Word counts

There are a lot of short story competitions out there, and most of them are very different. Some are niche, and some are broad. One thing they all share is they have a word limit in the competition rules. One thing I’ve found in writing short stories is that each is as long as the story they have to tell. They don’t conform neatly to a word limit when I’m writing them.

So when I look at competition submission rules, it’s a rare and fortuitous event when a story I think is suitable for that particular competition fits within the word limit. If I’m lucky, they may be only slightly over the limit, and it’s usually a simple matter to knock out some of the superfluous words – there are always superfluous words, no matter how often I’ve revised them. Some stories seem to put on weight quite naturally, and it’s good for them to lose a bit. Cutting out usually leaves a story leaner, tighter, but of course there’s the risk of leaving words out that are essential to the plot, the character, or the arc of the narrative.

Limits can go from ‘less than 8,000 words’, through ‘not more than 5,000’, or ‘under 2,200’ to ‘a maximum of 1,500’. That last one’s really hard for me, because mine tend to average out at just over 2,000 words, and to get below 1,500 I’m sacrificing around a quarter of the story. That’s not worth it. I’d rather write a new story and deliberately keep it within the limit, which is what I’ve done a few times.

The issue with flash fiction is similar but less of a problem. My definition of flash fiction is between 500 and 1,000 words, but some competitions have 500 as the maximum. But that’s OK, really. I enjoy the challenge of creating a story which has a beginning, middle and end on a single side of A4, because that’s what it boils down to.

I’m just about ready to submit some stories to magazines and competitions, and I’ve read the rules and guidelines – you have to.

Good luck with yours.



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To blog, or not to blog

I haven’t been keeping the blog up to date recently – too many other pressing things on my mind. To be honest, I have thought of just stopping it. But in the hopes that I might have some more time to myself next year, I’ve decided to keep it going for the moment.

So what’s been happening? Quite a lot really. Most immediately, I’ve been putting together a funding application for CoastWord 2018; Dunbar’s Festival of Words. We have an excellent draft programme, thanks to Hannah Lavery; we now just need the funding to make it happen. I can’t say any more about it just now.

The other biggie is that I’ve been working on my short stories, putting together a manuscript for a full-length collection, to be published by Postbox Press in 2018. Now, as some of you will know, I am the Editor at Postbox Press, but Sheila Wakefield, who runs it and Red Squirrel Press, said some time ago that she wanted to publish my stories.

I like to think that I’m an impartial and objective editor when it comes to dealing with fiction submissions, but I know I couldn’t be objective about my own work, so I sent it out to The Literary Consultancy for an unbiased assessment. I’m so glad I did. I got a six-page report back, and I agreed with almost all of the points made, so I embarked on a huge editing job, substantially rewriting most of the stories, taking some out, and putting others in. It’s finished, and I’m due to hand the MS over to Sheila next Friday, with some trepidation and anxiety. I hope she likes them. This time, I am confident about them. Again, I won’t say any more at this point.

So, I’ve written a blog post. Also, I’ve changed the header image. It’s Fast Castle, in Berwickshire, or what’s left of the castle. The original is the one Sir Walter Scott wrote about in Bride of Lammermuir.

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The Bardo

I’ve started reading George Saunders’ Booker Prize-winning novel Lincoln at the Bardo, and it’s impressing me enormously. It concerns the afterlife of Lincoln’s son Willy, who died aged 11. Saunders imagines the afterlife as some form of the Tibetan Bardo Thodol, often incorrectly translated as the Book of the Dead.

So it got me thinking about my own trip to Tibet in 2007, and the poems which came out of it, later published in The floorshow at the Mad Yak Café (Red Squirrel Press, 2010). Here’s the Bardo Thodol poem from that book

Last Rites

We have four ways
to dispose of the dead,
she tells me.

Sky burial is still number one,
even since the Liberation.
The body is stripped. All flesh
is filleted from the bones
by the rogyapas, the body-breakers.

Then bones are broken with hammers,
sledged to splinters and mixed with tsampa.
Only after the rock platform is cleared of that
is the next course served.

Call it guts, internal organs, offal,
heart, lungs, liver, brain,
the slippery bits, glistening gobbets,
mad bellows that used to suck thin air,
all the pumps and pipes, intestines,
shrivelled sex parts, tumours,
empty blood vessels, the silent tongue.

Last the muscle, meat, the griffon’s favourite,
but these days a good hungry vulture
is hard to find. A potent medicine
used to relieve lameness in livestock,
gout in us, has poisoned the birds.

The fourth way is burial,
but ground deep enough to dig
is too valuable for corpses.
Only the minorities, I’m told
(with a significant glance),
choose this method.

