2019 First Chapter Competition Winners

2019 Retreat West First Chapter Competition Winners

Many thanks to Sarah Hornsley at The Bent Agency for being our 2019 judge. She has now chosen the two winners, saying: “It was a really tough decision. The standard was really high, I was very impressed.”

So well done to everyone on the shortlist and massive congratulations to our two winners who get their submission package reviewed. The first place winners will get their feedback from Sarah and the second place winner from Amanda Saint, commissioning editor and publisher at Retreat West Books. Sarah has also provided short feedback on all the ten shortlisted chapters below.

First place: Cold Harbour by Marian Smith

Sarah said: COLD HARBOUR is smoothly written with a real sense of intrigue. Impressively, the author manages to establish where the novel sits in the market quickly, whilst also offering the reader a fresh voice and a character who I feel confident would keep the reader guessing at every turn. I was also impressed by how the author establishes the hook early on and then manages to build the intrigue as the chapter progresses, ending on a fantastic hook that left me wanting to keep turning the pages.

Second place: Violet by Zoe Cook

Sarah said: VIOLET demonstrates some really excellent writing with a compelling set-up, posing many questions for the reader with a smoothness and subtlety I really admired. I was also impressed by how the author manages to capture the intrigue surrounding the backstory but not at the expense of the current present plot, and I thought this showed the potential for a really layered and complex story.

Well done to Marian and Zoe!

And to our shortlisted writers…

A Pair of Blue Butterflies by Claire Whatley

Sarah said: You create a really strong interesting dynamic here between Rachel and Martin with a clear backstory that has a lot of scope to it. I’d be careful of using dialogue as a vehicle to disguise exposition and work a little more on showing not telling – less is more and often just from the action we can deduct the subtext without needing it reinforced by the narrator.

Behold The Stars by Imogen Harris

Sarah said: The writing here is excellent and I really enjoyed the material, you draw us right into the audition room with the narrator. I did want to get a better sense of what I was reading – what genre is it, what could I expect from the rest of the novel, but I think this is a really strong start and I’d love to read more.

Caught Kissing Adam Faith by Neil Taylor

Sarah said: The voice here is wonderful and I really enjoyed the subtle very natural humour peppered throughout. I was definitely interested to read more and I think you started and ended the chapter in exactly the right place, which makes me feel that you’re a really competent storyteller.

My Name Is Ten by Colleen McMahon

Sarah said: There is lots of really good writing here and I think the world you’ve created is intriguing. I think at the moment you spend too long catching the reader up with what’s happened previously and you could look to streamline, cutting back so much of the context in this very first chapter so as to keep the plot moving forward, and then spreading out some of the backstory through a couple of chapters instead of so much in the first one. Alternatively, you could look to enter the story earlier so the structure isn’t that you are then recalling events that have already happened quite so heavily.

Red Fox Hiding by Nicola Keller

Sarah said: The writing here is really strong and you thrust us straight into the story, which is really well done in the courtroom gallery. I’d work on the balance of show don’t tell and think you perhaps are trying to fit too much backstory into this very first chapter. I feel you could let your story and characterisation breathe a little more on the page. I do know it’s a balance to strike here with keeping the plot moving forward but I think you could take your time a little more.

Ruby Sixpence Whistles Up A Storm by Anita Belli

Sarah said: I love the first two sentences! The writing here is wonderfully accomplished. Usually starting with a dream would be a big ‘no’ but you make it fresh and intriguing, which is clear demonstration of your skill as a storyteller. An interesting fresh character and concept.

The Darkest Harbour by Catherine Day

Sarah said: Really great first sequence which draws us straight into the story and poses some intriguing questions. I’d be conscious of streamlining the first chapter a little as you introduce us to a lot of characters very quickly and it might be better to give fewer characters more room to breathe and develop this early on in the novel. Well done on such a strong clear set-up.

The Joy Divide by Diane Wilson

Sarah said: Strong writing with a vivid sense of place. I’d like to know about more about what I’m reading and why I should carry on. Perhaps you could set up the story a little more clearly – what genre is this? What can the reader expect from the reading experience?


Again, well done to all of these writers.


If you weren’t ready for this year’s competition, then the 2020 competition is now open for entries. The judge this time around is Carrie Plitt at Felicity Bryan. Get all the details on the next competition here.


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