The Weekend Read – A Short Story

 

In the first week of December 2015, my story The Colour of Mud was featured as The Weekend Read on the For Books’ Sake website which champions women’s writing. It was originally published in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology Volume 7. Lots of people got in touch to say how much they enjoyed reading it online – and that’s always an energy boost.

Read the opening paragraphs below. The rest of the story is available for 99p on Kindle for a limited time only. Buy it here.

Submit your short stories to For Books’ Sake here.

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The Colour of Mud

I am never gonna be clean, even though I wipe myself down seventeen times a night. It’s the mud, see.

I pull my scarf around my face and jump puddles alongside the wall of trucks, grey ones, black ones, all blanketed by the dirt.

There are three men playing poker at a table they’ve set up in the middle of the drag. A standing man, his leg bent up on a chair, blows a tuneless harmonica. A jar on a table beside him is scabbed with ash.

I step forward and the mud sucks my leg down knee-deep. I grunt and slurp it out.

The lights of a bar flash on and off: The Good Times Saloon, the scaffolding on the roof a kind of skeleton. An open kitchen fogs oil and fried plantain. Further up the drag, the cooking mixes with the night stench. Petrol, tobacco, skin slicked in sweat.

There are echoes of laughter and the underfoot beat from a song on the radio.

I pass an island of scorched grass and stare down searching for remarkable signs of green. There’s no such thing as colour in this non-existent town. It’s not on no map, but the truckers know just where it is, halfway along the Western stretch of the Nakuru-Eldoret highway.

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Bristol Short Story Prize Awards Ceremony – The Lowdown

It was my second time at the Bristol Short Story Prize awards ceremony last night. I was hopeful; I was in with a chance after all, among 20 other writers chosen from almost 2,500 entries.

There they were, faces I recognized from last year, organiser Joe Melia, judges Sara Davies and Sanjida O’Connell, and wasn’t that 2013 winner Paul McMichael over there? He’d made the shortlist again. I made a beeline for him and we began laughing in a slightly hysterical, scared kind of way. Still the fear was nothing on last year when – gulp – I could barely speak my mouth was that dry.

Bristol Short Story Prize Writers and Judges

Bristol Short Story Prize Writers and Judges

Us shortlistees sat in the front row in the glass-topped Reading Room at Bristol Central Library. And judge Sara Davies read out the names of the runners-up. Mine was among them.

I hadn’t won.

But so what – my story is in a book again – words that I’ve fussed over, changed and rearranged. A story that the early readers and the judges must have connected with somehow. It gets a mention in Sara Davies’ foreword.

‘We all liked….the restrained and powerful exploration of an illegal immigrant’s emotional trauma at the heart of Black Lines,’ she writes.

It was a good feeling reading that. I hope other readers connect with my story too.

BSSP photo

Anthologies galore….

Massive congratulations to Brent van Staalduinen whose story A Week on the Water won first prize, and to the other prizewinners too.

After the ceremony, I spoke to the other shortlisted writers, smiles stretched across their faces, bags bulging with anthologies. (They make very good Christmas presents, let me tell you.) Wine was drunk, woes were shared and successes were well and truly celebrated. I even signed a few books.

It was great to bend Joe Melia’s ear again. His encouragement last year helped steer me through a bout of writing self-doubt. When that strikes again, all I need to do is open up my brand new anthology and remind myself of the rewards for not being a quitter.

Joe also told me that no one in the history of the Bristol Short Story Prize has ever managed a hat trick, so maybe, just maybe I’ll throw my hat into the ring again next year.

https://www.bristolprize.co.uk/shop/

What it’s like to Win a Writing Competition

I started the year with a writing wish list. There were just two things on it: Win a writing competition and find a literary agent to represent my work.

The year’s gone pretty well so far; I’ve had several requests for the full manuscript of my first book, but still no offer. Yet. (I am manically rewriting.)

