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Vocal Fiction Challenges: A Sanity Saving Self Help Guide.

by Caroline Jane 7 months ago in self help · updated 7 months ago
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Thinking of entering the latest Vocal + Fiction Challenge? This article may help you survive the ride.

Vocal Fiction Challenges: A Sanity Saving Self Help Guide.
Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash

Cogito, ergo sum - Descartes

I think, therefore I am.

As writers, particularly those amongst us who are fiction writers, there is something fundamentally wrong about this philosophical stalwart. It "FEELS" wrong doesn't it?

As we build characters for our short stories and novels we don't build them purely according to how we imagine they think. Sure, we are keenly aware of what their rational world looks like but we are arguably more concerned with how it feels to be them.

Without a shred of academic evidence we can almost instinctively correct what has been seen as a long held philosophical truism by coupling it with the statement:

I feel, therefore I am.

It is surprising then that it is only within the last twenty years or so that the scientific community has researched, acknowledged, and broadened its theoretical top drawer to include this duality of consciousness. Although ruminated and discussed by great pioneers in the field such as Nietzsche, Spinoza, Darwin, Freud and James the topic of "affected experience", as it is often referred, has been marginalised. Many reasons have been forwarded as to why, its incongruence with the patriarchal world view, or academics seeing behavioural output over intent as more tangible for scientific analysis, or maybe emotions are just a bit difficult to academically write down without sounding like you are writing a novel. Heaven forfend ... The irony!

This is a bit of a caveat but I think that the man who cut through the challenges and brought the "feeling" revolution in consciousness to the scientific top table needs a bit of a shout out at this point. So here he is... Antonio Damasio.

Damasio is a neuro-physicist whose work is now a mainstay on the reading lists of most western literature university courses. His breakthrough book was called ''Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain'' (1994) which was followed up with ''The Feeling of What Happens, Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness'' (1999). However it was in his recent book called "The Strange Order of Things" (2017) that he acknowledges what writers have always instinctively known:

“The sick patient, the abandoned lover, the wounded warrior, and the troubadour in love were able to feel.”

Author John Banville in his UK Guardian review of "The Strange Order of Things" (2018) describes the above quote by Damasio as a truth that is:

"simple and profound; how else may we be said to live, except by feeling?"

How, indeed.

And how can any fiction writer be expected to write lives for their characters without feeling?

It is impossible.

Unlike writing rational papers about facts and figures, fiction can leave its writer emotionally exhausted. Divining, researching, walking in the steps of, and breathing the same air as, our characters can be consuming... at times even overwhelming... to the point that we can risk losing ourselves in the creation of their consciousness.

As Walker Percy states in his almost surreal book "Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book" (1983)

Unlike the scientist, the artist has re-entry problems that are frequent and catastrophic.


Creating fiction can be emotionally intoxicating and can leave writers struggling for air. Then for all that consuming effort, those sleepless nights, the missed time with family and friends, you expect to get something back for it. But you don't because first of all fiction is massively subjective and secondly, when it comes to Vocal+ Challenges the math is stacked against you.

By Michal Matlon on Unsplash

You have got less than 1% chance of winning a Vocal+ challenge.

circa 3,000 entries on average and 3 prizes - you do the math.

And it is statistics like these that underscore why we have a duality of consciousness.

If we were to rely on how we feel we have done we could come away from challenges such as the Vocal Summer Fiction Challenges feeling overlooked, under-appreciated, wasted, feeling a great sense of injustice. Which I know many people did. However, thanks to maths you can take some solace in that really, irrespective of how much effort you put in, it was highly unlikely that you were ever going to win. Unless of course you think all other Vocal Fiction Writers are terrible... which of course you don't... because most of them are pretty darned excellent.

So now that you know the numbers should you just throw in the towel and not bother entering the new Vocal + Fiction Challenge?


Enter because you love to write. Enter because you are brilliant at what you do. Enter because you are wiser and know what you are getting into. Enter because doing so makes you a better writer in the long run. Enter now with a clear head knowing that you will likely not win but IT IS NOT PERSONAL. It is just Maths.

THEN - Once you have decided that you are going to enter and you have come to terms with the whole competition math remember that writing FICTION... especially FICTION can be emotionally extremely draining and prepare yourself again for getting involved with these empathic responsibilities and their inherent challenges.

I lost count how many times I saw the words "What is the point" and "I have tried so hard" and "I threw everything I had into this" posted on various social media pages. Every time I read these words I felt for their author because I could personally feel their cost and sense of loss.

I wrote a story for the Green Light Challenge over Summer called "Graffiti" about the cost of creativity. I stopped doing the Summer Challenges after writing this because I realised that I was stuck in a really weird paradox.

