Why You Should Write Reviews


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Reviews are hard to write. You need to convey the sense of a book without spoiling the author’s hard-crafted surprises. To whet appetites, without sating them. And you don’t want to sound too much like a pretentious prat.

Some of ninevoices are gifted at this – writing reviews, not sounding like pretentious prats – and hopefully will compose many more in the days to come. As authors, we are conscious of their importance to writers and how they help boost book recognition and those all-important Amazon-ratings. However, and perhaps more importantly, they remind us that we write to connect with our readers.

You will, I hope, forgive me for sharing my delight at one which appeared on GoodReads yesterday. It still has me purring twenty-four hours later.

Let’s tidy the toy cupboard


The words used to fill this mother with dread. The intention was good but when everything was pulled out, long-forgotten treasures would be found and played with. Later the good housekeeping would be forgotten and I would be left with a messy pile on the floor.
I’ve just had my own “toy cupboard” experience, but in this instance it was four shelves in a glass-fronted bookcase.

All my books, poetry and classics, and so himself would have no say in the operation. Then he decided that he was going to read Pathfinder by Fenimore Cooper. He won’t – he’s already declared that it’s old-fashioned. He has also picked out My Lady of the Chimney Corner, solely because it is dedicated to “Lady Gregory and the Players of the Abbey Theatre Dublin.”(He has since declared that it’s awful with stage Irish dialogue.)
“There’s a gey good smell from yer pot, Anna, what haave ye in it th’day?
Oh, jist a few sheep’s trotters and a when of nettles.
Who gathered th’nettles?
Did th’ sting bad, me baughal?
Dis no, not aany. I put m’ Dah’s socks on m’ hans.”

However, the toy cupboard revealed its treasures, some long forgotten.

In Sheridan’s plays I learn that The Rivals was first performed at Covent Garden Theatre in 1775 and the performance lasted five hours. Presumably there were no long queues for the loos in those days as there were no loos. I also see that I have the best binding, leather, round corners and gilt top, that the publishers of Everyman’s Library, J M Dent, offer.

My all-time favourite has to be The thousand best poems in the world. True there are contributions from Browning, Tennyson, Southey, etc, but the rest? Many angel babies and weeping mothers. Over the hill to the poor house tells of the old woman (she’s seventy) unwanted by the children she’d reared with such devotion. There is a sequel Over the hill from the poor house in which the black-sheep son, having made his fortune, rescues his mother. In There’s but one pair of stockings to mend tonight the stockings belong to the husband, but his wife remembers with sadness when the work basket was full with the children’s hosiery, all gone, some as angels. I see these poems were appreciated by a previous owner who has listed them in the back.

In the Classical Dictionary, my grandfather’s I see, I learn that Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons, was slain my Achilles. I doubt she’ll come up in a Zoom quiz.

The volume of G K Chesterton’s poems falls open at Outline of History: “I have seen a statue in a London square/ One whose long-winded lies are long forgot.” No comment.

Then there are the slips of paper that fall out of the books: a postcard from Guernsey posted in 1979; a list of books on reincarnation; a card made for a sick mother from, as if she didn’t know, her son.

Inside. I hope you are better soon from your son, Liam

So, yes, I ended up with a messy pile on the floor. Again there was no one to help put my treasures back. The glass doors are closed. The good news: there’s not one pair of stockings to mend tonight for my lady of chimney corner.


The Historical Writers’ Association Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Competition is looking for entries – with a deadline of July 31st.

This is for original, unpublished historical fiction in any genre, up to 3,500-words. All stories must be set at least 35 years in the past.

The winner will receive £500 plus mentoring sessions from an author and agent. The winning story will also be published in Whispering Gallery and on Historia.com.

Winning and shortlisted writers will be published in an ebook by the HWA and Dorothy Dunnett Society, with each shortlisted author receiving £25 plus two copies.

