, an object and a character to each heat. There will be three rounds, and after each round they select the top five entrants in each heat to go through to the next round. The challenges are:

  • The word counts and deadlines are reduced as you progress through the rounds. You get a week to write a maximum of 2500 which in round two is reduced to three days to write max. 2000 words and in the final round you have twenty-four hours to write max. 1500 words;
  • The genres, a character and a subject are assigned.

The competition charges an entry fee of $55, but as I’m guaranteed to get individual feedback on each story that I submit, I feel the fee is reasonable, and obviously, the longer I remain in the competition, the better return I’ll get on my money.

I’m in heat 79 with around thirty other people, and I’ve been assigned the following:

Genre: Comedy

Character: A martial artist

Subject: Prescription medication

I’m excited about trying to meet the challenge, but I’m also totally stumped. I can’t see how I could possibly combine these three things into a coherent story. Prescription medication? And comedy? And a martial artist thrown in for good measure? Are they having a laugh? I keep having visions of kung-foo panda on antidepressants, but is that funny? I don’t think so. It just makes me really sad.

Not getting an entry into this competition makes me really, really, really sad too, so I’d better get cracking.

Over to you: Are there any writing competitions you recommend? 

Writer’s Tools: The Delights of Scrivener

Catherine Day, author, writer, novelist, Scrivener benefits

I absolutely hate learning how to operate new computer programs. In fact, I abhor it. I hate it even more than I hate kale, and despite kale propagandist’s attempts to convince me otherwise, I remain convinced that kale is a very, very bad thing. Masquerading as lettuce. Trying to sneak its rubbery ass into my salad. It’s not happening, kale. Keep walking.

(The fact I’m getting so angry about kale tells me that I really need to get out more…).

Anyway, learning how to operate new computer programs is worse than kale. I don’t like to think of myself as as technophobic, as to me, the term technophobe is reserved for people who don’t use or like to use any technology at all. I can definitely see the benefits of technology. I love my phone a little bit too much, the internet is the best, Facebook is an addiction of mine. So I prefer to call myself ‘technostubborn’. I appreciate technology, but I like the comfort of using software that I’m familiar with.

Learning how to use WordPress for this website? That was a struggle. I know it’s intuitive, I know it’s easy, I know it has been specifically built with technostubborn people like myself in mind, but it was still really steep learning curve because I hadn’t learned anything new in terms of computer programs in a very long time.

With the trauma still fresh from learning to use WordPress and setting up my website, I began to write my novel. Occasionally, I’d look at writing resources online to help me along. I noticed frequent references to a thing called Scrivener on blogs and in writing guides. I did a bit of digging, and it turned out that it is a piece of writing software. I couldn’t fathom how a computer program could help me write a book.  I mean, it wasn’t going to write the damn novel for me, was it?  So, in my scepticism I decided to ignore this thing they called ‘Scrivener’.

But the more I tried to ignore Scrivener, the more it began to intrigue me.

I wrote my first draft in Word. Trying to sort out various drafts and pieces of research and trying to locate files saved in the wrong folders and keep tabs on my word count was lots of fun (NOT).

When it came to my second draft I began to think that there must be some easier way. I began to think about all of the writers using Scrivener, and loving it. They couldn’t all be wrong, could they? One day, curiosity got the better of me and I downloaded it. I clicked in to take a peek, and immediately closed out of it.

‘Too many icons on the toolbar. Cannot cope!’.

And I went straight back to good old Word.

I felt a strange guilt at having even contemplated fooling around with Scrivener. My beloved Word, that had been there for me through thick and thin? I began to snipe at Scrivener a bit for turning my head.

So you have a thesaurus? Big swinging mickey, so has Word. What else ya got?

Ooh!

Well actually…

After watching a few Youtube videos, I tried again, and it was on the second try that I got it. I advise you to download and use it immediately. Don’t fanny about like I did.

Just do it. To make it even easier for you, the link to the   trial period download is here.

If I can learn to use it, believe me, you can too. I’m going to list the benefits of using it here, and link you to the videos that I watched. They’ll explain how to use it better than I ever could. I haven’t yet used all of its features, but I’ve enjoyed the benefits of the following:

1. Ease of access to all of your work on a particular writing project:

You can organise your work so that any part of it can be easily accessed as you write.  You can access every chapter/scene of your novel or your character bios and research all with a click from a tab down the side of the page. You can also move items in these folders around easily, allowing you to rearrange the order of scenes at will.

2. Backing up your work:

I’ve been there, done it, felt the slow sinking feeling in pit of my stomach. Losing work is the stuff of nightmares. I carry a memory stick on my keys, and backup my work every day, but Scrivener helps me to sleep extra soundly at night. It has multiple safeguards built-into it in terms of backing up your work automatically, but it also allows you to setup an extra backup to the likes of Dropbox.

3. Cork Board:

for plotting, storyboarding or brainstorming. I use it in the place of physical index cards, when I’m summarising my scenes and mapping character arcs and plot lines. You can then have a quick visual on where you are with your story. you can mark up your document as you go along with notes which appear on the right-hand side of the screen so that you don’t forget them.

4. Snapshotting:

A snapshot facility for saving previous versions of your work for comparison purposes, and you can split-screen pages to see versions of your work side-by-side.

5. Tracking progress:

you can track your progress as you reach your daily word count and you can pull the total word count of your novel when you want to see how you’re getting on.

5. Collating the novel and E-Publishing:

Putting your novel together is easy- you can change formatting for the entire document in a few clicks, collate it and email it in various formats/ print it easily. You can also convert your work into an ebook.

6. Templates:

There are templates for various kinds of writing projects.

… and everything else. They’ve basically thought of everything. They’ve even made space for you to save  ‘photos’ of your characters.

These are the links I used to get the hang of the basics.

1. Scrivener Instructional Videos:

The people that created Scrivener have a number of instructional videos on their website, and you can click here to access them.  I found the first one invaluable when I was getting the hang of it.

2. Hayden Scott, WIProgress

Hayden has a great YouTube Channel and this is a very popular Scrivener Tutorial .