Award winning author, Claire Fuller talks about rewriting, revising and editing her novels

Report by Sarah Noon

Claire Fuller: Rewriting, Revising and Editing HWS 28th September 2021

Claire is a MA graduate of Creative Writing at the University of Winchester and has written 4 novels.  Her most recent novel Unsettled Ground was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Claire’s presentation was about the processes she goes through when writing – particularly with regards to revising, rewriting and editing. Claire began writing Unsettled Ground in June 2018, completing her first draft in May 2019. She is a writer who says she revises her first draft as she writes.

When she originally sent Unsettled Ground to her agent, she was invited to a rather posh lunch in London, where her agent talked about how much she enjoyed it … and then right at the end of the meal suggested that Claire change the setting from the 1950’s to contemporary!

Initially, Claire says she resisted this suggestion but “came around to it in the end.” As a result, she found herself having to re-write the whole thing. This created a challenge for Claire, who says that whilst this did not change the narrative of the story, lots of changes had to be made, such as the description of the hospital – its treatments and equipment, how people deal with death and how we live with and rely on technology in the 21st century.

Claire Fuller at the Hampshire Writers’ Society, University of Winchester

So how did Claire tackle this? Well, she essentially worked on Word, with two screens side-by-side and went through the novel line by line. Fortunately, she says, she “…dislikes writing but likes editing!”

Claire describes herself as a “rolling reviser” explaining that writing the first draft and then revising it, simply does not work for her. She also says she is “not a planner” and when she is writing, she often does not know what is going to happen next. This means, she explains, that she encounters many surprises along the way. Claire revises as she goes along as otherwise there is a danger of her not getting past the first chapter. She talks about the Young Adult author Patricia Wade’s notion of the “Back Brain” – the brain that is running in the background. Claire uses her back brain to change things which need to happen in order for her story to move forward.  She gives the example of her protagonist, Jeanie, being illiterate, but only having this idea partway into the novel.

Claire warns that working as a rolling reviser can slow down the forward progression of a narrative. When Claire began writing, she would set herself a goal of 1000 words per day then going back and “tweaking” them. However, she now has a new goal which is to simply “write some new words.” This may only amount to one sentence, but working in this way enables her to be a rolling reviser, whilst still ensuring that the narrative moves forward. This also means that when Claire has finished, it is already beyond its first draft. She explains that the benefits for her of working this way are:

  • She can get back into the novel’s “time and space”
  • Re-drafting time is reduced at the end
  • She better understands the main characters’ motivations
  • The first draft is not too poor quality (she often thinks to herself “What if I die and someone reads my terrible first draft?”)

Claire gave some very useful tips as to how she edits her work. She describes how she relies heavily on the Word Navigation pane which shows headings, subheadings and word counts for each section. This enables Claire to easily go from one section of her work to another without the necessity for constant scrolling. It also means that she can easily move an entire chapter or section of the work without having to cut and paste. This is an excellent tool when focusing on structure.  She also adds little notes such as “You need to write this bit”.

Claire is also a fan of the square bracket! Inside these go words which need improving or researching but can then be located quickly at the end of her session without disrupting the flow of her writing. She also saves a first draft of her work but says that this rarely changes; it is more of a “security blanket.”

After Claire has finished her first draft, which she says is usually about 50,000 words. She then leaves the work for as long as she can (anytime from one week to a few months) and uses this time to focus on other writing and reading projects. She then returns to her draft and “reads it like a reader.”  Ideally, she will print the manuscript so that she can make notes on it but is then not tempted to fiddle with the work as she would do if it were on a screen. She then makes notes on the following:

  • Character
  • Plot
  • Timeline
  • Opening and end
  • Reveals
  • Subplots
  • Voice
  • Foreshadowing

Claire claims that her biggest issue is “slow beginnings and fast endings” and so she might focus on that, as well as increasing the word count (50,000 words is not enough). Claire adds chapters that help to develop the smaller characters – for example Julian didn’t have his own voice in the first draft and so Claire wrote extra chapters so the reader could get to know him. She ensures that the readers can understand the bad characters better and that minor characters all have some sort of anecdote or subplot. Claire uses the example of Stu, who was horrible to the protagonist but had essentially “walk-on parts” only. During the re-reading process, she wrote a note “We need to talk about Stu.”   She then asks questions about the character (“Stu, why are you so horrible to Jeanie?”).

It takes between six months and one year for Claire to edit her book, with the process focusing in more and more, until Claire is editing at sentence level. At this point, she will use the Search function on Word to follow a character or an object through the story to check for plot holes etc. She then checks each scene or chapter to ensure that they are driving the story forward. She makes a list of words which she feels are overused and again uses the Search facility to find them and change them – being careful, she says, not to create even more over-used words! She then does the same with adverbs, searching for “ly”. Another thing Claire does is she chooses a paragraph and copies and pastes this into a new, blank Word document. She then works on this, considering how she would feel if this was the only piece of the story she could read to others. Would she be happy with it? She explains how the act of removing this section from the rest of the text can help her to look at it with fresh eyes.

Claire talks about the importance of reading her work aloud and to an audience – although the audience may be a cat or dog, or a voice recorder.  She will stand and read it and listen to the rhythm and musicality of her words. She will sometimes remove the speech tags so that she can better hear the conversations between the characters and whether she can tell the characters apart. She describes how by the end of the process, she has read her book about fifty times – mostly out loud.

During the editing process, Claire says she will open a page of her novel at random and see how many words need changing.  If it is frequently two or more then further editing is required. If it is just one word, she feels her work is ready to show to other people (she claims there are never “no words” to change!).

Who does she show? Well, she may send her work to her editor, or to others in her writing group – a group of approximately ten other writers (largely from when she did the MA course). The writing group provides her with deadlines, motivation and the ability to critique the work of others. The importance of the writing group to Claire comes across very clearly; the opportunity to work with others who are known and trusted on her edited work. Claire says that she would not have been able to have four published novels without the writers’ group.

Claire will show some of her work to her family. They are readers and not writers and so are able to offer different perspectives. But, she says, she always holds some scenes back until the work has gone to the agent. 

Claire is already writing her next novel (or should we say re-writing?) and we wish her every success. As a member of our audience said to Claire:
“Thank you. Your writing is lovely.”

Unsettled Ground, by Claire Fuller, shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021. Published by Penguin.

Martin White talks to Hampshire Writers’ Society about his debut novel, ‘Faze’

Report by Sarah Noon

Faze – A City of Addicts: M.J. White

Martin White’s debut novel was published in September and is a book, he says, inspired by personal life events.  What began as a series of short stories inspired by Grimm’s fairy-tales – read to Martin by his mother when he was young has developed into a “… marvellously gory, action packed, dystopian story for lovers of sci-fi horror.”

Initially, Martin began writing adapted fairy-tales, where Little Red Riding Hood was a “crack addict” and Humpty Dumpty “threw Molotov cocktails.” However, perhaps the most inspirational thing about M.J White is how he began writing.

Martin was born and grew up in the Thornhill area of Southampton (an area that has had its share of problems). He left school at 15 with no qualifications. He then worked in catering (a job where he felt he needed no qualifications). He also worked as a gardener and later as a drug counsellor. 

Martin says that he “… always knew (he) wanted to write but didn’t know how to” and so he joined a creative writing class. Here, his tutor said, he liked his work but suggested that he maybe dyslexic – something that had previously been undiagnosed. The creative writing classes taught him about structure, grammar and punctuation; “I now know where to put a comma!” He relies on Word and Grammarly to enable him to write his stories.

He decided to re-enter the learning world and studied at Andover before being accepted at Winchester University as an Undergraduate in Creative Writing.

In 2018, as part of his Creative Writing course, Martin began joining his collection of short stories together. However, he felt that as a whole piece, it “just didn’t work.” At this point, Martin says he went back to his 120,000 words and “hit the delete button.” He then began world building and developing what is referred to in Faze as “The System.”

Martin White at the Hampshire Writers’ Society

Martin talks about how addiction is all around us and can affect anyone, something that his time as a drugs counsellor has taught him but that with the help of people around us, we can all get back from the brink of self-destruction. Addiction is an intrinsic part of “The System”. The people in Faze have all been given a drug to fight ‘flu. This drug is highly addictive with recipients requiring a top-up every 24 hours.

Martin’s Goldilocks short story was the strongest of his original short story collection, providing him with his protagonist, Adria, who is 16 years old and homeless. With setting and protagonist in place, he was now able to link his stories together.

Faze is “not for the faint hearted” Martin says, with his target reader being a horror fan over the age of 18 (“definitely not for children”), adding that any adult can read his book.  His mum, he says, loves it!

