Q&A with Barry Cunningham, MD of Chicken House Ltd, Publisher, Agent and Discoverer of Harry Potter

barrycunninghamQ. In your talk at the September meeting of the Hampshire Writers’ Society, you told us that a writer’s voice is important to an Agent/Publisher. To save a writer many painful rejections from targeting the wrong agents – how would they know if their voice is that of a children’s writer? Is there a checklist of things that the writing must or mustn’t have?

A. I THINK THIS IS ALL TO DO WITH BEING ABLE TO ‘ACCESS’ YOUR SUBJECT. IF YOU SET OUT TO WRITE FOR CHILDREN THEN TRY AND FIND THE VOICE APPROPRIATE TO THE AGE GROUP YOU ARE AIMING AT – IF IT COMES EASILY – GREAT – IF IT DOESN’T THEN YOU’LL KNOW THAT CHILDREN’S BOOKS ARE NOT FOR YOU!chickenhouselogoQ. Similarly, as an Agent how would you know if what has been submitted is a teen or a YA? Do you think that there are any taboos? Or ‘must haves’?

A. NO – BUT MAINLY SEXUAL CONTENT AND SWEARING IS FOR YA – IT SHOULD ALWAYS BE HANDLED CAREFULLY

Q. The lines between children’s, teen and YA are very blurred – can you outline them for us?

A. THE SAFEST AREA FOR MOST GENERAL APPEAL IS ‘CLEAN TEEN’ WITHOUT EXPLICIT MATERIAL – THE OLDER EDGES OF YA MERGE WITH ADULT AND SHOULD BE HANDLED POSITIVELY AND WITH CARE

Q. How should a children’s author writing a trilogy or series go about submitting?

A. SAMPLE MATERIAL AND A SYNOPSIS OF HOW ALL BOOKS IN SERIES/TRILOGY ARE GOING TO WORK WITH A CLEAR OVERALL PLOT LINE

Q. And what about their commitment – should they finish book one and sell it before starting book two?inkheartA. NO – ACTUALLY BEST TO HAVE BOOK 2 IN PROGRESS – BE CONFIDENT!

Q. Advice is to ‘write what you love’. Simon Trewin of WME said ‘don’t even think of publishing until your book is finished.’ The Writers and Artists Yearbook advises us that when you come to submitting, first decide on a genre. Shouldn’t we decide on a genre first, saving ourselves a lot of heart ache and work? And that brings me back to question one!

A. NO – GENRE IS NOT SPECIFIC – YOU SHOULD WAIT UNTIL THE BOOK IS WELL UNDERWAY – THE GENRE BOUNDARIES SLIP ALL THE TIME AND ARE LARGELY WHAT THE MARKET/PUBLISHER WANTS THEM TO BEblack-powder-aw-2-195x3001

Barry Cunningham, Managing Director of Chicken House Publishers and discoverer of Harry Potter.

barrycunningham‘Children’s publishing is going through a second Golden Age.’ BARRY CUNNINGHAM announced.

The children’s writers of the past, Roald Dahl and Spike Milligan to name two of Barry’s conquests, knew how to get inside a child’s head, but also when to accept that the adult knew best.

These days children as readers are much more respected. 36% of all book sales are children’s books. Over half of Young Adult books are bought by adults. 78% of these for their own reading satisfaction. What does that tell you about adult’s books? Publishers and writers both need to listen and respond to the requirements of their target market.

‘Publishing a book is very different from saying whether it is well written.’ he says. Barry stated that his job as a publisher is to find readers for his writers’ books. And if he isn’t able to find those readers, he won’t take on that book.

Ally Sherrick, one of Chicken House’s debut authors, entered the SCBWI 10 word pitch competition and answered correctly. Further reading of Ally’s draft gave Barry the idea of Ally’s ‘voice’. This is what captures the publisher/agent’s attention.black-powder-aw-2-195x3001

‘Access the child in you,’ he advises, ‘Go back and feel how you felt then.’ Play tricks with narrative.

Villains, whether that be the villainous situation or as an actual person is the most important character. Heroes come and go. ‘Harry is not as important as Voldemort.’

Dialogue is also important. Use it rather than description to show key moments.

For Barry, planning is precious. He has one writer who has killed off the same character twice! ‘Even so, she’s very successful’, he said. Perhaps chose to plan by listing your characters. You will have lots of information that may not go into the book, but it is important stuff to write down as reference that the writer needs to know.

Read your work aloud – this shows you where the weaknesses are.

When you submit your work, take a look at the writers already represented by your chosen agent. And compliment them! Do as you’re told.

Barry is exasperated that there are still some writers who don’t send 3 chapters, a synopsis and covering letter. Make the synopsis short – one side of A4 will do. Agents read hundreds of synopses. Tell the agent something about yourself ‘Perhaps not that you’re a motorcycling vicar.’ he says, but ‘what you have planned for your character’.

Everyone wants to know about book 2. Barry didn’t suggest that there might not be one.

Use the Publisher/Agents website. Here you’ll find details of competitions and open days.chickenhouselogo

The children’s market is fiercely competitive. But it is still an industry that does dreams. Chicken House relishes finding new voices and ‘if it is good enough, children will follow you through the back of the wardrobe’.

Ally Sherrick Debut Children’s Author of Black Powder

black-powder-aw-2-195x3001ALLY SHERRICK, debut author of Black Powder, a tale of gunpowder, treason and plot, a twelve year old boy and his mouse best friend was our speaker with Barry Cunningham, Publisher and Managing Director of Chicken House Publishing in Somerset., .

‘I hope you’re enjoying your MA course in Creative Writing as much as I did.’ Ally said to those Winchester MA Writing for Children students present at the inaugural meeting of the Hampshire Writers’ Society Sixth Season.

It was during her two year course that she re-discovered her creative seed which had been crushed by the professionalism of the past twenty years of ‘crust earning’.

At the end of her working day, ‘writing was the last thing I wanted to do.’ she said.

In early 2000 Mark Haddon, award winning writer of the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, suggested to Ally during an Arvon Course that the voice of the peice that she written for the course wasn’t written for children!

Ally didn’t despair. Instead she set about devouring books by other children’s writers, including Meg Rosoff, Plenary Speaker at this years Winchester Writers’ Festival.

