SHORTLIST: 2021 First Chapter Competition

We’re excited to reveal our 10 shortlisted novel openings for this year’s First Chapter Competition. We read just under 300 chapters to get to this list and have enjoyed them all.

Well done to all of the writers who made our longlist and many congratulations to the writers of the following novels! Your first chapters have now gone to our judge, Sam Jordison at Galley Beggar Press, for him to make the final decision. Good luck!

Please keep the name of your novel under wraps until the judging process is complete!

Shortlisted Novels

  • Bring Them to Light
  • Countdown
  • Down Came a Blackbird
  • Northern Boy
  • Sideslip
  • The Grey Man
  • The Limehouse Blues
  • The Mirador
  •  The Slighting of Livia Rathbone
  • Wildwood

April 2021 Micro Fiction Shortlist

We’re delighted to reveal the 10 shortlisted stories in this month’s micro fiction competition. There were so many brilliant takes on this month’s theme of RECOVERY, provided by Jan Kaneen whose gorgeous memoir, The Naming of Bones, we are publishing this week!

It was a great month for titles too and there were some really amazing ones.

Don’t forget that all the stories we are publishing are also now eligible for the new Retreat West Awards, see all the info here, and winners in each category will be announced at our first ever Online Flash Fest in September.


Many congratulations to all of the writers who made our longlist, and really well done to the writers of these 10 stories. No telling anyone which is yours though! Voting is now open for you to choose your favourite for the People’s Prize vote.

Alternative therapy

The garden is desolate: a wind-whipped patch of dry earth. At the perimeter, bare trees twist and groan, their branches raking dark claws across pale sky.

‘Try to get outside’, the doctor had said, not unkindly. ‘You’ll feel better for it.’

She notes a rusted spade, a sheet of flapping black tarpaulin.


The hole yawns three feet deep and twice as wide. Her weary body tells her that for now, this is enough. The sun sets. The days will grow longer, the air warmer. There will be clear water, frogspawn, wriggling tadpoles. Tiny froglets glowing jewel-like in her muddy palm.

Degrees of Corrosive Fanaticism

First: salves to smother the agony. Second: a patchwork of acid burns and grafts. Third: stretching this taut encasement to accommodate my spirited femininity. Infinity: echoing insults.

Mother used to call me thick-skinned. A slip of my veil and now I wear a permanent shroud.


I don’t carry a sign at the rally. My deafening scars are loud enough. Injustice inscribed on my flesh. Unexpectedly, his hand takes mine, cradling it like a delicate bird. A precious thing amidst the chanting crowd. The gift of touch. It pulses. His blood flow, my heartbeat. Feathers shudder and my grip tightens.


Her reading chair sits neglected in a nook by the window. I settle into it, running my fingers over the threadbare arms, imagining her elbows resting in these spaces as she devoured novels whole. It’s the only thing I take.

At home I pour over material choices, finally selecting a soft velour; I want it to be comfortable, comforting. Reupholstered it looks reborn. I place it in the bay, lots of light, a view of green.

I sit there hour after hour, feet up, reading, reflecting. I imagine my daughter taking the reading chair when I’m gone, recovering it, recovering.

Martha Takes Her First Drive In Frank’s Car

Five miles from home, Frank’s car loses the will to live. Unused to driving, Martha blames herself, then concludes that the car is grieving.

‘I miss him too,’ she tells it, stroking the steering wheel.

There is a ninety minute wait for recovery. To pass the time Martha tidies the glove compartment. It is the small things that break her; the half-eaten Mars bar, the screwed up receipts for the burgers and fries he swore he had given up.

Martha rests her head on the steering wheel and prepares to wait. Recovery, she thinks, may take longer than ninety minutes.

Pieces of Our Boy

We, five sisters, cut our dead brother’s clothes into six-inch squares for a memory quilt. From Woolworth’s, we stole an extra pair of pinking shears, and four thimbles.

The denim from his jeans made us smile, one pocket’s contents—a four-leaf clover—made us cry.

His flannel jammies smoothed our edges as we cut them into flower shapes.

The stripes and plaids from his shirts we used as borders.

The corduroy, we scratched with our fingernails, and remembered him biting his own and ours.

We laid the quilt on his bed taking intermittent comfort underneath his short life.

Searching for a blazer on the school’s donated clothing rail

The hooks of wire hangers click and scrape along the metal bar. They are question marks rising from the collars of second-hand sweaters and blazers. Is it here? Is this the one?

The corridor is deserted, halfway between bells. Closed doors deaden the sounds of laughter, a shout, singing.

She’d donated his blazer without a care when his wrists shot away from the cuffs like shoots springing out of the ground. Pulled out. She gathers the black material in her hands and kisses the washing label where he had carefully inked his name.

A relic of a life lost, recovered.

She Will Recover Her Wings

My daughter begs me to save the bird cradled in her palm. Pink is visible between yet to form feathers the colour of buckwheat. Its yellow-edged beak gapes but doesn’t move. My husband offers to kill it. An act of mercy, he says.