And then Frome happened – the Frome Short Story Competition. This year, lauded author Samantha Harvey was judging. Oh my, imagine that. I went into full-on dream mode. After much rejigging and rewriting, I entered my story about a migrant worker in Singapore called Plenty More Where You Came From.

Then I carried on redrafting my first novel. Weeks later, an email arrived saying I was in the Frome shortlist. I hadn’t even realised I was in the longlist. Fantastic – something else to say in a query letter to a literary agent.

On Sunday, I headed down the motorway to Frome. Then there it was, the library where the awards ceremony for the competition was going to take place. Other writers, other shortlisted entrants – there were 13 of us – would be there. Samantha Harvey would be there too, and the organisers Brenda Bannister and Alison Clink. There was a fair going on in the car park. A bloke in a mask was poking a rod at a metal head spouting fire, its ears belching steam. I wasn’t sure what that was all about, but my head felt furnace-hot too. God, I wanted to win.

Inside the library, the ceremony kicked off with Samantha Harvey talking about how much she’d enjoyed this year’s shortlist. Choosing first, second and third place hadn’t been easy at all, she said, the stories were that strong. She talked about how writing competitions have become increasingly important in publishing, but that really just writing is the most important thing. Don’t be distracted by not making a shortlist, by not winning, or even by winning – just write.  

Liz Gwinnell took third place with Under the Mango Tree. It was great to put a face to the name – I’d read Liz’s story, Where Hummingbirds Fly, which won third place in Frome back in 2013. That story helped to inspire me to enter Frome this year. I so loved its rich, distinct, voice. Kath Grimshaw won second place with Hotel Room.

Then Samantha described the winning story. An ugly story written with such beauty. Could it be mine? Set in Singapore. Hell, it was mine. Not knowing the names of any of the entrants – the whole thing is judged anonymously – Samantha said the title of my story.

‘It’s me!’ I squeaked and stood up.

I shook hands with Samantha and she handed me my 300 pound prize. And then I read my story out, all 15 minutes of it. And people clapped (thanks for that, people). I walked back to my seat and Samantha’s mum, who was sitting behind me, pumped her fists and said, ‘Well done.’

Frome Short Story Competition, Fiona Mitchell, writer, judge Samantha Harvey

Frome Short Story Competition. 2015 winner Fiona Mitchell and judge author Samantha Harvey

I’d done it, finally a winner.

We spent the next hour in an art gallery next door to the library where many chocolate brownies were chomped and much talk about writing was had. What happens to you when you write? When do you write? Have you written a book? And thanks Liz Gwinnell for wrapping me another brownie for the journey home. I got lost, so that brownie ended up being my tea.

So on winning: Well, it feels brilliant, it really does because someone who’s rated reckons I wrote something beautiful. And now back to the business of writing.

http://www.fromeshortstorycompetition.co.uk/plenty-more-where-you-came-from/

Writing Competitions – Why Bother?

It’s there in black and white, the longlist and your name’s not on it. The disappointment sinks you. That voice starts nagging at your ear. ‘You’re fooling yourself about this writing malarkey; you must be, else you’d be up there too.’

Somehow you manage to scrape your fried-egg-ego off the floor and force yourself to start typing something new.

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Why do we do it, eh? Why do we waste 8 quid, 10 quid, sometimes 25 quid when, with more and more people entering writing competitions, we stand such a miniscule chance of being one of the chosen few.

I’ve been on both sides of the fence – what writer hasn’t? – but getting placed in this year’s Writers’ and Artists’ Short Story Competition was just the way to do it, I reckon. Enter the story then completely forget about the date that the results are revealed. I found out that my story Antelope had made the final 19 when another writer Tweeted me to tell me.

That’s so rarely the way it happens, right? I mean, how can you score through a date that’s so firmly etched into your brain?

So when the big day arrives and you discover your name’s not on the longlist, resist the urge to whack yourself over the head with a saucepan for not being quite good enough. Maybe you are, but if your work doesn’t strike a chord with the early readers in competitions, you’re out. Maybe you almost got through – who knows? – or maybe you just don’t have the same writing tastes as the judges.

