First Chapter Competition June 2015 Winners

The judging has been done and Jo Unwin has made her very difficult decision. As I said when posting the shortlist the standard was really high and Jo found it so hard to choose, and it was so close that even though there wasn’t a runner-up position or prize initially there is now! So the runner-up gets their sub package reviewed by me and the winner by Jo. But Jo has indicated that she’d like to read more from all four writers in the top spots. She has also very kindly given feedback on the entire shortlist and ranked them in the order they appear below.

Winner: The Black Garden by Ruby Speechley

A good title, great, spare writing, and very well imagined, this is intriguing, and tense. I cared about Maddy immediately, and the author manages to do a lot with a very few words. I really want to read on, and more than any other opening chapter, this one gives me the confidence that the author really knows what they’re doing.

Runner-Up: A Good Lad by Terri Armstrong

Very good, lots of superb detail, tension and clarity. A very strong contender – could possibly do with a bit more sense of atmosphere. What kind of book is this?

Honourable Mention: Glass Houses by Jackie Buxton

Very good indeed, fabulously intriguing, understated phrases that layer in the suspense expertly. Great title. I’d like to read on.

Honourable Mention: Overmorrow by Rachael Dunlop

Wonderful detail, tension, tone. Really well done, and a very enjoyable read. Definitely an honourable mention but the author might find a way to lead us on more strongly. Give us a bit more of a sense of where this book might be going to take us. Where is the texture of this book, what is the tone?

Fifth Place: The Wave by Virginia Moffit

Again very strong, well written and a good strong concept. I would have been more hooked with a stronger sense of character.

Sixth Place: Down Among the Giants by Zoe Shoreland

A fascinating memoir, with a strong sense of danger and sadness. Not a strong title, and no indication of why we might be reading this – where’s the hook or intrigue?

Seventh Place: Rose Gold: A Piratical Tale by Nemma Wollenfang

Tense, atmospheric and an interesting story. Not a great title, and occasional clichés let this down.

Eight Place: Down to the River to Pray by Laurence Jones

Well written, and very good sense of place indeed. I didn’t pick up on the tone quickly enough though – the author might try to clarify HOW he wants this to be read.

Ninth Place: Queen Lear’s Legacy by Andrew Campbell-Kearsey

Nice writing and an interesting concept. I would recommend changing the title as it steers the reader too strongly to look for parallels.

Tenth Place: Give Me the Map by Alexander Barr

Some tight dialogue and a neat premise, I enjoyed this. I felt there was room for a bit of tightening here and there.

A huge congratulations to Ruby and Terri! You have until August 31st to polish up your submission packages and email them in to get your reviews. To everyone else a huge well done and maybe if you take Jo’s feedback and revise your first chapters then the December competition judged by Susan Armstrong could be your turn in the top spots!

Susan Armstrong: First Chapter Advice

Welcome to Susan Armstrong today – senior literary agent at Conville & Walsh and judge of the December 2015 First Chapter competition. I’ve met Susan in 1-1s at the York Festival of Writing and the feedback and advice she gave on my first chapter was excellent so I knew she’d be a great choice of judge. So you can have the best chance of making the shortlist, and getting your opening three chapters read by her if you win, here’s her insights into submissions that stand out.

When you get submissions of three chapters and a synopsis through from writers what is it that gets you excited enough to ask to read the full MS?

When you’re receiving about 100 new submissions every week as I do, the ones that catch my eye are the ones that immediately offer me something different. This can be the voice or the setting or the circumstance, but whichever it is it always has to be coupled with brilliant writing.

Can you give us some idea of what makes a pitch good and also what makes a submission fail?
A good pitch should be concise and delivered confidently. I want to hear something that draws me in – a great hook, a striking premise – and which immediately fires up my imagination as a reader. It’s often a case of really pinpointing what’s at the heart of your novel and where its appeal lies. When you’ve put so much work into a book it can be difficult to condense it down into few lines because you’re tempted to mention everything, but a succinct, convincing pitch can really make an agent’s ears prick up – and that’s the first hurdle.

Broadly, a submission might fail because it just isn’t strong enough in terms of writing, voice or plot, but smaller, more typical pitfalls are things like unrealistic dialogue or character motivations, which can sever suspension of disbelief and stymie even the best ideas. In other cases, it simply may not suit an agent’s taste or list, which is why it’s always worth doing your research and trying to target your submissions carefully. Also, I want to dive into, not wade through, a manuscript so take care not to over-write.

