A Fresh Start by Fiona Kyle

When they put the baby in my arms, I know I have been given a fresh start. Everything will be different now. I trace my fingers over her tiny nose and puckered little lips.
“She’s perfect, amazingly enough,” the midwife mutters, not meeting my eyes. I hold her to me, feeling everything that I have lost drip back into me with each suck she takes from her bottle.
My stay in hospital is so much better than the other time. It’s summer and the curtains around our beds flutter in the breeze that drifts through the ward. I stare at this magical little creature I grew myself. I watch her hands open out like starfish andclose around my finger, clinging on. I call her Hope.
When we get home she doesn’t sleep too well but I keep giving her milk and bringing up her wind like they showed me. I doze on the sofa as she sleeps on my chest,daytime television lulling us both to sleep. 
Midwives parade through the house every day, watching me closely. They ask me questions and I’m not sure what answers they’re looking for and worry they’re trying to trip me up. So I say as little as I can. Less each time. They keep coming. They ask me to strip her clothes off to weigh her and I wonder what they’re really looking for.
The sleep doesn’t get better. I’m tired and I can’t think straight. I wake from a nap to the sound of my phone ringing. It’s a midwife, she tells me I missed our appointmentthis morning and she’s just checking everything is ok. Hope is crying. I tell her we’re fine.
Hope cries more and more, howls all evening and into the night, a shout of desperation that I don’t know how to stop. There’s something wrong with her.
What have I done to her to make her scream like this? Even when she exhausts herself after hours of screaming I lie awake, worrying. What is wrong with her? Did I do this to her? Did it start when she was a tiny bud growing inside me and I didn’t even know she was there? I get up and walk downstairs.
I wake and Hope is crying. She is worked up as though she has been crying forsome time. My head hurts and my mouth is so dry that my raspy tongue makes me gag.
When I get downstairs there’s a half empty vodka bottle in the sink. Someone knocks on the door. I take Hope and hide, sitting on the floor in the toilet where there are nowindows. I rest my hand over her mouth as she starts to whimper, no one can know we’re here.
When it’s quiet, I walk back into the kitchen and grab the bottle from the sink as I putthe kettle on for Hope’s milk.
Tomorrow, yes, tomorrow will be a fresh start. Everything will be different then.

First Time by Fiona Mackintosh


Friday night he’s outside the chip shop with the lads, shoulders hunched against the east wind blowing off the sea. As she comes down the street laughing with another lassie, his palms grow damp. The lads caper, blethering in Monty Python voices, showing off. Soon her friend has a bus to catch, and the lads drift away, but she lingers.They share a bag of warm chips, hardly talking. He walks her home through the dark wynds, and up against an ancient wall, he turns to kiss her vinegar lips. Behind a listing headstone in the kirkyard, they struggle with zips and buttons, gasping and laughing when bare skin touches cold grass. Afterwards, he walks along the beach, slithering on the rocks in the dark. In sudden remembrance of the marvel of it, he stops in his tracks to bay his jubilation to the waxing moon.

***

Fiona J. Mackintosh is a British writer living in Washington D.C. Her short stories have appeared in The Washington Review, Metropolitain, District Lines II and III, Platform for Prose, Found Polaroids, and Gargoyle Magazine. She is a two-time winner of the Ad Hoc Flash Fiction Contest and has won the TSS Flash Fiction Competition.

 

First Chapter Comp Results

The wait is over for all of those writers whose chapters went to literary agent, Susan Armstrong, to read. She’s given feedback on all of the chapters, as well as choosing a winner and two runners-up. Congratulations to everyone! And huge thanks to Susan for being the judge this time around.

WINNER: CLOCKWORK EVANGELINE by Nemma Wollenfang
Immediately gripping, a strong voice, original sense of place and plot, and fantastic characters. What’s not to love?! This one really stood out for me and I definitely wanted to read more. A clear winner.

 

Runner-up: ASHES OF ROSES by Anne O’Connor
I love that there’s a distinct voice here. It took a while to get to the point so I’d trim the very opening and give the reader a stronger sense of secrets hidden/family trying to find them out before it’s too late to increase the intrigue but a memorable chapter.

