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.

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.

 

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.

April 2020 Competition Results – Adjudication by Della Galton

It seems strange to have a competition and winners and not to be able to present their awards to, and celebrate with, them. But it didn’t change the enthusiasm of the entrants and participation of our members, which was brilliant to see.

Author of 9 nine published novels, over 1500 published short stories, and a creative writing tutor, Della Galton, was the perfect adjudicator for our April 2020 competition, and kindly stepped in very last minute.

Della’s newest book, Sunshine Over Bluebell Cliff, published by Bolderwood on April 28 2020 has been receiving excellent reviews. One reader wrote: ‘This book got everything absolutely right for me – an excellent light and heartwarming read, recommended to anyone who might enjoy a well-written escape from life’s current realisties.’

This month’s competition was to write a 300-word short story outlining a Medieval farmer’s view of new technology.

Della’s adjudication was as follows:

First place: Lynn Clement for A Woman’s Place

Second place: Mark Eyles for Kindling a Fire

Third place: Damon L. Wakes for Doom and Loom

Highly Commended: Maggie Farran for Tybalt and Carac Meet Alexa

First Place: A Woman’s Place by Lynn Clement 

“Outstanding story. A definite winner. The ending was also brilliant.”

‘Time to borrow the ox,’ said Wyatt to his wife Millicent. ‘I’m going to Audley’s and will fetch it back anon.’

‘Aye,’ said his terse spouse.

‘I’ll want hot flummery when I get back,’ Wyatt barked. ‘And you make sure you pray for good weather whilst I be gone,’ he ordered.

‘Aye,’ was the reply.

For the past three years, Millicent hadn’t prayed for the weather. Yet the crop had yielded well. But that was her secret.

Millicent went to the barn. This was her unrevealed walk every time Wyatt went away. There were no children, so she was completely alone. Well…not quite.

Once, whilst Wyatt was at Audley’s Strip, she’d heard a noise coming from the barn. It was like no other she had ever heard. Heading there she was suddenly bowled over by a blinding flash. She picked herself up from the muck and cagily opened the door. Shielding her eyes from the brightness of what appeared to be a woman’s body ablaze on the wooden wall, Millicent could hardly breathe. She held her chest in pain. The woman on the wall spoke. ’Today in rural Winchester the weather will be cold. Over the next few days there will be sunshine and rain, perfect spring growing weather.’

‘Thank you Lucy,’ said another voice and the picture faded. Millicent, panting, had slumped against the barn wall.

Each time Wyatt went away the shiny-woman would appear. Millicent coyly began, to suggest to Wyatt when to travel and fetch the Ploughing-Ox, so that the crop would grow well in the weather. He was reluctant to accept her advice, she being a woman, but believing Millicent had great powers of prayer he did so.

This time when Millicent entered the glowing barn, the shiny-woman wasn’t there, but a gaggle of women instead. The flaxen-haired one said, ‘So – on Loose Women today, we discuss marital relations and a woman’s place in the home.’ Millicent settled down in the straw to listen.

 

Second Place: Kindling a Fire by Mark Eyles

“Very clever. I liked the slowly emerging story.”

To have my bare back birched before the community. A burning pain in my flesh and soul. I thought of the traveller’s soft hands; her gentle voice. My mouth surprised me by filling with a curse that would forever brand me a witch.

A week ago, after the traveller had left the farm, I had found a hard wooden plate under the apple tree. At the spot the woman had sat through two warm spring days. The plate was finely finished, though square not round. Smooth as my best plates. Black border round a grey centre across which a black pattern scrawled. I think it was writing. Like in the Holy Bible.

The plate was impractical; too small to hold a slice of bread and too flat to hold water, milk or gravy. Too ugly to stand on the kitchen shelf with other plates, so it languished on the floor in the corner with some wooden offcuts. That was where Father Becket found it when he visited the farm to bless the crops on Rogation Sunday.

“What’s this, Rose?” He peered at the plate.

“Don’t know Father. Traveller left it here.”

Father Becket stared at me, tugging his beard with his free hand. Turned back to the plate; held it close to his eyes, then with a cry threw it to the ground, crossing himself.

“Licentious! Do you know what is written here?” He picked up the plate, holding it gingerly between finger and thumb.

“Is that writing?”

“Is that writing? What do you think, woman? Indeed it is, but a corruption.”

“What does it say?”

“Do not claim ignorance. ‘We slept in what had once been the gymnasium…watching girls…a palimpsest…dancers…old sex…something without a shape or name…yearning hands…that were on us…lifting flesh…we yearned…for insatiability’. What does that tale sound like to you?”

