Pitch to Win comp longlist

Well this has been a really tough decision to make! The standard of pitches we received and the amazing novel premises we’ve read meant it was so hard to choose between them.

Of the 124 pitches we received we’ve got a longlist of 36 and there are plenty more that really nearly made it but we needed to be ruthless with ourselves!

So well done to everyone who sent a pitch – we really enjoyed them all. And congratulations to the writers of the following novel pitches. No telling which is yours if it appears here though as all is being read anonymously!

Longlisted Pitches

  • Atelier
  • Back to the Start
  • Carousel
  • Come Out to Play
  • Company Policy
  • Deception
  • Every Colour of Light
  • Fishbowl
  • Gold
  • Gold Rush
  • Inside
  • Lepidoptera Transformations
  • Memory Cleanse
  • Mohammed’s Radio
  • Paper Windows
  • Peter Heggarty Wants to Get Off
  • Pink Bathroom
  • Redundant Care
  • Rona Rats
  • Seeing Red
  • Shrinking Violets
  • Sleepthief
  • The 13 Month Diary
  • The Baby in the Box
  • The Clayridge Chronicles
  • The Limehouse Blues
  • The Lost Girls
  • The Ninth Life
  • The Remarkable Affair of the Invisible Women
  • The Truth Shapeshifters
  • These Leaves of Mine
  • Timid Eyes Seeking Food
  • Unholy Liberties
  • Untitled
  • Yellow: A Tale of an Indecent Woman

We’re reading away again now and will have the shortlist on Friday. Good luck everyone!

Winners: CIRCUS Themed Flash

Many thanks to our judge, Sherry Morris, for the brilliant prompt and for making the tough decision between the shortlisted stories; and well done to all our shortlisted writers. This is the first competition that features the new professional recording prize and you can now read and listen to the winning stories. The voice and sound artists have done a fantastic job!


  • An invitation arrives addressed to the woman in the ‘See Her Change From Beauty to Beast’ booth by Kinneson Lalor
  • Cirque de la Vie by Katherine Hetzel
  • Helen Joined the Circus by Tonia Markou
  • Inside the Magical World of Claudia Dawson by Denise Bayes
  • Like a kid in a candy store by Cheryl Markosky
  • Python Parlari by Kathy Hoyle
  • Russian Dolls by E. E. Rhodes
  • The Carousel by Andrea Stephenson
  • Tightwire by Ali McGrane
  • We all fall down, and get up again? by Katie Oliver

Retreat West Judge’s Report—Sherry Morris

I’d like to start by saying Thank you! to Amanda Saint and the Retreat West team for giving me the opportunity to choose the theme and select my favourite pieces in the latest quarterly contest. I couldn’t wait to see how writers handled the theme and I was not disappointed.

It was great fun to read this imaginative batch of shortlisted Circus stories and the variety was impressive. In addition to real circuses or aspects of them, there were metaphorical circuses that took place in supermarkets, classrooms, homes and brothels. A range of circus performers also made appearances. There were clowns and tightrope walkers, a spooky
carousel, trapeze artists and an enigmatic hooper. I really enjoyed the stories that portrayed people as animals.

I found it interesting that grief and regret were common themes. Many of the ten stories dealt with the loss of a sibling, baby or self. What struck me was that, regardless of subject matter or location, each piece had a turn of phrase, a line, or an image that ticked my ‘yes’ box—which made me think carefully about my top picks and read the stories over and over.

I applaud all the writers who submitted work and continue to be creative in these challenging times, and hope that the ones not published this time will be sent back out in the world to find homes. They all deserve them.

Right! It’s showtime, folks! On to the results! These are my top three circus stars.

First Prize: Python Parlari by Kathy Hoyle

What a deliciously dark and triumphant story! It was a firm favourite from my very first read. The writer seeds the story with strong word choices that underscore its darkness: the ‘desolate merry-go-round’, the ‘scent of congealed candy floss’, and the ‘dark mouth of the tent’ all work to show tone and mood. I was drawn in to this sinister circus life and delighted with its
perfect surprise ending. Python girl is the only girl in a man’s world, but don’t underestimate her—she is not a victim.

Each time I reached the end of the story, I let out a Hah! And then a Bwah-hah-hah. Just like the main character, this story shines like a gilded jewel and in its own way, is the most playful story of the bunch. An unexpected fun read that introduced me to the word parlari—which I’ve started researching.