Winners and those shortlisted will be invited to an awards ceremony in London in November – though, because of present circumstances, the organisers will be guided by what it sensible and practical nearer the time. Entry is £5 and details can be found on their website: https://historicalwriters.org/

The brief gives you free rein, from World War II espionage to armoured knights battling to the death. All it needs is a flight of the imagination. And, not wishing to labour the point, do bear in mind that this member of ninevoices managed to win a similar cheque, plus a publishing deal, from the lovely HWA people back in the spring. So – it can be done!

Good luck!


Thoughts on ‘Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise’

‘Children’s fiction has a long and noble history of being dismissed,’ writes Katherine Rundell in this short but inspirational hardback. She cites Martin Amis who once said, ‘If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children’s book.’ 😲 Instead of going on the attack, though, Rundell, a prize-winning author and Fellow of All Souls, Oxford, has chosen to write a wonderful rebuttal.

She shows how the best children’s books help us ‘refind things we may not even know we have lost,’ taking us back to that time when ‘new discoveries came daily and when the world was colossal, before your imagination was trimmed and neatened …’

As the Financial Times says, ‘It’s a very short book but it packs a real punch.’ It also covers a lot of ground – zipping through the history of children’s books (which, in English, began as ‘instruction manuals for good behaviour’), the importance of fairy tales (with their ‘wild hungers and heroic optimism’), the need for greater diversity of authorship (‘there is so dazzlingly much to gain’) and how library budgets should be increased (not ‘slashed’), along with lighter issues, such as the ‘bookworm’s curse’ of knowing a word’s meaning but not how to pronounce it.

There are many thought-provoking ideas here but one, in particular, made me pause: ‘… there are some times in life when [a children’s book] might be the only thing that will do.’

A few months ago a friend of mine, struck down by a neurological illness that had left her bedridden and unable to speak, had reached the point where people were questioning whether she’d lost her mind. In the past she and I had often discussed books and one day, not long before she died, I decided to read her one of my all-time favourites – Richmal Crompton’s William (1929). The chapter I chose was one in which 11-year-old William tries to distract a gullible woman from her gold-digging suitor by interrupting him with preposterous stories. Halfway through one of these, my friend opened her eyes and laughed. I felt the bond between us; it was a precious moment.

Another friend, who lived to 105, found life in a care home unbearably restrictive (she always referred to herself as an inmate). Her father had worked for Henry Ford – she’d met him as a child – and she’d lived an incredibly full life. Now she was mostly confined to one room, and books were a lifeline, especially certain children’s books. Even though she was 44 when Dodie Smith’s The 101 Dalmatians was published, this one was a favourite. Her reaction when I turned up with it was just wonderful.

This is how Katherine Rundell finishes her 63-page essay: ‘Go to children’s fiction to see the world with double eyes: your own, and those of your childhood self. Refuse unflinchingly to be embarrassed: and in exchange you get the second star to the right, and straight on till morning.’

How can you refuse?

Writing Competitions to Enter in July

Summer is upon us and, with it, some new competitions to enter. If George Gissing could write 23 weighty novels and 111 publishable short stories in under thirteen years (see Valerie’s recent post about him on this blog) four weeks should be ample time to come up with a thousand words or so…

The Aurora Prize 2020 from Writing East Midlands is a national creative writing contest in two categories: poetry and short fiction. In each category there are first prizes of £500 and a session with Society of Authors staff. There are second prizes of £150 and third prizes of a one-day writing course of the winner’s choice from Writing East Midlands. Enter original, unpublished stories up to 2,000-words and poems up to 60 lines. The entry fee for the first entry is £9 and £7 for any further entries. Closing date is 8 July. Details from: https://writ.rs/auroraprize2020

Doris Gooderson Short Story Competition for stories up to 1,200-words on an open theme. Prizes: £200; £100; £50. Winning entries may be published in an anthology. Entry fee: £5. Closing date: 15 July. Details: http://www.wrekinwriters.co.uk