 

Runner-up: HUNDREDS OF BUTTERFLIES by Melissa Addy
The set up and voice caught my attention and I got a nice hint of things playing in the background, to come out later, so I was drawn in. I’d have liked more of a sense of threat in terms of what it means to be chosen/not chosen so there felt more to be at stake. A good first chapter.

 

Shortlisted: BALANCING EGGS by Penny Stanton
Atmospheric writing and I love the idea of a wife just taking off. It took a while to get into and I couldn’t quite picture that opening scene, which I felt should have been more amusing but strong potential.

 

Shortlisted: THE DAY AFTER YESTERDAY by Felicia Yap
There’s an interesting concept here, which needs more than the first chapter to explore but I was intrigued (though the first couple of pages did remind me too much of BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP by SJ Watson). The murder was a great early hook but the husband perhaps acts too suspiciously and I did find myself wondering how the the concept would actually work as the novel progressed – but that’s to be seen! And I’d change the title to something fresher.

 

Shortlisted: GRIEVANCE by Sarah Linley
Interesting premise and powerful opening paragraph as it immediately makes the reader think – what would I do? I’d like to feel the impact of what’s happened more deeply so maybe supplement some of the time she spends describing where she’s going to showing us her reaction/behaviour, for example expanding on her stealing things.

 

Shortlisted: DISARRAY by Jo Carlowe
Good intriguing hook in the opening but I’d suggest amending the structure as rather than a first chapter it felt like each scene was just being attached on to the last so it felt a little jumbled. Also, I’d push the first diary entry back a bit so we can get our feet with Luke first, and appreciate a bit more what this diary means to him.

 

Shortlisted: ALMOST FLYING by Vicky Grut
The story started immediately, which I loved but then it did become a little rushed so I’d give a little more air to that initial interaction between the characters. Also, their voices felt younger than their age so unless that’s intentional I’d take a look at that.

 

Shortlisted: HIS PATH OF COLOUR by Cathie De Frietas
I liked the tone of this one, it felt quite different to the others and so stood out. The ‘you’ that the narrator addresses is part of what made it stand out but I felt it was used too much and began to grate a little particularly alongside the numerous introspective/rhetorical questions so I’ll pull back on both and allow your lovely prose to come through more. Also, I’d love an early sense of where this is going/what sort of story it was going to be.

 

Shortlisted: THE MOUNTAINS OF INSTEAD by Michele Savidge
There are some lovely drops of suggestion in this one that made me curious to read on. I did feel though that some points you want to make are too heavily hammered home. For instance, you can show me from a couple of lines that she’s hot, can’t sleep and is anxious but we’re told this again and again so I’d trim that. The mention of a decision she has to make is intriguing and I think you could expand on that a little so we are properly hooked to find out what that decision is.

***

Nemma will now get her submission package reviewed by Susan while Anne and Melissa get theirs reviewed by me.  The next competition closes in June and the judge is the lovely, Jenny Savill. Find out more here.

Year of Indie Debuts: Freefall Into Us

Today’s indie debuts star is Tess Rosa, a fellow Urbane author whose collection of poetry and short stories is a truly lovely thing. I’m delighted to have her along to find out more about her and her writing. Warning – if swearing offends you then stop reading now!

You can win a paperback copy of Freefall Into Us by commenting on this blog to say why you’d like one. More details at the end of the post…

Tess, you’ve been compared to Kerouac and Rollins in a battle of words – how does it feel to be likened to such (in)famous writers with your debut collection?

I remember that day vividly. When I first read the blurb that would go on the back of my book jacket, and a few other places for that matter, I went nuts. I began to panic, swore for about five minutes then proceeded to call a fellow writer friend in NYC. “Jack Kerouac and Henry Rollins?” I screamed. “What the fuck? I mean, Henry, okay, (priding myself on being compared to the likes of him) but Kerouac? Have they lost their fucking minds?” I mean, come on, those are huge ass shoes to fill. I felt the reviewers would have a field day. You may as well put me and my book  out in a meadow and use us for target practice!

