21 August 1968


, , , , , , , , , ,

Historic events are often tragic but can form the setting for so many stories.

On 21 August 1968 the armies of the Warsaw Pact invaded their partner in the socialist bloc, Czechoslovakia. Thus ended the hopes of the Prague Spring, and then came ‘normalisation’ (Orwell would have been proud of that neologism), which put the Czechs and Slovaks back in their place behind the Iron Curtain for the two decades until 1989.

Two novels published this month focus on these terrible events. There will be several others!

Prague Spring is by Simon Mawer (author of the remarkable novel The Glass Room, reviewed on this blog at https://ninevoices.wordpress.com/2017/08/15/the-glass-room-revisited/). Two English students, Ellie and James, are hitch-hiking in Europe and are in Czechoslovakia at the key time, while Sam Wareham, working at the British Embassy in Prague, much in the company of Czech student Lenka Konecková, is discovering the world of Czechoslovak youth. But the Russian tanks are assembling … (Published by Little, Brown; ISBN 9781408711156)

Broken Sea: A story of love and intolerance is by Nigel Peace. It’s a love story set against the background of 1968. 18-year-old Roy has met Czech student in Wales and falls in love, but she feels she must return home. Their love develops, but can it last? Lives are so changed by the events of 1968, and are too many things kept secret? (Published by Local Legend; ISBN 9781910027233)

At this date fifty years ago I was staying with a German family in Bielefeld in West Germany. I recall vividly their alarm at the news of the invasion: would the Russians stop at the Czechoslovak border or carry on into West Germany? Fortunately for my hosts they stopped.

If you’re interested in the politics of it all, there’s a 12-minute piece on Radio Prague about the negotiations between Dubček and Brezhnev in the period leading up to 21 August – go to https://www.radio.cz/en/section/czech-history/kieran-williams-a-week-before-the-invasion-dubcek-still-believed-he-had-time.



Guy and St Thomas

During numerous visits to the London hospitals, I have found the apostrophe comes in many guises: Guys, Guy’s, Guys’  – poor Guy must be turning in his grave.
St Thomas, St Thomas’s, St Thomas.’
St Thomas is interesting. The ‘s’ is present in the name so presumably the apostrophe would go after the ‘s.’ But, and here’s the rub, should an ‘s’ be added, hence St Thomas’s? After all, it is usual to write Margaret Davies’s house.

I believe David Crystal has said that as Jesus is universally and historically known, no extra ‘s’ is required, hence Jesus’ disciples.

Does St Thomas have similar status?

In any case, whoever is sitting in an office at St Thomas’ or Guy’s Hospital, please apply some consistency.

A frustrated patient.


Dust Collectors


, , , , , , , ,

That’s how my great-aunts dismissed books. Like all households they had Bibles, prayer books, a cookery book or two, and “ready reckoners” with curious rod, pole or perch measurements. The prayer books were miniscule with tissue paper pages and tiny print, but the horrors of childbirth could be imagined from The Churching of Women.

I have my grandmother’s Enquire Within upon Everything should I need to address the Younger Son of an Earl, prepare a potion for my children because I have made them sick with Brimstone and Treacle, or dance a Quadrille.

What did they do for stories? Woman’s Weekly perhaps, but I think it was taken for the knitting patterns. My mother had a collection of Home Chat magazines that might have contained stories, but I remember its “make do and mend” fashion pages.

Himself and I have shelves of dust collectors in every room. When it comes to novels he and I rarely read the same authors. A mutual favourite is the Bryant and May detective series by Christopher Fowler. Having finished The Water Room I suggested it could go to a charity shop. ‘No,’ he said, ‘when I’m old(!) I’ll have forgotten the plot and will read it again.’

I am not a re-reader of novels. (I can spend hours dipping into Enquire Within. I think I need paragraph 1530 Rules of Conduct drawn up by the celebrated Quakeress, Mrs Fry.)

