Saturday, 18 September 2021

Is it really worth entering writing competitions? by Lu Hersey

 This month, apart from my own writing, I've been busy working as a mentor with my lovely #WriteMentor mentee, helping select stories for the longlist for the new Searchlight Writing for Children competition, and to select short stories for the Bristol Short Story Prize longlist. It made me think again how useful writing competitions can be to aspiring writers - a possible way to get on the road to publication. I know this. It's how I first got published.  

If you're an unpublished novel writer, there are several high profile competitions you can enter each year - and if you're a short story writer or a poet, the choice is even wider (and it often doesn't matter if you're previously published or not). 

So what stops writers entering? Often they simply don't see the point. Writers can be a gloomy bunch (I'm weighed down by a planet-size ball of negativity sometimes - it's a very common writer thing). If you're already feeling down, think there's no way you're going to win and the entry fee is more expensive than buying a lottery ticket, why bother?

If the competition is a reputable one (a bit of research can quickly eliminate the ones that just want money for free content), believe me, there are a lot of reasons to go for it. For a start, your chances of winning are FAR higher than your chances of winning the lottery. Look at the statistics... even if 5000 people enter a novel writing competition, your chances of winning are 5000-1. Do you know how many people enter the lottery? GAZILLIONS!! 

Of course your winnings won't be on the same scale as a big lottery win - even the winner of the prestigious Times Chicken House competition for children's novel writing only gets £10,000 (I say 'only' - in my world that's almost an annual salary) - but winning a writing competition isn't just about money. It helps to get you noticed by agents and publishers. Even if you don't win a cash prize, being longlisted or shortlisted shows you must have some degree of talent, because the other 4950 people didn't get that far.

Perhaps you've entered a few competitions before, didn't get anywhere, and ended up feeling worse? Or maybe the person who actually won was someone you know and think isn't that great (definitely keep that opinion to yourself!) My advice (as a gloomy, negative thinker) is don't give up!! Seriously, when I won the Mslexia competition a few years ago, I knew several other writers who'd entered that year - and I also know their work was just as good as mine. One (who shall be nameless) went on to get a six figure publishing deal - and they weren't even longlisted. 

Which goes to show there is always an element of chance and luck in any competition. The people who sift the stories to decide on a longlist will have individual tastes - they can recognise good writing, but might not like the genre you write in as much as other genres they put forward. It doesn't mean you can't write, even if not winning makes you feel like that.

I've been a reader for the Bristol Short Story Prize for the last 14 years. Over this time, I've noticed how the reading tastes of the primary readers (Bristol Short Story Prize readers are all writers or booksellers themselves) can inevitably influence the stories they put forward for the potential longlist. Then the ones chosen by the second readers for the competition judges to shortlist (these days I mostly help with the second reading) are again, to some degree, influenced by personal taste. 

Fortunately we all have different tastes, so at this stage arguments between the readers can get heated - but some very good stories inevitably fall by the wayside. If there are two or more stories with a similar theme, the one we put forward to the judges is the one that stands out most. (NB. If it helps, some of the most common short story themes are cancer, dementia, mental health, death and grief. Which means if your story is a variation on any of those themes, it has to be really good - there will almost certainly be other stories on a similar theme.)

The same applies to children's novels - magic and fantasy novels make up the bulk of entries to writing competitions. Of course it doesn't mean you shouldn't write magic or fantasy if you want to win, it simply means you need to be that bit more original to stand out. Just give it your best shot - it's still worth entering. After all, the majority of published children's books also fit into those categories.

Another big plus with any writing competition is it gives you a deadline to work towards. Whether you win or not, you end up with something you can enter into other competitions, or possibly sub to agents. You haven't wasted your time or your money. Honest.

Competitions come and go, but some big ones that shine out for unpublished children's novel writers are the Mslexia children's novel writing competition, the Times Chicken House competition, and (if you're a member of SCBWI) Undiscovered Voices. (#WriteMentor is starting to get attention too, though this is more focused on helping talented writers develop their skills). The writers who win the big ones are very likely to find an agent and get published.  And if you write short stories, several of the final 20 writers selected for the Bristol Short Story Prize anthology each year go on to have work published elsewhere, as do winners of the various Bridport prizes.

There are now very few competitions I'm eligible to enter as a published writer, but I still sometimes go for the ones I can. It gives me a deadline, and if I'm lucky enough to get shortlisted, reaffirms that I still have the ability to write. In the very difficult, crowded world of publishing, where most of us earn virtually nothing from actual writing, a confidence boost can really help keep you going.

