Rejection – The Fairy Story

With Hilary Mantel’s latest book due in the spring, and all those New Year Resolutions about writing, and re-writing, more, this blog of mine from 2015 seemed worth re-visiting.  Maggie.


You’re at the kitchen table, drooping over yet another rejected story. In her basket, Ruby, the cocker spaniel, looks expectant, head twitching and nose up. Then the door bell rings. She must have sensed a visitor. Anyway, she’s at the door ahead of you.

‘Hi, Ruby! I’ve come, as promised.’

The visitor sweeps past you into the kitchen while you remain, frozen, on the doormat. It is Hilary bloody Mantel, isn’t it? Are you going to scream? Faint? Wake up from a dream? And how does this world-renowned woman know your dog?

By now Hilary’s in the kitchen. She picks up your crumpled story, unearths a pencil from her bag, and starts scribbling all over it. ‘Just make me a coffee,’ she says, giving Ruby an absent-minded pat. ‘Instant will be fine, but make it strong.’

You’re in a trance as you boil the kettle. This wonderful writer is sitting…

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Competitions to Enter in January


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If you’re anything like ninevoices, one of your New Year’s Resolutions will have been to write more and to enter more competitions, especially those that might give feedback. Skipper would definitely approve. So it’s time to put on those reading specs and scrutinise the opportunities below:

You’ll need to be quick, as the deadline is to day, but The Exeter Novel Prize is looking for the first 10,000 words of a novel not under contract, together with a 500 word synopsis. Any genre except children’s. Prizes: £500, with five £100 runners-up. Entry fee is: £18 – but for £100 they will give you a 1-page report on your entry. Details can be found at:

The Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize for unpublished female authors over 21 to win expert guidance and support from publishing agent Peters Fraser Dunlop, plus a cash prize of £1,500. Deadline: 17 January. Entry fee: £12. Details:

The Mogford Prize for Food and Drink Writing. Short stories with food and drink themes, up to 2,500 words. (Plenty of inspiration from the last couple of weeks!) Judges Stephen Fry and Pru Leith. Prizes: £10,000, 3x£250. Entry fee: £10. Closing date: 13 January. Details:

Bath Flash Fiction Novella in Flash Award for flash fiction and novellas between 6,000 and 18,000 words. Prizes: £300, 2 x £100. Entry fee: £16. Deadline: 20 January. Details:

Retreat West First Chapter Competition for the first chapter of a novel up to 3,500 words. Prizes: Critique and review. Entry fee: £10. Closing date: 26  January. Details:

Arundel Festival Theatre Trail Writing Competition for short plays, 30-40 minutes. Prizes: £250, £150 for each shortlisted play, performance. Free entry – what do you have to lose? Closing date: 31 January. Details:

Fish Short Memoir Contest for personal non-fiction up to 4,000 words. Prizes: 1,000 Euros, publication; a week at Casa Ana Writers retreat in Andalucia and 300 Euros travel expenses. Entry fee: 17 Euros. Closing date: 31 January. Details:

Kent & Sussex Poetry Society Open Poetry Competition for poems up to 40 lines. Prizes: £1,000, £300, £100, 4 x £50. Entry fee: £5; 3 or more £4 each. Closing date: 31 January. Details:

Lancashire Authors’ Association Flash Fiction Competition for a story in exactly 100 words. Prizes: £150. Entry fee: £2, £5 for three. Closing date 31 January. Details:

Plymouth Writers’ Group Open Writing Competition for  short stories of 1,000-1,500 words. Prizes: £250, £50, anthology publication for top five. Entry fee: £5. Closing date: 31 January. Details:

As always, please check all entry details before submitting. Remember those New Year Resolutions and, good luck!

Make a resolution

At ninevoices’ annual Christmas lunch we make writing resolutions for the coming year. Well, resolutions, like rules, are made to be broken as we find the following year.
However, that said, we shouldn’t be discouraged to start again. If your aim is to enter writing competitions in 2020, and perhaps you had a go at our 2019 Summer Competition, may we pass on some thoughts?
We settled down on a November day to discuss the stories that had received the most votes from our individual readings. Skipper was there as an impartial observer. What he learnt was that we did not agree. It has been said before we have varied reactions and likes.
The overwhelming consensus, however, was that we are lucky to belong to a group. Simple inconsistencies, spelling and grammar mistakes and typos are seized upon by our sharp-eyed colleagues.
So if you are setting out on the writer’s lonely path, we would persuade you to find the company of others to work with you. These others, and here we are unanimous, do not include your family and close friends.
A Happy New Year and good luck with your writing in 2020.

