2020 Retreat West First Chapter Competition Winners

2020 Retreat West First Chapter Competition Winners

Many thanks to Carrie Plitt of Felicity Bryan Associates for being our judge this year; we were delighted to have had her on board.

Congratulations to everyone who made our shortlist, and huge congratulations to our two winners who’ll each have their submission packages reviewed. The writer in first place will receive their review from Carrie, and the writer in second place will receive theirs from Amanda Saint  founder of Retreat West and commissioning editor and publisher at Retreat West Books. Carrie has also kindly provided short feedback on each of the ten shortlisted chapters.

First place: THE KATIE EXPERIMENT by Rosie Smith
Carrie said: This is a very short first chapter, but it does a lot in a short space of time, doling out just the right amount of information with tight and intriguing prose. The descriptions are evocative, and sometimes surprising: I love the way the delicate sheets of the girl’s hair blowing in the wind provoke disgust in the narrator. By the end I was desperate to know more about the narrator and her relationship with the girl who sits next to her on the bench. This is the kind of chapter that makes me want to read on immediately. 

Second place: GIRLS LIKE US by Julie Bull
Carrie said: This was a very intriguing chapter, managing to establish a mystery with economy and style, and giving enough backstory while still keeping the reader guessing. There’s some lovely writing here too, like the paragraph that describes the names of the girls on the wall. I love how it ends with the image of Pam getting in the car. 

Well done to Rosie and Julie!

And to our shortlisted writers…

Carrie said: I like the way this chapter immediately thrusts the reader into the action, and gives enough details to make us realise gradually that we’re in some kind of dystopian world, without explaining too much. The writing is very solid, too. Maybe it didn’t need quite so much foreshadowing about what this moment will mean for the narrator’s future.  

BRANTWOOD by Victoria MacKenzie
Carrie said: I enjoyed being in the Victorian world of John Ruskin in this chapter – it’s very well evoked from the first sentence and seems believable. I do wonder if you are trying to impart too much information about Ruskin and his life over the course of the dinner party. I think this could wear its research more lightly, and do more of showing rather than telling.  

Carrie said: I like the way this chapter sets up the relationship with the neighbour upstairs and the mystery of the letter. It also had a great ending. I know the narrator herself is confused, but I felt quite discombobulated by the imagery of the bird and her dead mother, and thought perhaps this didn’t quite strike the right balance between withholding information and making sense. A smaller grammatical note is that I think you could cut out a lot of your commas; many of them seemed unnecessary and they broke up the reading experience. 

LOVE by Kate Tregaskis
Carrie said: This is an intriguing premise and the last paragraph is great. I do wonder whether you need the lists, as they can break up the reading experience and I’m not sure how much they add to the narrative. The pace here also felt a little slow – could you cut out some of the backstory / telling and get more quickly to the phone call?

SWIMMING LESSON by Rebecca Garnett Haris
Carrie said: I like the plot you set up here, but I wasn’t totally convinced by the voice. It’s really tough to write a novel in dialect! Maybe think about whether this novel definitely needs it.

Carrie said: This is a great set-up and I love the first sentence. The pace feels a little slow, though, and I think you could cut out some of the contemplation about the narrator’s situation. 

WE MAKE DREAMS by Angela Wipperman
Carrie said: I like the opening paragraph a lot. I think you’re doing a little too much telling in the opening chapter, though. Can some of the backstory come out in the conversation with the journalist in the next chapter instead? 

Carrie said: There are some lovely bits of description here and the idea of a missing twin is intriguing. However, the pace feels a little slow and I think you could tighten and focus this chapter, showing only what is necessary to set the scene. 

Again, well done to all of the writers above — and to everyone who entered. Thank you for sharing your work with me; it was a pleasure to read so many great first chapters.


We’ve got another great judge lined up for the First Chapter Competition 2021: Sam Jordison (@samjordison), founder of and publisher at Galley Beggar Press. The 2021 competition is also being run in partnership with Casa Ana Writing Writing Retreat. We’re very excited to have him working with both Sam and Casa Ana, and look forward to opening the competition for entries in June.  See you then…


2020 First Chapter Competition Shortlist

Thanks again to everyone that sent us in their novel opening for this year’s First Chapter Competition. We received 308 submissions, which we had a longlist of 36 from and now we have the final shortlist of 10 chapters that are going to judge, Carrie Plitt, to read and make the final decision on.

Congratulations to everyone who entered and was longlisted and especially to these 10 shortlisted authors.

2020 First Chapter Competition Shortlist

  • Brantwood by Victoria MacKenzie
  • Down Came a Blackbird by Julie Holden
  • Girls Like Us by Julie Bull
  • Love by Kate Tregaskis
  • Life After The End Of The World by Sydnye White
  • Passing Through Fire by Diane Miller
  • Swimming Lesson by Rebecca Garnett Haris
  • The Katie Experiment by Rosie Smith
  • We Make Dreams by Angela Wipperman
  • Words We Should’ve Said by Allison Secker

We’ll have the final results soon and then we will announce the details of the 2021 competition, which will be judged by an indie publisher this time as that’s what most people said they wanted when we did a survey with our followers! We have got a great judge lined up and we’re looking forward to reading more novel openings soon.

