Oxford delights: Jilly Cooper and Barbara Pym


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What’s the connection between Jilly Cooper and Barbara Pym apart from them being quintessentially English and writing splendidly funny novels?

Jilly Cooper’s introduction to the 2007 Virago edition of Barbara Pym’s Jane and Prudence, first published in 1953, tells the story of how she borrowed the novel quite by chance from a library and fell in love with it. ‘I shamefully lied to the librarians that I had lost it, paying a 3s 6d fine … over the years, as Barbara Pym replaced Nancy Mitford, Georgette Heyer, even Jane Austen, as my most loved author, I devoured all her books, but Jane and Prudence remains my favourite.’

Jilly Cooper was therefore the perfect and altogether delightful guest at a magnificent tea in Oxford, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Barbara Pym Society, as part of the Society’s weekend conference featuring Jane and Prudence.  Some of those attending might never have read a Jilly Cooper novel; others like myself have delicious youthful memories of revelling in her stories serialised in magazines like 19 and Petticoat, some of which were subsequently expanded into short romantic novels named after their heroines.

It’s in Harriet, partly set in Oxford and published in 1976, that we get a rather endearing echo of a scene in Barbara Pym’s Jane and Prudence; in both novels young girls remark to each other that thirty sounds so old but forty must be worse… whereupon they brood silently upon this horror!

Jilly Cooper might be more famous now for her ‘bonkbuster’ novels, starting with Riders in 1985, but perhaps the older among us will always have an affectionate soft spot for the irresistible heroes and scatty/naughty/dreamy/kind-hearted/unselfconfident/innocent heroines of the early romantic novels Bella, Emily, Octavia, Prudence, Harriet, Imogen and her collection of short stories Lisa & Co, first published as Love and Other Heartaches. They offered the escapist, romantic, comfort-with-comedy reading we sometimes needed when growing up.

As Jilly Cooper wrote of her short stories in 1981 ‘I cannot pretend that these stories are literature. They are written purely to entertain… Their mood is rooted firmly in the sixties, where we all lived it up… when the young were still optimistic about marriage, and believed that God was in his Heaven if all was Mr Right with the world.’

Jilly Cooper met Barbara Pym met just once – at the Hatchards Authors of the Year Party in 1979 – a wonderful memory she will always treasure. I know I will do the same after meeting Jilly Cooper.




Anglican Women Novelists


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There have been more Anglican women novelists than you might think. 13 of them feature in Anglican Women Novelists – from Charlotte Brontë to PD James, edited by Judith Maltby and Alison Shell, and published only this year. Two of the ninevoices were at its launch in the magnificent setting of Lambeth Palace Library in July.

The editors explain that to keep the book of manageable size they restricted it to writers who were British and deceased. But questions of selection are inevitable. Iris Murdoch is here? Yes, because although she lost her faith in Christ’s divinity, and was drawn towards Buddhism, her world was still infused by Anglicanism and she still attended Anglican services. The author of the Iris Murdoch essay (Peter S Hawkins) entitles it “Anglican Atheist”.

And why no Jane Austen, in whose novels the C of E features so much, when Charlotte Brontë gets in? Because between the two lie Catholic Emancipation and the repeals of the Test and Corporation Acts, meaning that other denominations could now take their place freely on the national stage: Anglicanism had lost its ‘default’ position as the nation’s faith and was becoming more of a denomination that you made a positive choice to join.

The essay on Charlotte Brontë (by Sara L Pearson) argues how much her life was rooted in the C of E and how much of her work does too. Shirley, we read, shows her “longing for the Church of England’s preservation and reformation”. In Jane Eyre the male representatives of the Church, Mr Brocklehurst and St John Rivers, are hardly role models, and their failings are compared with (and perhaps compensated for by) the qualities of female characters around them. Also, “the Book of Common Prayer haunts the pages of Jane Eyre … not only for its contents but also as a physical object”: it will have formed such an ever-present part of her childhood.