Well, a few writer friends talked me off the ledge and said “This is your time. This is your place. It will go down however you want it to go down. Stand tall, and take it with grace.” So, I had a huge glass of wine, smoked a pack of cigarettes and never looked back. Oddly enough, those that know me, know that I love Kerouac. But not so much for his writing, but for who he was and what he stood for as a writer. I did a lot of digging on him because I wrote a short story titled ‘Saving Jack’. I needed to know much about him if I was going to write him as a character. His awkwardness, his battle with alcoholism, his sex appeal, his writing, his hating to be in the limelight (interviews, etc.), his tragic death at a very young age.

When I finished the story, I kid you not, I found the following quote from Kerouac. “I hope that it is true that a man can die and yet not only live in others, but give them life, and not only life, but that great consciousness of life.” Without giving much of the story away, it is about reincarnation. I brought back my beloved Jack. When I found that quote, I swore Jack himself had shown it to me. I had never come across it in all of his work. The coincidence of that moment astounded me.  I am getting off subject here, but, yea, it was a tough pill to swallow. But, as the reviews began coming in, I had also been compared to Raymond Carver, Paul Auster, John Cheever, with F.Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway sprinkled in. I guess now I take it with a grain of salt. We all have opinions and they all differ. If someone is reading my work and they think of another writer as they read me, well, I am honored and humbled. Incidentally, Rollins was changed to Anais Nin. Thank God, I needed a woman thrown in there!
For me you really seem to have captured the essence of life – moments of pure joy, despair, love, loss, grimness, romance and indifference, as well as some mind-blowing and some very mediocre sex. Did you set out to write this collection with that approach in mind or were all the pieces written at different times and these themes emerged as you brought them all together?

Tough question. Pause, ponder….Okay. The first story I wrote and finished quickly was ‘Crystal Blond Persuasion.’ My brother had just died as I had begun to write that story. I was grief stricken. Some of the scenes in that story were actually me, feeling extreme anguish and complete sadness. This will sound morbid to you, but I had thoughts of climbing into my brothers coffin and rotting right along with him. That pain propelled me forward like a rocket. After all, it was through my brother David that I had become an avid reader and writer. I kept diaries for years. Sadly, when I was 17, I burned them all.  Anyway, David was always reading and I followed suit. He hooked me onto Stephen King big time. My book is dedicated to my brother. Without his love, I wouldn’t be where I am today. There is also a lot of sex in that particular story. Sometimes we syphon our pain through sex or other addictions. I began drinking more than usual and ‘acting out.’

There is much pain, sadness, and loss in my book. Much of that stemmed from my brother’s death. A year after he died, I met a man that changed my life. I fell hard in love with him. The last story in the book which bears the title, ‘Freefall Into Us’ is our story. You will have to read it. It’s pretty messed up stuff but I was given barrels of fruit with which to write after all that shit went down. I believe you have to live, to write. I mean really, really live. I have always lived hard, loved hard and taken many risks with my heart. So, yes, there is pieces and fragments of me in those stories and the only way I could heal was to put them on paper. Oh, mediocre sex? I try to keep my relationships of my characters real,  not superficial. Mediocre sex has happened to each and everyone of us, and if one says no, they are full of shit.
Where do you feel happiest as a writer – in prose or poetry form? And why?

Just writing makes me happy. It is very therapeutic for me. I suffer from anxiety, panic and loneliness. Therefore, I feel the need to write. It brings me out of that funk. The poetry comes with experiences, so it is all true life. I can’t just sit down and write poetry. Poetry writes me. It moves through me and I never know when that is going to happen. When it does happen, I can’t stop it. It’s as if something is talking to me in my head and placing the words for me. When it is over, and I am finished, I usually feel extreme mental and physical exhaustion. Like I had just run a marathon or something. I am spent. I can’t think. I stare at nothing, my mind completely worn out and blank. Does that sound crazy to you? It’s hard to explain.

