KITCHEN TABLE WRITERS

I’m Nina Milton, and this blog is all about getting out the laptop or the pen and pad to get writing. My blogposts are focused on advice and suggestions and news for writers, but also on a love reading with plenty of reviews, and a look at my pagan life, plus arts and culture. Get all my posts as they appear by becoming a subscriber. Click below right...

Friday, 17 June 2022

Midsummer Reading – Books to read in the sun and places to read them.


What’s needed for a great holiday, or even a day off in the sun? 

  • Parasol  — check
  • Sunglasses — Check
  • Chilled drink — check.
  • Sunlounger — check
  • Poolside. patio or beach — if you’re lucky
  • Book — absolute essential.

I love the sun, but I’m no poolside babe;  my absolute favourites also include a sunny woodland glade, a the corner of a field, an isolated cove where the seals sing, a clifftop bench or possibly a street café in town, where you might get interrupted by passing friends. 


Mind you, living in Wales, my check list for a great afternoon’s reading usually includes warm slippers and a comfy fireside chair, even in summer!


While you’re working out where your favourite midsummer reading spot is, let me pass on my recommendations for some really varied summer reading. 


One way or another, I’ve been getting through a lot of very eclectic novels lately, and I’d love to share them with you. Some would make very good airport reads, some need at least a weekend on a beach and some may require the full length of a road trip,  Absorbing, puzzling, thrilling, funny, even shocking, these are my midsummer reads;




One for the Beach:

The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward. 


Sometimes it’s hard to concentrate on your book on a beach.         It gets damp from the last swim and greasy from  tapas. Get up to play ball, and you can lose it in the sand. So what you need is something so gripping, so beguiling, so terrifying and so demanding that you never put it down.   

Ward has written a cracker of a psychological thriller here. In her long Afterward to the novel, she opens with ‘if you haven’t finished The Last House of Needless Street yet, please don’t read on — what follows is one long spoiler. 

This is because the mysteries that are set up in the first third of the novel will keep you guessing through the whole of it, even while you turn the pages in trepidation and fear for the lives of various characters. The most I can say is Ward has taken a psychiatric condition and immersed her story within it, so that nothing we see — nothing at all — is quite as it appears. With an uplifting ending and memorable characters, this gave me a very happy holiday.




One to Read in a Deep Wood:

Mythago Wood, by Robert Holdstock


Strange from the get go, this story is set shortly after the second world war. Steven has returned to his family home, after staying away until his disturbingly caustic father has died. But when he arrives, he finds his brother in the same sort of thrall to Ryhope, the ancient, wild wood that lies at the border of their house. 

In the woodland depths is a realm where mythic archetypes grow flesh and blood, where love and beauty haunt your dreams. It seems to promise freedom but hides insanity. Strange people begin emerging from the depths of the wood – green men types and Arthur knight types and Steven comes to believe that some have been created from the mind of his father. Some are deadly, but when he meets Guiwenneth, he falls in love with her ancient beauty. Eventually his brother arrives with a band of wild-men and captures her, taking her into the forest. Steven follows, trying to get past the invisible barriers that stop humans entering the mythago centre of the woods. He and a friend follow a stream that takes them past the barriers and into a mythic world.  This covers two bases; it's both fantasy and reality at the same time, and held me all the way through,. 




One for the hay-meadow, or the Village Summer Fête:

The Corn King and the Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison. 


Written in 1931 but available in a 1998 imprint from Amazon, my copy, gifted by a thoughtful friend, is from 1935, and a delight in itself. 
The story is long and dense, woven of history and myth and stretches from the Black Sea to Greece and Egypt. Set among the Scythians on the Black Sea in the second century, the story feels modern and relevant, as well as filled with magic and the beauty of ancient times. Mitchison was a feminist, a political activist and a socialist and awarded the CBE, so she keeps her story of  seventeen-year-old Erif Der very relevant. Erif has witch powers and is set the task by her greedy father of bewitching, marrying, then dispatching, the king of the land. But she falls in love with Tarrik, who is the Corn King, and as Spring Queen she must be by his side when the rituals of sowing and harvest take place. Tarrik travels to meet Kleomenes, rebel king of Sparta, who fervently believes in a hedonist revolution. After his aunt tries to kill her,Erif Der follows and magics him out of a prisoner of war jail.  She takes revenge on her scheming father, although she cannot find it in her to hurt the aunt. The two lovers then join forces. This story is redolent with beauty, creativity, power, courage, forgiveness, the search for meaning, and self-sacrifice. It is complex but 