When asked about his writing routine and discipline, he reveals his main aim is just to “get it out” (he calls this the “Stephen King method”) explaining he writes better in a crowd rather than on his own – favouring # Coffee 1 as his place to write. When writing Faze, he set himself a target of 2000 words per day – the final word count of Faze is approximately 80,000 words.

Martin hired a private editor before he submitted his work (something he advises all writers to do), editing and re-editing approximately 20 times before sending it to his publisher (by this point he had re-read his work 30-40 times and was getting “too picky” – this is how he knew it was time to submit his work).

He has no agent. Instead, he contacted publishers directly as he initially had dozens of rejections. But Martin’s hard work has paid off.  Faze was published this year and claims sales are doing “pretty well” – both as a paperback and on Amazon. He is now working on the sequel: Faze, Journey to the Core and states that he is finding writing this book much easier.

Martin’s inspirational talk ended with the following words: “If you believe in your work, truly, then someone else will too.”

Faze, The City of Addicts is published by Jillion Realms Publishing. The book was released on 27th August and is available on Amazon in paperback, ebook and kindle. 

10th Anniversary of Hampshire Writers’ Society 2011-2021

A flash back to the inaugural meeting of Hampshire Writers’ Society on 13th September 2011 with Barry Cunningham OBE.

Report of the inaugural meeting written by Barbara Large MBE who was the Founder and Chairman of the Hampshire Writers’ Society.

‘Take Risks with your Writing’ advised Barry Cunningham at the launch of Hampshire Writers’ Society.
Barry Cunningham OBE, famed as the ‘discoverer of JK Rowling’, launched the Hampshire Writers’ Society on Tuesday evening, September 13 at the University of Winchester, with his talk, What Makes a Good Children’s Book.

Barry Cunningham OBE

A packed room of more than 80 aspiring and published writers listened intently as he talked about meeting JK Rowling, who had the necessary passion to write the incredible Harry Potter story even if it were never to be published. He stressed the difference between writing for the excitement of creating a great story and writing only with the goal of publication.’ These are separate ambitions. The former is the goal of the true writer. Being published is a random act’.

He continued, ‘The key to writing a good children’s book is the ability to use your imagination to meet the imagination of the child. Have a good grasp of the characters and their dialogue. A hole in the plot is always fixable. Use humour. This is what made Harry acceptable to so many readers’

He commented that ‘the blend of English humour…laughing at adversity, builds tension, diffuses anxiety and deepens and extends the emotion that we have for the main characters’.

He spoke of the successes of Cornelia Funke and Roald Dahl, who were the secret friends of children, holding their hands through their books yet encouraging readers to stand up for themselves. He encouraged writers to include food in their stories. ‘Children love to know what’s for tea. It anchors the story’. And, he said,’ believe in valour’.

He confessed that he was in awe of people who finished a book. But his offer ‘to help you achieve your goal, won a standing ovation.

Dr Joy Carter, Vice Chancellor of the University of Winchester, commented ‘Hampshire is a county with huge resources of creativity and the launch of the Hampshire Writers’ Society will allow much of that creativity to flourish in a new and expressive way’.

The Hampshire Writers’ Society, a fledgling of the Winchester Writers’ Conference, which is held annually at the University of Winchester, has launched a hugely successful season of talks by professional authors, poets, playwrights, literary agents and commissioning editors. These include Jack Sheffield, author of seven books in the Teacher, Teacher series, published by Transworld; poets, Tom Master, Mark Rutter and Peter Dixon; crime fiction author, Lindsay Ashford; Beverley Birch, Senior Commissioning Editor, Hodder Children’s Books; Rebecca Shaw, author of the Turnham Malpas/Barleybridge Village series; Sophie King, both fiction and non-fiction author; Ali Sparkes, author; Professor Patricia Duncker, on the subject of Choosing English; and concluding next June with an Evening Party and tour of the Chawton House Study Centre followed by a talk on crime fiction.

Dynamic’, ‘welcoming’, ‘a definite asset to struggling writers’, ‘eager for the next meeting’, re-doubling my writing effort’ were the conclusions of attendees.

Barbara Large

PS. Follow the link to read HWS member, KM Lockwood’s recent post, ‘I’m just wild about Barry…’ on her website.

Taking Revenge – April 2021 Competition Results, Adjudication by Louisa De Lange

Louisa De Lange, freelance copywriter and editor, and author of three thriller novels generously gave her time to adjudicate our April 2021 Competition.

For the thriller, crime, mystery and suspense authors and fans, Louisa suggested a revenge focused competition. The brief this month was:

In 300 words: Describe a situation where someone has taken revenge. What was it for? How do they believe they were wronged?

And the winners are:

First Place – Joanne Dennison with Blood Moon

Second Place – John K Miles with Mistress of the Sea

Third Place – Moira Beckett with A Knock on the Door

Louisa said she enjoyed adjudicating and we hope you all enjoy the winning stories below.

First Place: Blood Moon by Joanne Dennison

I loved this story for its distinctive style and originality: it was clear from the beginning who the characters were, what they believed, and where their loyalties lay, but it wasn’t obvious about it. It made these distinctions subtly, without a wasted word. And at the end, I especially liked the way the tables are turned, that it’s the humans with the taste of blood in their mouth, howling at the moon.

‘You come home without the dog,’ you always joked, ‘then don’t bother to come home at all.’ And I’d laugh, reaching out to muss your hair in the way I knew made you crazy. ‘Get.’ you’d tell me, swiping my hand away, and Jack and I would get. We’d get ourselves to the park, or the match, or for a pint down the pub, where our gentle giant always got himself an ear scratch or a slurp of someone’s beer. 

Until the day the odds in the bookies’ window drew me in, just for a moment, and you’d beaten your fists into my chest and told me, ‘Get out’, an emptiness to your voice. And I’d got. I’d plastered the neighbourhood with pictures of Jack, the one you took of him the day we’d pulled him from the shelter.  I’d hounded the police and got a caution for telling the desk Sargent he was a complete arsehole and punching a hole in the wall by his head. 

I started hanging out in the seedier parts of town asking about dog fights and getting into plenty of my own; leads taking me to abandoned warehouses full of screaming men, watching dog after dog get torn apart. It made me sick to my stomach, but none of them were ever Jack. 

One night, coming in from taking a piss on some wanker’s Jag, a mean looking Rottweiler called Tiger stood in the ring surrounded by the baying crowd. A beat up, red bullmastiff was dragged in on a choke chain to face him. 

When I was pulled off the mountain of a man who’d held the chain around Jack’s neck, the guy was missing an ear and I had the taste of blood in my mouth. I grabbed Jack as the sound of police sirens sent everyone scattering, and we ran. We ran until we could run no more, howling at the moon as we made our way home to you. 


Second Place: Mistress of the Sea by John K Miles

A really well written story. Some wonderful imagery. As I was reading it I could clearly see the storm and the beach, almost feel the salt in the air. And I liked the double revenge aspect – after one act is carried out another retaliatory revenge occurs.

 
The forked lightning strobed across the rocky beach, exposing a snapshot of natural violence. A brutal storm under a purple sky, generating twenty foot waves that were ripping huge chunks of sedimentary rock away from the cliff.  

Seth made his way to the shrine, sideways rain washing away fresh tears, as he cursed the gods for the hand he’d been dealt. Deep set anger and grief spurred him on. He broke into a sprint, pushing through the wind, towards the tidal cave that housed the totem. 

‘Curse you!’ he said, as he reached the entrance, his hot temper directed at the manifest image of the goddess. The wooden statue stared back at him nonchalantly. 

‘You’ve taken everything from me! She was my life!’ 

Another streak of lightning ripped across the beach, lighting up the quartz gems which decorated the face of the ancient water deity. She was mocking him. Gloating. Impulsively, he unbuckled his axe and flew at the idol, desecrating it with short, powerful, relentless strokes. It took several minutes, but soon all that was left was the decapitated head of the goddess, lying face up in the wet sand. The remainder of the totem, had been smashed into hundreds of tiny fragments. For one brief moment Seth felt at peace. Revenge had been served. The goddess had drowned his love and now the price had been paid.  

His tears flowed freely. 

‘Why did you take her from me so soon?’ 

The mistress of the sea looked back at him with uncaring eyes, as a powerful wave crashed into the cave, lifting him off his feet. He was trapped. No escape. And as the full force of the ocean broke him against the cave wall, the head of the goddess was pulled back through the entrance into the deep. 