Exceptions to my no rereading rule are Jude the Obscure – but not Tess of the D’urbervilles, too many dramatisations perhaps – and The Diary of a Provincial Lady, maybe the latter as I have a curiosity for outdated domestic detail, engendered by pouring over those early self-helps.

I think I may be alone among my fellow ninevoices. Tanya has declared that she will not read a novel unless she considers it will be worthy of rereading. This is evident from her character analyses of the works of Austen, Eliot, Trolloppe and many more. Often, too, she is reminded of passages from her favourite novels. However, she has inspired me to buy and rediscover Barbara Pym. I probably read library editions before: one way of limiting the dust collectors.

To read and reread, or enjoy the memory of the first experience? which may, of course, be faulty.

Competitions to Enter in August


, , , , , , , ,

When is a short story competition not a short story competition? I’ve been entering these things for years, only ever winning two and being short-and-long-listed on a handful of other occasions. HOWEVER, winning isn’t all that’s on offer.

Competitions can be incredibly successful for curing writers’ block. If you’re stuck with your novel, turning your back on it and creating something new, perhaps in a different genre, can help you return to your manuscript with fresh perception.

Writing a short story might also develop a character or set of characters who will take hold of your imagination and inspire something much more significant. Tanya’s two published novels — Of Human Telling and All Desires Known — had their genesis in a short story about people living in the shadow of an English public school. My own novel, currently being edited prior to submission, began life as a short story, but elicited the comment from a judge that she felt the subject matter: ‘really called for a book’.

Competition entries can also help develop the persistence that writers desperately need. A story that failed in the Olga Sinclair Award several years ago served its time in my rejects drawer, was then re-written and re-named, and went on to success in the Hysteria Short Story Competition. It can be seen under Writings on our masthead, together with Tanya’s Across the River, a winner in Writer’s Forum, and Marshmallow Truth, a winner in Writing Magazine. Both stories were entered in a number of competitions over the years without any real success. Persistence pays off.

So what’s stopping you?

Costa Short Story Award. Short stories up to 4,000 words on any theme. Prizes: £3,500; £1,000; £500. FREE ENTRY.  DEADLINE 3 AUGUST. Entry details from: http://www.costabookawards.com

Ilkley Literature Festival Short Story and Poetry Competition for short stories and poetry. DEADLINE 1ST AUGUST. Short story, maximum 3,000 words. Entry fee £5. Prize: £200. Poetry, maximum 30 lines. Entry fee £5. Prizes: £200; £100; £75. Details: http://www.ilkley-literaturefestival.org.uk/join-in/competitions

Exeter Story Prize and Flash Competition. Story: max 10,000 words. Flash: max 1,000 words. Fee: £12. Prizes: £500 plus trophy; £150; £100. Tricia Ashley Award for best humorous entry: trophy plus £200. Deadline 31 August. Details: http://www.creativewritingmatters.co.uk/competitions.html

1000-Word Challenge. Flash: max 1000 words. Entry fee: £5. Prizes: ££100; £50; £25. Details: http://www.1000wordchallenge.com

Bench Theatre’s Supernova 8 Festival of new one act plays will take place at the Spring Arts and Heritage Centre, Havant, Hampshire in February 2019 and if you are resident in the UK, or a British citizen, you have until 17 August to submit a play for consideration for the festival. There is no entry fee and although no payment is made, if your play is performed you will gain all-important performance credit. Submit original plays of a maximum of 45 minutes and no more than six actors. Shortlisted plays will be given feedback. Full details: http://www.benchtheatre.org.uk/supernova.php

The HWA Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Award is inviting entries of unpublished historical short fiction, set at least 35 years in the past, of up to 3,500 words. The winning story will receive £500, publication in The Whispering Gallery and on http://www.historiamag.com, mentoring sessions and tickets to the HWA Crowns ceremony in November, when the award will be presented. Runners-up will receive mentoring and invitations to the awards ceremony. The entry fee is £5 per story and the closing date is 31 August. Details: https://historicalwriters.org/dorothydunnett/

