Now incorporating The Sudbury Hill Harrow and Wherever End Times

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Pro Bono

Mary J. Blige (feat. U2) - One I can do a perfect Bob Geldof Dublin (Blackrock) accent, which is far posher than Bono's. G.s.o.h. (Box #1) Jacintha, Newsmusic Desk

A message from Comic Relief

"On behalf of everyone at Sport Relief we wanted to say an enormous thank you to Willesden Short Story Prize for sending us the £5,000 donation to Sport Relief 2008. ... £15 could buy a set of books for 3 street children in Bangladesh for a year. With an education these young people will be better equipped to get a job when they are older and thus escape from the cycle of poverty they would otherwise be trapped in. ... It just goes to show, the money you donated really will change lives and we couldn't do it without your support so keep up the good work." (Helen Kulbicki, National Fundraising)
. Thank you to all involved for their help. I think we can all be justifiably proud to have been part of something unusual and worthwhile. Steve Moran

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The ghost of Sunday

Johnny Cash - Sunday Morning Coming Down

Could've turned for home, but just went on the warmer way
and I met the ghost of Sunday on the corner of Bryan Avenue.
A memory of malt and hops and roasted coffee
must have blown in from St James's Gate, all the way.
It wasn't there, just the memory and Johnny Cash
and the sleeping city sidewalk, not O'Connell Street
just a few sunlit squares of concrete all to myself.

Stephen Moran

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Monday, February 25, 2008

Thursday night in Willesden: Arctic adventure

As featured on Midweek with Libby Purves, BBC Radio 4

Leave Britney alone and leave Pincher Martin alone



What a load of hot air about Speaker Martin's expenses! Surely the real public interest is in publicising these excellent schemes that he avails of, so we can all have a £17,000 housing allowance, not to mention a £4,000 taxi allowance for our spouses shopping expeditions. Surely the point is to level up not down? As soon as I can acquire the correct forms I shall be applying for the very same allowances. Why on earth would I want Speaker Martin fired? Catch yourselves on, people. 

Alf Watt, Cricklewood

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Common faults in short stories submitted

(For a list of positive elements see The Sense of a Short Story)

Some people have expressed interest in knowing why entries in the Willesden Herald short story competition are eliminated or advanced, so I offer the following notes on why all but the last few are eliminated.

Writers need to realise that writing is like music: there is no getting away with bum notes. Think of the judging process as a series of auditions – X-Factor, American Idol, Young Musician of the Year, if you like. Now think of the hopeless cases. Out of tune: Next! Inept: Next! Hopelessly feeble: Next. Ego tripper: Next. An open competition is by definition a talent contest, and the entries can be imagined in the same way. But what are the bum notes, gaffes, misconceptions, delusions, ineptitudes in writing that are analogous to the failings of talent show entrants? Here are a few, not rearranged, but simply as they come to mind.

1. Failure to observe the rules. Let’s get this most boring reason for rejection of entries out of the way. In this year’s Willesden competition, the rule most breached was the one that specifies no author’s name on the manuscript. Not double-spaced or single-sided also featured, as well as missing or incomplete entry forms. Last, in both senses, were entries received after the closing date. Something approaching one in ten was eliminated for not complying with the rules. It is likely that some people took incomplete information from third party sites, so I recommend that you get the official rules and entry form from the competition website. Then follow the rules exactly, not approximately. Any entry that is not in compliance with the rules will be binned, unread.

2. Overcrowded with characters. Seán Ó Faoláin said a short story is to a novel as a hot air balloon is to a passenger jet. Like a jet the novel takes a long time to get off the ground, carries a lot of people and takes them a long way from where it started. On the other hand, the short story takes off vertically, rises directly to a great height, usually carries only one or two people, and lands not very far from where it took off. So when you mention three, four, five and sometimes even more names in the first two pages, it is inevitable that readers will be turned off (unless you have created a virtuosic masterpiece that defies all critique, such as Theresa's Wedding by William Trevor). Your story is likely to suffer from the following problem as well.

3. Undifferentiated characters. A name is not a character. Pinky said this, Perky said that, Blinky said something similar and Pisky said the same, as the old wartime song might have gone. Each character should be a complete person, with their own C.V. if you like, their own history, temperament, habits, weaknesses, plans, objectives etc, though these need not and should not be explicitly listed as such.

4. Solipsism. One miserable person being miserable. This was the most common and depressing failing. Unrelenting monotony of one single, invariably miserable and oppressive viewpoint. No sign of concern or even mention of any other character, nothing other than one person’s dreary moaning. If you are not interested in other characters, at least make it funny.

5. Well-enough written but I just don’t like it. This is the uncongenial protagonist or narrator, arrogant, cruel-minded, usually petty, often attempting gross-out effects, and usually going round in ever-diminishing circles before vanishing in a puff of studied triviality. It leaves a bad taste and invariably evokes the response that it’s well enough written, but I just don’t like it. There is no gun to the reader’s head. People do not read to be grossed out, or to join in somebody else’s squalor or misery. There has to be an element of transcendence, transmutation of the base material into the gold of fiction.

6. Throwaway endings. The story has been going along fairly well, showing signs of life and suddenly the writer must have thought, “Oh I can’t be bothered, I’m just going to put a twist here and finish it.” It’s literally almost impossible to believe sometimes why anybody would ever think of sending in something that is clearly truncated and given up on – what a waste of postage etc.

7. Over-elaborated endings. All has been going well, we’re hoping this might be a contender, we come to an excellent sign-off line, then woe, woe, thrice or four or five times woe for every extra sentence or paragraph that follows after that, telling us what should be left for us to decide for ourselves. So frustrating to hit one of these after reading all the way.

