Poetry competition traffic jams

I’m not sure why this happens – but about four times a year there are a tangle of high-profile poetry competitions with deadlines that fall around the same time.

This causes me to panic and spend hours racking my brain, wondering which competition to submit to. I invariably don’t have enough good work to submit to them all, which leaves me with an overwhelming sense of FOMO. (I like this stupid acronym. It expresses something important while sounding like it might stand for something edgy and offensive).

At the moment, the traffic jam consists of the following:

The Rialto Nature Poem Competition, deadline 30th April:


Poetry London Competition, deadline 1st May:


Bradshaw Books manuscript competition, deadline 18th May:


Templar pamphlet competition, deadline 7th May:


What are these poetry organisations trying to do to us? Is this a purposeful decision, designed to confuse and thus weed out the weaker, less dedicated writers? Or is it a result of the strangely hermetic worldview held by literary organisations in general, which means that they have no consciousness of the activities of their peers? If you were planning a poetry competition and noticed, through some very basic online research, that there were several deadlines occurring in and around the same time as yours, might you change your plans to level the playing field?

I attended an open meeting at the Irish Writer’s Centre in Dublin a couple of years ago, attended by several very dynamic and pro-active literary organisations. They were all doing fantastic work in their own right, but stood hovering around the edges of the room, glaring at each other with the suspicion of humans encountering beings from another world for the first time. The utter confusion when Unesco rolled into town as to a means of getting all of these discrete literary projects to somehow gel into one large, varied example of Irish literary prowess was another case in point. I wonder why this is? Is it something to do with the essentially solitary nature of writing? Or is it the absence of a strong, centralised location or organisation about which these smaller magazines, journals and writers’ centres can flock?

This is the bigger picture – and a longer discussion to be had another day – but arts administrators and magazine editors everywhere, please try to check your dates to prevent date clashes. It might mean you’ll receive better work and more of it.




Picturing the Conversation

I’m approximately a third of the way through a first draft of my second novel for young adults, currently called All Souls. The first book is languishing in the inbox of some Top London Agents, rubbing shoulders with the Booker winners of the future and hopefully stealing their famous dandruff.

I’m at a part in the story where a recently introduced character is having to catch up with what the characters – and the readers – will know from the first book. I’m not a fan of cop-outs such as ‘and then, as time passed in a manner conducive to the exposition of a series of important facts, our heroine told the young man all he needed to know.’ I prefer to allow the readers to witness our new character stumbling over the pieces of the puzzle and trying to fit them in some order which makes sense. There are risks and opportunities attached to this kind of exposition.

Ok Jesus, here's what's happened since you've been gone...

The risk:  Repetition, i.e., a potted version of what went before that will bore the reader to tears.

How to avoid this? I think the answer is to consider who your characters are and how they communicate. Would they tell the story the same way the writer has? Probably not. Their priorities and experience are different to yours – they are not omniscient (unless it’s a first person narrator, and even then, they probably don’t know everything that’s transpired in the book to date.) Thinking this way turns the problem into a challenge and presents a number of opportunities to strengthen your characters and narrative.

The opportunities: Character insights, plot development

A different version of events, as told by one character to another, can provide humour and insights into a character’s agenda. Some missing information or an incomplete or dishonest version of events can create potential for interesting plotting. For example, my heroine doesn’t want to face up to some facts about her past and her new friend is unaware of this. So he’s probing her answers, which are vague. This allows us to gauge his character – open, a little hapless and possibly none too aware of the complexities of the teenage female mind. My heroine’s reticence serves as a reminder of the obstacle she faces. Her new friend’s questions cause her to examine her own motives for concealing her past. It all works organically (I hope) to reinforce the plot while simultaneously telling us something about the characters.

Somebody tell me what the hell's going on - in 100 words or less

Finally, there’s the challenge of orchestrating the actual conversation – in this case, between a 16 year old girl and an 18 year old boy. Not only are they miles apart in terms of maturity and life experience, they’re also from different social backgrounds. This makes writing their conversation a lot of fun; there are a thousand and one opportunities for misunderstanding. And then there’s the final challenge; not only do we need to hear what’s being said and communicated, we need to visualise it too. Body language is hugely important and we need to be able to read it alongside the dialogue. If this were a play, aside from the odd stage direction, the majority of this work would be done by the actors. In the case of the novel, it’s all up to the writer – to create subtle yet informative dialogue, paired with physical descriptions that illuminate or contradict the drift of the conversation, thus maintaining an air of tension while moving the plot forwards. Easy…

Oogling Eggits

Since it’s Friday and I’m feeling a bit wild, I thought I’d post a bit of a rant about common words that people misspell in the scripts I read. Apart from confusion over ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’, which doesn’t even register anymore because I come across it so often, there are a few that really drive me mad. For example (and these are made up lines by the way):

‘Ah Pat, sure that eggit/ ejit/ eegit over there wouldn’t know his arse from his elbow.’

