Welcome to my final blogpost as the 2022 Hysteria Writing Competition’s Writer In Residence. Over the last few posts, I’ve written about following the guidelines, getting started, and revising and editing your creative writing. In the last blog, one of the things I talked about was what to do with a piece that just isn’t quite there, with lots of suggestions for developmental edits. I promised that for this blog, I’d write about a different kind of revision process, often called ‘polishing’ a piece, and titling your work.
Since writing that most recent blog post, I’ve read more than 100 stories for a competition, and this has given me some more ideas about what people should check for and buff up, right at the end, before they click send.
In the competition I was judging there were quite strict criteria from the organisers, and I spent a fair amount of time assessing what people had done well and where the glitches were. The main issues seemed to be:-
- About a third had wonky grammar – the main issue being a shift in tense (or more than one shift – which suggests the writer tried a change and then changed only some of it back) – make sure your spelling, grammar and punctuation are in tip-top shape.
- Confusing storylines – usually where there were too many subplots which were either unresolved or distracted from the main thrust of the piece. To help spot any unresolved threads try and get some distance from the piece – it can be hard to see our own assumptions, so maybe ask someone to read it to check it makes sense, or cut and paste it into a screen reader and let the robot voice read it back to you, or change the font and the size and try reading it aloud.
- Too many named characters. In a 300-word piece a reader will manage two or maybe three names – don’t, for goodness sake, have any of the names start with the same letter or have the same format e.g. two syllables and both end with an A – go on, check, no Marthas, Mauras, and Mynas in the same piece.
- Inconsistencies in narrative ‘voice’ – even a fictional narrator will have a ‘voice’ – with their own vocabulary, tone, view, dynamics and so on. Inconsistencies will jump out to the reader – especially if the narrator is from a particular region or group (e.g. a child’s voice) and you don’t keep their idiolect consistent, or if what the narrator can or can’t possibly know changes mid-way through.
- A plot that comes and goes or peters out – where the reader feels like the middle is underdeveloped, or the final paragraph or two or three are missing – I regularly suggest to people that they may be finishing too late in the story (often with too much explanation), but do make sure there is some kind of ending.
If those are the problems, what things stood out in a good way?
- An innovative take on the theme. If you take a theme and jot down the first ten things you think of in relation to it, chances are someone else will have those thoughts too. The pieces that stand out usually feel like the theme has acted like a springboard. It might be too late this time around if the deadline is in five minutes, but maybe next time. If you think your piece isn’t especially innovative, good news! In point five below I say completely the opposite thing!
- Interesting and fresh language – this usually means an unexpected metaphor, surprising simile, or the use of startling imagery. Sometimes it’s a completely made-up word which still makes sense in the context! If you have a particular image or theme in mind, and then populate your piece with related language, this will help the piece hold together and stand out, even if the piece isn’t directly about that topic. This works with using colours too.
- Really memorable character – who we know a lot about from what they do, or say, or what they don’t do or say, or how others respond to them.
- Interesting structure and/or layout – learn from the poets – make use of the spaces on the page, make use of layout to convey meaning, use headings to break up the text, use linebreaks, borrow a different form entirely – a shopping list, a recipe, a review.
- Something/someone we care about – every reader will have things they care about, and judges do too. It can be nearly impossible to know what will strike a judge’s fancy – and some judges recommend not overusing particular themes or tropes. But… I’ve won three competitions relating stories about old age, dementia, and grief, all topics judges warn against. In each instance what stood out were the things outlined above – unusual structure, interesting language, characters, events, and places that people cared about. So, even though the subject matter was well worn, it was possible, in each case, to do something interesting with the stories and convince the reader to care.
It is the nature of a really good story or piece of poetry that it invites us in, provides a home for us for a while, engages us, and speaks to us at the deepest level. Maybe you can think of stories that have stayed with you all your life? I think of these stories that live with us, rent-free, as Heart stories. They don’t have to be comforting, they might be terrifying. But, somehow, they have lodged under our ribs and stuck there.
This takes us to the final stage before clicking send. Your title. Some of the very best Heart stories I’ve read have memorable titles too. Wait. ALL of them do. The Lottery. The Tell-Tale Heart. A Good Man Is Hard To FInd. The Old Man And The Sea.
Have you ever looked at a list of competition titles? They seem to vary from the truly intriguing to what might have been a last-minute desperate stab in the dark in order to make a submission deadline. Spend a bit of time on your title – think of it as the invitation to your piece – a door opening – a welcome mat – something that will feel different to the reader once they’ve read the flash, story, or poem – maybe something that will add a new layer to the piece once it’s been read as well.
I promise it’s worth taking the time – you really want your title to do lots of heavy lifting for you. This is especially the case if you’re writing micro. But it’s true too for something longer. Just like a book cover attracts, you want that title to invite people in as well.
I’ve been collecting suggestions on how to come up with titles since I started writing. Here are a few strategies I’ve found useful:-
- Place, date – e.g. Greenham Common, 1983 – for anyone in the UK who is at least forty that will have some meaning straight away.
- The setting or context – can be abstract or concrete.
- An unusual character in the text – one of my favourite titles I’ve used is ‘The Ousterbout’ named for a character in the piece. (It’s a made-up word, but it works.)
- A quote that lends itself to the atmosphere of the piece (not song lyrics! They’re subject to all kinds of copyright laws in a way that song titles are not!).
- A word or two or a whole sentence from about three lines up from the end.
- What the piece is actually about or actually is – e.g. The Yellow Wallpaper.
- A specific and striking image that speaks to the underlying message or atmosphere of the piece – I had a fifty worder about a woman making a hot drink after her mug of tea had grown cold. We discovered that washing up was piled in the sink, and a letter lay open on the table – I called it ‘Decree Nisi’ – instant understanding for the reader, saved me words in the piece too.
- A bit of whimsy
- An outtake which you had to cut because of word length but which is a particularly nice bit of language.
- A log line – for example, instead of calling the film Titanic, they could have called it, ‘An Iceberg Screws It Up For Everyone’.
Are you still humming and debating? Here are two wonderful writers ruminating on titles.
Matt Kendrick first of all:-
And here’s something by Amy Barnes:-
You may have noticed that there are trends in titles – really long, one word, something very abstract, and so on. If you can come up with a stonker – hurrah – but, even if you can’t, do come up with something. Judges, readers and editors always, ALWAYS prefer a slightly dull title to no title at all. Oh, and the title for this blog post – it’s Walt Whitman, from A Backwards Glance Over Traveled Roads, and it wasn’t what I was going to call this blog post at all, until I realised this was more likely to feel interesting (at least, compared to, ‘Shine and Submit’).
So, now you’ve got everything ready and you’re going to submit it somewhere. Whoot. Fantastic! I hope you will. Especially if it’s the Hysteria Writing Competition, still a couple of weeks or so left. And, if you get a piece published, or if any of these blog posts have been useful? We’d love to hear. You can find me on Twitter @electra_rhodes or leave us a comment below.