Ilkley Literature Festival Short Story and Walter Swan Poetry Competitions for stories 1,000-2,000-words; poems up to 30 lines. Prizes: £200 for short stories, £200, £100, £75 for adult poems, £100, £75, £50 and 18-25 year olds’ poems. Entry fee: £5. Deadline: 31 July. Details: ilkeleyliteraturefestival.org./uk

HISSAC Annual Open Short Story Competition for stories up to 2,000-words; flash fiction up to 500-words. No connection to Scotland needed, either by theme or entrant. Prizes: £200, £75 and £50 in both categories. Entry fee: £5; £12 for three; £18 for five. Deadline: 31 July. Details: http://www.hissac.co.uk

The Fiction Factory Flash Fiction Competition is looking for a maximum of 1,000-words on any subject, though they are not excepting children’s stories or YA. Prizes are: £150, £50 and £25. Entry is £5 for a single entry, £8 for two, £12 for three. Deadline is 31 July. Details from their website http://www.fiction-factory.biz


Norwich Writers Circle invite entries for the sixth Olga Sinclair Prize, its annual open fiction short story competition, inspired this year by the word ‘News‘ and celebrates the Norwich Post, which in 1705 became the first provincial newspaper to be published outside London. The first prize is £500, with two runners up prizes of £250 and £100. The top ten shortlisted stories will be later published in a 2020 Anthology and a gala prize-giving evening held in Norwich, circumstances permitting, on 3 November. The entry fee is £9 for the first story and £7 each for two or more stories. The deadline is 31st July. Details: https://norwichwriters.wordpress.com A member of ninevoices was shortlisted for this a few years back and although she didn’t win, did go on to revise the story and have it published in an anthology.

Do you live in Surrey? The free Surrey Life magazine and Guildford Book Festival invite original, unpublished short stories up to 1,000-words by unpublished Surrey residents. Shortlisted writers will be invited to the October festival launch, when the winner will be announced. Entry is free and the deadline 31 July. There is no mention of a monetary prize, but there is always La gloire and an opportunity to see your work in print. Details: https://writ/rs/surreylifecomp.

Because of our current situation, the British Czech & Slovac Association Competition for short stories and non-fiction, up to 2,000, exploring the links between Britain and the Czech/Slovak Republics at any time, has extended its deadline from the end of June to 31 July. Prizes: £400, £150, together with publication in the British Czech & Slovac Review and an invitation to a dinner – moreover, ENTRY IS FREE. The suggested, but optional, theme for 2020 is sporting. Surely some of you have humorous memories of sporting events that you have attended, or viewed on television. A batchelor party in Prague? Or maybe romantic lingerings on the wonderful Charles Bridge in your youth? Do get writing. Details: http://www.bcsa.co.uk

Finally, the Sean O’Faolain Short Story Competition is looking for stories up to 3,000-words on an open theme. Prizes: 2,000 Euros, week-long retreat at Aman Cara Writers’ and Artists’ Retreat; Euros 500, Euros 250×4. Entry fee: Euros 18. Closing date: 31 July. Details: http://www.munsterlit.ie

Please take special care at this unsettled time to check entry details, since some events may have been cancelled or had their entry dates altered.

Remember that reading is good for depression and uplifting for those in isolation. So it is up to writers like ourselves to grab those notebooks, cudgel our brains and keep providing fresh material.


It doesn’t have to have a happy ending


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And you don’t often get one in the novels of George Gissing.

“Writers’ lives are rarely as interesting as their books. The life of George Gissing (1857-1903) is an exception,” begins the introduction to Born in Exile, a book that was on my bookshelf and until recently unread.
I had read New Grub Street, surely required reading for any writer, many years ago and then a few other Gissing novels. They had made such an impression on me that I had also bought a biography Gissing, a life in books, by John Halperin, and so I knew a little of the author’s life. A life so frequently played out in his writing.