When redundancy forced Ally to ask herself ‘What do I want to do with the next section of my life and with the backing of a supportive husband she embarked on the MA Writing for Children at Winchester University.

The MA opened up access to networks including SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators)

Her first novel, a sci-fi was finished. She submitted it and when it was rejected, she had the good grace to put it in her bottom drawer and move on. The story and the characters are the important ingredients’, she tells us, ‘it doesn’t matter where you set it.’ A SCBWI ten word pitch competition won her the attention of Barry Cunningham.allysherrick

Since then, she and the Chicken House team have worked, not always agreeing but stayed focussed. Together they brought Black Powder to publication.

‘Connect with your inner child’, Ally says, ‘My dial is stuck at age 11.’

Ally is now writing book two, a children’s book set in WW2.

December Competition Results – Daniel Clay

Our adjudicator for the December competition was Harper Press’ acclaimed author Daniel Clay. As well as being nominated in 2008 as one of Amazon’s best eight debut novels, his novel Broken was shortlisted for the Best First Novel Award by both The Commonwealth Writers’ and The Authors’ Club. It was made into a film by BBC Films. His second novel is SWAP.

Daniel was a pleasure to work with and wanted to add that he does try to help anyone who gets in touch. The site is danielclaywriter.co.uk where the Q&A section is great as there’s some really good advice in there from a couple of top agents and writers, plus the writers have also shared their successful slush-pile letters and synopses.

Daniel’s comments:

Thanks to everyone who sent entries in. There were 33 in total and, as with the last time I judged a HWS competition, I thought the standard of writing was excellent. I also really enjoyed the diversity of the entries, with very few writers choosing to write about the same themes and those who did taking very different approaches.

I found picking a shortlist almost impossible; after reading through each entry a couple of times I began to discard any which definitely weren’t going to make my final five, and even though I discarded plenty I really rated, I was still left with thirteen to choose from, so, if your story isn’t among the ones mentioned here, please don’t think it means I didn’t enjoy reading it, especially The Walking Shadow by David Lea, Hack Gang by Sally Howard, Seal the Book by Jane Howard and Spy by Rebecca Welton, all of which really impressed me.

 

1st Place: Teaser by Sally Russell

2nd Place: The Changeling by Scott Goldie

3rd Place: Sold by Kristin Tridimas

Commended: Tell No One by Linda Welch and The Road to Amber by James Lee

 

First Place – Teaser by Sally Russell

Daniel Clay: Sally has done a great job giving her main character good reason to stumble across the secret she uncovers and also gives us enough back-story to understand why Chloe feels betrayed by what she has seen. Kamara’s gloating, when confronted, is a brilliant example of show, not tell, and Chloe’s jubilation at finding her friend’s weak-spot right at the death, struck me as superb. I especially loved the description of the dusty window of an art room door, like see-through graph paper, scored with lines, which gave the opening’s pivotal scene a real edge of realism and left me feeling as if I was standing behind Chloe, seeing everything Chloe could see.

‘I saw you.’

‘What? Where?’ Kamara glanced at me from under her blackened eyelashes.

‘You know where. Last night. After school.’ I was gratified to see the flush creeping up from her neck. ‘You can’t do that.’

‘Why?’

‘ ‘Cos he’s mine.’

For three years, since I was (even I admit it) a pimply red-haired thirteen-year-old, I had harboured lustful thoughts about Mr Dyer. Most cool art teacher ever. Now, my new bezzie, Kamara, had got there first.

The previous evening I had left my iPod in my art room locker. I had gone back to rescue it from the thieving fingers that haunted Western High in the evening shadows. I had gripped the door handle, then paused. Mr Dyer and Kamara were standing by the store cupboard. He touched her. He stroked her hair. I could only just see them as I peered through the dusty window of the art room door. The glass was like see-through graph paper, scored with lines. It was smudged with the mucky fingerprints of the budding art students who pushed it open every day.

Except last night it was locked.

I felt sick.

‘Jealous, Chloe?’ Kamara smirked.

‘Just don’t go there.’

She laughed. It grated on my nerves.

‘Kev and I are in love.’

‘Kev? Kev!’ I seethed. I looked at her raven hair, her olive skin. No amount of conditioner or hair-straighteners ever tamed my auburn mane. I felt my nails dig hard into my palms.

‘Didn’t you know that’s his name?’

‘You’ve only been here since Christmas.’ It sounded lame, even to me. ‘And you’re younger than me.’

‘I’m sixteen in August.’

‘Aren’t you supposed to have an arranged marriage?’

‘Not gonna happen.’

‘No, it won’t. Not when your brothers find out.’

Kamara blinked.

Got her, I thought.

Second Place – The Changeling, by Scott Goldie

When my sister Lucy was six months old, she was stolen. Only I know she is gone because only I saw the awful creature that took her.

When I woke that night, I knew something was wrong. I have always trusted my instincts. My grandmother would say I was touched.

I knew it was the creature I had glimpsed a few nights before. I also knew why it had come.

Lucy.

My room was black, except for a thin blade of moonlight cutting across my desk.

I lay there for a moment, shivering slightly. I had no wish to see the creature up close.

However, I tugged at the duvet, sent it whispering across the bed, and levered myself up. The frame creaked as my weight left it. I prayed the noise would go unnoticed.

My bare feet glided across the floorboards. I pulled at my bedroom door. My teeth clenched, anticipating a betraying creak.

It never came.

I moved towards the open doorway of Lucy’s room, saw that the window was thrown open, letting in a cool breeze, making the curtains billow. I crossed to her cot. A shadowy bundle lay there.

It was Lucy, sound asleep. I let out the breath I’d been holding and leaned against the cot.

A strange cooing snatched my attention. A figure was perched on the windowsill, silhouetted in the moonlight. Hunched over, knees folded up to its chest, its long arms clutched something wrapped in a blanket.

Lucy.

It stroked its prize with a long finger, cooed again, wide mouth filled with pointed teeth. I blinked and it had gone.

A terrible, icy feeling gripped me. I had no doubt that it had taken my sister.

But then, if it had Lucy, what now slept in her cot?

 

2nd Place:

The Changeling by Scott Goldie

Daniel Clay: Opens with an arresting line, but then builds to an even better closing line which promises a great story to follow for any horror fans out there. In-between, I really enjoyed the descriptive writing; terms such as ‘blade of moonlight’, ‘betraying creak’, ‘stroked its prize’ were perfect for the mood being set. I especially enjoyed the use of the word ‘cooing’ in such a different context to usual. I’ll certainly never coo over a baby again!

