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.

 

 

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