Alphabetical stories


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Can you write a 26-word story?  In alphabetical order?  That’s one game being played on Twitter during lockdown.

Here’s one, in reverse order.  Let’s have your better examples? If 26 words is too short, how about 52?

Zorba’s yellow xylophone was very ugly.  The squat, really quirky police officer never much liked kissing jaundiced instruments:  he groped for every dubious caveat before acting.

Writing Competitions to Enter in June

The creative arts are suffering because of lock-down, though one can fortunately still watch and admire favourite actors on IPlayer and box sets. Books, of course, are always there for us, and those who write should surely be taking advantage of more time at their keyboards. (As the more cynical of you of will suspect, this paragraph is simply an excuse to use a picture of a certain Fleabag actor.)

To more serious matters:

An anthology of non-fiction, short stories and poetry is being put together by Printed Words with all profits going to Macmillan Cancer Support. Submissions are limited to UK residents and a limited number of reprints will be considered, although previously unpublished work is preferred. The maximum word count for non-fiction and short stories is 2,000 words, with a maximum of 50 lines for poetry. A biography of up to 100 words is required and the deadline is 15 June. Printed Words is a quarterly non-profit zine and print magazine which has a £20 prize for one writer in each issue. Details:

Grindstone Literary have two competitions currently on offer, both with a 28 June deadline. A Novel Prize for up to 3,000 words, plus a 300 word synopsis. And a Flash Fiction Prize for 500 words. The former has prizes of £1,000, £500 and 4x£50; the latter, prizes of £500, £20, and 4x£50. The Novel Competition has an £18 entry fee, the Flash Fiction Competition £6 entry fee. Details from:

Farnham Flash Fiction Competition for up to 500 words on any subject. Prizes: £75, £25, £25 for best entry featuring Farnham. Entry fee: £5. Closing date: 5 June. Details:

Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize for poetry (up to five poems), fiction and life writing up to 3,000 words. Prizes: £1,000 in each category, plus publiction in Wasafiri. Entry fee: £10 for one category, £16 for two categories. Closing date: 15 June. Details:

Hastings Literary Festival Writing Competition. Short stories up to 2,500 words, short stories by BAME writers, up to 5,000 words, poems up to 40 lines, and flash fiction up to 500 words. Prizes: £200, £100, £50 in each category, plus a bespoke writer’s surgery for best entry from a Sussex writer. Entry fee: £7.50, £5 for each subsequent entry. Deadline was 7 June, HOWEVER, THIS SADLY APPEARS TO HAVE BEEN CANCELLED because of lock down considerations.

Bath Flash Fiction Award. A thrice-yearly competition for flash fiction up to 300 words. Prizes: £1,000, £300, £100, 2X£30. Entry fee: £9. Current closing date: 16 June. Details:

British Czech & Slovak Association prize for short stories and non-fiction, up to 2,000 words, exploring links between Britain and the Szech/Slovac Republics at any time. The suggested, but optional, theme for 2020 is ‘sporting’. Prizes: £400, £150, publication in the British Czech & Slovak Review. Free entry. Closing date: 30 June. Details:

Henshaw Short Story Competition. A quarterly competition for short stories up to 2,000 words, on any theme. Prizes: £200, £100, £50. Entry fee: £6. Current closing date: 30 June. These are lovely people who not only support writers, and offer a helpful critique, if wanted, but have sent all profits since September 2019 to Medecins sans Frontiers. A few years back, a member of ninevoices managed to not only win this, but get her story into their anthology – so it can be done. Details:

Impress Prize for New Writers. Full-length debuts from unpublished fiction and non-fiction writers. Submit a book proposal and sample chapter totaling no more than 6,000 words. Prizes: £500 and publication by Impress Books. Entry fee: £25. Closing date: 30 June. Details:

Wells Festival of Literature – short stories between 1,000 and 2,000 words; poems up to 35 lines; stories for children (first three chapters); young poets, up to 35 lines. Prizes: £1,000, £500, £250, £100 local prize; £750, £300, £200, £100 local prize, in poetry and children’s categories; £150, £75, £50 in young poets’ category. Entry fee: £6 each category; £3 for young poets. Closing date: 30 June. Details:

Everything is topsy-turvey at the moment, so PLEASE check the above details with care before trying to enter anything. Some competitions are being cancelled, others have their deadlines altered.