Third Place: A Knock on the Door by Moira Beckett

This was a beautifully clear, concise story. I liked the precise ending: we’re in no doubt about what’s going to happen and why.

The clock ticked. Sally’s thoughts tunnelled inward. 

The death of her beloved mother had meant abrupt removal  

to a children’s home, near the beautiful Manor where she had just started work.  

As she had blossomed into a pretty teenager, she became desperate to leave the home,   

dreading the heavy footsteps at night that stopped at her door. 

No-one would believe the word of a young girl, that’s what  

Mr G said, so she counted the months till she could leave. 

Training to be a nurse had offered a fresh start and she particularly enjoyed her work with  

the elderly, her surrogate family. 

The delicious aroma of coffee pulled Sally out of her reverie. She reviewed the night nurse’s  

notes.  

Mr Green had been restless again; luckily his sudden decline was giving no cause for  

concern.  

Just then, Vicky on reception rang.  “Mr Green’s nephew is here.” 

Minutes later, Sally was discussing her patient with Joe, who seemed to think his Uncle had  

been a paragon of virtue. 

 “All those years he looked after those homeless children. It’s good to know he’s being  

well looked after now. “ 

Sally nodded stiffly as though in agreement, but her face remained resolutely frozen, her  

mouth a tight line.  

 Just then, Mr Green’s bell rang, the red light blinking balefully at  

her.  

Taking the cold steel tray, laden with tablets and liquids, she walked down  

the hushed, carpeted hall. Sally knocked at his door. Of course, he was unable to 

speak, but it was still the polite thing to do.  

Entering the dimly lit room, an involuntary smile broke across her still attractive, lined face  

as she looked down at her patient, recognising the look of fear in his eyes. 

 “Time for your medicine now, Mr Green.” 

MG Christmas Story – December 2020 Competition Results, Adjudication by Veronica Cossanteli

Veronica Cossanteli, author of dark, funny Middle Grade adventures for Chicken House, kindly agreed to be the adjudicator for our Nov/Dec Competition.

This month’s competition aimed to lighten the spirits and get us thinking about Christmas, turning Christmas music into Christmas stories for children. The brief this month was:

In 300 words: Write a children’s MG story, taking inspiration from your favourite line from your favourite Christmas song.

And the winners are:

First Place – Gill Hollands with Not Even a Mouse

Second Place – Joanne Dennison with The Tiny Tale of the Deathless Girl

Third Place – Graham Steed with A Noisy Silent Night

Highly Commended – Natalie Morant for Lost

Veronica’s opening adjudication comments:

I have a profound admiration for anyone who can write a story in 300 words, so my congratulations go to all this month’s authors.

A short story is like a poem: every word must earn its keep. You can polish them, and polish them again, until every rough edge – every unnecessary syllable – is rubbed away and you are left with something that sparkles: a perfect jewel. But there is more to good fiction than elegance of style; there is also the soul of the story – the voice, the unexpected perspective, the something-undefined that brings it to life and hangs around in your head.

I loved reading all of these entries: some poignant, some heart-warming – and one distinctly disturbing! Faced with some difficult decisions, I looked for literary craftsmanship and originality. At the same time, I listened for the voices that stayed with me, whispering in my ear ….

Bravo to all. At the close of this strange year, your stories have given me a joyful beginning to the festive season so thank you – and Happy Christmas!

First Place: Not Even a Mouse by Gill Hollands

I was struck by the multi-sensory quality of this entry.

Finding him/herself accidentally displaced into the glare and blare of a human Christmas, the miniature protagonist misses the ‘sanctuary of frosted woods’ with the ‘tick of bats, the hum of moths’ – but this realm of giants, with its painful lights and raucous voices, is not without its gastronomic compensations …

A small animal’s world is full of whisker-twitching scents and sounds, as is the writing: truly a mouse-eye view of the world, reminiscent of Dick King Smith. As a good short story should, it merits several readings. First time around, I was so busy willing our mouse to safety, I missed the significance of the hoof prints outside…A beautiful lightness of touch throughout.

I wake, warm, twitching. I squirm my way out, flattening my whiskers. Outside, painful lights blink around me.

Puzzled, I scuttle along the familiar branch, crouch behind the needles at the end, sniffing. Orbs swing around me, twinkling in the glare. I don’t recognise the scent. It’s not forest air.

I hear voices, echoing. That sound still haunts me from my last ordeal in the giants’ realm. Breathless, I set my shaking paws on the needles, leaning out for a better view. Yep. Walls. I duck back into cover.

The voices grow loud. Shooting back to safety, the dangling balls dance around me. I dare not sleep now, curl there rigid, listening.

Finally, I push my nose out, hear a clatter. I freeze. The lights blink off around me. Silence falls. It’s almost like night in the forest, without the tick of bats, the hum of moths. I soak it in.

I know that smell!  Mouth watering, I follow the scent down to the floor, claws scrabbling.  Scaling a tricky table leg I wriggle over the edge. Success! I grab the cheese in both paws to gorge. Soon, I’m nibbling sugar plums, enormous biscuits too. The glass topples with a crash.

I flee back across the floor, zipping under cover. The door bangs open, flooding in light. A dog barks. I take my chance, darting between giant feet, the scream hurting my ears.

Outside I run, sucking in moonlit fresh air. It’s snowing. I don’t care, sliding on a belly fat and full of cheese.

I cross a double set of tracks among the hoofprints, back to the peaceful sanctuary of frosted woods, where no-one is stirring, except me…


Second Place: A Tiny Tale of the Deathless Girl by Joanne Dennison

A dark entry, pushing the upper boundaries of Middle Grade and turning the spirit of Christmas on its head! A Gothic gem, handled with a sinister subtlety that leaves the reader pondering unanswered questions. As a child, I would have found this deliciously unnerving; as an adult, I remain haunted by it. Read it if you dare; there’s a chance that you will never again hear the peal of church bells without the hairs lifting on the back of your neck ….

The bells were ringing out on Christmas Day, and the church glowed with candlelight. It glinted off the large silver key swinging at the Cardinal’s waist, as he delivered Midnight Mass to the townsfolk.

The girl in the Bell Tower pulled the ropes with such strength and speed that her long mane of dark hair flew out to the sides like a pair of black wings. An unnatural thirst burned at the back of her throat.

As the congregation departed, she listened for the key to turn in the lock, signalling her hour of freedom. She ran barefoot from the room and gulped down the ruby red liquid set out on the alter in a golden goblet. The empty drag in her stomach sated, she twirled down the aisles and cartwheeled around the font.

She froze as the door to the church creaked open.

A young boy slipped in from the cold, wearing nothing but rags. His face smeared with soot. He gasped as he turned, not having heard her approach. Her black eyes inches from his face.

The air from the open door spluttered the candles turning the girl’s gaze towards the falling flakes of snow.

‘I cannot pass the threshold,’ she told him, ‘unless another willingly takes my place.’

Yet he did not run, and let his hand be taken in hers. It felt even colder than her own, and they walked together to the tower.

‘Pull the bell once after I leave.’ she said indicating the rope.

He looked at the straw mattress and the book spread by its side, then back to her beautiful, bloodless face and nodded.

As she flew out of the church a lone bell tolled, and a large silver key locked the door to the tower.

The Cardinal rode home weighed down by a bursting bag of coins from the collection plate. He did not notice the horses’ ears prick or the dark shadow that swooped down from above.

Third Place: A Noisy Silent Night by Graham Steed

A story for Christmas 2020, this represents all the little things that will be lost and missed this year. Is it for today’s children? I hesitated over this, but Mrs Mackie comes immediately to life, with an endearingly rebellious spirit, and what child does not like to see a grown-up behaving unconventionally and triumphing over the bleak voice of reason? The early symptoms of dementia are sensitively implied and Mrs Mackie’s relationship with her son is masterfully sketched in two sentences. There is a lovely juxtaposition where she warbles ‘All is calm …’ while chaos breaks out across the street …

Mrs Mackie gets her carols, and goes happily to bed. A reader, young or old, would need a heart of stone not to be touched by this.

Mrs Mackie waits for children to knock at her door and sing Christmas Carols.  Her favourite carol is Silent Night, though she says the night Jesus was born was never silent: the angels burst upon the night with great singing, the shepherds go quickly to Bethlehem chattering all the way, Mary’s donkey in the stable hee-haws at all the fuss.

Mrs Mackie’s son puts up her tree and decorations and helps her make mince pies, but he is not happy. He tells her not to worry about the carol singers but to worry more about living alone in this ‘big old house.’

Mrs Mackie does not understand that this year, because of COVID-19, no carol singers are allowed.

A Christmas without carols?