If a writer is sending out their first three chapters and getting repeated rejections, but encouraging ones, what advice can you give them to up their chances of getting the full MS in front of agents?
I always advise writers to view rejections are a rite of passage and not to be discouraged. If you are given any editorial feedback then take that on board (as long as it rings true), polish your chapters as much as you can, and keep trying. Try to make sure the best elements of your work shine through as soon as possible: the first few chapters are how a reader will judge your book so they should be compelling and quickly convince a reader they’ve picked up the right book! For instance, I often receive submissions that say the book doesn’t take off until chapter 6 and few readers will plough through five chapters in the hope things might start happening in the next chapter.

Finally, if the feedback you’re getting specifically commends your prose then it may be that the story itself isn’t connecting with the reader. I sometimes find that the writing in a submission is great but the book that author has written doesn’t do justice to their prose. It helps to remember that many ‘debut’ authors will have penned a book or two before they get published.

When you read the shortlisted entries into the First Chapter competition what is going to make a story stand out for you?
I’m a real sucker for a great voice so a strong narrator/protagonist is a good way to hook me in early. Given that I’ll only be seeing the first chapter, I’ll also be looking for assured storytelling without lengthy exposition or unnecessary detail at the beginning. You only have a little time to show me what you can do so use it well!

What types of writers and writing are you looking for to build your list?
My list is very broad and when taking on a new writer there’s only one prerequisite, which is that I have to adore their work. As a result my list is both broad and boutique. For instance, I represent Ali Shaw who writes accessible literary fiction with a touch of magical realism; ML Stedman whose New York Times bestselling novel THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS is a favourite of book groups; Simon Wroe’s novel kitchen coming of age novel, CHOP CHOP, has been compared to Irvine Welsh; and Tasha Kavanagh writes incredibly unique crime. So it’s a real wonderful mix of novelists with about half coming from the Talent Pool (aka Slush Pile, but we prefer Talent Pool).

In terms of the writer themselves, for me it’s important they want to work towards establishing a long-term career and are open to working closely with me both editorially and throughout the publication process. For me working with an author should be a collaborative, mutually dedicated and enjoyable experience!


Many thanks, Susan. I prefer Talent Pool too! So, if you’d like to get your work in front of Susan you have until 6th December 2015 to polish and submit your First Chapters. Get all the info on the competition here. Keep an eye on the Retreat West Facebook and Twitter pages too as there will be a special 2 first chapters for 1 entry fee offer coming soon!

A Year of Indie Debuts

Interviews with authors of debut novels through independent publishers.

In celebration of working with the fab independent publisher, Urbane Publications, to publish my debut novel I’m running a new blog series entitled: A Year of Indie Debuts.

Small independent publishers just don’t have the marketing budgets needed to promote the wonderful work they’re publishing in the same way that the BIG 5 do, so this is my little contribution to helping them out.

Over the next few months the following debut authors will appear on the blog talking about their books, getting published and the writing life:

So look out for them!

If you’re an author with your debut novel, memoir, creative non-fiction book or short story collection being published by an independent press in the next 12 months, or have had it published already in 2015, then get in touch to feature in A Year of Indie Debuts.

Worlds Apart

Azi Ahmed talks about her memoir from her time in the SAS.

Worlds Apart – A memoir of a Muslim girl in the SAS

A huge welcome to Azi Ahmed today, who I’m really thrilled to have on the blog speaking about her memoir as I have been friends with her for several years now after meeting her on a course where she was writing this book. It’s brilliant to see it out in the world as it’s a fascinating story of how she once lived a double life. At home with her parents she was a devout Muslim girl but she also had a secret life as a London entrepreneur who joined the SAS.

What do you think your parent’s reaction would have been if you had told them about your time in the army before they passed away and do you regret that you didn’t get the chance?

I think my mum would have had a heart attack at the thought of me yomping up and down hills with a rucksack on my back and a bunch of lads. Her plan to find me an eligible man to marry would be ruined and would have been a very unfeminine thing for me to do. I would have felt bad for her. My dad may have found it hard to believe, but then maybe he would have warmed up to the idea but worried I wasn’t following the culture for women. I do regret not telling him as he may have been proud of me following in his footsteps.

How have other members of your family and the community you grew up in reacted to the book?
Stunned, and pleasantly surprised, especially the younger generation who feel they want a good representative for what it means to be a British Muslim. So far there have been no negative reactions.

How do you feel your experiences with the SAS changed you?