When my sister Lucy was six months old, she was stolen. Only I know she is gone because only I saw the awful creature that took her.

When I woke that night, I knew something was wrong. I have always trusted my instincts. My grandmother would say I was touched.

I knew it was the creature I had glimpsed a few nights before. I also knew why it had come.

Lucy.

My room was black, except for a thin blade of moonlight cutting across my desk.

I lay there for a moment, shivering slightly. I had no wish to see the creature up close.

However, I tugged at the duvet, sent it whispering across the bed, and levered myself up. The frame creaked as my weight left it. I prayed the noise would go unnoticed.

My bare feet glided across the floorboards. I pulled at my bedroom door. My teeth clenched, anticipating a betraying creak.

It never came.

I moved towards the open doorway of Lucy’s room, saw that the window was thrown open, letting in a cool breeze, making the curtains billow. I crossed to her cot. A shadowy bundle lay there.

It was Lucy, sound asleep. I let out the breath I’d been holding and leaned against the cot.

A strange cooing snatched my attention. A figure was perched on the windowsill, silhouetted in the moonlight. Hunched over, knees folded up to its chest, its long arms clutched something wrapped in a blanket.

Lucy.

It stroked its prize with a long finger, cooed again, wide mouth filled with pointed teeth. I blinked and it had gone.

A terrible, icy feeling gripped me. I had no doubt that it had taken my sister.

But then, if it had Lucy, what now slept in her cot?

 

3rd Place:

Sold by Kristin Tridimas

Daniel Clay: Really stood out from first read-through. I was really impressed by the depth of character motivation, with Kristin making sure the main character, Jenna, had good reason to be somewhere she shouldn’t be and then good reason to investigate what was going on there. Small details – such as Jenna unthinkingly using the torch on her phone – rang true for a character of school-age, whereas I’d have stumbled around in the dark, completely forgetting to use the app on my phone. Also, I thought, the title was brilliant in terms of telling part of the story; had it not been called Sold, I think it would have been impossible for the last two lines to carry the emotional weight that they did.

Jenna had time on her hands. College was over for the day.

She couldn’t go home and risk walking in on Mum and Beer Belly Dave bonking on the sofa. The sight had scarred her for life. Not to mention it now meant the sofa was definitely a no-go area.

Her friends Rachel and Ted were stuck in the science labs for another hour.

Their fault for choosing chemistry. When they were eventually free, the three of them would go down to town to Mike’s Cafe, drink hot chocolate and attempt to hear each other over the chatter. So there was no point going townwards.

She did what she always did and headed up the hill to stare at the big stone building which had once been the object of her dreams. As soon as she knew she wanted to be a newspaper reporter, she also knew that one day she would work in those offices. Except she was wrong. Penchester Gazette had closed down a year ago. Before she’d even had time to do work experience.

She stared at the boarded up windows.

Suddenly, she saw movement.

A corner twitched.

A flash of pink.

She crossed over to look more closely.

Something was drawing her in. A journalistic instinct.

Her heart thumped as she lifted the loose board. Peered into the gloom.

Ghostlike empty desks. They taunted her with what might have been.

Her eyes adjusted.

Something moved behind one of the desks.

“Hello,” she whispered.

And then she did something that she would never normally do. Lifting the board, she climbed in. Switched on the torch on her phone. Crept towards the back.

Crouching behind a desk, looking at her with terrified eyes, was an Asian girl.

The girl shrank back. “Please,” she begged.

 

Highly Commended

Daniel Clay: Both were well written and well paced and left me with a sense there were full-blown stories to follow. In each case, I felt the story was going a certain way, yet each ended on a totally different note, which is a great demonstration of talent over only 300 words.

Tell No One by Linda Welch

‘If you don’t go to sleep right this minute, Father Christmas won’t come,’ Mum called up the stairs.

We’d played this game ever since I’d first called back, ‘Silly Mummy, Father Christmas doesn’t exist.’

Every year, Dad had come bounding up the stairs, saying in a stage whisper, ‘Shhh! Don’t tell her that, she still believes in him!’

Last year, when I was thirteen, it had still made me laugh, but this year there was no Dad, and I didn’t know what to say. Judging by the stifled sob from downstairs, Mum had forgotten for a split second that, just like Father Christmas, we wouldn’t see Dad tonight, or any other night.

I ran downstairs to find her wiping her eyes on the corner of the tea-towel. She tried to smile when she saw me, but it wasn’t a real smile, it didn’t reach her eyes.

‘Let’s make a new tradition,’ she said. ‘Instead of mince pies and sherry for Father Christmas, let’s make it hot chocolate and marshmallows for us.’

‘OK,’ I said, but really I wanted everything to stay the same. Most of all, I wanted Dad to still be alive.

Something woke me that night. I sat up in bed and reached for the bedside light, but a movement by the door made me freeze. Father Christmas?

‘Shh!’ came voice I knew so well. Father Christmas moved silently to the edge of the bed and pulled off his hood and false beard.

‘Dad!’

Surely I had to be dreaming? But his arms were warm as he hugged me, and his voice was soft and familiar as he whispered in my ear.

‘I shouldn’t have come, but I had to see you just once more. Everyone has to believe I’m dead, it’s the only way you’ll be safe.’

 

The Road to Amber by James Lee

Matthew stared at the black attaché briefcase, lying innocuously on the table before him. It once belonged to his Grandfather, and he had salvaged it from his Mother’s clearing of the attic, his only reasoning being that it was locked; a siren call to anyone interested in puzzles. It was not particularly sturdy, and a good knife could easily undo any protection the combination lock feebly offered, yet he resisted the urge. To do so would be a violation, an admittance of defeat to the coder, so instead he contemplated.

He recalled reading somewhere that a staggering proportion of number passcodes were a sequence of dates that held sentiment to the owner. For example, his parents’ laptop key was

271185, the date they first met. His Grandfather had often told the anecdote how he had been born on the 7th minute of the 7th hour of the 7th day, so Matthew half-heartedly swivelled the dials round to create this triple 7, a number dear to gamblers, Christians and aircraft manufacturers. To his disappointment the mouth popped open cordially: empty.

