Category Archives: Competitions

Picture book competition

I couldn’t wait to tell you about the exciting picture book competition in this month’s Writing Magazine!  It’s open to any unpublished and unagented writer and the prize is a lunch consultation with top children’s agent Julia Churchill (plus a subscription to Writing Magazine – oh, and £200 as well).  And who knows where that could lead?

From my critique pile I know loads of you have some fantastic picture books waiting for the right opportunity, and there’s no entry fee so I urge you to give it a go!

Your text should be no longer than 800 words and can be rhyming or prose.  You can present it in page spreads or as continuous text.  No illustrations, pop-ups etc.  Details here.

There’s also some great tips on picture book writing from prolific picture book writer Amy Sparkes in the accompanying article (August edition).

Closing date is 29 September.  Good luck!

Chapter One

It seems very appropriate for the beginning of the year to be discussing how to write the opening chapter of a novel.  I always imagine a new year as turning over the first page of a book – the adventure is all before us and anything could happen!  And something nice already has happened, as I was honoured yesterday to attend the New Year’s meeting of Harpenden Writers to set their in-house competition entitled ‘Chapter One’.

The first chapter is a real challenge for any writer.  It is as important as the climax of the book – even more so, because it has so many other jobs to do.  As well as introducing characters, setting, the style of the author and the bones of the plot, the opening chapter also needs to perform a double wow – hooking the reader and also attracting the attention of agents and publishers.  No wonder it can be so hard to write.

What are considered the greatest opening chapters in literature?  It’s a hard list to make, but after sifting through my own choices, various opinions on the internet (most of which are based mainly on the first line) and suggestions from the Harpenden Writers, I’d suggest the following top ten in no particular order:

  • The Colour Purple by Alice Walker
    Celie is raped by her step-father.  She relates the tale in her own matter of fact way.  If this is what happens on page one then things are going to be tough for her and for us as readers.
  • Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
    A fatal ballooning accident kickstarts an obsessive relationship.  Killer opening which some believe the rest of the book never quite matches up to.
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
    Mrs Bennet tries to persuade Mr Bennet to visit the new young bachelor in town and get him to marry one of her daughters.  Deceptively simple, perfectly pitched.
  • The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy
    A man sells his wife at a country auction.  Great example of a cataclysmic event which creates a stomping good plot.
  • The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
    Nick has dinner with Tom and Daisy and hears of the existence of Gatsby.  Eloquent, elegant, understated.
  • 1984 by George Orwell
    The clock strikes thirteen and Winston Smith is living another day under the boot of Big Brother.  An immediate plunge into another world that is terrifyingly possible.
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
    Huck’s unique voice pulls us straight into his story.  After sketching out his new life with the Widow Douglas he is off for more mischief with Tom.
  • David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
    ‘I am Born’ – the first chapter does exactly what it says on the tin.
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy
    Starts as it means to go on – bleak, uncompromising, sad almost beyond words.  Line breaks indicate changes – there are no chapters because the normal divisions of time have disintegrated with civilisation.
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
    One page of gob-smacking prose which raises horrifying questions we simply have to know the answers to.

To help us identify what makes a great opening chapter, we examined the beginning of Pride and Prejudice.  Giant hailstones rained down with a deafening clatter as I attempted to read aloud from my Kindle and I just hope it wasn’t divine intervention engineered by Jane Austen in response to my portrayal of Mrs Bennet!

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the first line by itself is in possession of every quality an opening chapter needs: the characters (single, rich man); the plot (fortune hunters are after him); the style (dry, arch) and the hook (so who will catch him).  Few but Austen could pull this off in one line.

