Crime Writer Margaret Kirk – Our First Guest Contributor



Easily the most popular of our historic posts is the one about Margaret Kirk’s winning entry to the Good Housekeeping 2016 Novel Competition: Shadow Man, a gritty Scottish crime novel.





So we were delighted when Margaret offered to give our followers advice from her own experience – especially as she is busy with the run-up to publication this summer of her second crime novel, What Lies Buried.

Here is what she said:

Do it Your Way – rewriting the rules to get yourself published

I enjoy reading the ‘Ninevoices’ blog, so when I was asked to contribute a guest post I was delighted to agree. Something cheering, I thought, in the midst of our midwinter blues – new year, new start kind of post, maybe? Ten ways to get yourself motivated, ten tips to taking your writing to where you want to be in 2019.

Then good sense intervened. Writing advice, from me? Really? I’ve only just finished my second novel, and I still count myself as a total newbie. I’m well aware that my route has not been the traditional one – I’d had some successes with short stories before I sent in my entry to the Good Housekeeping First Novel competition, but I had no expectations of actually winning it. And the publishing world is so unlike any environment I’ve encountered before, sometimes it feels as though I’ve landed in a country I’ve never heard of, where I don’t speak the language. With a road-map I can’t read.

So I’m going to turn this on its head. I’m going to look at the three pieces of writing advice I hear most frequently, and explain why I think they need to be approached with caution.

Write Every Day

Well, ideally, yes. Because there’s undeniably a certain consistency of thought, of image, that writing for a sustained period of time, day after day, can bring. But we all have lives, we all (and this is particularly true for women) have so many demands on our time. There is absolutely no reason to feel guilty/feel you haven’t got what it takes/feel anything negative at all if sometimes you can’t find the time, the mental space or the energy to write. This really is okay. When you do have the time and energy, the writing will be there, waiting for you. As someone who only started seriously in her late forties, I’m living proof of this!

Don’t Give Up

Tricky. No, don’t give up the writing, unless there are other things going on in your life (see above) and you need to take a break. But if you have a finished piece of writing you’ve submitted to agents/publishers/competitions, and it keeps getting rejected, then maybe you need to take another look at it. Have you received feedback on it, and if so, what did the feedback say? I’m not suggesting it’s automatically time to bin your work, but particularly if the same kind of feedback keeps cropping up, there may be something you need to take another look at. Sometimes just the smallest tweaks can make a huge difference!

Show, Don’t Tell

Meh. Yes, of course, Chekov’s ‘show me the glint of light on broken glass’. But this has become such a piece of dogma, sometimes we forget that most times, we’re trying to tell a story. And unless we’re writing the most esoteric of esoteric literary fiction, that means balancing the need to build atmosphere/set the scene with the need to move the story forward. Sometimes – and it took me some time to realise this – instead of agonising over every description, it is perfectly fine to say, ‘He opened the door, and went outside.’

Make sense? I hope so. But if you disagree violently with anything I’ve said, that’s absolutely fine too. Honest. Because there is no magic formula, no single way to achieve your goal (whatever it may be) that works for every writer. In the end, I think all that really matters is that you enjoy where the journey takes you.

Thank you, Margaret!




Writing Competitions to Enter in March


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What better time than spring to begin a new short story, enter a competition, or perhaps create a children’s book about the creature whose magical home is under this tree…?

The White Review Short Story Prize is for ambitious short fiction between 2,000 and 7,000 words by UK writers who have yet to secure a publishing deal. There is a first prize of £2,500, with the winning story being published in the print edition of the quarterly White Review. Shortlisted entries will be published online and their authors will receive feedback from The White Review editors. The entry fee is £15 and the closing date 4 March. For full rules and entry details:

Neil Gunn Writing Competitions. Short story: 2,500 words max. Poetry: 40 lines max. Prizes: £500; £300; £200 in each category. Entry fee: £8. Deadline 8 March. Details:

Evesham Festival of Words Short Story Competition for writers aged 16-plus. 2,500 words maximum. Prizes: £150 plus trophy. Entry fee: £5. Deadline 22 March. Details:

Evesham Festival of Words Junior Competition for a story of 500 words max (age 8-11); 1,000 words (age 12-15). Prizes: £30 gift voucher plus trophy in each category. Details:

Fish Publishing Poetry Contest for a poem of 300 words. Prizes: 1,000 Euros; week at Anam Cara retreat; 200 Euros; top 10 published in anthology. Entry fee: 14 Euros, then 8 Euros thereafter. Deadline 31 March. Details:

The BBC National Short Story Award 2019, with Cambridge University, is open for entries until March 11. This prestigious award has a first prize of £15,000, and four shortlisted authors will each win £600. All winning stories will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and published in an anthology. Stories should be aimed at adult readers and up to 8,000 words. However, to enter writers must have a previous record of publication in creative writing (prose fiction, drama or poetry) with an established book publisher, newspaper, magazine, journal or periodical in the UK, or broadcast by a UK national broadcaster or content provider. Self-published work is not eligible. Entry is free, and each author may submit just one story. Full details from

Flash 500 Flash Fiction Competition for 500 words maximum. Entry fee: £5 or £8 for two. Prizes: £300, plus publication in Words with Jam; £200 and £100. Details:

Henshaw Press Quarterly Short Story Competition for short stories of 2,000 words. Prizes: £100; £50. Deadline end March. Details:

Not a vast field, but there are always other, themed, competitions run by Writing Magazine and by Writers’ Forum which you can enter – some of which are open to non-subscribers.

As always, please remember to double-check the latest entry details before pressing that ‘send button.

[My picture, incidentally, was taken last Tuesday, at Scotney Castle, in Kent. Bravo for our wonderful National Trust, and the wit they show in the notices displayed for visitors…]

Barbara Pym – more please


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In a radio talk recorded in February 1978 and transmitted on BBC Radio 3 in April, less than two years before she died, Barbara Pym described a favourite television quiz game, where panellists were asked to guess the authorship of certain passages read out to them. ‘There were no prizes for guessing, no moving belt or desirable objects passing before their eyes, just the pleasure and satisfaction of recognising the unmistakable voice of …  whoever it might be. I think that’s the kind of immortality most authors would want – to feel that their work would be immediately recognisable as having been written by them and by nobody else. But of course it’s a lot to ask for!’

It might be, but Barbara Pym’s voice is entirely and delightfully unmistakable; it’s unlike any other author, however longingly we search. There just isn’t enough of it for us readers – if only she’d written more! Blame her publishers who rejected her seventh novel An Unsuitable Attachment in 1963. Thank goodness she went on writing during the following fourteen years of rejection – though probably not as much as she might have done…

One of the joys of Barbara Pym’s novels is the way characters reappear. They are our old friends… Here in WRITINGS is a short story written as a light-hearted tribute to Barbara Pym featuring some of them:  Tread Softly in the Ladies.




Should a writer spend time doing nothing? Byron did


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If you’re a writer, budding or established, do you spend enough time doing nothing, do you take time to stop and stare? Do you ever just sit or lie there, and look at the view?

No less a giant than Byron did just that. On this tomb in the churchyard of St Mary’s church in Harrow-on-the-Hill. It was presumably in better repair then, and without the railings subsequently put on because of the very fame he had brought it. Its occupant was “John Peachey Esq, of the island of St Christopher’s”, who has thus gained prolonged and unintended fame because of his grave’s location and the identity of its famous lounger.

According to a picture in the guide to the church, Byron lay on it propped up on his elbows. This looks uncomfortable, but it seems he lay there for hours, looking at the view, for when addressing the elm that was then above the grave he wrote,

“Thou drooping Elm! Beneath whose boughs I lay,
And frequent mused the twilight hours away …”

A plaque at the spot says, “In school he was known for his witty epigrams and satires, but it was here, surrounded by reminders of mortality, that he invoked a more melancholy and reflective muse.”

He was a pupil at Harrow School at the time (from 1801 to 1805), so either he just played hooky when he should have been inside doing his homework, or noble scholars like him didn’t have homework to bother with. The plaque says that he came here “to escape the restraints of school life”. The guide to the church does say that “he was rather an erratic student” at Harrow, and that he “was a ringleader in a lot to blow up George Butler who the boys did not want as Head Master”, so perhaps the teachers were quite happy to let him lie for hours in the churchyard …

His poem “Lines Written Beneath An Elm In The Churchyard Of Harrow” can be found at The first verse is reproduced on the stone at the front of the tomb, put there in 1905 by the son of one of his school friends.