He closed the case and made to carry it to the skip to join its discarded brethren, when he paused. Something, a fragment, rattled about his head and refused to be lost to memory. He set the case down again, opened it, examined the corners, felt lining, frame, to no avail. What were they hiding?

He picked it up again, then realised: the case was far too heavy to be empty. His fingers groped around the edges of the inside, until his left thumb rested on a nodule under the lining upon the left border. His right thumb traced the felt until it halted at an identical one opposite. Matthew pressed, then the case opened once more, and not so cordially.

 

 

November 2015 Competition Results – Judith Murdoch

Our adjudicator for the November competition was Judith Murdoch from The Judith Murdoch Literary Agency. The number of entries was an outstanding 31.

Judith’s general comments were that she found them all very readable, though too many seemed rather too domestic in tone, so did not stand out as being anything new. A number of entries felt as if they might work better as short stories.

She generously took the time to advise: several entries used far too many adjectives, others over-used names of characters, which distances the reader – they don’t need reminding what the heroine is called six times on one page!

Two authors stood out for strong dialogue: ALL THE FUN OF THE FAIR by Linda Welch, and I WANT TO BREAK FREE by Freddie Mercury. Judith mentions that they might consider writing for radio.

FIRST MEETING by David Lea – Judith thought was amusing but she would have cut the first two lines. MAIA BAY by Benita she found very atmospheric and her assistant particularly liked the mule.

Judith said that the three finalists all immediately focused on the main character, placing them in an intriguing situation, which had possibilities for a full-length story.

She said that characterisation is the most important element in a novel; introducing a sympathetic character on page one who makes the reader feel they want to follow them for another 200-300 pages is what won through.

 

Judith selected:

First place NO MAN’S LAND by Louise Morrish

Second place – BEDINGFORD OPERA Sam Collins

Third place THE LONG REACH TO THE PAST by Margaret Jenness

 

First place NO MAN’S LAND by Louise Morrish

Judith Murdoch : A powerful situation and an emotional hook, which immediately establishes the heroine as a strong character on a mission. It promises to deliver action, adventure and romance and sets out the date and premise on the first page, which is a great asset when Kindle encourages readers to sample the first page.

Mary waits in line, tense and sweating in Edward’s woollen jacket and breeches, as the man ahead of her stumbles his way through the oath.

‘I swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty King George the Fifth…’

Next it will be Mary’s turn to accept the King’s Shilling. A knife twists in her gut at the thought.

She licks her dry lips, tasting coppery salt. Her scalp itches beneath Edward’s cap and she longs to take it off, but to expose her scandalously short hair is too risky. If the recruitment officer should see through her disguise, he could have her arrested for fraud, or worse yet, treason.

For surely it’s a crime against the King for a woman to enlist as a soldier?

She takes a steadying breath, reminding herself why she’s doing this: to find Edward. The telegram from the War Office had reported him missing. He could be a prisoner of war, or lost and wandering the battlefields. Or maybe he’s lying injured in some Belgian military hospital unable to make himself understood. Wherever he is Mary will do her damnedest to track him down. And when she does Mr Walsh will be so grateful to her for finding his precious son and heir, he’ll surely give Mary a job as a journalist on his newspaper.

So far no one has guessed her deceit; in this place of stale sweat and brittle bravado she is just another young man, keen to do his bit for crown and country.

If she can hold her nerve and assume the guise of a soldier, she will soon be on her way to the Front.

The first woman ever to witness the trenches.

Won’t that be a story for Mr Walsh’s paper?

 

Second place – BEDINGFORD OPERA Sam Collins

Judith Murdoch: Although a domestic situation it has a slightly quirky, nostalgic feel that made us want to read on – the characters made the ordinary seem a little poignant and more interesting, but the title needs to be more catchy.

Shelley Harper looked at her mother warily, as she usually did, in her preposterous flowing gown, held closed only by the most gregarious six-inch brooch. A peacock, like its owner, its glory displayed. But it was the beak that Shelley focused on, as if despite its flamboyance, it would tear you to shreds any moment now.

‘Not now Sheldon dear, whatever it is, you can see that I am rather busy.’ Indeed she could. Every kitchen cupboard open wide, the contents spilling onto every available surface. The rattle and hum of utensils being thrown drowned only by the industrial volume Verdi coming from the ghetto blaster on the windowsill, the sound of which had assailed her from the corner of Parkside Drive.

‘You can make this suet pudding with absolutely anything to hand in the pantry,’ Mrs Harper continued, as if reading from some ancient Victorian cookbook. ‘This one’s rhubarb compote…’

It had been with a very heavy heart that Shelley had made this journey this morning. Back to her roots, back to the village, back to the… motherland. Oh God. She had even allowed herself a tear or two on the train from Waterloo. And if she had allowed any more, she felt sure that they would have drowned her face in waves of panic and regret. She could see it in the murky train window; as if the mildly moist green eyes and undrenched olive-skinned face were not her own. Instead she saw something paler, shadowed; the eyes half-closed and brimming, the face awash, dissolving before her with the torrent. And the only sound in her ears… Verdi.

 

Third place THE LONG REACH TO THE PAST by Margaret Jenness

Judith Murdoch: Strong writing with an emotional and intriguing opening, though a little downbeat in tone and I would have preferred it in the present rather than past tense.

Thursday 1st April excerpt from Alice Carmichael’s diary

“Tell Olivia I’m sorry”, your dying words, your breathing laboured, your hands clasped mine. I wanted to hear you ask if the children were coming, to hear you say how much you loved us all. Instead I heard an instruction to tell an unknown woman that you were sorry.

The nurse was very kind. She told me to stay as long as I wanted. She brought me tea and garibaldi biscuits. Suffocated by the daffodil yellow painted walls, I took deep breaths before taking a welcome sip.

I had been upset our children hadn’t arrived in time.   They thought you had rallied. Craving the relief of normality when death surrounds, they had returned to their daily lives. After all the doctors had promised,   “He’s mentally strong, a fighter”. Perhaps you were fighting to see this person one last time.

“Our family are coming. Please stay until they get here”, I had begged. How relieved I am now they were too late.   How could they have borne your last words not being for us?

Who was this woman with such a hold on you that your last words were for her? In just five words you had destroyed my sense of who I am. Yet, despite myself I traced your features with my fingers one last time. I kissed you. I hugged you.   I told you how much I loved you. I said I was sorry if I hadn’t made you happy, if I had hurt you in any way.