Runner Up: The Carousel by Andrea Stephenson

What stood out for me in ‘The Carousel’ was mood. This story is eerie and creepy and it haunts me still. I shudder each time I read it. What this story also does well is create and build tension. From ‘When the animals started to go missing’ to the scene where we see ‘the platform was full,’ each paragraph ups the stakes. I love the collective we narrator and lines
like, ‘Ignoring the scratch of unease between our shoulder blades.’ The reader is left, like the we in the story, with no real answers, just a sense of dread ‘hovering at the edge of our dreams.

Runner Up: Cirque de la Vie by Katherine Heltzel

The structure of this piece is fabulous. It takes great skill to tell a story in only 266 words and those succinct headings make this piece stand out. Each one perfectly illustrates both circus and real life and I applaud (and envy) the writer’s cleverness. As I started the piece, I wondered how the writer would take me from Bat Out of Hell to the circus, but I needn’t have worried. This is a writer who is adept at craft—and has great musical taste to boot!

Many congratulations to Kathy, Andrea and Katherine!

The next themed flash competition judge is Ross Jeffrey and he’s chosen the theme THE UNCANNY. Deadline is 27th June so get writing!

Winners: 2021 First Chapter Competition

We are excited to reveal the results of our 2021 First Chapter competition and the winners chosen by Sam Jordison of Galley Beggar Press. Many congratulations to all who made the shortlist and to our winners!

Thanks to Sam for reading these 10 novel openings and making the tough final decision.


  • Bring Them to Light by Lou Kramskoy
  • Countdown by Clare Evans
  • Down Came a Blackbird by Julie Holden
  • Northern Boy by Iqbal Hussain
  • Sideslip by Dianne Bown-Wilson
  • The Grey Man by James Blair
  • The Limehouse Blues by Rod Cookson
  • The Mirador by Sally Skinner
  • The Slighting of Livia Rathbone by Kate Stratford
  • Wildwood by Sarah McPherson

First Place: Bring Them To The Light by Lou Kramskoy

Sam said: This chapter really surprised and impressed me.  It’s a striking and clever bit of writing. Starting off in the future tense is bold – but you carry it off. Writing about the effects of acid is also very difficult (and often goes very wrong!) – but again, you carry it off. Meanwhile, you provide really effective physical details like that steam coming off the teenage bodies in the cold. You generate a strong sense of bewilderment and anxiety around the boys – and do it mainly through effective physical description. And there’s a strong and growing sense of mystery and urgency about your story. I really wanted to read on.

Second Place: Down Came A Blackbird by Julie Holden

This is a gripping and tense opening. It’s vividly written with a strong sense of place and of your narrator’s troubled humanity. There’s a good sense of mystery and intrigue around what the narrator has to tell Adam – and a lot going on around the peripheries. I liked, for instance, the strong sense of discomfort generated by Karl. If I had to nitpick, I’d advise you to be careful  not to over-describe. Why does your narrator tell us that a table is “white metal”, for instance? I also liked the idea of the dead birds  – but careful not to push that metaphor too far.  I got a bit lost when you were tearing open a dead bird envelope.

Highly Commended: The Mirador by Sally Skinner

That’s a striking first sentence. It’s followed up with good physical descriptions and plenty of  tension. I got a sense of a narrator who isn’t entirely in control. And I liked the moving description of the mother. 


Countdown by Clare Evans

There are some really good human touches in this chapter, like the desire for a bacon bap. There were also some very nice descriptions – like Cooper wearing his story on his face. The story also felt like it could go in interesting directions. If you’re redrafting, I’d suggest thinking about whether the rational, considered thought stream of the narrator fits in with the wooziness she’s experiencing – and the fact that she’s giving birth…

Northern Boy by Iqbal Hussain

There’s lots of nice material in this chapter, building up a rich view of homelife for your young narrator. There are cute descriptions – I liked your narrator’s Tweety Pie t-shirt. There’s also some nice dialogue. “I’m ten years old” seemed like a very reasonable reply! I’d be interested to read more – although at this stage I am slightly concerned that the issues you’ve brought up feel quite familiar. I hope you can take this in an interesting new direction.

Sideslip by Dianne Bown-Wilson

Quickly we are plunged into a horrible, heart-breaking situation which you lay out clearly and effectively. There’s emotion, dread and guilt. There are some great images here too. (I liked “marshmallow-y”!) I’m not entirely sure about your first line (isn’t the answer “no one!). this piece would also be even stronger if you gave it a good  copy edit, thinking particularly about accuracy in word choice

The Grey Man by James Blair

This feels like it’s going to be a sincere and moving story with real social value. The scam you portray feels unjust and enraging. One thing you can usefully do to take it up a level, would be to give your writing a good copy edit, looking out especially for inaccuracy in word choice.