We place it in a shoebox, but while she’s at school the nestling dies. And unsure what to do, I bury it.

When my husband says our daughter needs to understand that life ends, I think of the shadow on my lung, and I know she’s too young to learn that some things can’t be recovered from.

The only way I can make sense of the word ‘recovery’ is to smash it into pieces


noun (informal)

a recreation ground

‘It’s dark when we walk, hands clasped, past the rec to our home.’



again, anew

‘It replays in my mind, endlessly.’




‘They surround us suddenly, hateful faces so very close to our own, their breaths hot, words dangerous.’



draws comparisons

‘They want us smaller quieter lesser.’



protection sought by people in danger

‘We try to cover one another, but a body is not a shield.’



return to a normal state

‘To recover takes time, we’re told.’




‘But it’s never over.’

The Sea Change

At last he returned. His tide-tumbled, surf-soaked body washed up seven miles down the coast, weeks after the wreckage of his boat came ashore.

I knew him by his wedding ring, not his tattered, bloated, white flesh. Sea creatures had made his features unrecognisable, but he would not have begrudged them their feast.

His ashes safe now by my bed, I take the ring down to the shore and cast it into the spindrift. I do not curse the sea for taking him, for he was hers long before he was mine; rather, I thank her for giving him back.

What They Recovered, and What They Didn’t

  1. An umbrella. Plain black. One snapped arm, rendering it useless. And yet, when you grip the handle, smooth and worn, scented faintly with Givenchy, you can almost feel his hand in yours.
  2. A tie. Royal blue. Adorned with pineapples wearing sunglasses. His lucky tie. You don’t look at the brown bloodstain. You don’t think about your daughter, eyes bright with anticipation on the day he unwrapped it.
  3. A wallet. Walnut brown. An oval outline in the faded leather, beneath which nestles a silver pendant. St. Christopher. His mother’s religious superstition.
  4. Your husband. Her daddy. Their son.

So time to choose your favourite! Vote using the form below, or if you have any problems using it you can also vote on this link:

Voting closes at 23.59 UK time on 26th April.

April 2021 Monthly Micro Longlist

Many thanks to everyone who entered a story this month for the excellent theme of RECOVERY from Jan Kaneen. We have read some wide-ranging responses to it and enjoyed them all.

We had 151 entries this month so the cash prize for first place is £226 and second place £151. The People’s Prize will be announced along with the results.

Congrats to the writers of our 38 longlisted stories. Please don’t reveal which is yours as all reading and voting is anonymous. Good luck for the next round – we’ll be back with the shortlist on Monday!

Longlisted Stories

  • Adding Worms Can Be Beneficial
  • After Grief
  • Alternative therapy
  • And if the best arrangements are made
  • Aunt Lilah is resting/restless
  • Bed of Roses
  • Breaking-up Bruises
  • Buried
  • Degrees of Corrosive Fanaticism
  • Help is on its Way
  • How to recover your dreams from the life everyone else seems to want
  • If Someone You Love Hasn’t Recovered, Can You?
  • In Twelve Years In and Out of Hospital, Mum Sat in the Waiting Room Playing Word Games to Occupy Her Mind
  • Inheritance
  • Interlude
  • It’s not the first time he has come home from Uni to go to Defence Haircuts with his mum, all in the name of recovery
  • Just Left With Crumbs
  • Last Year’s Break-Up
  • Martha Takes Her First Drive In Frank’s Car
  • Passports From Dr. Harry
  • Pieces of Our Boy
  • Returning
  • Rods, Cones, Driftwood And Shells
  • Searching for a blazer on the school’s donated clothing rail
  • She’d Dress Up Fancy Pretend It Was Our House
  • She Will Recover Her Wings
  • Silver flickers under the surface
  • Still Life with Minotaur
  • The Brink Of Belief
  • The Flying Tortoise
  • The monstera and I are hanging in there
  • The only way I can make sense of the word ‘recovery’ is to smash it into pieces
  • The Sea Change
  • The Taste of Iron
  • The virality of dad
  • Visiting Mum
  • What They Recovered, and What They Didn’t
  • When They Tried to Make Me Neurotypical

First novel news: London Black

We’re delighted that John Lutz, a talented student from our course The Novel Creator, has recently signed a book deal for his first novel London Black. We caught up with him to find out about his debut, what he learned from the course and what he’s writing next…

Credit: Emily Nytko-Lutz

– Congratulations on your book deal, John! Can you tell us a bit about your novel; what’s it about?

London Black is a near-future police procedural set in 2029, two years after terrorists release a novel nerve agent at Waterloo Station with cataclysmic consequences.  A prominent biochemist has pledged to develop an antidote, but he’s found murdered under mysterious circumstances.  

Our hero is DI Lucy Stone, a cop suffering crippling guilt from something she did two years ago — something she can only call The Thing That Happened. If Lucy can solve the murder and recover the antidote she believes the murdered biochemist created, perhaps she can finally forgive herself. But is the antidote real, or just a figment of Lucy’s desperation?