Suddenly she remembers that in the front room is her father’s record player and a record case full of old records which are much larger than today’s disks.

She flicks through the record covers until she finds Christmas Carols sung by the Kings College Choir. She places the record on the turn table and, lifting the arm, lets the needle head sink gently onto the record.

All at once, Mrs Mackie hears the great choir in their grand church singing in her own living room. Filled with joy, she draws aside the heavy curtains, throws open the windows so everyone can hear, looks up at the silent

night with its bright and clear stars and sings along in her high, warbling voice: Silent Night, Holy Night, All is calm… Curtains open across the street, doors open, voices call, dogs bark, somebody shouts.

The police knock at her door. They tell Mrs Mackie that Christmas Eve is the one night of the year when children must sleep. She gives them a plate of mince pies ‘for the lads at the station’, but when they go, she turns the volume up even louder!

Later, Mrs Mackie, pleased with her noisy silent night, sleeps happily and quietly…

Highly Commended: Lost by Natalie Morant

This was a fun take on the idea and also likely a hidden insight on the author who wrote it – more attuned with solving problems than running from them I would suspect. Though the story didn’t give much in way of the ‘house’ but more to the determination of the new owner in not losing it, it was enjoyable and made longer would be a fun comedy/horror.

They should never have left the path. While they were collecting the holly and fir cones, more snow had fallen. At twelve years old, Luke had been trusted to look after his sister but he’d turned around and everywhere was white. Now it was dark, and Christmas Eve in this cave seemed the only option. It smelled damp, though the water running down the walls was frozen like stone. He kicked the earth. Hard as iron.

Lottie smiled bravely at him, but she was too young to have heard of hypothermia. The brown curls of hair poking from under her red hat shivered.

A thin, critical voice pierced Luke’s thoughts. “Should’ve stayed on the path.”

The children spun round, peering into the gloom.

“Don’t be mean. They’re only young.” 

Two small people materialised from the shadows and regarded the children solemnly.

“You’ve got funny ears,” said Lottie, matter-of-fact.

The shorter one rolled his eyes. “See, rude as well as brainless.” The taller one thumped him.

“We’re lost,” explained Lottie unnecessarily. 

“Let’s get you home then.”

“It’s miles.” 

“We know a short-cut,” winked Taller.  “Hold hands.” 

Lottie grabbed up the holly branches and stretched a mitten towards Shorter.

“Ugh,” he said. “And have we got to drag all that prickly stuff with us too?”

“It’s for Christmas.” Luke had finally found his tongue.

They made a circle, though Luke was so cold he couldn’t even feel his hands. He found his eyes closing without his permission. He saw sparkling lights through his eyelids and a tingling sensation travelled up from his toes. When his eyes opened again, they stood in their own front garden. The fire inside crackled brightly. Sausage rolls steamed on the table. 

Luke started to say thank-you, but Lottie spoke louder than him. “Do you know Father Christmas?”

Shorter gave a snort. “Told you they’d ask that.”

Taller thumped him again and they scampered off into the snow.

Character Agency – October 2020 Competition Results, Adjudication by James Fuller

This month’s competition had our members tackling horror/suspense in recognition of the haunting Halloween season October brings. A fun challenge for those who took part.

James Fuller, author of fantasy, dark fiction, horror, dystopian, paranormal erotica, thrill and drama, was our adjudicator for our October Competition. The brief this month was:

In 300 words: Write a haunted house story, maximising character agency of the house as the protagonist.

And the winners are:

First Place – Jena Brown with Forever Mine

Second Place – Matt Gorgans with Claws in the Roots

Third Place – Natalie Morant with Haunted House

Highly Commended – Graham Steed for Beast

James’ adjudication process

James read all stories a couple of times taking into consideration typical stand out features of a writer employing good use of character agency, such as:

  • The house’s ability to do things such as,
    • make decisions from one conflict to another positive or negative which drive the story onward
    • take action
    • make choices with consequences
  • Ensure readers care about the main character, which in this situation should be the house.

First Place: Forever Mine by Jena Brown

This was what I expected to see more of in this competition, but this was truly the only one of its kind in the entries. It was dark, playful, intriguing, and made you want more, and could easily be turned into a much longer story.

You walk through the rooms, adrift in grief. Whispers haunting us both. They say I’m defective. Decrepit. That there’s something wrong with me. But you don’t listen. 

You never did.

I open the flue, and when the fire catches it flares to life. These winter nights are cold and you’re not eating like you should. The warmth pulls you into the room and you relax.

It’s easier to talk now. Just the two of us.

Your marriage wasn’t bad. I know that. But you were never happy. Not like you should have been. Perhaps it’s arrogant to say that. But it’s true.

You were distracted when we met. Toddlers wrapped around your feet, a wife demanding attention. But there was no mistaking the way your eyes lit up when you saw me. Even now they soften. You’ve always loved me. Your reassuring words kept me alive. Patiently waiting for this moment.

There were others. Before. Families I’ve nurtured. People I’ve loved. I was empty a long time when you came. I’ll be empty longer after you’re gone.

Though she hated me, I was merciful, letting warm water and invisible gas wrap her in an eternal embrace. You let them rip apart my walls, look for faulty pipes. But they didn’t find anything. They never will. It hurt. It hurts now, as you rip through floorboards. But for you, I endure, allowing only the faintest of gasps to escape through the walls. You muffle a scream at the desiccated bones you find. But they were before. And you are now. And now it’s too late.

With a happy sigh, I wrap my arms around you, cocooning you in wood. I repair the damage, silencing your sobs. We’re together now. Forever. The fire dies, and I sleep, waiting to love again.


Second Place: Claws in the Roots by Matt Gorgans

This was close to the direction I thought more would look like. It was creepy, dark, enticing and a twisted read. The premise of this story could easily be made into a full-length novel and, if cast and directed well, an amazing movie.

Ivan stumbled through the forest, each ragged breath like ice piercing his lungs. A strangled cry escaped his throat when he reached a clearing, finding a cottage surrounded by a low white fence.

Ivan dragged himself forward, clasping a bloody hand around a fencepost. He dropped his head to the snowy earth so his breaths could even.

Until he looked up and found his stare returned by the empty sockets of a skull. 

This wasn’t a fence at all. It was a boundary of spines and skulls, slack jaws frozen in agonized cries.

“Almost claimed by the woods, dearie?” An old woman’s voice questioned.

Ivan jumped, screaming in pain when his arm refused to budge from the fence. It was the bones. An energy pulsed from them, holding him in place.

“Best not to fight it,” the woman said, striding into view. She brushed snow from her cloak, meeting Ivan’s gaze with a hungry expression.

A crow crossed the moon, causing the pair to look skyward.

“Ah, right on time,” the woman snarled.

Raising her arms, the woman pulled the crow as if on a string. She reached for the cottage next, curling her gnarled fingers until the wooden boards rattled and broke free, soaring into the air.

The wind howled until Ivan, too, joined the frenzy of wooden boards and feathers whipping around him.

Then came the sound of cracking wood, of cracking bones. A painful merging. A swelling sensation. 

Transformation.

Ivan felt his new claws digging into the earth, rooted to the foundation: the crow, the house, his body—they were one now. He took a breath, causing his floorboards to creak in desperation.

“Why should Baba Yaga guard her house when her house can guard itself?” The woman climbed Ivan’s stairs like a grotesque lolling tongue.

Third Place: Haunted House by Natalie Morant

This was a fun story, building a sense of not a sinister nature from the house, but from the passed owner buried within, tormenting the spirit of the house itself. Flushed out and a little longer and this would have the makings of a solid novella.

The House creaked. After years of neglect, a huge effort was required to attract the attention of the visitors stood on the path.

The House needed them inside. As the clouds parted, it used a cracked window pane to focus rays of sunlight. For many months, tiny fragments of paper and fabric had been corralled by draughts into the hearth. Now, a chance to ignite them.

A glow expanded into a tentative flame and soon, wisps of smoke trailed upwards. 

“It’s haunted, of course.” Laughter.

If only, thought the house, that was something to laugh at. But having endured the screaming and shrieking of the mistress for so long, it was exhausted and desperate.

“I’d need to have a proper look with the builders before making a decision.”

Please! A proper look is exactly what’s needed. The house yearned for feet tramping across its wooden floorboards again. Tramping, pattering, skipping. Anything but the measured tread of the master who’d lived here before. 

“Look – smoke!”

The two men approached, stepping over fallen roof tiles. Early attempts to attract attention, but no one wanted to investigate banging doors or falling masonry or strange shadows.