I heard voices in the corridor. The door opened. Our son and daughter rushed in. We hugged. “I’ll leave you to say goodbye”.

I slipped out. Weeping, I stumbled along the corridor to the nearest bathroom and was violently sick.

 

 

 

 

October 2015 Competition – Carolin Esser-Miles

Our thanks to Carolin for adjudicating the October competition. The winners, their pieces and Carolin’s comments are below.

Congratulations!

1st place Lest We Forget by Louise Morrish

2nd Place Ghost Train by Paul Beattie

3rd prize It Comes to Us All by Wendy Fitzgerald

 

1st place Lest We Forget by Louise Morrish

Carolin Esser-Miles: Lest we forget follows a slow pace, but one which is fitting for the dreary inevitability that imprisons both the narrator and his ghost. Both are beyond terror, and suspense is not what drives this story for the readers either. What makes this story special is that in all its horror and pain it is a story about forgiveness, and about letting go of the ghosts we can, by owning up, by giving up our defences and asking for help. Again, this is no story of bravery, but of nothing left to fight. And that makes it so human, so real. And in the middle of all that we find a miracle: forgiveness. But the story remains true. Some ghosts continue to haunt us no matter what we do. The story’s message is as profound as it is simple. Telling it in 300 words takes skill.

Last night the soldier came to me again, a vision in mud. I could hear his slow, rasping breaths, the sound louder than the gale outside rattling the window panes, and it was this that woke me. There he stood, in the shadows at the foot of my bed, dark and unmoving. The reek of the trenches came off him, a poisonous mix of rancid mud, rotting flesh, and the burnt tang of cordite. The smell caught at the back of my throat, familiar and dreadful, taking me straight back to that hell.

He didn’t speak, but he had no need to; we both knew the reason he came, every year, without fail. The events of that fateful day are seared on my brain, the sights we both witnessed burnt into my memory for ever more.

There was no need for words at all, German or English.

The match flame shook as I lit a candle. I knew I wouldn’t sleep again, and self-pity brought hot tears to my eyes. I was tired to my bones already, without this.

I think it must have been exhaustion that made me do what I did next. Now, in the pale light of a new morning, I truly can’t believe I had the nerve.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said, my voice all but drowned by the soldier’s laboured breaths. ‘Forgive me, please.’

A silence fell; even the glass in the window ceased its rattle.

It was as though I had spoken a charm. His presence, that had filled my thoughts and dreams for so long, began to ebb away. Gradually, his form dissolved into the shadows, and the room threw off its strange chill.

Until all that remained was the sickly sour reek of the trenches.

But that, I fear, will never leave me.

 

2nd Place Ghost Train by Paul Beattie

Carolin Esser-Miles: One of the most suspenseful stories in the competition, Ghost Train plays with conventions in humorous way. The short sentence structures and frequent and quick shifts in perspective and train of thought of our preoccupied narrator prevent the reader from analysing too closely until the conceit is complete. What is particularly interesting is that the conceit, in fact, is again the classic stereotype which we all looked out for in the beginning and from which we got side tracked. A brief survey of readers highlights the effectiveness of the ending: a tongue in cheek acknowledgement – ‘Of course not’ – of what we should have known all along. He is the Kennington Ghost, and there he stays.

The red light stares stubbornly from the darkness, the glimmer picking out a few frames of the tunnel’s structure. Held in the Loop. You can be stuck here for hours waiting for a signal to release you. Well, it seems like it, buried somewhere deep on the Northern Line between Kennington and the Oval. Soon be heading back to Charing Cross and the shift’s end, nothing to do but wait. The old lags tease the youngsters about the Kennington ghosts; bodies unearthed when building the line, lost trackmen in the tunnels. All nonsense of course.

My shoulders stiffen; it’s just the muffled drumming of a train somewhere in the dark. The signal will change soon, it must. My palm, glued to the control leaver, is getting sweaty. It’s always warm down in the deep. No. It’s cold. I can see my breath in front of me. The heater must have packed up. Come on, come on. What’s taking so long? Damn the bloody signals!

What was that? A connecting door just slammed. Must have left it open when I checked my carriages were empty, the vibrations of that train must have made it shut. Hah! Kennington Ghost you old fool! Hang on, that was another door, closer. Surely I can’t have missed a passenger. Bloody hell it’s getting cold in here. Come on, change damn you!

That was the door to the last carriage, it had to be. Did I lock the driver’s door? There’s footsteps. Please change, please. Green! Oh thank you God! The brake won’t release, it’s jammed! I can’t move it, my hand keeps slipping off.

My door slams open…It’s Harry.

“Bloody hell Harry! I thought you were the Kennington Ghost!”

He doesn’t see me. Of course not, I’m the Kennington Ghost, and here I stay.

 

3rd prize It Comes to Us All by Wendy Fitzgerald

Carolin Esser-Miles: A lot of us tend to be rather melodramatic when it comes to death and ghosts. ‘It comes to us All’ acknowledges that – through capitalisation of the Big Words, through hints at a possible violent death. Its focus, however, stays firmly on the ordinary. Our waiting ghosts are not impatient ghosts. The emotions that prevail are acceptance and even a sense of peace, though maybe more that of a shared moment of respite between two attacks. The story is skilfully written and flows calmly and naturally. It is complete as it is, as a vignette, but it can equally lead into a short story or even a novel. Amongst all the clichés, this is a story of love, and it teaches us a valuable lesson, not through regret, but through example: How to live one’s life in the moment.

You’d think they’d hear us, as they pass through the graveyard; laying their flowers, indulging in their tears – oh, I suppose we’ve got rather blasé about it, but we’ve seen it so often, believe me!   But yes, it’s been a while since I stopped off here, pausing on my Way. We sit around, often on that very bench that you rest on, gossiping and bickering loudly about the injustices of Life.

That’s why I am still here. A spirit, a ghost – whatever you might like to call me – I still have burning issues. But today, Mrs Thomas and I are simply watching the grave-digger as he works.   Mrs Thomas is expecting her husband to join her soon, and then she can Pass properly. She simply could not bear to Leave without him. It never fails to astound me the deep and profound love that one human being can have for another – sometimes I feel it almost outweighs the hatred and evil that I so often saw in Life.

