Winners of the Page Turner Course

After a lot of reading and re-reading of her shortlisted entries, Rose has chosen the winners of the How To Write a Page Turner course. The two first place winners get the course with feedback option and the two runners-up get the no feedback version, which is exactly the same course content but, you guessed it, doesn’t get the feedback from Rose at the end!

Congratulations to our winners and all of the writers that made the shortlist too, which you can see here. The challenge was to write a novel opening up to 200 words from the sentence starter ‘I read it in a book…’

 

Winner: The Names of Rivers by Julia Robinson

Rose saidThis story is beautifully atmospheric, both the setting and characters become real and captivating through the sensual descriptions. The reader is also instantly immersed in the mystery and the promise of a deeply intriguing tale.

I read it in a book, the origin of Mary’s new name, ‘Rivers’. Mary Harlow had recently married Jack Popa Rivers, a blues guitarist and old white dog, first brought to New Orleans on board a merchant ship. Born in Liverpool, England, he had visited every port in the world.

We were on Mary’s houseboat, the Mississippi stretched before us, long and coiled, like a jewelled serpent. Mary’s red hair was tousled about her shoulders, her mouth curved in a close-lip smile. She was trying to avoid my gaze.

“It’s derived from the same Latin root as rival. Rivers have always been contested and fought over, in the same way as territory. And there are so many other meanings attached to rivers. Up the river – sent to prison. Down the river – betrayed,” I said.

Mary sucked in the air and turned her head to look me right in the eyes.

“And what is the origin of your name Lucy Pearl?”

I reflected. Jack Popa once told me that a Pearl is a thing of beauty. I licked my lips, tasting the salty tang of the river.

“A Pearl is opaque and hides its meaning under smooth, iridescent skin,” I said.

 

Winner: Duplicity by Jac Harmon

Rose saidThis story was chosen as a winning entry because the tension in it crackled like the fluorescent strip lighting in the police interview room where it is set. The imagery used is striking and memorable, haunting. The final reveal is an intriguing twist and makes you want to turn the page.

I read it in a book …’ I shape the words with care.

He cuts in.

‘And you remember it exactly?’

Given who he’s talking to it’s an unnecessary question. I shrug.

He lounges back in his chair, tapping at his teeth with a biro. It makes me squirm and he knows it. I close my eyes. The lighting is harsh for such a small room. Fluorescent tubes pulse above and I think of the jellyfish in the seafront aquarium. Thin, utilitarian jellyfish. My head aches. I breathe slowly. In. Out. He’s waiting for me to fill the silence. I don’t. It’s an old tactic.

‘So …’

I open my eyes. He’s leaning forward on sharp elbows. One foot taps beneath the table.

‘You read it in a book.’

Statement not question. Another slow breath. In. Out.

‘As I said, it was written in the margin.’

‘On page 96?’

I don’t respond. He knows the answer. In my mind I see the words again, scratched deep into the yellowing paper. A black waterfall of ill-formed, skeletal letters written with the sharp nib of a cheap fountain pen.

The Detective Inspector raises an eyebrow. Our mother would be proud of him.

 

Runner-up: The Truth and the Lies by Lucinda Hart

Rose said: This story opening punches from the first to the last moment with a great hook and a final reveal that makes you want to know more about the narrator and their dark secret.

I read it in a book. The lie.

One of those gruesome-tales-about-your-county books that somehow my hand was drawn to, spinning on the carousel in the bookshop. It was only time before someone wrote about Rosie Barnes. Her bloodied and naked body abandoned in the woodland beside the main road fifteen years ago. How her boyfriend was found with blood on his clothes and a motive in his heart. How he shouted his innocence in Court, and then wept that same innocence as they took him down.

He didn’t last long inside. Killed in an incident, they said. But I think he took his own life, escaped to join his Rosie wherever she’d gone. To follow her.

And now the story, the legend, is printed in a slim volume for sale in my local town. Where people remember.

They remember what they heard at the time, but they do not know the truth. They do not know that what’s in the book is lies.

They do not know that when Rosie Barnes’ boyfriend cried his innocence, in his bloody shirt, that he was telling the truth.

How do I know this? you ask.

Because he didn’t kill her.

I did.

 

Runner-up: The Book of Future Past by Stephanie Percival

Rose saidThe concept of this story is arresting and creepy and as a reader I am instantly drawn to the main character and concerned about the peril she faces. I want to read on!

I read it in a book. Not one of the hundreds which surround me in the bookshop, but the one in my back pack, weighing it down. I came here because it usually calms me. Not today.

