Till Death Us Do Part

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by Maggie Davies

A cautionary tale – which won a Henshaw Press Short Story Competition a few years back – to mark Valentine’s Weekend. Perhaps it might inspire readers to write a competition entry of their own, and maybe get it printed in an anthology.

I wrapped my arms around Neil and kissed the top of his head. His hair might be the colour of fresh snow these days, but he was far from an old man.

‘We could die together,’ I said. ‘Fly to Switzerland. Make a holiday out of it. Then finish up at that special clinic they’ve got over there.’

‘Don’t be bloody ridiculous.’ He was cross. He’d always been short-tempered and the last few months had been a strain.

‘I’m serious, sweetheart.’ I moved to sit opposite him. ‘You know I couldn’t bear to go on without you.’

‘You’re insane, Beth. You’re still a young woman. In perfect health.’

‘Hardly young.’

‘You’re only sixty.’

‘I mean it, Neil.’ I put my hand over his. ‘I”ll throw myself under a train, if you kill yourself.’

‘Then I can’t do it, can I?’ He rubbed tired eyes. ‘I’ll have to turn into a vegetable and make both our lives a misery. Is that what you want, you silly woman?’

‘No,’ I said. That wasn’t what I wanted at all.

*

It started after Geoff’s wife died. Madeline had been failing for years and, living next door, we’d seen the hell they went through in her final months. Her deterioration had been particularly depressing for Neil, who’d been reading articles about dementia often being hereditary.

‘It’s like my Dad, all over again,’ he’d said, with a shudder. ‘If I ever get like that, I want you to finish me off. Take the carving knife to me. Promise?’

His father’s house smelled. The bathroom, in particular, stank. It took a while for Neil to find out why. The poor old chap knew where he was supposed to go to urinate. He’d just forgotten what to do when he got there and simply peed all over the carpet. It was humiliating for everybody. When he finally died it was a relief.

‘A meat cleaver might be more final,’ I said, trying to lighten his mood. ‘Though messier.’

It became a sick joke between us. Nothing serious. Then, over a few months, things changed dramatically. Neil had always mislaid keys and spectacles. I did myself, but he became incapable of finding anything. I put a wooden fruit bowl on the kitchen dresser and suggested he use that as a collection point, but whenever he went there for something, it was empty.

‘I’m losing the plot, aren’t I?’ he grumbled, after finally locating his house keys in the drawer where we kept the electrical leads. ‘Why would I put them in there? My brain’s turning to Swiss cheese.’

‘All sixty-nine-year-olds mislay things.’ I gave him a hug. ‘Tomorrow we’ll buy some vitamins. That might help.’

Several days later he accosted me in the greenhouse. He looked as if he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. ‘Why were my spectacles in the fridge?’

‘Whatever are you talking about?’

‘My bloody spectacles were in our refrigerator. On top of the Flora.’ He slapped the side of his head with his hand, as if to knock sense into it. ‘I am going bloody barmy. Aren’t I?’

‘Sweetheart, we all do crazy things. Remember when I started to reverse the car out of the garage? With the up-and-over door still closed?’

‘That’s true.’ He looked relieved, but not much.

However, days later, I glanced out of the kitchen window and said: ‘The bin, sweetheart. It’s Thursday. Didn’t you put it out?’

Neil glanced up from The Independent. ‘It’s okay, I did it when I got back from the newsagents. Before I raked up those dead leaves at the bottom of the garden.’

‘So where is it, then?’

He abandoned the paper and peered outside. ‘Damned if I know. Perhaps the bin men emptied it and stuck the thing next door by mistake.’

They hadn’t, of course. It was where it always was, behind the shed. Still full.

‘You meant to do it,’ I said, when he eventually came back inside. ‘Sometimes I mean to clean the oven, but then conveniently forget. Probably because it’s a chore.’

Neil paced up and down, like an animal in a trap. ‘But it’s not just the bin, is it? I lost my electric razor yesterday, and my credit cards the day before. Then I left the bathroom tap running last night when I went to bed. I’ve no idea what I’m going to do next. It’s like being in a nightmare.’