The rest of the chapter deftly places us at the heart of the story by showcasing Austen’s brilliant characterisation.  We are introduced to Mr and Mrs Bennet and we understand their relationship and the inequality of their marriage.  He has become a long-suffering husband who is reduced to scoring victories through quiet sarcasm, which she is a nag, a gossip and a social climber.  Nevertheless, Austen loves them and we can see that in her affectionate treatment of their foibles.  Impressively Austen also manages to introduce through the Bennets’ conversation no less than ten other characters!  Of course we hear about the impressive Bingley and his four or five thousand a year, but we also learn that the Bennets have five grown up daughters, we hear the names and main character traits of three of them, we know which ones each parent prefers and we even have the first mention of Sir William and Lady Lucas as a rival family the Bennets need to keep up with.  There’s also a couple of side characters thrown into to the gossipy mix.  All this is done in so natural and deft a way that we happily throw ourselves into chapter two with a good basic knowledge of and fondness for the family.

We also have the bones of the plot in place: Mrs Bennet needs to marry off her daughters and she needs to act quickly before anyone else can pinch the best prize.  We don’t know yet about the Bennet estate being entailed away on the nearest male heir but we do sense that the family needs outside help if it is to survive in the manner to which it is accustomed, and that there are various cumbersome social barriers that need to be broken through before this can be achieved.

The setting is quite starkly presented, but we do gather that this is a domestic scene and the beginning of the plot suggests the rest of the novel will probably stay in that sphere.  It is obviously historical and of its time period, and the family are of middling wealth – rich enough to be looking for husbands rather than jobs for their daughters, but poor enough to be somewhat desperate.

The chapter also introduces Austen’s style: conversational, arch, humorous, affectionate, fast-moving and deft.  We know what we are getting from the first line onwards: Austen’s voice is always true.

And finally, the hook.  Are we pulled in by this chapter?  Do we feel emotionally involved enough to continue?  All the elements have been expertly put in place, so that anyone who enjoys this sort of novel will feel compelled to continue.

So there we have it: a model first chapter.  We have the killer first line, the characters, the plot, the setting, the style and the hook, all done in an understated, efficiently brilliant way.  For a complete contrast see the opening chapter of Lolita.  And remember, if you want to analyse first chapters of classic literature most are now free on the internet, either through the Amazon Kindle store and other ebook retailers or through Project Guttenberg where you can read classics online or download them.

Good luck to the Harpenden Writers taking part in the Chapter One competition – I look forward to reading your entries and getting thoroughly hooked!

I’m a Pint-Sized Winner!

Actually it’s not me who’s pint-sized but my script!  My short play ‘Brought to Book’ is a winner in the 2013 Pint-Sized Plays competition.  Pint-Sized Plays bring theatre into pubs by staging performances of the ten finalists’ scripts in various pubs around Tenby in Wales as part of Tenby Arts Festival.  They then go on to take part in a ‘script slam’ with the winner taking home the coveted pint trophy.  There were 250 entries from all around the world so I feel a great sense of achievement in being a finalist.  I just wish Tenby wasn’t four and half hours away so I could go and watch!

The win marks a bit of a change of direction for me.  I’m still writing (and submitting!) children’s fiction but my involvement in amateur dramatics has sparked a flurry of playwriting activity.  I’ve discovered that it’s ideal if you like writing dialogue and hate description, like me!  Searching for opportunities to submit is very different from finding a publisher.  When you write a script you are writing for performance rather than publication, and there are plenty of young theatre companies looking for new scripts, either at certain times of the year or through competitions.  Entry fees are rare but so is payment.  The reward is getting your play performed rather than monetary recompense.  The most useful site I have found for opportunities is Playwright’s Competition Calendar.  You can browse by month according to when the competition expires.  Well worth a look if you’re interested in script writing.

Things I learned at the Winchester Writers’ Conference 2013

So I’m back from the Winchester Writers’ Conference – and I have so much to tell you!  But instead of getting bogged down in notes like I normally do, I’m going to distill the essence of what I brought away with me into some handy bite-size – or write-size – tips.  So here’s what I learned.