“Scripture?”

“Blasphemer! A maid without a man’s steady hand to rule you, fallen under the devil’s influence.”

 

Third Place:  Doom and Loom by Damon L. Wakes

“A salutary tale of what progress can do. Very topical I thought. 

“Prithee, look at this fine thing the merchant hath brought this morning.” Elspeth gestured to the strange wooden construct that Merek couldn’t possibly have failed to notice standing in the middle of their hovel.

“Hwæt?” was all he could manage.

“It be a loom,” she explained. “With a foot-treadle.”

“Hwæt?” he said again.

“Zounds!” she snapped. “Thou weavest upon it. It be a machine of most ingenious design—and right here, in our humble home!”

Merek put his hands on his hips. “And how much of my gong-farming money hast thou spent on this ingenious machine? Hmmm?”

“Why, none at all!” She gave an exasperated sigh. “The merchant left it here—and the wool besides—and will pay in coin for each bolt of cloth that I canst weave for him. I shall weave while thou workest, and in this way we shall double our pittance!”

Merek was suspicious of this. He could find no fault with the marvellous device, but he did wonder if in lessening the ardour of their honest toil, it might somehow be an affront to God. But times were hard and they could well use the merchant’s coin, and so he said no more about it before departing to complete his own work for the day.

But when he returned that evening, he saw a terrible sight: huge piles of fabric spilled forth from their hovel, threatening to burst its very walls.

“Stop, Elspeth!” he cried. “Stop!”

But: “I can’t!” she wailed. “The loom maketh my work so easy, I know not how!”
Soon the cloth not only filled their hovel, but covered all the land around.
Merek fell to his knees and cried to the heavens: “What hath science done???”

 

Highly Commended: Tybalt and Carac Meet Alexa by Maggie Farran

“A nicely told tale. Simple, but effective.

Tybalt and Carac were identical twins. They were both tall and had long noses with nostrils that flared like a horse. It was Spring in Plucks Gutter when the two men set out to plough their strip of land. They worked quietly and harmoniously taking it in turns to lead the shared ox and plough up and down their field. They were taken by surprise when the ox stopped and flatly refused to move on. Tybalt looked at the ground in front of the ox and saw a huge flint rock sticking out of the ground. Together they heaved and heaved until the rock was pulled free. Looking down into the hole left by the rock they saw a round white object flashing at them.

‘My name is Alexa’ it said. ‘Ask me any question you like and I’ll answer it for you.’

Tybalt, the bolder twin, stepped forward

‘Alexa, will I get married and have children?

‘Yes, you will marry Agathe and have four healthy children’

Carac found his confidence and stepped forward.

‘Alexa will I find a wife too?’

‘No, you will die of the Bubonic Plague next year. Most of your village will be wiped out.’

Carac sat down in great distress.

‘Alexa, how come I will die and my twin brother will live?’

‘Tybalt will live because he is stronger than you and does not catch the infection.’

Carac said nothing but hatched a plan in his mind. He had a few months to build up his strength. That Bubonic Plague will not be able to tell the difference between him and his brother. He would be the strongest brother by then. Tybalt would die and he would be saved.

Carac put his arm round his brother’s shoulders.

‘Come on, Tybalt, we’d better get on with the ploughing and finish it before it gets dark. Lets bury this Alexa thing. I don’t believe a word it says.’

March 2020 Competition Results – Adjudication by Dr. Claire Gradidge

“There were twenty one entries to this competition and I enjoyed reading them all!” adjudicator Dr. Claire Gradidge explained as she prepared to announce the winners of the March competition – write the beginning of a murder mystery set in the past.

Winner of the Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller Competition in January 2019 and Associate Lecturer of Creative Writing at Winchester University, Claire summarised her adjudication experience saying:

Claire Gradidge - March 2020
Claire Gradidge announcing her adjudication

“A very many good ideas were aired, and a whole range of time frames – from Cro-Magnum P.I. through to the 1960s. Everyone had worked hard to ensure that the past setting and details worked to give a sense of authenticity to their work. Some were not so much beginnings as a tiny, twisty tale which felt complete in the allotted three hundred words, while others definitely had the feel of a potential longer story – and the hook to engage the reader’s imagination and make them want to read on.”