The short stories are always rolling around in my imagination. I will piece them together in my head for weeks, sometimes months, before I can actually start writing them. I am always throwing short story ideas at my daughters and friends. It helps to pitch it to someone. I am always looking for validation. I think a lot of writers do. Feelings of inadequacy and self doubt are always creeping around me. I try to stand strong and keep forging ahead. As long as I feel the ‘need’ the ‘want’ to write, I will continue to do so.

I get a lot of feedback regarding my poetry. I never looked at or thought of myself as a poet. In fact, when I sent my short story collection to Urbane there was poetry thrown along with it, which I told Matthew to ignore. He loved it. Said it was brilliant. After the book came out, I had people telling me when they read my poetry, they felt as if I had written it just for them. Statements like this made me cry. I write poetry to understand my pain, sadness, love, etc., and to hear someone say, that I made them cry, or that I expressed something that they never possessed the words to express, well that  is beyond comprehension. We are all connected and feel the same hurts, love, etc.  I feel I was given the ‘gift of poetry’ and it is simply my duty to give that gift away.  I wrote a very tough poem called ‘Shush’ about molestation that will be in my next book, ‘An American Slumber.’ It is a hard piece to read, but I think many will resonate with it. I feel I have really found my voice, through being a poet, and that makes me elated.

One of things I enjoyed most about the short stories in the collection is that they cross genres, and include one of my favourites, dystopia. As a writer are you drawn to experimenting in different genres and can we expect more of this from you?

Yes!! Absolutely. For instance,  I love horror but I can’t write it, try as I may.  Something you may or may not know about me. I belonged to a group years ago called WSPIR – Washington State Paranormal Investigative Research. It is hands down one of the most interesting things I have ever been involved in. Just the people I worked with were incredible in themselves! Psychics, mediums, clairvoyants, even the techies in the group!  As a child, I had many experiences with ghosts. As a teenager, I held seances and played with Oujia boards. Anyway, I saw something horrific and decided I couldn’t do that work anymore. Trust me, that kinda fucks with your psyche. I definitely miss the people I worked with though. (I smell a story about a clairvoyant for sure!)

Anyway, you would think I would be able to write a killer ghost story because of this, but honestly, I have no interest in doing that. I do write somewhat of a ghost story in ‘Gone Awry’ but I never looked at it as creepy (ghosts I mean) so therefore, I can’t make it scary because it’s not scary to me. Does that make sense? Although I LOVE scary stories. Go figure. You will never ever catch me writing a ‘Harlequin Romance’ type book. Let me make this perfectly clear. NEVER!!!  I felt my strangest story in the book was ‘Homeless Baby’. I mean, come on, rats cart off a newborn on the streets of Seattle? Again, though, this story is about reincarnation and being given another chance to make life right.

Many artists, writers, etc. believe that we have many lives. I feel as though the bad people (murderers) don’t get to hell. They come back instead as roaches, rats, or lice on pubic hair.  I mean come on, that is hell right there. I love the story ‘Homeless Baby’ because it explains the whole process of this. It seems far-fetched to some, but honestly to me it is possible. This was one of my favorite stories to write, hands down.
I can’t write spy thrillers. I don’t read them so maybe that is why. Basically, I can write anything that begins building in my head. I get a lot of feedback about the short story, ‘The Pasture/Europa, the dystopia that you mentioned. I never thought I would write a post-apocalyptic story, but boom, it happened. I think a lot about the super volcano(caldera)  that runs under Yellowstone National Park (Montana/Wyoming/Idaho border). I also heard about some underground shelters that were popping up in the United States. One that I stumbled upon, called Vivos, was intriguing as hell. My intrigue with this shelter catapulted into my brain and ‘The Pasture’ was born! Here’s a snippet with my favorite line in bold.  “As I said before, these shelters are popping up all over the place, but, as you can imagine, they’re very private. Heaven forbid would you want to save as many people as possible; poverty, class, social status and ethnicity being of no matter. These dwellings are only for the extremely wealthy. I think, honestly, I would rather die with the vast majority than live trapped underground with a bunch of pretentious motherfuckers with money stashed up their asses.” This sums up how I feel about being in one of those shelters should the ‘big one’ hit.