‘Dorothy L Sayers – God and the Detective’ is the title of Jessica Martin’s piece. She speaks of the role justice and punishment play in her detective novels. She makes the important point that Golden Age detective novels were written in the time when the hangman awaited the unmasked murderer: in that sense the stakes were higher, the ultimate retribution is always in the background.   Sayers had trouble with this, we read: she had “increasing unease with narrative arcs which must privilege orderly acts of justice over the wilder power of mercy”. She sees the limitations of this, and justice must come from elsewhere: “her plots have an invisible protagonist, and his name is Jehovah”. The essay then analyses Murder Must Advertise, The Nine Tailors, Unnatural Death and Gaudy Night in this light.

The final essay is ‘PD James – “Lighten our Darkness”’ by Alison Shell.   She compares PD James to other Golden Age detective writers, principally Agatha Christie, concluding, “For all her own homage to Christie, her novels are far more violent and desolate than her predecessor’s; if Christie is the quintessential Golden Age detective novelist, James’ fallen world locates her within an Iron Age of crime fiction.” Evil is a reality: and the essay speculates on the degree to which PD James saw evil as a force in its own right. Her novels are steeped in the Anglican Church and its tradition. Churches (in a bleak East Anglia) provide the settings for many key events. PD James herself was a lover of the beauty of its traditional language and was a great supporter of the Prayer Book Society, set up to keep alive the glorious heritage of the Book of Common Prayer. Quotations from it recur in her work.

The other authors covered in the book are Charlotte Maria Tucker, Margaret Oliphant, Charlotte M Yonge, Evelyn Underhill, Rose Macaulay, Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Goudge, Noel Streatfeild and Monica Furlong.

Published by t&tclark, ISBN 978-0-567-68676-3 RRP £27-99




Writing Competitions to Enter in September


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September, of course, is your final chance to enter our own competition for a story on the theme of ‘summer‘ – and don’t forget, you only have until the 28th, not the end of the month. The first prize is £250, with £50 going to one runner-up. Entry is £5 and all profits will be going to the cinderella arthritis charity, PMRGCAuk.

We have chosen to limit entry to those who didn’t earn more than £300 from their writing in the past year. So you won’t have to compete with people like Ian Rankin, Hilary Mantel or Stephen King (all of whom are, no doubt, gnashing their teeth with frustration).

Mslexia Competitions. Details from http://www.mslexia.co.uk/competitions. Deadline for all three competitions: 30 September.

Mslexia Novel Competition. For novels of at least 50,000 words in any genre for adult and/or young adult readers by currently unpublished women writers. The winner gets £5,000, together with the option of representation by agent Charlotte Robertson. In addition, finalists are invited to a pitching and networking event with agents and editors, and will receive manuscript feedback from TLC. Submit the first 5,000 words (great news – they don’t appear to require a synopsis!). Entry fee: £25.

Mslexia Flash Fiction Competition for up to 300 words. The winning entry will get £500 and they, together with three finalists will be published in Mslexia magazine. Entry fee: £5.

Mslexia Short Story Competition for up to 3,000 words. The first prize is £3,000, plus an optional Moniack Mhor writing retreat and mentoring by an editor at Virago Press. Their story, together with those of three finalists, will also be published in Mslexia magazine. Entry fee: £10

Retreat West Novel Prize for unpublished novels. Prize: Retreat West publishing contract and £500 advance. Manuscript critique and editorial report. Entry fee: £15. Deadline 1 September. Details: http://www.retreatwest.co.uk

The London Short Story Prize, for writers with a London postcode. Up to 5,000 words. Prizes: £1,000. Entry fee: £6. Deadline 17 September. Details: http://www.spreadtheword.org.uk

The Manchester Prize for short stories up to 2,500 words, or portfolio of 3-5 poems, max 120 lines each. Prizes: £10,000 in each category. Entry fee: £17.50. Closing date: 20 September. Details: www2.mmu.ac.uk/writingcompetition/

Imison Award for original radio plays by writers new to radio. Prizes: £2,000. Entry fee: £30. Closing date: 30 September. Details: http://www.societyofauthors.org/imison-award

The Caterpillar Story for Children Prize. Short stories of up to 2,000 words for children aged 7-11. Entrants must be over 16. Prizes: 1,000 Euros. Entry fee: 12 Euros. Closing date: 30 September. Details: http://www.thecaterpillar-magazine.com

Grindstone Literary Services Novel Prize. Opening chapter of 3,000-words, plus synopsis. Entry: £22. Prizes: £1,000; £100; publication; course coupon. Deadline: 28 September.

