Don’t Miss Out on Your Chance To Win the McKitterick Prize


Perhaps I need new glasses. It’s been drawn to my attention by fellow members of ninevoices that I somehow failed to see (and therefore mention) that the deadline for this prestigious and financially rewarding prize is October 31st. VERY SOON. Entry is free.

The McKitterick Prize is for the author of a novel who is over the age of 40 on December 31st 2016. (One or two of our group might just qualify) The work must either have been first published in the UK in 2016, or be unpublished. First prize is £4,000; second prize is £1,000.

They are looking for the first 30 pages of the novel. Shortlisted authors will be notified by the end of May 2017 and invited to submit the entire manuscript.

It is essential to study the entry details and to download and complete the entry form from The Society of Authors:

You will see from the above illustration (courtesy of young Ellie-Mae Davies) that my fingers are poised ready to attack the laptop and complete my own entry. Would that my hips were as slender as represented…

Grammar gripes: less and fewer


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I used to fuss about less and fewer. I applauded M&S (was it them?) when they introduced a ‘10 items or fewer’ lane at checkouts to cater for those of us who deplored ’10 items or less’.

But I’m weakening. The other day I was listening to Elvis singing ‘Amazing Grace’, and then the next day I heard it again, beautifully sung by Sol3 Mio (listen to them on YouTube if you don’t know them), and of course it contains the lines

“When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.”

If John Newton can say less instead of fewer, and produce one of the greatest hymns ever written, then who am I to carp? I know that less fits the metre and fewer doesn’t. But I no longer think it matters so much.

But you may disagree …

The unanswerable question is whether it matters to your reader, and if it does whether that puts your reader off reading you any more.   And if that happens whether it matters to you.

Patron saint of pedants: St James the Fewer (tweet yesterday from Ian Power (@IHPower))

Fine Work


©We have to thank the Jane Austen House Museum at Chawton (the only house in which Jane Austen lived and wrote which is open to the public) for allowing us to reproduce this image of our favourite author’s own handiwork, which the British Library currently has on loan from them. 

How do you work out your plots? Develop character? Decide how to effectively bring lovers together in a satisfying way?

Staring at a blank screen or sheet of paper can be more frustrating than inspirational. Instead, some of us develop our fiction while doing the family ironing (several gruesome murders in Herefordshire came about this way), others use a Labrador tugging at the extremity of a smart leather lead. I frequently nudge my subconscious into activity by dead-heading roses or measuring out the ingredients for a lemon drizzle cake.

One feels that Jane Austen knew the value of displacement activity instinctively. As an accomplished needlewoman, who made her own caps and no doubt her everyday gowns, she spent some of her leisure hours creating embroidered gifts for family and friends. The above photo is of a simple paper needle case stitched for her niece, Louisa. Did quiet time with her needle also help her decide that Lydia’s elopement would provide a satisfactorily scandalous derailment of the burgeoning romance between Elizabeth and Darcy? Did Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s insufferable arrogance simmer into being while Jane Austen frowned over the inflexibity of a back stitch? Darcy’s ungentlemanly proposal speech evolve over a peppering of French knots?

It is a delight to discover yet another of Jane Austen’s talents. Her perfectly constructed novels are like Savile Row tailoring. Pieces of story carefully selected and shaped to marry into an elegant whole. One creative art perhaps enhancing another. Maybe I should unearth that unfinished (and sadly amateurish) piece of tapestry from the attic…

We’d love to know how you distract yourself into creativity.

The Jane Austen House Museum, is, of course, an essential visit. They now own and have on display her gold and turquoise ring which was saved from leaving the country in 2014.

Austen House

Austen House

The British Library’s Crime Classics continue to delight


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Another hurrah for the British Library Crime Classics series!  It reissues whodunits from the Golden Age by authors who have dropped from general sight but who still can give much pleasure.