Case in point – last year I was lucky enough to be in the Bristol Short Story Prize shortlist. Here’s a confession – I entered the same story, albeit a much shorter version, into the Yeovil Prize, and it wasn’t even placed. Even though, I like that story so much better than the one which Yeovil commended me for back in 2013.

BRISTOL PRIZE PIC

It’s all about your audience. So this year, right back at you, Yeovil; I’m hitting you with something new.

In fact, I’ve got that many short stories up my sleeve now, I’ve got one for every UK competition that’s going. Only I’m not going to enter everything – there’s only so much disappointment a girl can take.

So why bother entering anything at all – because being placed occasionally really does help to silence your own self-doubt, for a while at least. And it’s a small voice of encouragement that you might just be doing something right.

In praise of the Short Story

I’m so enjoying short stories at the moment – reading them and writing them. You get yourself an idea; you spend hours researching it, then you bang away at the keyboard until it’s done. You can explore ideas that aren’t sustainable over 300 pages, and you might even get yourself a bigger idea. One that’ll morph itself into a novel. Failing that, perhaps you’ll meet a character that you’ll want to stay with for longer.

A few short story collections from my shelves….

A few short story collections from my shelves….

This year’s Costa Short Story finalists have been an inspiration. How I loved Zoe Gilbert’s Fishskin, Hareskin and the beautiful Glassblower’s Daughter by Lucy Ribchester. Benjamin Myers’ A Peacock, A Pig in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology Volume 7 did things to my stomach that hurt – it was that brilliant. And how I laughed my way through Kevin Franke’s A Visitor, runner up in last year’s Writers & Artists Short Story Competition.

So here I am without the big idea for book three, (Well, there is an idea, I’m just not sure it’s the right one) but I can’t stop writing littlies. I’ve written six over the past three months and I’m pleased with them, especially one particular favourite.

I was going to give myself a grand goal this year – a short story a week. But perhaps that’s a bit too grand, given that I’m job hunting – so here’s a lesser promise. A short story a month for the rest of 2015. I’ll have me a collection by the end of the year (well, I’m hopeful anyway) and maybe I’ll find that big book idea along the way.

What it’s like to attend an Awards Ceremony for Writers

Full Crew BSSP

Bristol Prize writers, judges, speakers and co-ordinator Joe Melia

I had no idea what I’d let myself in for when I accepted my invitation to the Bristol Prize Awards Ceremony. What would the atmosphere be like? Would we have to stand on a stage with shining spotlights turned off one by one until the winner was announced?

Inside the vast space of Bristol’s Spike Island gallery last night, the air was fat with nerves – or maybe that was just me. I picked up a glass of wine from the table and hand aquiver, I just about baptized myself with Sauvignon Blanc.

Sip. Slurp. Gulp.

Bristol Prize co-ordinator Joe Melia talked us writers through what was about to happen.

‘This is all about celebrating your writing,’ he said. Some of the tension fell away.

Here was a bunch of writers at different stages in their careers – a published novelist, a creative writing tutor and others who, like me, are just at the beginning.

So much to talk about. Do you ask friends to read your work? Have you got an agent? And, and, and….

And then it was time for the show.

Images of the stunning designs submitted for the anthology cover flashed onto the wall. The Mayor of Bristol stood up to speak, followed by novelist Patricia Ferguson.

And then came the moment of judgement. Would my name be in the winning three? Hands white-tight on the side of the chair, breath held, the names of the runners up were read out. Three, four, five. I heard my name. I hadn’t won. Was I upset? Disappointed? No way – at last I could breathe again, high on my prize – my first ever piece of published fiction – The Colour of Mud.

Big congratulations to winner Mahsuda Snaith and to all the other writers in the anthology. Didn’t we have some party?!

The evening was a highlight of my year – inspiring chats with authors, an agent, and all the lovely people at the Bristol Prize.