In this video we look at two descriptions of the same place, which appear at different stages of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. Although the place is the same, Smith is able to advance the story just by changing the sensory details on which she and her characters focus. Being able to do this, to show rather than tell, to use concrete description as an essential part of the story rather than a background, is central to how most writers work. But do remember that mimesis is not the only way to tell the story: there are many alternatives to the cinematic mode of narration.
In the beginning, cinema took its inspiration from older forms of narrative including literature. But even in the 19th-century, realist writers were comparing their work to photography, and during the 20th-century many prose authors, including Wyndham Lewis and Christopher Isherwood, took inspiration from film. Published in 1960, John Updike’s present-tense novel Rabbit, Run was subtitled originally, “A Movie”, and he was explicit that “The present tense was in part meant to be an equivalent of the cinematic mode of narration.” From what I’ve seen, the cinematic mode of narration often dominates Creative Writing classrooms. But what is it? What are its limitations? And what are our alternatives?
Here’s something else I never thought about before we founded a writing competition: competition isn’t very nice. We’re now ready to announce that three people will receive prizes, knowing that more than 140 people have been disappointed along the way. We’ve tried to make our decisions as fairly and diligently as possible, but disappointing news isn’t nice to receive or deliver. While some authors may have been disappointed not to make the longlist, and twenty of those longlisted may have been disappointed not to make the shortlist, it may be that the most disappointed are those who made the shortlist but aren’t among our three winners. To those who didn’t make the longlist, that may seem greedy, but it’s fair and proper to want to win – that’s what competition is for.
In our society, competition is often championed for economic reasons. An investment-based economy requires perpetual growth, and a major stimulant to growth is to create situations in which individuals and institutions have to compete. In many ways, this is obstructive to human happiness. It has given us hundreds of thousands of cold callers whose misfortune it is to cajole consumers into switching mobile phone operator or utility provider. It has left us unprecedentedly unequal, alienated from each other, working for more hours than ever before, and seeking treatment for mental health problems from depression to anorexia. Its main achievement has been to produce loads of stuff, much of which has value only when accrued competitively.
I’d go so far as to suggest that competition damages relations within a community. This is why, for thousands of years, civilisations have created designated times and spaces for competitions. The social function of pankration, duelling, jousting, boxing, rugby, chess, and writing contests is to allow people to practice competition in ways that don’t have negative effects on the wider community. A recurring theme of the etiquette associated with competition is that when the competition is over, regardless of the result, the contestants cease to view each other as competitors and treat each other as friends and colleagues. The competition has to stay in a designated space because anybody who devoted their life to “the activity or condition of striving to gain or win something by defeating or establishing superiority over others” would be behaving like a total dick.
For this reason, I think designated competitions are healthy. When one enters a writing competition, one hopes to win, one wishes to achieve at the expense of others, and if one doesn’t, one reasonably concludes that the judges are a bunch of sub-literate charlatans. Then, later, we can go back to supporting each other and caring for our fellow writers. We might write alone, but literature is a necessarily shared endeavour, and we’re stronger and healthier when we cooperate rather than compete. Meanwhile, you send your story off to the next competition – within which space it’s fair to assume that yours is the best, and that anyone who doesn’t get that is a total moron.
On this occasion, our three winners are:
3rd place (£25): Luke Harris
2nd place (£50): Darlene Campos
1st place (£150): Julia Thomson
Congratulations to all of the above, who will receive their prize money this week. In a close contest, Canadian author Julia Thomson clinched first place with her short story “Roached.” It impressed for the complexity of its themes and its skillful characterisation. The story benefits from its vivid setting on the small Bahamian island of Eleuthera, and it features a protagonist who is idiosyncratic and flawed but entirely sympathetic. We asked for stories that would make us laugh or cry or both, and this one combines comedy and pathos. It’s richly layered and full of subtext. It’s an absolute zinger and we’re thrilled to be publishing it on the site next Monday.
Thank you again to everyone who entered – judging hasn’t been easy, but it has been a treat.
After numerous arguments, fallings out, and snide comments about each other’s judgement, we have a longlist! First, let me say a massive thank you to everyone who entered: it’s been a delight reading such a diverse range of writing from all over the world, and it’s been really hard to select just 30 pieces to go forward to the next stage of judging. There were several stories we agonised over and inevitably some of our choices came down to subjective factors: there are stories we couldn’t fit onto the longlist that I’m sure will find success in other markets. There were also some very strong pieces that we decided we had to exclude in the interest of fairness since they didn’t meet the stipulated 2000-5000 word limit.
However, for all the stories we’re sorry to lose at this stage, the thirty we have left form a mouth-watering selection. The list features experienced, many-times published and prize-winning authors, but also includes many exciting new voices. We have horror stories and ghost stories, magic-realism and slices of domestic life. The next round of judging won’t get any easier!
Congratulations to the following authors who have been longlisted for the 2016 Online Writing Tips Short Fiction Prize: More…
Sometimes I’m asked to critique a story, or a scene in a novel, that, despite being well written, is somehow kind of bland. There may be nothing wrong with it – the author communicates clearly, and uses concrete detail, and writes strong dialogue, and deploys a consistent and appropriate point of view, and doesn’t clutter her prose with adjectives or adverbs, and yet, somehow, the story or scene doesn’t leap off the page – it’s dull. One option is to make the characters more distinctive, more idiosyncratic, more unusual. But very often the solution is to take the characters and their conflict and transpose them into a distinctive micro world.