I found Mystery in White – A Christmas Crime Story, by J Jefferson Farjeon (1937), a most atmospheric piece.   A group of strangers are trapped by heavy snow on Christmas Eve in a country house, which mysteriously has fires burning and food ready, but no-one is home … Then murder is done. I could almost feel the cold, see the snow on the ground outside. A great gift for Christmas for an aficionado of the genre.

The Sussex Downs Murder (1936) is set north of Worthing, in real Sussex countryside, based on the village of Washington near Chanctonbury Ring. Written by John Bude. The Rother brothers run a quarry. Soon after John Rother’s disappearance bones turn up in the quarry, and then in loads of lime sent to local customers. The plot includes delights such as a mysterious runner in a broad-brimmed hat, an anomaly in the amount of petrol in an abandoned car, a false telegram sent to lure one of the protagonists away, etc. Superintendent Meredith is the sleuth on the case.

Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay (1935) is in the sub-genre of Oxbridge murders.   A group of students at the all-female Persephone College in Oxford meet one wintry afternoon on top of the boathouse to form a secret society dedicated to the cursing of the unpopular College bursar: and what should float down the River Cherwell, right past their meeting place, but a canoe containing the said bursar’s corpse ….   Here the traditional detective sent from Scotland Yard is Inspector Braydon. The cast of suspects includes exotic types such as Draga Czernak, a Montenegrin student at Persephone who feels insulted by the bursar; Ezekiel Lond, a misogynist old man who lives in a ramshackle house next to Persephone, and who much resents the sale by his father of the land on which the College stands; and James Lidgett, a farmer-cum-builder who wishes to develop land next to Persephone. Great stuff. For once, I guessed the villain early on.

Those are the three in the series I’ve read so far. Three pleasures still to come are:

Calamity in Kent (1950), by John Rowland, in which a corpse is found locked inside the carriage of a cliff railway at the seaside resort of Broadgate – given me by a ninevoices friend who knew of my liking for this stuff (thanks, Val).

Murder Underground (1934), by Mavis Doriel Hay (she of the Cherwell): the rich but unpopular Miss Pongleton is killed on the stairs of Belsize Park tube station.  I’ve murder-undergroundgiven this to my Londoner daughter as a present. She commutes to work on the Metropolitan Line but as Belsize Park is on the Northern Line she might not hold it against me. I hope she’ll lend it back to me to read in due course.

The Cornish Coast Murder (1935), by John Bude (he of the Sussex Downs): a local magistrate is found shot dead in the house of the local vicar (not in his library, surely?). Looking for something else, I found this in a place my dear wife might be using for storing this year’s Christmas presents, so I have high hopes for Christmas morning! I must put it back secretly.

Thanks, BL. Go to for the complete list.

Grammar gripes – neither is or neither are?


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Most of the time we can happily ignore those little warnings on our computer screens warning us of grammar errors. All that matters is that our meaning is clear, free of all ambiguity.

But sometimes we are pulled up short. In the sentence Neither of them notice that their teenage son is facing terrors of his own or that their daughter is leading a secret life should it be notices rather than notice? Some grammar purists argue that neither should always be followed by a singular verb, but in spoken language a plural verb comes more easily …

Dithering over grammar questions is like trying one perfume after another: you lose your sense of what smells best/sounds right. Can some ‘rules’ be discarded altogether?









Competitions to Enter in October


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With ninevoices’ member, Tanya, winning two writing competitions this summer, Val winning another, and Sarah being short-listed, I make no excuses for urging everyone to attempt at least one of the following competitions. There are lots of them, so something for everyone:

Bath ‘Rolling’ Flash Fiction Awards. Their current competition is for up to 300 words, with prizes of £1,000, £300, and £100. In addition, the fifty long-listed story writers will be offered publication in an anthology. Deadline October 16. Details from

Flash 500 Novel Opening Chapter and Synopsis. Send 3,000-word opening chapter, plus a one-page synopsis. Entry fee is £10. Prizes: £500 and £200. Details from  Deadline October 31.