Bedford International Writing Competition for short stories of up to 3,000 words, poems up to 40 lines, on any theme. Prizes: £300, £150, £100 in each category. Entry fee: £6, £12 for three. Closing date: 30 September. Details: http://www.bedfordwritingcompetition.co.uk

Galley Beggar Press Short Story Prize for stories up to 6,000 words. Prizes: £1,000 or a year’s editorial support, £150 for shortlisted authors, £50 bookshop vouchers and four GBP titles for those longlisted. Entry fee: £10. Closing date: 30 September. Details: http://galleybeggar.co.uk

Romance is in the air, for the Val Wood Prize for a love letter. Each entry can contain several letters (to the same person, or several), but must be no more than 1,500 words. First prize is £100 and publication on their website. The runner-up will receive £50, and two other commendations of £25. Entry appears to be free, and that prize would enable you to treat your own dearly beloved to a meal, or a slap-up cream tea. The deadline is September 21st., But please read all the conditions of entry carefully on the website: http://www.valeriewood.co.uk

HWA & Sharpe Books Unpublished Novel Award is for an unpublished novel set at least 35 years in the past. Imogen Robertson, Chair of the Historical Writers Association, is one of the judges. They require a completed manuscript between 40,000-words and 100,000-words, together with a synopsis of between 500-1,000-words. The prize is a publishing contract with Sharpe Books and £500. There are two further cash prizes of £100. Important note: all entrants will be offered a consultation with Richard Foreman, Managing Director of Sharpe Books, by phone or email on how to find an agent and routes into mainstream publishing or, if they wish, advice on how to self-publish their work and the companies which can support self-published authors. This is helpful advice, bearing in mind some rather doubtful companies advertising for unwary writers. The entry fee is £20, and the deadline 30 September. Details: https://historicalwriters.org/unpublished-novel-competition/

Please always double-check all details in case of error on my part. It is, after all, rather hot for crouching over a keyboard.

Final thought. If you feel spoilt for choice, enter several…

Good luck!



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We asked our friend, writer Louise Mangos, to share her top tips for using social media to get our work noticed.

It doesn’t matter where you are in your writing career, whether you’re a best-selling novelist or a budding poet, a great way to get your work, ideas or publications noticed (apart from a multi-million PR budget through your publisher – dream on!) is through social media networks.

The obligation of maintaining a social media presence is often included in the clauses of today’s publishing contracts. It’s the task many authors often dread. We spend our days isolated in our writing caves, creating fictional worlds, and suddenly our publishers say they want us to increase our social media presence. The task seems daunting, and it can certainly be time-consuming.

So here are some tips to help minimise the hassle, while aiming to increase your fan-base, expand your network, and hopefully bring in some sales.


Facebook is the most intimate platform of the three mentioned in this article. Most users have Facebook accounts to share their personal experiences with family and close friends. But creating a separate Author Page allows you as a writer to keep your personal and professional life separate. Instead of “friending” contacts, people will “follow” you as an author and “like” your page. Facebook has a random timeline. Posts with “like”s might appear days after they’ve been uploaded, and will consequently reappear when a comment is added. So you don’t really need to post more than once a day. If you’re promoting, it’s important to vary each of your posts. Readers and fans love to learn about the personal life of a writer. They still want to see pictures of your dogs or cats, even if your principal intention is to draw attention to your writing, but not too often. The most innovative posts might include a combination of the two – have your dog display your novel between its paws – and you might make a reader out of a pet-lover. It’s best to use single images in each post, and don’t forget an all-important URL link to your work.


If you’re new to Twitter, create an account with a name that’s easily identifiable to other followers – your author name is the best option if it isn’t already taken. You can add “author,” “writer,” or “books” to your name if someone has already claimed your Twitter handle (for example @LouiseMangosAuthor). Follow friends or colleagues who already have accounts, then follow as many writers as possible whose books and news you’re interested in. You can also check to see who these people follow, and follow people from their lists too. People to follow might include agents, publishers, book reviewers, journalists and bloggers. You’ll eventually get people following you back.

Until recently Twitter was an instant platform. Once posts were seen in the moment, they would disappear into the ether, unless someone later commented on the thread. Now followers who check in to their accounts at any time of day get “in case you missed it” posts. If your fans have “liked” your posts in the past, they may see your threads long after you have posted them. This gets your posts seen more frequently. But it also means you need to be more innovative about what you post. If users only see the same links to your books and the cover of your book, they will quickly become bored with your content, and may end up unfollowing you or muting your account. If you have a book to sell, find an image from its setting. If you’re travelling, take a photo of the book on your journey. Readers love to identify with you as an author as well as your work. There is no harm in posting interesting photos from your everyday non-writing life. You can also link these images somehow to your writing life.

Don’t forget to share other authors’ work or news, especially if their writing is the same genre as your own. Other users are more likely to share your posts if you have done the same for them. From time to time check your own timeline to make sure you’ve been posting a variety of images with tweets.

Twitter has a more conversational thread than Facebook, but it’s important to note there are certain times of the day when it is best to post. To avoid getting sucked into the habit of forever checking your social media accounts, you should schedule a short time twice a day to go online. The best time of day in the UK is tea time – between 3 and 4pm. This is also a great time if you’re hoping to hit the US as users will be on their way to work or just waking up, and will be checking their devices. In this respect, between 7:30 and 9:00am in the UK is also popular. If you’re without inspiration and have a moment before bed, you could retweet something you’ve posted earlier in the day to catch the US market. You can only retweet your posts once. Hash-tags are useful tools. They are less influential than on Instagram, but are still useful to attract new followers to your account. I would limit your hash-tags to two or three in your Twitter posts. A list of writer-driven hash-tags appears at the end of the Instagram section.


Instagram is image based, and completely instant, as it suggests. Posts don’t reappear. But it is less interesting in terms of generating sales because you cannot post URL links on your timeline. If you’re a published author, however, you should open a business account, where you can show a URL link in your personal profile. This link should either be your personal website or your Author Page on Amazon. Instagram followers love to see photos in the manner of those mentioned in the Twitter section above, but it is also a platform highly driven by hash-tags. A popular time for users seems to be evenings. Hash tags (examples listed at the end of this section) are a way to get more followers. Instagram users often look for posts with particular hashtags. There is no limit to the amount of hash-tags you use in your posts, but be aware that on mobile devices, if you have a long list, some may not appear due to limited screen space.

Some useful hashtags for writers:

#WritingCommunity #WritersLife #Fiction #Novels #Writing #amwriting #amreading #BookRecommendation #BookShelf #BookWorm #Bookaholic #BookCommunity #BooksToRead #Bookstagram

Hashtags with your genre: #CrimeFiction #PsychologicalThrillers #Romance #Suspense #HistoricalFiction etc.

Last tips:

If you are an author, a useful tool is to create a universal link to your novels. When you post on social media with a link, for example, to Amazon, a universal link will connect to the Amazon account in the global region where the user lives. There are several platforms who do this. Type “Universal book links” in your search engine to create one for your novels.

#Competitions and #Giveaways also create a great deal of traffic and followers on all social media platforms. If you organise one for your novels, for example, it’s easier to manage on a single platform, and then link to the details on the other platforms to guide fans to your post.


Louise Mangos writes novels, short stories and flash fiction, which have won prizes, placed on shortlists, and have been read out on BBC radio. Her suspense novels Strangers on a Bridge and The Art of Deception are published with HQDigital (Harper Collins). You can connect with Louise on Facebook www.facebook.com/LouiseMangosBooks/, Twitter @LouiseMangos, and Instagram as louisemangos, or visit her website www.louisemangos.com where there are links to some of her short fiction. Louise lives in Switzerland with her Kiwi husband and two sons.

Link to Louise’s Amazon Author Page in the UK:


Writing Competitions to Enter in August


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                                       (All pictures courtesy of Elizabeth and Maggie)

I spent time recently in Southwark, Shakespeare’s old stamping grounds, and took time to visit Southwark Cathedral, with its memorial to the man himself and also its beautiful Harvard Chapel, the favoured napping spot of the wonderfully-named resident feline, Doorkins Magnificat.

August, of course, is the middle of the SUMMER. A perfect time to pen a short story for our own ninevoices competition, which closes on 28 September. We know you’re busy, but please take time to compose something. You might win £250. Not quite enough for a new laptop, but well worth having…

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In the meantime, however:-

The Curtis Brown First Novel Prize has a deadline of August 1st, so is imminent. Entry is FREE, but you are only allowed the one entry, which is for up to 10,000 words of an unpublished novel (which doesn’t need to be finished), plus a synopsis of up to 400 words. First prize is agency representation and £3,000. The runner-up will be offered a place on their three-month online novel writing course and a mentoring session with a Curtis Brown agent. Four shortlisted authors will be offered a six-week online course, and an agent mentoring session. Details: http://www.curtisbrowncreative.co.uk/first-novel-prize/

Ilkley Literature Festival Short Story Competition, maximum 3,000 words. Entry fee: £5. Prize: £200. Deadline August 1st. Full details: http://www.ilkleyliteraturefestival.org.uk/join-in/competitions

The Costa Short Story Award is for stories up to 4,000-words, with generous prizes of £3,500; £1,000 and £500. The deadline is August 1st and entry is free. Details: http://www.costabookawards.com  Please study the entry requirements, which are rather complex. You need, for example, to have been resident in the UK for a stipulated period of time.

The Aesthetica Creative Writing Award, deadline 31 August, has prizes of £1,000 for each category winner for poetry and short fiction, with publication in the Aesthetica Creative Writing Anthology, a one year print subscription to Granta, a selection of books courtesy of Bloodaxe & Vintage, full membership of The Poetry Society (for poetry) and consultation with Redhammer (for short fiction). Entry appears to be free, but check details from: http://www.aestheticamagazine.com/cwa

Retreat West Novel Prize is for the first 7,500 words of an unpublished novel, plus synopsis of 500 words. Entry fee: £15. Prizes: publication plus £500 advance; critique and editorial support; one year’s gold author membership to Retreat West. Must be unagented. Details: http://www.retreat-west.co.uk/the-retreat-west-novel-prize. Deadline 18 August.

Exeter Story Prize and Trisha Ashley Award for a story of 10,000 words maximum. Entry fee £12, with optional critique at £20. Prizes: £500, plus trophy; £150; £100. Trisha Ashley Award of £200, plus trophy. Details from: http://www.creativewritingmatters.co.uk/competitions.html

Exeter Flash Fiction Competition. Maximum 750 words. Entry fee: £6. Prizes: £200 plus trophy: £100; £50. Details: http://www.creativewritingmatters.co.uk/competitions.html

For something a little different, Prima monthly magazine has a regular short story competition, with a £100 prize, for a maximum 800-word story. Email to: yourwinningstory@hearst.co.uk  Worth perhaps buying a copy of the magazine to get a feel for what they might like.

Please, as always, check all details before entering any competition.

Finally – with no apologies for being a bore – do consider starting that summer-themed story for us. Summer doesn’t necessarily mean extreme heat, or a beach. It may remind you of a wet tent in the middle of a bog. Of romantic or disastrous wedding ceremonies. Of music festivals, or a juvenile fumble in the long grass…








Of local days out…


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…or expeditions to Peru…







Of lazy days…

…fantastical ones,

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…or spooky ones that make the flesh creep.





We really don’t mind.


Our Second Guest Contributor : Writer Sara Kellow


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With our second short story competition up and running, we thought we’d invite the winner of our first one to offer some encouraging words to those considering entering.


In a recent interview in The Guardian, bestselling author Kate Atkinson describes winning a writing competition as the moment that launched her as a published author. She doesn’t say, but I’d be willing to bet that wasn’t the first competition she ever entered.

Whether you win or not, writing for competitions is the best way to fast-track an improvement to your writing. I discovered this for myself several years ago when I stumbled across Helen Yendall’s Blog About Writing which happened to be running a 100-word story competition with a category for new writers. I’d never shown anything I’d written to anyone before and the idea of offering up my words to be judged made me feel ill. Cringing with embarrassment, I confronted my fear and entered, only to feel worse a week later when I was shortlisted. My story was on the blog for ANYONE to read. The horror! I couldn’t help noticing, though, that the sky didn’t fall in. Nobody pointed and laughed at me in the street; in fact everything was just the same, except that next time it was much easier.

Even though that early shortlisting turned out to be beginner’s luck, I’d gained something valuable. If you are shy about sharing your work, you should definitely enter competitions. A story that disappears without trace, no one needs to know about, but a shortlisting – that’s a tremendous confidence boost. Writing to a set word-count helps you focus. You have to reread your work and, by cutting out anything unnecessary, hone it to a new level of precision. I once misread the rules to a competition and wrote a 500-word story, which I was quite pleased with, only to find when I entered that it should have been 250. I cut out half the words and the resulting story has been shortlisted twice. One more edit and who knows? That’s the great thing about competitions. It can feel like rejection when you don’t get anywhere, but you can learn from the experience. Always read the winners and figure out why the judges chose them. Then go back to your own work with fresh ideas and try again.

Thank you, Sara. Your story, Laptops and Coffin Lids, was a worthy winner against strong competition. That intriguing title didn’t do it any harm, either.

It’s comforting to discover that so many writers seem to suffer from shrinking-violet syndrome, and important to remember that a professional writer is a writer who refuses to give up…


Our Sarah wins Colm Tóibín award


One of our nine voices is frustratingly modest, but the other eight are BURSTING WITH PRIDE.

Our much-loved and madly talented Sarah has just won…..the Colm Tóibín International Short Story Award!

She won with her warm-hearted and poignant story, ‘Dinosaurs Rule’.  The Wexford Literary Festival judges clearly saw what we see – the lucidity, insightfulness and generosity of her writing.

Oh, we are so proud and so happy for her!  It will be extra crisps and chocolate cake at our next get-together…

Here she is: Sarah Dawson

Writing Competitions to Enter in July


Just the weeniest nudge to kick off with: you can now enter our very own short story competition. Details are pinned at the top of this blog and while the closing date isn’t until September 28th, our own experience has proved that allowing plenty of ‘polishing’ time gives you the best chance of winning.

The Scottish Book Trust is inviting applications for its New Writers Awards 2020 in three categories: Narrative Fiction and Non-Fiction, Poetry and Children’s and Young Adult Fiction. Each award recipient will get £2,000, tailored personal development opportunities which may include mentoring, PR, presentation and performance training, the opportunity to showcase work to agents and publishers, and a week-long writing retreat. Entries must, however, be from writers based in Scotland who have not yet published a novel, full-length work of narrative non-fiction, or collection of short stories. The closing date is 3rd July and entry appears to be free. Full details: http://www.scottishbooktrust.com

H G Wells Short Story Competition for stories between 1,500-5,000 words on the theme of ‘time’. Prizes: £1,000 for writers under 21; £250 for writers over 21. Entry fee: £10. £5 if under 21.Deadline 8 July. Details: hgwellscompetition.com

Fitzcarraldo Editions is accepting submissions for the Fitzcarraldo Editions Novel Prize. The prize is an advance of £3,000 against publication by them and is for original, unpublished full-length fiction that is innovative imaginative and tackles themes relevant to the world we live in. To enter, send the full manuscript of a novel of at least 30,000 words. Deadline 15 July. There is no entry fee, but only one novel may be submitted. Check full details: http://www.fitzcarraldoeditions.com

Norwich Writers’ Circle’s 2019 Olga Sinclair Open Short Story Competition has the theme of ‘spooks’. There is a first prize of £400, a second of £250, and a third of £100. The winners and seven shortlisted stories will be published in an anthology. Entries, which should be unpublished, should be up to 2,000 words and the entry fee is £8. Closing date is 16 July for postal entries and 30 July for email entries.  Details: Ian Andrews, 12 Malten Close, Poringland, Norwich NR14 7RW and, online, at norwichwriters.wordpress.com/

Exeter Literary Festival 2019 is inviting entries for stories up to 500 words by writers aged 8 and under; prizes of £25 and £15. Stories up to 1,000 words by writers aged 16 and over; prizes of £100 and £50. Stories up to 1,000 words by writers aged 16 and over; prizes of £100 and £50. The theme is open, but stories must be unpublished. Details: http://www.exelitfest.com

To Hull and Back Humorous Writing Competition for funny stories up to 4,000 words. Prizes: £1,000, £200, £100, plus publication. Entry fee: £13, £21 for 2; £26 for 3. Closing date 31 July. Details: http://www.christopherfielden.com

HISSAC Annual Open Short Story Award for short stories up to 2,000 words or flash fiction up to 500 words. No connection to Scotland required. Prizes: £200; £75 £50, in both categories. Entry fees: £5. £12 for 3.; £18 for 5. Deadline 31 July. Details: http://www.hissac.co.uk

Sustainable Societies: Radio Play Dramas/Comedy Series. Radio plays and comedy series touching on ideas of sustainable societies. Prizes: £500; £100; 3 x £50. FREE entry. Deadline 31 July. Details: http://www.greenstories.org.uk

As always, may I urge you to check details before entering. If you have read my post of earlier today about Margaret Kirk’s latest crime novel, What Lies Buried, you will have been reminded that her career was kick-started by winning the Good Housekeeping New Novel Competition, back in 2016. Entering competitions really can make a difference, and even a shortlisting can inspire you to keep going.

Good Luck!


What Lies Buried by Margaret Kirk

I have just finished Margaret Kirk’s second Highland Noir book What lies Buried.

Margaret hooks you, in the first chapter, with a corpse uncovered on an Inverness construction site. With a bullet hole in its skull. A cold case, obviously, since it’s wearing World War Two dog tags, but an intriguing one, since the bones date from long after the end of the war. And why were they buried in a farm midden? Then, having made you wonder about the who-and-why of these seventy-year-old bones, you are plunged into an even darker crime: a ten-tear-old girl has been spirited away from a friend’s birthday party and has been missing for ten days.

The police team led by DI Lukas Mahler is under pressure: from the distraught parents, their superior officers, the press – and their own desperate feelings of responsibility and inadequacy. Not helped when the problem unexpectedly escalates.

Lukas is a detective with sharp suits, but no ego. An early morning runner with his own childhood trauma, who struggles to care for a mother whose mind is failing, it’s no wonder he is stalked by migraine headaches: an ice-pick of pain tapping at the base of his skull that tablets refuse to shift. Not that Lukas will let that stop him pursuing the bad guys, even if it earns him cracked ribs.

I enjoyed the quality of the writing, from fondly remembered Scottish words – and guiltily scoffed bakery products with a high-calorie content – to descriptions of Inverness and its steel and granite weather. Memories rushed back of pebble-dashed bungalows, with walls the colour of three-day-old porridge. I especially admired the picture of an alarmed construction worker belting up the track, hi-vis jacket billowing out behind him like a bairn playing at superheroes. 

The characters are real people, with acid indigestion, a tendency to devour Jaffa cakes when stressed, and the misguided conviction that a Homer Simpson air freshener will banish the stink of cigarette smoke and fish and chip wrappers from inside of an unloved car. DS Ian Ferguson, a conscientious and loyal colleage, is a slob at heart. The sarcastic, shifty and jealous DE Andy Black clearly means trouble for Mahler.

Her women are good, from the pregnant CSI, easing herself from a muddy trench full of old bones, her pregnancy bump straining against the white Teletubby suit, to DC Nazreen Khan, who is suitably polite when slapped down for giving constructive advice to a superior, but no pushover:

‘Absolutely.’ She clicks her seat belt into place and gives him an earnest I’ll-try-harder kind of smile. ‘No disrespect, sir.’

‘Fine. We’ll leave it there, then.’

‘But, seeing we’re talking about respect…if I catch you staring at my tits again, you’ll get my knee where it hurts most. And then I’ll hit you with a harassment charge. Sir.

A disturbing feature is an on-line group of vigilantes, convinced they can do a better job than the police. A worrying glimpse into the world of warped minds and the harm social media can do.

The plot has more complexities than a piece of Fair Isle knitting, and a twist approaching the end almost made me throw down my needles. There is even an intriguing ‘H’ figure lurking in the background. The abduction of a small girl doesn’t make comfortable reading. It is every parent’s nightmare. But the book is enlightening on the toll taken on those investigating such hideous events, and the extent to which they genuinely care.