Good luck!

The Stress-Free Way to Attend a Literary Festival

I’ve never been to a literary festival, though I have often meant to do so. Yesterday, however, a neighbour drew our attention to fact that the 33rd edition of the Hay Festival, usually held in Powys, is being broadcast free online this week.

This meant that last night we were enthralled to share in a discussion with Maggie O’Farrell about her recently released, and much applauded, Hamnet – an imagined take on the death of Shakespeare’s young son and how it might have affected the playwright’s life and work.


There are many other other treasures to share: poetry readings, ballet, discussions on the science of corona virus. Stephne Fry being erudite about Ancient Greece. All free – though the festival organisers do hint for a donation. But Maggie is probably the highlight for anyone with an interest in historical fiction or, for that matter, quality fiction of any kind.

I was particularly taken by her tale of the difficulties of writing a fraught emotional scene while sharing a household with noisy and intrusive family members. Her solution? To spend two hours hidden inside her children’s Wendy House, accompanied only by her her cat. It worked a treat, apparently.

Being confined at home with one’s family can, of course, be challenging. Young children will need to be home-schooled or entertained. Older ones found space where they can continue to be gainfully-employed on-line. Partners will need to be placated at being abandoned in favour of a laptop and fistful of editing notes. But, as Maggie proved, a way can always be found.

And for those creative people who are completely isolated from their nearest and dearest, just remember that the artist Lowry once confided to a friend: ‘Had I not been lonely I would not have seen what I did.’

Put your isolation to creative use. And find something to watch from the Wye Festival.



Behaving Badly – and Barbara Pym


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‘I could hardly make a big production of it, you know… when he told me, about how he’d spent the night with some girl called Rebecca, all I could think of was the fact that I’d bought turbot for supper…’

Catherine Heath’s fifth and final novel Behaving Badly gives us one of the most brilliantly-conceived comic heroines ever. Published in 1984, it is somehow perfect escapist reading for today, taking us to a past which feels in retrospect to have been more innocent and less complicated.

‘I was going to do Hollandaise sauce, and I thought, oh dear, our lovely dinner’s going to be quite wasted. So when he told me about this girl I just said, oh, yes, I see. Oh, thank you for telling me. And that was all and we ate the turbot and do you know I quite enjoyed it… So I mean, there’s no point in putting on a tragic act. It stands to reason that nobody, nobody that greedy has much dignity to stand on.’

Fifty-year-old Bridget Mayor has dutifully filled her life with hobbies, television and church-going after her husband dumped her five years earlier to marry a much younger woman. Nothing very unusual about that for women in seventies Britain. But what happens when an Excellent Woman stops being excellent and decides she will start pleasing herself instead of other people? What’s the point in clinging to dignity? To her husband’s horrified discomfiture Bridget insists on moving back into her old home in Hampstead, where her devious ex-mother-in-law Frieda conspires to get rid of the intruder Rebecca. But that’s just the start…

Writing in The Times, Isabel Raphael wrote of Behaving Badly: Here is an exceptional novel, brisk and unsentimental, touching and subtly romantic. It is also very funny. Her style is poised and cool and her dialogue as artfully artless as that of Barbara Pym; and there is no higher praise in novels of this kind.

There are connections between the two novelists Barbara Pym (1913-1980) and Catherine Heath (1924-1991): both studied English Literature at St Hilda’s College Oxford, both seamlessly combine wit, satire and sympathy, and both died of cancer aged sixty-six. But it’s disappointing that Catherine Heath remains relatively unknown. In the Barbara Pym Society’s publication Green Leaves of November 1998 Hazel K. Bell wrote how she hoped that Catherine Heath’s wonderful novels would one day be rescued from obscurity, in the same way as Barbara Pym’s have been.