Mrs Thomas watches the earthly man at work, with some satisfaction. His burly arms wielding the spade; the sweat on his brow.   It won’t be long now. She tells me an anecdote about her wedding day, and I smile with her. I wish that mine had been so joyous – but I was Taken way before my time and won’t Rest until I see my worldly remains discovered – or at least see my fiancées lovely face again. Whatever you may have heard, we cannot avenge – but we can simply wait for our loved ones to catch us up.

The earthly man has finished his task; Mrs Thomas sits back, contented.

And now Mr Thomas stores his spade, washes his hands, and leaves unsuspectingly for home.

 

Commendation – Abominable by Louise Morrish

Carolin Esser-Miles: The story plays with the literary register of seafaring novels in the frame of Melville or Conrad well. A leisurely pace comes to a more intensified delivery just in time for a sudden realisation of an inescapable fate that grips the reader with cold, clammy hands around their throat.

Mr Jones, the Second Mate, swears blind he saw a ghost last night. At least, that’s what he claims. I must admit, it’s quite refreshing to have a new topic of conversation, as all the crew and scientists talk of at present are ice leads, and dwindling supplies, and seafaring superstitions. One such myth portends to the ghost Jones says he saw; if a ship’s bell rings of its own accord, somebody on board is destined to die.

This morning, Benson the surgeon had to give Jones a dose of chloral and bromide of potassium to calm him, he was that frightened after his shift. Jones was so worked up, in fact, that we nearly came to blows when I suggested that he may have imagined the incident. I will record what he told us, as accurately as my memory permits.

He was on his way to the bridge to begin midnight watch, when he heard a strange noise off the port bow, like a bairn crying and wailing. ‘It weren’t no seal made a sound like that,’ Jones said.

He looked out into the black, and as the moon slipped from behind a cloud he saw a figure, away on the ice. He watched as it floated nearer; a tall, grey-white creature. ‘Most definitely not a bear.’

This thing got to within feet of the ship, before simply vanishing, and then Jones heard the ship’s bell toll once, clear as day, but there was no wind last night.

And no one up on deck save himself.

Jones has vowed never to set foot on the ice after sundown, which is all very well to say now, but what happens when we can go no further in the ship and must take to the sledges?

What will he do then?

 

Commendation – Devotion by Gill Hollands

Carolin Esser-Miles: Devotion packs a very important message into 300 short words. It is a story about love, and about the right person being there to help and care.  It works because of exact timings, sketched hints and fitting clues. With just a little more space to help the reader follow through the various cognitive jumps this will be a very powerful story.

I peel open my eyes to twilight, the slide of shoes: whispers, beeping machines. I know that smell…

‘Don?’ My throat scratches.

I feel his cold hand take mine; smile up into his welling eyes. His voice had kept me going in the darkness, dragged me back from oblivion.

‘Ah! You’re awake! Welcome back!’ I jump. The nurse smiles down at me. ‘You’ve been in a coma for 9 weeks, since your accident. Do you remember anything?’

I shake my head, trying to claw through fog.

‘Well, don’t fret. It’ll come back in time.’ She scribbles a few notes on her clipboard. ‘I’ll tell Doctor you’re awake…’ She vanishes. Don squeezes my hand.

Before we can say a word, another nurse takes her place.

‘Let’s get you off all these wires and things, eh?’ She bustles around me. It’s all so exhausting…

Don makes a drink sign, sneaks out, rolling his eyes, blowing a kiss. I can still feel the touch of his fingers…

I sleep, as if I haven’t had enough. Don is always there when I surface, soothing, my rock. The doctors come and go, the nurses ever present. I seem never to have a moment to talk to him.

The children are there when I next wake, tearful. They take my hands in their warm ones.

‘They wanted us to tell you, Mum…’ My son stops, gulping.

‘You need to know… We lost Dad. Head trauma. It was quick. He didn’t suffer.’ My daughter’s eyes fill.

I stare up at them, confused.

‘But -’ I glance over at their father, standing by the door behind them. He nods.

‘They said it would help if you knew…’

‘He brought me back…’

Don blows kisses from the doorway, fading into the gloom.

It feels good not to weep alone.

 

 

 

September 2016 Competition Results – Robin Mukherjee

What an amazing start to the season. As always, it has been a pleasure having the support of Robin Mukherjee, Screenwriter and PlaywrightThe winning pieces, including Robin’s comments, for the September competition are below.

Congratulations to…

1st Place. Joanne Tomlinson – In Between.

2nd Place. Geoff Harrington (David Eadsforth) – The Day The Earth Moved.

3rd Place. Wendy Fitzgerald – One Meeting.

Commendations. Honey Stavonhagen – Fishing with Tyko and Rosie Sutcliffe – Tiger Tour 

1st Place: Joanne Tomlinson – In Between.

Robin Mukherjee: I thought this is quite brilliant. It took a couple of reads before its subtleties began to seep in, but they soon became unforgettable. It also takes its subject beyond the obvious into a very startling and rather beautiful dimension.

I was looking down on myself, but paying little attention to that or to the voices until he arrived. He appeared on my bed, sat with his profile to me, a dark hoodie pulled up over his head, obscuring most of his features.

There was an unpleasant smell of ether and a soft beeping noise.

A shadowy figure in green pyjamas brought in an unassuming cool box holding my future and his past on ice.

The boy turned to me, pulling the hood from his head, revealing a sticky, matted mop of black hair. I felt his nascent testosterone invading me.

A memory flickered, not mine, of a car bonnet crumpled up to the steering wheel. Another, mine this time, of drowning, gulping air, frantic, gulp, panic.

He began to remove the pile of bricks balanced on my chest, which suddenly were almost unbearable. One by one, easing my discomfort, he told me that everything would be alright now, and his certainty helped me bear it.

It took all my strength to reach for his hand and squeeze it in solidarity and gratitude.

As he squeezed back I felt a warmth surge through my cold body, I broke the surface of the water and gasped deep, life giving breaths through my new lungs.

His hand slipped from my grasp as I felt his heart beat for the first time…

 

2nd Place: Geoff Harrington (David Eadsforth) – The Day The Earth Moved.

Robin Mukherjee: This is funny and sweet, a very simple story but with a rich world around it, delivering a genuine sense of OMG. The title is multi-layered and rather cheeky. A lovely read.

