The Fiction Desk’s Writer’s Award

I’ve had a couple of stories accepted by the lovely people at The Fiction Desk, indie publishers of short stories. TFD puts out several anthologies of new fiction every year, and also runs a Ghost Story Competition (closing soon, so if you’re interested, get moving!)

The writers featured in each anthology vote for their favourite story in the collection, and the winner receives the Writer’s Award and an £100 prize. In 2014 I was lucky enough to win the award for my story The Stamp Works, which featured in the anthology There Was Once A Place, and this year I was kindly asked to judge a tie-break between two stories in the collection Long Grey Beard and Glittering Eye.

It’s a cliche to say that it was a hard decision. But man, it was a hard decision. Both of the stories were well-written, pacy and original. I’m not a better writer than either of the authors, and it felt a bit odd to decide between them. The reason I was asked to make the final choice, though, was not because I’m any authority (I’m really, really not) but because a sense of place was central to both stories.

Place is something that features strongly in my own writing, with buildings almost becoming characters in their own right. I’m not sure whether this is because I’ve worked as a buildings archaeologist and a cathedral stonemason, or whether my job choices have reflected an underlying fascination with places: either way, it’s a part of me. It was that fascination with the built environment which led TFD to choose me to deliver the final verdict.

The story which I chose, eventually, was The Cobble Boys by Adam Blampied: a story based in Derry, about how the choice between violence and non-violence is often not a choice at all, but a question of whose terms the violence will be on. There’s the odd wonderfully comic line, little spots of light in the claustrophobic surrounds of the story (‘They’ve got about two faces and one haircut between them’), which belie the fact that the author also writes comedy. I’d love to see it.

The runner-up was Before There Were Houses, This Was All Fields, by Mark Newman, which concerns the disappearance of a young girl during the construction of a new housing estate. It’s atmospheric, gripping and packed with multi-layered symbolism.

Congratulations, then to Adam Blampied, and many thanks to The Fiction Desk for putting my name in front of their readers again. If you’ve got a spare minute and you’re not already a subscriber, do get hold of one of their anthologies (there’s a bit of self-interest going on here as I’ll be featuring in their next collection with a new ghost story, Poor Billy).  




Revenge writing: a bad idea

Scooting around the internet last week I came across this: an engaging blog post by American literary magazine editor Cady Vishniac about what not to submit to litmags. A lot of the undesirable things seem obvious (porn, bigotry), but the fact they’re listed must mean there are people out there who think that including them in a short story is a good idea. Alarming. Others are things that I know I should avoid, but am never entirely sure I have (cliché, plot holes and extraordinary coincidence). These are the kind of errors you may only spot once you’ve left the piece alone for a while and then come back to it, and even then they can slip by.

It was the section on wishful thinking and revenge, though, that caught my eye. We’ve all been tempted (well, I have) to immortalise in writing an annoying acquaintance or particularly egregious work colleague. At best your aim may be a bit of fun; at worst, a chance for justice. And it never works. Not for me, anyway.

This quote from the post shows why: ‘Literary fiction shows us characters who have positive attributes and serious negative ones. Every protagonist has a deeply human, deeply flawed core, and even evil people exist in a context that helps us understand their choices.’ In a nutshell, you have to feel sympathy for your characters. Even the most appalling of them can’t be entirely irredeemable and doomed.

Sure, it’s possible to take elements from people you’ve met and disliked, and to incorporate those into a character, and for that character to work. But only when you don’t have a revenge agenda. Writing, an act of creation and, unsentimentally, of love, withers up in an atmosphere of negativity.

I’ve tried revenge writing, and the prose comes out airless, didactic and (worse) dull. It goes nowhere, because it requires the piece to be a cypher for the resolution of my own personal gripes. This makes it cryptically specific, cramped and closed-ended, as opposed to multi-layered, generous and relevant to wider human experience*. On top of this it’s hard to do, because it’s no fun putting down grievances on paper.

As it turns out, it’s no fun reading those grievances either. The author of the post points out that revenge writing is pathetically easy to spot, and embarrassing to read. A publisher’s rejection is, as she says, a kindness: it prevents you from showing your thinly-disguised wounds to the world.

The post’s an intriguing read, and has a sister piece on ‘Some Myths About Your Litmag Submissions’. It leaves me with even more respect for those who edit or read for magazines, and the reassuring knowledge that however many rejection letters there may be, at least I’ve never written a story in which ‘a guy spots a gal on a bus and she starts masturbating’.



*On a good day.


2016 Cheltenham Literary Festival short story competitions

This year there are two short story competitions associated with the Cheltenham Literary Festival: the Gloucestershire Writers’ Network competition and the new Cheltenham Literary Prize.

The GWN competition has been around for a while, and this year interprets the theme of the Festival (‘America’) to offer the competition theme ‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’. I’ve found it tricky to get the competition details online, so here they are in full for anyone who’s interested in entering:

The Literature Festival has America as a country theme this year so this competition is looking for poetry and prose that responds to the theme in the broadest possible ways.
Entries are invited from writers who live or work in Gloucestershire. There will be two prizes of £100, one for poetry and one for prose.
All the winners and runners-up will be invited to read their work in October at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.
  • Please give your entry a title that is different from the competition theme. Entries must be identified only by title, do not put your name on the entry.
  • Your name, address, telephone number and email address should be on a separate sheet of paper.
  • Poems should be no more than 50 lines.
  • Prose items should use double spacing and not exceed 750 words.
  • Entries must be typed on A4 paper. Handwritten copies will not be accepted. 
  • GWN prefers each winning writer to read his or her own work.  If you are selected but subsequently cannot read your work at the Festival, your work will be withdrawn unless you can provide a substitute reader.
  • To enter costs £2 per item. Please send a cheque or postal order to the address below, payable to Gloucestershire Writers’ Network.  If you wish to know the results of the competition, include your email address or a stamped, addressed envelope.
  • Entries may be made by post to GWN, c/o 33 Sandford Leaze, Avening, Glos. GL8 8PB, or by email to:  If posting, please send two copies.    If you email your entry, you will still need to send your cheque by post clearly identifying the entry for which you are paying. Emailed items should be attached as a Word document or sent within the text of the message
  • Please ensure that you put the right value of stamps according to the size of envelope as GWN cannot pay for excess postage.
  •  Closing date: 30th July 2016
 The Cheltenham Literary Prize is an all-new competition organised by the Cheltenham Writers’ Circle. It’s national, with a smaller prize allotted to the best entry from a GL postcode. Entries should be 2000 words or fewer, and it’s open now until June 4th. Full details here.