That hasn’t happened, despite Judi Dench’s superb performance as Bridget in the 1989 British television series of Behaving Badly, now available as a DVD. If only they would show it again!

Behaving Badly clearly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It will seem too dated for some, too much a piece of social history, even too trivial. But for others it’s an altogether delightful read where favourite lines can be relished over and over again: Upstairs Frieda closed a detective story. It was useless. She had no access to South American arrow poison. And as one character says near the end, using a very Barbara Pymish word, ‘Isn’t it, in a way, splendid?’












Stay Close to Home – and Write Something


Just a reminder on this Bank Holiday weekend to stay close to home, and maybe read in the garden. Or, even better, settle down in a canvas chair, with a coffee, and write an amusing short story, or the first chapter of your new novel.

As a reminder, and to make you smile in these troubled times, this is one of the winning entries in a Speldhurst Village Scarecrow Competition back in 2010 when we were struggling with the Swine ‘Flu epidemic.

A Day in the Life of a Newly Published Author – OR – Never Trust an Author Photo


I was discombobulated a few days ago by a request from a writing magazine for a high-resolution author photograph. In the middle of a lock-down. Without access to a hairdresser to perform miracles on my shaggy locks and greying partings. With the application of make-up a distant memory. Unreasonable, or what?

However, with existing pictures unsuitable, I tarted myself up, dragged some smartish outfits from the back of the wardrobe, and press-ganged my husband to come up with a shot of me looking like a serious (and reasonably groomed) writer.

Words were exchanged:

Don’t scowl.

I’m trying to look serious and thoughtful.

And failing. For goodness sake, squeeze out a smile.

But the article is to promote a book on a dark subject. Why would I be grinning like a maniac?

Oh, for goodness sake…!

After much marital wrangling, the deed was done and I sent the best of the pictures to a techno-knowledgeable friend to confirm it was of sufficiently high-resolution before climbing gratefully back into my comfortable tat. Job done.

Useless, the patient friend reported back. You need a less geriatric camera and/or smartphone.

With such extravagant purchases out of lock-down reach, I slid along to an obliging neighbour’s garden, where her son-in-law stood with me in the pouring rain and took some socially-distanced shots with his fancy camera. Result!

Ian (I will spare his blushes by concealing the surname) must have a magic camera, because the resulting picture bears little resemblance to the woman sitting at this keyboard. But I am not about to complain…

Vanity, vanity. All is vanity.

The Servant: A Review


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This month marks the publication of The Servant, an historical novel by ninevoices’ own Maggie Richell-Davies. Inspired by the author’s visit to the Foundling Hospital Museum in London and set in the latter half of the 18th century, The Servant tells the story of Hannah, the orphaned daughter of a silk weaver forced into service at the age of 15. At first Hannah is employed in the safe and nurturing home of a widow, Mistress Buttermere. But when circumstances change, she is obliged to move to the sinister Chalke household where, in addition to hard work and cruelty, she encounters mystery, villainy and danger.

The Foundling Hospital’s clients were largely from the servant class, women who had little in the way of education, even less in the way of rights, and were therefore ripe for exploitation, as Hannah’s story in The Servant so vividly illustrates. The author shows with sometimes excruciating period detail the difficult lives of housemaids, cooks, beggars, and fallen women. For example, when desperate circumstances force Hannah to leave the Chalkes, she is led by her friend and co-worker to the only relatively safe lodgings she can afford: ‘We reach a stinking network of courtyards, washing frozen into ragged shapes on sagging ropes, and stop before a derelict house. Wooden planks are nailed over most of the windows… Inside, the stench is like a buffet in the face and I bite the edge of my shawl to stop my stomach heaving… damp mottles the walls as if they have a scabrous disease.’

