Wednesday, 23 August 2017

In Conversation with Sam Blake (Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin)

By Gillian Hamer.

Sam Blake is a pseudonym for Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin, the founder of The Inkwell Group publishing consultancy and the popular national writing resources website 

She is Ireland's leading literary scout who has assisted many award winning and bestselling authors to publication. 

Vanessa has been writing fiction since her husband set sail across the Atlantic for eight weeks and she had an idea for a book.

Hello and welcome! Can you tell us a little about you and your writing?

Hello, and thank you for having me! I write crime as Sam Blake - the first in the Cat Connolly trilogy LITTLE BONES was published in 2016 and was a bestseller in Ireland, it was followed by IN DEEP WATER which is out in the UK in February 2018 and the third in the trilogy NO TURNING BACK will be out in Ireland in 2018 and in the UK in 2019.

Congratulations on the huge success of your debut crime novel LITTLE BONES – how has your life changed since its release?

LITTLE BONES was far more successful than I ever expected, it was No 1 in Ireland for 4 weeks and stayed in the top 10 for another 4 which was totally amazing. Now I get to be Sam Blake as well as me and it’s incredible to meet someone who has read it and loved my books! That never ceases to surprise me!

What was the inspiration behind the novel?

Cat Connolly is a twenty-four-year-old detective who is based in Dun Laoghaire just south of Dublin City and LITTLE BONES is about the story that unfolds when she finds a baby’s bones hidden in the hem of a wedding dress.

Stephen King talks about story being the collision of two unrelated ideas – the ideas behind Little Bones weren’t entirely unrelated but they collided one sunny Sunday afternoon as I was driving back from a Readers Day that author Sarah Webb and I had programmed at a hotel in Dublin Airport. I put on the radio and a documentary was starting on RTE about Kerry born playwright George Fitzmaurice. Fitzmaurice is best remembered for his play The Country Dressmaker which he submitted to the Abbey Theatre. It was such a success that it rescued the theatre after the problems of John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World in the same year. Born in 1877, Fitzmaurice became introverted and isolated as he grew older and died in 1963, in a rented upstairs room in No.3 Harcourt Street, Dublin. He was aged 86 years and left no will and few personal belongings – apart from a copy of every play he had ever published and a few in draft form, which were in a suitcase under his bed.

It was Fitzmaurice’s suitcase that caused the collision of ideas.

Several years previously I’d watched an RTE TV documentary about a young Irish girl who was living in lodgings in Manchester. Belinda Agnes Regan discovered she was pregnant before she left Ireland but, unmarried, had no choice but to hide the pregnancy. She delivered the baby herself, incredibly in a room she shared with another much younger girl who apparently slept through her ordeal. Wrapping the baby in a shawl, she crept to the bathroom but when she returned, the baby wasn’t breathing. Hiding the body in a suitcase, she left it under her bed, returning home to Ireland to talk to the family priest. While she was away, the body was found by her land lady and she was arrested for infanticide.

These two stories, quite separately lit a light bulb in my head and on the drive home I started wondering about dress makers and what would happen if the bones of the baby had ended up in a dress – a wedding dress – the crucial thing that Belinda Agnes Regan must have yearned for, for nine long months. At that point I had no idea who owned the dress, or how the bones got there, or WHY…that was the start!

Why did you choose to write in the genre of crime fiction?

I’ve always read crime and I’m fascinated by puzzles and what makes people tick – why they act and react in a particular way. I think most writers write what they read, and I love a good story that keeps me hooked until the end and then surprises me. That’s what I try to do in my books.

Who are your favourite crime authors and is there one in particular you would list as your inspiration?

I adore Lee Child, Michael Connolly and Karin Slaughter. They have all been huge influences. I love the fast action of the Reacher books and the characterisation and complex stories in Michael Connolly and Karin Slaughter’s books. Good stories are all about unforgettable characters and all of these writers characters stay with you. I love Alex Barclay’s Ren Bryce for the same reason.

Why did you choose to write under a pseudonym?

My full name is Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin which is far too long for a book cover and people outside Ireland struggle to pronounce O’Loughlin. The key for any author is that readers can remember their name long enough to find them in a library or on a bookshop shelf - Sam Blake is MUCH nice easier one to remember. Being a B, I’m in great company on the shelf and there is a theory that men don’t like reading books by women, so Sam adds an additional layer of subterfuge...

Would you like to write in a different genre one day? If so, what and why?

Years ago I wrote a romance novel – with lots of intrigue – called TRUE COLOURS, I was between crime novels and had an idea about an interior designer and her lost love. It got rave rejections from publishers when my then agent submitted it, but now I know it wasn’t a big enough story to be a breakout novel, so it didn’t get picked up. It seemed silly to leave it in a drawer so I self-published it, launching it free on World Book Day in 2012 (I think!) it had 25,000 downloads and shot into the top ten in contemporary fiction when it switched to paid, which was rather unexpected to say the least! It definitely wiped its face in terms of costs.

Could you give us a condensed version of your route to publication?

I started writing in 1999 when my husband went sailing across the Atlantic for eight weeks. Obviously I thought the first book would be a bestseller (it was truly awful – the opening chapter is about a doctor returning to Dublin to commit suicide and he’s dead for the whole book) but despite being rejected by everyone on the planet, the bug had truly bit and I kept writing.

