The New RW Annual Prizes

I’m really excited to announce the launch of the new annual short story and flash fiction prizes. After running the bi-monthly competitions for a couple of years it seemed like the time was right to take a step up to an annual competition with bigger and better prizes.

As well as getting significant cash prizes the winning and shortlisted stories in both the RW Short Story Prize and RW Flash Fiction Prize will be published by Urbane Publications in the winners’ anthology.

Matthew Smith, founder and owner of this exciting independent publishers, said: ‘I’m thrilled and honoured that Urbane Publications will be in the very privileged position of publishing the winners from this year’s Retreat West Short Story and Flash Fiction prize in an exclusive anthology. Short and flash fiction continues to grow in popularity as a form for both readers and writers, and the sheer quality of many pieces means the competition will be fierce. I can’t wait to collaborate with Retreat West and the winners to create a wonderful book and ebook for readers.’

For me, I’m hoping that the prize will grow in popularity year on year so that the cash prizes for the winners can increase and more great writers can get their work published and read more widely. The quality of the work submitted in previous competitions has been very impressive and I know that the entries for these competitions will be of the same high standard.

Award winning short story and flash writers, Vanessa Gebbie and David Gaffney, are the judges for the 2016 prizes, which are open for submissions now. Find out more on the links below and we all look forward to reading your work! Let me know what you think of the new awards too in the comments below!

Year of Indie Debuts: Talk of the Toun

Thrilled to have Helen MacKinven here to kick off the series for 2016. Her debut novel, Talk of the Toun, was published by ThunderPoint Publishing last autumn and it is a funny, sad and insightful coming of age story set in the time I grew up so it really resonated with me. But even if you were not a teenager in the 1980s you’ll be able to relate to the timeless story of needing to find your way in a world where everyone tells you that there’s no chance of life being what you want so you just have to make the best of it.

Helen, you have created a fantastic character in Angela and really nailed the complexity of being a working class girl with aspirations to have a different life in 1980s Britain. How did this story start for you – did Angela appear as a character that wanted to tell this tale or did you want to explore these themes and found her through that process?

I come from a similar background as Angela and although I was always encouraged to “stick in” at school and I went on to be a trainee primary school teacher, I was very aware that this wasn’t the case for everyone I knew growing up. Out of a class of 18 pupils at primary school, I was the only one to go on to further education. I’m sure there were others in my peer group who had bigger ambitions but were held back by the small town mentality that suppressed their hopes and dreams.

While studying for an MLitt in Creative Writing one of the assignments was to write an A to Z on any subject. My classmates wrote about their interests such as music but I was initially stumped over what my ‘Mastermind’ specialist subject would be. Then I realised that I had no trouble writing about my childhood memories so I used this theme to complete the assignment. The piece received my highest grade and I felt it reflected my writing ‘voice’ so I decided to use it as a springboard into a fictional scenario of growing up in 1980s central Scotland in a working class environment. Angela was created to voice the frustrations of being a gifted artist with no scope to develop her talent.

The friendship between Angela and Lorraine is fraught and turning into something different as they mature, and Angela is very confused by this. Teenage girl friendships (and even adult women ones!) can be a minefield and you capture this really well. Why do you think Angela found it so hard to let go and recognise that her friendship with Lorraine probably wasn’t going to stand the test of time?

In creating Angela I wanted to shine a light on how complex emotions can be at that awkward stage of life when you’re moving from girlhood into womanhood. From an early age, Angela has always been the dominant partner in the friendship and uses this ‘power’ to manipulate Lorraine as a way of masking her own insecurities. As the years go by, Lorraine becomes less needy and Angela struggles to accept that her lifelong friend has outgrown their relationship and resorts to desperate measures to cling on to their bond. Like many teenagers, Angela has low self-esteem but her friendship with Lorraine boosts her confidence and means she’s unwilling to abandon it.

Angela says and does some very questionable things throughout the course of the novel and doesn’t ever seem to reflect on them, to question her motives, and realise that she shouldn’t be behaving like this. Is this a reflection of her age, her upbringing and environment, or is that just who she is?

I suppose that’s for the reader to decide but I feel it’s more a question of her immaturity and egocentric attitude. Angela is wrapped up in her own wee world and can’t see the big picture and how her actions could have horrendous consequences on others. She’s been described in some reviews as unlikeable but I didn’t set out to create an evil character. I don’t believe she’s inherently bad; she’s simply a mass of mixed up emotions which in turn lead her to make serious errors of judgement. Thankfully, her gran sees through her inappropriate behaviour and offers guidance and unconditional love.

You explore big themes of class, racism and attitudes to female sexuality and even though we have come a long way since the 1980s I felt that many of the issues surrounding this still had strong parallels with today. Was this something that you felt yourself when writing the story and if so, how did that inform your approach to writing about these themes?

Someone described the book as having every ‘ism’ in it! I wanted to dig down and unearth gritty themes that were topical at the time and reflected the norm within Angela’s world. In many ways things have improved dramatically, for example, I personally suffered sectarian abuse growing up but my sons have never experienced the same scenarios. That’s a positive development but I’m not convinced that the same could be said for the other ‘ism’s.