Gissing was born in Wakefield. A brilliant scholar he was expelled from college at the age of eighteen for stealing money from his fellow students to support his mistress, Nell, an alcoholic prostitute. He wanted to buy her a sewing machine to give her a respectable occupation. After the disgrace he went to America where he was kept from starvation by selling stories to Chicago newspapers. He returned to England but, no longer welcome at home, he left Wakefield for London. There he began writing while tutoring as a means of support and, disastrously, he met up with Nell again. They moved from lodging house to lodging house as Nell fell out with the landladies.

In 1879 Gissing’s first novel Workers in the Dawn was completed and, despite the misgivings he must have felt, he married Marianne Helen Harrison and contracted an exogamous marriage (yes, I had to look it up) that was to be a theme in so many of his novels. The well-educated, but poor, man marries a woman of low birth in the vain hope of elevating her to his standing. To a woman equal to him in intellect and rank he would be “unlovable”.

The marriage lasted until Nell’s death of drink and syphilis, cold and hunger in a miserable rented room in Lambeth in 1888. Gissing had not lived with his wife for several years but had provided her with an allowance. In the room he found many pawn tickets, the money she raised spent on drink. He redeemed her wedding ring. Less than three weeks later Gissing threw himself into writing The Nether World and finished it in July.
Reading the biography I am struck by the speed with which he completed his books, although corrections would come later at the proof stage. Between 1880 and 1903 he wrote 23 novels and 111 short stories, as well as non-fiction.

“Gissing’s subjects are sex, money, and class, and the three dovetail in most of his novels and stories into the single subject of marriage,” says Professor Halperin. To a friend Gissing wrote, ‘It is strange how many letters I get from women asking for sympathy and advice. I really can’t understand what it is in my work that attracts the female mind.”

Mr Gissing, you are not a light-hearted read. You eschew one word where six may be employed, and your novels are the three-volume tomes of the Victorian fashion. You are preoccupied with women’s lack of education that renders them unsuitable companions for their husbands. To your sister you wrote, “If you could know how much of the wretchedness of humanity is occasioned by the folly, pigheadedness, ignorance and incapacity of women you would rejoice to think of all these new opportunities for mental and moral training.” Yet women liked you and you liked them.

My battered copy of New Grub Street

In September 1890 when he was bemoaning his lonely life, “starved emotions made me a madman”, George Gissing met Edith Underwood, a respectable working class girl. Within a week of meeting her he began writing New Grub Street and finished it ten weeks later. Halperin comments that 1890 produced “both one of the greatest novels in the English language and one of the unhappiest marriages in English history.”
Gissing thought he could educate Edith to be a congenial spouse and a competent homemaker. He was sadly mistaken. She was incapable of ordering servants, quarrelling with them and smashing crockery. The domestic harmony Gissing hoped for was a dream, a nightmare when a crying baby was added to the scene. The son, Walter, Gissing often had to care for himself as Edith had little maternal feelings and nursemaids came and went. In 1896 second son, Alfred, was born. “Endless misery in the house,” Gissing reported in his diary.

The following year while the family was on holiday in Wensleydale midst more domestic strife, Gissing determined to leave his wife. Walter was to be sent to Wakefield under the care of his father’s sisters. Edith and Alfred were to go to lodgings and George was to go to Italy, where he wrote Charles Dickens: a Critical Study.

On his return to England in 1898 he was desperate that Edith should not find him. He took a house in Dorking. In June that year he received a letter from a Frenchwoman asking if she could have the rights to a French translation of New Grub Street. On 6 July Gabrielle Fleury, the respectable woman Gissing supposed he would never find, tracked him down at the home of his friend H G Wells.

Edith was continuing to cause trouble. In August she assaulted her landlady and had to be restrained by a policeman. Gissing longed to get Alfred from her, but Edith would only agree to a legal separation that provided her with a house and custody of both boys. There would be no divorce.

Gissing didn’t hide his marital status from Gabrielle. After a romance conducted mainly by letters to France, and for the sake of respectability, on 7 May 1899 George Gissing and Gabrielle Fleury were married in Rouen Cathedral. The “marriage” was not without its own ups and downs, hampered by Gissing’s failing health and the disagreement of Gabrielle and H G Wells over the best treatments.