Strangely, then, I've read two books set by the Black Sea in the last few weeks:


One for the Café in Town:

Grey Bees, by Andrey Kurjiv  Translated by Boris Drayuk 


This novel isn't grey at all; it's politically red-hot — definitely one to read where people pass — you’ll be desperate to tell them about it and recommend it. Set in the neutral ‘grey zone’ between Russia and Ukraine during the 2014- 2021 conflict that exploded into war this year,  if features Sergey Sergeyich, a gentle, peace-loving beekeeper who lives alone in a Grey Village with no power and little food, but a surfeit of honey. No one can be trusted; there’s a Ukrainian soldier lying dead in the field at the bottom of his garden, and a mystery sniper who keeps an eye on all the goings-on. His wife has left with their daughter, along with everyone else. In fact the only other person in his village is his arch-enemy from their schooldays. But Sergey has such an honourable heart; he cannot even bear the idea that the children in the next village are missing their Christmas sweeties, which forces him to crawl, through the snow, in the middle of the night, to the soldier’s body.  To help his bees survive the lack of spring crops in the area, he goes on a road trip with a tent and trailer, camping out in forests. At first he drives into Ukraine, still at peace at that time, but some of the locals try to wreck his car and he heads to the sunshine of the Crimea, where he finds the Russians authorities are very threatening influence. He meets locals, sleeps with some sympathetic women and tries to get one woman’s husband, then her son, released from custody And all the time, he’s just not able, somehow or another, to phone his wife and daughter…




 One for the visit to a Roman Villa

The Golden Ass by Apuleius


Also set around the Hellenic, world before the start of the common era, but amazingly, written at that time, in Latin by a Roman, this is one raunchy tale. I was expecting a classically literate and erudite book,  but instead I was given a rollicking ride. Officially titled The Metamorphoses of Apuleius, Augustine of Hippo referred to it as The Golden Ass. It is the only ancient Roman novel in Latin to survive in its entirety.

Lucius cannot help but dabble in other people’s magic. While trying to perform a spell to transform into a bird, he is accidentally transformed into an donkey. This leads to a long journey, literal and metaphorical, filled with tales. He finally finds salvation through the intervention of the goddess Isis, whose cult he joins. The word ‘novel’ had not quite been invented at that time to mean a long fictional story, but this has to be one of the world’s first picaresque novels and a worthy pre-curser to books like Don Quixote. It’s a surprising read, although I did find the animal cruelty pretty hard to swallow, especially as it’s still going on in some parts of the world. 







One to Read on a Very Long Journey:

American Gods by Neil Gaiman – the author’s preferred text.

My copy of this book has almost 650 pages, and exclusive extra materials, including an interview with the author, in which he says “England has history, and America has geography.” 

Gaiman exploits that geography by sending his character, Shadow, on a road trip with old gods who expect a lot – sacrifice, worship, violence; all of the shadow side of humanity.

Shadow starts the novel as a convict and grows throughout it, reinventing  himself, just as countless emigres and exiles had done with the USA. 






What are you reading this summer?

Do let me know by adding your thoughts to this kitchentablewriters post. 

Tuesday, 19 April 2022

Symbolism in Writing – The Tree

 

I’ve been away from my blog posting desk for a little while; the weather was holding good and the garden was crying out for attention. I’m writing course materials for the Open College of the Arts as well, so there wasn’t much time left to do anything else.

But now I’m back, I can’t get my garden entirely out of my mind, and so I’m going to look at trees as symbols in fiction. 

Trees are used to represent life and growth in mythologies, legends, poems and novels. Trees are considered representative of life, wisdom, power and prosperity. In literature trees are used as the metaphor of stability, solidity, strength and being grounded, and sometimes patience; that slow growth from a vulnerable sapling to a sturdy tree.


Trees can’t help but be spiritual, representing all the good in our lives; peace and prosperity, love and loyalty. as exemplified by the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge which can represent our personal development, uniqueness and individual beauty. Just as the branches of a tree strengthen and grow upwards to the sky, we too grow stronger, striving for greater knowledge.