Where do good ideas come from?


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Where do good ideas come from?

Sometimes you read a book with a strikingly original and simple idea; you then think, “Well, of course, I could have thought of that if I I’d tried,” but the point is YOU DIDN’T.

Two examples from books I’ve just read:

The Cockroach by Ian McEwan. We know Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which opens with a man waking up to find he’s a giant insect. Why not reverse that? Have an insect who wakes up to find he’s turned into a man? Brilliant. And when we learn that that man is the British Prime Minister, who is leading the country into a whole new economic system that merely a few years back was advocated only by people who were thought crackpots …. Well, you can finish the sentence. A topical satire and, as I’ve said, a great and simple idea. (Unfortunately I’ll have to return the book to my sister who lent it to me, as she got it signed by the author at the Cheltenham Literary Festival.)

The Reader on the 6.27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent is the other (translated from the French by Ros Schwartz). Here the simple idea is to have a central character who loves books but is compelled to work in a factory that destroys them. This is an appalling place where books are pulped. They are devoured and converted into a disgusting slush by a dreadful and dangerous machine into which our hero has to climb each day as part of its maintenance. And each day he rescues a page from whatever book is going into its maw, and reads it to his fellow-commuters on the train to work the next morning. They love it. The other characters are grotesques, all with some often bizarre link to books and writing. (Fortunately I was given this by a friend so can keep it. Thanks, friend.)

Wondering what to do with that gift card you got for Christmas? You could see if you like as much as I did what these writers made of these original and simple ideas.

The Cockroach by Ian McEwan, published in 2019 by Jonathan Cape, ISBN 978-1-529-11292-4 RRP £7-99 (it’s only 100 pages)

The Reader on the 6.27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent, translated by Ros Schwartz, published in 2016 by Pan, ISBN 978-1-5098-3685-7 RRP £8-99

PMRGCA – Jane’s story

As promised: Jane’s account of how the condition changed her life.


PMR (polymyalgia rheumatica) is a painful, debilitating condition which affects
the muscles. Symptoms and the condition’s severity vary from patient to

GCA (giant cell arteritis) can occur on its own but about 25% of patients with
PMR suffer from GCA. As the name suggests enormous cells form in the wall of
inflamed arteries. This affects the normal flow of blood to many areas of the
body. A patient’s sight is particularly at risk and this may occur unless
treatment is started quickly. The condition may cause headaches and
tenderness at one or both sides of the forehead, blurred vision, and (in my
case) jaw pain when chewing. It makes you feel very unwell generally.

I became ill, suddenly, seven years ago in August 2012. I was a fit and healthy
68 year old. Peter (my husband) and I had just completed an eight-mile strenuous walk along a coastal path in Wales when pains developed in my hands, then my shoulders. Within a few hours I was in agony. I couldn’t climb into bed. I couldn’t even switch on a light.

My GP was very quick to act. Blood tests showed my CRP (inflammation
marker) was 168 (normal is less than 5.) However, despite seeing a very senior
rheumatologist, diagnosis was slow. By now I was in a wheelchair. Strong
painkillers had very little impact on my symptoms. The rheumatologist was
unsure whether I had Rheumatoid Arthritis or PMR. He gave me a 60mg
steroid injection and within a few hours I could move and the pain subsided.
GCA was diagnosed five months later. I was lucky. As I was taking steroids
already, my risk of sight loss – in one or both eyes – was very much reduced.

PMR and GCA are auto-immune diseases. Although the majority of patients suffer with just one condition, some patients develop other auto-immune diseases. For the past seven years I seem to have a new diagnosis about once a year. The worst of these is Rheumatoid Arthritis. I have a severe form of this.