I race upstairs to the café taking the steps two at a time, my feet in Doc Martens clumsy on the treads, so I nearly collide with a man descending, who swears at me. I need coffee and then perhaps I can open the book, consider the words again.

A mug of black coffee in front of me, and mumbling conversation around me, I take the book out. A musty smell leaks out with it. The book feels old; it has a leathery green cover. Ordinarily, I’d never select a book like this.

On the title page is an inscription, written in brown ink. Fading and blurred, as if written long ago. It reads:

Celina Delaney April 1st 1999 – Sept 17th 2018

My mouth is dry, my fingers clammy, because I am Celina Delaney. Nineteen years old, and my birth date is All Fool’s Day. Tomorrow is the seventeenth of September 2018.

More disturbing are the 3 letters which follow.

…R.I.P…

 

Author Interview: CM Taylor on writing within theme, Brexit and his new novel Staying On

It’s great to have CM Taylor back on the blog on publication day for his new novel, Staying On. I was lucky enough to read an advance copy of this and I stayed up half the night to find out what would happen. It’s a funny and very moving (I cried!) story of a family that needs to face up to its past – a situation that’s brought to a head when Brexit comes along and their life in Spain no longer seems quite so sunny.

Craig, in the teaching you do, theme is a crucial element in guiding the story and the theme for me that came through strongly in Staying On is guilt and culpability. How it manifests, the twisted nature of it that makes people believe different things about the same situation. What made you want to explore this theme in this novel?

Shouldn’t a book in the final instance be about something – have a take on the world, an angle, something to say about how people are, how the world is? That’s what strong theme gives you.

One of the things I write and teach about is the idea that narrative art maps human change, and that characters in stories move from the denial and repression of certain feelings, into the awareness and exploration of those feelings, and then on to acting on them – either positively or negatively.

When you say there’s a strong element of guilt and culpability in the book, it’s true, and that to me is part of character development and theme, of how character carries theme across story, beginning with denial, (“It wasn’t me.” “That’s not how it was.” “It didn’t happen.” “I haven’t got a problem.” “There’s nothing to see here.”), moving into flashes of light, (“Maybe there is a problem.” “Maybe I did do something wrong.” “Maybe there is something I need to look at.”), then into acceptance or conscious surfacing, (“God, I do have an issue here.” “There is something I need to look.” “Maybe I did do something wrong.”), and on into being galvanised, (“I really do need to apologise.” “I really do need to make that clear.” “I do really need to tell the truth.”).

People use denial as self-protection. People lie to themselves about the things which are hardest to entertain. But denial has consequences. If you lie to yourself about one thing it seeps over into other things and leads to moral corruption. As Saul Bellow wrote: “Everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing, you hold down the adjoining.” Denial surfaces elsewhere in many negative ways, it squirts out hot and sideways into anger, addiction, failed intimacy, extreme competitiveness, self-harm.

I don’t think that this gap between how different characters see things, or the gap between how a character sees things and how it really was, is necessarily just a theme of this novel, I think it’s a part of every character for me, because it’s part of this journey from denial and repression to acceptance and action. Human change has a pattern and self-deceit is part of that pattern. Guilt is an aspect of repression, and accepting your culpability is a stage on the road to accepting the world as it is.

One of your main characters, Tony, is adept at not saying the things that really matter and putting a brave face on things. Never letting people know what’s really going on behind that bright surface. Did you know when you set out how things would turn out for Tony or did he take you places you hadn’t planned?

As above, Tony – as with us all – is on a journey from repression and denial to (ideally) expression and health. Crucial with Tony on his particular journey is his generation, which is that post-war generation, brought up in a world where emotional connection was scarce and rationed. Imagine being a kid where most adults around you had PTSD and didn’t even know it. Jesus. Decode that. And many of that generation, those post-war babies, tend towards the stoic and repressed. They’re very non-presumptive. Or they can be.

So Tony’s particular brand of suppression is influenced by that generation. That’s in the mix, but then it’s also just him. I know lots of older people, volubly acting out their fear and confusion at the world through anger and nostalgia, but then I also know a lot of older people, like Tony, who radically suppress their own needs – sublimating their impulses and being less clamorous, living for other people. I find it beautiful and generous. That said – and this is the rub of Tony’s dilemma – there come points in life where you need to say, “No. I need something here. I need sustenance and nourishment. I can’t suppress my own needs all the time.”

And that’s Tony’s dilemma, a modest, sweet guy who’d always put himself second, who urgently must realise that if he puts himself second again, then there’s going to be none of him left. That’s hard. Especially when you have no skills, no practice in putting yourself first, and all the social and emotional grooves in your life run against it, run for decades against what you now must do.