The ancient Celts in Ireland so loved their native trees, that they based their alphabet on them – the Ogham – bestowed by the god of language, the Ogma. Each letters is affiliated – oak, of course, but also birch alder, willow, hazel, holly, rowan…twenty-five indigenous trees, each with it’s own symbolism. For instance Yew, which constantly regenerates itself and grows to a great age, is known as the tree of death and reincarnation. 


 Yggdrasil 

In Norse mythology the cosmology of the nine worlds, centres around a tree named Yggdrasil which reaches high above the clouds with roots that delve deep into divine realms. The god Odin hung from this sacred tree to gain enlightenment. 

Two of our most-loved and inventive writers, in their time, have featured trees in their work. J.R.R. Tolkien's Ents, the talking tree-like characters in the Lord of the Rings are the caretakers of forests, headed by Treebeard (believed to be the oldest creature in Middle-earth), and over millenia they have become more and more like the trees that they herd. Nimloth, the White Tree of Gondor, is central to the mythology of the books. It grew in the Court of the Fountain in Minas Tirith and was also the motif of Gondor's flag. It represented the pride of Gondor, and a symbol of friendship between humans and the Elves.

The Whomping Willow
J.K. Rowling also loved featuring trees. My favourite is the whomping willow, a violent tree in the grounds of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. which destroys anyone who disturbs its branches. In  The Chamber of Secrets, Ron and Harry narrowly avoid getting crushed. Later, in The Prisoner of Azkaban, they discover that the Willow hides the entrance to a secret passageway.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a beautiful book I’ve written about here, as it’s an old favourite of mine. A ‘tree of heaven’ serves as a symbol of rising above adversity, as it sprouts in the tenement buildings. This tree is native to China and Taiwan and now considered an invasive species in New York City, but in the story its determination to grow and its resistance to being destroyed parallels the ambitions of the main character,  Francie…                                                                    
There’s a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky. It grows in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps. It grows up out of cellar gratings. It is the only tree that grows out of cement. It grows lushly . . . survives without sun, water, and seemingly without earth. It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it.

Individual tree species can create mood alongside metaphor, because of their individual characters. The Beginning of Spring  by Penelope Fitzgerald, is set in Russia. Towards the end of the story, the family stay at their dacha next to a forest of white birch, which Fitzgerald might be using to represent both change and constancy. One night Lisa and Dolly walk into the forest:
‘There were paths through the birch forest, made for the autumn shooting. In fact there was a path, which might have been called a ride, almost opposite the dacha. Lisa walked steadily along it, taking the middle of the track, which was raised above the rain-worn hollows of either side.  You couldn’t say it was pitch-dark. The moon on the cloudy night sky moved among he moving ranches…
…The leaf scent pressed in on her. There was nothing else to breathe. Then Dolly began to see on each side of her, among the thronging stems of the birch trees, what looks like human hands, moving to touch each other across the whiteness and blackness.…
…They were in a clearing into which the moon shone. Dolly saw that by every birch, close against the trunk, stood a man or woman. They stood separately, pressing themselves each to their own tree. Then they turned their faces towards Lisa, patches of white agains the whitish bark.’

As a writer, I'm hugely drawn to trees and their symbology. They feature heavily in all my books. In my first Shaman Mystery, In the Moors, a black poplar grows against an abandoned cottage with a dark history. It allows one victim to escape and gives entrance to Sabbie Dare, when she's exploring. Black poplars are known as magical trees, which is why I chose it.

Later in the novel, willows feature, and their role is even more macabre than that of the whomping willow; a series of murder victims are buried in a marsh below an ancient willow tree.
The honoured carcass of the Glastonbury Thorn

The third novel Beneath the Tor, has several important trees that are Glastonbury icons. I couldn't help but want to write about the Glastonbury Thorn, the tree supposedly planted by Joseph of Arimathea on Wearyall Hill, which flowered every Christmas, until it was destroyed by locals angry about boundary disputes. Since then it has become even more of a quest for pilgrims, and its carcass is covered by ribbons flowers and other votive offerings.

I also gave a part to Gog and Magog,  a famous pair of stately, wise and ancient Glastonbury oaks, which Sabbie encounters immediately after leaving the scene of someone's sudden death:

        As we tramped along a country path, Wolfsbane mounted a fence that took him into a small enclosure where two old oaks stood proud. It took me a minute to catch him up. I found him leaning into the further of the two oaks, his arms hugging the trunk, which was so broad it would have taken several of us to surround it completely. I rested my hand on the gnarled and weathered bark of the other tree. The day was warm, bees already buzzing in the foxgloves. A woodpecker rapped with furious persistence in the distance.