Some have thought my book was erotica. Let me be very clear here. It’s absolutely not erotica. I will never write a book of erotica, either. That’s been done, and I can’t top Anne RoqueIaure (Anne Rice) so I won’t even try. She is the goddess of erotica. Yes, there is sex in my book,  but isn’t sex a basic need and a realistic part of life.? A few have ridiculed me for all the sex, so I am assuming they have either never had it, or never enjoyed it. It happens to be one of the greatest perks in life in my opinion. Hell, even mediocre sex has it’s place. 😉 Basically, I try not to put my thoughts in a box. Leaving my mind open is best. Sometimes I surprise myself with the shit that I come up with. I will just keep on keeping on and though I am originally from Montana, you won’t find me writing a Western anytime soon. xoxo

***

Thanks so much for this, Tess. It’s been fun and enlightening! Leave a comment below by 9pm (GMT) on 16th February for your chance to win a copy.

If you can’t wait that long, then you can buy one here. And you can connect with Tess on Twitter.

Urbane and the Winners

You may have noticed that I’ve been very excited about Urbane Publications since signing with them. And it’s not just because they’re publishing my book! I’ve read several of the novels that have been published by them so far, some of which you can find out more about in the Year of Indie Debuts blog series, and it’s great to discover so many new and diverse voices.

That Urbane genuinely want to collaborate with authors, combined with Matthew’s never ending enthusiasm and decades of experience in the publishing industry, made me want to partner with him for the new annual story prizes, which I’m hoping to establish as an important competition on the annual circuit that gives writers good cash prizes (these will grow as the number of entries do) and also gets them published professionally.

So these are the reasons why I chose to partner with Urbane for the publication of the annual anthologies that will come out of the competition. But it’s not just about me so I asked Matthew why he chose to get involved as well…

Matthew, why did you choose to partner with Retreat West to publish the anthology of winning stories in the RW Short Story Prize and RW Flash Fiction Prize?

Well, many reasons but mainly because Retreat West is rapidly becoming one of the leading resources for new and experienced writers, providing support, information and advice to a growing community of authors. Partnering with you offers Urbane a unique opportunity to engage with this vibrant and energetic community of writing talent.

What excites you about collaborating on the winners anthology?

Urbane is driven by positive collaboration, so to have this opportunity to work in partnership with the most talented authors in flash and short story fiction is wonderful. There’s nothing better than to be part of the creative writing process. And a competition also means that authors that might not have heard of Urbane will find us, and likewise I’ll find authors that I might not have come across otherwise.

What can the authors included in the anthology can expect from being published through your innovative press?

The winning authors will not only be ‘traditionally’ published in a high quality volume, but they will all be involved in the development of that book. Urbane brings every author to the heart of the publication process – it will be a team effort!

What does the market for short story anthologies look like now that the short form has undergone a resurgence and is very popular again?

Interestingly, anthologies seem to fare better commercially than single author collections, particularly in bookshops. Though we are yet to see the excitement and popularity of flash and short story fiction on digital channels truly translate to print copy success. This will be the catalyst!

 

Thanks for coming along, Matthew. I’m really excited about this too!

If you’d like to appear in the anthology and get your work read by leading writers, Vanessa Gebbie and David Gaffney, then you have until 30th September 2016 to enter the competitions. We all look forward to reading your work!

 

Get more info on how to enter the RW Short Story Prize and how to enter the RW Flash Fiction Prize.

 

 

Jenny Savill on impressive submissions

Welcome to Jenny Savill today. She’s a senior literary agent at Andrew Nurnburg Associates and the judge for the First Chapter Competition in June 2016. So I asked her some probing questions on how you can impress her with your submissions.

Jenny, when you receive a 3 chapter submission what gets you excited enough to then ask for the full MS?

An opening scene or thought that draws me in – and then keeps me engaged as I read on. A sense that the author knows exactly what they are doing, and where the story is going, and so is inviting me, the reader, along for the ride. A clear and authentic voice, a freshness to the writing, a lack of cliché or artifice. I want to feel as if I haven’t seen this before. If, by the end of the three chapters, I am fully, utterly engaged with the story, I care loads about the characters and I absolutely want to know what happens next and where the author will take the story – and I can see where it will fit in the marketplace – I will request the full ms.

Writers repeatedly hear from agents they submit to that you like it but you didn’t love it enough, how does a MS make you love it when you have requested and read the whole thing?

This is a personal, subjective thing. There is no magical element that will make every agent love every manuscript. For me, if I don’t love a manuscript it’s probably because certain elements are not working – and that means that all the elements that I need to be working together are not. For instance, there may be a great premise, but the writing lets it down. There may be a really sympathetic main character, but the author hasn’t understood the best way to write about that character for their chosen market. There may be a sound plot, but written in a voice that doesn’t ring true to me. Perhaps all the elements – voice, plot, character, concept and style are working, but there’s that freshness missing which would make the manuscript really stand out. Remember – agents submit too…

When reading the shortlisted first chapters for this competition what’s going to make a story stand out for you?

All of the above in question 1. I want to be invited in to the story – gently or less gently – it doesn’t matter, but I want my interest to be piqued and then sustained. I want to engage. There doesn’t have to be fireworks on the first page – you can start quietly and build, as long as there is something that hooks the reader from the start. My advice would be to put your writing away for a month, then go back to them and try to read them as a reader, rather than a writer.

What do you feel? Is your attention wandering? What did you mean to convey by that scene, or that phrase, or that word? Do you still need that? How is the tension building? Can you show, rather than tell that bit of information? Is that really the best place to start that chapter? To start the book? Do you need the Prologue? Do you need that many characters? Is it told in the right tense? Is first person best or should you try third? Have you told the reader too much (make the reader do some work – fill in the gaps, imagine – make them active – that’s one of the ways you engage them.) Have you told them too little? Will the reader struggle to orientate themselves within the story? Have you built the world sufficiently? What can you achieve with the slightest of brush strokes?

What types of writers and novels are you looking for to build your list?

I am looking for writers of fiction and non-fiction for children 7+, 8-12, Young Adult and for Adults.
My sweet spot is a really cracking ghost story for any age. My favourite book about ghosts ever (apart from THIRTEEN DAYS OF MIDNIGHT by Leo Hunt) is THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman (which is also, incidentally, a manual for bringing up children). I love books like that that you think are one thing, but are also another. I’m in the market for contemporary stories, as well as historical ones. I’m not into other-world fantasy. Please, no orcs. I am, however, hugely interested in a thread of magic or a speculative twist in an otherwise our-world story.
I’d love to find something written in verse, or in a way that is unusual in some sense. I’m interested to read stories told in the voice of someone who wouldn’t normally be heard – be that the author or the character. All of this also applies when I’m looking at submissions. I’m in the market for commercial and also literary fiction, women’s fiction, speculative fiction, books with magic in them, books that move, surprise and engage me. I’d love to find a novel set in Britain just after the Second World War, or in the 1950’s. I am not looking for high fantasy writing, or indeed other world sci fi, although I am interested in stories set recognisably in our world but slightly in the future – such as Deborah Install’s A ROBOT IN THE GARDEN. She’s an author who has taken domestic life and twisted it playfully into something else. Be brave – play with your themes and see where that takes you… I’m also looking for a memoir with a strong hook.

When you’re reading for pleasure not work, who are your favourite authors?

Emma Healey, Antonia Hodgson, Gillian Flynn, Margaret Atwood, Zadie Smith, Adam Thorpe, Andrew Miller, AS Byatt, Patricia Wentworth, Harper Lee, Diana Athill.

***

Many thanks for this insight into your literary agent world and mind, Jenny.

If you’d like the chance of having your submission reviewed by Jenny and receiving detailed feedback on it then you have until 30th June 2016 to enter the competition. You can find out more about it here.