First place: Graham Steed for Alfred  of Africa

Second place: Angela Chadwick for Death of a Rebel

Third place: Peter Duncan for Betrayal

Highly Commended: Dominique Hackston for Who is Joe King

Highly Commended: Mark Eyles for The Nightingale Heart

March 2020 winners
Competitions winners L to R: Peter Duncan, Dominique Hackston, Mark Eyles and Angela Chadwick

 

First Place: Alfred of Africa by Graham Steed 

“I judged this the overall winner for a number of reasons. First, was the narrative style – the witness statement of Captain Cruso enables the writer to get across a lot of background detail in an interesting way. Second, was the way the Captain’s character and his relationship to the late Alfred is hinted at. There is an intriguing sense that not all the truth – or at least, not all the facts – are included in his statement. Whether Captain Cruso will turn out to be a reliable witness is something that made me want to know more! Thirdly, I thought the ‘hook’ at the end of the piece was well handled – the image of the drowned body of Alfred is deftly evoked and effective in suggesting both the mystery and the horror of his end.”

Statement to the Coroner by Captain J. J Cruso re the inquest at the Crown Hotel on the brutal murder of his faithful servant Alfred of Africa, given this day 26th June 1839.

I am now retired from the sea, but for 40 years I was a Master in the Merchant Service. I live in Island House close to where Ivy Lane meets the Bristol Road, along with my two daughters, Elizabeth and Jane, who moved in after their mother’s death. I can barely speak of it now, but until last week my constant companion and servant, Alfred, lived on the ground floor. The cook, gardener and stable hand live locally.

Last Friday, I sent Alfred to see the SS Great Britain at Bristol. I wanted him to describe that first all-iron vessel which proved Archimedes right – flotation does not depend on the material but only if water supports its hull-shaped weight.

Alfred did not return home. I could think of no reason he might be detained except he be injured, arrested or signed-on as crew to a West African trader.

To the rear of Island House is a small lake. It is my custom to row upon this lake if weather permits. On Tuesday afternoon after three days of rain a hot sun tempted me to my boat. I bailed out rainwater and rowed towards the wood which marks my eastern boundary. Pulling into the welcome shade of those trees, I shipped oars and cast a line with my little bamboo rod.

As my boat drifted in light airs, the rod began straining. I leaned forward to peer over the gunnel and there, as distant below the surface as I was above, I saw with horror not a fish but a face. Alfred’s face. And his eyes were open and his body in the posture of treading water, but he was under water, suspended in a watery vault, his mouth open…

 

Second Place: Death of a Rebel by Angela Chadwick

“Another very atmospheric piece full of well drawn description. As the narrator moves through the wharves of Boston Harbour, Mass. On a foggy evening in 1770, there is a definite sense of growing menace.   I liked the narrative voice – first person, present tense – which gave the piece immediacy and drew the reader into the story from the outset. A good, unexpected and gory ‘hook’ at the end of this extract!”

Boston, Massachusetts 1770

The fog slides in from the sea like some celestial crone drawing her tattered shawl closer, hiding the huddles of cargoes, muffling the incessant creaks and groans of the merchantmen riding at anchor. Long Wharf is deserted, all sensible men having sought shelter, leaving the world to the nefarious actors of the night, footpads and fools. And I’m no simpleton.

I move slowly, carefully avoiding the detritus of the day that litter the wharves, hazardous for the unwary, obscured as it is by the damp, white shroud. A stumble here could leave you dead in an instant, crushed by hulls undulating on the swell or frozen with the cold of the water. I walk faster once I’m on the solid surface of the street, the perils of horseshit and discarded entrails less than that of a knife in the dark. I’m well-armed and confident of my prowess against some half-starved vagabond but I’m already late and I can do without the delay.

The lights of the hostelries of King Street aid my endeavours and I arrive at my destination, The Salty Cod Oyster House, without mishap. The blast of noise and light is disorientating after the silence of the street and I stop in the entrance to get my bearings. Daniel entering the lions’ den.

In a corner, Samuel Adams is holding forth surrounded by his cronies, men of dubious loyalties and even less honour. He is a hideous, loathsome man, totally untrustworthy but an effective rabble-rouser. I skirt his band of miscreants and catch the eye of the barman; a barely imperceptible nod of his head indicating that my companion awaits in the back room.

I pause until Samuel’s loud guffaw draws attention, then I slip inside. I need not have hurried. One glance tells me he is dead, a stiletto still buried to the hilt in his eye.

 

Third Place:  Betrayal by Peter Duncan

“This piece has a really good sense of atmosphere. The opening line is dramatic, calling up the bleakness of the fenland setting. The contrast with the interior scene – the man, and his dogs by the fire – lends a sense of contrast and tension to the piece. My main problem with the piece was the title, which gave away too much, so the end was not the hook it might otherwise have been.” 

The wind, always the wind.