Who’s publishing it, and when?

London Black will be published by Pushkin Vertigo in Spring 2022.

– You completed Amanda and Craig’s novel writing course The Novel Creator: A Mentored Course. What aspects of it were most helpful for you?

Everything about the course was useful — the tutorials, the exercises, the Q&As, all of it.  

But if forced to choose a single most helpful aspect, I’d pick the mentoring. Amanda and Craig are immensely knowledgeable about the craft of writing — but even better, they’re engaged.  They truly care about their students. And they challenged me, which I loved because it meant I was being taken seriously as a writer.

– The course aims to create writers and careers, not simply one-off books. What aspects of the course did you find were portable into your next project?

The course does such an excellent job of focussing on the underlying principles of storytelling — on how plot, theme and structure interrelate, on how characters can be used to embody theme.  All of that’s super-portable because it’s not genre or style-specific — if you’re writing a novel of any stripe, the same concepts apply. In particular, Craig gave a lecture on linking plot and theme that I’ve probably re-watched a half-dozen times by now.  

– What are you working on now?

Another thriller! But even if I were turning my hand to a completely different genre, I’d be able to use what I learned on Amanda and Craig’s course. It really was a fantastic experience.

Longlist: 2021 First Chapter Competition

A huge thank you to everyone who sent their novel opening for this contest. We have been transported to hundred of different places and connected with lots of unique narrators.

We are excited to reveal the longlist of 45 stories, from which we will now choose our longlist of 10. Well done to everyone who submitted and congratulations to the writers of the following novels. Don’t tell anyone the title of yours if it appears here as all reading is done anonymously!

Longlisted First Chapters

  • A Thousand Tiny Disappointments
  • An Unexpected Donation
  • Angels in the Architecture
  • Bargaining with Grace
  • Birdspotting in a Small Town
  • Bleeding Josephine
  • Bring Them To Light
  • Caged on Caiseas (from “A Terrible Racket”)
  • Countdown
  • Days Between The Hours
  • Diet Happy
  • Dirty Love Story
  • Down Came a Blackbird
  • Foxglove Summer
  • Game On
  • Grub
  • Howl
  • Leaving Home
  • Mary
  • Midnight Malachi
  • Northern Boy
  • Saudade
  • Sideslip
  • The Blue Bar
  • The Candidate’s Husband
  • The Choices We Make
  • The Devil and Miss Mills
  • The Girl Who Escaped From Zanzibar
  • The Grey Man
  • The Limehouse Blues
  • The Man Who Got Out Of Japan
  • The Martyrdom of Jonathan Keeler
  • The Mirador
  • The Russian and Mrs Greene
  • The Sinful Mile
  • The Slighting of Livia Rathbone
  • The Trickster
  • The West in Her Eyes
  • We Have Ourselves
  • Where the Blue Winds Blow
  • White Light Pictures
  • Who Moved the Sodding Hedgehog?
  • Wildwood
  • Woodlands Road
  • Write Me a Murder

We will announce the shortlist in April. Good luck!

March 2021 Micro Fiction Comp Winners

Well, that was a rollercoaster ride of WILD stories and constantly changing winners of the People’s Prize vote! There were 4 stories that moved constantly between the top spot, until yesterday when one started to edge out in front. Lots of last minute voters as well as last minute submitters!

Many congratulations to all of the writers of our 10 shortlisted stories as they are all fabulous tiny tales and all received plenty of votes.


  • After Imbolc by Robert Marmeaux
  • After the Funeral by Sally Doherty
  • Bring in the Clowns by Barbara Gannaway
  • Death at the Winter Solstice by Angela Pickering
  • How to Sow a Wildflower Meadow by Keely O’Shaughnessy
  • I Cast a Wish Upon the Tide by Karen Vallerius
  • I Remember When You Were a Kestrel, My Love by Morgan Quinn
  • Le Pain Maudit – Pont-Saint-Esprit 15 August 1951 by E.E. Rhodes
  • Rewilding by Alison Wassell
  • The Significance of Horses in the Dreams of Young Girls by Rosie Garland

1st Prize Winner: After the Funeral by Sally Doherty

We loved the whole tone of this one, the vivid imagery and that final line that reveals so much about the relationship between the narrator and her dead mother.

2nd Prize Winner: The Significance of Horses in the Dreams of Young Girls by Rosie Garland

Fantastic take on the theme and leaves so much unsaid but the power of implication is used so well.

People’s Prize Winner: Rewilding by Alison Wassell

Great story of a woman reclaiming her sense of self after a relationship ends that was also a contender for our top spot voting too.

Sally wins a cash prize of £249 and Rosie wins £166.

Alison win copies of two brilliant books about writing: Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction by Nancy Stohlman and Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg.

Well done to everyone! We’re looking forward to April’s competition already! Prompt goes live on 3rd April.