'Oh, listen,' I whispered.

We stood in silence. I couldn’t imagine a better way for us to recharge our spiritual batteries. Eventually, Wolfsbane turned round. He hitched his thumbs into the waistband of his shorts and looked at the ground, as if the weight of what we’d seen only an hour ago was dragging at him. 'I think I might have to apologize to Brice.' 

I found myself gawping. Not a deliberate act, but I was startled by his words. Apologize seemed altogether the wrong sentiment. When someone you know has lost the love of their life, you condole. You sympathize and sorrow with them.

'Why ever would you need to apologize to Brice?' 

Wolfsbane leaned right into the trunk of the tree and closed his eyes. 'This is Magog, you know.'

'Oh,' I said, recognizing, but not quite placing the name. 

'The twin oaks. End of an avenue of ancient oaks.'

'Gog and Magog. I remember.' The oaks were almost leafless and white with age. 'They’re dying, Wolfs.'

'They’re dead.'

I put my hands over my mouth. 'That’s sad.'

'They’re the last, Sabbie. The rest were cut down – heck, a century ago. Even then they were millennia-old. It’s their time.'


Of course, there are so many poems that feature trees and use their symbolism, that they could not all be mentioned in a post of this size, but my favourites include Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “This Lime-tree Bower My Prison” and Robert Frost’s  “Birches”


Perhaps we should leave this subject by touching on what trees do, every day, for our planet. We're going to need all the trees we can get to help the next generation keep life on Earth for Humankind and many animals on an even and sustainable keel. I loved The Man Who Planted Trees, a short story published in 1953 by French author Jean Giono. It chronicles a shepherd’s three-decade-long effort to reforest a barren tract of land in Southeastern France. Spanning a time period shortly before World War I until shortly after World War II, the story is both an environmental and an antiwar allegory, but it has influenced the generations that have come after it, and now there are many guerrilla tree planters who fill their pockets with discarded acorns and carefully bring on the saplings they produce, before taking them back into barren places. 









Monday, 21 February 2022

The Wings of the Dove by Henry James – Read Classic



Anyone out there who has never read a Henry James? Is it because you believe he's inaccessible, boring, difficult, over-long, too fixated on minutiae, too exhausting for the brain? 

He is known to be a writer who takes his sweet time to tell a story. Although James writes with a deep and finely detailed eye, he moves his novels along at the pace of a growing bramble shoot. No matter – his style inveigles  you, and before you know it, you're chapters in. His writing voice gets 'into your head' and it's not hard to become involved and absorbed.


James was well known in his life as a critic and a scholar –  he was enthusiastic and exacting about the craft and theory of writing fiction. His theories work to this day – in fact, he's one of the best teachers, both through his acclaimed manual The Art of Fiction and through the example of his fiction. James is the past master of character development, plot construction, authentic dialogue, and structural timing – he places the where and when of each event and incident in their perfect place.

Above all,  his stories are dark. Each of his characters has a 'shadow side'. Through his books, he examines and exposes some of the worst traits of human nature. 

I've loved Henry James since my twenties. I'm not alone. Nigella Lawson explains, in her 1998 cookbook  How to Eat:

When I was in my teens, I loved Henry James. I read him with uncorrupted pleasure. Then, when I was eighteen or so, and had just started The Golden Bowl, someone – older, cleverer, whose opinions were offered gravely – asked me whether I didn’t find James very difficult, as she always did. Until then, I had no idea that I might, and I didn’t. From that moment, I couldn’t read him but self-consciously; from then on, I did find him difficult. I do not wish to insult by the comparison, but I had a similar, Jamesian mayonnaise experience. My mother used to make mayonnaise weekly, twice weekly; we children would help. I had no idea it was meant to be difficult, or that it was thought to be such a nerve-racking ordeal. Then someone asked how I managed to be so breezy about it, how I stopped it from curdling. From then on, I scarcely made a mayonnaise which didn’t split. It’s not surprising: when confidence is undermined or ruptured, it can be difficult to do the simplest things, or to take any enjoyment even in trying...

For my Read Classic series this time, I'm looking at The Wings of the Dove.  In lockdown, our village hall always had a box of free books in the porch and this Henry James was tucked in there, waiting for a new reader.I plucked it out because  I knew this novel would end up in Venice, a city I love. I read it over the winter, snuggling in front of roaring fires, and tucked into bed on a mound of soft pillows.  