So as soon as you feel your work is ready, why not take the plunge? Go on! Enter some competitions. It might change your life.

Lu Hersey 

Lu Hersey is the author of Deep Water, originally published by Usborne and now republished in a lovely new edition by Tangent Books.  She is also currently shortlisted in the Wells Book for Children competition, which has helped her feel a lot less gloomy this month.

Friday, 17 September 2021

One small step - A cosmic writers residency? by Tracy Darnton

Hot on the heels of Branson and Bezos, another billionaire went for a ride in space this week. Jared Isaacman funded himself and three others on the Inspiration4 mission, using Elon Musk's SpaceX craft. 

Where are they off to? Not the moon yet, nor Mars, not the ISS, but basically orbiting while doing a few science experiments 360 miles up. The SpaceX capsule is automated so they don't need years of astronaut training - a mere six months. One of the Inspiration4 crew, Dr Sian Porter 51, is an artist who's going to paint while looking out of the new, extra-large domed window in their Dragon capsule. (She's also a high-achieving geoscientist but let's ignore that for now.) Shortly, a Russian film director and actress are popping up to the space station. Pretty sure there was a real live astronaut who played the guitar in space a while back. So I'm thinking it must be the turn of a writer soon. 

Not sure I can spare a whole six months training what with the house renovations and book edits and I've got a heap of bulbs to plant, but I'm definitely intrigued. It gets me thinking about the future prospects for a Writers Residency gig in space. More specifically, about the prospects for me

"Do you need special pens for space?" I muse over the breakfast table. According to the more science-y members of the household, this is apparently the sort of ridiculous question which would automatically exclude me from astronaut selection. But, as I point out, I have watched a lot of Star Trek in my time, Galaxy Quest is my go-to comfort film and Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce is my all-time favourite children's book. And I have an astronaut duvet cover on the spare bed. 

Why shouldn't I get to boldy go?

Turns out, there are quite a few reasons. 

'I'm a writer, not an engineer, Captain.'

I'm not a high-achiever on the science front - even if my one science O' Level was a grade A. And it may be too late to change that. This is one of the life lessons I've been confronting lately with middle-age. There are some dreams and opportunities which are never coming true - I will never be a Nobel prize winning physicist or remotely capable of fixing anything like Tom Hanks did with the duck tape and a toilet roll in Apollo 13. 

Instead, I would need to throw myself on the largesse of the billionaires currently in the market for paying for strangers to pop along with them. But hey, ho, I may have missed the boat with Mr Isaacman but there's always another billionaire along in a moment and my son directs me to Yusaku Maezawa who is recruiting eight members of the public for a week long trip to the Moon, as you do. And - here's the good news - he's specifically after 'artists'. I'm hoping that's in the broadest sense, as I'm completely talentless with a paintbrush. But I can definitely spare a week in 2023.

My son kindly points out a few more reasons in the 'NO' column. 

Travel sickness. 

I get travel sickness - sometimes quite spectacularly. I had to leave a revolving restaurant in China because I was too queasy and had to lie down. Don't get me started on the Denis the Menace ride at Chessington circa 2005. Also the school trip on a cross-channel hovercraft. Very nasty indeed.

Small spaces.    

I am not good with them. Sorry. Definite claustrophobia. Even a snorkel mask in the big wide ocean can bring it on. And I'm not enjoying the Vigil submarine drama as they keep showing the teeny tiny bunkroom with the little curtains.

Bathroom facilities.

I've reached the stage in my life where I've had my fill of shared bathroom facilities and/or backpacking/camping. The family bunkbed room at a hostel in Milan two years ago finished me off. It's my own en suite bathroom now or the deal's off.

Not sure I've been selling myself as a crew member but maybe Yusaku would get a kick out of selecting the least suitable (aka useless) crew ever assembled. Maybe he'd like to provide a writer in residence spot for a not very well-known writer who could be an absolute liability.  

I check out his  Dear Moon website 

Sadly I'm too late for the application process. The September update says that candidates going forward are already at the medical stage. I've missed out again. I shall have to wait for another billionaire to come along. But it says I can experience what it's like to be a member of the dearMoon crew by trying out the spacesuit filter. 

I'm going to say, Yusaku, I think there's going to be a little bit more to the whole going on a spaceship than that, but what do I know. It's certainly one very, very, very small step for a woman. It may be the closest I ever get. 

