How low can you go?

Wordcount, that is. The 100 word One Tight Write competition, run by A Word with You Press, is going great guns. It's remarkable how much you can fit into such a small space, like the literary equivalent of the joke about fitting four elephants in a Mini.

There's still time to enter - the competition, not the Mini (because it's full of elephants, silly) and win the $100 - details here:

I've written 50 and 60 word stories in the past, but the most celebrated short story is surely Ernest Hemingway's masterpiece: For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.

The Arvon Foundation ran its own six short words competition earlier this year and these were my entries (with thanks to fellow writer Susie, who is better at archiving my emails than I am):

One survives, one dies; now choose.

Last human, online; then instant message.

Congratulations! I blanch, knowing I'm impotent.

Good to see you again, Lucifer.

Published at last and no one suspects.

Till death us do part... goodbye.

Pro Temp

Every freelance writer is in effect a working temp - and sometimes just a temp. And when work is slow, the only thing to do is follow Dolly Parton's mantra and work 9 to 5 for someone else, using whatever skills you picked up before the writing zephyr swept you out of the conventional jobs market. The sensible approach is to sign up with as many agencies as possible and to not make too many comments about how this is just a stopgap until your real work picks up.

I received a phone call not so long ago from an agency I hadn't realised I'd signed up with. Partly because I hadn't. It's a little complicated so I'll fast-forward. Eight days' work, office admin: keyboarding, some telephone work and some data input. An 8am start for a 9 hour day and less than a quid above minimum wage, which I'm not knocking in any way because that's what I signed up to do. Of course, I didn't know it was only half an hour for lunch or that minimal training referred to what we'd receive as opposed to what we'd need to do the job effectively. Or that the term DSE break could be an exotic inclusion in a conversation. Some of the staff were brilliant - helpful, warm and welcoming. Others took their cue from the work of Dickens.

Day 2, having spent an entire Day 1 in front of the screen, we were informed we had to also answer the phones by the third ring, naturally then having to ask the permanent staff what to do with the call. This made us as popular, it seemed to me, as a Conservative MP at a student bar. Or an angry student at a Royal Variety Performance. Day 3 I like to think we temps were getting in our stride and, taking encouragement from our supervisor, chomping at the bit to clear the backlog, answering the phones (all crisis calls of one kind or another, requiring information, a decision or action) with increasing confidence and looking forward to the following week to see what we'd be allocated to do.

Five minutes before the end of the day, we were called into an office and thanked for the sterling effort we'd put in and the work achieved. The pride in the room was palpable. Then, in a much less confident voice, the supervisor told us that unfortunately, the management had now decided our services could be dispensed of that night instead of the end of the following week. The blow was slightly softened for me by knowing I had something to go back to, albeit a week earlier than planned. But everyone was pretty shellshocked, including the supervisor who had to deal the dolorous stroke. A temp's working life is a precarious one, when you consider the job insecurity. the money and the prospects once you get there.

And speaking of money...

In writing professionally, there are different models for success. Hourly rate or payment per word are but two ways of determining how well you're doing. There's also the kudos of getting a piece into a national or a hallowed column or a much longed-for novel in print, regardless of the financial benefits. It's also a movable feast (and famine). Since I gripped the pen in earnest, I have earned minimum wage for writing and occasionally scribed for free; at the other, more comfortably seated end of the scale, I have written for over £100 per hour. It all depends on the work.

Now, if you're keen to try your hand at a really short story, why not check out A Word with You Press's One Tight Write competition (or contest, for our American friends). 100 words with $100 for the winner - that's a pretty good rate of return by anyone's standards: time or word count. Go get 'em tigers.

After a flurry of activity

Thanks to the encouragement of fellow writers Susie and Kath, I signed up to the National Novel Writing Month, which takes place every November. If you've got a novel that's stuck in you - or even if you only think you have - it's a great way to focus on that all-important first draft. Sure, a lot of what you produce will be pants; the object of the exercise is quantity rather than quality - you can worry about the editorial scalpel later on.

I managed 42,500 of the target 50,000 for the month and an 85% success rate is good enough for me. I had already written 19,000 of Scars & Stripes so I'm now somewhere around the two thirds mark. Keeping to a schedule (most of the time) has produced new scenes, unexpected character interactions and put me in a better position to complete the first draft by mid January - allowing for the festive season, the usual rollercoaster of motivation and slacking off, and anything else that gets in the way.

Writing a novel that's loosely based on personal experience has another dimension to it, in that you're borrowing from real events and real people. Once the first draft is done, there'll be a cover-up exercise that would make WikiLeaks blush. But for now, I'm happy just to have got past that difficult halfway mark, having wriggled through the tunnel of self doubt.

And best of all, I tell myself, when the first draft is done, in keeping with time-honoured tradition, I can put S&S to rest for a while and either get back into editing Line of Sight or start another new novel. Or maybe I could leave that one on the backburner until next November.