Aesthetica Creative Writing Award.  For unpublished poems of up to 40 lines and short stories of up to 2,000 words. Entry fee for poems: £12; short stories: £18. Details: http://www.aestheticamagazine.com/cwa

The Prague City of Literature Project is inviting applications for 2019 writer-in-residency stays. Six are available, each for a two-month period and writers-in-residence are reimbursed for a return ticket and provided with accommodation and a monthly stipend of 600 Euros. Applicants should have a cultural interest in Prague, at least one published literary work, a willingness to take part in the local literary life and a project they will be working on during their stay. At the end of their stay they must undertake to provide the Municipal Library in Prague with a text inspired by the residency to be used by the Prague City of Literature Project. Closing date to apply is 31 August. Details: http://www.prahamestoliteratury.cz

The C21 Drama Series Script Competition invites entries for a pilot script for an international TV drama series. Six finalists will present their script to a panel of commissioners and broadcasters, including representatives from Amazon, Netflix and the BBC. The winner will receive a $10,000 option from WritersRoom to develop the project. There is no entry fee. Deadline is 31 August and details can be found via: http://www.c21media.net/script/

The John O’Connor Short Story Competition 2018 offers a bursary to attend the John O’Connor Writing School and Literary Arts Festival in Armagh between 1 and 4 November, plus £250. The prize includes accommodation, but not travel expenses. The competition is for short stories between 1,800 and 2,000 words. There is an entry fee of £10. Deadline 28 August. Details http://www.thejohnoconnorwritingschool.com

As ever, please let me urge you to double check all competition details on the relevant website before entering.

The most hateful character in fiction?


, , , , , , , , , ,

‘Make your nasty characters ten times nastier,’ advised the creative writing tutor. ‘Readers want strong definition so exaggerate the light and dark.’

She had a point. Even if you aren’t writing crime novels, it’s no good running away from the evil side of human nature. But it’s July 18th, the day that Jane Austen died 201 years ago, and I found myself remembering the careful subtlety of the unpleasant characters in her novels, such as Mrs Ferrars, Lucy Steele, General Tilney, Mrs Norris. Jane Austen never goes over the top.

If asked who we hate most, many of us would probably opt for Mrs Norris, the horrible aunt in Mansfield Park, because of the way she bullies Fanny Price, the terrified little girl taken away from her own family and Portsmouth home to live with her grand relations. Her vindictive spite continues to find fresh expression in the years that follow, but it’s the abuse of a defenceless child that we can’t forgive. Mrs Norris is both loathsome and entirely convincing: we know her. If Jane Austen had overdone Mrs Norris’ awfulness, she might have slid into a caricature and become less real.

Re-reading Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, I could see the same elegant restraint in the portrayal of the corrupt and manipulative Gilbert Osmond. We shiver because we see the trap Isabel has walked into, but it is not until chapter 42 that we know what she is suffering: ‘… it was as if Osmond deliberately, almost malignantly, had put the lights out one by one … under all his culture, his cleverness, his amenity, under his good-nature, his facility, his knowledge of life, his egotism lay hidden like a serpent in a bank of flowers.’  Her real offence ‘was her having a mind of her own at all. Her mind was to be his – attached to his own …’

In my mind, Gilbert Osmond and the sadistic, chilling Henleigh Mallinger Grandcourt, husband of Gwendolen in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (described in the ninevoices post Emotional abuse from a monster husband – and a complex fascinating heroine)  now tie for first place as the most hateful men in literature, while Mrs Norris is still without a serious female rival. But this is perhaps from a sheltered and limited viewpoint. What other fictional characters do we fear and hate?


On Being A Pedant


, , , , , , ,

On Saturday mornings my other half and I usually stroll into Tunbridge Wells. It’s a pleasant walk alongside the Common and in spring there’s the glory of the municipal daffodils.

