The most hateful character in fiction?


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‘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


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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: 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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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  Full details and advice on what they’re looking for at:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:   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!



At a recent meeting one of our members (bless) suggested that we should have homework that we would bring to the next session. The first theme set was on being awoken by a galloping horse at 3am. Ghost stories, a wife’s revenge and a rant on royal pageantry followed. Maybe these will be developed into fully-fledged stories (not the rant). Is it a good idea? Or does it distract us from other writing?

There’s a PS to this. We’ve had two other “homeworks” since and one of our members has become a poet.

Under attack – when it hurts



Anyone who has ever given or lent a copy of a much-loved novel to a friend is likely to be familiar with the occasional disappointing response. It might include the suggestive silence, or the apologetic, half-embarrassed ‘sorry, not my kind of thing’ or even (and this is worse!)  ‘I can see why you enjoyed it, but…’

It may still surprise and even disconcert when the people we love don’t ‘get’ an author who means so much to us, but we’ve learnt not to allow this unaccountable gap to mar our friendship. It doesn’t change what we feel about them.

But comedians Kathy Burke and Tom Allen savaging Barbara Pym as ‘twee’ and ‘boring’ in a Radio 4 discussion of the novel Crampton Hodnet provoked bewilderment among Barbara Pym readers. How was it possible that these two critics had entirely missed the point of her novels?

One comment among the extensive online discussion which especially resonated was that criticism of Barbara Pym feels personal to him in a way that it doesn’t with other authors. But why should we mind when Barbara Pym is dismissed or mocked when we can shrug off adverse criticism of other authors we enjoy?  Perhaps it is because Barbara Pym writes so tellingly (and with a sharp wit that is always funny but somehow never cruel) about ordinary people, dealing with the small things of life which are also the big things.  Twee and boring seem to be the wrong words for such richness.

But it’s more than that. When Barbara Pym’s characters make reappearances in her later novels, it’s like being given news of old and dear friends. They have an extraordinary habit of living alongside us; in wilder moments we may even feel we are becoming one of them. No wonder an attack can hurt…



Competitions to Enter in June


First of all, check out my post of May 7, which gives details of the Richard & Judy New Novel Competition. If you want a crack at winning that £30,000 prize, the deadline is June 14. Soon.

In celebration of the centenary of the creation of Czechoslovakia and other Czech and Slovak anniversaries the free-to-enter 2018 BCSA International Writing Competition has a theme of ‘Anniversary’. The winning prize has been increased to £400 and there is a second prize of £150. Both winners will be published in the British Czech and Slovak Review. The British Czech and Slovak Association is a registered charity with the aim of ‘raising awareness of matters relating to the history, arts, literature, politics and economies and science of Britain and the Czech Republics and the societal transitions in those Republics since 1989’. There are no age, nationality or educational restrictions on entering the competition – and although erudite offerings are welcome, one of the past winners was a humorous story. The closing date is June 30 and full details can be found on their website:

Farnham Flash Festival has launched a new flash fiction competition for stories up to 500 words, with prizes of £100 (adult category), £50 (age 14-18), and £25 (12-14 and 7-11). The entry fee is £5 per story and the closing date June 10. Details at:

The Moth Short Story Prize 2018 has a first prize of £3,000, a second prize of £250 plus a stay at Circle of Misse writing retreat in France, and a third prize of £1,000. Stories on any theme are welcome, as long as they are previously unpublished. Deadline June 30. Full details:

The biannual Dorset Fiction Award invites entries for its summer competition for short fiction up to 1,000 words. There is a first prize of £500, with the winner and nine runners-up published in an anthology. Entry fee is £7 per story, and the closing date June 9. Website:

VS Pritchett Story Prize for short stories of 2,000-4,000 words. Prize: £1,000 plus publication. Entry fee: £7.50. Deadline June 29. Details:

Bath Flash Fiction Award, max. 300 words. Entry fee £9; £15 for two; £18 for three. Prizes: £1,000; £300; £100; 2x£30. Deadline: 15 June. Details:

The Wigton Poetry Competition 2018 has a first prize of £1,500 and a runner-up prize of £400 for poems of up to forty lines. Three highly commended poets will each win £100. The entry fee is £6.50, three for £17, £5 each subsequent. Closing date June 8. Details (including extra prizes for poems written in Gaelic):

The Brighton Prize is open for stories in two categories: short stories between 1,000 and 2,000 words, with a first prize of £1,000 and two runners-up each getting £100. Entry fee is £8. Their flash fiction category is for fiction up to 350 words, with a first prize of £500, with two runners-up each getting £50. The entry fee is £6. There is a £100 book token for the best entry in either category from a Sussex-based writer. Winning entries will be published in an anthology. Website: Closing date June 30.