The elm he addressed went long ago but here are its successors. In 1822 Byron was planning where to bury his 5-year-old daughter Allegra, and he wrote:

“There is a spot in [St Mary’s] churchyard, near the footpath, on the brow of the hill looking towards Windsor, and a tomb under a large tree (bearing the name of Peachie, or Peachey), where I used to sit for hours and hours when a boy. This was my favourite spot …” He wanted Allegra to be buried in the church, with a stone memorial bearing his own composition, but his reputation was so bad that the Rector and churchwardens refused his request and buried her in an unmarked grave. Today there’s a memorial to her near the south porch. (An account of this little girl’s sad life can be found at  Warning: Byron does not come out of this well.)  Here’s the view towards Windsor:

So, o writers ye, you are allowed to take time off just to gaze and muse. You don’t have to always be checking your e-mails or honing your synopsis. But where do you do this? In a churchyard like Byron? In your local park (will there one day be a plaque on a bench saying “This was Lavinia’s favourite spot”?)? On a country ramble?     Do tell …





Happy Valentine’s Day




Courtesy of the wonderful British Library, we give you ‘A map or chart of the road of love, and harbour of marriage’, published in 1748.

Marriage, apparently, was a popular subject for spoof cartography in the eighteenth century, with this example containing ‘some sly double meanings’, if your eyes are sharp enough. You have been warned…

The British Library website is a treasure trove. Do take a look some time.

Albert Finney and Rosamunde Pilcher


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Albert Finney RIP – I think I read Saturday Night and Sunday Morning before I saw the film (it will have had an A or an X certificate and I wouldn’t have been old enough to get into the cinema) but remember realising that the novel was something different.  And Albert Finney on film as Arthur Seaton was, well, definitive.  (I don’t know where my own copy now is, but seeing that old Pan paperback pictured this week I noticed that it really did say on the front “Makes Room at the Top look like a vicarage tea party”: I’d thought that that was just a cliché, but no, it was really used.)

An aunt took me to see Tom Jones at the cinema – another amazing Finney performance – and my copy of the book has my name and ‘1966’ written in it in her best calligraphy.  I see that the book cost a massive 8/6 – a lot for a schoolboy, so maybe she gave it to me.  I don’t know which I did first – see the film or read the book.  I’m sure I missed a lot of Henry Fielding’s jokes but I do remember the excitement of seeing as an A Level English student what a skilled writer could do with irony and description and character.  And why not go on for 800 pages?  Why stick at the 180 or 200 my usual reading matter then had?

My third Finney/literature moment was seeing him on stage at the National Theatre as Tamburlaine in 1976.  I’d read Tamburlaine and had wondered how this prolonged bombast-fest could possibly be staged (and what constitution the actor in the lead role must have!).  Well, Albert Finney was magnificent.  He made it work.  Christopher Marlowe would, I’m sure, have been delighted to see this massive anti-hero brought so compellingly to life.

Rather a different writer was Rosamunde Pilcher, who has also left us this week.  She sold 60 million books!  60 million.  Think of the sheer quantity of the pleasure she brought to her readers.  And that pleasure spread far and wide: a happy part of my Czech mother-in-law’s week would be watching Rosamunde Pilcher’s stories made by a German film company, in the most glorious Cornish settings, with Czech subtitles.  I don’t remember seeing those programmes in England but they have gone down well in Central Europe. Lots of red phone boxes and letter-boxes to remind the viewers where they are.

Must read The Shell Seekers one day.

So thanks, Albert Finney, and thanks, Rosamunde Pilcher.


Competitions to Enter in February


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Meet the new beta reader for ninevoices! Nine-month old Kiko’s recommendations for this freezing cold morning are a bracing walk (yay!) before curling up before a roaring fire with the laptop and entering a competition or two… Dropped biscuit crumbs would be a bonus.