It blasted ceaselessly across the bleak fen from the icy sea five miles distant, a constant torment to the long low stone house that was his refuge. By day, when he was sitting close to the half- dead fire, it plumbed the chimney, ash dancing like snowflakes in the hearth. At night it invaded his dreams, woke and teased him into hours of doubt about what he had done.

His only companion here was the manservant, Tyler: a morose, heavy- faced man who barely spoke a word and had not once questioned his sudden appearance a week ago. And there were the dogs, of course: three pointers who curled up beside him on these endless dark evenings, the house trembling in the gale and Tyler clattering about at the oven in some dim recess off the hall. He looked down now with affection at the sleeping creatures. But these three have even tempers, he mused. They will be of little use when my enemies come searching for me, as they surely will.

The wind had eased a little. Above its low moaning he heard hooves on the courtyard cobbles, the whinny of his own stabled horse. He sat bolt upright. Who in God’s name would be calling at this hour? He reached for his weapon, suddenly realising that he had left it in the bedchamber. Call to Tyler, he thought. But the servant’s clattering had stopped. Where was the wretched man?

The door was pushed open. He sprang to his feet. ‘Good evening, Robert,’ said a familiar voice. Relief coursed through his body. It was only as the visitor approached and he saw the quick flash of steel that he realised, too late, he had been betrayed. The three dogs hardly stirred.

 

Highly Commended: Who is Joe King by Dominique Hackston

“The title really did set the mood – who indeed was Joe King, and what was his role in this tantalising opening? At first, it seems he is a hero, the rescuer of a small child he finds in terrible circumstances, but as the extract closes, the reader is left wondering. Could he be the murderer instead?
Third and second entries were very close indeed – much deliberation and heartsearching before I decided on the order!”

Joe shuffled around in the phone box. He rested the sleeping child against the directory on the metal shelf. He looked at his bloodied index finger as he slotted it into the nine, dialled it twice, then hesitated before dragging it round for the third time. He should have walked away, but he couldn’t have left the child alone with the dead woman.

‘Police please. … ‘I’d like to report a murder, … My name? Joe King … Oh for Christ’s sake … My name is Joseph King … no … Primrose Cottage, ‘bout 2 miles from Bramshaw … Because there’s blood everywhere and I couldn’t feel a pulse. … Don’t hang up.’

Joe impatiently jiggled the button to reconnect. Finally he redialled 999.

‘Police. … Yes, I spoke to you just now. … I was going to say, send a woman officer, please. There was a child in the house. … Of course not. …Here with me.’ He turned and peered into the darkness. ‘I’ll wait on the bench next to the phone box.’ The line went dead.

Shhh,’ the child whimpered as he pushed backwards against the heavy door. He knew the police would suspect him. ‘What idiot agrees to meet a lady at midnight?

He slipped a folded piece of paper from his inside pocket, eased his jacket off and wrapped it round the child. Then sat next to her.

“Heads, I stay, tails I go.” he whispered as he flipped a ha’penny. The coin glinted in the light of a match. He drew on a cigarette and unfolded the page he had torn from the same phone box less than two hours earlier. He struck another match and held it against the paper and watched as an orange flame devoured the circled ‘King, J.M. Primrose Cottage, Bramshaw 7263.

Highly Commended: The Nightingale Heart by Mark Eyles

“Set in Japan, the details of this story seemed well-researched. The idea of the living bird sewn up inside the corpse of a dead man evoked a real shudder of horror and hinted at a real threat to the young woman narrator and her sometime lover.”

Covered in cherry blossom, the man’s naked body was propped on a bench in the gardens. My lord, Mizuno Katsunari, daimyo of the Fukuyama Clan, was standing alone, looking at the corpse. He beckoned me over and pointed at flaps of skin sewn together under the ribs on the left. I now understood why I had been asked to bring my sewing kit.

That Mizuno-sama would want a woman to wash and prepare a body was no surprise; that he sent for his former concubine to deal with the corpse told me he wanted this kept secret. The body was lean, muscled and crisscrossed with scars. A wandering rōnin looking for work? A bandit?

Taking out scissors, I waited with head bowed. Mizuno-sama stepped back and I noticed the scarring on the stump of his little toe was still an angry red. I had sewn it up after he dropped his ceremonial katana while drinking sake with the shogun’s emissary.
As I bent over the body I let out a sharp cry. The man’s chest had moved, stitches straining. Mizuno-sama pushed me aside and leaned in to touch the cut. The skin moved again and he let out a puzzled grunt.

I cut away the stitches, reached down to put the fingers of both hands in the wound so I could pull it open. Maybe I’d find a magically beating heart? I felt scratching. Claws closed on one finger, piercing skin. I pulled my hand away and a blood soaked bundle of feathers came from a fleshy hollow. Broken wings dripping blood. A bird, barely living, dropped to the petalled grass, feebly shaking its head.

