The positives . . .

So I’m learning to find the positives, since the negatives have a way of turning up just around the corner. Better to find the ray of sunshine now, then to wait and merely be drenched in the rain.

I set myself, inadvertently, but still, a seemingly impossible task at the end of August. Delighted to receive word from New Writing North about a competition at Adventures In Fiction that seemed more likely than most I’ve entered to offer some encouragement, I bit hard. The idea as I understand this group is that they love to nurture new talent (hence the competition name: New Voices: First Novel; in which self-published writers are welcome), and they also seem to use the contest as an advertising vehicle for their mentoring/assessment services. Another group then to join the list of professional editors I’ve been considering. But on with the competition: the prize is a free mentorship package with a view to completing your novel, professionally nurtured, after a year of work. I could certainly use the professional help!

I’ve been slowly developing my ideas for the third novel in the biome series, up to about 10k words, but I’d also just finished a 1001 word short story that I thought could be an intriguing novel-length project. And after looking through the past two years of work in our local writing group, I had a dreamy afternoon thinking up yet another novel foreseen by one of my favourite short story efforts. All different genres too, just to mix things up.

I may have reported on my misconception already, but to recap, I thought I understood the rules, in that after submitting a first page and a single page synopsis, by the deadline of 14th September, of each of my three novel proposals, I reckoned I’d have a two month wait until the long or short lists were announced, and that the 16k/50page manuscript would be due then. Two months, a mere 38k words, considering what I’d already got on paper. I could do that, I thought — such fun it will be to try something different than the hard science fiction I’ve been working in for the past year.

But after submitting my entries, I was directed to the competition’s facebook page where I discovered, to my consternation, that longlisted writers would need to submit their ms shortly after the competition deadline. Or, however long it takes to identify likely candidates from the first pages and synopses. Well, I didn’t want to embarrass myself and not be ready, not really. The 1st of November is when the winner would be announced, and when the mentorship would commence. Uh-oh. Now that’s a lot of writing to accomplish in a fortnight, rather than over two months.

I gulped. I swam in the air and made gurgling noises. I could just be delighted should any of my two page efforts interest the judging panel. I must say, such a result would be salutary in and of itself, considering my track record over two years of competitions. But what if (oh frabjous day!) any of my ideas were deemed worthy of further consideration, and I hadn’t bothered to try! How embarrassing to me, myself and I, if I should have to admit that I didn’t actually have a ms ready if asked. I sat at my writing desk and pondered logistics.

I could generate the next 6k words on Sequel (renamed as a stand-alone novel) over the next three days. That would leave something like five days for each of the remaining sets of circa 15k words, or 3k/day. Surely an impossibility, but I had the ideas rushing out of my fingers. How could I not try?

Maybe awful deadlines exert a creative pressure, but over the next three days I got the Sequel ms topped up to 16k with a renewed attack on one scene, and even extensively modified after friendly advice, so I hit the target to be beginning the second novel. Ten more days.

I started really pounding the keyboard in earnest, but I soon realised that rather more than a few of my writing attempts from the past year or so seemed to fit seamlessly into a particular genre, a kind of fictionalised memoir. Think Elena Ferrante as a 70 year old fantasist, I told myself, and re-create some of the reality that underpins the fantasy. The fantasy is financial, not erotical, in case anyone is worried. Within another couple or three days, that one was tidied up too, meeting the requirements of the ms, and making a new approach to writing that I hadn’t ever considered. That lengthened the time available for what would be the real effort, in the historical fiction genre.

As I wrote, and how I did write, with diligence and perseverance, aiming now for 1500-2000 words a day, I began to see the developing story as more in the Young Adult genre. That was, I felt the themes being explored involved first love, honour, self-esteem, betrayal and abandonment, what it means to be an adult, how a life might be lived, and how a new generation might interpret the life of their grandparents. I worked hard to avoid my tendency to over-write my sentences with huge words and complicated sentences.

Rather, I chose simplicity, but this very approach was helped, if I may boldly suggest to myself, by the stratagem of utilising both French and English phrases to try to reinforce dialogue in context. I had in mind Diana Gabaldon’s clever insertions of Scottish/Gaelic words into her Outlander series, and there are so many French words available in the lexicon that even GCSE students in the UK should be familiar with. If nothing else, I thought, it might, if not too onerous a challenge, be an interesting way to familiarise oneself with French. My mind travelled on the highways and byways and railways just west of the frontline in WW1.

Today I hit 14k words, on my Scrivener software, and thought, might just want to test the waters on the Word.docx output. The other two beginnings at 14.8 and 15.5k had both been several pages too long beyond the 50page maximum. I wondered how many ms pages my new 14k might be rendered in. Well, 51, as it turns out, and my exhausted fingers said, thank you very much!

That will do nicely, should I get any call at all to proffer a deeper look at any of my beginnings, and so I shall sit back and bask in the delight of completing my inadvertent challenge, and at not (yet) making a total fool of myself. Something like 43.5k words, not a million miles off from the classic NaNoWriMo challenge, which I understand is 50k words of a novel in 30 days. Although I’d already had a significant component pre-written, as it were, it was still a big thing, to my mind, to achieve.

Good on me, I thought, I’m still thinking now in exalted sunshine, but next time I do contemplate a competition, it might be particularly wise to check the rules carefully, before actually entering, eh?

By Larry Winger

Retired scientist, devoted diarist (, community-minded aspirant novelist, I've lived on a smallholding in the East Allen Valley for the past 30 years, delighting in watching our family grow up, in experiencing the development of our grandsons, and in taking care of our small flock of chickens and garden.

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