2020 First Chapter Competition Longlist


Many thanks to everyone that entered the 2020 First Chapter Competition. Louise Walters and I have read a lot of novel openings to make the longlist decision. We received 308 entries and have a longlist of 36, which we’ll now be choosing a shortlist of 10 from to go to our final judge, Carrie Plitt, literary agent with Felicity Bryan Associates.

Congratulations to all the writers who stories are listed below. We’re still reading anonymously at this stage so please don’t let anymore know what your story is called if you’ve made it through!


2020 First Chapter Competition Longlist

  1. A Charm To Mend Lost Causes
  2. A Whisper In The Woods
  3. Boy Nightingale
  4. Brantwood
  5. Down Came A Blackbird
  6. Flatfoot In Fleece
  7. Girls Like Us
  8. Hush
  9. In Our Father’s House
  10. Iris Vine Remembers
  11. Jack
  12. Level 44
  13. Life After The End Of The World
  14. Love
  15. Love The Dark Days
  16. Motor City Resolve
  17. No Woman Is An Island
  18. Passing Through Fire
  19. Static
  20. Summers With My Father
  21. Swimming Lesson
  22. The Book Of Gates
  23. The Candidate’s Husband
  24. The Circle
  25. The Cuckoo Clock
  26. The History And Remarkable Life Of Octavia Swallow
  27. The Inquisitor’s Papers
  28. The Katie Experiment
  29. The Orchid Child
  30. The Pearls, The Lake, And Yoshio
  31. The Slighting Of Livia Rathbone
  32. The Slow Knife
  33. The Sunday Painters
  34. We Make Dreams
  35. Words We Shoud’ve Said
  36. Your Sorrows Rise


We’ll be re-reading these chapters now and will have the shortlist in the first week of April.

We asked our members and followers about who they would like to see judging the 2021 competition and the unanimous decision was for it to be an indie publisher. So we’ve got a very exciting one lined up, which we’ll be announcing when the new competition details go live later this year.

We’re also very excited to have partnered with Casa Ana Retreats for the 2021 competition. Find out more about Casa Ana here. I’m lucky enough to be their guest mentor for a 2-week retreat later this year, so if you fancy some writing time in the mountains in southern Spain with 1-1 support to develop your novel, short/flash fiction or memoir, then come join me!


Interview with literary agent, Carrie Plitt, judge of 2020 First Chapter Comp

Interview with literary agent, Carrie Plitt, judge of 2020 First Chapter Comp

For today’s interview, we welcome Carrie Plitt. Carrie is a literary agent and also a director at Felicity Bryan, and we’re delighted to have her judging the 2020 First Chapter Comp. Carrie is actively building a list of authors, with a focus on debuts. The books she represents range from the very literary to those you might read in a book club. Besides excellent writing, she is often drawn to novels that have unique voices, are portraits of complex characters, examine relationships, are coming of age stories, or capture the zeitgeist. She is always on the look-out for writers from underrepresented backgrounds. Carrie hosts a monthly books podcast and radio show called Literary Friction, which has featured authors including Sally Rooney, Olivia Laing, Gary Younge, Viv Albertine, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Ottessa Moshfegh.

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

For me it’s a mixture of an original voice – someone who really understands how to work with language and make it new – and a command of storytelling.

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 such a difficult question to answer! I can see why this is so frustrating for writers – because in the end taste is so subjective. For me, the test of whether I LOVE something is: will I want to read this a number of times, and talk about it for years to come? If the answer is no, then I’m probably not the right agent for it.

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

Again, originality is key here. Does the writer have a particular way of expressing him or herself that seems different and exciting? But I will also be looking for the three chapters that make me desperate to read on.

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

I’m looking for literary fiction, book club fiction, and some literary crime. I love books that are psychologically complex and those that capture the zeitgeist. I think the list of authors below gives a good sense of the kind of thing I’m likely to love.

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

It’s very hard for me to pick favourites, but some authors whose work I read and enjoyed recently are Sally Rooney, Elizabeth Strout, Deborah Levy, Jenny Offill, Esi Edugyan, Rachel Cusk, Tana French and Paul Murray.


Thanks, Carrie! Some great insights there, and worth considering for writers hoping to impress in the 2020 First Chapter Comp!

You can follow Carrie on Twitter:

2019 First Chapter Competition Winners

2019 Retreat West First Chapter Competition Winners

Many thanks to Sarah Hornsley at The Bent Agency for being our 2019 judge. She has now chosen the two winners, saying: “It was a really tough decision. The standard was really high, I was very impressed.”

So well done to everyone on the shortlist and massive congratulations to our two winners who get their submission package reviewed. The first place winners will get their feedback from Sarah and the second place winner from Amanda Saint, commissioning editor and publisher at Retreat West Books. Sarah has also provided short feedback on all the ten shortlisted chapters below.