Despite the bedraggled state I knew the bird immediately. I had heard its song in the early mornings when I drew water. Sayonakidori, the nightingale. I looked up at Mizuno-sama and our eyes locked. I had been his Sayonakidori when we sweated together on the tatami.

All photos by Alex Carter, Lexica Films
http://lexicafilms.wixsite.com/lexica/photography

February 2020 Competition Results – Joel McIver Adjudication

Adjudicator for February’s competition was bestselling author of 20 books on rock music, Joel McIver. Our main speaker on the evening, he is also known for contributing to various music and film magazines and regularly appears on radio and TV.

Joel McIver Feb 2020
Joel McIver announces the winners

This month’s competition brief was: 

Everyone hates this song, here’s why I love it, in 300 words.

Joel’s adjudication was as follows:

First Place: Solveig Godauski with Rick-Rolled

Second Place: Maggie Farran with My Way

Third Place: Damon L. Wakes with Turfin’ Bird

Highly Commended: Barbara Needham with A Discordant Note

Highly Commended: Lynn Clement with Sherrington Woods

 

February 2020 winners
L to R: Joel McIver, Solveig Godauski, Maggie Farran, Barbara Needham and Damon L. Wakes

First Place: Rick-Rolled by Solveig Godauski

“Succinct, well-reasoned and very familiar from my own experience as an Eighties teenager, this piece of text makes it clear both why this song is both loved and hated.

I have always had a better taste in music than you. I’ve been a fan of indie and metal bands which you have never heard of and I have always had my finger on the pulse. I saw the Killers at a small, grubby venue, the Strokes before they’d even released their first album and Coldplay as the first act on stage, supporting three other bands.

I stage dived at a Biohazard concert. I emerged from a Paradise Lost mosh pit covered in bruises. I turned the car stereo up to 11 and let myself be engulfed in the insane racket that is Lightning Bolt’s “Dracula Mountain” – music which you could never endure. I laughed when you said you liked Crowded House.

Looking back, I realise how painfully self-conscious I was in those days. I was desperate to be one of the cool kids, desperate to impress people, worried that I might accidentally like the wrong thing.

These days, you can find me at a local school on a Sunday morning. I’m at the Sunday Assembly: a non-religious community gathering, a non-churchy church – wholesome, uplifting, inclusive, definitely not cool and not trying to be.

There’s a long talk and a short talk, poetry, mindfulness, homemade cake. Instead of hymns we sing pop songs; catchy tunes that everyone knows. I’m in the front row, happy and relaxed, comfortable in my own skin, well rested, sober. A lyrics video, downloaded off YouTube, appears on the screen and the intro of a cheesy 80s song blares from the speakers. I grin, start tapping my foot, sing along to the first verse and then belt out cheerfully and louder than anyone else: “Never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down, never gonna run around and desert you!”

 

Second Place: My Way by Maggie Farran

” I do like a revenge story, and how better to frame it than within in the context of the most annoyingly smug songs ever written?

His coffin slides into the cremator to Frank Sinatra belting out ‘My Way’. I smile secretly as I feel the mass hatred for this song from his friends and family. That is why I chose it. It is my parting gift to him, the man who did everything his way and made my life a misery.

‘Regrets I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention’

I don’t think he ever regretted anything. He was convinced that every decision he made was absolutely right. He dragged me away from my hometown to live in the middle of the country. I was lonely and bored, but he didn’t even notice. He was down the pub every night with his so-called mates.

‘Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew’

He always had some new money-making scheme that came to nothing. He was always going to make a fortune, but it never came to anything. I was often hungry and ashamed of my scruffy clothes.

‘To say the things, he truly feels
And not the words of one who kneels”

He crushed me with his words. I can’t remember him ever saying anything kind to me. He seemed to enjoy criticising everything I did and reducing me to tears.

‘And now, the end is near
And so, I face the final curtain’

So now my father’s life has ended. I have no regrets. I’ve looked after him through his final illness. I’ve shown him a kindness he never showed to me. However, this song he hated with a passion is how I will always remember him. I squeeze my daughter’s hand. We exchange a knowing look and walk slowly towards the sunshine outside.

‘I took the blows
And did it my way’

 

Third Place: Turfin’ Bird by Damon L. Wakes

“I’ve been in the position of the writer of this piece, struggling to make people leave the pub where I was a student. The chosen song is an inspired choice!