By the time I got to book 3 I knew I was getting better but I needed to learn more about the craft of writing. My husband was in the Irish Police force (Gardai) and worked shifts - I couldn’t get to a creative writing evening class so I decided to set up my own intensive one day fiction writing workshops – all facilitated by best-selling authors. I learned loads!

Inkwell grew into a publishing consultancy and I kept writing – my now agent is Simon Trewin from WME who I was working with doing events and as a scout, but whom I had forgotten to tell that I wrote myself. One day I mentioned it over coffee in London and he wanted to see my book immediately (bit of a scary moment) Thankfully he loved the book, which was then called THE DRESSMAKER. He had lunch with Mark Smith from Bonnier on a Thursday, sent him the book, and Bonnier made an offer for three books on Friday!

If you could give three top tips to newbie writers – what would they be?

Just keep writing – best advice I was ever given from Sarah Webb

Finish your book – Liz Nugent’s top tip

And: Read, read, read. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Edit, edit, edit. – the fabulous Monica McInerney’s advice

And read On Writing by Stephen King (sorry that’s four) – EVERY published writer had read it and has it on their shelf. I could quote from it for ever!

Finally, your next book ‘IN DEEP WATER’ will soon be released - how tough was it writing the ‘difficult second book’?
Not as tough as writing book 3! I had an idea for IN DEEP WATER but had a couple of false starts because I’ve now discovered I need to get the crime exactly right before I begin (I know that sounds rather obvious) – once I knew what had happened and how, I flew through writing it.

I know this sounds mad, but as an unpublished writer you have the huge luxury of time to get your first book right – once you’re under contract that all changes and you have to speed up! Because LITTLE BONES was in fairly good shape, I had more time for IN DEEP WATER and really enjoyed coming up with the twist at the end. My editor wasn’t very keen on the multiple points of view that were in the original draft, so that meant a good bit of rewriting – IN DEEP WATER is a much more linear story than LITTLE BONES, but keeps you hooked.

When I came to write book 3, I only had a few months to come up with an idea and get stuck in. I’d forgotten to ask when my actual deadline was and was at 70k words when I discovered it was the next day! I managed to write 30k words in 9 days and deliver almost on time, but after the first edit I’ve decided I don’t like the end, so I’ve just changed it – it’s with my editor now so fingers crossed she likes it (YIKES!)

Social media

T: @samblakebooks

For Vanessa/Inkwell
T: @inkwellhq
T: @Writing_ie

Instagram for everything!

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

SCRIPTORA: assisted publishing with SWWJ

Mary Rensten, Vice President of the Society of Women Writers and Journalists, talks about the Society's assisted publishing arm, SCRIPTORA.

In 2004 my first novel was accepted for publication. What a thrill! After nearly thirty years as a journalist and playwright, I had tackled a new genre ... and found success! I began a second novel, and jotted down ideas for further ones; nothing could stop this roller-coaster. Oh no? What was that saying about Pride coming before a Fall?

The publisher went out of business ... and my manuscript went back to the drawer, where it sat for a couple of years; I went back to writing drama, rather than experiencing it. Forget it, Mary, you are not a novelist.

Hang on, though ... the book was accepted, therefore it must be good enough for publication. The problem was ... no other publisher seemed to want it. So, what now? Vanity, in connection with publication, was a dirty word; but how about self-publishing? Other people, quite reputable writers, were now doing it. It was worth a try. I dug out the manuscript, freshened it up, took it to a printer. Two weeks later I collected the fifty copies I had ordered and brought them home in the boot of my car. My local independent bookshop, now sadly no longer there, agreed to stock the book and gave me a launch, to which the local press came. My photo, and a lovely plug for the book, appeared in the weekly newspaper, The Hertfordshire Mercury, and it was reviewed very favourably in The Woman Writer, the quarterly magazine of the Society of Women Writers & Journalists (SWWJ), an organisation which has been supporting writing professionals since 1894.

I had by now garnered some very useful information about publishing, which would be helpful when I set out to get my second novel into print. But that was not yet: I was only about halfway through! In the meantime though, perhaps I could use my new-found knowledge to benefit others in the SWWJ, members who were seeking publication in a genre new to them, or poets who were finding it difficult to get their work published in book form.

I drafted out a plan for this venture, giving it the publishing name I had used for my own book, and presented it to the SWWJ Council. They liked the idea ... and the name. SCRIPTORA (SWWJ) was born! You won't find the word in any dictionary ... well, not yet anyway! It is derived from scriptor, Latin for writer. Published writers back then being, as far as we know, male, there was no need for a feminine form of the word. No problem: add an 'a', and you have it ... SCRIPTORA!

We published our first book, After The Battle, a volume of poems by prize-winning Sussex writer Fay Marshall, in 2010, and in 2012 , Susato, a semi-autobiographical, lyrical novel by Liverpool poet Alfa, which has since been translated into German. We now have ten titles on our list, and six more - four novels, a book of poems and an autobiography - currently awaiting publication. Yes, it's a small concern, but it is a growing one, and our authors can be proud to have their work published by us, knowing that, before being accepted, it has gone through a rigorous vetting process by professional Readers, as with any submission to a commercial publisher, making this an 'assisted' publishing facility, rather than a self-publishing one.

So, how does SCRIPTORA work? Members send for an Application Form and Notes for Writers, then submit their work, together with the names of two people of literary standing who will endorse it. The manuscripts, preferably sent as email attachments (although hard copy is acceptable), go to two Readers. If both consider the work worthy of publication, it will move on to the next stage, which may well involve some 'tweaking' and/or re-writing; that done, the manuscript has a second round of reading, and if it passes that, it is then prepared for the printer. 

