I’ve been waxing lyrical for some months now about the benefits to the writer, whatever level they may be at, of the online competition I take part in every Saturday. It is sacred time for me; at 5:30pm (currently BST), I lock myself in my office with what my husband refers to as a writer’s measure of coffee and as far as I am concerned nothing exists for the next 30 minutes. I brook no distraction (on pain of being turned into a character and given a certain and lingering literary death in one of my stories). I emerge at the other end sometimes with a whole story, sometimes with just a fragment, but always with something worth a second look and often the seed of something bigger.
It gives me enormous pleasure then, to have as my first special guest the man behind the competition: wearer of many hats, Mr Rob Richardson, creator, organiser and host of WriteInvite.
Welcome Rob. First, tell us a little about how you came up with the Write Invite idea.
A working musician, I had been writing for about 15 years, had about 12 short stories published, won one comp (the Betty Burton Prize) and got placed in quite a few, (The Wells, Frome). I’d write between the sound check and the gig; it didn’t disturb anyone! Nick, a friend of mine died and I stopped writing and, I don’t know why – when I came back to it 18 months later it dawned on me I’d try creating a new , friendlier kind of market for writers. Where they could read their stuff out in a cabaret style evening (WriteInvite short stories), and where 3 themes were given and they’d have 20 minutes to write (WriteOnTheNight). The online WriteOnSite comes out of the face-to-face WriteonTheNight. In all our events money is involved because money kicks out any elitism or snobbery, the curse of many things literary which Chris, my wife and I cannot abide.
On the website you say the competition could be described as literary open mic. Tell us a bit about the nuts and bolts—how does the competition work?
The online competition works as follows: You have to register with www.write-invite.com (free). At 5.30pm 3 themes come up on your screen. You choose one, pay £3 and write on it. You can choose to write literally or metaphorically about the theme, i.e. it is a prompt. You have to submit before 6pm. Participants can actually book credits in advance, and you can get 10 for the price of 9 (£27). You need to pay through Paypal (the most secure online system there is worldwide).
So what happens after the competition closes?
Once the competition closes at 6pm on a Saturday writers wait until Wednesday at 5pm – if they haven’t got anywhere they can vote (and thus gain a point in the Literary League) for one of 3 that are shortlisted. The computer deals with the votes, counts and sorts it out by the following Saturday as votes come in (we usually get seven eighths voting) and the winner is announced at 5pm. The shortlisted stories remain online forever, people just need to go to WriteonSite and scroll down. However, one of our (many) USPs is that copyright stays with the author.
I’m imagining a small army of readers working frantically behind the scenes.
No, we don’t have a small army of readers. We have precisely…two. I used to feel a little insecure about this, but experience has taught me otherwise. Firstly, some of the best teams are very small – 2 – as in the excellent two ladies who run one of the top literary magazines ‘The Glimmertrain Review.’
My wife and I know exactly what we like and, even more importantly, agree, most of the time! Since starting WritonSite I have come across a number of very experienced judges, and they often say they would be envious to be able to go back to the days when it was just one, or a few judging – after all, it’s probably like getting staff in to run a tea shop for you – do they have the same values, priorities, are they as caring? Etc. Also – and I always felt this – I hate committees. These take an inordinate amount of time – look, Chris and I wouldn’t be so arrogant as you say we get it ‘right’ every time – though I think you would agree there is a certain degree of subjectivity to writing – however, I frankly think the judging process is one of our main strengths – together with the fact that participators in the competition judge and vote on the top three shortlisted entries. We NEVER know who has written what, extremely important to us is that, and we NEVER vote politically – ie, if we suspect someone is a new reader/new voice, to chivvy up people playing. That, to us, would be disingenuous.
What surprises you most about the entries?
We are surprised by the high standard. People only have just less than thirty minutes. I think here something is very interesting, I think they usually write from the heart. I think people learn, and it isn’t easy for natural planners, to just dive in and write—not to think too much!
Also we’ve been surprised by the variety of styles. And, on occasions the morbidity. A discussion with another judge went along the lines that ‘the curse of literary competitions is morbidity’ Here’s our example. One of the themes was ‘sandwiches’ and 7 out of 8 of the entries on that theme featured death!
What are the most memorable things to come out of the competition so far?
So many things. Someone complaining that they would never do well because ‘I’m not talented like other people’ And today a lovely writer called Joanna Campbell telling me she wrote on Saturday virtually from the Grand Canyon. But the most memorable stuff is the stories themselves, thank goodness, and hand on heart, most weeks if not all, I am really moved in whatever way by a writer.
Are there any genre restrictions?
No genre restrictions whatsoever. (And almost none from the theme given, it seems, the imaginations out there are shocking!) We have thriller writers, lady magazine writers (quite a few of them, actually, who don’t round stuff off so happily for our comp, thank goodness!) Literary, factual, ghosty writers – writers from everywhere and anywhere, just about.
What advice would you give someone thinking about joining in?
These are really good questions, Sallie! Don’t think too much – don’t try and round things off because this often betrays the characters – write from the heart, whatever that means, just start writing and see what happens – remember, you have nothing to lose because copyright stays with you and it’s all anonymous anyway right up until the end of the competition the following Saturday. And strategically I’d say register, buy 10 credits for the price of 9 (!) at 5.20 get a coffee or a glass of wine, kick everyone out the room, even the dog, take in the themes at 5.30 pm (England time) and possibly, possibly try and incorporate that word or sentence in or around your first or second or third line and you’ll be away – then you’ll be warned with five minutes to go by a clock on the screen, stop then (at 5.55pm) and ‘clean up a little grammar-wise – we aren’t strict with grammar unless it stops the flow – then press the ‘submit’ button – finish your wine/coffee and let the dog and family back in!
What does the word “story” mean to you? What makes a good short story?
I have two thoughts here and that’s it. A story, a short story for me is the view gained from a train moving fast past the backs of people’s houses. How much do you see? Not much, you may say at first. Ah…but when you remember. And your imagination gets going. Also – unrelated but not to stories – there’s this ‘beginning , middle and end’ theory that, wait for it, was considered out of date in Virginia Woolf’s diaries – re a conversation between the great woman and Thomas Hardy. (Note, this doesn’t make the B, M and E wrong, but just goes to show that people struggle to know what to say about what a story should actually be)
What was the last thing you read?
Alan Silletoe’s Leonard’s War It annoys me the way people/critics do not stay with writers/artists throughout their careers. Like many, A.S. has, in my opinion, continually got better. Just because The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Saturday Night Sunday Morning were so easily fitted in to the 1960s northern realism genre it doesn’t mean everything he did since was worthless, as is often implied.
At the moment I am enjoying Daniel, Asleep by Anya Cates . Anya is desperately talented. A real find!
Well Rob, thank you so much, you have been so generous with your time!