Yet on each journey I am affronted, disgusted even, by the lack of an apostrophe on the sign for Major York’s Road. I expect better from Royal Tunbridge Wells. 

Should such things bug me? My husband doesn’t care about Major Yorks Road, yet mutters darkly about split infinitives whenever he catches me using them. He will also place exclamation marks (plural, notice) in the margins of any drafts of mine where a sentence starts with And. Other people’s blood pressure rises at mention of the Oxford Comma.

You might like to see some of our previous thoughts on this often contentious subject.

As writers we surely have a duty to defend our wonderful language and how it’s placed on the page. However, knowing what is correct, but deliberately bending the rules, can be excusable, and hopefully creative.

So, on that question of split infinitives, let me share something George Bernard Shaw wrote to his publishers:

There is a busybody on your staff who devotes a lot of time to chasing split infinitives. Every good literary craftsman splits his infinitives when the sense demands it. I call for the immediate dismissal of this pedant. It is of no consequence whether he decides to go quickly, or quickly to go, or to quickly go. The important thing is that he should go at once.

Your views on grammar pedantry are welcome. Don’t be shy, we’d love to hear from you!


Writing Competitions to Enter in July



We’d all love to be shortlisted by the Bridport, but here are some other competitions worth considering, which should have fewer entries against which to compete. Working on a poem, short story or piece of flash fiction can provide a useful cure for writer’s block – or a break from the slog of editing a 100,000-word novel. Why not give one of them a go?

Daily Mail Random House First Novel Competition. The first prize in this competition for a novel for  adult readers is a £20,000 advance. Entries must be original, previously unpublished fiction in any genre for adults except saga, sci-fi or fantasy. In addition, entrants must not previously have published a novel with a valid ISBN, or be represented by a literary agent. The prize is an advance against publication and literary representation by Luigi Bonomi of LBA Books Ltd. Manuscripts must be available by March 2019 and the entry deadline is 13 July 2018. Please note, you must enter by post, sending the first 3,000 words of a debut novel, plus a 600-word synopsis, printed in 12pt font and double-spacing on single sides of A4, to Daily Mail First Novel Competition, c/o Penguin Random House Group, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London. SW1V 2SA. Website details: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/first novel

The Brighton Prize wants short stories between 1,000 and 2,000 words, and flash fiction up to 350 words. Short story prizes are: £1,000, plus 2 x £100. Flash Fiction prizes: £500, plus 2 x £50. ‘We love stories that work on the stage as well as they do on the page.’ Deadline 7 July. Details: http://www.brightonprize.com

Ledbury Poetry Festival Competition is for poems of up to 40 lines. Prizes: £1,000 plus a week at Ty Newydd; £500; £250. Entry fee: £5, £3.50 for each subsequent. Deadline 12 July. Details: http://www.poetry-festival.co.uk

Wrekin Writers are inviting entries up to 1,200 words for the 2018 Doris Gooderson Short Story Competition. There is a first prize of £200, a second of £100 and a third of £50. Half of the competition profits are donated to Severn Hospice. The entry fee is £5, and the closing date 12 July. Details: https://wrekinwriters.wordpress.com

Wasifiri New Writing Prize. Poetry, up to five poems; fiction and life writing up to 3,000 words. Prizes: £300 in each category, plus publication in Wasifiri. This is run by The Open University in London, so well worth supportingEntry fee: £6 for one category; £10 for two categories; £15 for three categories. Closing date 15 July. Details: http://www.wasafiri.org

The H G Wells Short Story Competition is for short stories on the theme of ‘peace’ of 1,500-5,000 words. There is a £250 prize in the adult category and £1,000 in the Margaret and Reg Turnhill Prize for writers under 21. Winning entries will be published in an anthology. Adult entry fee is £10, while under 21 entries are free. Closing date is 23 July. Details:  https://hgwellscompetition.com/