It’s changed me for life; strengthened my character, given me more discipline, team work abilities, integrating with people from all walks of life and most importantly I’ve learnt a lot about myself. Before I joined I had stereotypes in my head of lads with skinheads, which was connected to the racism I experienced growing up, and when I had to work in teams with these lads, I learnt it wasn’t the case and I needed to address my issues.

I learnt the power of the mind and how it can make or break you…. no matter how physically strong you are, which I used to my advantage. I also learnt to stay quiet, watch and learn, and not stand out…silence is golden and knowledge is power.

Do you think your time as a soldier influenced your decision to run for parliament inthe 2015 General Election?

I felt I had had such an incredible journey in life, which being in Britain has offered me, that I want to plough all the skills and experience back into this country and go into politics.

Do you regret how the SAS training turned out and do you think you would have made a good soldier if you’d been able to complete it?

I have no regrets. I’m sure they had valid reasons for stopping the training. It showed what a great leap forward the British Army had made by even including women in the SAS training and I feel both privileged and honoured to have taken part.

I hope this short insight to Azi’s story has inspired you to by the book as it really is a great read and a look inside two very different worlds. You can buy a copy here and keep up to date with Azi’s career as a writer and politician on her website.

Support for Beanstalk

Get great stories for a great cause!

Anthology raising funds for reading charity, Beanstalk

In May 2015 the anthology of winning stories from the 2014 short story and flash fiction competition, Inside These Tangles, Beauty Lies, was published as an e-book. The profits from the sales of this anthology are being donated to Beanstalks, a charity that helps school children with their reading.

I’m delighted to welcome Alexis Nielson to the blog today – she’s Beanstalk’s Individual Giving and Events Officer – to tell us more about what Beanstalk do and why it’s important. Over to you, Alexis.

Beanstalk works to recruit, train and support reading helpers who volunteer in local primary schools to provide one-to-one support to children who are falling behind with their reading. Each reading helper works with three children for a whole three terms, spending half an hour with each child on a twice weekly basis and giving them their undivided attention to help build their confidence and improve their reading attainment.

Their sessions are individually tailored to each child – by ensuring that the child finds the sessions supportive and fun, reading is able to become an enjoyable experience, and the child’s enthusiasm and confidence is able to flourish. One of the key areas of growth in the last two years has been Enfield, where shockingly over 500 children left primary school in 2014 unable to read to the required standard.

Thanks to the support of the community and local funders, Beanstalk are now supporting over 100 children throughout Enfield through the commitment of 34 reading helpers. This is a fantastic achievement, as they had very little presence in the borough three years ago.

Beanstalk’s Volunteer Support Worker for the area told the following story:

I visited one reading helper at an Enfield primary school for an annual visit, where she told me that one child she helped was a selective mute. The reading helper was completely unaware of this when she first started reading with the child as the child spoke to her (albeit quietly and not very confidently). One day the child came to the session having had a fall in the playground and hurt her knee so the reading helper informed the teacher/TA, who kept asking the reading helper how she knew and the reading helper kept telling the teacher/TA that the child had told her. It was only after quite a few sessions after this incident that the reading helper was told by the school that the child was a selective mute and would not speak to the other children or the teacher or the TA and only to the reading helper! At the reading helper’s annual visit, the child was happy to interact with me about the book she was reading and it was hard to believe that she was a selective mute.”

Beanstalk works with children who are already displaying the early signs of the short-term consequences of illiteracy and aims to help children overcome these problems. This is to ensure that more children leave primary school achieving the expected level in reading attainment and displaying a confidence and enjoyment of reading. They aim to prevent children from continuing on a path to long-term disadvantage and the negative long-term consequences of illiteracy.

Beanstalk recently launched their Annual Review and Impact Report for 2013-14, emphasising how specialist one-to-one support by reading helpers is able to transform the skills and confidence of thousands of young children throughout England. The report highlights how 93% of the young children supported by Beanstalk reading helpers during the 2013/14 academic year showed meaningful improvement in their reading level. Furthermore, the report also shows that 74% of the children supported improved their reading ability by at least two reading sub-levels, compared to minimal progress the year before receiving one-to-one support.

It is only through the kindness and generosity of supporters that Beanstalk is able to continue its work and achieve its goal of eradicating childhood illiteracy. So we’d like to thank Retreat West and all of the writers whose stories appear in the anthology for helping us to raise funds to continue our work.

If you would like more information or would consider becoming a Beanstalk reading helper, then visit, call 020 7729 4087 or email

You can buy a copy of the anthology to help raise funds for their works here.