The novel is beautifully (‘The sky is pewter rubbed with sharp sand.’) and economically written with strong characterizations. Hannah’s first sighting of Mistress Chalke in the opening pages fills us with dread: ‘…the visitor is ramrod straight. Hands twisting like snakes in the lap of her black gown…The eyes…sharp as a skinning knife.’

Despite the peril and powerlessness of her position, Hannah finds reserves of strength and ingenuity to both survive and act to bring about justice. In this she is aided by Peg, as downtrodden a scullery maid as ever there was, and other women who act in defiance of men’s control. My favourite of these is Fat Nellie, a wise and strong-minded woman who minds children in the lodging next to Hannah’s and provides practical assistance without expectation of return. I’d have liked to see more of Nellie, especially at the end of the book.

Unlike most women of her class, Hannah can read and write. Her intellectual curiosity endears her to farmer Thomas, a thoughtful and well-read widower who delivers milk to the Chalke household. It also drives her to discover the nature of the Chalke’s villainy and seek to end it.

All in all this is a satisfying novel rich in historical detail with a sympathetic heroine battling to survive the injustices of the age.

The Servant, which won the Historical Writers’ Association 2020 Unpublished Novel Award, is available via Amazon on Kindle at a very affordable £2.99, and paperback at £7.99. 

Stay Close to Home…



                                STAY CLOSE TO HOME and SUPPORT THE NHS.

In these difficult times our four-legged friends are a great comfort. I don’t have any pictures of kittens to make you smile, but here is Gizzie, one of my prime beta-readers, admiring her garden. My very own lucky black cat.

Stay close to home. Read a good book. Better still, write a good book that others will one day enjoy…

And if you like to share pictures of your furry friends with us, please feel free. They will make us smile.


Creative Writing Competitions to Enter in May


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STOP PRESS: Maggie Richell-Davies’ novel, The Servant, is now available on Amazon – and was only published because she entered and won the HWA/Sharpe Books 2020 Unpublished Novel Award. Competition details were posted on on this blog, so that could have been YOU!

With so many of us in lock-down, and experts saying book reading can boost the brain and relieve depression, it is up to us to keep making up stories until the happy day when we can again spend time in our favourite coffee shop.

The Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition for new writers. The winner receives a publishing contract with Chicken House Books, with an advance of £10,000 and the offer of literary representation from Kate Shaw of the Shaw Agency. They are additionally running The Chairman’s Prize, which is given to a manuscript hand-picked by Chicken House publisher Barry Cunningham. The winner gets a publishing contract and £7,500, plus the offer of representation by Kate Shaw. Writers must be unpublished and unagented, with BAME authors particularly encouraged to apply. Enter original, unpublished novels for children of any age between 7 and 18, plus a synopsis. Entry fee: £18. Closing date: 4 May. Details: 

The Poetry London Prize is for original, unpublished poems up to 80 lines. Prizes: £5,000; £2,000; £1,000. Entry fee £4 for Poetry London subscribers and £8 for non-subscribers. Closing date: 1 May. Details:

Fancy yourself as a scriptwriter? The Sitcom Mission is open to submissions for a fifteen-minute sitcom script with a ‘bold and exciting central character or characters’, good dialogue and the catalyst of an exciting incident to kick-start the story. Plus, of course, it needs to be funny. A good script should get your work in front of major industry professionals. Entry fee is £10 and the deadline is 11.59pm on 3 May. Check out the submission details:

Bath Novel Award 2020. First 5,000 words, plus single page synopsis. Open to unpublished, self-published, and independently published authors. £3,000 first prize, plus manuscript feedback and agent introductions to shortlisted authors. Entry fee: £28. Deadline 31 May. Details:

Colm Toibin International Short Story Award. Short stories 1,800-2,00 words. Prizes: 700 Euros; 500 Euros; 300 Euros. Entry fee: 10 Euros. Closing date: 13 May . Details:  [Note: a member of ninevoices won this last year. Why not you, this year?]