8. Throat-clearing openings. A build-up to the fact that we are about to hear a story, what it’s not about, what it is about, the fact that it starts here, the fact that it starts with something, the fact that it’s of a particular kind, the fact that you’re going to tell it. Cut, cut, cut. Then we come to the line where it really starts, but by then it’s too late: for something to get on a short list, it has to be virtually flawless and you’ve just started with a whopping great flaw.

9. Boring. “Middle of page 3 and I am totally bored.” “Well enough written but what is the point?” “I’m losing the will to live.” Again, the reader does not have a gun to his or her head. We have lives of our own. We don’t need to substitute somebody else’s dreary domestic arrangements in our minds for our own. To us, yours are far less interesting – and ours were not that interesting to start with. Who cares if somebody listened to a news story on the radio, went shopping, bought a packet of corn flakes? Yawn, yawn, yawn.

10. Banal. Commonplace, dull, the sort of thing you hear every day. This is really a continuation of “boring”. A lot of stories about elderly people living in squalor. A particularly English phenomenon. A lot of stories about dying relatives. Okay, but they better be good. It’s important to write about these things, but when you do you need to realise that there will be ten other people writing about the same thing, so you’d better make it very good. Life can be banal, but we turn to fiction to find – again –transcendence. This is more or less the same point that dead henry made in his “statement to the peasants”, which was so ill-received.

11. Mush. Mom and Pop and kiddie all having breakfast mush and school mush and boy and girl friend mush, car and scenery mush and all starting and ending up in a nostalgic sunset mush. I’ve given you English kitchen squalor, now I give you American kitchen mush. Both equally nauseating. I might as well add princess and frog fairytales in here.

12. Failed experiment. It’s fine and admirable to try an experimental format, but it’s not an excuse for slightness, skimpiness, overwriting, repetitiveness, underwriting, forced or boring content, or as often as not for semi-disguised or decorated solipsism, or any of the other failings listed here.

13. Unconvincing. Clunky or melodramatic. I just don’t buy it. This is fake, phoney baloney, unbelievable but presented as supposedly realistic. Often forced and plot-driven. Corny ending likely. Let’s add in here “routine police procedurals”, where hard-bitten Captain Craggy trades inscrutable comments on cases with eager tyro etc.

14. Weak premise. The triviality of some themes submitted is hard to believe. When you get a story that is 30 pages all about a minor ailment that has no apparent effects or significance, what are you to make of it? The writer is talking to himself, like one of those poor souls you can see on the high street any day. A sort of sub-category here is the “clever-sounding” element, that is like a lump of gristle in the apple pie of the story. Some people have a compulsion to mention things they have some specialist expertise about or simply know the names of, in a certain way that makes me think, “Go away.”

15. Not a short story. We don’t tell you what a short story is, you’re supposed to know. If you don’t know, tough. You need to go away and find out. I can tell you it’s not something over 220 pages long, as one entrant must have thought. Neither is it an essay. I presume people send in essays, thinking “Well it’s a long shot.” No it’s not a long shot, it’s a dud. Regardless of length a short story is not a mini-novel – a real tyro failing. The simplest advice is to read as many good short stories as you can and yours should be at home in their company – if you aspire to that. And if you don’t then why do you bother writing?

16. Full of errors. Slapdash spelling and grammatical errors are like bum notes in a musical audition. Even if you are a shining genius (as you all think you are) it is unlikely you will get away even with one. More than one and you’re stone dead. A lot of people who do not speak English seem to think they can find success in a short story competition with texts that contain errors in every sentence. Very rarely, there may be a story that is otherwise compelling but frustratingly riddled with errors.

17. Transparent attempt to pander to the judges. Every year we’ve had one or two (usually impossible) journeys in London, invariably ending up in Kilburn or Willesden. Try to see it from my point of view, imagine I open a guide book and try and write something about your city, where I’ve never lived – imagine the phoniness of the result. I would suggest you do not attempt to write to order for a competition. You can if you insist, but I can spot it a mile off and it is really off-putting. It just suggests that you have no real hinterland of your own.

18. Poor dialogue. Exposition of the story in dialogue is a common failing. “We must be very careful, as it is raining now and visibility is low.” “Yes, and it is cold. Ooh, look at the traffic there,” said Pinky. “Yes, there is a lot of it, isn’t there,” said Perky. “Look out! Elegant variation dead ahead”, muttered Pinky and exclaimed Perky simultaneously. Maybe you’ve heard somewhere that there has to be dialogue. What they didn’t add was, “not at any price.” If there is dialogue, it should be something that people really might say. Do not make your characters into ventriloquists dummies to tell your story through. There can be long passages without dialogue or there can be lots or a little dialogue. What there must not be is phoney dialogue. Another thing, if your characters are well enough defined, you should find that hardly any attribution is needed.

19. Unevenness. This includes unevenness of tone, pace, style and theme: parts of the story that are not in keeping with the rest, which should have been edited out or replaced. A story that starts out in one tone, maybe as a serious and really compelling story, then halfway through turns into a facetious spoof. A digression from the main theme that makes the reader think, "What is that doing here?". I think there was one entry we received that seemed to be three short shorts stuck together. More slapdashery. Remember: it’s like music – you can’t “get away" with anything. With most competitions it should be safe to assume you are writing for/playing your music for people who can say in all modesty that they are not tone deaf.