Tracy Darnton is the author of YA thrillers The Rules and The Truth About Lies. She is currently Writer in Residence in her own home. You can follow her on Twitter @TracyDarnton

Wednesday, 15 September 2021

Taking the time to write that short letter - by Rowena House

‘I’m making this a long letter because I don’t have time to write a short one.’

It’s a truth most writers will recognise, I’m sure, and a sentiment that might have first been expressed by Blaise Pascal, a French philosopher and mathematician, in 1657. Or by Mark Twain centuries later. Or by someone else. Whoever it was, this autumn I’m taking the time to write that short letter about the work-in-progress.

It isn’t actually a letter at all; it’s the introduction to a research report aimed at confirming the final step onto a PhD programme, a getting-to-the-heart-of-it rationale for what I think I’m doing and why. And very illuminating it is, too.

Writing this short letter is forcing me to examine each nebulous idea I’ve had about the story over the past eighteen months and to see if it can be turned into something solid: part of a story with an expressible theme and a purpose. I’ve done a bunch of research, given it time to sink into the subconscious, and now I’m sorting through what has resurfaced, and deciding whether it amounts to a hill of beans. 

Being an academic exercise, the result does sound pretentious. ATM, the letter opens with: ‘This project explores the porosity of the historical record, and the legitimacy of plugging the gaps with pluralistic, proto-feminist interpretations of the past.’ Apparently I’m writing ‘an original, plausible, and historically-anchored counter-narrative’.

Cor. Who knew?

Scholarly language aside, the letter does get me closer to the nub of what exactly I think I’m writing about in the subtext, and why it matters to me at least. I will share these conclusions later; for now, I’m still nurturing them and protecting them from too public a view.

One thing that remains hard to articulate is why I feel empathy towards a protagonist whose actions were, to a modern mind, repellent and misogynistic. The non-academic version runs along the lines of: give the guy a break! He got a tough assignment and made a hash of it. Clarifying that intuitive explanation is throwing up some unexpected insights.

First, over the summer, I knew I had to ditch the second viewpoint character, even though she’s a she and this is meant to be a feminist story. I now think the reason for this is because he is the one that changes; she is a catalyst for change. And since story and change are joined at the hip, her storyline was diluting rather than enhancing his transformational encounters with female ‘others’.

Second, after living with this story for a while, it feels more creative and honest to be fully immersed in the muddled mind of a morally dubious protagonist than to retain a third person authorial neutrality. Subjectivity is fiction’s gift; best to leave objectivity to (good) journalists.

This type of pre-writing analysis isn’t something I’ve done before, even on the Bath Spa MA in the early days of The Goose Road, when I worked out the plot and character arcs during the drafting and development edit stages.

The bigger questions were there – where does the story fit within its genre; why is this my story to tell; what original thing is it saying; is that a true and worthwhile thing to say? – but they were mostly discussed in blogs written to coincide with publication.

In his masterclasses on Russian short stories in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, George Saunders quotes Milan Kundera advising writers to ‘listen to the wisdom of the story’ which, he says, should be greater than the (conscious) wisdom of the writer. Hopefully, with the luxury of time, one can listen to a story before it’s written. 

Twitter: @HouseRowena


Facebook: Rowena House Author

Tuesday, 14 September 2021

Where do I come from? (part 1) by Lynne Benton

 While wondering what to write about in this month’s blog, I came across a thin book, almost hidden among fatter volumes on my bookshelf, called The Observer Book of Books.  Published in 2008, some of the articles inside are somewhat out of date – but others are still fascinating and totally relevant today.  Although some pieces are more concerned with books for adults, this particular gem is specifically about children’s books – which inspired this blog.

Where do I come from? concerns the origins of children’s fiction, and tells of the background to several famous books.  Since there are ten in all, I’ve decided to write about five this month and leave the remaining five for next month’s blog.  They are listed in chronological order – at least, in order of the year of their publication.

The first book is one everyone will have heard of and most will have read, possibly many times, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, first published in 1865. 

As most people know, Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) was an Oxford minister who told his original story to, and based its heroine on, his young friend Alice Liddell.  However, what is not quite so well-known is that several real people appear in the story as nonsensical characters, such as Dodgson himself as the Dodo, Disraeli as Bill the Lizard, inventor Theophilus Carter as the Mad Hatter, and artist John Ruskin as the Drawing Master.