The Limehouse Blues by Rod Cookson

There’s a good attempt at humour and repartee here and some nice period details. I enjoyed the Nero Wolfe reference. There’s also a nice bit of intrigue – and having your narrator as the criminal feels like an interesting device. My redrafting advice would be to have faith in the humour of your material – you don’t need to push your jokes too far.

The Slighting Of Livia Rathbone by Kate Stratford

This is an interesting character study of an angry father with a good mystery surrounding Livia Rathbone and intrigue surrounding the question of what is being hidden from Edie. The prose is clear and there are some striking images. My general feeling it that your sentences work best when they’re straightforward and you don’t need to push too hard for effect.

Wildwood by Sarah McPherson

You’ve worked hard to develop a strong sense of place and a numinous atmosphere here. There are some nice descriptions and a sense of foreboding. I did however, think you might be able to trim out some of the adjectives and make this tighter still.

Winners: May 21 Monthly Micro

We read some amazing weird and wonderful stories for this month’s METAMORPHOSIS micro comp and have enjoyed them all.

In a competition judging first in the history of the comp, our panel unanimously agreed on the stories in first and second place! And the People’s Prize voting generated a resounding winner.

Well done to all who were shortlisted and congratulations to our winners!


  • A Change of Heart by Jennifer Battisti
  • Bin Day by P J Stephenson
  • Domestic Appliance by S. A. Greene
  • Holometabolous by Eleonora Balsano
  • Me and You by Frances Gapper
  • Paper Bird by E.E. Rhodes
  • Sad Song of the Backwards Selkie by Becky Tipper
  • The Swan Song by Alan Kennedy
  • The Year of Solitude by Salena Casha
  • Username: Butterfly by Karen Walker

First Prize Winner: Holometabolous by Eleonora Balsano

We loved the format, the language and the tone of this moving story of a failed mother/daughter relationship that captures a lifetime in so few words.

Second Prize Winner: Username: Butterfly by Karen Walker

We loved the soundscape, the lighthearted tone and the narrator’s determination to be as free as a butterfly!

People’s Prize Winner: Domestic Appliance by S. A. Greene

Many congratulations to all!

Eleonora wins £214 and Karen wins £143.

For the People’s Prize, S. A. wins a bundle of 3 paperbacks of her choice published by us!

We’ll be back on 7th June with next month’s prompt!

Shortlist: CIRCUS themed flash

Many thanks to all the writers who sent us stories for this great theme. We’re delighted to reveal our shortlist! Congrats to all whose stories appear here and commiserations if your story didn’t advance from the longlist this time around – it’s always a tough decision to make!

Our judge, Sherry Morris, will now make the final decision. As always no telling which story title is yours if it appears below!

Shortlisted Stories

  • An invitation arrives addressed to the woman in the ‘See Her Change From Beauty to Beast’ booth
  • Cirque de la Vie
  • Helen Joined the Circus
  • Inside the Magical World of Claudia Dawson
  • Like a Kid in a Candy Store
  • Python Parlari
  • Russian Dolls
  • The Carousel
  • Tightwire
  • We all fall down, and get up again?

Best of luck everyone! Winners coming in early June.

There next themed flash comp closes 27th June and the theme is: THE UNCANNY. Get all the info and enter here.

Shortlist: May 21 Monthly Micro

Well done to all who made the longlist and congrats to the 10 writers of the stories below who have now gone through to the shortlist. No telling anyone which is yours though!

As the voting is now open for the People’s Prize vote and it needs to remain anonymous.

Vote for your favourite at the bottom of the page by 23.59 UK time on Monday 24th May. Winners of the cash prizes (decided by our judging panel) and the People’s Prize vote will be announced on Tuesday 25th May.

Good luck everyone!

A Change of Heart

The man is disappearing, eyes without a face. The woman bends over a cactus. Thorns stud her words with succulent punctuation. Her resolve is half-hearted, her panty lines are visible. She lives with the man in perpetual orgasm. Toes never uncurl. The man offers her things from the bottom of his heart: a mixtape, scuffed up Skee-Ball, Red Bulls, a losing lotto ticket. A singular pigeon bobs out of his chest. A child appears with a clipboard and a megaphone. She does the intake forms; takes the chamber’s measurements. Blood stains the woman’s dress.

Bin Day

The wilting lilies leave a yellow-powdered kiss on my bathrobe as I push them into the green bin. Next I dismantle their cardboard honour guard of pastel blooms, foggy lakes and backlit trees. Long-memorised words are buried deferentially on a cushion of tissue boxes.

Whisky fumes make me gag as I flush the rusty liquid down the sink. The bottle prevents the blue bin closing.

