My Book of 2015 – Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey

This book often sends me into raptures. Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey is an epic love story woven with astonishing skill. When dying World War II bomber pilot Dan makes a last-ditch attempt to contact the love of his life, vicar’s wife Stella, it is troubled singer Jess – squatting in the now abandoned love nest – who ends up reading the letter. Joined by her new friend ‘posh boy’ Will, they set out to reunite the lovers before it’s too late.

The characters in this book are so strong that you can practically see and hear their personalities in all their colourful glory. The crimson-lipsticked Nancy fizzes off the page, as does the hilarious, tousled and not-all-that-confident Will. And what can I say about Dan? Charismatic and kind, like Stella I fell completely in love with him.

Grey draws her villains perfectly too – I won’t give away any spoilers, but boy, I was rippling with anger towards one particular character. Grey stokes up the tension and the passion throughout, but no fear, the sex scenes do their job without once veering into cringe-factor territory. And as for emotion – well this book has valleys of it. But it isn’t all tear-sodden hankies, there are laughs aplenty too.

What a talent Grey is and what a perfectly formed, beautifully written debut. I will certainly be reading everything Grey publishes in the future. A heady mix of heart-breaking and feel-good, this is my book of 2015. I absolutely loved it.

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The Bristol Prize Awards Ceremony 2016 – Here’s What Happened

The reading room at Bristol Central Library was packed with people when acclaimed short story writer Tania Hershman announced the winner of this year’s Bristol Prize.

Writer Stefanie Seddon stepped out from the audience to take her £1,000 prize, her face pale with shock. The moment she took the mic and started reading her story Kākahu, it was clear what a talent she is. I was among the runners-up in the front row who got to hear just a few paragraphs of Stefanie’s story, including the killer first line: ‘There are lots of ways to remember that day; the day I became a bird’. I’d say everyone in the room will read her story to the end though. I have and, oh, it’s a gem.

Afterwards photographs were taken, much wine was drunk and lots of people stood around talking.

‘Congratulations!’

‘Well done!’

‘Congratulations!’

Nobody was quite sure – apart from competition organiser Joe Melia that is – which 20 faces had their work in the anthology, so partygoers scattergunned congratulations. ‘Oh, no, not me, I’m not in the anthology,’ was said more than once.

According to one of the early readers, there were a lot of stories about birds in her pile this year. And there must have been a lot of piles since more than 2,000 people entered.

The room was furnished with some of those people. I recognised several from the supportive network of writers on Twitter.

We laughed, we enthused about writing, we even signed a few books. But when the room started to thin out, and the wine bottles had been drunk dry, it was time to say my goodbyes. I felt a bit sad because I’m pretty sure I won’t enter next year. After three shortlistings, it seems the right place to stop. For now at least. I’d like to focus on trying to write my next novel.

Since 2014, the Bristol Prize has been beside me through the ups and downs of this business called writing. The business where sometimes you think you can’t do it anymore, the business which is populated by more nos than yeses. But hold out for those yeses, please do.

I was signed by former Bristol Prize judge, literary agent Rowan Lawton in June this year, so I’m really pleased I persevered with my writing. And my Bristol Prize shortlistings encouraged me to do just that.

Getting into the Bristol Prize long and shortlist isn’t easy. You need a strong dose of luck to match your good writing. But at just £8 an entry, it’s definitely worth a punt, don’t you think?

Get hold of this year’s  anthology to see what makes a winning story, and pens at the ready, entries for 2017 open later this month. #KeepWriting

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Bristol Short Story Prize 2016, Bristol Central Library. ©Barbara Evripidou2016

3 Tips to Help you WIN a Short Story Competition

Short stories can dig deep in you and twist, but what is it that turns them into things of beauty?

You might write something stuffed full of framable phrases, but it just feels as flat as a burst balloon.

Sometimes I’ll finish writing a story, re-read and feel moved by it. I know then that I might have nailed it, because if you’re unaffected you can put money on it that your reader will be unaffected too. So how does a story reach into the guts of the reader?

Well, here’s my three short story must-haves:

1) Get Emotional

One of my so-far unsubmitted stories started off life as one of those flat, empty things. Sure, it had an unusual setting, a starjump of an ending and a sassy young character, but something about it didn’t feel right. I buried it somewhere on my computer. Months later, I didn’t open it again, but simply thought back to it and rewrote it anew. This time it was stuffed full of emotion. Because that’s what I’m hankering after when I write a short; I want emotional pull, a magic that makes the reader care.

As Danielle McLaughlin, author of Dinosaurs on Other Planets, puts it, ‘As I write I am chasing a certain core feeling or hunch that builds around an image or series of images, and it is this elusive thing that I follow through various shape-shifting characters and scenarios.’

2. Take Risks

What I love about short stories is that they don’t have to bow down to being commercial. You can be as literary as you like. They don’t need a happy ending. They don’t need to belong to a genre. You can break all boundaries. Why conform? In last year’s Bristol Short Story Prize, the winning A Week on the Water is such a patient unfolding that it took me two reads to really get it. And boy when I did, I just about tipped off my deckchair. It was a risk, but Brent van Staalduinen took it and it paid off.

As author Tania Hershman says:

‘The nice, neat stories where everything is explained and it all ties up at the end might be all very well, but how do they resonate with someone who lives in this world, this uncertain, complicated world?’

For Tania, it’s stories that grapple with chaos and ambiguity that are truly great.

Resist safety at all costs. Instead invite your reader to get stuck in, to question, to consider.

3. Polish the Ending

Don’t let your story peter out. No one’s looking for And they lived happily ever after. But a story does need a sense of an ending.

Chair of last year’s Bristol Prize judging panel, Sara Davies sums it up:

‘There were a number of stories that kept us reading, only to let us down with weak or inconclusive endings. A good ending isn’t necessarily a complete wrapping up of the story or a top-note finale, but a story needs an emotional resolution of some kind, so that as readers we feel we have reached an insight or understanding we didn’t have when we began reading, that our investment in the story has paid off.’

For more tips on risk-taking, read this.

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.

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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.

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.