There’s still a huge amount of work to be done to encourage and support children from deprived backgrounds to go on to further education and I wanted to use a character like Angela to prompt questions over what, if anything, has changed. The book was set 30 years ago and yet the other issues such as racism are still prevalent today and have taken other forms such as Islamophobia.

As regards female sexuality, in one sense women may feel empowered by the choices available to them nowadays but you only have to examine statistics on the conviction rate for rape to realise so much more needs to be done to address the stigma attached to certain crimes. I’d like to hope that Talk of the Toun might stimulate discussion on these themes and whether or not society is a better place in 2015 than it was in 1985.


Thanks so much for coming along, Helen, and giving these insights into Angela’s character. I liked her despite her faults! Talk of the Toun is available from selected bookshops and you can also buy it online from Amazon.

You can also find Helen on her blog, Facebook and Twitter.

To win a copy of Helen’s novel (for UK-based readers only), let us know in the comments what you think about whether society is a better place now than it was in 1985 and what memories you have of your teenage friendships. The random number generator will pick a winner on Friday 8th January 2016.



January ’16 Sale!

Happy New Year everyone!

As ever, Retreat West is kicking the year off with a January sale. You can get discounted retreats, critiques and courses if you book one by January 13th…

  • SALE ITEM #1 – £35 off the Literary Fiction Retreat with MJ Hyland and the Short Story Retreat with Paul McVeigh. Get 4 nights at a writing retreat with 9 hours of masterclasses, time to write, plus great food, drink and conversation in a beautiful Devon thatched cottage for just £590!
    Book Now.
  • SALE ITEM #2 – £40 off the 1-1 Start Writing Fiction Course. Get a 6 week course with detailed and focused feedback to help you develop your writing for just £249!
    Book Now
  • SALE ITEM #3 – £45 off a full novel review. Get a critique report and tracked changes on your MS (up to 95,000 words), plus an hour’s call to talk things through, for just £385!
    Book Now

The First Writer in the Mentoring Programme

Thanks to everyone that applied to the first ever Retreat West Mentoring Programme. It has been great to read all of the applications and I’m very impressed by the great work that is going on out there. It was a difficult decision to make but the first writer I’ve chosen to take part in the mentoring programme is Felicia Yap.

I chose Felicia for many reasons but mainly because the writing sample she sent impressed me and drew me straight into the story but also as I feel I can really add value to the novel she is writing at the stage she is at with it. Felicia is writing a psychological crime thriller with a speculative/high-concept twist and judging by the synopsis and what I’ve read already, it is going to be a compelling and exciting novel.

There were two other applications that really stood out and I wish I could mentor them all! The applications from Terri Armstrong and Graham Curtis were very strong and I really look forward to reading their work in the future.

The mentoring programme will re-open for applications again in June 2016 to start work in September 2016.

Using Psychic Distance

Author, editor, mentor and book doctor, Debi Alper, has worked with Retreat West on two self-editing your novel retreats and one of the most important elements that she covered is using psychic distance in your writing. I’ve done the online course that this retreat is based on with Debi and I can honestly say that it, and this part of it in particular, completely transformed my writing.

Debi, can you sum up for us exactly what Psychic Distance is and how it can help writers to improve their work?

In a nutshell, Psychic Distance is about how close into the narrator’s head and voice you go and this enables you to manipulate the distance between the character and the reader. As such, it also holds the key to other writerly concepts like show and tell, POV, etc.

I read many unpublished MSs that are really good but just don’t have that crucial edge to raise them out of the slushpile. More often than not, the key is in Psychic Distance. Most nestle at around the mid-range of the author’s comfort zone. Using Psychic Distance creates variety, texture and rhythm in the prose and also enables the reader to fully invest in a character and relate to them.

Which authors do you think use PD really well?

Psychic Distance also applies to first person narratives and the best recent example I’ve read is Dark Places by Gillian Flynn. Jane Austen invented free indirect style, which directly reflects a character’s thoughts and which therefore corresponds to the close-in end of the PD spectrum.

What can writers expect from learning about Psychic Distance?

Illumination! When I’ve run creative writing courses, both in real life and online, the sessions on Psychic Distance are responsible for switching on more light bulbs than any other single session. Once you’ve grasped the concept, your writing will shoot up a level. Some people already use the spectrum from instinct, without being aware of how powerful a tool it is. Learning to analyse and recognise it enables the author to use it at will to lift a scene that needs more oomph.


Free 6 month mentoring programme for 2016

Ever since I started writing seriously, I’ve found having a writing partner to bounce ideas around with and give me feedback on my work in progress has helped me improve so much.

So to share and celebrate my success getting a two-book deal with Urbane Publications I am offering a free six month mentoring programme to one writer to start in January 2016. I will then run this every year.

The mentoring offer includes an initial meeting (either in person or by Skype if face-to-face is not possible) to get to know each other and so I can find out about your work and your hopes for it; a monthly phone/Skype catch up to talk through ideas and my feedback on your work you’ve sent over; and a review of your novel outline and 5,000 words per month.

To enter the competition to win the mentoring programme you need to email me a 500 word statement of why you’re the right person to be mentored and 500 words of your writing. There is a reading fee of £15 per entry. You can pay that here. The deadline for entries is 7th December 2015. I will announce the winner in the first week of January.