Jack woke in an instant, his senses assailed by a confusing jumble of sights and sounds. The room was shaking violently and there was a loud rumbling the like of which he had never heard before. No mistake; this was an actual earthquake! He leapt naked from the bed and ran for the door, wrenched it open and strode outside. He froze; across the corridor stood a naked woman, her eyes wide with astonishment.

“Oh my God!” he cried.

“Oh my God!” she echoed.

Both turned to face the corridor walls.

“Was that an earthquake?” he asked. “I didn’t wait to grab my bath robe!”

“Yes; neither did I!”

“I don’t want to go back for it, but I don’t want to go downstairs like this either!”

“Nor me! Wait; it’s not shaking any more; let’s sit down for a moment.”

Seconds later they were sitting, backs to the corridor walls, arms around knees drawn up to their chins, staring at the ceiling.

“Um, I’m Jack…”

“I’m Carol; um, what are you doing here?”

“Off-season city break for the museums; they’ve some of the finest in Europe.”

“Coincidence; me too! My friends think I’m nuts…” She grinned. “Was that a half-decent six pack I saw?”

He smiled self-consciously.

“Perhaps; I’m in a rowing club. Actually, I didn’t notice too many spare inches on you either.”

“Thank you, kind sir; I’m a rather serious swimmer.”

“Wonder if it’s safe to get our robes now and join the other guests…”

“Probably…”

She stood up abruptly; modesty clearly set aside for a moment, and held out her hand. He smiled, got to his feet and shook it.

“Nice to meet you Carol; fancy seeing the museums together?”

“That would be nice.”

“See you at breakfast?”

“If you’ll recognise me with my clothes on…”

 

3rd Place: Wendy Fitzgerald – One Meeting.

Robin Mukherjee: This is poignant and moving, with a sharp twist that hurts. It raises rather than answers what might in the end be unanswerable questions, and offers a sense of desolation mixed with a complex tone of joy. A rich potage of powerful emotions.

To my Comrade in Arms:

I have thought of you so often

When night casts its terrors over me and no stars can be seen.

It was so many years ago now –

I am grown old and frail; my final days cannot be long

The days of reckoning crowd upon me

And my need to go fearless into the night.

Did you have a family like me? A wife, two little girls,

Who waited for you at home, and cried themselves to sleep?

The sense of seeing, feeling music

In everything you did?

Did you hide in that barn, in that desolate foreign land, alone;

Mad with hunger and thirst, dreaming of their arms?

When you faced me, gun in trembling hands

Fear bulging in your eyes

Did you think – it’s me, or him?

And when I dropped my arm and waved to you,

‘Go! Run!’

Did you think to kill me even then?

I’ve led a life of pain and joy;

A life so special, because it nearly was not;

And I’ve you to thank for that.

Now as my days close; the dark winter outside interminable,

I think of you so often; what might have been.

And I need to say ‘forgive me.’

You turned your back to flee …

And I shot you.

I can see the red haze of your blood before my eyes

Your body twitch to still.

And I know we won’t meet again, my friend

For you will be in heaven

And I will be in hell.

 

Commendation: Honey Stavonhagen – Fishing with Tyko.

Robin Mukherjee: A startling and evocative snapshot, which perfectly captures the weather, the atmosphere, and the awkwardness of two worlds coming together.

‘How old are you?’ The words were all correct but something about the way the boy placed them was wrong. Effie let the question sit on the surface for a while before soaking it up like a warm, wet snowball.

‘I’m…’ Papa liked to say that people who chose to mark birthdays or count years had too much food and too few worries. Effie agreed, so she gave the answer her Mama used to give the doctors before all her hair fell out in soft, brown clumps. ‘I’m as old as I’ve ever been, but not as old as I’m going to be.’ She shivered, as the cold wind bore through her thin coat like a tired lie.

The boy looked up at her then, his face emerging from a halo of fur and something in the glint of his eyes startled Effie into staring longer than she’d intended. He returned her gaze with a blunt one of his own, until the little wooden rod jerked sharply tugging at his attention.

‘You’ve caught a fish.’ Effie said, noting the layer of accusation floating on her voice.

‘Not yet, I haven’t.’ The fish lurking underneath them bent the rod into a question mark bobbing on the dead, black heart of the lake. Ice crystals had already begun to rebuild their spidery web, threatening the edge of the hole he had cut in the ice. Here, fishing was a race against time, not the meandering pastime it had been at home. Home.   Effie wiped the word away with the back of her sleeve, her woollen mitten clawing at her lips.

This boy, crouched down wrestling an unseen fish, was the only other child in the long valley and therefore Effie’s sole prospect of friendship. It was going to be a long winter.

 

Commendation: Rosie Sutcliffe – Tiger Tour.

Robin Mukherjee: Beautiful phrasing such as, ‘His body an exclamation mark amongst the seething throng of bodies.’  The characters are quickly and fully established in complex layers, the world powerfully tangible and convincing with its intriguing promise of adventure.

David shuffled a few steps forward in the desultory queue of passengers, his body shaped like an apology from years of ‘excuse me’s,’ ‘sorrys,’ ‘pardons.’

A man who could never quite meet expectations, either those of himself or others.

This was by far the most exciting thing David had done in his entire forty-seven years of life. Spurred on by a small inheritance and the realisation that watching David Attenborough on television was not equal to seeing a Bengal

Tiger in it’s natural environment with his own eyes, David had booked on

‘Tiger Tours India.’

Stepping out tentatively from the airport, the brilliance, heat, aromas, vibrant colours and speed of ceaseless movement assaulted him like a gang of thugs.

Initially terrified, David had a choice to take the familiar route of hiding in fear or to embrace this experience and meet it head on. Whilst in a quandary of indecision he felt a tap on his shoulder and spun around.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to make you jump, but I saw your baggage label. I’m on

‘Tiger Tours’ as well and can’t see the tour guide anywhere. They are supposed to meet us at the airport, aren’t they? This is the first time I’ve travelled alone and I feel like a fish out of water.” She gabbled nervously, gentle hazel eyes wide with tremulous anxiety.

David smiled warmly, confidence growing, spreading like a fire within him.

“Don’t worry. Let’s walk down here a bit further and if we don’t spot our guide then we can begin the adventure early by catching a rickshaw to the first hotel and wait for him there.”

Taking both cases, David strode forward, his body an exclamation mark amongst the seething throng of bodies.