Blue Pencil Agency First Novel Prize. The first chapter of an unpublished novel, up to 5,000 words. Prize: £1,200 in prizes, manuscript review, introduction to judge, literary agent Nelle Andrew. Entry fee: £20. Closing date 31 May. Details:

Frome Festival Short Story. Short stories 1,00 to 2,200 words. Prizes: £400; £200; £100. Entry fee: £8. Closing date: 31 May. Details:

The Bridport Prize – Peggy Chapman-Andrews First Novel Award for 5,000-8,000 words, plus 300 word synopsis. Must be unpublished, unagented and unplaced in any other competition. First prize £1,500 plus mentoring and agent introduction. Runner-up £750, plus mentoring and agent introduction. Three shortlisted writers receive £150, plus inclusion in anthology. Entry fee: £20. Deadline: 31 May. Details:

The Bridport Prize – Poetry for up to 42 lines. Must be unpublished, unagented and unplaced in any other competition. Prizes: £5,000, £1,000, £300, 10x£100. Entry fee: £10. Deadline: 31 May. Details:

The Bridport PrizeShort Story for stories up to 5,000 words. Must be unpublished, unagented and unplaced in any other competition. Prizes:£5,000, £1,000, £300, 10x£100. Entry fee: £12. Deadline: 31 May. Details:

Yeovil Literary Prize for novels (opening chapters and synopsis, up to 15,000 words). Short stories: maximum 2,000 words. Poems up to 40 lines. Writing Without Restrictions. Western Gazette Best Local Writer. Prizes Novel £1,000; £250; £100. Short story and poetry: £500; £200; £100. Writing without restrictions: £200; £100; £50. Local prize: £100. Entry fee: novel £12; short story £7; poetry £7, £10 for two, £12 for three. Writing Without Restrictions: £5. Closing date 31 May. Details:

And don’t forget that the invaluable Writing Magazine – still winging its way to subscribers and also available on-line – holds its own regular writing competitions and provides details of many available elsewhere.

Forgive me if, in these troubled times, any of the above details turn out to be inaccurate. So, do check them on-line before entry.

Good luck!









How I (Finally) Got Published


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Back in 2015 I visited London’s Foundling Hospital Museum for the first time. It is an emotive place and I couldn’t get the heart-breaking stories it told – about the tokens desperate mothers left in the hope that they might, one day, be able to retrieve their precious child – out of my head. My book, The Servant, is the result.

Founded by Royal Charter in 1739, The London Foundling Hospital came into existence after seventeen years of effort by retired sea captain, William Coram, to make ‘Provision for Foundlings’. His eventual success was due, to a great extent, to his gaining the support of sixteen ladies of high rank, headed by the Duchess of Somerset. Their signatures on The Ladies Petition was presented to George III in 1735.

Initially, it was a short story – The Gingham Square – sent off to a Fish competition which also offered the bonus of a critique of your entry. The story itself (fortunately, as it turned out) failed to be placed, but the feedback I received from their editor was more than positive. It suggested that while the scope of what I had written was overwhelming for the short story form, it had the potential for something larger: a book.

Reader, I set my shoulder to the wheel.

Producing The Servant been a tortuous process which would have been impossible without the support of the outstanding input of other members of ninevoices. Extracts were read out loud at our WIP meetings, red pencils were flourished over purple prose, tactful hints made about pruning my obsessive use of research material, with even the odd encouraging cartoon added in the margin. 

Finally, last September, I learned from the invaluable pages of Writing Magazine that the Historical Writers Association, in partnership with Sharpe Books, were promoting a competition to find an unpublished historical novel. The prize was £500 and a publishing deal. To my delighted amazement, after the excitement of being shortlisted, I discovered that I had won.

Our followers will know that I have been writing and submitting for years and, despite having a couple of short stories published and some encouraging feedback from agents, rejection was the absolute norm. Until now.

Please let me encourage all you other writers out there to keep going. To keep entering competitions. And to find some like-minded writing friends. Not to mention a few supportive beta-reading dogs to rest an encouraging head on your knee.


‘The Servant’ is available to buy on Kindle from today, at £2.99: