Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Creative Kicks - Week 9 - Using Narrative Twists and Turns

By Chris Curran
Images by JD Lewis

Surprise! Surprise!

The Oxford English Dictionary describes a plot twist as an unexpected development in a book, film, television programme. Collins defines it as a decisive change of direction, aim, meaning or character. In a novel, play etc. an unexpected event, revelation etc.

Plot twists are often associated with crime fiction and any list of books featuring great plot twists will probably include the likes of Gone Girl, Before I Go To Sleep, Shutter Island, Rebecca and at least one Agatha Christie.

These lists invariably mention books that introduce a huge surprise, often at the climax of the story, which overturns everything the reader has believed so far. But while such twists can be incredibly powerful – think of We Need to Talk About Kevin and Fight Club – they are not the only game in town.

Plotting a book involves building a narrative; showing readers what happens in a particular scenario and finding ways to keep them wondering what’s going to happen next. Twists and turns are a vital element in retaining that involvement. I’m not talking now about the kind of mega-twists that have readers gasping: that is amazing, but about unexpected developments and revelations which, as well as helping to make the book lively and give it that crucial page-turning factor, can help reveal its true meaning, highlight its themes and illuminate what has gone before.

Coleridge regarded the plot of Fielding’s Tom Jones, as perfectly planned and it is chockfull of twists and turns. And one of the reasons Pride and Prejudice is Jane Austen’s most popular novel (apart from the allure of Darcy) has to be because it contains so many surprises and reversals.

So how can we use twists and turns most effectively in our writing?

Above all by ensuring they are believable in the context of this particular story world and its characters. By the time we learn Maxim De Winter hated rather than loved Rebecca, as the narrator believes, we know she aroused great passions, ridiculed men, probably had a lover and that Maxim can’t bear to talk about her. In Pride and Prejudice Darcy’s apparently unfair and snobbish rejection of Wickham makes perfect sense when we, and Lizzie, learn what Wickham has done, not only to Lydia, but to Darcy’s own sister.

It’s vital not to make readers feel cheated by a twist. There’s nothing more annoying or unsatisfactory than a shock event that comes out of nowhere: a deus ex machina. This is where a big twist can fail spectacularly as readers are left shaking their heads in disbelief. If you’ve firmly established a character, especially a narrator, as a model of honesty it isn’t fair to reveal they are actually a liar unless you have dropped sufficient hints that these impressions may be false. And if a murderer is to use an unusual method of killing or disposing of a body it’s important to set up in advance the fact that they have the expertise or the wherewithal required.

This is where foreshadowing comes in. Planting subtle clues that hint at the twist ensures that readers won’t shake their heads and think: where on earth did that come from? instead of the response you want which is: ah, I see now, but why didn’t I see it before?
Foreshadowing can take many forms. Passing references to an object, a pet, a minor character or event can come to be recognised as hugely significant indications of a future twist. Or you can be more direct with a prologue or flash forward. Daphne Du Maurier uses foreshadowing in the most direct way in the famous opening lines of Rebecca. She does the same kind of thing at the start of My Cousin Rachel with, ‘They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days. Not any more though.’

Confound expectations. If you’ve set up a situation where readers are likely to assume certain outcomes: boy meets girl, for instance, or police officer arrives at the scene of a murder, the twist can come when these characters behave in surprising ways that overturn the conventions. In Dickens’ Great Expectations a rich woman takes an interest in the young hero. When he is left enough money to become a gentleman the identity of his benefactor seems obvious. But Dickens fools us, while at the same time ensuring we have all the clues to work out the truth.

Twists can come at any point in the narrative. And they can be very effective midway through a story not least because we’re not primed to expect them at this point. Gillian Flynn knocks us off balance so well in Gone Girl partly because of when her big reveal occurs. As does Hitchcock in the movie, Psycho. An early twist can also lead on to multiple convolutions and has the added advantage that it allows the story to continue and reveal the twist’s consequences.

Misdirect readers. While foreshadowing helps the writer to play fair with readers it’s important to keep them from guessing the twist too soon. Unreliable narrators or misleading POV characters can help with misdirection. Agatha Christie is famous for her untruthful narrators in books like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Endless Night. Henry James makes brilliant use of an unreliable narrator in Turn of the Screw. Unreliable POV characters are not necessarily liars, or amnesiacs like Christine in Before I Go To Sleep. They may have been deceived themselves or misread a situation. They could be very young, naïve or blinded by love or prejudice. If you use several narrators, as Wilkie Collins does in The Woman in White and The Moonstone, you have the opportunity to show a variety of possible truths.

Be flexible even if you like to start with a carefully planned plot and a detailed outline. As the story comes to life situations or characters may suggest twists or surprising developments that can add depth to the narrative or offer a better way to reach the resolution. At this point you may need to go back and add in some foreshadowing or misdirection.


Add a twist to the Cinderella story. Confound expectations by having the prince fall for one of the ugly sisters either temporarily or permanently. How many possible scenarios does this suggest? How will you alter the characters or events to make it believable?

Experiment with the twist occurring at different points in the story. How does it change the narrative if it happens early on, in the middle or close to the end?

Now add another twist. The sister rejects the prince. Why? What happens next? How are the other characters affected?

And how would the story change if instead of the omniscient story-teller you turned one of the characters into your narrator? A narrator who could of course be unreliable.

Try something similar with other fairy stories.

Chris Curran is the author of Mindsight, Her Turn To Cry, and Her Deadly Secret, all published by Harper Collins Killer Reads. Chris was born in London but now lives in St Leonards-on-Sea near Hastings, on the south coast of England, in a house groaning with books. She left school at sixteen to work in the local library – her dream job then and now – and spent an idyllic few months reading her way around the shelves. Reluctantly returning to full-time education she gained her degree from Sussex University. Since then she has worked as an actress, script writer, copy editor and teacher, all the time looking forward to the day when she would see her own books gracing those library shelves.
Facebook author page

Or follow me on twitter @Christi_Curran

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Igniting Writing

by Alex Baker, Igniting Writing

The stereotypical image of a writer is someone solitary, secluding themselves in the corner of a café as they type away at a laptop and fuel themselves with endless cups of coffee. But with many writers first getting into storytelling in their teen years, how do they develop their writing voice in solitude? Alex Baker, founder and group leader of teen creative writing group Igniting Writing, gives his thoughts on how it’s important to give teens the support to share their ideas with other aspiring writers and what sort of writing activities will keep them engaged…

Picture the scene: you’re a teenager, sitting alone at your computer at an ungodly hour of night, and you’ve just finished your first ever piece of creative writing that wasn’t for homework. Maybe it’s a poem, or a short story, but it’s yours. You feel like a cross between William Shakespeare, J.K. Rowling and Charles Dickens. Objectively what you’ve written is probably terrible, with dodgy clichés and dubious grammar (when is a semi-colon supposed to be used, anyway?), but for that brief moment of triumph you want to share it with everyone.

And then that moment fades and the self-doubt kicks in. There’s no way you can even consider sharing this with your friends or family! What if they don’t like it and think it’s naff? Or what if they’re not interested and react to your work with an indifferent shrug? 

If the above scenario sounds remotely familiar to you, you’re not alone. The success of websites like Wattpad and Archive of Our Own in the teen demographic show that young writers out there want a platform to display and develop their storytelling skills, but sadly many schools only give creative writing a token glance on the curriculum and whilst most towns and cities have creative writing clubs, almost all of these are for adults. Other than the internet, which has its own pitfalls, what options are there for teens to explore their writing skills together?

Enter Igniting Writing, Wokingham Library’s creative writing club exclusively for 11-18 year olds. The group meets regularly on Saturday mornings, 10:30am-12:00pm, and gives teens the opportunity to write together, sharing their story ideas and building friendships with other young aspiring writers in a fun, relaxed group setting. It’s completely free to attend and open to any teens that want to join, whether they’ve got prior writing experience or are complete novices.

Explaining his writing origins, Alex said: “I started writing stories at around 16 years old. It was mostly really bad fanfiction – it’s probably still lurking in a folder somewhere on my computer! – which I kept hidden. None of my friends at the time were interested in writing stories and it would have been beyond embarrassing to share with my family. It only changed when I started university and discovered their Creative Writing Society. I decided to give it a try and it was the best decision I ever made – it showed me the benefits of writing as part of a group, particularly for young writers that are just starting out, and the group atmosphere helped boost my confidence, so much so that in my last year at university I became co-president of the Society.”

After graduating, Alex wanted to keep that same creative writing group spirit alive, but was initially disappointed. “I’d hoped to find a group that would reach out to that 16 year old me, who didn’t have anyone to share his fanfiction with and was doing it purely for fun. But the more I looked, the more I saw that there was nothing in Berkshire for teens. Even nationally there are very few clubs for teen writers, compared to the masses for adults.”

And so, with support from Wokingham Library, Alex decided to create his own group. Elaborating on his leadership, Alex outlined the three main considerations he bears in mind when planning an Igniting Writing session. “First, I focus on a different writing topic each week. One week we’ll cover building settings, the next sci-fi stories, the next creating an antagonist and so on. Making each session self-contained means there’s something for everyone and helps new members integrate into the group easily. It’s also good to show the group members genres they’ve never experienced before – very few teens will have tried something like travel writing for example, so one session on the topic acts as a nice introduction.

“Secondly, the session needs to be interactive. Beginning with a group discussion helps; if I were leading a session all about superhero stories, I’d start by asking the group what superpower they would pick if they could have one. That always generates a positive buzz as they debate which powers would be most useful, and helps get their brains active for the writing tasks. Additionally, we also host ‘guest speaker’ sessions, where local authors, poets, literary agents and other people experienced in the world of writing come and share their knowledge and advice. It’s a chance for the teens to ask questions and hear from the pros.

“Lastly, for the writing activities I aim to get the teens thinking outside the box. Random prompts from a hat help to give the group members some direction, but simultaneously the freedom to explore it in their own way. For example, recently we led a horror-themed session and I wrote a whole load of fake B-movie titles and put them into a hat. The teens each drew one out at random and had to write a story to go with the title, which would be something ridiculous like ‘The Revenge of the Zombie Penguins’! The random selection gets the teens thinking on their feet and if the prompts are fun it can really get them energised to write.”

Igniting Writing has attracted over 100 teens and been invited into over a dozen schools across Berkshire to lead creative writing taster sessions to pupils. You can find the group online here:
Website: Twitter:

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Creative Kicks - Week 8 - Beat the Block with Anne Stormont

By Anne Stormont
Images by JD Lewis

Can't get started or stalling when you do?

Whether experienced or novice, most writers suffer from the dreaded writers' block at some time.

And it's not really surprising it happens. Writing is hard work. It's a craft as well as an art and it has to be learned, practised and improved.

Writing takes time and effort. The only way to learn it is by doing it. And the only way to practise is by doing it. And the only way to improve is by doing it. Yes, it's great when the creative juices flow, but most of the time it's a case of turning up and persevering. 

The block can be brought on by author fatigue, or by lack of commitment. But it can also be caused by lack of experience, by lack of confidence, or by lack of inspiration.

Its major symptom is procrastination which in turn leads to frustration, and in the most serious cases self-loathing and despair – where that voice inside tells you that you were a fool to ever think you could write – and you are tempted to give up completely.

Beating the block

But please, if you're affected by writers' block, don't give up. There is hope. It is possible to recover and become both creative and productive once more.

And because it can be due to different reasons it follows there are different remedies. So let's take them one by one:

Author fatigue – first of all congratulations for having got started and persisted up to this point. You've most likely been writing intensively – a do-not-disturb notice issued to friends and family – and every possible moment has been spent at your desk. You may well have been enthused, full of ideas and completely committed to your project. But then the well runs dry. Suddenly – or gradually – enthusiasm wanes, focus is lost and ideas dry up. It's time for a complete break, time to replenish.

So, get out of your writing space and re-engage with the world. The natural world is a particularly effective remedy. Going for a walk, run or cycle outdoors really does blow the claggy cobwebs away. And as you focus on the physical, your mind can go off on its own to process, refresh and reboot.

Social distractions are good too. A meal, a drink, and a catch up with the important people in your life also give the creative department of your brain some much-needed downtime. It seems as if switching your focus lets your mind declutter and work on things in the background – including your latest writing project – with no active input from you.

And don't forget to spoil yourself a bit too – take a nap or a nice long bath – or even READ, yes, lose yourself in a good book. It's amazing how after some time away you'll find renewed enthusiasm for the work-in-progress.

Lack of commitment – your writing can sometimes stall because the project you're working on doesn't excite you or seems pointless. In which case walk away. But it may be that even although you're enjoying the piece you're working on, you're still finding it hard to do, or to justify the time spent on it. This is where deadlines come in handy. Competitions are a great way of imposing a deadline on your project and will also ensure you give your writing your best shot. Or, if you share the intended date for the publication/circulation/reading of your story, article, poetry collection – or whatever – with your readers, that will also help you focus your efforts.

Lack of experience – the only remedy here is: get some experience. Yes, you need to be brave. Starting something new can often be scary. But like all journeys, learning to write begins with small steps. You won't have a bestseller overnight – indeed most of us who write will never have a bestseller. But that's okay because you'll have so much fun just writing for the sake of it. So begin small and build from there. Write a short story or an article or a poem. Then do some more. Maybe seek out a local writers group or club you can join where you can share your work and get some support. Consider take a writing class or course, online or in the real world. You could even consider a residential course and experience the joy of such an intense and fully immersive experience. But whatever you decide, do seek out constructive feedback, take criticism on the chin (but not as a personal insult) and aim to improve. 

Lack of confidence – this can be related to lack of experience but it affects established writers too. It can be related to disappointing feedback, a scathing review or the above affliction of author fatigue. But sometimes there is no obvious external cause. Sometimes it's that wee demon inside that likes to taunt us, tell us we're useless, asks us who we're trying to kid.

If you doubt yourself because of some negative criticism of your writing, take a bit of time to get over the hurt and then go back and interrogate the remarks made. More often than not there will be a grain (or more) of truth in that criticism and, also more often than not, you'll see a way to improve as a result. Equally, if you decide that no, the criticism is unjustified then put it aside and move on. Don't let one person's opinion stop you doing something you love.

And don't let the wee demon stop you either. Put it back in its box and turn the key. Then get back to doing the thing that gives you so much pleasure and excitement. Because there's nothing like the exhilaration of being in the zone, of seeing where the story – your story – is going to take you. And if one other person – besides you – also gets pleasure from reading it then it's doubly worthwhile.

And finally – Lack of inspiration – you want to write but you've no idea what to write. This is where writing exercises come in handy. So let me leave you with a few:

· Take the first sentence of chapter six in the last novel you read and write a 500, 1000 (or more) word story with it as your starting point.

· Get a photo of a person in e.g. a magazine advert (not someone famous or who you know) and write about them – their dilemma, or their life story, their job, their crime, their secret...

· As for the prompt above but use a picture of a place.

· Write about the first house you lived in, or the first film you saw, the first book you read – say what it meant to you and why.

· Choose something from the natural world – e.g. a starling, a river, an oak tree, or an object – e.g.paperweight, teddy, photo. Or choose an action – e.g. swimming, climbing, driving. Or choose an emotion – e.g. anger, sorrow, joy. And let that choice be your starting point for a short story, novel, poem or opinion piece.

So what are you waiting for? Go on kick the block aside and get writing!

Anne writes contemporary women's fiction. She has published two novels so far Change of Life and Displacement and her third novel Settlement  – a sequel to Displacement – will be out at the end of August.

Anne's novels have been described as thoughtful, grown-up fiction where the main characters are older but no wiser and feature characters who face challenges that involve love, loss and some of life's biggest questions.

Anne is a Scot, living in the land of her birth. She's a retired teacher and when she's not writing, she's a compulsive crossworder, yoga practitioner, avid reader, keen walker and gardener. She also loves spending time with friends and family – especially her two grandchildren.

Anne has travelled all over the world and her visits to the Middle East in particular have inspired her most recent writing.

She can be a bit of a subversive old bat, but she tries to maintain a kind heart.

Twitter: @writeanne

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Creative Kicks – Week 7 – Creating Literary Devices with Jerome Griffin

By Jerome Griffin
Images by JD Lewis

Breaking the mould is the holy grail of writing. Finding expression like nobody before. Standing apart from the crowd.

 It’s possible, certainly, but not probable. Chances are, if you think you’re a unique voice, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Somebody somewhere has done it before.

Like the magic rule of three.
You say something, explain it, and then qualify it.
Just like the examples above.

So maybe you should set your sights lower. Aim for something more achievable. Less ambitious.
Like world peace. Or an end to global poverty. A cure for death.

People have become used to the rule of three. Now if you stop at two it feels unfinished.

On another note, more than three appears clumsy. Like the writer is struggling for clarity. To find the right words. Labouring the point. Going on and on and on.

Like that really.

As I say, it’s the magic number. The rule. The law.
But the rule of three must have started somewhere. Somewhen. Sometime.
And then it grew into the norm. This literary device. This catchy conjuror.

Thankfully there’s always someone out there hell bent on destroying the norm and poking a finger in the eye of comfortable predictability and nothing will stop them from finding their grail, so they toil and they toil and then they toil some more in search of inspiration with perspiration to break this new mould that society has cradled to its bosom so vigorously that it’s in danger of suffocating the creative spark that fuelled the imaginative inferno in the first place, and of course, they’re too late because society’s yearning for its warmth has already snuffed the fragile flame and what was once a creative beacon lighting the path of the future has been rendered a spent torch sucked dry by the very ones who sought to breathe eternal life into its core and suckle on its power, which means that nothing is new or unique or original anymore, but society thirsts for new and original and unique, and is wandering in a desert wilderness that tortures and torments even the strongest minds until they lose their ever more tentative grip on reality, and in tandem with their desert wanderings, their minds wander a metaphorical barren wilderness until they spew unchecked, unfettered, uncensored, unadulterated, raw beauty onto the world and now there is no editing because to edit would be to tarnish and destroy the creative seed that has been sown in this raging, ranting, rambling cacophony of literary noise: a noise of beauty, of fury, of power, of essence, of being crackling with electric energy, thrumming with pulsing rhythm, soaring with eagle grace, shining brighter than a galaxy of stars, soothing the soul in the warmth of its embrace and penetrating the heart easier than a baby’s smile.

And so the stream of consciousness is born. And it’s new and unique and original once more.

Until it’s tired and old and not new. Not unique. Not original. Just same same, not different.

So the quest begins for another new voice. Another new sound. Another holy grail.

And the quest will continue forever, because as soon as something new is found, it’s not new anymore.

Yep, from the nerve-shredding cliffhanger to the sinister smoking gun, from unfathomable hyperbole to terse understatement, and from harmonious juxtaposition to conflicting oxymora, we all love a well developed literary device. And writers love nothing more than creating their own. So, here’s a couple of tips on how to do so.

1. Turn things upside down. Instead of using a cliché that everybody knows change it around. For example, in Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk took an everyday expression and simply changed the delivery. Everyone is familiar with the term “to sleep like a baby”. In the story the protagonist suffers from insomnia until he attends a support group, at which point he proclaims: “Babies don’t sleep this well!” Its effect delivers instant impact and the reader sits up and takes notice, whereas they might have glossed over the tired old original cliché.

So, your exercise here is to take old proverbs, sayings and clichés and change their format. Some examples as follows:

• If this is all fair in war, I’d hate to see what happens in love.
• This has gone way beyond tough and the tough have yet to get going.
• All the flies are on him.

For a bit of variety, throw in a little opposite:

• If at first you don’t succeed, maybe failure is your thing.
• What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…said nobody ever with a bad back
• He leapt into inaction.

2. Keep to what you know. It’s a well known fact, by those who know it well*, that writers write from experience. There’s nothing clumsier than an author stumbling blindfolded into alien territory. Staying in your comfort zone is the best way to explore outside your comfort zone. As an exercise, write down some every day terminology used in your other/previous careers and play around with them.

For example, in My Better Half the protagonist works in advertising and employs a tool used by market researchers as follows: “If this product were a car, what kind of car would it be?” He brings this into his thoughts at different times throughout the story and varies the delivery.

For example:
 • If my company were a disease, what disease would it be?
• If I were a Shakespearean character I would be Hamlet.

So, let’s take a quick look at other jobs:

• Shop assistant – Management don’t care. To them I’m not a human, just a barcode.
• Shop manager – The customer is always right, especially when they’re wrong.
• Accountant – That’s a moral victory on the credit side of life’s ledger.
• Bartender – Everything he says is BS – Barfly Stupidity. 

Well structured literary devices add so much to a writer’s style and set them apart from the crowd. And all you have to do is look at things from another perspective. Go on, that diem won’t carpe itself!

*Thank you, Robert Rankin, for that wonderful example of the now legendary running gag literary device.

Jerome Griffin is the author of two novels – The Flight of the Earls, an historical fiction set in Ireland over 400 years ago; and My Better Half, a contemporary story set in London.

In 2014 Jerome launched Short e Publishing, which produces short contemporary fiction. Jerome has since gone on to publish two Short e stories: Divorcing Mum and 33rd County. There are many more in the pipeline from Jerome, as well as a number of other authors, under the Short e Publishing banner.
Jerome lives in London with his wife, Elaine.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

First Page Competition 2018 - THE RESULTS!

Owing to the volume of entries to this year's competition, we're a little later than we'd hoped in releasing the results of our First Page Competition 2018 and we thank you all for your patience. Congratulations to everyone who entered, the overall quality of entries was very high and judging was incredibly difficult. In no particular order, here is our longlist, shortlist and winners ... [JD Smith - Editor]


An Entry in the Yellow Book by Dianne Bown-Wilson
Beneath the Apple Blossom by Kate Frost
Bloodlender by Zoe Perrenoud
Fall of Meredith by Alison Woodhouse
Gospel of Eve by Nastasya Parker
His Lie Her Lie by Abby Davies
Mot and the Gates to Hades by Julian Green
The Bicycle Project by Michele Ivy Davis
The Days Have Worn Away by Gill Darling
The Gatherer of the Dead by Julian Green
The Immortalist by Tracy Fells
The Stillness by Louise Cato
Uncle Raymond by Rue Baldry
Under the Lighthouse by Rowena Cross
What’s In a Name by Vanessa Horn
Yesterday's Love by J A Silverton


A Woman Walked into a Life by Francesca Capaldi Burgess
Better to See Him Dead by Amanda Huggins
Born From Red by Stephanie Hutton
Civil War by Tom Szendrei
Don't fear the Rapper by Andy Smith
Handle with Care by Beth Madden
Independence Day by Rod Cookson
Sweet, Bitter Spring by Mark Robberts
Sisters by Alan Veale
Treasure in the Tidelines by Jess Thomas
Up She Rises by Damhnait Monaghan
Weaponised Skeletons by Kate Lowe
Where the Mermaids Go by Pat Black


First Prize £500
Málenki Robot by Mary Cohen

Second Prize £100
Handle with Care by Beth Madden

Third Prize £50
The Diarist by Julia Underwood

Judge’s Report by Jane Davis

The last writing competition I judged was for ‘vignettes’, not a term I’d stumbled across before. The premise was that anything went, provided that the entire piece came in at under 15,000 words. Soon it became clear that I wasn’t being asked to judge like with like. Poetry collections were pitted against novellas. I am fairly confident that I picked the right winner, because that strange and wonderful piece called The Walmart Book of the Dead has just been made required reading at Princeton University.

When Words With Jam asked me to judge their First Page competition, I assumed (foolishly) that the process would be simpler. After all, I write novels. I know exactly what first pages must deliver:

The language must speak to me.

I should be transported to another time or place.

Questions should be planted in my mind and I must be emotionally engaged and invested in finding out the answers.

I must want to know more about the characters.

Key themes should be introduced, either familiar themes (in which case they must be handled in an original way) or unfamiliar (in which case the quality of the writing will have to carry me through).

I should understand what is at stake.

I must be able to see that the content has the potential to be developed into a novel. And that’s the difficult part of not judging a whole. I don’t know for sure if the rest of the novel has been written, if the first page is part of the Work in Progress, or if the story exists only as an idea – although I can take an educated guess. If the novel is complete, the first page will have been revisited, revised and rewritten. We will be parachuted into the action at a particularly compelling part of the story. It will be apparent from the way in which the author introduces their first character (a fully-fleshed person) and their themes (an original take). Many of my early drafts of first chapters don’t feature in the final versions of my novels. But there are many ways into a story and you need to write first chapters that end up on the cutting-room floor to work through the creative process.

More important is the question, ‘Do I believe every word that is written on the page?’

I can say with absolutely no hesitation that my winner is Malenki Robot. I loved the premise – a very precise set of instructions (‘Bypass the beggar woman who sleeps in the gutter on Kairaly u. Watch out for the pothole.’) – and our character, who goes to the assignment but does the very opposite of everything he/she’s been told to do. It’s a confident beginning. I am expecting something dark, quirky and original, most probably although not necessarily crime. There are hints that the author isn’t writing in his or her first language (references to a ping pong racquet rather than a bat), but it could be that our narrator is a foreigner in an unfamiliar country. I simply don’t know – the point is that I really, really want to find out.

Fourteen remaining entries. My second and third choices will be the result of painful and slow elimination. I cannot claim that this stage of judging is ever entirely fair. Twelve green bottles have to go. Several entrants have used the theme, ‘new beginnings’ and so they feel ‘samey’. Several start quietly with beautiful prose, but hold back on the promise of what is to come. One totally wins me over with the first paragraph but then introduces language that completely turns me off. I have no way of telling if this has been done deliberately (in which case it was one hundred percent effective and I owe you an apology). And now there are five. All completely different.

Perhaps I’ll feel more decisive after lunch.


I’m wracked with guilt, having whittled the shortlist down to three. But I still have one more to lose. I write my notes in the hope that this helps with the final elimination. It does.

In second place is Handle With Care. A classic dilemma. You’ve fallen in love with the wrong man, but you’re trying to be a good mother, so you have to put your children first – or do you? Original use of voice – this woman isn’t going to take things lying down, so plenty of scope for conflict. I can see that Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car will be the soundtrack the film version.  

In third place is The Diarist – someone has just killed someone, the police are arriving and she has a diary which must be hidden, we assume because it reveals her guilt. Some wonderful imagery – the corners of the night porter’s newspaper wafting in time with his snores. Tension extremely well-handled.

Congratulations to all who entered. I especially want to commend Civil War. The writing was totally authentic. I believed every word. The reason I eliminated it was because, rather than a set-up for a novel, it was a complete piece of writing in itself. 

First Prize £500
Málenki Robot by Mary Cohen

‘Head towards the Jewish district, through the park with the broken streetlamps (don’t get mugged).

‘Bypass the beggar woman who sleeps in the gutter on Király u. Watch out for the pothole.

‘If you are offered directions, do not accept. Do not tell anyone where you are going.

‘Székely u. is “dog district”. You may find yourself tailed by anything up to twenty strays. Walk quickly, but no sudden movements. Do not stroke or feed the dogs.

‘There is no marker on the bar. Look instead for a lit window and keep an ear out for music. You should hear jazz. If you don’t hear jazz, it’s a bad time, come back later.

‘Front door is always locked. Use window instead. Be sure not to break anything on your way in.

‘No eye contact with anyone until you’ve ordered. Acceptable drinks to order: beer. Do not ask for whiskey, gin or rum.

‘You will meet a man named Thovas, usually found at the bar or near the window. He will have a racket in his pocket and will most likely be drinking beer with a slice of apple.

‘He will offer you a game of ping pong. Do not accept.’

I strolled in through the window and ordered myself a whiskey.

Thovas was easy to spot. He sat by himself and the bare bulb overhead fell on him like a spotlight. He had half a fruit basket floating in his beer.

He sensed me immediately as I approached and his neck snapped upright. His face was wrinkled but alert. Electricity flowed from his eyeballs. I wondered if they were hooked up to the lighting in the joint.

I gestured towards the racket protruding from his coat pocket. His eyes grew an extra 60 watts.

‘Ping pong?’ He asked.

I nodded.