The good news is that new drugs are being developed all the time. I am on a
trial for a biological drug. It is hoped that, in the future, steroid-sparing
treatments such as this, will prevent the devastating side effects of conditions
such as GCA. In my case, I have had no GCA flares since starting the bio drug
twelve months ago. Even more importantly, I feel so very much better and, best of all, I am off steroids – they can have long-lasting side effects when
taken for many years at high doses. I am also able to walk about a mile without
suffering from overwhelming fatigue.

Much more research is needed to find treatments (such as the bio drugs) and
research any potential long-term problems with them. At present, the bios are
very expensive, so doctors have to ration their use. There’s a nice irony that
having so many auto immune conditions has worked in my favour.

Ninevoices is a group of nine enthusiastic writers. We met nearly twenty years ago, and have got together every fortnight for most of that time. We have organised several writing competitions and the members decided to donate any profits to the little known charity: PMRGCAUK. (Yes, terrible title. The organisation is trying to find a better one.)

I was delighted and so was the organisation. Each of you, who entered our
competition, has taken PMRGCAUK one tiny step further to finding affordable
treatments and, hopefully one day, a cure.

Thank you all so much.

Jane Dobson

Our competition had two aims…

Many congratulations to Barbara Leahy, whose winning story is published below, and also has a page of its own – see link at the top.

We’d like to add that we had two aims in running the competition.

One aim was to encourage writers to write: either new writers just getting started, or or those who felt a little stuck.  We hope we were successful in that.

Our second aim was to raise money for a charity – PMRGCAUK – that’s little known and is at the back of the queue for funding.  In that, thanks to you, we know we were successful.  A cheque for all the profits will shortly be going to the charity.

Since the condition itself is so little known or publicised, but wreaks such havoc in suffererers’ lives, we plan to publish the accounts of some sufferers over the next few months.  To begin with, we share the story of our own Jane, who was struck down with a whole buffet table of illnesses over the course of tha last few years.

We hope this will help to shine some light on a crippling but little researched disease.



2019: Winning story

Winner: Ninevoices Summer Short Story Competition 2019



The Chocolate Summer

by Barbara Leahy


Six months after my father died, when the money had run out, Grandmother Allen found us a cottage by the river, and paid the first month’s rent. Our new home squatted in a shady hollow, overshadowed by yellow-leafed birch trees. The sagging roof gave the impression that the cottage was sinking into the landscape, in retreat from the river, the fields, the road beyond. The inside was dark, the ceilings low.

‘She’s coming to see us tomorrow,’ my mother said, folding my grandmother’s letter. She sat in my father’s old armchair, drinking spoonfuls of tea from the cup I’d brought her, something she never allowed me to do. ‘Don’t forget to thank her.’ The tea became a bitter medicine; she swallowed with difficulty, sending the spoon rattling back to the saucer.

‘It is a pity about the children. He is not used to children.’ I came downstairs next morning to find Grandmother at the basin, sinking a jug into the water, rinsing my mother’s long brown hair. ‘They say he lives in a chateau in Normandy.’ Grandmother eased my mother’s head from the basin. ‘It is your only hope, Margaret.’ My mother knelt in silence, dampness darkening the back of her blouse.

Later, I watched my mother dress. She was going to a dance at the Grand Hotel with a man she had met that afternoon, a man my grandmother knew. He was a Frenchman, an old college friend of my father’s. He came to the village every summer to study the wild flowers on the riverbank.

My mother had only one evening dress; a coral satin she had not worn since my father died. ‘Sponging would ruin it,’ she said, fingering a wavering tidemark at the hem.  I saw a dark spot form suddenly on the satin, then another. She stood up, covering her face. ‘Run and cut roses for my hair. Watch for thorns.’

We weren’t allowed into the parlour when Monsieur Florian called. Tom hushed May and the twins, and I pressed my ear to the door. I heard a voice, light and musical, yet still a man’s voice; a voice that seemed to dance around the room.

Footsteps approached. With a swish of her skirt, my mother came into the kitchen and placed a box on the table. ‘For you,’ she said. ‘From him,’ and with a warning finger over her lips, she slipped back through the door.

The box was pink and flattish, tied with a maroon ribbon holding an adornment of silk roses. I uncurled the soft petal of one rose with a fingertip. ‘Fancy sweets,’ Tom said, turning away.