20. Summation. "All in the past" syndrome. This is a problem sometimes characterised as “undepicted action” or “telling instead of showing.” Most writers seem to have a grasp of the need to get attention at the beginning, but an astonishing number by the middle of page two have started to tell us all about some ancient family history. All sense of immediacy and story is lost and instead we’re having summaries of complex events that happened, one sentence each, like a dry and tedious history book.

21. Underwriting and overwriting. Too sketchy or too long-winded. I get the impression that the long-winded are probably more pleased with themselves, but they’re no more popular with readers than the skimpers – rather the reverse. Cut out as much as you can, without cutting into the quick, and you’ll find that your text will improve. Isaac Babel said that our writing becomes stronger, not when we can add no more but when we can take nothing more away. The skimpy efforts are just rushed, undercooked, choose your own metaphor. I’m sure we know when we have underwritten (I include myself), so why do we waste postage sending underwritten pieces out?

22. Unicorns and elves, chick lit, police procedurals and bodice rippers. These should only be submitted to specialist competitions for their specific genres. The Willesden is for so-called literary stories. It’s not a pleasing term, so I would rather say non-generic stories. (I think Joyce once said that the word “literature” was used as a term of abuse.) Readers will not get beyond the first line of - and they are invariably labelled thus - the Prologue: “Nervelda gazed on the mistfields of Thuriber. Her green eyes glinted in the slanting sun, as the tribes of Godnomore straggled over the barren land.” Lord and Lady Farquahar and their servants will journey in vain to quaint villages full of worthy and unworthy peasants. I think I’ve already mentioned Inspector Craggy (promoted in the sequel) and his eager sidekicks. As for chick lit: in reading as well as in life, we may be partial to a bit of office romance, but about ten or twenty of them later and they begin to pall.

23. Faux jollity. Particularly faux jollity centred around pubs, and particularly around pubs in Ireland. Industrially extruded quantities of guff about distant histories in small town life. Standing jokes that should have been left where they toppled. Weird spastic prose as if the task of writing the story had been given by a writer with a good idea to the former class dunce, now barman. I think humour only ever exists in something that sets out to be serious. Anything that sets out to be humorous is doomed.

24. Ankles in Asia. I've changed my mind on this one. As a matter of fact, I’m not at all sure that Ankles in Asia, though it now sounds worryingly like a rare disease, is not in fact a virtue. Let a thousand professors dream of butterfly kisses with a thousand feisty young neighbour girls.

25. Clumsiness. Proliferation of unnecessary commas. Awkward mis-edited clauses, unintentional rhymes, pedestrian, dull prose, infantile expressions, over formality ("Mr Smith had a reputation as bit of a disciplinarian. Miss Elma Furblong often thought that, while thinking about what to get to ease the hunger pangs in her tummy.") Stuffiness generally. Let's save a few more categories and add here out-of-date literary sensibilities and pretensions, the aphoristic, portentous, pompous, didactic and polemical. If I think of any more I'll most likely add them into this catch-all category.

25. Clichéd. I'm thinking mostly of clichéd expressions. If I said I'm thinking "by and large" of clichéd expressions, that would be an example in itself. It's usually little clumps of words that always seem to go together, but also whole concepts that go unquestioned. Cities are always bustling, sunsets always golden, looks always stern etc. The Irish poet Jean O'Brien said (in a workshop I attended) "Beware of the bits that seem to write themselves." In avoiding clichés it is the underlying assumptions that have to be dispelled. A "translated cliché" would still be a cliché.

26. Unspeakable. "Actors call some lines pills to swallow, for they cannot be made to sound genuine" is an example of this syndrome. Maybe it's just me, but I find the use of the word "for" instead of "because" archaic and laboured. I tend to think that if I wouldn't use the word in speech then I shouldn't in writing. I wouldn't say "I think it's very cold today for the pond is frozen" so why write it? Anything that would sound laboured if read out has to go. You probably recognise the dismal effect when somebody says something and "it sounds like they're reading it out". If I write: "The solution to this problem is to read everything aloud first" that in itself contains an example of the problem. If I read out that sentence, it sounds like I'm reading it out. Maybe it's acceptable in an after-dinner speech, but it's death to a story. It breaks the spell. (How might it be improved, the injunction to read aloud? How could it be phrased better? It just doesn't sound right, maybe this way would work: "A good way to find parts that sound clunky is to read things aloud when you're editing.")

27. Pastiche. There can be cases where the whole story is a cliché, if you see what I mean, which is usually to say that it is derivative in the extreme. It might be deliberately writing to a formula, or it might be lacking a genuine "voice". I'm very impressed by people who can emulate other writers to a tee, which can be brilliant, but I find it difficult enough just "to write like myself". Here's a little story: When I was a kid I used to sing myself to sleep at night. We used to go see films in the Casino cinema in Finglas (Dublin), and occasionally there would be a musical. I remember on one of those nights when I began to sing in bed, trying to sound like the singer one of those musicals. Then I asked my Grandad, who slept on the other side of the room, if he liked my new voice. I always remember his answer and I thought about it a lot. He said, "I prefer your own voice."

In summary, when there are hundreds of entries to a short story competition, only a story that is near as dammit technically flawless has a chance of reaching the short list. As you know, there are still more qualities beyond technical perfection that are required. In a world class orchestra every musician is technically perfect, leaving them free to work on interpretation and expressivity. With stories I suppose it's subtle resonances and other quasi-poetic elements in the layering of words, a sense of adventure, newness etc - another list to think about for another day.