Later, showered and freshly clothed, I place my steaming coffee cup on the sunlit garden table. Inhaling the sweet fragrance of lilac, I watch a resplendent Red Admiral alight on the blossom.

She loved butterflies.

Domestic Appliance

Marianne awoke to find she’d turned into a washing machine. Fortunately, she was upright, and able to manoeuvre herself into the kitchen. But without hands she could hardly be expected to make breakfast.

– Could you make the toast, today, Kenneth? I’ve turned into a washing machine.

– Course, love. Do you want marmalade?

– Oh, go on then. And a nice cup of tea.

Kenneth carefully folded the toast into the detergent tray and poured the tea into the fabric softener compartment. After making his own packed lunch, he set off for work, pleased with himself for helping out.


Fact: The larvae of holometabolous insects bear no resemblance to the adults.

When I held your hand, people stared.

Is she—?

All her father, you said.

Like it’s a curse.

Fact: When a larva becomes a pupa, it will stop eating and moving.

If you couldn’t love me, I’d become as light as the feather on your felt hat.

Fact: When the adult leaves the pupa, it relaxes under the sun while its exoskeleton hardens.

When I finally ran, you yelled that I wouldn’t last a week. Yet here I am now, sorting through your belongings.

Me and You

Your paw on my shoulder, you sitting upright on the bed like a Victorian paterfamilias except for the tip of your tail wafting and your alert ears.

The bed has bars instead of a headboard. You sleep underneath it.

After they put us here we exchanged vows, to be each other’s. Was that wise, I don’t know. My past lovers were all quite samey and you’re so different. I long for slippers and hearth, you dream of insects.

Squeaky-wheel me across the floorboards, unpeel the shadows from my feet and rub me into happy velvet patterns, on our imaginary ottoman.

Paper Bird

My husband fiddles paper birds from discarded poetry, setting them on the dresser.

I am prosaic, dusting the tiny figures, mouthing the broke-beaked singing words half valleyed in the folds.

He is the prophet-poet, scaffolding miniature worlds, whispering secrets.

Here, on the brisk, cutting edge of his scant attention, I feel I am unfolding. Like a piece of his origami, being unmade.

I protest loudly, not wanting to be read. Not wanting my intimate inner creases exposed.

Furious, my husband tinders a lucifer, burning me down to smoking ashes.

But I’m a foolscap fledgling phoenix. On sulphurous flames I rise.

Sad Song of the Backwards Selkie

I thought you had to be born a selkie, or whatever it’s called this way round.

I had no idea all it might take was one drunken, midnight skinny-dip (under the witchy aurora light), someone nicks your clothes, and next thing you know, you’re a lolling, legless heap of blubber on a rock. Whiskery muzzle bloody with fish guts.

The tourist boats pass by and I call out, strain to clap my stubby flippers together. But they only laugh and snap photos.

No idea that I’m screaming, Can’t any of you help me?

Warning them, I was once like you.

The Swan Song

Five orphan cygnets, the last of their down just cast, manoeuvre round the ice, hoovering the riverbed for pondweed.

They’re coming of age.

As am I.

Mother would strap my hands behind my back. ‘Don’t pick the scabs. They’ll bleed.’

Every night my sisters loosened the knot, kissed my oozing wounds, sang to me. In our cottage, hidden by an awning of staked down elder branches, they succumbed one by one.

Smoke from their funeral pyres shields the sun as I heave father’s dinghy into the swans’ wake and drift downstream, my sisters’ harmonies echoing on through the crackling flames.

The Year of Solitude

The beer had turned lukewarm on the walk over and his jacket sat in a film of rain across his shoulders. He shuffled crablike to avoid the shoulders of people he didn’t know.

Company colored the room “newly lit cigarette”, a cacophony of mouths wide and laughing in a way that made him wonder about the air quality.

His armpits dampened and instead of the toilet, he found a closet and sank into the hardwood dark. Silence touched his arm.

What he’d give to turn into a house plant here. Exhaling, inhaling, normal, natural. Tendrils calmly withered in the pitch.

Username: Butterfly

“Don’t bug me,” I tell my daughter.

Swatting that aside, she signs me up and chooses my username: Butterfly.

Men in the late stages of life—antennae bent or missing, holes in wings and the elbows of their cardigans—flutter across the laptop.

“Try it, Mum.” Salve on the pain of breaking up after thirty years.

I type “Hello.” Buzz, buzz, buzz. I’m swarmed like a porch light at night, as if I’m the last flower, the last nectar they’ll ever find.

Too much. I log out and caterpillar to the couch to cocoon and ponder who I’ll become now.

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