 

 

 

Secret Special Guests

Secret Lives of Chandlers Ford

 

 

secretlivesThe Secret Lives of Chandlers Ford is a collection of short stories, some contemporary, some historical and some Sci Fi. All are based around Chandlers Ford.

Karen Stephen, Maggie Farran, Catherine Griffin and Sally Howard, four friends with a passion for creative writing nurtured the idea for Secret Lives of Chandlers Ford in April 2015 whilst studying creative writing on a course run our own Barbara Large.

What, they wondered, are the “secrets” of Chandler’s Ford? What goes on behind the net curtains and leafy hedges? Chandler’s Ford is a quiet, respectable backwater. A suburb, although no one is quite sure whether of Winchester or of Southampton. It has clean streets, decent and kind citizens. Could it have any secrets?

Using Amazon, the authors have self-published the Secret Lives of Chandlers Ford. This means that the technical bits and the uploading of all their work to a software whereby it can be printed on demand had to be done themselves. There are companies that will do this for writers. At a price though. Luckily Catherine is ‘down’ with technology and took it in her stride. The book was published around May time 2016.

All four agree that writing and production of this book has been a most enjoyable Untitledprocess. In fact, were it not for much gossip, cake and tea, it might have been produced a bit quicker. However, this simply adds to its charm.

Book two is due to be finished later this year.

The four will be speaking at the September meeting of the Hampshire Writers’ Society which takes place on Tuesday 13 September in Room 303 St Elphege at 7.00 for 7.30pm

Five Research Tips from this Season’s Speakers

  1. Go Outside – Kate Mosse told us that settings and places that fascinate her are key to her writing success. Taxidermists-Daughter-mmp-217x327Whatever the weather, she stands in her setting, lets her imagination run riot and listens to the voices of those who have passed through the place before her. OK; so you may not be able to stand in exactly the right place, especially if you’re writing Sci Fi, but you get the idea – woodland in the rain, sandy beach in the wind, any stately home, castle or gallery may do and even a car park in hot sunshine. ‘See the vista through their eyes.’ Chris Cleave told us of his characters. As James Marrison suggests; a good walk is soothing when the writing gets tough.
  2. Take the Kids? – Della Galton admitted that much of her writing is driven by emotion. Children are good at provoking an emotional response in us. Yes, cinemas still have Saturday morning clubs – feel free to get emotional; the kids do. Children also have the ability to overlook the macabre in the most natural way, take weirdness in their stride and come up with the original character names. Children are valuable tickets to ‘hands on’ research and ‘behind the scenes’ glimpses that, for some reason museums don’t hand to adults.
  3. Have a nice day! – High Fantasy Author James Barclay gave us a master class in world building and battle creation in which ‘Be Realistic’ was his advice, ‘A peasant is most unlikely to defeat an experienced fighter’. ElvesBeyondtheMistsofKaturaIndividual guides dotted around historic sites or animal park keepers are only too keen to depart with their knowledge. Don’t be shy about asking them either they spend most of their time with people who don’t need to know and then you come along wanting nothing more than to hear their stories. You may not come away with a file full of research, but you’ll most likely pick up a snippet and definitely a feeling.
  4. Volunteer – ‘Put yourself in your reader’s shoes.’ said Jude Evans of Little Tiger Press. ‘Know your market.’ The Library’s annual Summer Reading Challenge plunges children’s writers right in the middle of their target market. Volunteers are needed to man the Reading Challenge desk where you will need to quiz the readers. If you don’t come away with a clear idea of the literary needs of your chosen age range then you haven’t been listening to your market.
  5. Rain stops play? – ‘You’re only really listening to the conversation when you’re not in it’ said Chris Cleave. Clare Morrall told us that dialogue is often underestimated as an aspect of bringing characters to life. WhentheFloodsCame‘Absorb the voices around you and let a hint of the waffle remain for believability’, she advises. So, buy a coffee and nurse it till its cold whilst you listen in on the conversations around you. ‘Carry out your market research.’ said Della Galton. Sit in a waiting room and read the magazines.

Clare Morrall on Clever Timing, Consistency and Unnecessary Advice

AstonishingSplashesI first started to write a novel at the age of thirty-five, which wasn’t clever timing, as I was spending long hours teaching violin and piano, and bringing up my two young daughters on my own. At first, I would put the girls to bed early and write through the evenings. It was good for them, I told myself, a regular routine, a calming-down period before going to sleep. But children soon get wise to these things. Early bedtimes became harder to justify.

Eventually, a friend offered me the use of a room in her house, and I would sneak off for a couple of hours on a Wednesday and the occasional Saturday afternoon when the children went to their father’s. There was no time for procrastination. I had to sit down, turn on the laptop and start writing immediately. This was my only chance and I wasn’t going to waste it. Occasionally I would go to sleep, it’s true – there was a lot going on and I was usually exhausted – but mostly I got on with it.

I would always write something, anything, even when I didn’t feel like it. I made myself continue typing, whatever the results, because I knew that my thoughts would eventually start to flow and sometimes, sometimes, inspiration would take over. I still write like this, forcing myself to produce something in the available time, then going back and rewriting, shaping, moulding like a sculptor.

AftetTheBombingI’ve been asked to give tips on how to produce a consistent voice. When I wrote After the Bombing, I was very conscious of the need for authenticity, so I spent a great deal of time online, reading first-hand accounts of the bombing in Exeter, absorbing the feel of the language, the phrasing, the expressions, until I had to stop myself and start writing. The future world of When the Floods Came WhentheFloodsCamepresented another difficulty, how to portray language that was familiar, but also evolving. I decided to invent expressions – catchphrases, new cliches – especially for the younger characters, allowing the words to grow out of existing jargon. But my main advice for convincing dialogue would be to listen. Absorb the voices around you, let a hint of the waffle remain for believability, then cut everything down to the bare bones. Fictional dialogue reflects real conversation, but doesn’t reproduce it exactly. It’s not a good idea to crush your readers with meticulous accuracy. You don’t want them to die of boredom.

My daughters have moved on, both married, so I can write at home again, no longer having to lose the travelling time. Writing a novel is hard work, a formidably long process. But it’s what I do. I write for the satisfaction of creating, for love, not because it will make me rich. In the end, if people want to write, they’ll write anyway and nothing will stop them. Advice is probably unnecessary.