I've just added another three categories of fault, a couple of days after posting the first draft of this, and a list of books* stopping short of literary theory, philosophy of language and suchlike. In the Willesden short story competition we’re not asking for high philosophy – dead henry might be, I can’t really say, though he has been compared with Baudrillard – but we are looking for something technically perfect, original, vivid and compelling in serious or humorous non-generic stories. Exactly how or why these come into existence may always remain a mystery but they do.

Steve Moran

P.S. I should add that every single entry was a valiant effort. It's a labour of love to read them as it must have been to write them, when most of us have full working days and only the tired few hours remaining to devote to writing. I only wrote the list of points above to be helpful and to open my own thoughts and prejudices to constructive criticism. I think, and always think every year, that all the writers who entered showed talent and potential, and that among the stories were many "near misses".

* Some books about writing

Short Circuit - A Guide to the Art of the Short Story, edited by Vanessa Gebbie

The First Five Pages (Noah Lukeman, Prentice Hall)

On Writing (Stephen King, New English Library)

Dreaming by the Book - Elaine Scarry (Actually, this one is somewhat "high philosophy"/cerebral.)

Writer's Workshop - by Stephen Koch

Bird by Bird (Anne Lamott, Anchor Books)

Update: An earlier version of this article appeared in:
The New Writer’s Handbook II, (Scarletta Press)
A Practical Anthology of Best Advice for Your Craft and Career
preface by Ted Kooser, edited by Philip Martin
Writing/Reference, $16.95

6” x 9”, 288 pages, softcover
ISBN: 978-0-9798249-2-0
Publication date: August 2008

About the short story

The Lonely Voice (Frank O'Connor, Melville House)

A few interesting links

Belief and Technique for Modern Prose (Jack Kerouac)

A Short History of the Short Story (William Boyd)

Principles of a Story (Raymond Carver)

Updated: 30/11/2008, 21/2/2009, 12/6/2009, 20/6/2009, 22/8/2018

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Newsmusic - Weird fishes

Weird fishes discovered in Antarctic ocean (National Geographic)

Where else can you get music tracks matched to news of scientific discoveries? Nowhere, that's where.

Newsmusic Desk

Radiohead - Weird Fishes/ Arpeggi (Scotch Mist Version). Radiohead/ YouTube official

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Near miss?

Converging jets (14:38 16.02.2008)

Moon jet streetlamp

Onion Mbeke

Hail and farewell

We're sorry to see you go, Ossian, but we all understand that there are things that are more important in life even than writing for the top local international newspaper. So take all the time you need, and we won't change your password, your login will be here waiting and your desk - actually, can we have your desk for our new staffer Orlick Zuker? I don't think you'll mind. But we'll find you another when you come back. Take care of yourself. On behalf of the entire staff.

Feargal Mooney

Monday, February 18, 2008

Bye for now

I need to take some time off from being a newspaper tycoon, and just go through some personal matters for a while. What is it they always say, just before they hit you? This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you. Maybe summer?

Ossian Carey-Lennon

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Careless words cost jibes

A Warning About Blog Comments

"This is a very funny story (albeit embarrassing) that involves the New Zealander Katherine Mansfield, who is considered by many to be one of the greatest short story writers of the 20th century. This is also a warning about the comments we leave on the web, and the growing problem of how comments that are meant to be humorous/ironic can be misinterpreted and taken too seriously. I certainly never expected that one of my recent comments on a blog would result in a false report in The Sunday Times, a national newspaper in Britain. Cripes! Let me explain..." (Shameless Words)

Blogdesk Team

Yes we can.

"A host of celebrities including actress Scarlett Johansson, jazz legend Herbie Hancock, and retired basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar take part in the music video 'Yes We Can' for Barack Obama's campaign." (Telegraph)

Feargal Mooney

Friday, February 15, 2008

Book listings update

Our proprietor Red Woodward has never seen a penny from the Amazon listings over there. [Update, July 2008: Recently received £12.89 Amazon Associates commission. Unfortunately reinvested it all in a business in Cheltenham that failed to come in. Red] When last checked there was about 50 pence built up in the Amazon Associates account, too small an amount to transfer.

Anyway, now that that hilarity is out of the way, the listings have been updated with books by some of our previous years' short story competition finalists: "Bed" by Tao Lin (Melville House, 2007), "Seven Loves" by Valerie Trueblood (Sphere, 2007), "To the World of Men, Welcome" by Nuala Ní Chonchúir (Arlen House, 2005), "One Note Symphonies" by Sean Brijbasi (Pretend Genius Press, 2007), "Show Me the Sky" by Nicholas Hogg (Canongate, 2008) and "Words from a Glass Bubble" by Vanessa Gebbie (Salt, 2008). The last one was short-listed under a pen name, but that's by the by (or who by the who by, if you prefer).

"Is This What You Want?" (Bloomsbury, 2007) is the anthology of the Asham Award competition, which kindly posts an online link to ours. Their anthology also contains commissioned stories.

Just as composers who wrote songs have also given us chamber music, concertos and symphonies, writers of short stories are as likely as not to compose poetry, novellas and novels too. That is by way of introducing another of the books listed, "Last Night's Dream Corrected" an anthology of poetry. It includes poems by Willesden short story competition winner and finalist Mikey Delgado and Raewyn Alexander, respectively. I think it is the book of which I am proudest and fondest. It also has poetry by noted poets Joanne Kyger, Bill Berkson and others. (Amazon wrongly lists editor Feargal Mooney as author.)

The anthologies "Fish Drink Like Us" and "New Short Stories 1" contain some of the winning and short-listed stories from 2006 and 2007. The remaining books are by local authors, contacts and friends of the competition and not forgetting "The Children of Willesden Lane".