First place: Cold Harbour by Marian Smith

Sarah said: COLD HARBOUR is smoothly written with a real sense of intrigue. Impressively, the author manages to establish where the novel sits in the market quickly, whilst also offering the reader a fresh voice and a character who I feel confident would keep the reader guessing at every turn. I was also impressed by how the author establishes the hook early on and then manages to build the intrigue as the chapter progresses, ending on a fantastic hook that left me wanting to keep turning the pages.

Second place: Violet by Zoe Cook

Sarah said: VIOLET demonstrates some really excellent writing with a compelling set-up, posing many questions for the reader with a smoothness and subtlety I really admired. I was also impressed by how the author manages to capture the intrigue surrounding the backstory but not at the expense of the current present plot, and I thought this showed the potential for a really layered and complex story.

Well done to Marian and Zoe!

And to our shortlisted writers…

A Pair of Blue Butterflies by Claire Whatley

Sarah said: You create a really strong interesting dynamic here between Rachel and Martin with a clear backstory that has a lot of scope to it. I’d be careful of using dialogue as a vehicle to disguise exposition and work a little more on showing not telling – less is more and often just from the action we can deduct the subtext without needing it reinforced by the narrator.

Behold The Stars by Imogen Harris

Sarah said: The writing here is excellent and I really enjoyed the material, you draw us right into the audition room with the narrator. I did want to get a better sense of what I was reading – what genre is it, what could I expect from the rest of the novel, but I think this is a really strong start and I’d love to read more.

Caught Kissing Adam Faith by Neil Taylor

Sarah said: The voice here is wonderful and I really enjoyed the subtle very natural humour peppered throughout. I was definitely interested to read more and I think you started and ended the chapter in exactly the right place, which makes me feel that you’re a really competent storyteller.

My Name Is Ten by Colleen McMahon

Sarah said: There is lots of really good writing here and I think the world you’ve created is intriguing. I think at the moment you spend too long catching the reader up with what’s happened previously and you could look to streamline, cutting back so much of the context in this very first chapter so as to keep the plot moving forward, and then spreading out some of the backstory through a couple of chapters instead of so much in the first one. Alternatively, you could look to enter the story earlier so the structure isn’t that you are then recalling events that have already happened quite so heavily.

Red Fox Hiding by Nicola Keller

Sarah said: The writing here is really strong and you thrust us straight into the story, which is really well done in the courtroom gallery. I’d work on the balance of show don’t tell and think you perhaps are trying to fit too much backstory into this very first chapter. I feel you could let your story and characterisation breathe a little more on the page. I do know it’s a balance to strike here with keeping the plot moving forward but I think you could take your time a little more.

Ruby Sixpence Whistles Up A Storm by Anita Belli

Sarah said: I love the first two sentences! The writing here is wonderfully accomplished. Usually starting with a dream would be a big ‘no’ but you make it fresh and intriguing, which is clear demonstration of your skill as a storyteller. An interesting fresh character and concept.

The Darkest Harbour by Catherine Day

Sarah said: Really great first sequence which draws us straight into the story and poses some intriguing questions. I’d be conscious of streamlining the first chapter a little as you introduce us to a lot of characters very quickly and it might be better to give fewer characters more room to breathe and develop this early on in the novel. Well done on such a strong clear set-up.

The Joy Divide by Diane Wilson

Sarah said: Strong writing with a vivid sense of place. I’d like to know about more about what I’m reading and why I should carry on. Perhaps you could set up the story a little more clearly – what genre is this? What can the reader expect from the reading experience?


Again, well done to all of these writers.


If you weren’t ready for this year’s competition, then the 2020 competition is now open for entries. The judge this time around is Carrie Plitt at Felicity Bryan. Get all the details on the next competition here.


2019 First Chapter Competition Shortlist

2019 First Chapter Competition Shortlist

Ta da, we have our shortlist! Thanks again to everyone who submitted and to all of the writers on the longlist for their patience while Louise and I made the decision on which 10 stories would go through to the next round for literary agent, Sarah Hornsley at The Bent Agency, to read.

Congratulations to the following writers – your opening chapters really grabbed us.

  • A Pair of Blue Butterflies by Claire Whatley
  • Behold The Stars by Imogen Harris
  • Caught Kissing Adam Faith by Neil Taylor
  • Cold Harbour by Marian Smith
  • My Name is Ten by Coleen MacMahon
  • Red Fox Hiding by Nicola Keller
  • Ruby Sixpence Whistles Up A Storm by Anita Belli
  • The Darkest Harbour by Catherine Day
  • The Joy Divide by Diane Wilson
  • Violet by Zoe Cook


Good luck to all for the next round.

Really well done to all writers that made the longlist too as yours stood out among the hundreds of chapters we received.

Final results in May when the first place writer gets a submission package review from Sarah, and the runner-up from me. Sarah will provide short comment on all the shortlisted chapters too in the announcement blog.

Details of the 2020 competition will be released in the summer…