2023 First Chapter Competition Winners

Many thanks to our judge, Rachel Mann, literary agent at the Jo Unwin Literary Agency, for choosing our winners for us and for giving feedback on all of the shortlisted chapters. Well done to everyone who made it through to the final 10 and congratulations to our winners!

First Place: The Quiet Years by Elena Croitoru

Rachel’s comments: The description here is rich and deft, building setting and atmosphere excellently. Great action and tension – my heart was in my mouth during the protagonists terrified run home! A nice weaving of emotionally engaging and convincing historical detail, and immediately heart-wrenching and emotionally layered, particularly in its representation of motherhood.

The author: Elena Croitoru is a British-Romanian writer. She won the Live Canon Pamphlet prize, the Charles Causley Prize and the South Bank Poetry Prize. Her first novel was shortlisted for the Wilbur Smith Prize – Best Unpublished Novel.

Runner-Up: The Unseen by Sarah Lupton

Rachel’s comments: This packs lots of exposition in very fluently and deftly – it’s immediately engaging, with a nice, lightly historical narrative voice. There’s a lovely meter to the writing, and great depth of perception. Excellent tension building, and seeding of what’s to come.

The author: Sarah Lupton lives in York, has a background in journalism and marketing and has recently completed the Curtis Brown Creative six-month Write Your Novel Course.

Shortlisted Chapters (in alphabetical order)

Angeline and the Fighters by Rick White

Rachel’s comments: Nice quirky opening and the beginnings of a strong voice. There’s a nice wry tone to this character, though she is perhaps a little emotionally unconvincing, even given that her state of mind requires disassociation. Some strong description but slightly at the expense of voice (it becomes a little narratorial and adjectival rather than sticking to that dry, sparse voice).

The author: Rick White is a writer from Manchester UK whose work has appeared in Milk Candy Review, Trampset and X-ray Lit Mag among others. Rick’s debut short fiction collection, TALKING TO GHOSTS AT PARTIES is available now via Storgy Books.

Bitter Seed by Alexandra Fikuart

Rachel’s comments: A strong voice, fluent writing, good characterisation and intriguing setting. Convincing eroticism which then contributes to a depth of emotion as the chapter progress, but I’d suggest there’s slightly too much emotional disengagement from the realities of war (it felt rather too flippant to me, even given the realities of conscription.) I’d suggest clarifying and slowing down on the bomb moment – it felt both rushed and a little convoluted, when it should be a moment of immersive horror and dramatic height.

The author: Alexandria Fikuart has had short stories published in the UK and in South Africa. Her action thriller was shortlisted for the Luke Bitmead bursary (Legend Press) and longlisted for the Bath Novel Award. In 2006 she was a founding member of an active writing group in Brighton.

Curtain Call by Rebecca Lewis-Smith

Rachel’s comments: An intriguing opening and use of tension – immediately immersive and emotionally engaging. A nice contemporary tone, and the beginnings of some relatable musings on friendship. I think perhaps the voice could be a little stronger and more convincing, and the emotion of the betrayal a touch higher.

The author: Rebecca completed Curtain Call, her first novel, on Curtis Brown Creative’s six-month novel writing course, and is now writing her second. The founder of a fast-growing marketing agency, she is a practised juggler of business and parenting demands. Writing creatively is her passion and a vital means of self-care.

Monkshead Farm by Lorna Peplow

Rachel’s comments: Tension and emotion are woven here to horrible effect, well done! Strong description and world-building, and a nice light historicism. Lovely romantic tension, and good pacing.

The author: Lorna Peplow has been writing stories since she was at primary school, when her teacher would read out her ‘books’ (created with felt-tips and staples) to the class. She has an MA in Creative Writing and recently completed the selective Curtis Brown Creative 6-month novel-writing course.

Soul Cake by Tracy Fells

Rachel’s comments: There’s a nice voice here, and good melding of past and present in the telling. The pacing is a little swift in the beginning and perhaps misses so much exposition as to be a little disorientating, so that’s something to work on. Strong chapter ending – I’m hooked! 

The author: Tracy Fells was the 2017 Regional Winner (Europe and Canada) for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Her short and flash fiction has been widely published with over a hundred credits. In 2023 her debut short story collection will be published by Fly On The Wall Press. She tweets as @theliterarypig.

The Warm-Up Man by Dianne Bown-Wilson

Rachel’s comments: The descriptions are nice here, though less would be more in some moments. Nice worldbuilding and setting and some good tension – though I found the eventual interaction with the newcomer somehow a little emotionally unconvincing and in need of more drama in the moment.

The author: Dr Dianne Bown-Wilson is primarily a short story writer who grew up in New Zealand and now lives in Devon. Her work has won prizes in numerous international competitions and anthologies. She has published two collections of her successful stories: Instructions for Living , and Degrees of Exposure.

The Weight of Silence by Dawn Miller

Rachel’s comments: A lovely, easy voice and immediately engaging premise. Convincing characterisation, and nice introduction of tension and mystery. Great!

The author: Dawn Miller is a Pushcart Prize nominated writer. Her short fiction appears or is forthcoming in The Forge Literary Journal, The Cincinnati Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Jellyfish Review, and Fractured Lit, among many others. She lives and writes in Picton, Ontario, Canada. Connect at www.dawnmillerwriter.com

Woven from Whispers by Laurence Sullivan

Rachel’s comments: A really cinematic and interesting concept, though I’d suggest the opening is a little too ‘in media res’ and so it’s perhaps slightly too much of an effort to grasp what’s going on and understand the internal logic of the concept. Again, I think the voice could be a little more characterful on this one, which would help us engage with the premise a little more.

The author: Laurence Sullivan’s creative writing has appeared in such places as: Londonist, The List, NHK World-Japan, Firewords Magazine and Popshot Quarterly. He became inspired to start writing during his university studies after being saturated in all forms of literature from across the globe and enjoying every moment of it.

Huge congratulations to everyone as we really enjoyed all of these novel openings.

Elena wins a review of her submission package from Rachel and Sarah wins feedback on her first three chapters from Amanda Saint.

We’ll be back with the info on the 2024 competition later this year and will have some exciting changes to the prizes!

In the meantime, if you’re yet to write your novel you could win a place on our year-long Novel Creator Course starting in Sept in our Pitch to Win contest. All you need to do is write a pitch of the novel you’d like to write on the course. Two spaces available! Deadline for entries is 8th May. Info here.