"Ice Bears and Kotick" is an amazing true adventure account of the first ever circumnavigation of the Arctic island of Spitsbergen in an open rowing boat. The author was featured recently on national radio (BBC Radio 4). You can meet and hear Peter Webb and see slides from his record-making journey, at The Space, Willesden Library Centre, from 8 pm on Thursday February 28th, courtesy of our friends in the Willesden Green Writers' Workshop and Brent Libraries. (This replaces the previously advertised event.)


Thursday, February 14, 2008

Future's past


I have a Vision of The Future, chum,
The workers' flats in fields of soya beans
Tower up like silver pencils, score on score

John Betjeman

No more will the wild wind that passes
Return, no more return.

James Joyce

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Early apple blossom today

The vernal equinox is still more than a month away—

but the blossom is well and truly out—

on a row of trees in the park behind Willesden sports centre.

Onion Mbeke Sphagnum


Sunday, February 10, 2008

Park life, February

Early wildflowers

People playing football

A longer view

That's the Capital City Academy in the left background, which looks like a stainless steel building, and is really huge. The other buildings in the background are the Willesden sports centre (also new), then Tarranbrae and then Donnington Court (with the wavy roof - also new). Just round the corner is the new community hospital and the entire neighbourhood has been re-paved. Does some government minister live around here, or what; surely it can't all be to try and win back Sarah Teather's seat in parliament? Anyway, about ten future generations are probably in hock for all this under PFI. If you don't know what that is, don't worry, it's really boring.

Feargal Mooney Sphagnum

Last exit to Cricklewood

Life and War

mikey collaboration with C du Pape and Faustino Rioja Crianza

Big names who didn't make the cut this year

It's not true that there was a story by Katherine Mansfield sent in, or rather that would seem to be a kite flown by one of our commenters in a teasing and jocular vein. I don't think Ms Mansfield has a workable email, under the rules, and seances are at best unreliable.

I think I have read all of KM's marvellous stories, seen and heard them performed, for example at last year's Small Wonder short story festival—a marvellous production of stories dramatised from "In A German Pension" with Andrew Sachs, the divine Eleanor Bron etc. I've read "Bliss and Other Stories" so many times that the old paperback copy on my shelf is falling to bits.

Regretfully the entries from Hemingway, Nabokov, Carver, and Italo Calvino had to be disqualified on account of the authors being dead (in spite of representations that Raymond Carver's editor had cut the heart out of his work first time round). Most painfully, for me personally, Frank O'Connor too.

For next year, we will try to clarify the rule about the non-eligibilty of posthumous entries. In any case it appears that the entries in some of these cases did not represent their finest work.


Saturday, February 09, 2008

Willesden in flames

The scene shortly before our transmitter went off the air


Breaking news - UFO fleet sighted

Northwest London under attack


Crescent moon tonight

"We΄re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." (Oscar Wilde)

I know I didn't quite capture it, but in a way [alert! we have wistful sentiment incoming. ed.] the moon should not be captured.


Friday, February 08, 2008

Verdict of the BK massive

"I'm the queen of starting over/You can put the crown on me" Jacintha Pukka Beveryley Knight - The Queen of Starting Over (Live)

a statement from pretend genius

dear readers of this exceptional piece of internet space,

i'd like to have a word with some of you so-called writers. a fireside chat, if you will, on why the various entries that i, in my dead state, did read and why they were not up to—yes, you know the word. i re-translated my thoughts from english and put them here to you in order to effectively communicate what makes gooder writing with the hope that you all will understand why we (pretend genius) agreed with the judgement of the judger of this contest.

the dramatic judgment and the ensuing humanicus dumbassicus vitriolicus (yes, i speak portuguese) that followed has inspired me (dead henry) to issue forth observations on gooder writing. i (still dead henry) have from time to time been known to offer something or other to those who seek it. not all of this something or other is understandable, however, and based on the cloistered nature of the human brain (meaning yours) this is not surprising. but due to my philoprogenitive nature i shall rise above the tendency of most 'writers' to horde and shall therefore generously particularize the monads of gooder writing for you in this introduction in the hopes that you will accept the judgement and move on with your so-called lives.

i. addressing the fundamental flaws in your approach

- the notion that gooder writing can be learned is false.
- the notion that reading can help you become a gooder writer is false.
- the notion that 'workshopping' can make you a gooder writer is false.
- the notion that feelings (suffering, love, happiness, grief, the 'heart') is the birthplace of gooder writing is false.
- the notion that the telling of a good story comprises gooder writing is false.
- the notion that mastery of language produces gooder writing is false.

if you believe that any of these notions have actually helped you to become a gooder writer, i assure you the connection (perceived) is coincidental. in short, everything you have thus far believed as it relates to gooder writing is false. once you have purged your quill of these dumbass beliefs you will be ready to work on your bow.

ii. observation is what goes in, it's something else entirely that comes out

were you a gooder writer this would be perfectly clear to you. but since you are not i shall make it crystal clear.

what one observes should not also be what one relates. a blue bird, for example, once recorded by the brain, should not then be preserved by that brain for the purpose of recitation. the recordation of the blue bird should serve as a template that will become sublimated, transformed, coalesced (with x), enhanced. i shall call this the 'alchemization' of the blue bird. this, like observation, is an involuntary reflex of the limited human brain that requires little of its already teenie-weenie functional capacities.