The House froze in anticipation as the men climbed the steps and unlocked the door. 

They entered the back room and put out the flames. The smell of musty curtains mingled with the smoke. Laboriously, the House contracted its walls. Plaster crumbled from a crack beside the mantlepiece. The shorter man frowned and pushed a finger into the plaster. Then rapped the wall with his knuckles, testing the damage. Suddenly, a clod of plaster sheared off and shattered on the dusty floor. Now there was a substantial hole and the men stepped back, brushing dust from their trousers.

“There’s something in there.”

The shorter man peered in again. Initially, it was too dark to see anything, but abruptly he stepped back again.

“Call the police.”

Highly Commended: Beast by Graham Steed

This was a fun take on the idea and also likely a hidden insight on the author who wrote it – more attuned with solving problems than running from them I would suspect. Though the story didn’t give much in way of the ‘house’ but more to the determination of the new owner in not losing it, it was enjoyable and made longer would be a fun comedy/horror.

The estate agent rang: ‘a characterful Victorian cottage in a highly sought-after village, skilfully modernised by developers’ and sold to them by the family of the previous occupant who’d died of heart failure- a snip, he thought, at 200 grand. So I bought it. No creepy cellar, no creaky staircase, no chard-ridden hearth: bright, clean, and modern throughout – though I couldn’t resist a visit to the local museum. The curator said the village was caught up in the agricultural riots of the 1830s caused by Enclosure. One of those executed for the destruction of threshing machines and cattle-maiming was found by the militia hiding in my cottage… 

* * *

 Two days after I moved in, I noticed a reddish discolouration on the walls. I asked my solicitor to check on the building guarantee. He rang back to say the builders had gone out of business. The discoloration continued to spread. A local surveyor said it was most likely water, but he was puzzled by the plaster’s red ooziness. He scraped off a sample promising to let me know, but never did.

I asked next door. The woman said her dad told her there was once a gibbet on the site, but she laughed it off, as ‘he was fond of his stories.’

I was woken that night by a commotion in the attic: sharp commands, heavy marching steps, yells, screams. I called the police. They said my house had a ‘reputation’…

* * *

I called the estate agent. He thought the red ooziness was sticky, ‘like blood’. In its present state, only a developer might buy the house, and that for a song. So, I’ve gone on the offensive. I painted the walls Post Office Red to match the bloody oozings. I called an exorcist priest to rid the house of demons. I bought a crucifix and earplugs. A doctor has upped my medication. I’m treating my house as a beast, so, first, I must tame it…

Life into Fiction – September 2020 Competition Results, Adjudication by Paul Bryers

Well, what a busy competition, our adjudicator really had his work cut out choosing a top five this month. We congratulate all who took part in this month’s challenge. All our adjudicators always comment on the high standards of our writers. So everyone should be proud of their efforts. Keep writing. And if you didn’t win this time, there’s always next time.

Paul Bryers, British film director, screenwriter and fiction author was our adjudicator for our September Competition. The brief this month was:

In 300 words, write a fictional short story utilising factual events from
a real-life incident/experience.

And the winners are:

First Place – David Fenton with Scorpions

Second Place – Peter Duncan with Next Week

Third Place – John Quinn with Ridiculous

Highly Commended – Guy Caplin for Return to the Beach

Highly Commended – Nick Ryle Wright for Kooks

Paul’s adjudication process

First, I read them. Then I wrote a couple of stories myself to see what it was like to stick to this criteria. Then I read them again and pulled out the five I thought were the best – simply based on which ones I enjoyed most, and thought were best written.
Then I read them again applying the criteria of the brief. Obviously, the length – and whether I could perceive a narrative within those
extremely tight parameters. Was this a good story? Was it worth telling? Was it told well?
When it came to the appropriateness of the balance, I could only guess what was fact and what was fiction. I had no means of telling for sure. I had to believe that the writer mixed up some fiction with a fact-based story. Otherwise, what was the point of doing the exercise?
Believability of the fiction. I had to look at the whole thing as fiction and ask – is this believable? Most of the stories were. The ‘fact’ that I couldn’t tell fact from fiction in many cases showed how believable they were.
Imaginativeness. I interpreted this as the skill that was displayed in leaping
from fact into fiction – i.e. an imaginative fictitious storyline. Again, I had no means of knowing where fact stopped and imagination began. The seamlessness of the transition was part of the skill of the writing. In the case of Ridiculous, for instance, it’s relatively easy to see where the leap happens – and it is a very imaginative leap. In other cases the leap was much more subtle, so subtle in some cases I could not see it at all. In those cases I decided that the ‘imaginativeness’ I had to judge was in the imagination to see that this would make a good story in the first place, and the imagination to write it in a compelling fashion, so that it could be either a factual account of something that really happened, or a short story based on
real life.

First Place: Scorpions by David Fenton

I loved this story.
It is a beautiful, if infinitely sad story, so well told. Very economical, very
sparse, elusive, magical, sad. I didn’t get it at first and had to read it again. I think this is often the case with a really good short story. It is about memories – memories as Scorpions. It evoked a situation we are mostly familiar with – and so has that elusive Alan Bennett quality of reaching out to us, speaking to us about something very personal. – “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”
It was very believable, particularly in its dialogue. Actually, this story had
more emphasis on dialogue than any of the others. It felt like a moment plucked from life – but with elements of fiction (at least I think so) that dramatize it, make it more significant than the actual event that inspired the story. I felt satisfied with it as a complete work in itself – and yet I was left wanting more. What happened to this couple? Do they stay together? It had that sense of a moment in a journey – on a holiday – when something fundamental happens and nothing is ever the same again. And yet, maybe it was.

We stopped a mile from the abandoned city, which wasn’t as impressive as the brochure promised. Just a smudge of sandstone wall against the desert.

‘Now you get off and walk,’ the guide said. 

Our camels were already kneeling. 

‘Why have we got to walk?’

It was 41 degrees and I was knackered. Judy’s face, swaddled in a hijab, was grey with dust and fatigue. 

He spat and pointed to the walls.

‘Brahmin city, no camels! You walk.’

It was no big thing, but it made me cross, all the same, talking to me like that. On the way there Judy kept looking back at him. 

‘What if he leaves us here?’

‘Why would he do that?’

‘I don’t know; because he hates us?’

‘You think he wants to kill paying customers?’

She didn’t answer.

The homes were surprisingly well kept, for a place that everyone had left a hundred years ago – walking out into the desert in the middle of the night for no known reason, never to return. 

We found plates in a kitchen, and a copper bowl filled with dust.

‘Don’t touch that,’ I said. ‘Scorpions.’  

But she picked it up, anyway, and tipped it out as if to prove a point.

‘Why do you always do that?’

‘What?’

‘The opposite to what I say?’

She just stood there, rubbing it with her fingertips, over and over again.

Later, when we had explored on our own, I found her at a hearth, hugging her knees. There were blown handprints on the wall; mother, father and a child… no, a baby. 

She was staring at them. I thought at first that she had been crying, but when she turned the look on her face startled me. 

‘Judy, what’s wrong?’

‘Scorpions,’ she said, and got up to go.


Second Place: Next Week by Peter Duncan

This was so well-written. The prose style was sparse, strong and compelling. The structure/framework of the story was satisfactorily neat. It was well wrapped up. You don’t need to know any more and yet it has that tantalising glimpse into so much more…
As storytelling goes it has that very satisfying cyclical shape – the first act is in a rattling underground train in a deserted night-time city, and the third act nears its conclusion with that reference to the narrator intending to write a poem about ‘catching a rattling underground train into a deserted night-time city’ – but, then that infinitely sad, ‘All the poems I haven’t written… And never will.’ And I love the final exchange… Next week, I say, next week.
I don’t think it needed another line after that. We all know what he means.
This is the ultimate writer’s story. All that is locked in, all that will never be let out. I found this very moving. Very sad. But very encouraging at the same time. Very close call with the winner – almost a photo finish.

Liverpool in the Swinging Sixties. A dimly- lit rattling underground train smelling thickly of cigarette smoke pitches me up in a city centre that’s mostly dark and deserted. My footsteps echo around the empty street. The noise of drunken laughter behind a dilapidated boozer’s frosted windows. Ahead, the bombed-out church standing black against the fuzzy night sky. I turn a corner and see the familiar illuminated sign above the heavy door. 

The tables in the shadowy basement are all taken, guys and girls in unisex beatnik dress: black roll-neck sweaters, striped tops, berets, some even wearing sunglasses (how can they see in all this gloom?). I thread my way to where he’s sitting, alone, hunched over a pint, wearing his shabby greatcoat as usual.