Papatango and Southwark Playhouse welcome submissions of new stage plays for their Papatango New Writing Prize. The winner will develop their play with Papatango in preparation for a four-week production in the autumn. Their script will be published by Nick Hern books and the writer will receive ten percent royalties. In addition, following the stage production, the winner will be awarded a £6,000 commission to create a new play, with Papatango providing developmental support. The competition is for an original, unperformed and unproduced full-length stage play – minimum sixty minutes/forty pages/9,000 words. ENTRY IS FREE, and the deadline 17 February. Full details on their website:

The Chiplitfest Short Story Competition is open for entries up to 5,000 words. There is a first prize of £500, a second prize of £100 and a third prize of £50. The authors of the top ten stories will have the opportunity to be featured on, which publishes short stories. The entry fee for stories up to 2,500 words is £5, and £8 for stories up to 5,000 words. Closing date is 7 February. Details:

The CWA are inviting entries for two writing competitions. The CWA Debut Dagger is given for the opening of a crime writer who had never published a full-length novel and who has not got a contract with a publisher or agent. The winner receives £500 and shortlisted writers receive feedback, plus having their entries sent to interested UK agents. To enter, send up to 3,000 words, plus a synopsis of no longer than 1,500 words. The entry fee is £36 and the closing date 28 February. The CWA Margery Allingham Short Story Competition 2019 is for the best unpublished short story that most closely fits vintage crime writer Margery Allingham’s definition: ‘The Mystery remains box-shaped, at once a prison and a refuse. Its four walls are, roughly, a Crime, a Mystery, and Enquiry and a Conclusion with an Element of Satisfaction in it.’ The prize is £500, plus two passes to Crimefest 2020.To enter, send unpublished stories up to 3,500 words. The entry fee is £12 and the closing date 28 February. Full details:

The CWA Debut Dagger people are generous with hints and tips on how to impress their judges – in particular. posting a five-point analysis of why a reader might fail to be impressed by a synopsis. This is valuable for ANY novel, not just one involving a crime. So do take a look at their website.

Fish Flash Fiction Prize, maximum 300 words. Open subject. Prizes 1,000 Euros; 300 Euros; online writing course; publication in anthology. Entry fees: online 14 Euros for one, then 8 Euros; postal 16 Euros for one, then 10 Euros. Deadline 28 February. Details:

Flash 500 Short Story Competition for between 1,000 and 3,000 words. Prizes: £500, plus a two-year Duotrope gift certificate; £200; £100. Entry fees: £7 for one story, £12 for two; £16 for three; £20 for four. Deadline 28 February. Details:

Kelpies Prize for a novel. Send the first five chapters, plus a 1,000-3,000 word synopsis starting ‘There were three things everyone knew about [character name]… Rules: Scottish writers only, aged over 18. ENTRY IS FREE. Prizes: £500, plus £500 advance on signing contract, mentoring, writing retreat and £100 expenses. Full details: 

The Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Contest for a novel for children. Full manuscript 30,000 to 80,000 words, synopsis and covering letter. Rules: novel suitable for children aged 7-18. Entry fee: £18. Prize: publishing contract/royalty advance of £10,000; critique for all longlisted. Details:

If you fancy attracting the attention of an American agent, WOW! Women On Writing Winter 2019 Flash Fiction Contest is open until February 28. The guest judge is literary agent Kari Sutherland with Bradford Literary Agency. Submit short fiction of any genre between 250-750 words. Prizes: $400; $300, $200. The prize also includes publication and an interview. Can’t find if there is an entry fee, but details should be on:

That should be enough to be going on with, but do, please, double-check all and any details before entering.

Having noted the requirements for the Kelpies Prize, above, with its suggested opening phrase, I’m going to suggest this as one of the homework tasks that whoever hosts the fortnightly ninevoices’ sessions sets for those not immersed in novel editing. It should trigger useful flash and short stories – so why not make use of it? Kiko would give you an approving tail-wag..




Tsundoku – we’ve all got it (haven’t we?) …


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Tsundoku is the Japanese word for books you’ve bought but have not yet read. How brilliant to have such a word – why isn’t there an English one, we must have been piling them up just as much over here for just as long! Here’s some of my own tsundoku. Some was bought on impulse in a bookshop, some ordered after careful thought, some bought at a church fair because I was a friend of the person manning the bookstall and felt I had to buy something.

Authors, how do you feel about your work being tsundoku? Is it enough that your book caught a purchaser’s eye so much that he or she bought it? Or that you’ve had the royalty on that sale? Or are you somewhat put out that you’re still in the To Be Read One Day list?

If the latter, my apologies to the authors in my photo. I suspect that Robert Browning, George Eliot and Arthur Conan Doyle wouldn’t have minded that much.