should someone observe a blue bird only to recite 'blue bird' or 'flying blue thing with some other sharp pointy thing on its head' we can say that what that someone is reciting is the original recordation of the blue bird which served as the brain's template. this is non-fiction/journalism crap and does not comprise gooder writing. the alchemization of the blue bird, although complete, is inaccessible to this someone (you).

iii. the two necessary events following alchemization that bring about the effect known as gooder writing

although the involuntary alchemization of what one observes provides the stuff of gooder writing, the ability to access this stuff without de-alchemizing it or un-transforming it is what separates gooder 'writers' from less gooder 'writers'. it is therefore necessary that two events occur following alchemization:

1. the destruction of the original recordation that served as the template from which the alchemization occurred.

the destruction of the original template launches the mind into a realm known as 'imagination'. the destruction of this template can also be called 'letting go'. i'll note for you, although it should be obvious, that the 'letting go' does not occur prior to the alchemization, nor is the 'letting go' necessary for the alchemization to occur. the letting go or destruction of the original template facilitates the accessing of the alchemization from the area where the alchemization occurred (the imagination). should the original template not be completely destroyed, the effects produced would be similar to dada or beat as the mind is still hanging by one arm, so to speak, from the partially undestroyed original template. the mind, in turn, wanting to let go but not having the courage to completely let go produces writing based on this awareness, which resembles something that may have been the effect of this 'letting go' but in reality is an effect produced by wanting to let go, being afraid to let go, not wanting anyone to know you are afraid to let go, and finally not being able to let go. this is not gooder writing. what what? no, what's more, 'letting go' artificially by some external means is also evidence of the lack of courage necessary to let go. this also depreciates the original template, for even though the original template must eventually be destroyed, seeing it as it is is vital to its alchemization. this type of artificial letting go also produces royal crapola.

the destruction ('letting go') of the original recordation that served as the template from which the alchemization occurred is the most difficult and important part of gooder writing. should one not destroy the original recordation or 'let go', the ability to access the alchemized blue bird in the 'imagination' is impossible. it may seem like a simple thing to do but i assure you (yet again (peasants)) that less than 1% of 1% of the entire human population, present and past, has ever had the ability to 'let go' for the purpose of producing gooder writing.

2. the accessing of the alchemization of the original recordation.

once one has 'let go', the ability to access the alchemization of the original recordation is academic. it is not a matter of how this accessing occurs, just as it is not a matter of how one gets wet in the ocean. it simply occurs.

in conclusion re: the introduction

it is my hope that with this basic introduction to gooder writing that most of you will see the futility of attempting it and give up completely, therefore assuring these dead eyes that they will not see anything that is not gooder writing. if, however, you wish to 'hope against all hope', a more nuanced elaboration of this introduction might follow. though i doubt any of you dumbasses will get it.

dead henry

Spreading wild rumours about steaming in circles!

"Aha but the strawberries, that's where I had them! ... I know now they were only trying to protect some fellow officer. ... Naturally, I can only cover these things from memory. If I've left anything out, why just ask me specific questions and I'll be glad to answer them one by one." Jacintha Pukka Humphrey Bogart (The Caine Mutiny)

When should a books jury remain out?

Guardian Unlimited: Arts blog - books

"But after pondering this teacup-sized storm, and despite my sympathy for the disappointed competitors, I actually think that it is kind of refreshing." (Jean Hannah Edelstein)

My identical uncle Zozimus has posted a comment there.


Thursday, February 07, 2008

Ain't got no/I got life

Jacintha Pukka Ain't got no/I got life (Nina Simone)

Disposition of the prize money

As there was no winner in this year's short story competition, I have forwarded the prize money in its entirety to the UK international charity Comic Relief. I spoke by phone to somebody at Comic Relief and was told that they would issue a certificate of receipt, a copy of which I will post here*. Thanks again to all who entered and to all those who helped with and supported the competition. I have in mind an interesting new project, which will involve beer and will take place in an actual brewery. Watch this space. Ossian (Stephen) * Update: A Message from Comic Relief

"What am I doing in Casablanca, man?"

And clenching your fist for the ones like us Who are oppressed by the figures of beauty, You fixed yourself. You said, "Well never mind, We are ugly but we have the music." —Leonard Cohen (Chelsea Hotel #2) Jacintha Janis Joplin - Cry Baby (live in Toronto, 1970)

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Last word on the competition result 2008

Here is what happened:

The Willesden Herald Short Story judges would like to make a final statement on the competition, the judging and the aftermath to try to explore any mistakes, to show what was done in good faith and to aid understanding and transparency.

There were three short-listing judges, Steve Moran (SM), Anne Mullane and me. The intention was to read everything and come up with a short list of ten plus a few commended to forward to Zadie Smith for final arbitration.

The first entries started arriving in October and by the start of November, all three short-listing judges started having to give up between 12 and 20 hours every week of their time to reading. Eventually, the volunteer that opened the envelopes and did the initial data entry was swamped and at one point, while keeping the entrants’ names secret to all the judges, SM had to help out with tedious data entry by staring at a spreadsheet through the night.

Faced with a weekly pile of about 500 sheets of paper, we wanted to be interested, to be moved, to want to leap up and send the story to a dear friend and say, ‘hey, read this, it is great’ (not that we would have been able to, as the entries were for judges’ eyes only).

What the exact criteria are for a short story is impossible for me to say; Zadie, in her initial judgement alluded to what she thought a good story should be. If there was an algorithm for such things, machines would be able to write for us. We marked every story with a YES, MAYBE or NO and scribbled on some comments as we thought them necessary. SM read all of the stories. I believe that Anne and I might have skipped literally five each (not the same 5!) out of some 850 entries.