The word is eejit. It’s a debasement of idiot and it’s a wonderful, brilliant, unique Irishism. Part of our eejitin’ national heritage. Google it if you’re not sure! Or actually, don’t Google it. Because Google is indirectly responsible for my next pet hate:

Sarah: ‘Annie, you wouldn’t believe the way he looked at me, it made me sick.’

Annie: ‘God, there’s nothing worse that being oogled/ oggled by some lech.’

What has the man in question done? Has he consulted a lesser-known internet search engine in an attempt to find saucy pictures of Sarah? I have a suspicion that this man was actually ogling Sarah. The hint is in the spelling. Ogle. Like Ogre. Not oggle, like goggled or oogle, like…well, Google. It’s nice to see that people are making an effort to ascribe an etymology to Google, even if it’s wrong: ‘Oh, when I Google something, I search for it. So when I oogle, it must mean something similar. But pervy.’

Google actually comes from the mathematical term googol,which means 1 followed by 100 zeros.  So it’s a very big number and as such, only has sexual connotations for a very few people. We can all rest easy.

Constructive Criticism – If you can’t say something nice…

I read and respond to unsolicited scripts for a number of theatres. I came across a very good play while reading today. It’s the second play I’ve read by this particular writer and while I was trying to figure out the best response to write to their play, I started thinking about the nature  and uses of criticism.

With most plays, it’s easy to write what I hope is helpful criticism. Most aspiring playwrights make similar mistakes when trying to write a play: their idea may not be suited to the stage, their dialogue may lack subtlety, their characters may be inconsistent –  changing to serve the plot rather than their own interior drive. When reading plays I try to identify the major problems and suggest that the writer re-examine them and look for solutions. There’s no point in listing every issue with the play – for the playwright, that would be death by a thousand cuts.

Then every once in a while you come across a writer who has a good theatrical instinct. There may be problems with the play, but you know they have real potential. The problem is, what to do with them? Sometimes their good play will lead to a commission or a production, but often the play just doesn’t fit with the ethos of the particular theatre. Or perhaps their subject matter, while well explored, is just not that interesting – how do you tell them that? Can you tell a writer their play is dull – or even worse, irrelevant – and still be constructive?

I had an experience once where I submitted some of my own work and got the most unhelpful response from the person I’d sent it to – lots of comments along the lines of ‘I just didn’t like this’. These are the kinds of comments you can do nothing with – how can they help anyone improve their work? As a writer, you have to be able to take criticism on the chin, but as someone who critiques the work of others, I couldn’t help thinking this response was irresponsible. Any one who takes the trouble and time to sit down and write a play, a poem or prose deserves respect for that effort. And if I ever stop feeling that way, I think it’ll be time to get out of the game…

Wonderful Tennessee

Last night I re-read Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie. So interesting to have another look at them after a long time and with a (slightly) more developed theatrical awareness. I found myself really gunning for Stanley and thinking that the entire tragedy of Streetcar pivots on his failure of empathy. Although Blanche’s nervous hysteria seems as dated a mode of expression as Stanley’s macho violence. They both seem, from a distance of 60 years, to be victims of their own need to play certain roles (What’s that? Awkwardly applying postmodernist ideas to a play produced in the 1940s? It’s my blog and I’ll say what I want 😉

The Glass Menagerie is an infinitely more delicate play, as the title suggests. It’s such a small, everyday tragedy. Williams’s preface is very interesting and his notion of the absent presence of the gentleman caller –  the absurdity of the notion that the entire family waits for his entrance  – seems to pre-empt Godot in a very interesting way. The expressionist devices used throughout seem both dated and ahead of their time; the projection of certain lines of the text still feels quite avant-garde and crops up in plays as recent as Attempts on her Life by Martin Crimp.

I also love the notion that Williams feels he has to explain the notion of a memory play to the audience in such a self-conscious manner. Postmodernism again? I’m not sure, but Williams certainly still has a lot to teach aspiring playwrights about the modern application of the tragic form, about good characterisation, strong structure and perhaps most importantly, about creating a palpable atmosphere which underlines the play’s central themes.