Writing helps my mental health. I love writing and all forms of storytelling.

Writing because I had to for a specific deadline was not good for my mental health and with family, work and other commitments I started to feel guilty and tired and a bit lost.

But... I love writing... I don't want to stop.

In many ways challenges feel like an addiction. Surely, that cannot be right?

No. It is not. In every way.

So... I made myself an intervention kit.

A self help guide - built on my reflections of the Summer Challenges and now with the enormous temptation of the giant golden carrot that is the Vocal+ £125,000 challenge I thought it would be a good time to share.

Here it is:

A Fiction Writer's Self Help Guide:

1. Prioritise.

Know what is important and never compromise. Plan when you do your writing around those that need you most. I only ever write when my son is at school or in bed... or occasionally when he is watching TV. I never want to think that my writing is eating into his time.

2. Spend time with people who are not writers.

Connect with the real world as frequently as you can and not just your professional peers and colleagues but with Mums and Dad's on school runs or with friends going out for a drink or playing games on line if you are still locked down. Trust that you are not wasting time here. Spending time with others can feed your inspiration as well as being very grounding. This point is especially relevant if you are, like me, an extroverted empath.

3. Eat well

I am shocking for always having a mug of coffee next to me when I write. It has been known that the only time I leave my keyboard is to make myself another cuppa. I do it even though I know it makes me irritable and when I get irritable my thoughts become scattered. I am also a nightmare for snacking on carbs - biscuits and the like. Not good. Biscuits do not fill a person up - get more protein. I have to plan my snacks to concentrate and get the story done more efficiently and effectively.

4. Recognise your character's pull on you

There is a tendency amongst writers to carry the heart of who they write about with them, like method actors living and breathing the part. Getting into and out of the character quickly can be an art in itself. The risk of not doing so is that you become distracted, distant, and lose presence with those that you love.

Whereas actors can de-robe and wash off the make-up to physically distance themselves it is not that easy for writers.

Over the summer I wrote about a character called Marilyn who was a hateful person and she got right under my skin leaving me feeling annoyed and frustrated after I had spent time with her. I physically had to wind down after writing about her. Thankfully, it was summer so more often than not this included sitting outside or going for a walk. I had to create distance from my writing and characters to become present for those I loved.

5. Have a place to write

If you write in the same place you relax there will be the constant presence of the distraction of writing. Find a way to walk away. Having your writing hanging around you all the time means that you can lose presence in whatever else you have on in your life.

6. Remember you are doing this for pleasure

It is very unlikely that you will win. There are 25 top prizes. If there are 10,000 entries (which is likely) only 25 people will win. This means that 99.75% of entrants WILL NOT WIN. Understand this statistic and proceed anyway because 25 entries will win and it should not be about the wining but the taking part, enjoying the process and improving.

7. Praise yourself little and often

When you have completed your first draft - Celebrate. When you have re-read it and edited it for grammar - celebrate. When you have chosen your title and artwork - celebrate. You deserve to recognise your achievements. Get onto a social media site like Great Incantations - a page dedicated to the challenges and celebrate your milestones. Cheer on others as they reach theirs. Enjoy the small wins.

8. Remember that fiction is highly subjective

What you write will not be everyone's cup of tea. Most writers write because they enjoy it. You don't know the judges well enough to write what they want to read so you are working blind as to what your audience wants. This is life - you cannot please everybody and when you are only guessing about what a person may want to read then forget it. Write what you enjoy - you only have an approximate 0.25% of a chance of getting what you write to line up with what they want anyway.

9. Manage the expectations of those around you

"I will be writing between times x and y after which I am all yours". It is important that your nearest and dearest know what time you are taking for yourself and your writing and when you will be available for them. If you do not manage expectations of what you are able to give and when, you run the risk of being a constant disappointment and the guilt built into those feelings is pretty unnavigable. The only way through is to own it and go upstream to manage it.

10. Don't worry if you don't get it done

You were never likely to win anyway - hold the math close to your heart. Prepare to fail and don't beat yourself up if you can't fit in that one more entry ... or even an entry at all. Try. Learn from the tries. There are only 25 winners in this game which given that there will be around 10,000 entries 9,975 other people will be in the same position as you even though they got their entry in on time. Relax.

Benjamin Franklin once said the wise words "Failing to prepare is preparing to fail" in this instance the wise words should be "You are likely to fail, let it not be at the expense of your mental health"

self help

About the author

Caroline Jane

Dedicated Musketeer.

Bringing it every day, getting it wrong a lot, and then trying all over again!

Co-founder of the Vocal Creators Chronicle

Co-founder of Vocal Social Society and Great Incantations on Facebook.

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