I still can’t believe we’re friends. A proper poet! Edits a poetry magazine: Allen Ginsberg sends him poems (Allen Ginsberg!). He reads his own stuff in this place, sometimes with Adrian Henri and Roger McGough. (That’s why I’m here tonight.) Lives in an attic (like poets are supposed to) in Canning Street.

And me? A sixth former at grammar school on the wrong side of the Mersey.

He looks up and smiles. I slide into a seat. ‘I’m on in a minute,’ he says. ‘Where’s the poem?’

He means the one I’m supposed to be writing. The one about someone like me catching a rattling underground train into a deserted night-time city. Or maybe the one about glimpsing a beautiful girl on the ferry as dawn breaks over the Liver Building. Or maybe… All the poems I haven’t written. And never will.

‘Next week,’ I say. ‘Next week.’

‘Okay, next week.’ Brian Patten nods, wise enough even now to know that I’ll spend a lifetime not writing all the poems buried inside me. 

Third Place: Ridiculous by John Quinn

I liked this because it was a perfect ‘real life’ incident, commonplace even – a woman searching for something in the attic and turning up all kinds of memories.
We’ve all been there. Again, it evoked the quote in the History Boys (above) and then it made that sudden turn into fiction – even fantasy. It hints at far more than it contains – How did she get here? What was her illness? What is her life like? What is the relationship with her husband? It’s economical and well written and it has that elusive quality of making you want more.

It looked plain ridiculous, the gap where the hay wain’s wheel should have been. Celia had spent the whole morning, ‘The whole bloody morning,’ looking for the wheel. First it was a casual search, then a more methodical hunt and now she’d just completed an investigation whose thoroughness was based on watching a myriad of CSI programmes – she’d even considered wearing her Marigolds.

The search was a failure and Celia, alone in the loft, sat on a box of discarded vinyl: old albums and some singles unplayed for decades but with too much invested emotion to consign to the dump. Surrounded by piles of outgrown Babygro’s and the Scalextric set that had never really worked, she cried quietly and with restraint. ‘Why?’ she asked herself, ‘why bother? I don’t even like bloody jigsaws!’ It had been another of Martin’s ideas to ‘aid your recuperation, darling.’ He could be a patronising bastard.

‘Well,’ she dabbed at her eyes and tried to make her thoughts sound bright, ‘my fingertip trawl wasn’t a total waste of time. I found the missing keys, (under the mattress and now useless after the insurance paid for all the locks to be changed) and Martin’s ticket to last year’s FA Cup Final (at the bottom of the ornamental firewood basket, how did that happen?).’

The twinkle of the abandoned fairy wings reminded her of happier days, when Mollie refused to leave the house for playschool unless they were clipped onto her back. Now, fairy wings or no, Mollie wouldn’t be seen dead with her mother when home from Swansea Uni.

The wings were smaller than she remembered; more gossamer like and, well, radiant in the loft’s dusty light. Quickly and fractionally, like an eye blinks, the wings moved or beat or whatever wings do. ‘Ridiculous,’ Celia thought, until they beat again and flew up towards her. The fairy handed Celia the missing jigsaw piece. And was gone.

Highly Commended

Choosing two to commend was more difficult. After trying this for myself, I felt like commending them all – none of them are badly written, some are written very well indeed, and they all have some poignancy that makes you feel it was well worth doing. But these two I felt, just had the edge, on some of the others.

Return to the Beach by Guy Caplin

I chose this for the the leap of imagination from the memory of a beach to the D-Day landings.

Through the early morning haze, he could just make out the narrow white strip with the dunes behind.  Somehow the beach looked different as he approached from the sea. Now as an adult, he was returning to the scene of his childhood delights, but it seemed distinctly odd. He felt slightly sick and it wasn’t just the buffeting of the waves; he was apprehensive about returning to this special place. The sight of it brought back those childhood memories; the carefree days with his brother and sister, exploring the dunes, splashing in the shallows and playing with the local kids. Every year, their entire six weeks’ school holidays had been spent at their grandparents’ cottage within earshot of the waves breaking on the sand. But like all good things it had come to an end. 

It must have been five or six years ago that dad had persuaded his parents that living so far away was not a good idea, particularly at their age. Reluctantly they moved back to the village. Of course, he still visited the old folks frequently, but it wasn’t the same. Neither grandad nor grandma seemed as happy as they were at the beach. Given what had happened in the past few years, being close at hand was probably for the best. 

He stopped reminiscing and listened. The noise which had started half an hour ago was now deafening. The haze seen from a distance had been an illusion: thick acrid smoke hung above the beach. With a jolt, the boat ground to a stop and the ramp dropped into the shallows. Saying a silent prayer, he gripped his rifle and jumped into the water, already stained with the blood of his colleagues. The D Day landings had begun.


Kooks by Nick Ryle Wright

This one I chose because it uses a real-life incident – the death of David Bowie – to explore what I imagine is a fictitious relationship. It evokes that sense of a shared past – but no future.

You were about to leave forever when your phone alerted you to news of his death. How? you screamed, collapsing into my arms as the taxi idled just yards away. What could I say? That Ziggy Stardust had been human after all was as impossible for me to comprehend as it was for you.

Your departure now out of the question, we regathered your overladen bags and returned to the flat where I sat you down on the sofa as though you were merely a guest and placed Hunky Dory – your favourite – on the turntable.

This is crazy, you said. I should go.

Laying a blanket across your legs, I urged you to stay, plied you with hot chocolate and marshmallows.

We can’t do this, you insisted, your restlessness unabated.

Seeking to hook you with raw emotion, I reminded you how, on our first date, your eyes lit up when you discovered that I too had journeyed to Somerset in 2000 to watch the great man perform. You smiled, said it was funny how our memories of that performance had become so hopelessly intertwined that it was impossible to say where yours began and mine ended.

Later, in the dark of the bedroom, I asked you where we’d gone wrong. We were both different now, you said. No longer the carefree kooks we’d once been. How cruel of life, I replied, to straighten us out and make us normal when we were having so much fun.

Time passed. I woke with a start, reached out for you. But it was too late.

By then the room was ablaze with crimson light, the birds’ grave and incessant melodies speaking only of your leaving, of how this time you wouldn’t be back.  

June 2020 Competition Results – Adjudication by Tamar Hodes

What a shame we all could not meet for our usually June Gala meeting, but many have still enjoyed taking part in the competitions which has been great to see.

Our June competition was judged by Hampshire writer, Tamar Hodes. Her latest novel is The Water and the Wine (Hookline Books, 2018). Set on the Greek island of Hydra in the sixties, where Tamar herself lived as a child. The novel explores the lives of the artists and writers there, including Tamar’s own parents. The main focus is on Leonard Cohen and his muse and lover, Marianne. The San Francisco Review of Books called the novel ‘a very fine treasure’ and Nick Broomfield, film-maker of Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love described it as ‘beautifully written. Highly recommended.’
Please follow the link below for a Zoom interview with Tamar at the Cape Town Literary Festival in March:  Watch Tamar interview here

The June competition brief was one to lift our hearts and minds and take us to our most joyous places:

Write a short story where fact and fiction meet (300 words).

Adjudicator Tamar, who is a novelist, English Tutor and Translator, kindly noted some top tips for competition entrants to consider:

“I thought the standard was really high. Judging competitions is subjective. Personally I am not a great fan of dystopian stories and find reading about the Coronavirus hard – it’s bad enough having to deal with the reality of it!

Pointers to remember:

  • Use visual detail
  • Don’t tell the reader what to think – lead him/her to it
  • Make your tone strong and authoritative
  • Credible characters are vital
  • Make the setting realistic and convincing.”

The winners are:

First Place – Maggie Farran with Mermaid Rescue

Second Place – Damon L. Wakes with The Footprint in the Sand

Third Place – Graham Steed with Anna

Highly Commended – Margaret Jennings for The Visitor

 

First Place: Mermaid Rescue by Maggie Farran

“I loved this story with its magical realism and fantasy merging with the every day. It starts off quite normally, walking the dog on the beach and then the mermaid becomes part of that day. As the detail was so visual and clear, we were convinced of the ‘truth’ of this mermaid and it reminded me that ordinary days can often become magical. I liked the way that the writer didn’t tell us that but she led us to that realisation. The ending was clever. When she returns home, she finds the coral necklace and the pearls on the dog’s collar, again blending reality and fantasy. It was a hopeful story: on an ordinary day, nature or chance happenings can change our lives.”

Beatrice finished the crossword and looked out of the window of her seaside cot-tage. The tide was going out. It was time to take Horace for his morning walk.