Second Prize £100
Handle with Care by Beth Madden

The first night police showed up at the house we’d just moved in. My teapot was on the table, porcelain gleaming in a nest of newspaper and curls of used tape. I knew jack about tea. Only that you drank the stuff. But I did know I wanted that pot. A handful of hints two Christmases past was all it took for Dad to shell out its disgusting value in cash. But I couldn’t reach the top cupboard. I had to wait for Mitch to ramble home from his snack run. The police waited for him too.

He got off with a fine. No conviction recorded.

They came again a few months later. Up to my elbows in suds and second-hand cutlery, I yelled for Mitch to get his arse out of the garage. ‘You wanna tell me why Barry’s here?’

‘Popped by for a visit?’

Oily rag stuffed in his jeans, Mitch brewed Barry a cuppa while Constable Burke scouted out zip-lock bags. I blathered at her nonstop. Guess I was never much for tension.

Mitch got an order, community-based. He never shirked an appointment, ever ready to piss on cue. I lived on pins, my only prayer that he’d piss clean.

But the law came by again. We had a casserole in the oven. The dish burnt and battered by decades in their honorary grandma’s kitchen, I turned down the heat and packed the kids off to their room for homework.

‘What’s Barry want Mitch for?’ my eldest asked, eight and uneasy. I told him not to worry.

‘Mitch isn’t the one with a spelling test tomorrow, love.’

I smiled, a painful postscript left unspoken: not a written test, anyway.

The dirty sample breached his order. He got imprisonment. ‘I don’t want to see you here again,’ the magistrate warned, suspending it. Mitch’s fervent nods swung on a hinge. And the cops were back before long. This time Dad’s old slow cooker bubbled and steamed. They’d learnt dinner was when to catch us.

‘Sorry, April,’ said Barry, smacking Mitch on the shoulder. Then he steered him out the door. Again.

Barry liked Mitch—Mitch made it hard not to. The officers smiled at him like a family who treasured their beloved black sheep.  Our tidy suburb’s obliging problem child. He was such a lovely guy. And he was mine. But I couldn’t take much more of this. 

Third Prize £50
The Diarist by Julia Underwood


Nearly home.

Her boots crunched in the snow as she hurried from the Underground station, pulling her coat collar up around her neck against the chill. Her laboured breath fogged the air.

It was terrible, but he’s dead now. It’s over.

An empty, brightly-lit bus trundled past in stately silence; not a night to be out. The plane trees stood like sentinels at the snow-muffled kerb. The buildings’ lights created pools of gold on the white mantle.

Careful not to slip; disastrous. No-one must see me.

In minutes, she was climbing the steps to the flats. Bert, the night porter, snoozed at his desk, an Evening News folded across his face, its corners wafting in time with his snores.

She crept up the carpeted stairs. The noise of the lift with its clanking gates and grinding mechanism would wake him.

Reaching her sanctuary, she leaned against the closed door out of breath and with her heart pounding so hard it vibrated throughout her body. Her mouth was dry as a husk. She removed her coat and boots, put them to dry and made tea, her hands shaking.

In the bedroom she changed her clothes and then snatched the blue leather diary from beside the bed and took it into the living room. No point in turning on the television; it was almost time for closedown. Her terror abated, replaced by relief and even serenity.

Opening the diary’s shattered cover, she perused the closely written pages. Memories stirred emotions that she thrust aside. The handwriting, initially neat and controlled, had gradually deteriorated. In those last tortured months, when she poured such hatred and misery into the book, words became knotted and mangled, devouring the pages until, in the last paragraphs, they stopped in prosaic finality. She slammed it shut.

Mustn’t waste time. Hide it where no-one will look.

A car drew up outside. Doors slammed. Several pairs of feet crunched up the steps. The car’s light flashed blue, slicing the icy air and reflecting on her curtains. A pause, and the lift rattled to the second floor.

Bert will have woken for them.

Panic. She spun around, seeking a hiding place.

She lifted the sofa’s front legs and, her supple wrist twisting unnaturally, thrust the book up deep amongst the springs. The seat dropped to the carpet, the fringe trembling as it settled.
Then the doorbell rang. 

Well done to our winners. We'll be in touch in due course to arrange your prize money. JD Smith - Editor