Ted had a few options available when people got a little too comfortable at the bar.
Simply putting chairs on tables usually did the job. Should that prove inadequate, wiping up around a pint was often enough to drive the point home. Only on very rare occasions did he have to resort to actually asking people to leave. And on nights when that failed?…

Despite the group’s assurances that they were just finishing up their drinks, Ted was beginning to get the distinct impression that this dreary Friday was just such a night. He’d already opened up Spotify. His finger hovered over the button. The nuclear option. He looked over at the gang of lads and their still half-full glasses of Foster’s, silently pleading for them to just walk away, but they were oblivious.
As the one known as “Lanky Carl” launched into yet another rendition of Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” Ted decided it was, at last, time for a counter-offensive. He turned the volume all the way up and hit play.

“A-WELL-A EVERYBODY’S HEARD ABOUT THE BIRD!”

The group downed their pints and was out the door even before the first b-b-b-bird.
Ted locked up behind them and got started mopping the floor, letting the song blare on in the background.

The Trashmen were right: everybody knew that the bird was the word.

And if they didn’t?

They’d soon find out.

Highly Commended: A Discordant Note by Barbara Needham

“The best plot-twist I’ve read in quite some time!

‘I can’t stand that song.’

‘It’s an awful racket.’

‘It just goes on and on.’

As soon as the singer starts belting out his signature tune, these are the frequently heard complaints. Inextricably tied up with the song, is the reputation of the musician himself. He stands accused of being a notorious serial cheat. His brief encounters with the opposite sex have produced many offspring, which he succeeds in offloading to others to raise. He has devised strategies to dupe the unwary – and to the chagrin of his detractors, he often gets away with it.

The history of the music world is strewn with examples of stars whose private lives were messy. Elvis died obese and alone, truly in ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. Judy Garland’s life was far from the paradise ‘Over the Rainbow’, that she sought. She had five husbands some violent and abusive. Amy Winehouse’s struggles with alcohol are well documented; one of her famous songs is entitled ‘Rehab’.

So who is this individual whose trademark song and questionable lifestyle is so detested by some? He is an international traveller whose brief British tour starts in April. For the next three months, he has a phenomenally punishing schedule. He performs every day. By early summer, when he flies off, even his most ardent fans think his voice is losing its fabled clarity.

It is early morning. We are tired of the cold and wet of winter. Nature is waking up. Trees are putting forth their first leaves. Days are getting longer. Then, across a meadow, if you are lucky, comes that unmistakable first call. Loud and ethereal. You rarely see him, but he is indisputably the herald of Spring.

I love the cuckoo’s song – and am a member of his fan club.

Highly Commended: Sherrington Woods by Lynn Clement

“A palpable sense of menace oozes from the page.”

Terry Jacks, ‘Seasons in the Sun,’ plays in my head. All your friends hate it. They hate me.

We’re in Sherrington Woods, amid the noble colour, in the feeble sun of autumn. Copper and dun, woven together lay a patterned carpet. The early morning. Jack had waved his spiky fingers, crisping the edges of each fallen leaf. White webs were woven, sticky and clinging – makes me shiver now. But it’s the surprise of the hoary headed mushrooms, unexpectedly emerging in the soggy shade of the oak, which reminds me of you. And what was.

‘Hello Jessy, how are you?’ A voice interrupts my thoughts.

‘I’m good,’ I reply.

‘Your painting is taking shape now.’

‘Yes,’ I say.

David means well, but he doesn’t understand. No one will ever understand.

‘Do you have all the colours you need?’

‘Sure,’ I give.

Red is red is red, I think – except when it’s scarlet.

David usually leaves me alone, wafting off to help some other deserving soul. I have to get this bit right. His eyes dart around the room.

Yellow and red, the story of our relationship really. You mellow yellow, me blood red. Then you turned grey. Fungus-like. Sucking the colour out of me. I bought a sweet-cherry hair dye, like in that photo you hid in your drawer. The one with the scarlet, lipstick kiss. ‘It’s not you,’ you said. It’s not her, you meant. So I went back to black, and made vermillion lines on my arms instead.

‘Does the pallet knife help with the texture, Jessy?’ David again, from across the room.

‘Yes, thanks.’

The blade spreads the thick claret colour across the sienna. Just like it did that autumn day. Pooling on the rusty splashed carpet.

David’s approaching.

‘Oh, you’ve spoiled your painting Jessy!’ – Just as I’d anticipated. I raise the knife.

He hits the red button, and they come for me.

I’ll start the painting again…next time I’m allowed out.

I love that song.

All photos by Alex Carter, Lexica Films
http://lexicafilms.wixsite.com/lexica/photography

 

January 2020 Competition Results – Paul Newsome Adjudication

Founder of The Self Publishing Studio, Paul Newsome, kindly agreed to adjudicate the January competition.

Paul explained it was a really tough choice, however the winner was, for him, the stand out piece.

The competition brief for January 2020 was:

‘Why I write and where it can lead’, in 300 words.

Paul’s adjudication was as follows:

First Place: Gill Hollands with Champagne Brain

Second Place: Jordan Dean Ezekude with Writing is Talking

Third Place: Peter Duncan with What If…?

Highly Commended: Angela Chadwick with Writing for Bucks

Jan 2020 winners
Jordan Dean Ezekude and Gill Hollands hold their certificates and book prizes

First Place: Champagne Brain by Gill Hollands

Nice flowing story, good use of the champagne metaphor, made it quite quirky and stood out.”

I believe everyone is creative. How else could humanity survive? We teach children to problem solve from an early age. We can all do it.

Mum read me bedtime stories as any sensible, loving parent does. She’d point out the cloud creatures in the sky when we walked. I’d daydream what they’d do, those cloud-beasts, where they’d go. As a coddled, ailing child, I spent long winter spells in bed, reading voraciously. It opened my cage, showing me strange people, surprising situations, glorious places. My daydreams grew into fantasies, kaleidoscopes of wonder. I began to write, capturing my dreams, tailoring my tales. I fizzed.

Gill Hollands - Jan 2020
Gill Hollands reads her winning entry

Champagne bubbles rise up from the depths, gathering momentum, ideas growing as they jiggle and soar. They expand, catching shafts of colour and light, patterns shifting on the delicate surface. Each one is a story, an idea, perhaps a subconscious snatch from the news or everyday life, maybe a glimpse across the street or a phrase of bitten off overheard conversation. Each one swells with potential.

It’s up to you whether they tickle your nose as they pop, or you grab them and absorb the priceless treasure inside.

Those bubbles keep me writing. If I don’t write, I dream. I love escaping into that special world. I’ve published three children’s books now with two more underway.

I’m working with local libraries, art centres and schools. I lead creative writing workshops for adults. I love to visit schools and see the children’s faces light up in my imagination workshops. When they come back to tell me how much they love my books, I light up too. That’s the champagne part.

One day, I’d love to see my books as movies. I don’t plan on retiring.
So, read, wonder and explore. Find your champagne.
Cheers!

Second Place: Writing is Talking by Jordan Dean Ezekude

“I felt this had a real personal meaning, with a very charitable theme.

To write is to communicate – that’s how I see it. I’ve always been more of a listener than a speaker. For me, writing is another way of talking. Along with my drawing, painting, designing and music creation, I see writing as a means to share my feelings and ideas with other people, whether it’s adventurous children’s stories or mindful non-fiction. Furthermore, every time I write, I feel like I’m taking one step forward on the journey of my life with multiple paths for me to follow. The best part is that there’s no end to this adventure until I die.

However, I don’t write merely for thrills, chills or paying the bills. I write for the same reason why I paint, design and compose: to make a positive difference. It’s my belief that there’s always something I can do to help people through life. I may still be young but I know how much life can feel overwhelmingly troubled, especially with so many people out there being misled, misjudged and abused as we speak. As a coloured man with learning difficulties and years of mental illness, I strive to do everything in my power to help people like me live their lives as they see fit.

Therefore, I strongly believe that my work can reach out to the hearts of the earnest, faithful and kind-hearted people of the world, encouraging them to keep on living in peace and productivity. Finally, I believe that it’s the least I can do in return for everything that the people I care about have done for me in the past. All in all, my writing is my way of communicating with other people and saying to them ‘thank you’, ‘I believe in you’, ‘don’t give up on life’ and ‘I love you’.

Third Place: What If…? by Peter Duncan

“Quite an intriguing plot in the making. It did capture my imagination, and would make me want read the full story.

A few years ago I went to work in France. If this sounds glamorous, it wasn’t. I was actually living in a grim, dark northern city and working for an organisation that had a terrible air of unhappiness about it. Shortly after arriving, I discovered that tragically there had been a recent employee suicide. Nobody could tell me what had actually happened: it was the kind of place where you didn’t press questions.

As I wandered around the unlovely city or trudged back and forth between work and the bare and soulless apartment that had been arranged for me, I began to notice the knots of dispossessed people hanging around. I thought that some might be illegal immigrants fleeing violence and poverty elsewhere: Africa perhaps. In my workplace I heard that the organisation’s Director was front- runner for a ministerial appointment in the French government.

I mulled over everything I was seeing and hearing and began to think: ‘What If…?’ What if there was a death here that everyone talked of as suicide, but was actually murder? What if the person killed had been about to expose French government wrong- doing in a poor African state? What if the person at the heart of that conspiracy was a ministerial candidate a bit like Monsieur X…?

I came back to England, still thinking these ‘What If?’ ideas. They started to appear as words in a draft of what I cautiously began to call a crime thriller. The thinking in France and the writing in England kept me sane during a difficult part of my life: a lot of the time I felt like a stranger in both countries. Writing is still doing that. As to where it will lead: for me, the possibilities of ‘What If?’ seem endless.

Highly Commended: Writing for Bucks by Angela Chadwick

“Writing for bucks. There was a certain rawness and honesty to this. The Precariat theme is very relevant at the moment.

It all began with Tinder. Girls don’t really go for blokes who put unemployed on their profile, and why would you, when it is so easy to lie?

At first, I put mechanic or electrician but it’s amazing the number of girls who expect you to fix something before getting down to business. That’s when I hit on the brilliant idea of writer. It explained why I could be available at all times of the day and when I said I was struggling to get published, it also covered why they couldn’t find a book I’d written.

I used to claim some other guy’s book but I’m not a great reader and it turns out that some girls are.

But women are incredibly nosy and they go on and on about wanting to read something you’ve written. I think they think they’re being supportive. In the end I had to write something, so I wrote the story of me and my mates, our aimless existence in a town with no jobs. We’d left our shitty school with barely a GCSE between us. Sometimes we’d get a bit of cash in hand and we’d be flush for a while but mostly we’d just hang. There’s nothing in this town, no tourism, no industry, no hope.

My sister saw it. She’s still at school and right smart. She stayed late, using the school computers she typed it up for me in Google Docs. One day she uploaded it to Kindle. Turns out, we’re a thing. A Precariat. All those loony lefties went mad for my book.
Now I’ve got an agent and an accountant. They tell me I’ve got to get out more, write more. Tell you what though, being a published author is a fucking good way to get laid.

Photos by Alex Carter, Lexica Films

 

Beyond the Creativity Bit

Paul Newsome

“What do The Martian by Andy Weir, 50 Shades of Grey by E. L. James and Eragon by Christopher Paolini have in common?” Paul Newsome, writer and founder of The Self Publishing Studio asked the gathered members and guests of the Hampshire Writers’ Society this Tuesday night.

The answer is that they were all self published.

Paul’s story begins the same way as that of many writers. He’d written a book and he had a dream of becoming a published author. Naturally excited, he embarked on the next step — find an agent. He set about writing the perfect enquiry letter along with the perfect synopsis. Those were sent off and Paul waited for the replies. He waited…and he waited. Every now and then he received a rejection email, two or three lines long saying nothing more than thanks, but no thanks. Often, he heard nothing at all.

The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook! The almanack recommended by the agents themselves, the enchanted book of publishing spells. Now he was really excited – “What could possibly go wrong?”

Indeed, the Writers’ and Artists’ yearbook is crammed full of contact details, advice and useful articles.

Paul looked into using ‘Other Publishers’. “Confusion!” he recollects, “If you get an agent, they do it all for you. But some ‘Other Publishers’ do nothing.”

By now, Paul knew enough about” the publishing industry to smell a rat with the publisher who wrote to him, loving his work, promising bountiful opportunities and in the small print asking for a mammoth fee.

There are some genuinely helpful independent publishers. The list of things that they couldn’t do however, was too large.

Using the DIY approach, Paul published his book, Hamish. Followed by Hamish and the Vegetarian Crow. “Definitely,” he says, “publishing is 1% Inspiration and 99% Perspiration.”

Amazon is a minefield. There are many opt-outs within its obstructive contracts, an author just needs to find them.

Paul’s gap in the market gaped – the writer’s dream on one side and the reality on the other.

He set up the Self Publishing Studio offering the author all the publishing processes without the stress over the perfect enquiry letter. Paul knows his authors have passion, they must have, to have got this far.

“Think about your goals,” he tells us, “keep it simple, keep realistic and have clarity.”

It is up to the writer to cherry pick their requirements. The Self Publishing Studio will work to the author’s budget.

An editor can be found, one who will read your story and comment on flow, plausibility. They expect the author to return their comments, and they understand that they will have to explain themselves.

Assistance with marketing will be given too, advising the writer to find something different e.g. Andy Weir published The Martian chapter by chapter on a blog until he had such a large following who were all telling him to publish professionally.

“Not all writers want to be the next JK Rowling, it is perfectly fine to want nothing more than to see your manuscript, turned into book form, adorning your coffee table.”

 

Report by L Nightingale