Margaret’s debut novel, Shadow Man, won the Good Housekeeping First Novel Competition in 2016 and was published by Orion in 2017. Proof that entering competitions can work, and that reading books that result from them can be totally gripping.


Things I heard Simon Mawer say


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This week I heard the author Simon Mawer speak about writing: specifically about his novel Prague Spring, but also his other Czech-based books The Glass Room and Mendel’s Dwarf. Prague Spring is set against the events in Czechoslovakia in the fateful summer of 1968, leading to the invasion by the armies of the Warsaw Pact.

Four things of writerly interest in my mind from that talk:

He was asked what effect having The Glass Room shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2009 had for his career. It benefited hugely, he said, sales went right up, though not as much as if he’d won! He was easy about not actually winning that year, he assured us, though he was just a bit galled when Hilary won it again two years later …

One good thing about being a novelist, he told us, is that you can reinvent your own life. The example he gave was how in the summer of 1968 he had hitchhiked around Europe with a male friend. When in Bavaria they had discussed whether to cross into Czechoslovakia, then enjoying the best days of the Prague Spring, but had decided to go to Greece instead: a decision he had ever since regretted. In Prague Spring two of his main characters set out from England to hitchhike across Europe – a male student (as he had been) James, but this time with an attractive female companion, Ellie; and this time events lead them to cross the Iron Curtain (and thus into the story) rather than go to the Italian sun as planned.

He used more of his own direct experience in James and Ellie’s story. When he and his friend had been hitching they were given a lift by a German lady harpsichordist who interrogated him where he was studying, and when he gave the name of his Oxford college she asked if he knew a particular law professor there, whose friend she was. In Prague Spring he retells this story, with James and Ellie meeting a lady cellist who, likewise, is a friend of a don at his Oxford college.

Perhaps less commonly for novelists, Simon Mawer has a scientific background: his degree was in zoology and for many years he worked as a biology teacher. This shows in a remarkable simile in one of the extracts he read to us on Tuesday: a Russian tank lost in the streets of Prague is likened first to a Martian in HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds but then, more uniquely, to a reptile or arthropod, the muzzle of its gun being a proboscis, which “shifts back and forth, as though sniffing the air, perhaps even trying to work out where the humans have gone.” Not an image that would have occurred to those of us with English literature or history backgrounds, perhaps.

In thrillers, he reminded us (and in whodunits, come to think of it), everything that happens must be related to the plot. But life, of course, isn’t like that. Lots of things happen that don’t link up with anything else. But in a novel you can explore these, and tell them for their own sake. One bizarre episode that features in Prague Spring but is not essential to the plot is the appearance of the Moody Blues. They actually were in Prague at this time, and the day before the Russian invasion they were filmed performing on the city’s famous Charles Bridge. Their appearance in the novel adds colour and interest and tells a true story, and you’re glad it’s there, but in a thriller you’d be wondering what its significance was.

(You can see this surreal performance on YouTube – go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w4_xCA4IO7U , to see these Brummies miming Nights in White Satin to adoring fans on an otherwise empty Charles Bridge for a Franco-Belgian TV programme. It’s strange to think that 24 hours later that area was busy with invading soldiers.)

Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction Dept: In his interview Simon Mawer asked us to reflect on the fact that once the invasion happened, the British Embassy somehow arranged for the Moody Blues to be flown out of the country, apparently in an RAF transport plane. How was it, he asked, that in all the chaos and busyness of those events, someone managed to persuade the new Warsaw Pact controllers of the country to allow an RAF plane into Czechoslovak air space to evacuate a group of British pop singers? Would you dare put such an unlikely happening in a novel?

The interview was organised by the Czech Centre at the Czech Embassy in London. Simon was interviewed by Prague-based journalist David Vaughan, followed by a lively Q&A session with the audience.  Thanks, Czech Centre!

Prague Spring was featured on this blog at https://ninevoices.wordpress.com/2018/12/10/prague-spring/ and The Glass Room at https://ninevoices.wordpress.com/2017/08/15/the-glass-room-revisited/ . You can listen to all of Simon Mawer’s talk at https://soundcloud.com/czech-centre-london/simon-mawer-prague-spring .