Earlyworks Press Short Story Competition. 8,000-words. Fee: £5 for up to 4,000-words; £10 for over that length. Prize: £200. Details from   Deadline October 31.

Ouen Press Short Story Competition. This is for a factual story of between 3,000-10,000-words. The theme is: The Journey. Entry is free. Prizes are £300; 2 x £100. Details from    Deadline October 31.

East London’s Writeidea Festival 2016 has a Short Story Prize aimed at writers who have not previously been published (comforting to know you won’t be competing with Hilary Mantel!). They are looking for up to 3,000-words, in any genre. There is a first prize of £300, with four runners up each receiving £50. The closing date is October 10 and entry is free. Details on their website:

The WOW Awards 2017 invite entries of fiction and poetry. In each category there are first and second prizes of 750 Euros and 150 Euros. The winners and five shortlisted entrants in each category will be published in an anthology and ten shortlisted writers will each receive 30 Euros. The stories may be up to 3,000 words and the poetry entries up to 100 lines. There is a fee of 15 Euros per story and 10 Euros per poem.  Deadline is October 31. Website:

The London Magazine Short Story Competition want stories of up to 4,000-words on any theme. There is a first prize of £500, a second prize of £300 and a third prize of £200. The winning story will be published in the magazine and the deadline is October 31. Details from

The Flambard Poetry Prize, awarded by Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts to honour the achievements of Flambard Poetry Press, is for a group of five poems, which must be original and unpublished. First prize is £1,000 and a second prize of £250. Each poem must be a maximum of forty lines. There is a £5 entry fee per group of five poems and the deadline is October 31. Details can be seen on their website:

The UCG International Literary Prize, is a new creative writing prize run by Hammond House Publishing in association with the University Centre, Grimsby. They are asking for between 2,000-3,000-words on the theme of conflict. There is a first prize of £500, a second prize of £100 and a third prize of £50. Winners will also be published in an anthology. With an entry fee of £10, the deadline is October 30. Details from their website:

Last, but by no means least, why not have a go at our very own FIFTY WORD COMPETITION inspired by the spooky photograph on our blog of today’s date? The prize may not be huge, but entry is completely free and £25 would fund a couple of pretty good bottles of wine or some other treat to inspire your further writing. The deadline is on THE STROKE OF MIDNIGHT on October 31. See below for details.

Good luck! Remember, someone has to win these prizes. Why not you? But DO remember to check all details on-line in case there have been changes or we have inadvertently interpreted them wrongly.

Her publishers refused to pulp it


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Mary Stewart, that wonderful author of romantic suspense novels with exotic settings and a literary flavour,  would have been a hundred years old on 17th September.

Media coverage when she died on 9th May 2014, aged 97, offered a fascinating picture of a woman whose chart-topping novels gave us a new kind of heroine: a so-called ordinary girl suddenly thrown into a dangerous situation and who finds the courage and intelligence to deal with it. As Rachel Hore wrote in The Guardian, ‘Stewart’s stories were narrated by poised, smart, highly-educated young women who drove fast cars and knew how to fight their corner …. tender-hearted and with a strong moral sense.’

But at a time when authors apparently have to be super-confident and go about endlessly promoting their work, it’s especially endearing to read that when she saw her first novel Madam, Will You Talk? in proof form in 1954 she asked her publishers not to go ahead. ‘It felt like walking naked down the street,’ she said. Thankfully her publishers refused to pulp it. She never had an agent – her first novel was a direct submission – and she stayed with Hodder & Stoughton all her life.

It’s more than 40 years since Nine Coaches Waiting, the story of a girl hired to be governess to a small boy heir to a chateau in France for sinister reasons,  was read aloud to me at boarding school. It might have been chosen because of the educational value of the quotes from poets and playwrights adorning the start of each chapter, but we were all enthralled by the enigmatic hero Raoul. For Mary Stewart didn’t just give us heroines we long to be like; she gave us heroes with whom we will always remain in love.