All that is in the mix with Tony. I knew he was repressing, and I knew what he was repressing, and I knew that it would have to blossom for him to have his emotional denouement, but I didn’t necessarily know how that was going to happen. I knew the suppression but not the expression. He had that wriggle room.

Tony’s story of dealing with a failing business alongside family dramas is told with humour and at the same time is also very moving, it is sad and hopeful and funny and melancholy, and really very true about what it is to be human today. As writers, this is something we all aspire to achieve in the novels we write so what advice can you give to the readers of the blog on how they can create such compelling narratives within what appears to be, on the surface, just an everyday story of a family.

Stay right behind the eyes of your characters and process what events mean for them. There are high stakes in everyone’s life. Success, failure, love, rejection, hope, desire. Are people going to get what they want? Are they going be rejected and not get what they want? Are they going to learn or keep making the same mistakes?

The trick to making an ostensibly everyday story compelling is to dwell on the internal, on the emotional stakes at play. The word, “No,” might be a single word of dialogue externally, but internally it might mean, “Everyone always says no to me.” Or it might mean, “I am never going to get what I want.” Or it might mean, “Right, I had enough of people saying no and now I’m on the march.”

The key to rendering everyday situations into dramatic material is to dwell behind the eyes of the protagonist of the scene, to show the emotional stakes, and to show at what point this person is in the development from repression and denial to expression – to show how does the moment charge that journey. Does it crush them into further repression? Push them over into expression and self-activation?

What is at stake? How does it move the journey? Find that and you have found drama.

With Brexit coming very soon this is a very timely story but the politics of the situation are largely irrelevant in this family’s life as they face up to the past in order to discover if they can have a happier future. Do you think despite the large role politics plays in the collective psyche, mainly due to the way it’s presented in the media, that this is true for us all. That it’s the human stories that go on irrelevant of what the politicians are doing, that really matter to people? 

Well Brexit gets things going, because the book is about a British expat couple in Spain who wonder if they might get kicked out. One of them, Laney, wants to stay in Spain, and one of them, Tony, wants to go home to England. And Brexit puts pressure on that, because Tony is emboldened from his meekness by the situation with Brexit, whereas with Laney her reasons for wanting to stay now appear more flimsy and unlikely. So, the larger political situation acts as a trigger for the internal repressions of the main characters, plus it brings to the surface the subterranean conflicts locked into their marriage. It brings things to the boil.

As to whether it is more human stories that really matter to people, well the book-reading public is a broad church, and political non-fiction is selling well, while political fiction – which is hard to do without coming across as hectoring or didactic – can sometimes do well. So, I think some people want work which is in-tune to the internal verities of love and relationships and self-development, whereas others seek more politically-attuned work. Personally, I want both.

But a strong aspect of the art of the novel is its ability to offer a sense of human closeness, and I strongly wanted to tell a personal story about Brexit, away from the headlines and the slogans and the politicians, to show how normal folk trapped in a normal situation were being affected by a broader political situation, and how crucially it mapped onto issues with their own pasts, and their own relationships. So, yes, I focused on the personal, the internal, because I believe that is the strongest suit of the art of the novel. Though as I say above, seminal political fiction has been written – it is just most obtrusively political fiction is sophomore and partisan and dull.

Now that Tony and Laney’s story has gone out in the world, what are you writing next?

Oh God, this question. It may make me cry.

Well, in no particular order, I’ve just finished the final draft of a TV pilot based on one of my novels. And I’ve been commissioned to co-write a movie which I can’t really say too much about, so I’m tucking into the first draft of that. And I’ve had interest in republishing a couple of my early novels, so I just spent a few days giving them a haircut, purging them of juvenilia, before sending them out. Then, because I’ve got a book coming out, I’m writing blog posts and articles.

And yes, by now you can see that I’m avoiding the real intent of the question. I’m repressing the truth through guilt! And there’s a reason for that. I’m developing two novels simultaneously, and I haven’t worked out which one I want to lead with. One is a character-led thriller series, quite socially realistic, and the other is a stand-alone tech thriller, more heightened, but again character-led. I’m flip-flopping between these two and am not sure which one of these two works of fiction will emerge as my next book, to be quite honest.

***

Thanks for giving us this insight into your new novel and your writing tips, Craig.

Keep up to date with Craig’s many writing project on his website. Get your copy of Staying On on Amazon or Waterstones.