Cremation is the third, but costly
in a land too high
for much wood to grow,
and as yet there are few
Western crematoria.

Water burial is an easy second.
It’s a long way from these headwaters
to the estuaries and oceans
where the rivers end. Mekong,
Brahmaputra, Yangtze, all rise here
under different names,
carry their disintegrating cargos
south and east. That’s why, she says,
we don’t eat fish – maybe they’re
our ancestors?

Maybe they are. What is a body
when no longer alive?
No sepulchre, we would have it;
but a lump, a thing of no further use.
What was us has left the building
to swim with the fishes
or soar with the circling birds.

Om Mani Padme Hum

Colin Will

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While I’ve been away…

Uath Lochan 2

Uath Lochan, Glen Feshie, Cairngorms.

It seems an age, so much has happened in between, but I just don’t seem to have had the time to sit down and write anything bloggable. So this is by way of a catch-up.

‘Maya’ came out on my birthday, celebrating with a launch in the Scottish Poetry Library. I played tenor sax solo before and after reading the poems, to match the cover image. Lots of friends came, including several I wasn’t expecting to see. It was a lovely day.

Since then I’ve read from it at Dunbar Craft Studio, Vibrant Musselburgh, and the Callander Poetry Weekend, as well as doing an Edinburgh reading for Christine De Luca at the Edinburgh City Museum in the Royal Mile.

I took in a little bit of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, but I gave the Book Festival a miss this year – I went to a lot there last year.

Jane got her second cataract operation, and it went very well. We also had a disastrous experience with double glazing, and they’re coming back today to fix the messes they made last time. So I’m deskbound at the moment. Monday morning would normally be one of my gym sessions, but I’ll go tomorrow instead.

We got back from a short break at Feshiebridge, in the Cairngorms. It’s our only real break this year, mainly because of the uncertainties over Jane’s operation date. We may try to have a city break later. I could fancy Durham, but anywhere really.

On the writing side, I’m editing a lot of my short stories, in preparation for putting together a book for next year. And I’ve been reading fiction submissions for Postbox Press.

Altogether, keeping busy, so nothing really changes.


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Sequencing the collection

When I was publishing poetry collections under the Calder Wood Press imprint I always took a great deal of care placing poems in a sequence I thought made sense. It was one of the things I enjoyed most about publishing. I also tried to do it with my own poetry books.

Now there’s the new one:


I can honestly say I took more care and expended more thought over the sequence of poems here than in any other collection I’ve written. Why? I think that having a structure, even an implied structure rather than an explicit one, makes a collection easier to read. There are many themes in this, my ninth and largest poetry book, and I’ve tried to ensure that the themes are linked, possibly through ideas, more often through words in one poem reflected in the next, even if the themes are different. I don’t suppose many readers, other than possibly some critics, will notice the connections, but I know they’re there.

I hope that readers will enjoy the poems as much as I did writing them, because I strongly believe that poetry is an act of communication between people. My late friend Brian Osborne, in his address to the Scottish Library Association awarding me Honorary Membership said that I was all about communication. It was true then. It is true now.

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Also by Colin Will

First there was Thirteen Ways of Looking At the Highlands (Diehard, 1996)


Then came Seven Senses (Diehard, 2000)


Mementoliths (Calder Wood Press, 2005)


Later replaced by the revised Mementoliths 2 as a Kindle edition (2011).


Sushi & Chips (Diehard, 2006)


The floorshow at the Mad Yak Café (Red Squirrel Press, 2010)


Recycled Cards (Kindle, 2011)


The Propriety of Weeding (Red Squirrel Press, 2012)


The Year’s Six Seasons (Calder Wood Press, 2013)


The Book of Ways (Red Squirrel Press, 2014)


Getting On (Postbox Press, 2016) (short stories)


The Night I Danced With Maya (Red Squirrel Press, 2017)




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The new book

Now that we’re into July I can begin letting people know about my new book, coming from Red Squirrel Press on the 22nd of the month. I’ve checked the proofs, and it’s now being printed, so here’s a preview of the cover:


Huge thanks to Gerry Cambridge for designing the book and the cover, and to Sheila Wakefield for publishing it. The cover reflects the mood of the title poem beautifully, and it also alludes to my other life as a musician. I’ll bring my tenor sax to the launch (details to be advised later), and my black fedora, but I think I’ll give the white bow tie a miss.

The poems were mostly written between 2012 and 2016.

It’s my tenth book, and my ninth book of poems, and it feels pretty amazing to have reached these particular milestones in my writing career.

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