HISSAC Flash Fiction and Short Story Competitions. Flash fiction: max 500 words. Story: max. 2000 words. Fee: £5; £12 for 3; £18 for 5; £25 for 7. Prizes: £250; £50; £25. Deadline: 31 July. Details: http://www.hissac.co.uk

The Olga Sinclair Award, promoted by Norwich Writers, is looking for short stories of up to 2,000 words on the theme of ‘markets’. There will be ten winners, with the top three receiving prizes of £400, £250, £100. All ten will be published in a non-profit-making anthology. Postal deadline is 16 July, online deadline 31 July. Details: https://norwichwriters.wordpress.com/the-olga-sinclair-open-short-story-competition/

Trapeze Books Write Your Own Love Story competition offers a £10,000 book contract plus mentoring from Trapeze author, Anna Stuart. One lucky runner-up will receive a place on a Curtis Brown on-line novel writing course worth £200. Send your first 5,000 words, plus biographical details and a brief synopsis by 30 July to lovestories@orionbooks.co.uk  Full details and advice on what they’re looking for at: https://www.curtisbrowncreative.co.uk/sam-eades-on-write-your-own-love-story-a-new-competition/

Inktears Flash Fiction, up to 500 words. Prizes: £250; £50; £25 x 8, plus your story and biographical details published to the readership of the Inktears website (something well worth taking a look at).

To Hull and Back Humorous Writing Competition. Do you have a well-developed sense of humour? Christopher Fielden is looking for ‘funny stories’ up to 4,000 words and isoffering generous prizes: £1,000; £500; £250; 3 x £50; 14 x £25. Winners and those shortlisted will be published in an anthology, together with a writer’s profile, ‘a delightful picture of you, a short bio telling readers how amazing you are and details of  your website, if you have one.’ Entry fee: £11 for one, £18 for two and £22 for three. Closing date is 31 July. Details: http://www.christopherfielden.com

Original unpublished short stories are invited to enter the Sean O’Faolain International Short Story Prize 2018. First prize is 2,000 euros, plus a week-long residency at Anam Cara Retreat in West Cork, Ireland. There is a second prize of 500 euros and four shortlisted entries will receive 120 euros each. If a winner attends the Cork International Short Story Festival to collect their prize, hotel accommodation, meals and drinks will be provided. The entry fee is 15 euros and the closing date for submissions 31 July. Website: http://www.munsterlit.ie/SOF%20Page.html

Cinnamon Press Annual Debut Fiction Prize. The first 10,000 words of an unpublished novel, novella or short story collection. Prize: A year’s mentoring worth £1,000, plus publishing contract, and 100 copies of your novel. Entry fee: £12. Deadline 31 July. Details: http://www.cinnamonpress.com

Stroud Book Festival International Writing Competition 2018. Poetry up to 40 lines, flash fiction up to 500 words; Katie Fford Award for Mainstream Fiction excerpt up to 3,000 words and 200 word synopsis. Prizes: £500; £250; £100; and 4-night writing retreat. £50 Katie Fford award. Entry fee: £5, £3 each additional. Closing date: 31 July. Details: https://stroudbookfestival.org.uk

Novel Writing ScholarshipIrish author Marian Keyes is funding the Marian Keyes Scholarship, offering a place on Curtis Brown Creative’s six-month on-line course. Writers from under-represented backgrounds are strongly encouraged to apply. The course runs between 10 September and 4 March and is taught by Lisa O’Donnell. Writers should be either unmarried and not cohabiting, with an annual income of less than £25,000 and personal savings of less than £5,000, or married or cohabiting with a total household income of less than £35,000 and personal savings of less than £5,000. To apply, send 3,000 words of a work in progress and a one-page synopsis, and complete the online application form. Website: https://writ.rs/mariankeyesscholarship   Deadline: 29 July.

Checking out all these competitions is fiddly, and sometimes I sadly get things wrong, so please remember to check all rules and guidelines before entering.

Something for everybody there, surely? Good luck!