Throughout all this the writer has help, advice and general mentoring from our experienced editorial team, who will ensure that our publications, whether paperbacks or eBooks, meet professional standards in content and presentation. The only charge for this service is, at the moment, an admin. fee of £15! The bulk of the cost, though, aside from the ISBN, is paid by the author. He/she pays for the Readers' assessments - at a special rate to SWWJ members of £12 per hour, with £50 for an initial critique - and then for the printing and any artwork for the cover.

As with all publishers, the writer has to play his/her part in publicising the book; here again we give assistance, through the SWWJ press and social media contacts. Blogs, together with Twitter and Facebook, are proving to be a wonderful, far-reaching, and generally free, way of spreading the word about new work. Writers are, for the most part, retiring, modest people, but we are learning not to be so ... and this beguiling, easy-to-use 21st. century technology is helping us no end to overcome our shyness!

Alfa's Susato has had very good sales, particularly in Germany, poet Doris Corti's much praised Avenue of Days has sold out, Alex Rushton's dystopic novel, Sunrise at An Lac, has had brilliant reviews, and my own novel, the book that started the SCRIPTORA ball rolling, was republished commercially two years ago as Letters from Malta, and became an eBook best-seller in Australia!

I am so pleased that I took that first step into publishing: I love to see other writers being successful and it's good to think that SCRIPTORA is contributing to their success.

For more information and contact details go to Click on 'About Us' and scroll down to SCRIPTORA.

Mary Rensten is a Vice-President of SWWJ

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

The Ad Experience

By JJ Marsh

This summer, I published the sixth and last in my current crime series. After spending ten years writing, my aim was to start serious selling. My platform was pretty well established but to change up a gear, I needed to nail ads.

Hello Facebook, hello Amazon.

First I learned as much as I could for free online. I looked at Mark Dawson’s Self Publishing Formula 101 and knew I should understand more about advertising before enrolling on such a course. Otherwise I’d waste both time and money. (Having said that, Mark, James and the team are immensely generous with all their advice via their podcast/books.) Check them out.

So this Scaredy-Cat started with a reassuring Welsh voice: David Penny’s ALLi video on the basics. David’s slow, patient explanation of each step made me confident enough to try it out.

Then Adam Croft’s interview with the ever-helpful The Creative Penn added more ammunition, followed up with Reedsy’s course and various other marketing advisors.

Time to dip my toe in the water.

Lovely ad for the first in my series. But I dropped the price, thinking it would be an incentive. First mistake of many. (See Lesson 1.) In June, my first month of ad spend, I lost around £100. After studying more carefully and making adjustments, in month two, I made a decent profit. Feeling more confident, I tried new ads. Month three, I’ve quintupled my sales and I’m getting an ROI of 40% plus a whole host of new readers.

I am not an expert and far wiser minds will offer more sophisticated and expert advice. So as a seasoned writer but amateur marketer, here are the lessons I learned.

Lesson 1. Ads work best for higher-priced products such as boxsets but rarely for single books or special offers. (Advertising a discounted book is best done on the many freebie/bargain channels.) However, if you have a well-branded series, especially crime/historical fiction/sci-fi & fantasy, it’s worth trying FB/AMS ads.

Lesson 2: Image is crucial - simple, striking designs, featuring the book(s) work best.
On Facebook, you have more design influence. Blue is a bad idea as it blends with FB tones and won’t stand out but orange/yellow work well. Here’s a successful Facebook ad for one of mine, chosen especially to go with a “holiday read” promotion.

Lesson 3: Use congruence – text on ad which matches what the potential buyer sees on your sales page. (In my case; Europe, crime, Beatrice Stubbs, series, detective) Don’t be afraid to use the tagline in your ad or anything that reassures the reader they’re in the right place. And if you’re advertising on mobile/cell phones, make sure the image works in black and white.

Lesson 4: When it comes to Amazon, your only choice is to use the book cover as your image. I know Tread Softly is the most appealing and award-winning cover in my collection, so I chose to advertise that one in addition to my boxset.

The only other element you can control (apart from Keywords - see below) is the copy. You only have 150 characters. Here’s what went with the cover above.
Basque Country, Spain.
A true detective is never off duty.
Beatrice Stubbs is up to her neck in corruption, blackmail and Rioja.
Lesson 5: Link to the Amazon page for the appropriate country – ie, if advertising in the US use and for Germany, etc. You can also use to make sure the link redirects your readers to their home site.

Lesson 6: Target carefully. This is IMPORTANT. Make a profile of your ideal reader. Look at Also-boughts of yours and similar writers in your genre. Use Facebook's Audience Insights feature. Amazon offers a variety of tools and suggestions but you know your book and its place 'on the shelf' better than anyone. It sounds stupidly obvious but reach readers who will read and enjoy your work. I write not-gory, intelligent European crime fiction. If I target fans of erotica and sci-fi or slasher horror, I'm onto a loser. If I target fans of Kate Atkinson, Louise Penny, Kathy Reichs or Henning Mankell, I'm far more likely to find friendly readers.

On Amazon, use whole phrases or titles as Keywords and aim for around 200. It will force you to drill down into your niche market if nothing else.

On Facebook, select only their appropriate suggestions and add plenty of your own, based on all the research you've already done. Narrow to your ideal reader by using the Lookalike feature. Facebook can generate similar audiences to those who already like your page.

Lesson 7: Duplicate ads and change one element at a time. Received wisdom says 3 ads per ad set, which costs you no more than one. When you can see which one is working, ditch or change the others. (Leave them for at least 3 days before tinkering. Stats take a while to filter through.) This one for Raw Material took three weeks of refining till it took off.

Lesson 8: Watch what works. Remember you pay per click. Refine and hone.
Check keywords daily on Amazon and change those which get a lot of clicks but no sales.  Also pause those which get few impressions. CPC (cost per click) on Amazon should be $0.70 or less.

On Facebook, watch which ads get most impressions and clicks. After following Lesson 5 above, check which ads are working and either stop or alter the lowest performer. (Tip – what you think is your best ad may not be the same for your readership.) Received wisdom suggests your CPC should be around $0.30.

Lesson 9: If an ad is working – eg you’re selling more than you’re spending, increase your budget by 50%. Remember The Read-Through Effect – if readers enjoyed the first, it results in sales for the rest of your backlist. I’m now advertising only two books and one boxset, but consistently selling all eight (six individual books, two boxsets) every day.

Lesson 10: Respond. If people sign up to your list or like your Facebook author page or have questions, make time for them. Build a relationship and engage. Don’t bombard them but make them feel welcome and part of a community.

Extra tip: Trust your designer.
This is my most successful ad to date – it’s working in the US, Canada, Australia, Europe and is soon to land in India. Thanks to JD Smith Design who rejected my chosen pic and used one of her own.
As always, she was right.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

In Conversation with Ruth Hogan

By Gillian Hamer
Ruth Hogan. (Photo by Ben Croker)
Reviews for The Keeper of Lost Things:

A debut to watch for… I was hugely impressed by this flawlessly written, most humane novel. (Ronald Frame, Sunday Herald (Books of the Year))

A charming story of fresh starts and self-discovery that warms the cockles (Woman & Home)

A warm and heartfelt debut. (Prima)

A charming whimsical novel about holding on to what is precious (Red)

This mystical and spiritual tale is a joyous read that will broaden your imagination and warm your heart (OK!)

It’s charming, beautiful and full of heart (Fabulous Magazine)

Magical and moving (Heat)
Hello, Ruth, welcome to WWJ. Tell us a little about yourself and your writing?

I was born in the house where my parents still live in Bedford.
As a child I was obsessed with dogs and ponies (I still am) and wanted to be a vet. I was always reading, and frequently had to be forcibly parted from a book at mealtimes. I read everything I could lay my hands on so it was very fortunate that my mum worked in a bookshop. My favourite reads were The Moomintrolls, A Hundred Million Francs, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, the back of cereal packets, and gravestones.
I studied English and Drama at Goldsmiths College, University of London. It was brilliant and I loved it. But then I came home and got a proper job.
I now live in a chaotic Victorian house with an assortment of rescue dogs and my long-suffering husband. I spend all my free time writing or thinking about it and have notebooks in every room so that I can write down any ideas before I forget them. I am a magpie; always collecting treasures (or ‘junk’ depending on your point of view) and a huge John Betjeman fan. My favourite word is antimacassar and I still like reading gravestones.

Your debut novel The Keeper of Lost Things has become a bestseller. Can you sum it up in a single paragraph?

No! I’m really bad at writing short synopses so I’ve pinched this bit from the summary on Amazon.
Meet the 'Keeper of Lost Things'...
Once a celebrated author of short stories now in his twilight years, Anthony Peardew has spent half his life collecting lost objects, trying to atone for a promise broken many years before.
Realising he is running out of time, he leaves his house and all its lost treasures to his assistant Laura, the one person he can trust to fulfil his legacy and reunite the thousands of objects with their rightful owners.
But the final wishes of the 'Keeper of Lost Things' have unforeseen repercussions which trigger a most serendipitous series of encounters...

After a decade working in human resources, it took big life changes in your personal life before you became a full-time writer – what gave you the confidence to take the plunge?

For years I’d clung to the security of a sensible, well-paid job. I had a mortgage and bills to pay, and writing was just a hobby. But in my early thirties I had a car accident which left me unable to work full-time and convinced me to start writing seriously. I was still working part-time as a receptionist, but writing became my main focus. Then in 2012 I was diagnosed with cancer and that was a game-changer. I vowed that I would take every opportunity that came my way and if I ever got the chance to become a full-time writer I’d chase it as hard as if my pants were on fire! I was extremely lucky that the initial publishing deals for KEEPER paid well enough for me to give up working as a receptionist and concentrate on being a full-time author. The rights for KEEPER have gone on to sell in 19 territories so far, so it was a risk that proved to be well worth taking.

What one piece of writing advice you’ve been given do you find invaluable and would like to pass on?

The best piece of advice that I’ve been given was by an agent who rejected KEEPER. She told me to remember that this (meaning the publishing industry) is a ‘business of opinions’ and although she didn’t feel that my novel was for her, there might be someone else out there prepared to take it on. She was right.

Where do you find inspiration for your novels?

Everywhere! Wherever I am, whatever I’m doing, I’m always watching people and the situations they find themselves in. Whenever I see a striking building or landscape, I always think ‘how would I describe that?’ I’m also a documentary junkie and forever cutting news items, personal ads (and occasionally obituaries) out of newspapers and magazines.

How do you set about creating your characters? Eg, where did the character of Anthony Peardew and his lifelong obsession come from? 

Anthony was inspired by a former neighbour of mine who became an extreme hoarder after his fiancée died. I have a notebook for potential characters. Whenever I see someone interesting or get an idea for a character, I describe them in my notebook. I also use other people’s photography as inspiration for characters – for example Diane Arbus, Martin Parr, Doisneau, Tony Ray-Jones and William Eggleston.

What’s the hardest thing about being a writer?

The hardest part is the time spent waiting. I’m not a patient person at all, and when my work is out on submission to publishers I find the waiting excruciating. I have to keep myself distracted by finding lots of things to do!

And what for you is the best thing?

Everything else. It’s my dream job/life.

What three books would you have to take with you to your Desert Island?

UNTITLED by Diane Arbus, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE by Jane Austen and a book about how to survive on a desert island.

Which author do you most admire?

It’s impossible to choose just one, but the man who made me want to write was Eric Malpass after I read his book MORNING’S AT SEVEN.

Can you tell us anything about your next novel?

It is essentially a story of empowerment, hope and redemption. Masha, a woman in her early forties, has suffered a terrible loss and we follow her journey from a very dark place through to a completely new life. She’s inspired to change by two of my favourite characters in the book; an old lady who feeds the crows in the park and sings opera in the local cemetery, and a seventy-year-old amateur dramatics diva and roller disco fan who’s dating an undertaker named Elvis. Some of the darker themes explored in the book were inspired by my own experiences, but there’s also a healthy dose of humour and a cast of eccentric (and hopefully!) loveable characters. And, of course, there are dogs. It will be published by Two Roads Books in May 2018.

Thank you, Ruth! Good luck with your writing.

See our Bookmuse review of The Keeper of Lost Things HERE

Find out more about Ruth and her books:

Monday, 24 July 2017

First Page Competition 2017 - THE WINNERS!

We are delighted to announce the winners of our First Page Competition 2017, which has been judged by Alison Morton

The longlist is as follows:

59, Memory Lane by Celia J Anderson

Dear Alice by Katie Martin

Evil Queen in a Bookshop by Thesy Surface

Heart the Keener by Lorna Fergusson

In a Heartbeat by Jacqueline Molloy

Champagne for Breakfast by Maggie Christensen

Journey Beyond Earth by Philip Thacker 

This is All Mostly True by Kathy Stevens

Raven's Watch by Tania Kremer-Yeatman

View from the Drowning Hole by Kenneth John Holt

The shortlist is as follows:

Crows by K Hughes

Elephants in Flip-Flops by Julia Anderson

Hunting the Light by Vanessa Savage

Guilt by Joan Ellis

Junk Land by Sharon Boyle

Mirrormind by Zoe Perrenoud

Momma by Jenny Rowe

My Hero, My Dad by Brenda Thacker

Random Book Title by Ian King

Rowan's Well by CJ Harter

SE17 by Katie Martin

Strangers on a Bridge by Louise Mangos

Where a Waves Meets the Shore by Kathryn Guare

S is for ... murder by Rod Cookson

And the winning entries are:

Judge’s Report 2017 by Alison Morton

All the authors who reached this shortlist deserve a bouquet of beautiful blooms and the accompanying box of chocolates. Reading these entries was easy because it was pleasurable. Then I had to sit down and judge them. Not so pleasurable because I had to pick winners out of seventeen excellent finalists.

A first sentence should grab your attention, a first page your heart. Who is this person? What are they thinking? What is their dilemma? Can we sympathise? Empathise? Do we care about them? The first page needs to intrigue and entice, yet remain focused and simple. A neat trick to pull off!

Some common themes emerge from these first pages: women escaping or separating from their situation; family disjunct, often crushing feelings or aspirations; unthinking or negligent behaviour or deliberate unkindness with the odd glint of murder.

Several of the first pages seemed almost like short stories; by the last word, they’d almost completed the circle they’d opened with the first few. Inserting an action deriving from the first page to pull us on to the second is almost like a second hook, but vital.

And talking of first sentences, some were crackers! Others could be reviewed; sometimes taking out the current first sentence or two can reveal a much better one.

On to the winners!


Breaking the Lore by Andy Smith

Discovering fairies at the bottom of the garden is supposed to be good luck. Except when the fairy’s been crucified. Two pieces of wood shoved into the ground; one tiny form fastened on to them. Sometimes, thought Inspector Paris, being a cop could be the worst job in the world. And sometimes it was bloody amazing.

‘Well?’ he asked. ‘What do you reckon?’

Williams the pathologist lay on the grass, examining the scene. He shuffled round and peered up at the detective.

‘I’m not sure what to make of it,’ he replied. ‘I’ve never seen anything like this.’

‘You think I have?’

‘Maybe, Boss,’ said a voice over Paris’ shoulder. ‘We do get to see some mighty weird stuff. Remember I told you about those talking fish?’

‘Bonetti,’ said Paris. ‘That was “Finding Nemo”.’

For the umpteenth time, Paris cursed the process of allocating Sergeants, and how the hell he’d been assigned this one. Life could be a right pain. Still, considering the grisly sight in front of him, it had to be better than the alternative.

‘Anyway,’ he said, ‘we’re not in Hollywood. This is Manchester, for God’s sake! The leafy suburbs granted, but your archetypal northern industrial city. Things like this just don’t happen here. Mind you, things like this probably don’t happen anywhere. Help me out, Jack. Is it even real?’

Williams pushed his glasses back on his nose, then pointed at the grass.

‘We’ve got what appears to be blood,’ he said. ‘There’s also bruising around the wounds. Hence the answer is: yes and no.’

He clambered up to his feet, brushing the soil from his trousers.

‘“Real” – yes. “It” – no. Most definitely a “she”.’

Paris crouched down to survey the scene once more. The two sticks were in the ground in an X shape, with one wrist and the opposite ankle attached to each. The petite head drooped forward, golden hair obscuring the face. Over the shoulders rose silver wings, glistening in the early morning sun. Below the head he could see a body covered by a pale blue dress. A body that was clearly female, with a sensational, albeit minute, figure.

‘Can’t argue with you,’ he said. ‘Living doll. Well, a dead one. But she can’t be a fairy, because they don’t exist. So what are we dealing with?’

Judge's Report:

This was hilarious! It shouldn’t have been as the second line revealed it was about a crucified fairy, but we are straight into a crime story complete with a body, pathologist, lead detective, stupid subordinate, jaunty dialogue and setting in Manchester.

The author’s spare yet vivid style and clever way of plunging us into a situation where questions are the only way out demonstrates confidence, a confidence that engenders trust for the reader. Mixed in with the snappy dialogue and down to earth procedural language is an evocative description of the dead fairy: ‘silver wings glistening in the morning sunshine’. The combination of a standard police investigation with a fairy story(!) opens doors to all kind of possibilities. An accomplished writer here and one who can do dialogue well. I’m dying to know what happens next.

Sibling Rivalry by Ilonka Halsband

I was two months old the first time Simon tried to kill me. I knew this only through anecdote, of course, as I had no memory of it, but years later Mother confessed that at the time she saw it only as the normal resentment of a precocious five year old faced with the invasive presence of a squalling baby sister.

When I was three Simon pushed me into the clothes dryer with a load of wet towels, then set us all to tumble dry. The towels cushioned my ride and our combined weight stopped the already malfunctioning appliance. I came out with an egg-sized bruise on my forehead and a fear of the dark.

It was during my first week of kindergarten when the true depth of my brother’s determination to get rid of me became clear. After performing her parental duty on the first day, Mother charged Simon with the responsibility of escorting me safely across the single street between home and school. He demonstrated remarkable restraint, waiting three days before pushing me into the path of an oncoming car. The driver’s superb reflexes limited the damage to a skinned knee and a bruised hip.

By the time I was eight I had survived a plunge down the basement steps, a morning locked in the trunk of the family car, and a few days in hospital after drinking milk laced with Mother’s antidepressants.

I learned to keep distance and, whenever possible, other people between my brother and me. And I slept with a chair wedged under my bedroom doorknob after waking one night to find Simon standing over me with a baseball bat. That it was only a plastic bat was no less alarming.

I was ten when I decided I would have to get rid of Simon.

Judge's Report:

A deadly story related in a straightforward, almost deadpan, style and all the more terrifying for it. The first line sets the whole theme of the book and as you read on, you realise you are watching the story of survival. We are in the modern era with a tumble dryer, plastic toys and cars, but we could be in a cave thousands of years ago. Tiny bits of background are dripped in, e.g. antidepressants. Does this suggest that Mother knows she has a homicidal son and can’t face up to it?

The language is simple in line with a story told in a child’s terms even though it may be an adult narrator several years later, yet every sentence is full of meaning. I enjoyed the humorous tone injected at the most deadly moments. A very worthy runner-up.


The Last of Michiko by Mandy Huggins

Every evening Hitoshi kneels on a blue cushion in the doorway that leads out to the garden. He leaves the shoji screens open regardless of the weather, and stays there until long after the sun has set. His heart knows that Michiko will never return, but his stubborn head finds reasons to hope.

The wind chimes jingle softly through the house, as gentle as her voice, and in the sudden breeze they mimic her laugh. Hitoshi presses his face into a pink kimono, inhaling her faint scent. At his side stands a jar of her homemade adzuki bean paste, as sweet and red as her lips. He has rationed it carefully, but now this final jar is almost empty.

The day’s post is propped up against the screen, and Hitoshi reaches for the bills and a letter from his daughter. She writes each week and always asks him to go and stay. Sometimes he thinks he will, but the trip to Tokyo seems like such a long journey now, and the city blinds him. There are no distances; everything is too densely packed, too close to see. And what about Michiko? He couldn’t risk her returning in his absence.

His son lives nearer, but when Hitoshi sees the car pull up he stays out of sight and doesn’t answer the door. He is saving them from the words that neither can bear to say. His son was the last to see Michiko; he watched the dark water snatch her away as though she were a brittle twig. When Hitoshi imagines it he pictures her hair floating upwards like the darkest seaweed, her skin so pale it appears as blue as the sea.

And though he has tried not to, he blames his son for failing to save her.

Some evenings he thinks he hears the clack of Michiko’s wooden geta on the cobbles, but when he looks outside the narrow street is always empty. He peers into the darkness for a while, lured by the soft light of the lantern outside the noodle shop, and imagines his friend, Wada, sitting at the counter with a beer, waiting to mull over the old days. But Hitoshi always goes back inside and sits alone again in the dark.

Tonight, just as he is about to go to bed, he hears a faint voice outside, and an urgent tapping on the veranda screen.

Judge's Report:

A completely different, tone, style, pace and atmosphere. The first paragraph sums up the devastation of loss; devotion; and the divergence between heart and head. Hitoshi is a traditionalist by his actions and a romantic by his emotions. Illustrated by actions, thoughts and inactions we know about family misunderstandings Hitoshi can’t bear to talk about and the isolation he craves.

The setting is carefully evoked by character names, foodstuffs, places and architecture and small touches like wind chimes and lanterns. Then just as we are lulled, there is the second page hook neatly set up by the first page – a voice outside and urgent tapping on the door. Is it going to be a ghost beckoning him, an urgent call to return to service, a plea from an old friend? I would certainly read on.

Congratulations to all the winners, we will be in contact soon.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Snapshots from... Zürich

In our regular series, we go exploring, finding out about the writing life around the world. Today, D.B. Miller gives us a tour of Zürich, Switzerland. 
Images by SL Nickerson.

What's so great about Zürich?

Things work. Zürich consistently ranks at or near the top of global surveys that measure quality of life – in case five minutes on the lakeside weren’t convincing enough. It also operates at a lower frequency than the whirling inside my head, or for that matter on the page. While the picturesque alleys, cafés and proximity to nature make for some soothing moments, they are not necessarily an invitation to while away the hours. From what I’ve gathered, any loafing around is the sole responsibility of the loafer.

By SL Nickerson

Admittedly, when I first moved here in 2003, I didn’t know what to make of it. I only embraced Zürich after deciding that work and the so-called economic machine lay at its heart. To feel local is to be productive. For that reason, I think the city is ideal for tackling creative projects as long as you have the discipline. You need to be alert, attuned to what’s subtle and hidden. Every day, the color and texture of the lake change. Depending on the weather, the perceived distance and contours of the Alps shift. If you want to find a story here, you have to earn it.

Tell us a bit about the cultural life of the place.

For a city this size, and one surrounded by stretches of green, hills and villages, the cultural offer is rich and getting richer. The first time I approached Zürich from the mountains, with the staggering peaks and turquoise lakes just out of reach, I realized what a miracle it really is. On the literary front, big-name writers often come to town for readings at the Kaufleuten and Literaturhaus. Their presence alone is inspiring, to say nothing of the exchanges I’ve had at the signing table with, for example, Lydia Davis, Amélie Nothomb, Michael Ondaatje and Jonathan Safran Foer. The city hosts a number of festivals, including Openair Literatur and Zürich Liest, while smaller, edgier outfits, such as index and Theater Neumarkt, organize events throughout the year.

By SL Nickerson

Of all the other cultural goings-on, it’s worth mentioning the vibrant live music scene. I enjoy the small, quirky venues, ranging from a velvet-clad dance hall to a stuffy pit near the river. On any given night, someone great, maybe just on the verge of a breakthrough, is probably playing less than 30 minutes from home.

What's hot? What are people reading?

By SL Nickerson
In my experience, “hot” does not seem to register here, but I have noticed a steady, lukewarm affection for a good Krimi (thriller). Because bestsellers cross borders, people in this multi-lingual city tend to read what everyone else does, and maybe not even wait for the German translation. The homegrown literary scene is thriving as well. In any case, it used to be easier to spot public literary tastes. As smart phones and e-readers have mostly replaced dog-eared paperbacks, I can’t easily draw my own conclusions.

Can you recommend any books set in Zürich?

While only some of his books take place in Zürich, I associate most of Martin Suter’s stories with the city’s discreet social constructs and small-scale absurdities. Not all of his work has been translated into English, which has meant some slow going for me, but the invested time and teeth-gnashing are always worth it (Lila, Lila is a favorite, especially because the anti-hero is a writer). I’m looking forward to wrestling with Jens Nielsen’s Flusspferd im Frauenbad, based on a recent performance/reading I was lucky enough to catch. A few friends have also recommended Peter Stamm’s work.

As far as English books go, writers tend to explore the traditions, secrets and wealth linked to the city – some much better than others. I have yet to read a book that does for Zürich what Salman Rushdie and Andrei Bely did for New York and St. Petersburg, respectively: blow it out to an extreme, and a funny one at that. Recommendations are welcome.

By SL Nickerson

Who are the best-known local writers?

I’m not sure who can be considered “local” in a relatively small, internationally minded country with four official languages. If I stick to living German-language writers who were born, have once lived or are now settled in and around Zurich: Lukas Bärfuss, Franz Hohler and Charles Lewinsky come to mind (in addition to Nielsen, Stamm and Suter). Hazel Brugger, better known for her slam poetry and comedy, does not neatly fit into the lit scene, though my neighbor swears by her book. I suppose I have a soft spot for creative rule-breakers since the city thrives on rules and regulations. Then again, Zürich was the birthplace of Dada.

On another historical note, plenty of famous non-Swiss writers have passed through the country and stayed long enough to create. Byron, Fitzgerald, Highsmith, Le Carré, Nabokov, Twain – there are just too many to mention. Closer to home, James Joyce and Thomas Mann are buried in or just outside of Zürich. And Thornton Wilder is rumored to have finished Our Town in my town.

By SL Nickerson

Is the location an inspiration or distraction for you?

Neither: it is a challenge. Whether due to my own priorities, procrastination or something in the alpine water, I’ve found that I need more energy to seek out inspiration and not get distracted by (or complacent in) such a prim, orderly place. At a Colum McCann reading, after the author speculated how incredible Zürich must be for writers, I gently pressed him at the signing table. Did he mean it would be inspiring to start something new (and if so, could I learn from him) or conducive to finishing a work in progress (and if so, could I learn from him)? He had to stop and think about it, and then said he wasn’t sure.

The fact is, I’ve lived in cities bursting with stories and characters. But they’re here, too, popping up now and then to remind me to try harder. Here’s that world-weary balding guy in lady’s dress pumps again. There’s that gentleman with the Hungarian pointer who once, unprompted, told me what he thinks of bankers (scum). And I will never forget my first summer when, lounging at a pristine lakeside beach, I watched as a girl of about 12 waded straight into a submerged corpse. In between the shrieks and Baywatch-grade scene that unfolded, I thought: That’s not supposed to happen here, and it just did. (From the little I could glean from the local papers and tight-lipped lifeguards the next day, the elderly man had expired during a routine swim a few days earlier.)

What are you writing?

I’m working on a batch of short stories and some creative nonfiction, all of which are directly or indirectly inspired by live music. I’m also toying with the idea of picking up an abandoned novel set in Zürich. In retrospect, I found it hard to sustain momentum because I kept trying to describe exactly what I saw. To ramp up the tension, I think I need to experiment with a more surrealistic take on the city – and not quit until I’ve blown it out to the extreme.

By SL Nickerson

Sum up life in Zürich in three words.

Get to work.

D.B. Miller is an American writer who has been living in Europe since 1995. With dark humor and a slight edge, she writes about the themes that move her most: disenchantment, alienation and the obliterating power of live music.

Her essays, short stories and offbeat profiles have appeared in The Weeklings, The Woolf and Split Lip Magazine. She also writes for hire but, as the expression goes, that's another story.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Twenty-four Stories for Grenfell Tower

By Catriona Troth

On the night of Friday 24th June, I was watching The Last Leg with my family when Kathy Burke came on to talk about a remarkable project - an invitation to submit a short story for an anthology to raise money for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire. In particular, the project aimed to provide ongoing psychological support to survivors suffering from PTSD.

That night, I contacted the project, and I have been lucky enough to be granted an interview with its two founders, Paul and Rho.

There can scarcely be anyone in the country unaware of the appalling tragedy that has unfolded at Grenfell Tower, and the history of neglect and negligence behind it. So I don’t need to ask why you are doing this. But how did you two get involved personally?

PAUL: Rho and I are friends on Twitter. We were just chatting by DM about Grenfell. Rho was really keen on wanting to do something specifically for the PTSD care of those people affected by it - I know a couple of writers, I contacted them to see if anyone would be interested in putting together a collection of short stories. Next thing we were snowballed by offers of support. From a private chat between a couple of nobodies on Twitter to being mentioned on national television took 72 hours.

Why the idea of a short story anthology?

PAUL: I just liked the idea of something that would instantly remind people of the cause we were raising money for. Short stories seemed an obvious and striking metaphor for the tragedy - that the form would reflect the lives cut short. Also we thought that it offered the best option for writing that wasn't explicitly political, that just by putting this together it would speak for itself in terms of addressing some of the issues that led to this disaster.

Why choose to focus specifically on the issue of PTSD among survivors? And what kind of help do you hope that this will enable?

RHO: Suffering from PTSD and having been in treatment for several years now I immediately knew that survivors and all those directly involved with the rescue operation would be traumatised beyond anything any of us wish to imagine.

As someone who has been treated by leading doctors in the field of PTSD treatment I know just how incredibly effective treatments including EMDR and Sensori-motor Therapy are.

I don’t want this to be another case of cutting corners for the sake of saving money, where people end up having a short course of CBT and medication to smother things; trauma eventually rises to the surface better recognised and helped now than years down the line.

We hope our project and funds raised will make the public more informed about PTSD. We hope the proceeds will in some way help bolster funds to enable survivors to receive the expert psychiatric support they need.

Who can submit stories for the anthology? And what kind of stories are you looking for?

PAUL: Anyone. As long as they're positive, optimistic tales on the themes of community, unity and hope.We want this collection to be a platform for new voices as much as anything else. One of the many issues that Grenfell has illuminated is the great social divide that stretches way beyond Kensington and Chelsea. We want this book to reach out to, and be written by, a true reflection of our community.

What can often be overlooked in these situations are the voices of those most closely affected. Will you be encouraging people from North Kensington and similar communities (such as those now being evacuated from other tower blocks at risk) to submit their stories?

PAUL: Definitely. We're really keen to hear their stories. We've held off contacting community groups in the area for now for obvious reasons but will definitely be working to ensure stories from Grenfell and other affected communities are heard and read.

Following the fantastic response to Kathy Burke’s appearance on The Last Leg, where she talked about Twenty-four Stories, it doesn’t sound as if you will be short of entries! How will the selection process work?

PAUL: It's been an astonishing response. Kathy is going to be part of our editorial team, we've got a duty to identify those as yet undiscovered writers who we think will leave a lasting impression on the reader. We've had dozens of submissions already and have some really exciting big names who have pledged work.

Thank you very much, Paul and Rho. We wish you every success. Can't wait to see the finished anthology!

You can follow Twenty-four Stories on Facebook or on Twitter @Twenty4stories. Look out for an announcement very soon about some big names who have pledged stories for the anthology!

If you would like to submit a story, here's how:
Short story 750-3000 words max OR flash fiction OR fiction based poem.
Themes: Positivity/Unity/Community/Hope.
Deadline: 31/07/17
Submit by email to:

It is very important that you understand how flashbacks and triggers work for PTSD sufferers.