On the first page you meet Kate, waiting for an interview with her unloved and unloving father – a wastrel who lives in poverty. Beautiful and full of style, it's fair to say that Kate is a designing young woman who does not want to end up poor like her dad, so has thrown her hand in with her Aunt, Maud Lawder, who is a rich widow able to show her niece off to polite London society. 

There's no stopping love, though; Kate has fallen so deeply for Merton Densher that she engages herself to him 'forever'. All this is kept a secret from Aunt Maud, because Merton is a poor working journalist, with nothing to recommend him as a husband – no fortune, in other words. 

Into the story steps Milly Theale, an American girl, bereaved of all her family and so in possession of a vast fortune. Milly arrives in London with her companions, young Susan Shepherd, and the more mature Mrs Stringham, who is an old school-mate of Kate's aunt. Milly strikes up a friendship with Kate, and she is already linked to Densher; she met and fell in love with him when he visited the states for his work.

Milly learns she is dying. She asks her physician 'what shall I do?' and he says…'live, live.' Milly is fatally ill, but she's not unwell; she is a vivacious, very genuine girl although of course, a little naive, so when she visits the grand estate of  Maud Lowder, she is wooed by Lord Mark, who Mrs Lowder had hoped would be a suitor to Kate. He's an unpleasantly shallow man, and gets rejected by both of them.

Kate, however, is devising a dastardly plan. She knows Milly loves Densher and encourages him to pay court to Milly. It is at this moment in the book that clever dialogue is everything. Kate wants Densher to believe her idea is primarily a ruse to cover his relationship with Kate, so the reader is not told outright that Kate's true plan is for Millie to marry Densher, before she dies, or at least, leave him an inheritance, so that they can marry in comfort. And Densher does worry about the subtextual implications Kate's not talking about. At this point in the story, the reader is no wiser than Densher – unless they have (like me!) turned to Google to check what is actually going on. Perhaps that is the 21st C equivalent of 'reading the last page', and it did colour my understanding, but not my enjoyment.

Milly goes to Venice and the sun of Northern Italy, to enjoy 'her life' with her companions, and Kate and Densher follow. Milly can afford to rent an entire waterside palace, Palazzo Leporelli. This was modelled on the real Palazzo Barbaro, which was owned by friends of Henry James. And, according to Wikipedia, Milly herself  is based on Minny Temple (1845–1870), James' beloved cousin who died from tuberculosis. In his autobiography James said that The Wings of the Dove was his attempt to wrap her memory in the 'beauty and dignity of art'. Milly's illness is never openly diagnosed. It's not tuberculosis, at least not in its final stages. James may not have cared about the nicety of a diagnosis; it was the prognosis that occupied his writing.

 Venice is a mysterious place, the heart of romanticism, a place where Densher might easily seduce Milly Thele, but James’s Venice slides away from symbols of love and passion towards corruption, destruction. Asking your fiancé to play around with another women is never a great idea, and as Kate  and Densher meet at various famous city venues, Kate reveals outright that she wants Densher to marry Milly. Densher is horrified, and their relationship begins to grow strained. Meanwhile, the rejected Lord Mark arrives and is given an audience with Milly, telling her Densher is engaged to Kate. Wth that cruel revelation, Milly's palace becomes a place of siege. Densher is visited by Susan Shepherd who describes her as 'broken-hearted'. She has 'turned her face to the wall'.  Her health deteriorates and Densher returns home to Kate.

Back in London, Kate and Densher face the fact that their relationship has been irreparably damaged by their misadventure with Milly. Milly does leave him a large amount of money, but Densher wants to believe that Kate would marry him, rich or poor. He tells Kate that they should  refuses the bequest. The book ends with this glorious exchange;

     He heard her out in stillness, watching her face, but not moving. Then he only said: "I'll marry you, mind you, in an hour."        

    "As we were?”

"As we were.”

But she turned to the door, and her headshake was now the end. "We shall never be again as we were!" 


The lovers have been over-shadowed and separated forever by the wings of the dead dove.


Sunday, 6 February 2022

Our Own Sacred Landscape; now in Indie Shaman

"

I went for a walk, one autumn afternoon. I wanted to sit and meditate, so I chose to go to ‘my place’. We all have one, I hope, even if it’s just a quiet corner of a small garden. At that time I was living in a suburb of Bristol, and ‘my place’ was locally called The Bowl; a six acre disused council tip, hidden behind a leisure complex. Sounds grim, but it was beginning to come back to life.

As soon as I entered the bowl, I knew something was different there. I could see a flock of what looked like finches, bobbing about from bush to bush. They had a scratchy, sharp song, but as soon as they were aware of me, they began to call their alarm. Chat-chat-chat…"


So opens my latest article of Indie Shaman, which was published in
issue 51 available now (just £3.99!). 


It's the story of 'The Bowl', a wild  and forgotten patch of land in a busy, built-up area, not even six acres across, hidden between a Cineworld complex and a six-point roundabout.  It was less than a mile from the Bristol home we brought our children up in, but I only discovered The Bowl one day, I went looking for wild rose bushes.   


The article tells the tale of what happened next; how someone can get caught up in a whirlwind they weren't expecting. I contacted Avon Wildlife to ask if they knew there were skylarks, and indeed, also linnets, whitethroats and stonechats nesting and using this tiny patch of forgotten land. The Wildlife Trust they told me it was under threat from developers, and they were looking for someone to head up a campaign to save it. 


So began an eighteen month crusade that drew in neighbours, my son and his mates, my husband and, (of course), all the druids I knew. We formed a little group which had meetings with  local councillors as well as the Wildlife Trust, around the dining table. We gave talks, spoke on the radio, had an information stall in the local mall with boards full of photographs of butterflies, wild plants and trees. We started a petition and presented the thousands of signatures which we'd gained tramping the streets around the area to a council meeting. We were even on the local telly news.

With my friend Gail and the trees we 'guerilla' planted 


But what drew me to the bowl, was not a campaigning fervour. It was the fact I'd found a place I could consider sacred, and that felt all my own. I honoured one specific bush there, a lovely wild rose that grew proudly beside some everlasting peas. Her flowers were the colour of rose quartz and her leaves sparkled with a lime green gloss. Each time I want to The Bowl, I'd circle her thrice and talk to her. And she would answer me. I was working with a specific local goddess at the time, the Celtic goddess Rosmerta, and I knew the rose bush represented her. 


"The year had turned, and it was mid-summer again. I went to The Bowl, now definitely ‘my special place’. with my husband to hold a small, personal ritual. We worked around Rosmerta the wild rose bush, now the largest and loveliest rose in The Bowl.  Afterwards, we wandered around, in meditative mood, when I stooped suddenly, to examine what I thought was a bee, taking nectar from a grass vetch.


The artwork that is now at The Bowl
I was mistaken. I was looking at a spreading colony of bee orchids. We’d already found pyramidal orchids at The Bowl, but I’d never seen bee orchids before, and on this midsummer’s day it was the perfect discovery. My Rosmerta rose bush was thanking me for the effort we’d all put in."


How did it all end? Did we manage to stop the developers? Sorry, you'll have to read the Indie Shaman article to find out! This magazine is filled with wonderful stories with a theme of pagan, shamanic and mystic, so it's an excellent buy. Just go to https://indieshaman.co.uk/shamanism-magazine/ to find out more 



Saturday, 8 January 2022

Getting Your Writing Published PART FOUR – Writing Competitions.


Nina at the Wells Literary Festival

One of the most memorable moments in my writing career, was walking up onto the stage to give a talk at the Wells Literary Festival. I'd been a previous winner of their short story competition and I'd been asked back to talk about my experience. This might not be the first thing you consider, when thinking about the benefits of entering competitions, but  it was a huge event on my calendar. 

I mentioned entering competitions right back at the start of this series of 'getting published' because it's one of the very best ways of making agents and editors sit up and take notice of a new writer, especially one who has just finished their first novel. They are a little more likely to read a few more pages of your submitted chapters if they know someone else liked your writing too. 

It is getting harder and harder to publish short stories. The small-press magazines are over-submitted (and sadly, not well read), and most weekly women's magazines have stopped including a short story. For over ten years I regularly had a story in women’s magazines - especially Bella who seemed happy for me to write dramatically about family issues, or sustaining relationships, rather than starting them (Bauer paid very well; I sent my daughter through her half scholarship on my Bella earnings), but now I aim my short stories at the anthology market, which is partly fuelled by competitions, and I recommend you do too, because agents and indie publishers do keep their eye on the winning contributions. 

Competitions are good for individual writers. They can help you work out how effective your writing is, in comparison to the work of others. They can help you push to finish things, and to polish them well. Winning can be quickly effective, gaining you kudos on your writing CV that might help get you a position on an MA course, or even introduce you to an agent. There are competitions for all disciplines and genres, especially short fiction, flash fiction, novel writing, scriptwriting, poetry and writing for young people. 

There are tricks and keys that open the door to getting into competition shortlists. Stories with originality that stand out in some way often do very well. Although ‘quieter’, beautifully written stories can win competitions, stories with a ‘tingle factor’ are bound to attract the judges' attention, especially after ploughing through hundreds, even thousands of similar, often derivative entries. 

Jo Verity, who won the Richard and Judy prize, says this..'I’d been writing for about 2 years. I happened to be off work with food poisoning – whiling away the time watching the Richard & Judy Show. It was the last chance to enter their short story competition (this was before the Richard & Judy Bookclub started) and I happened to have a story ready to go. I posted it off and forgot all about it. A couple of months later I got a call to say that my story was in the final 15 (from 17,000 entries) and could I go up to London the following week when the winner would be announced live on air. It was very exciting. Martina Cole, Suzi Feay and Tony Parsons were the judges. I was flabbergasted when they picked my story as the winner especially as I’d sent the same story out to a couple of competitions and it had done nothing.'

The prize was to have the story published in The Independent on Sunday, under the title Rapid Eye Movement.  The story relates the experience of a depressed young woman who gives up her job and cuts herself off from her family to perfect ‘lucid dreaming’. By the end, she’s spending most of her life in her dream world. 

One of my students came up with a 'tingle factor' story and successfully submitted it, to her absolute delight; Read her blogpost on her experience of entering a competition… here. Like  Jo Verity, my student had also had this story rejected in another competition. So bear in mind, when you don't win, time and again, that the choice of winner is both arbitrary and subjective. Judges are like the rest of us––they have their likes and dislikes. So long as you are sure you've proofread you work carefully, and that the story holds up under scrutiny, do submit it again. 

Prize winners all.

What is that scrutiny? Crucial to a winning short story are convincing characters, a strong and appealing core theme and an ability to provoke empathy or inspiration. Aim for coherent progression, rigorous construction and a satisfying conclusion. Many a fine story lacks ‘closure’, leaving the reader with untidy loose ends or an unresolved mystery. The author A S Byatt, suggests that: 'a good short story knows its ending before it is begun, it is always working towards its end…A good short story establishes its own rhythm at its very beginning, and the reader has a sense of the rhythm reaching ahead, towards the end…'

Read about AM Byatt in this Kitchen Table blogpost 

Make sure every word counts because word count is perhaps  more importance than anything else. Every competition has its rules and you must stick within them. Do not send out your 2,500 word story to a competition if the remit is 'less than 2,000 words'.

It's also best to keep to the short story maxim of 'few characters, little time and a satisfying resolve'. However, many a fine short story has successfully handled a bevy of characters, an extended timeline, or an ending that lacks closure. It might appear, at first glance, to be a collection of vivid but disjointed impressions. But the story still has to be rigorous in its construction; it must be a whole.

Most poetry writers start their publishing career by submitting their individual poems to poetry competitions. Your local library is as good a place to check these out as searching online. When submitting poems, try reading the previous winners’ entries, which give you an idea of which types of poems the judges enjoy. Be sure to read all the qualifications properly, checking for specific writing styles, points of view, settings, and especially length. Naturally, polish your work before submitting Use proper formatting within the title and description areas, and don’t use crazy fonts which will just annoy the readers.Start with smaller and lesser-known poetry competitions first, especially if finance is an issue, where you may have a better chance of being noticed.  If you are submitting your poem by snail mail, be sure to read over the poem after you print it and make any necessary changes.


Finding competitions across the disciplines is not difficult. They are all over the internet, and in every writing magazine. They advertise because most intend to make a profit, hence the entry fee. This often feels excessive, but it covers costs, pays the judges and often allows the prizes to glitter. 

There is nothing wrong with going for those glittering prizes, but the opposition is stiff, so don’t be put off by smaller prizes or contests that offer nothing more than the possibility of being published (especially in print). This always looks good on a growing CV.

Keep persevering…this can often be the best way to succeed. And –– by the way –– good luck!