Generally, it was agreed that:

• YES meant ‘I can see this in a short list’;
• MAYBE meant ‘we can consider this if there are not enough YESes’; and
• NO indicated that the story was not good enough.

Interestingly, there were around 5 that were given a YES, MAYBE and a NO. There were also only two that were given three YESes.

When the reading was finished, about three weeks after the closing date, we all met for a weekend marathon of discussion.

We immediately discarded the triple NOs without another look. To have gone through them again, after three people had read them and independently come up with a NO would have been almost impossible. It must be remembered that even judges have day jobs and families! In any case, we were confident that we would not find any reason to reverse our decisions on them.

Piles were made of anything with at least one MAYBE. We started with those stories which had the least support and looked at them again and thought about whether anyone wanted to reconsider.

As we went through the stories, small bits of SM’s dining table started becoming visible under the mounds of paper. We got down to the last 90 or so and then the real battle began.

We reread stories, we wrote lengthy crits of them, we haggled, we drank tea.

When something like the last twenty had been siphoned off, we did consider submitting far less than ten stories to Zadie as the short list was simply not that strong. However, although there was doubt about the strength of the short list, it seemed wise to send Zadie as many hopefuls as possible to give her the chance to see if we had missed anything.

Much has been said about the weakness of the short list. For me, there were a couple that I really liked, that I would have sent to friends to say, ‘READ THIS’, but that was my personal opinion.

Hard copies of the short list were duly posted to Zadie.

SM then emailed those on our short list to:

• give them some warning that they might want to keep 28 Feb free for any prize-giving (it was imperative to contact people as early as possible as some of the short-listed writers lived overseas and these days, people have to book leave make arrangements to travel, etc);
• to ask for an electronic copy of their stories; and
• to ensure that the stories had not gone into print anywhere else in the meantime.

Of course, letting writers know they were on the short list raised their hopes.

An announcement was made on the blog which said something like: if we haven’t got in touch with you yet, you did not make the short list. No short list details were ever issued.

When Zadie received the short list, she immediately saw the flaws in the stories that we had hummed and hawed over. Remember, that only two out of 850 had received triple YES support from the judges. And even then, it was not necessarily thought that these were winners; rather that they could be imagined on the short list.

After long exchanges of emails with SM, Zadie made her no-winner decision and issued it with a long and detailed explanation. We supported this outcome and were glad that this brave step had been taken. The earlier message about the short list had been removed as it was deemed redundant. We now acknowledge this as a mistake as it lead to concerns that there had been some sort of conspiracy.

Zadie was so disturbed by the idea of not selecting a winner that she even suggested she stand back and that the short-listing judges pick the winner. However, this would have deprived us of the patronage of a writer of Zadie’s stature and so this honourable offer was declined.

The short-listed candidates were contacted and asked whether they wanted their names to appear. Some comments made on the comments page of the blog about these writers were so unflattering that it was decided that the WH should be sensitive to their feelings. Some of them might not want to have it publicised that they were the best out of 850 entries (which is an achievement to be proud of), when they had really been aiming to be the best in Zadie’s opinion.

Of course, emails are not read instantly and so it took some time to garner the short-listed writers’ thoughts.

In response to the negative comments left about the decision not to award the prize, Zadie Smith decided that the money should be split, to help counter the suggestions that the short-listed writers were somehow ‘mediocre’. There was no intention at all of suggesting such a thing and any close reading of Zadie’s statement will show this to be false. Being the best out of 850 entries is no small feat.

It is worth mentioning that there are two standards here that we can look to:

• to be the best of a batch; and
• to be worthy of first place in a competition which celebrates outright excellence.

The latter is a much higher aspiration than the former; however, the former is something to be proud of.

When the decision was made to split the prize money, the short-listed writers were contacted again and most of them said that they did not want their names or stories to appear and did not want any prize money. They told us to fuck off. Which is fair enough.

We had a heady mixture of:

• public opinion;
• trying to be true to an aspiration of excellence; and
• being sensitive to the dignity of the short-listed writers in the face of adverse comments.

We are really sorry that at various points we failed to be true to all three of these components. Things changed too fast for us and were unpredictable.

We regret that we contacted the short-listed writers at all, but did so for good reasons (to give them notice that they might want to travel to the event, to get electronic copies and to ensure the story had not been published elsewhere). Of course they will feel disappointment. But it will have to be remembered that there would have been nine disappointed writers anyway. This way, there is only one extra, ten.

As the majority of the writers have declined the offer of money and being listed and having their stories on the website, it has been decided that the original judgement will stand.

We regret not to be able to publicise a short list, but must be sensitive to the wishes of the majority of the short-listed writers.

We regret looking inconsistent, but were trying to be flexible and listen to public opinion.

But one thing we do not regret: we do not regret running a competition that looks for excellence.

We hope that going to all the effort of running this and then taking the incredibly hard way out will show that we have integrity and that you will trust to this integrity when considering entering again next year.

Bilal Ghafoor

See also

Zadie Smith's verdict

2008 prize donated to Comic Relief

They always go up

"Made it ma, top of the world!"


James Cagney in White Heat

Short story competition update

Following consultations with everyone concerned a final statement will be made in the next few hours.


Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Update: The judgment of Solomon

Dear Angry Willesden Herald Readers,

We apologise again for any upset we caused - it was all my (Zadie's) fault. Stephen is innocent! Better luck next year I guess. Power to the people, etc.


Zadie, Stephen and co.

Note/update: Well, we tried. See Bilal's report for the final outcome/ decision/ result. (Ed.)