 

 

 

 

Shortlist for the comp to win our How To Write a Page Turner Course

Thanks to everyone that sent in stories for this. Rose and I have really enjoyed reading them all. We have got 10 shortlisted stories, detailed below, and now Rose will read them all again to choose the four winners. Well done to everyone on the list.

Shortlisted stories

  • All The Pieces by Jennifer Riddalls
  • Duplicity by Jac Harmon
  • Forbidden Words by Ninette Hartley
  • Forbidding Words by Matt Lucas
  • Marginalia by Stu Croskell
  • Screams Can Be Silent by Andrea Emblin
  • The Book of Future Past by Stephanie Percival
  • The Names of Rivers by Julia Robinson
  • The Suicide of Charlotte Dovedale by Jane Badrock
  • The Truth and The Lies by Lucinda Hart

 

Results will be announced soon. Good luck everyone!

 

 

Winners of the October Fantastic Flashing Course

Sorry to be so late with this… life has been busy! But here now are the winners. Well done to all. Really looking forward to flashing with these talented writers. Our two winners get a free place and our two runners-up get a half price place on the October Fantastic Flashing Course. There are still a few places left if you would like to join us too…

Winner: Leaves, Witches and Wool by Jennifer Riddalls

Why I chose it: I loved the way the witch references were weaved through the story so naturally and how the autumn leave colours had been used. Deft little touches to give you an instant image of the people in the story. A sad story with a poignant yet hopeful ending.

 

We seven sat in a circle, like a coven of witches round a cauldron, staring at the basket of wool in the middle. The coiled yarn looked  stranded, heaped in shades of mustard yellow, burnt orange and maroon, like leaves ready for burning. We chatted, no one mentioning
Mary, or her empty chair, until her absence filled the room and she was all we could say.

Tears rolled down cheeks, fat droplets getting diverted by deep wrinkles and cutting through face powder. I wondered who would be next.

‘Remember Mary’s face when Katie suggested changing the name to Stitch ‘n’ Bitch?’ Sally said. Laughter briefly chased the sadness away.

While laughing the hall door opened and we turned, fully expecting Mary and her grey helmet-like hair, but instead her left-behind-husband came stooping in bearing half-finished knitting projects. He took Mary’s chair. I thought he’d come to give them away, but instead he said, ‘Can you teach me to finish these? They’re for the family, at Christmas.’

We ignored the crack in his voice and Sally handed him some needles. Finally, the spell was broken and we dipped into the wool.

 

Winner: Behind the Beauty by Jan Brown

Why I chose it: Because initially it just seemed like it was going to be a celebration of the wonder of nature and then the final lines gave it a real sting in the tale and emotional resonance.

 

Her drive to work was on autopilot. There were exceptions. May meant slowing down, the occasional swerve and the sheer delight at catching flashes of blue, swathes secreted in the woodland edging the route. Bluebells never failed to lift her spirits, as good as spotting the first
lamb.

October was less hazardous because Nature brazenly flaunted its beauty. Every stretch was lined with falling leaves, naked tree trunks standing isolated in vast puddles of crisp gold, bronze and yellow leaves anyone would yearn to kick through. Invariably she’d recite the Ode, sometimes aloud, never getting further than ‘the vines that round the thatch-eaves run.’ The lines were lost but the lush, voluptuous Autumn of Wordsworth stayed with her.

Then came the canopy, a mile or more where the car seemed to plunge into a tunnel roofed with glorious colour, particularly if sunbeams penetrated the dense foliage. Surely there was no greater beauty than this gift of scarlet fire and copper? But her mind would go back: trapped in her car, her unborn child crushed by a fallen tree. Autumn signified dying and the inevitability of death, no
matter how spectacular its colour. With Autumn came her darkness.

Runner-Up: Second Childhood by Claire Jenkins

Why I chose it: Great image of children foraging like squirrels at the start to contrast with a story about aging and getting trapped in the way of life that adulthood brings, that then becomes something hopeful again at the end.

 

Leaves crunch under my feet, a beautiful carpet of gold and red and brown. All around me children are foraging like squirrels for prize-winning conkers. I smooth down my jacket, straighten my scarf. Avert my eyes.

A boy bumps into me as he rushes past. “Sorry, ma’am.”

I wince. Coffee has sloshed around the rim of my environmentally friendly, reusable travel mug. I wish I didn’t know how many calories were in hot chocolate. With marshmallows and whipped cream, of course.

A lifetime ago, we read a story at school where a man had transformed into a giant insect overnight. We’d laughed, my friends and I. Imagine waking up one day to find that you’re completely different! Ridiculous. My teacher had watched us with a strange look on her face. Here, amongst the excited children, I finally understand.