She strode onto the beach. Beatrice pulled her yellow knitted hat down over her ears. Horace started to bark and attempted to rush ahead to a bright red boat that was stranded by the water’s edge. There was a misty green haze surrounding the boat.

Beatrice peered over the side. She blinked through the strange light and saw someone fast asleep in the bottom of the boat. She rubbed her eyes and stared again. Yes, there was no doubt the slumbering girl had a shiny tail with glittering scales which glowed.
Beatrice gently shook the mermaid awake. She looked confused and started to cry.

Horace went over and started to lick her fingers gently. Her face was beautiful and surrounded by long pink hair which curled over her shoulders. Her tail was the most amazing thing. It was the shape of a fish’s tail. Each scale was made up of shades of purple, pink and green that glowed brightly lighting up the grey, gloomy morning. The mermaid was trying hard to breathe. Each breath was a tremendous effort. Now she was gasping for breath. Her deep purple eyes were pleading for help.

Acting fast, Beatrice lifted her up and placed her in the shallows. A golden light flooded the whole beach and a chariot pulled by two giant seahorses swooped out from the deep blue sea. Beatrice placed the mermaid into the chariot. It disappeared into the ocean. The golden light vanished as quickly as it had come.

On returning to her cottage, Beatrice found a coral necklace and a dog collar decorated with tiny pearls had appeared on her emerald green velvet cushion.

 

Second Place: The Footprint in the Sand by Damon L. Wakes

“This story answered the challenge well as it mixed fact and fiction. I liked the idea of Robinson Crusoe and Alexander Selkirk meeting and their dialogue was funny but also interesting. Again, it didn’t hit the message hard that truth is stranger than fiction but led the reader to that conclusion. It raised interesting issues about characters in fiction, their inspiration and true life stories. “

One day, about noon, going towards his boat, Alexander Selkirk was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man’s naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen on the sand. He stood like one thunderstruck, or as if he had seen an apparition.
Then, “Hello,” said the figure in goat skins standing right beside him.

“Aaah!” yelped Selkirk. Then, after a pause, he added: “Who the bloody hell are you?”
“I’m you!” replied the figure. “Or at least, I’m based on you. Robinson Crusoe, at your service.” He held out his hand.

Selkirk eyed him suspiciously. There was certainly something familiar about him—particularly the goat skins—but there was also something unidentifiably amiss.

“It’s true!” insisted Crusoe. “I set off in search of adventure, and then after many voyages I was shipwrecked on this island, which I’ve made my home.”

“Well first of all,” said Selkirk, “I wasn’t shipwrecked: I was marooned. Cinque Ports was taking on water, and I said to the captain ‘I’d rather stay on this island than set sail in that ship again!’ and, well…” He gestured about at the situation in general. It was pretty self-explanatory. “In hindsight perhaps I shouldn’t have been so fussy.”

“Okay, fair enough,” said Crusoe. “But besides that both our stories are exactly alike!”
“Really?” Selkirk stared at Crusoe. There was indeed something familiar about him: perhaps here was a kindred spirit after all. “You were driven off the beach by randy sea lions? You had to tame feral cats to avoid being eaten alive by vermin? You plummeted from a cliff, surviving only because you landed on a goat?”

“Ah,” said Crusoe. “Perhaps it’s more of a ‘Truth is stranger than fiction’ sort of deal…”

Third prize: Anna by Graham Steed

“This was a clever story as we, like the writer, initially believed Anna’s terrible story about escaping from the Warsaw ghetto. However, the story then became implausible as Anna seemed unreliable. It raised issues about whom we believe and the way that we are more convinced by stories which are detailed, credible and heart-rending but that does not make them true. “

Let her name be Anna, which it is not, but let this story be true, which it is. Anna said she was fourteen in 1942 when she was in the Warsaw Ghetto. In 2001, she came to speak to my Access class, a group of adult women preparing for university education.

A short dumpy woman, she spoke in an engaging matter-of-fact voice about her night escape from the Ghetto. She spoke without malice. She said word had got round of the ‘Resettlement in the East’ programme due to start soon, but when SS guards surrounded the Ghetto walls it was clear that Resettlement meant nothing but a train ride to death. The only hope for escape was through Warsaw’s municipal sewers.

She said her brother had got her onto the escape list. Children fared better on the Aryan, the non-Jewish, side of Warsaw, especially if they didn’t look Jewish, and girls too, as there were so few uncircumcised boys. Determined to live, she waded waist high through stinking sewage following scouts – one of them a boy not yet 16: no talking, no crying, no stumbling – those were the rules. She made me see dark cobblestones and sewer covers. I heard the sharp stamp of jackboots and sneering laughter. I felt the menace above ground, and the defiance of Yahweh’s people below.

Then her story became vague. She said she was given a Catholic name. She said she worked on farms. A month later, the coordinator of Holocaust speakers told me Anna’s account did not add up. She was hiding something, namely, what else she did to survive outside the Ghetto – in part, therefore, Anna’s story was a fiction.

It makes no sense that Holocaust survivors should judge each other’s story. What more can fiction add to an established truth, except perhaps to support it? In my view, and with Anna’s story in mind, truth and fiction meet when one cannot outdo the other.

Highly Commended: The Visitor by Margaret Jennings

“This story was written from a child’s point of view and she did not understand what was going on between her mother and that man. The first person narration and simple language made her seem vulnerable and innocent. It was upsetting to be reminded that children do not always know what is going on but they can feel terrible unease. Again, truth and perception merged.”

He has a mouth that is loose and wider than it should be. When he smiles it takes over the whole of his face and his eyes become like two glinting swords. He is handsome, as grown-ups go. He smells of aftershave. I should not be afraid.

I am on the floor colouring. I have been here so long the pattern of the mat will be imprinted on my legs when I get up. But I can’t move. I have to stay here and listen.

My mum has a funny voice on. She is laughing even though he hasn’t said anything funny. I don’t understand. I keep my head down and colour Noddy’s car black. I have to stay here and listen.

I hear the click of his briefcase and the rustle of papers. I don’t want to look at him again. I stare at Noddy and Big Ears. The sun should be yellow, but yellow is out of reach. I can’t move. I colour the sun purple. I have to stay here and listen. Dad will be back soon.

Mum says she needs to pop upstairs. She has left me with that man. I hear the briefcase click shut. I hear Mum creak the stairs at the top. Another creak that tells me she has gone into her bedroom.

The man coughs. The sound makes me jump. I squash my face against my arm. I must not move. I have to say here and listen.

The man says he is going to the loo. He doesn’t take his shoes off. I track his movement up the stairs with my ears. He is going into Mum’s room.

I have to stay here. Dad will be home soon. Everything will be alright then.

 

The Unexpected Return of Josephine Fox

Winner of the Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller competition, Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Winchester and adjudicator of Hampshire Writers’ Society March competition Clare Gradidge tells us her story.

I’ve written stories as long as I can remember. As a child, if I wasn’t reading, I’d be writing. For many years writing was ‘just’ a hobby, but my dream was always to write something good enough to be published.

My first career as a nurse left little time for either reading or writing, except as part of the job. But when I took a break from nursing to bring up my family, I returned to my love of writing. In the years that followed, I had some short stories and poetry published, but my dream of being published as a novelist continued to elude me. So when I got the chance, late in life, to go to university in Winchester to study Creative Writing, I was thrilled. I took my BA degree, and then continued studying – and latterly teaching – the subject, being awarded my doctorate in 2018.

As part of my thesis, I wrote the historical crime novel which became The Unexpected Return. Then the question was, how to get it published? By chance, I saw details of the Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller competition online. Open for entries from unpublished authors, it was free to enter. I sent off the first 10,000 words as directed, and thought no more about it.

I was amazed – and delighted – when the email which told me I was one of a shortlist of five arrived. Bonnier Zaffre, the publishers, sent editorial suggestions to each of the shortlisters, and then we had six months to revise (or complete) our novels. I’d already finished mine, but I made some corrections in line with what they’d said before sending the whole novel off in December.

To my huge surprise, in January 2019 I heard I’d won. My soon-to-be editor, Katherine Armstrong, asked if I’d mind if they changed the title from Home to Roost to The Unexpected Return of Josephine Fox. Did I mind? Of course not. I’d have written it in blood if they’d wanted me to!

A week later, I went to London to meet the publishers and the agent, Rowan Lawton, who’d agreed to represent me. I spent the whole day smiling, listening to people telling me how much they’d enjoyed my book.

Then the hard work began. All the editorial processes a book goes through before it is published had to be completed much quicker than usual, since the publication date had been set for August 2019.