  • Julian Fellowes is a very funny man.
  • Agents, editors and publishers are still actively looking for good writers.
  • It’s about the writer, not the book.
  • Jasper Fforde doesn’t plan his books – hurrah.
  • Barbara Large created the conference 33 years ago and this is her last year at the helm.  What a woman.
  • A very large goodbye card takes two people to carry it.
  • Humorous writing for TV has a number of elements including surprise and rudeness.
  • Fast Show clips are always worth re-watching.
  • Make your book your own, not anybody else’s (Jasper Fforde).
  • Writers love to make up bizarre pseudonyms.
  • Climb into your character’s body and see the world through their eyes and from their height (Ben Illis).
  • St Alphege and St Edburga are actually the same building.
  • You can trip over many times in one day when you’re over-excited.
  • Everyone loves a free mini muffin.
  • Concentrate on one major aspect per draft to stop yourself getting distracted (Ben Ellis).
  • Anyone can be a freelance features writer – just start (Emma Scattergood).
  • Just because you haven’t made it yet doesn’t mean you aren’t going to (Julian Fellowes).

I’m sure you’ll agree there’s some invaluable nuggets of advice in there.  But my favourite was, again, from Julian Fellowes.  When he was working hard trying to make his dream of being a writer come true, he said he never let 24 hours go by without doing something to further his cause, whether it was writing, editing, sending an email or anything that he felt was helping him achieve his dream.  And he kept this up for 10 years.  Think I’ll do the same.

PS  I won the Writing for Children Aged 12+ competition and now have some lovely book tokens to spend.  What a fabulous day.

The Times 50 word ghost story competition

I’ve just heard about this competition which closes in a week, but with only 50 words to write you can hit the deadline easily – can’t you?

Write a ghost story for The Times in 50 words and win £200 worth of books (selected for you, not by you) and a signed set of Susan Hill’s ghost stories. Email or post by 5 pm on Tuesday 23 Oct, UK and ROI residents only. Full details here. For tips from Susan Hill on writing to spook, read her article online.

A fun challenge that may plant the seed for a short story or novel further down the line… Good luck!

The Haunted School poem published!

My poem The Haunted School is published in this month’s Writer’s News, part of Writing Magazine.  I wrote it especially for their children’s poetry competition; the first line just popped into my head and that dictated the theme and the rhyme for the rest.  I have decided to plough the second place prize money back into my writing and will be putting it towards a critique at some point in the future.  For now I will continue carrying my magazine around and pushing it into people’s faces.  “Look!  It’s me!”

The Greenhouse Funny Prize

Thank you to author and fellow Talkback forum contributor Rosalie Warren for drawing my attention to this exciting new prize.  Aimed at flushing out the new Roald Dahl, Andy Stanton or Francesca Simon, the prize is being organised jointly by The Greenhouse Literary Agency and The Writers’ Workshop.  All you have to do is submit the first five thousand words and a synopsis of your funniest novel, chapter book or picture book by 30 July.  The prize is representation by this exciting and dynamic young agency and a free ticket to The Writers’ Workshop Festival of Writing where you will be presented with a bottle of champers to boot.

The submission guidelines are here; as usual, follow them to the letter to maximise your chances.  Entry is free and submission is by email.

Of course you can just submit to The Greenhouse in their usual way but the benefits of this prize are the attendant publicity and boost to your career.  And sometimes knowing that you are in competition with others can bring out your best writing.

Good luck!

First competition entry this year?

Swanwick writers schoolThanks to writer Sally Jenkins at www.sallyjenkins.wordpress.com for reminding me of the Swanwick Summer School Competition, which closes on 30 April.  I’ve always vaguely intended to enter without ever actually doing anything about it!  With markets for children’s short stories thin on the ground, it’s great to see a competition with a section for a children’s short story (1,000 words maximum), or  alternatively the first 1,000 words of a children’s novel.  The first prize is a week at the Swanwick Summer Writing School, which sounds like absolute bliss to me, and I know people who have won categories of this competition before so there is hope!

Find the details at www.swanwickwritersschool.co.uk.  There is a theme, but perhaps you have existing work that would fit it.  If not, hopefully the thought of a week away at Swanwick will inspire you!  Entry is £5 which is reasonable for a competition of this calibre.

Rhyme & Reason Desk Diary 2012 out now!

rhyme and reason desk diary timeMy poem ‘I waited but you didn’t come’ features in this year’s Rhyme and Reason publication, a desk diary featuring prose and poetry on the theme of time.  Rhyme and Reason is a fundraising group which raises money for a great cause, the Iain Rennie Hospice at Home.  I’m looking forward to reading the winning entries in the diary, as well as the other entries like mine which were picked for inclusion.  If you’re looking for a unique and thoughtful Christmas present, why not order a copy yourself?  It’s available on the Iain Rennie shop website at http://www.irhh.org/sitehome/shop/showproduct.php?productID=137.

Winchester Writers’ Conference 2011

Winchester plenary address

The plenary address, with Barry Cunningham second left and Geoff Holt on right

If you are looking for inspiration (see my post Keeping your mojo), a great way to get you kick started is to attend a writing conference.

The Winchester Writers’ Conference is a huge enterprise, with workshops that last all week, a big ‘standalone’ day on Saturday, top quality speakers, inspiring seminars, and most importantly real opportunities to meet editors, publishers and agents.  Several writers have been ‘discovered’ at Winchester through their one-to-one sessions (fifteen minutes of time with your chosen professional, discussing your work) and it’s a great way to bypass the slushpile.  It’s also useful (and important) to see that people in the publishing industry are real people.  And (whisper it) they are actually quite… well, nice!  They don’t just exist to poor scorn on our pathetic work but are engaging, enthusiastic people with a thirst for discovering new work.

Apart from the opportunities offered, it’s also great to meet other like-minded people and soak up the atmosphere.  You’ll find everyone friendly and supportive, and there’s something about standing in a queue waiting for a meeting with the editor of your dreams while your knees knock with terror that invites you to confide in your neighbour, who is feeling exactly the same.

There are counsellors at Winchester, and that’s because hopes can sometimes be a little bit dashed.  You have to develop a thick skin and learn that you will get lots of advice, some of which will be contradictory.  For example, last year one agent advised me to take the humour out of my book as she thought it didn’t mix well with the horror content, while another publisher praised my combination of humour and horror!  You have to decide what is going to work for you.

On the other hand, there are lots of opportunities for celebration.  Getting a publisher interested in your work, perhaps winning or being placed in a competition, or coming away from a workshop full of ideas.  This year I was highly commended for two categories in the children’s writing competition, the 4-7 year olds and the 7-11 year olds.  Two of my friends were winners and I felt very proud as I watched them go up on to the stage.  Congratulations Shirley and Emma!

Winchester prize giving

The prizegiving ceremony. Barbara Large, the conference director, is on the far right.

I thoroughly enjoyed my workshops with Sarah Mussi, Sam Hawksmoor, Beverley Birch and Elizabeth Arnold.  But the most useful session for me was on Redrafting Your Work, led by Jude Evans of Little Tiger Press.  I will be posting notes on her talk on this site soon.  As my friend commented, it was like doing an MA in a day!

A few points just to mention that really stood out for me.

  • Barry Cunningham (Chicken House) saying it’s a really exciting time to be a writer (referring to e-publishing and all the changes it may bring).
  • Beverley Birch (Hodder) saying the material she sees through her Winchester one-to-ones are far more interesting that what she’s getting from agents at the moment.
  • A competition pen name (all entries must have pseudonyms) of ‘Professor Moriarty’s Big Toe’.
  • The judge of the Haiku competition being overjoyed to announce that this year he had received haikus that actually fulfilled all the criteria (sometimes he doesn’t award a first prize at all!).
  • Barbara Large revealing that after the midnight read the night before, all the attendees were locked in and they had to call security.
  • My friends winning two of the biggest competitions.  Hurrah!
  • Free books and writing magazines on the tables at lunch.
  • Boxes of books labelled ‘help yourself’ on the way out!
  • And did I mention free books?
  • Getting to know Winchester intimately on the way home (speak to me, sat nav!  Just say something – anything!).
  • Feeling like a real writer.  See you next year, everyone!