Please check entry details, especially deadlines, really carefully in case of error. And don’t forget Writers’ Forum and Writing Magazine also have competitions, some of them available for non-subscribers.

The Rejection Diaries



The Bath Novel judges have started releasing ‘teasers’ for their short list – and many, like myself, will doubtless be desperately persuading ourselves that our plots somehow resemble those described below. Try as I might, however, it can’t be done. Another competition entry bites the dust…

There is, however, much to be learned. My book isn’t actually bad (it’s been long listed in one competition and came third in another), but clearly it isn’t good enough. My opening page in particular lacks the impact to stand out against competition like this: 

  • ‘Stranded time-traveller misfit goes on the run.’
  • ‘Two families bound together in the aftermath of tragedy.’
  • ‘Young care leavers are re-homed in a remote Cornish resort.’
  • ‘Spare and tenderly written story of siblings reunited in rural Ireland.’
  • ‘Tightly written tale of a divided community. Interesting, vivid characters with exceptional sense of place.’
  • ‘A summer fling, an affair and an unexplained death during a family holiday.’

There is a pattern here: strong and well-written characters combined with drama and a vivid sense of place. Something that reaches out from the page and grabs the reader.

I wish the writers of the above books every success and am enjoying a frisson of vicarious pleasure at imaging how they must feel at the moment. Well done to every one of them.

A member of ninevoices recently drew our attention to an excellent post by Fiona Mitchell on what can be learned from rejection. She wrote amusingly of her ‘Folder of Doom‘, containing a sheaf of rejections, but listed five positive things that she’d learned from them. Well worth studying. So I’m not about to make a drama out of not getting on this short list. Nobody died. Nobody took out a big pointy sword and threatened me with it. I simply need to give my opening a bit (maybe even a lot) more welly and keep my sense of humour handy. And there are plenty of other competitions out there.


Check out Fiona Mitchell’s encouraging piece here:

Richard & Judy New Novel Competition


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I’ve just caught up with the fact that Richard and Judy have launched another competition to find a first-time author with the potential to become a best-selling writer. Previously Tracy Rees, author of Amy Snow, and Caz Frear, author of Sweet Little Lies went on to enjoy fantastic sales after being chosen by them.

Search for a Bestseller‘, supported by W H Smith, is accepting manuscripts from unpublished writers until June 14th. Richard and Judy will then themselves be leading the selection process, helped by editors and agents. The winner will receive a £30,000 publishing deal with Bonnier Saffre, and specialist advice from literary agency Furniss Lawton.

Aspiring authors must submit 10,000 words of original fiction aimed at adults, plus a synopsis of the full novel and a short author biography, via Richard and Judy’s website:

Great novels rarely spring fully formed from their writer’s laptop. I’ve recently finished (and been bowled over by) Elinor Olifant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. As a work-in-progress, this book was shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Prize. In 2014, it won the Scottish Book Trust First Chapter Award, allowing Gail to spend valuable time shaping and editing at Moniack Mhor Creative Writing Centre.  Then, in 2017,  she was the Costa Book Awards winner. Not an overnight success, then. A hard worker rewarded.

Most novels evolve and grow over time. Entering your manuscript into competitions can give you the impetus to finally finish your book. A long-listing, or short-listing might provide the spur to invest in a writing course. Like Gail Honeyman, Margaret Kirk, who won the Good Housekeeping First Novel Competition in 2016 with Shadow Man, credits a crime-writing course at Moniack Mhor with ‘literally changing my life’. Something about that bracing Scottish air perhaps.

Competitions are a tremendous encouragement. Even if you don’t win. Even if you aren’t short-listed, or long-listed. Competitions concentrate the mind. They glue you to that laptop into the small hours and get the book written. Then all that’s needed is editing, persistence and yet more editing.