A Nice Surprise – Writing Magazine Story Competition Results

IMG_1640I recently had some rather nice writing news. Last year I decided to devote some time to writing short stories, with the idea that I would submit one per month to anthologies and/or competitions. I figured that, even if I didn’t get anywhere, I’d still end up with a nice collection of short stories, as well as flexing my writing muscles in a slightly different way.

Well, I managed to win second place in the Writing Magazine Modern Fairytale Competition, complete with cash prize and publication on their website! To read my story, Water and Bones, click here. I even got a nice critique from the judges, which made me very happy. (and btw, if you do head over, I recommend reading the winning story as well – it’s excellent). It’s small victories like this, or a good review or a note from a happy reader, that make writing, with all its hair-tearing, plot-twisting and rejection, worthwhile.

Writing short stories has been a good exercise for me. When I write I tend to get quite wordy – I’m forever editing word count down, rather than up. So restricting myself to a much smaller number of words to tell a story meant that I challenged myself to write leaner, to cut out any and every extraneous bit of plot, and think of the most succinct ways to convey my point.

As for my other entries, I came second in one of Esther Newton’s writing competitions, and was shortlisted for another. I also managed to get a further two pieces accepted for an anthology. And I have a few more stories that will, with some more refining, be ready to send out into the marketplace again. Or maybe I’ll just publish them myself!

Happy weekend, everyone 🙂


If you enjoyed this post and want to read more, you can find me on Twitter @AuthorHelenJ,  Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Plus my latest book release, A Thousand Rooms, is now available on Amazon.

Getting Ready for Camp NaNo

If you go down in the woods today...

If you go down in the woods today…

I was going to write ‘It’s Monday.’ Then I realised that it’s Tuesday. The Bank Holiday has thrown me off a little, the week already starting without me realising.

It’s only a few days till I head to my virtual cabin for Camp NaNoWriMo. We have a full cabin, twelve writers in all, and our cabin name is The Wordcount Slayers. Some of the writers I already know, the rest I’m sure I’ll get to know over the next month of writing and commiserating as we slog towards our word count targets.

Camp NaNoWriMo is slightly different to November NaNoWriMo in that you can set your own word count target. Mine is 30,000 words and I’m planning on seeing how far I can get with Silver and Black, my vampire story that’s been arriving in bits and pieces. I have a bit of an outline now and I can feel the characters gearing up, ready to tell their tale. Kyle in particular has been pacing around, impatient to be unleashed upon the page.

Now that may sound quite odd, but I’ve had a few comment conversations recently about the fact that I am a Pantser. Stories come to me with characters, I’m given a few key events and then away we go, the characters pulling me along with them as a sort of scribe, or perhaps a director in that I give them some ideas of what I want from the scene, then they go with it. Or not, as is often the case. I feel quite strongly about my characters as well, wanting to tell their stories as best I’m able, that their voices be heard. After all, they decided to come to me, so it’s only fair I do my best to accommodate them.

So, April will be a month of vampires for me although, and I don’t think I’m giving too much away, these vampires are perhaps a little different than the accepted mythology. At least, I think they are. And my blogging schedule may suffer a little, depending on how the word count and school holidays pan out, so please do bear with me. Scheduled programming will resume, as they say, in May.

See you on the other side!

Counting Words

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When I write freelance, I usually have to work to a word count, especially for printed material. Copy is usually the last thing to be added to the page – the design and layout are already set before my words are added, so it can’t be re-worked if I decide I need to write fifty extra words.

Writing too many words has never been a problem for me – to be honest, I’m usually the opposite, writing well over what I’m supposed to and then paring it back, line by line, until it fits the required space. The key is to reduce word count while still retaining content, which can be tricky at times.

When I started writing books for myself, I realised very quickly that writing fiction is quite different than writing copy – for one thing, there’s a whole lot more showing in fiction. Emotion, dialogue and actions tend to drive the narrative, rather than information and references, and it’s something I still have to pull myself up on from time to time. The other thing I had to contend with was the idea of word count. Instead of a 500 or 1000 word article, I was free to write in the thousands, something that was a little daunting at first. But once again my propensity to over-write came to the fore, with the result that the first draft of Oak and Mist was a whopping 165,000 words (once again, apologies to those I asked to read it at that point!). I did an edit, taking it down to about 145,000 words, then blithely sent it out to a handful of agents, not realising they would most likely discard it unread after seeing the cover letter, where I stated word count in the first paragraph.

What I hadn’t realised was that there is a recognised set of word counts for different genres of literature, and I had exceeded all of them. YA fantasy, which I was writing, usually comes in at about 70,000 to 90,000 words, though some imprints, such as Bloomsbury Spark, cap that at 60,000 words. Other genres have their own average word counts and the recommendation is to stick to them as closely as possible, so as not to give a prospective agent or publisher any reason to discount your work before reading it. Of course there are exceptions to the rule, just as there are with most things, but they are few and far between. These word counts have not been arrived at arbitrarily – they are based on sales records, readers surveys and translation costs, as well as production costs – the more words you have, the more costly your book is to produce, a major consideration at a time when print books and bookstores are fighting to retain their market against e-tailers and digital books.

Of course, when you self-publish, the world is your oyster. You can write as much as you want. But once again I believe you need to look at what your market will support – more pages does not always mean better value for money, especially if the story rambles on for twice as long as it needs to. And, while there is no cost difference to produce e-books of different lengths (other than editing), if you choose to have a print version, more pages means your production cost will go up, potentially affecting your royalty payments.

I’ve just spent the past few weeks working through a structural edit on No Quarter, the second book in my Ambeth series. It was a bit of a struggle at times, but I think I managed to sort everything out, covering all the plot holes and making sure everyone ends up where I want them to be at the end of the book. But when I finished, I realised the story was a little longer than I wanted it to be. I couldn’t (didn’t want) to cut any scenes, but I needed to reduce the word count somehow. So I went back to my old freelance method and, though it took me the best part of a day, I went through the book line by line, seeing if I could cut 12 words per page. I didn’t think about plot or structure or pace or character development – I simply looked at each sentence to see if I could say it in fewer words. At the end of the process, I’d cut almost 2000 words from the story without sacrificing any scenes, plus I’d tightened up the prose in quite a few areas.

So if you are going through an edit and need to reduce word count, consider looking at the words, rather than the story. You might be surprised!