I took one end of the ribbon and pulled, until the bow unravelled and fell away from the box. The lid glided upwards in my hands.

It seemed to me then, that something pushed up through the earth and slate into the dimly lit kitchen; a fragile, unfurling hope. The box was filled with glossy chocolates, their perfect polished surfaces unclouded by touch. Crystallised violets, Grecian silhouettes, iced curlicues in a language I could not read. They nestled in delicate paper cups, frilled, lacy underthings. I breathed in cocoa butter and salted caramel, strawberry fondant and coffee cream.

‘Bastard!’ Tom said, grabbing the box and mashing the lid closed. He swung the back door open and ran through the garden. At the river’s edge he raised his arm, and the box flew, lid lifting, chocolates jolting. The pink cardboard floated downstream, dragging a clump of sodden flowers behind it.

One night, later that summer, when I brought roses for my mother’s hair, she was sitting at the mirror, smoothing fingertips over her cheeks. ‘Henri loves roses best,’ she said, as though speaking to her reflection. The satin dress had been massaged in cold water, rolled in fresh towels, but two tear stains still showed on the bodice.

Monsieur Florian greeted me every week with a precisely angled bow and a kiss to my right hand. We used to sit together in the parlour, waiting for my mother.  Sometimes he jumped to his feet to admire the view of the river. ‘I am a botanist, like your father,’ he told me. ‘I knew your father; a good man.’

Soon footsteps would sound on the stairs. Like a magician, Monsieur Florian would conjure a box from nowhere, present it with one word, ‘Mademoiselle!’ I would take the box with a stab of longing for the chocolates clustered in paper petticoats, knowing they would be thrown, minutes later, into the river he had admired.

One evening, he told me he was writing a book about flowers native to the region. ‘I have discovered varieties most rare,’ he said. ‘Someday, perhaps, you would like to see?’

Before I could reply, my mother came in, her hand already extended for his kiss. They left me in the doorway, staring at the gauzy crepe paper wrapping of his latest gift. The box smelled faintly of orange blossom. I would make Tom keep it, I decided. This time I would taste the dainty chocolates.

But that box followed all the others, flying through the air, floating downstream.  The pulped cardboard caught on a rock, released, and washed away.

The following Friday, Monsieur Florian told me the foliage of weeping birches should be green, not yellow. ‘Disease,’ he said, tapping a forefinger against the window pane. ‘An advanced case.’

Words spilled from me. ‘Tom throws your chocolates in the river. You must never bring them again.’

He turned to face me, and I saw I had confirmed something for him, stamped a seal on a letter already written.

‘So many children,’ he said.

Next morning, my mother’s bedroom door was closed when I arose, and downstairs I found three roses wilting on the slate floor.

It was midday when I found the parcel on the doorstep. I brought it upstairs, and my mother turned away when I placed it on her pillow.

When I returned later, her face was grey. One fist clutched a closely-written page. She nodded at a package lying on the sheets. I read my name, underlined with a flourish. Inside, wrapped in crackling cellophane and tied with a spray of curling gold ribbons, was a chocolate heart, as big as my hand, iced with an embroidery of flowers and twisting vines. I traced stem to leaf to flower, finding a tiny sugared butterfly, a candied ladybird, hiding among the petals. ‘He was fond of you,’ my mother said. ‘Yes, I am certain he was fond of you.’

I could hear her weeping softly as I closed the door. I thought of sharp teeth biting into the heart, crunching through the sugar paste, crushing the intertwining flowers. It was too beautiful to eat.

At the foot of the stairs I saw the flowers I had woven into my mother’s hair the night before. The edges of each petal were tinted russet brown, the colour of dried blood. The chocolate heart would melt in the heat of the summer, the icing would crumble. Whether it was eaten, or thrown into the river, or hidden in a cigar box under a bed, it could not last forever. Outside, a gust of wind sent a flurry of decaying yellow birch leaves rattling against the cottage windows. Autumn had arrived.