Ahead lies my sparse, clean office. Formal wear and leather suitcases. A life revolving around bills and taxes and mortgage repayments. A life where I’m a ‘ma’am’.

I turn back, take aim, strike. A shower of leaves fly through the air, their colours raining down on us. The conker hunters shriek in delight. I close my eyes and smile.

Runner-Up: Autumn Leaves by Malcolm Richardson

Why I chose it: I like how the title is used to signify the core of the story. How the story is set in the summer despite the autumn theme and how well it captures the excitement of a new affair that quickly fades.

 

Rachel’s boyfriends didn’t stay long; they came, they went, never seen again. Attractive, long-haired, she could maybe lose a pound or two, but who couldn’t?

She’d met him at the summer drinks party, a married man. A balmy July night, drinks flowed, they chatted freely. After a snog and a grope they exchanged numbers. He rang next day; arranged to meet for a drink. It ended at Rachel’s flat, a steamy session between the sheets. He left at two in the morning. Monday afternoon he rang, his wife didn’t understand him, needed to escape. On Wednesday he moved in, ‘just for a few days.’

August raced by, a stream of cosy meals out and all night encounters. By September things began to cool. The first flush of love and passion can be short-lived; extraordinary becomes familiar, routine. Differences develop into arguments.

His text read ‘might B L8.’ Midnight passed, darkness became dawn. She shuddered at the cooler chill of morning, mist hung from a dense, opaque sky. His side of the bed still cold, emptiness echoed through her mind. His heart had flown like a migrating bird to another woman’s bed.

Winners of the Reunion themed flash competition

Themed Flash Competition: Reunion Winners

I’ve been reading the shortlist over and over again on different days, at different times, when I’m in different moods, seeing so much in all of them that made me dither over the runners-up repeatedly. But my top spot was never in any doubt from the very first reading. To all writers on the shortlist, well done. I hope to read more of your work soon.

Winner: Milk Chocolate. Grapes. Earthworm. by Michael Loveday

Why I chose it: This is stunning writing in a story that is both surreal and strange. It feels like a whole lifetime has been captured in these short, disjointed scenes yet it never feels like it is trying to do too much, which is so hard to pull off in flash. And the last line was so unexpected yet ends the story perfectly.

Read it here

 

Runner Up: Do You Remember Me? by Nancy Ludmerer

Why I chose it: I loved how the theme was played with here to reveal that the narrator no longer knew who she was after meeting up with an old college friend many years later. Words used skilfully to draw stark contrasts between who they had been and who they were now without it seeming like that’s what was happening. Clever stuff.

Read it here

 

Runner Up: Agape by Fiona Mackintosh

Why I chose it: Again, loved how the theme was used here to reflect a relationship gone awry. I was left questioning how long things had been like it and the atmosphere and descriptive writing is beautiful, cleverly foreshadowing what is to come.

Read it here

 

 

Congratulations to our winners.

You can see the shortlist for this competition here; and the longlist here. The blogs have now been updated with the author’s names.

 

There’s still almost a month to get your flash stories in for the next themed flash comp and be in with a chance of winning up to £400 and getting your story published on the website. The theme is Protest and the deadline is 30th September.

Our Retreat West Author Members get entry to the comps included as part of their benefits package, as well as a lots of other great stuff.

We hope to read your work soon!

 

Reunions themed flash comp shortlist

Reunions themed flash comp shortlist

Once again, a big thank you to all the writers that submitted an entry for the Reunions competition! We’re happy to say, it’s always a challenge to narrow down the entries for these lists. Well done!

Shortlist (alphabetical order)

  • Agape by Fiona Mackintosh
  • Chicken Bones by Emily Slade
  • Do You Remember Me? by Nancy Ludmerer
  • Itchy Knee by Jenni Griffiths
  • Meeting My Sister by Hilary Taylor
  • Milk Chocolate. Grapes. Earthworm. by Michael Loveday
  • Reunions by Catherine Morris
  • The Last True Harrison by Jules Diamond

Amanda will be making her final decision as soon as possible, and the announcement will be shared across our social media, so watch this space!

We’re looking forward to a wide range of entries for the next comp, on the theme of Protest. So get creative! Enter your stories here. It closes in September, and no doubt, our debating over submissions will continue!

Join our author community and you can get entries to the themed flash comps included as part of your benefits package, plus lots of other great stuff. Join here.

Develop your flash writing and create lots of new work by joining us on our online Fantastic Flashing courses. Info here.