‘You’re preoccupied, that’s all. Though maybe you should see the doctor.’

‘I’m damned if I want to be asked if I know what day of the week it is.’

‘And what day is it?’

‘It’s Thursday. September the 25th.’

‘There you are, my love. You’re fine.’

*

The days dragged on until Geoff wandered in through the kitchen door one morning, as he often did, with some runner beans for us from his allotment.

‘I could do with my mower back, if that’s okay,’ he said to Neil.

‘Your mower?’

‘You know, mechanical thingy that cuts grass and makes a godawful racket? That you borrowed from me last weekend?’

Neil’s fists clenched at his sides. ‘I was planning to come over and borrow it. Tomorrow.’

‘But you’ve already got it, old man. That’s why I need it back.’ There was an awkward pause. ‘Okay,’ continued Geoff, looking embarrassed. ‘Tell you what, you hang on to it and let me have it back whenever it’s convenient.’

‘But I don’t have it,’ Neil protested, looking at me. ‘Do I?’

‘It’s in the garage,’ I said, avoiding his eye.

There was a silence, before Geoff slapped Neil on the shoulder in a not-very-convincing show of bonhomie. ‘Not to worry. I missed the dentist last week. He still charged me for the appointment, though. Grasping bugger.’

The incident hit Neil hard. ‘I told you I was getting like Dad,’ he said. ‘This proves it.’

I wasn’t sure what to say, so I kept silent. Instead I put my arms round his waist, buried my face in his scratchy sweater and gave him a big hug.

‘I’d rather be six foot under than lose my dignity,’ he murmured into my hair, sounding close to tears.

‘At least get a proper diagnosis,’ I urged. ‘What if you’re wrong?’

‘What’s the point of a diagnosis? There’s no cure, is there?’ He extracted himself from my grasp and looked me in the eye. ‘I’m taking matters into my own hands while I still can. I could deteriorate rapidly. That’s what terrifies me. Leaving it too late.’

‘Don’t do it, Neil. Please!’

‘You’ll manage. People do. Look at old Geoff.’

‘I refuse to even discuss it.’

‘But we must talk about it. Plans have to be made.He took my hand in his and kissed it. ‘I need you to understand,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t bear it if you didn’t.’

‘I understand perfectly,’ I said. ‘I just don’t agree.’

‘Of course you don’t. But you will support me?’

‘You mean, hand you a full bottle of pills?’

‘And get you in trouble with the law? Assisted suicide is a crime. It wouldn’t be right to involve you in anything like that. And that Swiss clinic business raises too many legal questions, never mind the cost. But I’ve done some research on the internet. If I steer my car into that nice, solid brick wall by the railway bridge, my worries should be over before I know what’s happened. Especially if I neglect to wear my seat belt and put my foot down, on a wet night. That way, the life insurance people can’t ask awkward questions.’

‘Oh, sweetheart, you mustn’t think about money. I’ve got my pension, haven’t I?’

‘A fat lot of good that will do you. Just think of all the money those insurance companies have had from us over the years. They owe us.’ He patted my arm. ‘You deserve some happiness after I’ve gone. I refuse to leave you hard up.’

‘Please, sweetheart,’ I begged. ‘Don’t do this. I’ll look after you, whatever happens. We promised, for better or worse. Remember?’

‘Not another word. My mind is made up. We’ll go away somewhere special for a second honeymoon. Then come back and I’ll make a quick exit.’

When the time finally came, Neil and I kissed goodbye at the door before he went out to the car. We were both crying. Then I watched him drive off at speed into the night. Losing him like this would be dreadful, but he was right: life would go on.

I went back inside and picked up the phone to dial Geoff’s number. It had taken us three careful months of planning to get to this.

‘Fingers crossed, darling, but I think we’ve finally done it,’ I said, when he answered. ‘All we have to do is wait for the traffic police to come knocking on my door.’

*********

Please note that my husband, both then and now, is very much alive.

Creative Writing Competitions to Enter in February

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Why not distract yourself by entering one of the following competitions:-

The Spread the Word 2021 Life Writing Prize is inviting entries for original, unpublished life writing up to 5,000 words from unagented UK writers. Entries may be a standalone piece or an extract from a longer piece – but must be based on the author’s personal experience and must not be fiction. The first prize is £1,500, plus an Arvon course, a writing mentor, two years’ membership of the Royal Society of Literature and an optional development meeting with an agent or editor. Two runners-up will each receive £500, a writing mentor and an optional agent or editor meeting. The top twelve will be published online and in a booklet. Entry is FREE, and the deadline is 1 February. Details: http://www.spreadtheword.org.uk

Writers’ & Artists’ Short Story Competition 2021 2,000 words on any theme. The prize is a place on an Arvon residential writing course, plus publication on the site. Entry is FREE, but you must register at their website to do so.Deadline 12 February. Details: http://www.writersandartists.co.uk/competitions

The Penguin Michael Joseph Christmas Love Story Competition. This competition is to give new writers from the UK and the Republic of Ireland the opportunity to have their novel published in the run-up to Christmas 2022, with the winner receiving a contract with Penguin Michael Joseph and the opportunity to ‘connect with an agent’. Send a Christmas Love Story pitch of no more than 200 words, plus 1,000 words of your manuscript. Check out full entry details at: https://www.penguin.co.uk/company/publishers/michael-joseph/penguin-michael-joseph-christmas-love-story. Deadline 14 February.

The Globe Soup Winter 2020 Flash Fiction Competition is looking for an 800-word short story featuring a secret location. Writers entering the competition will be sent details when they have paid their entry fee and all entries must be set in that location. Globe Soup is a travel website, but stories do not need to feature travel. The winning entry will receive £1,000 and the entry fee is £5. Closing date: 11 February Details: http://www.globesoup.net

Spotlight First Novel Competition. A one-page synopsis plus the first page of an unpublished novel. Prizes: mentoring package. Entry fee: £16. Closing date: 14 February. Details: http://www.adventuresinfiction.co.uk

Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger Award for crime novels: first 3,000 words plus a synopsis of up to 1,000 words. Prizes: £500. Entry fee: £36. Closing date: 26 February. Details: http://www.thecwa.co.uk

Crime Writers Association Margery Allingham Short Story Competition for stories up to 3,500 words fitting Allingham’s definition of a mystery. Prizes: £500, two passes to CrimeFest 2022. Entry fee: £12. Closing date 26 February. Details: http://www.thecwa.co.uk/ShortStory/rules.html

Fish Publishing Flash Fiction competition. Send up to 300 words on any theme. Prizes: 1,000 Euros; 300 Euros; an on-line writing course. 10 entrants to be published in the annual Fish Anthology. Entry fee: 14 Euros. Deadline 28 February. Details: http://www.fishpublishing.com

The Scottish Arts Club Short Story Competition wants entries of original, unpublished short fiction up to 2,000-words. Entries may be on any topic and do not have to be set in Scotland or have Scottish themes. The first prize in this international competition from the Scottish Arts Trust is £1,000, and there are second and third prizes of £500 and £250. The Isobel Lodge Award will be given to the best story by an unpublished writer born, living or studying in Scotland. Winning stories will be published in the next Scottish Arts Trust Story Awards anthology. The entry fee is £10 per story, and the closing date 28 February. Details: http://www.storyawards.org/shortstoryaward

Please note that because of our current situation, some competitions have been obliged to make changes to their arrangements/entry dates/prizes – so double-checking everything before entry is especially important.

We know reading is good for you, and believe that putting words down on paper can also be therapeutic, so why not either dust off an old manuscript or compose something completely new?

Good Luck!

Spread a Little Love

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Some things that you can do to spread a little love in the present gloom:-

  • Set the children to creating a hand-made WE ARE THINKING OF YOU card for their grandparents. They could make use of cut-outs from the Christmas cards and its presence on their mantelpiece will cheer them up.
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  • Write someone a letter – a welcome addition to those tiresome bills and Chinese takeaway flyers that come through their letter box.
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  • Sit down in a comfortable chair, with a mug of tea in your hand, and take time for a thoughtful chat on the landline.
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  • Send granny a DVD to help pass the time. There are plenty of excellent old classics at modest cost.
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  • Persuade/bribe a teenager to guide a techno-phobic relative through how to make Skype/Zoom calls.
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  • With garden centres open, and many supermarkets (and M&S Food Halls) offering inexpensive hyacinths and miniature daffodils in pots, why not gift one to an elderly neighbour? It will remind them they are not as isolated as they might fear.
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  • Send granny a jigsaw. Wentworth make wooden puzzles incorporating fascinating ‘whimsy’ shapes; Waterstones also sell jigsaws online – including their magnificent Shakespeare one.
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  • Last, and not least, send them a book. Reading is good for the mental health and provides welcome comfort and escape. Imagine the pleasure a friend or relative will have from receiving a surprise package from you through the auspices of Amazon? A paperback often costs under £8 and – if you you have granny’s kindle email address – not much over £1. How much nicer to see a gifted book on her door mat, than those tiresome bills and pizza takeaway flyers?

Creative Writing Competitions to Enter in January

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Most of us long to escape our present circumstances, so why not do so by immersing yourself in a new story (perhaps Tanya’s prize-winning compliment to the style of Barbara Pym?), by ordering a new book (plenty of those on offer via Amazon or Waterstones on-line) or – better still – by penning something for one of the writing competitions on offer in the New Year?

The Fish Short Memoir Prize has a word limit of 4,000, an entry fee of £16, and closes on January 31. Prizes are: 1,000 Euros; a Writing Course plus 200 Euros; 200 Euros; with the 10 best memoirs being published in the Fish Anthology 2021. Details: http://www.fishpublishing.com

The Henshaw Short Story Competition requires a maximum of 2,000 words and entries must not have been published before the submission date. Entry fee is £6 (add £12 for an optional critique). Prizes: £200; £100; £50; plus publication in the next Henshaw Anthology. Deadline 6 January. Details: http://www.henshawpress.co.uk

The Mogford Food & Drink Short Story Prize has a magnificent £10,000 first prize, together with the story read by an actor and uploaded onto the Storyplayer website; three other entrants will receive £500. The entry fee is £16 and the requirement is a maximum of 2,500 words, with the theme of food and drink at the heart of the story. The deadline is 13 January and details can be found: http://www.mogfordprize.co.uk/how-to-enter

The Bath Flash Fiction Novella in Flash Award is for ‘linked flashes’ of 6,000-18,000 words. Entry fee is £16 and the deadline 17 January. Prizes: £300, 2 x £100, publication. Details: http://bathflashfictionaward.com/

The Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize for the first 40-50 pages of a finished but unpublished novel by a woman. Prizes: £1,500. Entry fee: £12. Closing date: 17 January. Details: http://www.lucy-cav.cam.ac.uk/fiction/prize/

The Kent and Sussex Poetry Society Open Competition is for a poem of under lines. Entry Fee: £5; £4 each for three or more. Prizes: £1,000; £300; £100; 4 x £50. Deadline: 31 January. Details: kentandsussex-poetry.com/the-kent-sussex-poetry-socity-open-competition

The London Magazine Short Story Award. Short stories up to 4,000 words. Prizes: £500; £300; £200. Entry fee: £10; £5 each subsequent. Closing date January 15. Details: http://www.thelondonmagazine.org

Retreat West First Chapter, for the first chapter of a novel on any theme, up to 3,500 words. Please read the entry requirements carefully, since including a prologue will disqualify you. Prizes: critique and review. Entry fee: £10. Closing date: 31 January. Details: http://www.retreatwest.co.uk

Finally – though this is really close to the wire – The Exeter Novel Prize is open until midnight tonight, the 1st January. They require your first 10,000 words, plus a synopsis, and the competition is open to currently unagented authors. The entry must be the opening of the novel; no children’s books. Prizes: £500 plus a trophy; 5 runners-up will receive $100. Entry fee is £18 and the deadline, as mentioned above, midnight on January 1st. Details: http://www.creativewritingmatters.co.uk

Please remember to double check all details before entering as some competitions are being cancelled because of covid crisis difficulties.

We are entering a new year full of hope for better things to come. So stay safe, and follow your writing star.

A Barbara Pym-ish story for Christmas

Tanya’s story, ‘Not scorned in Heaven, though little noticed here‘ won the 2020 Ellen J Miller Memorial competition, run by the Barbara Pym Society. The brief was to write a short story featuring characters from a Barbara Pym novel. Here, with a few added tweaks, is the story.

If the link doesn’t work, click on ‘Writings’.

Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/stephen_rees/

The Power of Persistence

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Every year our group inscribe our writing wishes on a tag to hang on the Christmas tree. This was Maggie’s, last year, when we were still able to gather together to celebrate the festive season.

Creative writing can be a struggle but, as with so many things, persistence can make a wish come true.

Keep writing…and 2021 could be the year that you, too, receive the wonderful news that your book will be published. Good luck…!

An 18th Century Santa Claus

Inside The Foundling Museum, in London’s Bloomsbury, hangs Hogarth’s splendid portrait of a generous-hearted man who should be better known.

Thomas Coram, a sea captain, on his retirement to London in the first quarter of the eighteenth century, was horrified that babies were abandoned to die on the dung heaps of the city’s streets. The Catholic Continent had convents which accepted foundlings, but there were none of those in Protestant England. A man of action, Coram devoted his retirement to raising enough capital for a refuge for infants whose mothers were unable, through want or the social disgrace associated with unmarried motherhood, to care for them. It took this tenacious man an amazing seventeen years to make his dream a reality but, finally, in 1741 London’s Foundling Hospital opened its doors.

Today, The Foundling Museum has on display the well-thumbed notebook in which he painstakingly recorded the sums – large and small – that he persuaded citizens of London to part with. The Museum also holds poignant examples of the coins or scraps of ribbon or lace left as tokens by desperate mothers in the hope they might, one day, be able to reclaim their precious child. It was one of these, a pink square of fabric embroidered with my own initials, that moved me to write my novel, The Servant. The embroidery is exquisite, the fabric looks like silk, and the woman who created it was clearly literate. What was her story? We will never know, but it must have been a sad one.

I like to think it was Coram’s wife – like myself childless – who suggested to him that he stop his fruitless attempts to raise enough money from the city fathers and powerful male aristocracy and instead approach their wives. For it was the signatures of the Duchess of Somerset and other high society women on The Ladies Petition presented to George III in 1735 that finally made Coram’s dream a reality. I am also tempted to wonder whether the consciences of those ladies had been pricked by awareness of sins committed by their own sons and husbands.

When the Museum is properly open again, next year, I hope that those who live within reach of London will make a visit. The stories of so many betrayed women are poignant, but an important part of our history.

In his final days, Thomas Coram is recorded as liking to sit in the garden of The Foundling Hospital, in his distinctive scarlet coat, handing out gingerbread men to the children. The Santa Claus of his age.

The Servant by Maggie Richell-Davies – £1.99 on Kindle https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B087N8H9PB

Who still reads Elizabeth Goudge?

This room was, of course, full of books; but I have rather ceased to regard books as being very personal things — everybody one knows has them and they are really rather obvious. It was no doubt significant that Mary Beamish should have the novels of Miss Goudge while Piers had those of Miss Compton-Burnett, but I should have been able to guess that for myself without actually seeing. (A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym, published in 1956)

What is the narrator heroine Wilmet Forsyth actually saying here? Earlier in the novel we learn that ‘Mary Beamish was the kind of person who always made me feel particularly useless — she was so very much immersed in good works, so splendid, everyone said. She was about my own age, but small and rather dowdily dressed, presumably because she had neither the wish nor the ability to make the most of herself. She lived with her selfish old mother in a block of flats near our house and was on several committees as well as being a member of St Luke’s parochial church council.’

Do those thoughts tell us more about Barbara Pym’s heroine than about Mary Beamish, dismissed in another scene as so very much not my kind of person? Is it only good and dowdy people who are likely to read Elizabeth Goudge’s novels?

Elizabeth Goudge (1900-1984) was the only child of an Anglican priest and became a best-selling author in the UK and America after the success in 1934 of her first novel Island Magic, set in the Channel Islands. Like her later novels, it combines an almost mystical sense of place and love of nature, with themes of forgiveness, self-sacrifice and redemptive personal growth through suffering.

Characters offer themselves to others and restore them to wholeness. One of the most unforgettable is in Green Dolphin Country when a young sailor in the nineteenth century muddles up names, asks the wrong sister to travel from Guernsey to New Zealand to marry him, and when she arrives doesn’t tell her of the mistake. An almost unbelievable story, but based on Elizabeth Goudge’s great uncle.

Elizabeth Goudge shows us the holiness and interconnectedness, through suffering, love and foregiveness, of all human beings — and they are ordinary ones, like us, dealing with failure, loneliness, poverty, mental illness, disability, feeling misunderstood, undervalued, excluded, unloved. Christian spirituality is interwoven into the text, in unhurried lyrical prose. But this is never in a fundamentalist proselytizing fashion: more just whispers of Teilard de Chardin, Thomas Traherne, C.S. Lewis, St John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, Brother Lawrence. Elizabeth Goudge’s Christianity is always generous, non-judgmental and inclusive. There is redemption and happiness at the end for the characters, though this is hard won, and only possible with the help of others and the healing effect of connectedness with them.

The beauty of the places where Elizabeth Goudge spent her life — Wells in Somerset, Ely, Oxford, Hampshire and the New Forest, Devon, childhood holidays in Guernsey at her grandparents’ home — becomes a breathing, life-changing spirit in her novels. God is all the time revealing his presence in what we see around us.

Children play an important role in Elizabeth Goudge’s adult novels and their inner lives are extraordinarily sensitively drawn. It’s perhaps why many of us loved novels like The Dean’s Watch, The City of Bells, The Bird in the Tree, The Herb of Grace, at an early age, as well as her children’s books, including The Little White Horse which won the Carnegie Medal for Children’s Fiction in 1946 and Linnets and Valerians published in 1964.

Are the novels too unrealistic and sentimental and fanciful for modern taste? Is the prose style too flowery, do the books feel as though they belong to a vanished past, to be read only for nostalgia? Elizabeth Goudge believed that ‘As this world becomes increasingly ugly, callous and materialistic it needs to be reminded that old fairy stories are rooted in truth, that imagination is of value, that happy endings do, in fact, occur, and that the blue spring mist that makes an ugly street look beautiful is just as real a thing as the street itself.’

Elizabeth Goudge was a founding member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association in 1960, together with Denise Robins, Netta Muskett, Rosamunde Pilcher, Catherine Cookson, Barbara Cartland: very different writers loosely grouped under a broad definition of romantic. Even the word romantic might be misleading. Susan D. Amussen’s essay about Elizabeth Goudge in Anglican Women Novelists published by Bloomsbury in 2019 argues that she ‘frequently offers a critical view of contemporary gender norms in her fiction.’ Elizabeth Goudge’s male characters owe nothing to the Mr Darcy model, while unmarried women are portrayed as fulfilled and successful in their own right. They do not need a man or romantic love affairs to have a full life.

The Joy of the Snow is Elizabeth Goudge’s autobiography published in 1974. It’s as absorbing a read as any of her novels. It’s shortish, with a direct personal note, as if she wanted to explain something important before she became too frail. She died ten years later. A sentence from a chapter titled ‘Pain and the Love of God stood out on re-reading: if we can find a little of our one-ness with all other creatures, and love for them, then I believe we are half-way towards finding God.

The World of Elizabeth Goudge by Sylvia Gower has just been reissued in a lovely new edition by the altogether wonderful Somerset-based Girls Gone By Publishers — they republish some of our beloved out of print twentieth century books that are hard to find second hand. https://www.ggbp.co.uk/

 

 

Creative Writing Competitions for December

Photo by Ben Mack on Pexels.com

Take a leap into the fictional unknown and enter one of the competitions below.

The Ruth Rendell Short Story Competition for stories up to 1,000 words. Prizes: £1,000 and commission to write four further stories over the course of one year. Entry fee: £15. Deadline 2 December. Details: http://www.writers-online.co.uk

The Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award 2021, the world’s richest short story prize, is inviting entries up until 4 December. In addition to the winner’s prize of £30,000, shortlisted authors each win £1,000. Shortlisted writers will also be included in an Audible audiobook anthology and receive a further £1,000 fee. Writers must have a track record of publication/broadcasting with an established publisher, magazine or broadcaster. Website: http://www.shortstoryaward.co.uk


Mslexia Poetry & Pamphlet Competition 2020. Poetry: 1st prize £2,000 plus mentoring and writing retreat, 2nd prize £500, 3rd prize £250. Special prize of £250 for the best poem by an unpublished woman poet. Deadline 7 December. Details: http://www.mslexia.co.uk/competitions

Language Evolves Short Story Competition for max. 2,500 words on the theme of language evolution. Prizes: £400, plus publication in New Welsh Review; shortlist also considered for publication. Details: creativewritingink.co.uk/competitions/language-evolves-short-story-competition-2020. Entry free. Deadline 1 December.

The Devon & Cornwall International Novel Prize for the first 5,000 words of a novel, plus a synopsis of no more than 500 words. All adult genres acceptable, including YA. Entry fee: £15. Prizes: £2,000 for the winner, plus a trophy and online publishing contract; shortlisted authors get a trophy and online publishing contract. Deadline 31 December. Details: dci-novelprize.com

Henshaw Short Story Competition for stories up to 2,000 words on any theme. Prizes: £200, £100, £50. Entry fee: £6. Deadline 31 December. Details: http://www.henshawpress.co.uk

Not a huge list, but some competitions appear to have been withdrawn because of the covid crisis. Because of this, please check the appropriate website before entering any of the above in case more withdrawals have taken place.

Do You Write Book Reviews?

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For writers, especially during lock-down when bookshop signings and talks at the local library are impossible, getting on-line reviews are one of the few ways to promote a new novel. And if they are lucky enough to acquire 50 positive reviews, Amazon will feature them in periodic promotional posts, for free.

Yet how many of us write them? I must confess to producing a mere handful myself, though I am striving to do better.

People assume they will be required to produce an erudite outline of the plot, a thoughtful character analysis and include quotes of good (or bad) prose. All the while avoiding those dreaded spoilers. No wonder it seems daunting.

Yet Amazon and Goodreads make the process relatively easy. You simply decide whether the novel you have just read is any good, then give it a star rating out of five. You could stop there, if you wanted. You could also choose to withhold your full name, if feeling shy, by calling yourself something like Bedfordshire Bookworm.

A sentence or two about whether you enjoyed a book would help others decide whether or not to invest in a copy and would at the same time delight the author. Something like the following would be perfect:

**** “A page-turner. Thoroughly recommended.”

*** “Really enjoyed travelling to a different time and place. Perfect for lovers of historical fiction.”

**** “Had me on the edge of my seat at times.”

***** “Loved it!”

Obviously, if you really loathed it, the author would prefer you to refrain from comment. But most authors welcome constructive criticism. That is the way to learn to write better.

If you love nothing better than escaping into a book, why not spend a few minutes supporting those who feed your addiction? It costs nothing but a few minutes of your time, and will have an author somewhere purring with pleasure…

[The above are actual quotes from reviews]