George Gissing died on 28 December 1903 and was buried in the English cemetery at St. Jean de Luz.

There it is: a thumbnail sketch of the life of a Victorian novelist. I have not covered his struggle for funds – his first publishers treated him shabbily – his admiration for Charlotte Brontë also badly served by the same firm, his friends including the English writers of his time: George Meredith, Thomas Hardy, H G Wells among them.

I doubt there is much here to entice you to turn to George Gissing. The only person I have ever debated his work with is my daughter. It must be in the genes.

I’m off to read The Odd Women, borrowed from the said daughter. I think it might have a rare happy ending.

How to Avoid the Agent Slushpile



Avon Books, the division of Harper Collins that publishes commercial fiction – mainly women’s fiction and crime – is currently open for direct submissions from writers.

Authors published by Avon include C L Taylor, Sue Moorcroft, Scott Mariani and Philippa Ashley.

All you need to do is submit the full manuscript of unpublished, completed commercial fiction novels as doc files. Submissions may be crime, thrillers, historical fiction, romantic comedy, women’s fiction, sagas and time-slip fiction. Plenty of scope, then.

Include a brief author biography, social medial links and a short synopsis or blurb for the book of approximately 250 words.

Details: email: avonsubmissions@harpercollins.co.uk; website: http://writ.rs.avonsubmissions.

Do have a go. The book in the centre of the bookshelf above managed to get itself published without an agent – why not yours?

Maggie in Historia magazine

Our Maggie, winner of Historia Magazine’s Unpublished Novel Award, is featured in this month’s edition of Historia.

Read the article here…

9 June 2020 By Maggie Richell-Davies

How I won an award and stopped being an unpublished novelist

Part of William Hogarth's portrait of his servants

Maggie Richell-Davies is the winner of the first HWA/Sharpe Books Unpublished Novel Award. She tells Historia about her now-published novel, The Servant, and her journey to publication by Sharpe Books: “Be persistent,” she advises. “But above all find competitions that put your story under the nose of someone who loves the past.”

Continue reading

Covid-19 and the case of the stymied writers

Covid-19 seems to have affected a lot more things than I anticipated.

For one thing, I’m still trying to get used to the fact that nobody else is going to be in my flat anytime soon.  I don’t have to sniff all the liquid soaps in the supermarket to make sure they’re not too girly for male guests.  I don’t have to invest in posh paper napkins.  There’s no point trying out recipes to see if they might impress the family. 

I can spray on perfumes without fretting about whether they’ll offend.  (Perfume is my passion but not necessarily everyone else’s.)

And writing has become impossible.

See, I have a character in a boat on a loch and things are about to happen to her.  I know where she is, and why.  I just can’t decide WHEN she is.


The pandemic has changed the world.  Do you set your ‘contemporary’ story just far enough in the past to not acknowledge Covid-19 ?  And if you do, should it include ominous foreshadowings?  Or if you decide to exclude current events, will your story be relevant to readers? 

We can’t aim for a future, post-Covid-19 world, because we don’t know that there will ever be a post-Covid-19 world, or what the future looks like. 

The Guardian recently published an article about writers’ lockdown blues:

“I’m finding it incredibly difficult to work out what to do,” says Holly Watt, author of To the Lions, winner of the 2019 CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger. She is working on her next novel, the third in her series following investigative journalist Casey Benedict, which was due to be published in summer 2021.

“I’m trying to work out where we might be. Might there be a vaccine? Will getting on a plane feel wildly anachronistic? Will journalists working from an office seem weird? How interesting can a book actually be when everyone is sitting in their sitting room in their pyjamas?” Watt asks. “It feels odd to be writing about people hopping on trains or popping to the pub, but focusing on Covid might make it date hideously. But if you don’t mention it, it is the massive elephant in the room.”


How are you dealing with this?