The art of argument

"Do you want to have the full argument, or were you thinking of taking a course?" Jacintha Argument Clinic (Monty Python)

Breaking news: Short story competition result 2008

Dear Willesden Herald Readers,

This is a difficult thing to write. Just like everybody, we at The Willesden Herald are concerned about the state of contemporary literature. We are depressed by the cookie-cutter process of contemporary publishing, the lack of truly challenging and original writing, and the small selection of pseudo-literary fictio-tainment that dominates our chain bookstores. We created this prize to support unpublished writers, and, with our five grand, we put our money where our mouths are. We have tried to advertise widely across this great internet of ours and to make the conditions of entry as democratic and open as we could manage. There is no entry fee, there are no criteria of age, race, gender or nation. The stories are handed over to the judges stripped of the names of the writers as well as any personal detail concerning them (if only The Booker worked like that!) Our sole criterion is quality. We simply wanted to see some really great stories. And we received a whole bunch of stories. We dutifully read through hundreds of them. But in the end – we have to be honest – we could not find the greatness we’d hoped for. It’s for this reason that we have decided not to give out the prize this year.* This doesn’t make anyone at The Willesden Herald very happy, but we got into this with a commitment to honour the best that’s out there, and we feel sure there is better out there somewhere.

Now I would like to lose the collective pronoun and speak personally for a moment. I am very proud to be patron of this prize. I think there are few prizes of this size that would have the integrity not to award a prize when there is not sufficient cause to do so. Most literary prizes are only nominally about literature, they are really about brand consolidation – for beer companies, phone companies, coffee companies even frozen food companies. The little Willesden Herald Prize is only about good writing, and it turns out that a prize faithfully recognizing this imperative must also face the fact that good writing is actually very rare. For let us be honest again: it is sometimes too easy, and too tempting, to blame everything that we hate in contemporary writing on the bookstores, on the corporate publishers, on incompetent editors and corrupt PR departments – and God knows, they all have their part to play. But we also have our part to play. We also have to work out how to write better and read better. We have to really scour this internet to find the writing we love, and then we have to be able to recognize its quality. We cannot love something solely because it has been ignored. It must also be worthy of our attention.

Once again, the judges and I, we are absolutely certain there is great writing out there on this internet. Many of the entries we received suggested it. But we didn’t receive enough. And now, in order to try and draw whatever great writing is out there towards this little website, maybe my fellow judges and I need to be a bit more specific about what we’re looking for. Actually, as it always is with writing and reading, it’s more useful to say what we’re not looking for.

For I have thought, reading through these entries, that maybe the problem with this prize is that my name is attached to it. To be very clear: just because this prize has the words Willesden and Zadie hovering by it, does not mean that I or the other judges want to read hundreds of jolly stories of multicultural life on the streets of North London. Nor are we exclusively interested in cutesy American comedies, or self-referential post-modern vignettes, or college satires. To be even clearer: if these things turn up and are brilliantly written, they will not be ignored. But we also welcome all those whose literary sympathies lie with Rimbaud or Capote, with Irving Rosenthal or Proust, with Svevo or Trocchi, with Ballard or Bellow, Denis Cooper or Diderot, with Coetzee or Patricia Highsmith, with street punks or Elizabethans, with Southern Gothic or with Nordic Crime, with Brutalists or Realists, with the Lyrical or the Encyclopedic, in the ivory tower, or amongst the trash that catches in the gutter. We welcome everybody. We have only one principle here: MAKE IT GOOD.

So, let’s try again, yes? All the requirements for entry you will find below.

I’m very sorry for any disappointment caused this year, but this prize will continue and we hope it will get stronger with each year that passes. And we promise you now and forever: it will never be sponsored by a beer company.

Yours sincerely,

Zadie Smith

* For more details, please see 1) Bilal's report, 2) Disposition of the prize money, 3) Common faults in short stories submitted. 4) The latest competition pages (updated 2016). Ed.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Tuesday on their minds

Why I'm Voting For Obama

"Voting in presidential elections usually means picking the lesser evil among the politicians running for office, but this time I found a candidate I'm genuinely excited about: Barack Obama. Voting in presidential elections usually means picking the lesser evil among the politicians running for office, but this time I found a candidate I'm genuinely excited about: Barack Obama." (Laila Lalami)

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Pretend movie

Pretend Genius promo. (Press F11 to see full screen.)

All sorts of warnings pop up when running this. Apparently it's made of some deadly stuff, but it all came from one of Microsoft's own programs, so I don't know what they're worrying about.

If that doesn't work, you could try this strange musical version.

Simon Moribund

Advert by Gombeen™

Friday, February 01, 2008

The Angel of the South

Channel 4 - News - An angel for the south?

Giant surveillance mast by yours truly, ripped off by some nerk


Beijing 2008

Video: Living under house arrest

"Chinese state security police have arrested one of the country’s most prominent civil rights activists, Hu Jia. In a video diary, he recorded life under house arrest – and round-the-clock surveillance – with his wife, Zeng Jinyan" (Guardian)

Tyranny is a creature with a thousand arseholes.

Celebrate 60 years of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
Article 30: No governments, groups or individuals should destroy any of these rights and freedoms.


Marvellous new resource online

Atlantic Online

"Beginning today, is dropping its subscriber registration requirement and making the site free to all visitors. Now, in addition to such offerings as blogs, author dispatches, slideshows, interviews, and videos, readers can also browse issues going back to 1995, along with hundreds of articles dating as far back as 1857, the year The Atlantic was founded."