The second book is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by Frank L Baum, published in 1900.

This was possibly intended to be more political fable than fantasy, since Baum was sympathetic to the Populists, a socialist alliance of farmers (Scarecrow) and industrial workers (Tin Man).  Both were sent down the Yellow Brick Road (the gold standard) along with the Lion (the natural world), braving the Wicked Witch of the East (Wall Street) to see the Wizard (the president), who was an ordinary man of illusory power.  Baum’s books give over the rule of Oz to the commoners, while Dorothy (folk wisdom) returns to Kansas.  Now, having discovered all that, I’d rather like to see the film/read the book all over again!

Next comes Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie, published in 1902.

Peter sprang from several sources: JM Barrie’s brother, who died at the age of 13 and would therefore never grow up (or “remain a boy forever”), the five Llewelyn Davies boys whom Barrie befriended, and perhaps Barrie himself, who was only 5 feet tall.  Another child, six-year-old Margert Henley, called Barrie “my fwendy”, and became Wendy.  The Roman god Pan gave Peter his surname and mischievous persona.

Following that comes number four: The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, published in 1908.

Grahame invented this tale for his son Alastair.  Blind in one eye and an only child, Alastair was prone to rages (he committed suicide at 21).  Mr Toad’s preposterous behaviour matched Alastair’s, providing a welcome but controllable disruption into the Riverbank’s orderly Edwardians.

And the fifth and final book in this selection is Winnie-the-Pooh, by A A Milne, published in 1924.

The book was modelled on Milne’s son, Christopher Robin, and his toys.  The bear was called Winnie after London Zoo’s Canadian black bear, and Pooh was the name of a swan.  Christopher Milne, who struggled with his legacy (as anyone who saw the recent film “Goodbye Christopher Robin” will appreciate) later recalled his mother Daphne as the one who invented stories about toy animals.

I found all this information quite fascinating, and I hope you do too.  More next month!

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Monday, 13 September 2021

Old Friends by Sheena Wilkinson

My books and I have, as you will know if you tune in regularly on the 13th of the month, moved house. As well as a drastic cull, there’s been a big rearranging. The large bookcase in my sitting room, which once housed adult novels (E-S) has, for various reasons which even I consider too dull to share, been relocated in my bedroom and now houses some of my children’s books. These books used to be in various small bookcases around my old house – pony books in one, paperbacks in one, slightly more collectables in another. It’s surreal to see them all making friends in one place, and even stranger to have them in my bedroom where, in a new environment, they surround me like the old friends they are.  


I got a gorgeous hardback of The Mirror and the Light for my birthday last month, and I’m really looking forward to it, but so far it’s been too easy, in the tired half-hour before sleep, to reach for I Wanted a Pony or What Katy Did or First Term at Malory Towers.  What with moving house, wedding preparations, and trying to finish my current novel, I’ve been grateful for these easy pleasures. 


After the wedding next month, my bedroom will become the guest room. First Term at Malory Towers will not make it across the landing to the master bedroom, but I do hope it and its friends will sweeten the repose of any guests who chance our way.  

Thursday, 9 September 2021

Building a bookworm #1: Baby bookworms - Anne Rooney

A grandchild is an excellent subject for scientific observation. Unless, like Darwin, you are both of the right mindset and have someone else to do all the daily care of your infant, you have to wait a generation to have the leisure to do this kind of thing: you don't have to change every nappy and get your boobs/bottles out at insanely frequent intervals.

I have a new subject of study, who I will talk about online as NanoB (NB). His sister is MicroB (MB). He is four-and-a-half months old, but was seven weeks early, which complicates things a little — is he four-and-a-half months or nearly three months? I'm going to use his actual out-of-the-uterus age, so four-and-a-half months. I give the extra info in case anyone following these posts is an expert on baby development  and is interested in the granular level of detail. 

When MB was born, I tracked her acquisition of language in fine detail. This time I'm going to watch his interaction with books. His parents read to NB from birth. He was in NICU for a while, being premature, and his parents read to him there. These were his most frequent early reads: 

The Yes by Sarah Bee and Satoshi Kitamura.



This tripodic being is constantly subject to negative feedback from creatures called 'the Noes', but always decides to try anyway. The Yes triumphs and eventually dismisses all the negative influences. This is a fantastic book, greatly loved by MB at an older age, but absolutely perfect for a tiny baby facing the struggles of being early. We know he doesn't understand the words or pictures, but his parents do and projecting positivity is a great idea.

Hoot Owl, Master of Disguise by Sean Taylor and Jean Julien.


Another favourite of MB, Hoot Owl has a good self image ('I am Hoot Owl, Master of Disguise') which remains intact despite many set-backs as he tries to disguise himself in various ways in order to catch the creatures he hopes to eat. He is finally successful in catching a pizza and so his self-confidence is reinforced. NB had to learn and practise how  to suck so that he could feed rather than have his nourishment through a tube. This was his favourite: he looked at the pages more frequently with this than the others.

You Belong Here by M H Clark.


 For a baby who was 'expecting' to stay inside for another seven weeks — or even any baby negotiating the shock of the outside world — this is perfect. It's an 'everything in it's place' book. Reassuring, endorising, unpicking that sense of being a refugee from the womb.


 We Found a Hat by Jon Klassen




An excellent introduction to the inevitable sibling disputes that will come if you have a big sister.



 Now he's out of hospital, we show him smaller books that he can touch. When MB was in the supermarket with her dad, she asked to buy That's Not My Puppy by Fiona Watt and Rachel Wells. He loves it. She puts his hands on the different textures, and he quickly took to the idea that a book is something you touch. 

Last week, I showed him the puppy book and he reached out to open it. The next day, he was turning pages. Not reliably, but always trying. It's given him agency: he chooses when he has looked at the page for long enough and wants to see the next one. Books are already empowering someone not big or coordinated enough to play with toys.

MB asked to read him a picture book I've written for OUP about a baby tiger. It won't be out until next year so she read it to him from the PDFs on my laptop, showing him the pictures. This is not book-as-object, though it will be when it's published as it has flaps. It will be fascinating to see how he responds to the same book in a different format. We'll have to keep on showing him the layouts until it's published so that the pictures and words are familiar.

I read to my oldest daughter, BigB (BB), every day from before she was born until the night before she left for university. By the end, we were doing Homer, Voltaire, Tolstory... I've been reading daily to children for 30 years, with an interlude of three years and then the months of lockdown when I couldn't see MB. I think it's possibly the most important task I've ever done.



MB's extra recommendations for reading to a small baby: Duck is Dirty and Dog is Thirsty, Satoshi Kitamura; Peepo! Janet and Allan Ahlberg; Oh No, George and We Have a Plan, Chris Haughton; Jintzi and Mintzi are Friends and Jintzi and Mintzi at the Playground, Lucy Su.

Anne Rooney


Wednesday, 8 September 2021

Happy New Year - Keren David

 It’s Jewish new year today – a time when we reflect on the year that’s gone past and look ahead to the one to come. And what a year it has been!  

A year of lockdown and working from home. A year with no (or very few)  in-person school visits, and closed bookshops. A year of Zooming into classrooms. 

A year starved of human contact, a year of worry and strain and fear.

A year in which the importance and value of the natural world became ever more obvious. A year to reflect on climate change and how we can change and do better for our planet.

A year when our pets became essential mental health workers. 

A year of Zoom and Teams and strained connections. A year of working with colleagues I'd not even met. 

 A year of gratitude for the work of scientists and doctors and nurses. A year of vaccinations. A year of waiting and relief. 

A year  -  alas -  of conspiracy theories and fear-mongering, of panic and ignorance.

A year of inequality and unfairness, but also a year of charity and community.

A year in which writing was difficult. A year in which reading was essential. A year of box sets and bingeing TV. 

A year to reconsider priorities and ask questions about the state of publishing and the power structures within it. A year to listen to minority voices.

A year in which I spoke up about racism that affects me and mine. A year in which I faced my fears, and magnified the voices of those who survived the Shoah (the Holocaust).  A year in which Jewish kids in schools suffered antisemitism from their peers -  and were handed my book to help them through it. A year of sorrow, and pride, and carrying on regardless. 

A year in which human contact -  meeting friends for a coffee – was sweet and precious and full of joy

A year in which I was very grateful not to be home-schooling.

A year to remember. A year to move on from. A year in which we lost so many.

 A year out from normal life. A year in our houses.

A year like no other.  What will next year bring? 

Wishing all of you a sweet, happy and healthy new year.
( At Jewish New year we dip apple in honey for a sweet and healthy new year. The traditional food is honey cake, and you can find recipes galore here. Keren David's latest book is What We're Scared Of, published by Scholastic)