Barbara Leahy
Picture: Miki Barlok

Barbara Leahy is from Cork, Ireland. Her short stories and flash fiction have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies including Flash Magazine, The National Flash Fiction Day Anthology, The Irish Literary Review, and the Bridport Prize Anthology. Her stories have also been broadcast on RTÉ (Irish National) radio. She is delighted to have won the 2019 Ninevoices’ short story competition. 

We Have A Winner!


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It is with great pleasure that we are able to announce that the winning story in our competition is The Chocolate Summer, by Barbara Leahy of County Cork in Ireland, with the runner-up being Indefinite Delay by Norman Coburn of Fife.

This was a challenging exercise on our part and we would like to stress that because your own story wasn’t a winner doesn’t mean it might not go on to triumph in another competition. As it is, your entry has contributed to a worthy cause and you are in possession of a fresh short story which we hope you enjoyed creating.

Nearly all the members of ninevoices have had stories which were rejected first time round but went on to be shortlisted or to win in a different competition. Our mantra is that of Sylvia Plath: I love my rejections. They prove I’m trying.

We will shortly post Chocolate Summer on this blog.





Competitions to Enter in December

Perhaps we are being unrealistic, thinking you might have the time and inspiration over the festive season to enter writing competitions. Yet perhaps this would be the ideal thing to distract you from worrying about not managing to make a home-made Christmas pudding. Or possibly you could tweak your entry into our ninevoices short story competition and send it to fresh fields?

Ruth Rendell Short Story Competition. Flash Fiction: max. 1,000 words. Fee: £15. Prize: £1,000 plus commission to write four further stories for InterAct Reading Service over the course of one year. Judge: Margaret Drabble. Deadline 2 December. Details:

Angelica Poetry Competition for poems up to 100 lines. Prizes £50, £20 and publication. Free Entry. Closing Date 1 December. Details:

Chorley & District Writers’ Circle Annual Short Story Competition. Short stories, maximum 2,50000 words, on the theme: ‘On The Edge’. Prizes: £100, £50 3x£20. Entry fee: ££6, or £10 for two. Deadline 15 December. Details:

Magic Oxygen Literary Prize for short stories up to 4,000 words and poetry up to 50 lines. Prizes: £1,000, £300, £100, 2x£50 highly commendeds in each category. A tree planted for every entry. Entry fee: £5. Deadline 31 December. Details:

Henshaw Short Story Competition for stories up to 2,000 words. Prizes: £200, £75, £25. Deadline 31 December. Details

The Moth Poetry Prize 2019. Prize of 10,000 Euros for an unpublished poem, with three runner-up prizes of 1,000 Euros. Entry fee: 15 Euros. Deadline 31 December. Details:

Words Magazine Short Story Competition for stories up to 2,000 words on the theme ‘murder’. Free entry. Prizes: £50 and £25. Closing date: 31 December. Details:

Arkbound Short Story Competition for stories between 500 and 1,000 words on the theme of ‘time’. Prizes: £100, £50, £25, 3x£10. Entry fee: £3. Deadline: 31 December. Details:

Good luck – and please remember to check all details before entry.



We have a Shortlist!



We are delighted to be able to give below our shortlist of summer stories, given in alphabetical order. Our winner, and runner-up, will be announced on December 1st.

Alaskan Salmon Fishing, Judi Johnson

Black Dog, Alwyn Bathan

The Chocolate Summer, Barbara Leahy

Destination: Summer Lane, R Herring

Day of the Flying Ants, Melanie Ross

Indefinite Delay, Norman Coburn

Synchronicity, Roz Balp

Summer Cycle, David Smith

Take Wing, K E  Olukoya

Under Canvas, Imogen Fairweather

This has been a challenging exercise. Some stories were absolutely loved by one or two of us, but didn’t chime with everyone. Others had promise, but could have done with one final edit. Saddest of all, one or two good stories had to be eliminated because they went over our stipulated word count. So, if your story isn’t on our list, don’t be despondent. Enter it into another competition. These things are notoriously subjective.

Our winner and runner-up will be announced here on the 1st December. Well done those that are on the shortlist, and thank you to everyone who took part. By doing so, we will be able to send a worthwhile donation to a charity providing much-needed support to people in need. We hope you also enjoyed creating a new story.


(Picture credit: Tom Hart @ Flickr)