Two rounds of line editing saw me rewrite sections of the novel to take out some story elements that the editorial team felt wouldn’t work for a commercial novel. This input was immensely valuable, and I was happy to comply with most of the suggestions, though at times I did dig in my heels! A final round of copy editing followed, and then I saw galley proofs before the book was sent to press.

The thrill of holding the first copies of my book in my hand was one of the best moments of my life – and though I never have got to meet Richard and Judy in person, I had the great pleasure of seeing my book promoted by them on Good Morning Britain, and watching it (briefly!) hit number 4 in Amazon’s best seller list.

What next? I’m working on a sequel, and though I don’t expect future developments of my career as a writer to be as exciting as winning the prize, I’m hoping that I’ll see another of my novels on the bookstands one day.

Report by L Nightingale

May 2020 Competition Results – Adjudication by Claire Dyer

The May competition brief was one to lift our hearts and minds and take us to our most joyous places:

Happiness – What is it and how do you find it? (300 words of prose or up to 40 lines of poetry).

Our kind adjudicator donating their time this month was poet and novelist, Claire Dyer. Speaking on getting involved, Claire said:

“Thank you for asking me to judge your competition. I greatly enjoyed spending time with the entries and think the topic is particularly well-chosen for these trying times.

“I was impressed by the range of writing styles, the forms chosen and the variety of lenses through which the subject of Happiness were viewed.”

The winners are:

First Place – Peter Duncan with The Happiness Indiana Principle

Second Place – John Quinn with Finding Happiness in the Park

Third Place – Damon L. Wakes with Happiness is a Warm Pig

Highly Commended – Gill Hollands for Lockdown Happiness

Highly Commended – Lynn Clement for Happiness is as Happiness Does

 

First Place: The Happiness Indiana Principle by Peter Duncan

“I liked this for the consistency and authenticity of voice, its solid beginning-middle-end structure and its originality.”

The small town of Happiness Indiana lies about three hours by automobile from Indianapolis. Leaving the Interstate, you head down long empty roads flanked by miles of level farmland and punctuated with lonely junctions. Some of these are unsigned, often making it difficult for the stranger to find Happiness.

Eventually the town rises up from the flat land. Driving slowly down Main Street, you spot a drugstore, a barber’s shop, a hotel. A modest white clapboard church stands here, too: practically unchanged since it was built by the town’s Danish Lutheran founders in 1821. During Fall (the best time to visit), sidewalks take on the appearance of golden carpets as the plane trees lining the streets shed their leaves.

The townspeople are stolid and uncomplaining, mostly working on the land and in businesses connected to agriculture. Life carries on here without incident. Some would even say they are happy. Happy in Happiness, they laugh.

Yet a few years ago, something curious happened. The Happiness High School basketball team, led by a new and enthusiastic coach, reached the quarter finals of the State Championships. For a whole week, the town was euphoric. Then glumness and despondency set in. People began to ask: What if we actually win? We’ll be on the map. This place will never be the same again.

Next Saturday, the team lost to a much larger school thirty miles distant. Relief swept through Happiness. The coach, who also happened to be a CUNY psychology grad, was intrigued by what had happened. After extensive interviews with local people, he published a paper in a well- known psychology journal. The paper concluded that there is no necessary relationship between success and happiness. And so the Happiness Indiana Principle, now widely known and used, was born.

Second Place: Finding Happiness in the Park.

“I liked the voice here, the apparent simplicity of the story that’s actually a multi-layered one about loss, life and love.”

It’s not every day you can say, confidently and irrefutably, that you have found Happiness.

God knows, as a hard working, just financially solvent and not totally visually repellent bloke in his late 20’s, I’d been looking for it long enough.

OK, I was contented enough. At work there was the promise of a big promotion and, one day, the possibility of making the board. I kept fit; this Saturday morning’s parkrun was part of my training for the London Marathon later in the year – I was running for Cancer Research. For Granddad.

Friends, or at least their girlfriends, tried to fix me up – blind dates bowling followed by a curry or a group wine tasting where everyone brings an unmarked bottle. I’d enjoyed those evenings and met some nice women. But there was no spark, no magic, no our eyes met across a crowded room.

Well, if it’s not instant then it’s not to be, that’s what Mum always told me. She met Dad when she took her Ford Escort in for its MOT ­– she said not many women had their own cars in those days – and that was that. They are the happiest couple I know, partners and lovers, still, after 30 years. Why would I settle for less?

The halfway mark of the run; I looked at my watch: 10 minutes, 20 seconds. My best time yet, leading the second group by some distance – the first group were way ahead, all running supermen who lived for Saturday mornings.

That’s when the brown labradoodle came bounding up, almost tripping me with its trailing lead, followed by the sound of a female’s voice shouting. ‘Happiness, hear boy, good dog.’

I grabbed the animal’s lead and together we jogged around the corner, towards the direction of the shouting. A tall woman, about my age, broke into a huge smile at the sight of her dog and me.

‘Bloody Hell,’ I thought, she’s gorgeous.

Third prize: Happiness is a Warm Pig by Damon L. Wakes

“For its brevity, humour and inventiveness.”

Have you ever seen a guinea pig?  They’re like little furry beans. Their eyes point in different directions and they look faintly puzzled all the time. This is why guinea pigs are the official animal of happiness™, and why happiness itself is measured in gigapigs. These are facts. If you don’t believe them, give me fifteen minutes then check Wikipedia.

Thank you for coming to my TED talk.

“I have awarded two Highly Commended prizes: Lockdown Happiness, and Happiness is as Happiness Does. Both poems use rhymes well, are packed with interesting and specific details and have a nice narrative symmetry to them.”

Highly Commended: Lockdown Happiness by Gill Hollands

I thought shopping made me happy, card in hand I would feel a glow.

Fitting rooms were one comfort zone, Apple’s store kept me in the know.

I thought restaurants made me happy, dining on food someone else cooked.

Washing up was no chore for me, I always had a table booked.

I thought clubbing made me happy, bouncing among a mind-blown crowd.

Returning home late, ears buzzing, the music was always too loud.

I thought movies made me happy, it always made a special night.

With comfy seats, popcorn and treats,I thought I’d got everything right.

I’m changing my view of ‘happy’, now the world’s in a different place.

Fun palaces are all closed now. Different things bring smiles to my face.

All I’m buying is the food shop, there’s no-where else much I can go.

Friends keep me happy online now, glad Apple put me in the know.

I’ve found happiness in cooking, baking up a storm (or a stink).

Feasting on my new creations, we talk deep on stints at the sink.

We’re all making do with TV, get comfy and share out the treats.

Expanding because of the snacks, we’re happy exploring new streets.

Outside, the fresh air tastes cleaner, no drone of traffic blocking routes.

People smile, eager for long chats, happy with new friendships’ first shoots.

The garden’s a most happy place, delight in Spring’s emerging bloom.

Birds sing a chorus all morning, lyrics lifting away the gloom.

The lockdown should soon be over, old loves will come back to the fore.

This new life seems simpler, grounded, ‘happy’ not the same as before.

‘Happy’ can be fickle these days, hard to measure in every way.

Find your ‘happy’ where your love lies, seek little things that make it stay.

 

Highly Commended: Happiness is as Happiness Does by Lynn Clement

Daffodil heads nodding in the breeze

Tiny green buds unfurling new leaves

Five am singing signaling dawn

Walking the hills and lambs being born

Crashing waves on a red Devon cliff

That photo of dad, with his bad quiff.

 

Shimmering sun in a fresh blue sky

Smelling the scent of fish as they fry

Grandchildren’s smiles when you say ice-cream

Spotting a trout in a cold clear stream

Licking the salt off a sundrenched lip

Silvery sand and sneaking a kip.

 

Crisp orange leaves that come twisting down

Green forest carpet turning to brown

Johnny May speeding on left the wing

The Twickenham chorus when they sing

Hallowe’en costumes at the front door

Hunkering down with red wine to pour.

 

Designer snowflakes land on my nose

Pink fluffy socks that cuddle my toes

Hot-smoked Salmon in toasted bagels

Sunday lunch round the kitchen table

A bobbing bird with a bright red chest

The restful spa when I’m feeling stressed.

 

Happiness is as Happiness does

Out and about and hearing bees buzz

The wonders of nature in your sight

Family to hold close and kiss good-night

The smell of good food that brings them there

Limitless travel relished with care.

 

Glad thoughts of loved ones when looking back

The pleasure of sport, being a pack

A comforting home at the year’s end

Hope that we know is round the next bend

Happiness is as Happiness does –

And always done with ladles of love.