Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Children in Need Marathon

I've been asked to leave a web-record of The recent Children-in-Need Writing Marathon. This may be incomplete. If so, a bit of feedback will correct me, I'm sure, and I can make the report more accurate

Starting in Boot Camp, my captive audience we aimed to recruit 100 writers and eventually had 62 names signed up. But there was at least one spin-off attempt at a rival fund-raiser (it bombed completely) which took away some participants.

On the night we had 33 fully active writers and on the hour, starting at 5PM Thursday, through to 11PM Friday we posted a set of prompts, usually twelve, four from Alex Keegan, four from Zoe King and the rest from Alexandra Fox who also worked non-stop as secretary for the night. Most members started at 9PM on the Thursday. One member wanted to start early so I joined him (hence the 31 hours timespan.)

Participants had one hour to write each story plus a few minutes leeway to email it to Lexie (the secretary) and Alex (insurance.) A few people took short sleep-breaks, some others found a few of their stories so bad they decided not to submit them. We had had two brief trial runs, and after the night we realised we were fractionally short of 250,000 words so I decided to run one more session to get us past the quarter-million mark. The buzz was incredible and I think some would have continued until they were hospitalised!

After the marathon and a couple of drinks (it took a while to come down enough to contemplate bed) and then a few hours sleep the participants then had up to 450 stories to look at. Some sub-groups and individuals narrowed their selections down to just under a third of the original numbers, suggesting X stories to go forward. In a few cases I put forward extra stories from the discard piles.

We narrowed 450 down to about 115 (25%) and Leaf Books looked at these "from the top down". Leaf had slightly different criteria. They wanted commercial or accessible fiction, and, because the anthology was connected with "Children in Need" they did not want material which might be deemed unsuitable for younger readers. They chose 17 stories and asked for one of mine. A few of the stories required edits, slightly more than mere "cosmetics". These stories were disqualified from winning prizes, but were published.

Incidentally, as well as raising over £10,500 the participants paid a ten pounds entry fee which specifically funded the prizes. Some of the winners then chose to donate their prize. I have to say, had I been competing I would NOT have donated my prize. The time and effort invested by everybody was far beyond the call of duty and I would have liked them to enjoy their win, perhaps take a spouse out for a meal.

A closed web site had been created with all the 450 stories, which were slowly sorted into finalists, marginals and non-finalists. The criteria for this was, ultimately, AK's choice but this was strongly influenced by the various members' critiques and marks, mostly made using the Boot Camp system. If the members' scores averaged a high number when AK's did not, then the story went forward. AK's main influence was two-fold: (a) over-riding LOW scores and putting a story forward which he felt had something the group had missed (b) settling "split-votes".

All stories were critiqued blind.

The better stories were listed in A-B-C-D categories but the range from the weakest to strongest in these blocks and between blocks was not huge.* AK's stories were kept separately. Leaf were able to browse stories and chose their short-list and then their final 18. Eclectica did the same. The system was very successful.

*"Flashing" seems to create less of a spread when compared to longer stories.

I began the whole thing very tired and slightly unwell. I had planned a four-hour sleep in the afternoon before the marathon started, but it didn't happen. Cedric Popa (from Romania but living in London) came down to Kingfisher Barn to keep me company and wrote solidly for the whole time. We then had a flying visit from a Boot Camper, "Plotinus" (cost me one of my thirty stories!) and on the second day we had Fleur Chapman drop in on us for the afternoon and second evening to write, plus Henry Peplow (not a Boot Camper) who arrived from Henley and wrote a story with us.

The "Kingfisher Barn" effect struck with Cedric's poem taking second place with "Leaf" and Henry's story third and Fleur getting two stories into the anthology with one of mine. Fleur also managed third place with Eclectica. So amazingly, of the 31 accepted stories, 7 were written under my roof!!

I confess to being a bit "ga-ga" for 3-4 days running up to the marathon, seriously "out-of-it" DURING the marathon, and unbearable for a few days afterwards. I had a very low spot around 1PM-4PM on the Friday (when I felt really ill, and "running on empty") but found a second wind later. As far as I can see (and we did look) there was little obvious correlation between time-written and quality or result.

I wrote a few weaker pieces, a couple of "ditties" just to say I wrote SOMEthing but I got at least a dozen good pieces out of the exercise and three I think are splendid and not yet in print.

The exercise taught me how generous people can be with their time, how their talent can be revealed when they get too tired to screw themselves up with worry, how very supportive people can be, even those who failed to make either collection, and just how resilient people are when "pushed".

Considering the incredible pressures on everyone, there was some fine work produced.


No comments: