Good Title

I was reviewing the rules for the Southport writing competition and I see they include the advice ‘Titles should be both appropriate and interesting.’ Who’d a thunk it, eh? No wonder my strategy of using titles that are both irrelevant and boring isn’t paying off.

Then I tried to come up with the most tedious title I could think of, and it is strangely difficult. A List of my Socks – no, somehow you start wondering about these items of footwear. Are they alphabetised or sorted by colour? The old Beachcomber column used to publish extracts from the List of Huntingdonshire Cabmen. In a televised version they got, I think Ralph Richardson to read them, and they were gripping.

What about Some Dream I had once – no, I’m interested already, even though other people’s dreams are notoriously tedious and dreams are a terrible plot deflator. Or Common Houseware Problems the trouble is that with a title like that, you automatically suspect the author of slyly concealing a very uncommon narrative. The truly boring title has to sound sincere but be utterly colourless. In the end the best I could come up with was A Tale, which seems blandly uninviting. On reflection I thought I could go one better with A Further Tale, which adds the dispiriting hint that you’ve probably already missed any good bits. But I can still imagine glancing at it. So somehow I’m just not getting the real nadir of off-putting boredom.

November Competitions

Here’s my look at writing contests I’m thinking of entering next month.
  • The Caledonia Novel Award offers a top prize of £1,500, and for the best entrant from the UK and Ireland, a week-long course at the Moniack Mhor Creative Writing Centre. The judge is literary agent Laura Williams, who I believe is keen to find new talent; entrants cannot already have representation. They want the first 200 pages plus a 200 word synopsis (rather tight); the deadline is 1 November so you need to get moving quickly.
  • Also with a 1 November deadline is the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. This is judged in regions (1. Africa, 2. Asia, 3. Canada and Europe, 4. Caribbean and 5. Pacific.); regional winners get £2,500, with the overall winner getting £5,000. Entries in certain languages other than English are permitted (no idea how they judge across languages, and not all Commonwealth languages are covered – not even Hindi, it seems, though you can write in Bengali). If a winning entry is a translation, the translator gets a small extra prize, which is nice. They are looking for 2-5,000 words, one entry per writer.
  • Sutton Writers, that excellent group, invites Christmas ghost stories of up to 1,500 words, deadline Friday 13 November… In addition to online publication there will be a cash prize made up of the entry fees (£5 per story), so the more people enter, the bigger the prize!
  • Tripfiction promotes books with a strong sense of location, offering members a database where they can find recommended books about any particular place. Their competition encourages you to write some more of that kind of thing. They’re looking for 750 to 3,000 words with a strong ‘sense of place’; they provide more detailed tips, but only after you’ve registered (free) and signed up to enter. Top prize is £300, the deadline is 15 November.
  • Hope Mill Theatre is looking for plays of at least an hour’s length; top prize is £5,000 and a full performance. Finalists also get a scene performed and one-to-one mentoring sessions.  You need to submit the script, a short biog, synopsis and character list (thought a character list was a standard part of a script anyway?) all by 27 November.
  • Fiction Factory offers a top prize of £300 for stories up to 3,000 words, with a deadline of 30 November. Top stories will be published in an anthology. The judge is Tim Symonds, who writes stories about Sherlock Holmes, which might be a clue to what’s likely to go down well.
  • Last but certainly not least we have the prestigious Fish Prize for stories of up to 5,000 words. Top prize is €3,000 plus a 5 day Short Story Workshop at the West Cork Literary Festival. Second place brings a week at Anam Cara Writers’ Retreat and €300.  Even the honourable mentions get €200, and the top ten stories will be published in an anthology. The deadline is 30 November.
I have to admit I’m still working on October competitions…

Literary Taxidermy

I got an honourable mention for my story ‘New Troy’ in the Literary Taxidermy competition! This is an unusual competition where you have to take the first and last sentences of a novel (Brave New World in this case) and fill in the gap with a new story.


A building that fills a whole world; an endless sequence of halls, all filled with statues. Here and there the sea has broken in and flooded or destroyed some of the great marble figures and massive stairways. And here lives one resourceful man who has contrived to live off fish, befriending the albatross and other birds who also live here. He is not quite alone. He regularly meets the Other, a man in smart suits, and together they try to obtain powerful magic. The Other jokingly calls him ‘Piranesi’; he knows this not his real name but does not mind. Piranesi believes there are probably only fifteen people in the world; the rest are all skeletons that he cares for respectfully.

This is the new novel from Susanna Clarke that we fans of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell have been waiting for so eagerly. We had The Ladies of Grace Adieu to keep us going, but nothing more substantial. Are we satisfied?

Well, the new novel is not a sequel, and as we eventually discover, it is set in the twenty-first century. There are no delightful footnotes, and it is relatively short. However, it clearly comes from the same imagination as Strange and Norrell. There are no fairies, but the underlying conception of magic as a dialogue with the powers of Nature is still here. The fascination with (the real) Piranesi’s bizarre architectural fantasies is obviously here, too. Even if our hero were not given the tell-tale nickname we should recognise that these halls owe something to the dream-like images of the Italian architect and artist, though for many readers they will call up faint echoes of Borges’ total library, too.  These visions presumably shaped the King’s Roads in Strange and Norrell and explicitly provide the design for the tremendous Thoresby Bridge in Grace Adieu. There are some other signs of kinship with Strange and Norrell. We might say (slight spoiler) that both books feature a resourceful black man with a false friend who inadvertently inherits an enchanted realm.
One of Clarke’s great achievements in Strange and Norrell was to provide a really satisfying conception of magic which chimed well with folklore yet got everything to make sense. Here we don’t quite get that. Piranesi’s world is explained, partly by a kind of guru who seems to be a cross between Julian Jaynes and Aleister Crowley; but there’s a certain amount of handwaving involved. In some ways I almost feel it would have been better to leave the modern world out of it and simply give Piranesi adventures in his own self-justifying world.

Overall, this isn’t the further volume of Strange and Norrell that many of us would have liked, but it’s a great book and very welcome. More please, more!

Upcycling Corks

I could never bear to throw away the corks from old wine bottles, although Katharine was understandably sceptical about the idea I would ever find a use for them. There used to be a recycling scheme (perhaps there still,is, but if so I’ve lost track of it). Over the years the message about corks changed too; at one stage we were being told not to buy cheaper bottles with corks, so that supplies could be kept for the first-growth clarets and so on that really needed it. Then the message was that we should buy anything with corks in order to save the industry, the cork oaks, and the unique biological environment that went with them. Anyway, I feel I’ve been vindicated because I’ve now made place mats with my collection!

I drilled two little holes through each cork with a dremel, and strung them together with fine wire, using tiny wooden beads to fasten off the ends. It would have been possible to string each one with a single wire, but you would have seen the wires crossing some of the diagonals, which I didn’t like. The result is perhaps slightly rustic, more suitable for barbecues and other outdoor eating than your fancy dining table, but I’m pretty pleased overall.

October Competitions

Here’s my review of novel/short story contests I’m thinking of entering next month.
  • Book Pipeline’s Unpublished competition is for full-length manuscripts and offers $15,000 to winners plus circulation to agents etc (though I’m never sure how much value to attach to the latter). Deadline is 5 October so you really need to have the finished manuscript already.
  • Fosseway Writers offer £50 as their top prize for a story of up to 2,500 words on the (possibly prophetic) theme ‘Another Disappointment’. The deadline is 10 October.
  • The University of Louisville is running its annual Calvino Prize for writing in ‘the fabulist experimentalist style of Italo Calvino’ – but entries must not be ‘merely imitative’ – tricky! First prize is $2,000 plus publication in their journal; entries can be part or all of a continuous work or a collection, but there is a strict limit of 25 ‘industry standard’ pages, whatever they are. The deadline is 15 October.
  • The Dinesh Alirajah Prize for Short Fiction offers a top prize of £500; shortlisted entries will be published in an ebook anthology (I like to see paper myself). The word count must be between 2,000 and 6,000 words on the theme ‘Home’; the deadline is 23 October.
  • Retreat West calls for stories between 1,500 and 3,000 words with a first prize of £400; the deadline is 25 October.
  • F(r)iction is a beautiful periodical that seeks to push the literary boundaries. Its current competition offers ‘$1,600 in prizes’ for a story between 1,001 and 7,500 words (love that niggling ‘1,001’), with a deadline of 30 October.
Then once again we have a cluster of contests at the very end of the month, all with a deadline of 31 October.
  • First the strange case of the Bedford International Writing Competition, where it seems there has been kind of coup. Back in May I (and presumably all the other previous entrants) received an email from the Chair saying that three committee members had seized control of the website and funds, in defiance of the other members and the constitution. The ‘proper’ competition had therefore had to be closed, and anything that was organised by the breakaway group would not be the BIWC and could not trade on its good reputation. There is indeed a Bedford competition under way, with a first prize of £500, and a maximum of 3,000 words; judge for yourself whether to enter!
  • Cranked Anvil’s quarterly competition has a prize of £150 for a story up to 1,500 words.
  • Southport Writers’ Circle also offers £150 but the word limit is a slightly more generous 2,000
  • The Horwich Prize is £50 for a story of 1,500 words on the theme of ‘Nature and Nurture’.
  • The Cinnamon Literature Award has categories for short story collections, full novels, and poetry; no prize except proper publication (yay paper!). You need two short stories of up to 5,000 words or 10,000 words of your novel (or ten poems, but that’s not for me).
Enough to keep me busy!


I remember being puzzled by the discovery that Shakespeare had a son called “Hamnet”. What had that got to do with Hamlet? It surely couldn’t be just a coincidence, even allowing for that peculiar one-letter difference between the names. Maggie O’Farrell’s novel, which won the Women’s Prize for Fiction, offers an explanation. It’s one that is satisfying fictionally and perhaps psychologically, but almost certainly false historically.

The novel centres on Shakespeare’s wife; we normally know her as Anne Hathaway, the somewhat older woman with the famous cottage, left behind in Stratford while Shakespeare enjoyed his glittering career in London. O’Farrell gives us a different person; even her name is changed to ‘Agnes’, which it seems is what her father called her. They had a flexible approach to spelling back then; we’re told up front that they treated ‘Hamnet’ and ‘Hamlet’ as the same, so that’s that cleared up (of course Shakespeare spelled his own name several different ways on different occasions).

Agnes, in this version, has more than a touch of woodland magic about her. She can see into people’s minds by holding the web of flesh between their thumb and finger (which must be really irritating); she often knows the future, and can knock up a terrific poultice or potion out of a range of herbs with the kind of names they give to fancy shampoos these days. She may not comb her hair much, but she has a natural beauty and squirrels come to sit on her shoulder as if she were being written by Disney.

A little of that goes a long way for me, and I feel that the traditional Anne Hathaway – lumpish, too old, inadequately loved – would have been a character eminently worth writing about. But that’s wishing O’Farrell had written a different book, which is simply bad manners from the reader. I don’t feel she goes overboard, anyway; she makes a vivid character out of Agnes. In fact her suffering comes across strongly; I wouldn’t read Hamnet if you have a sick child, or perhaps if you’re pregnant.

In O’Farrell’s version the relationship between Will and Agnes is true love from the moment he spots her flying her kestrel while he is doing some Latin tutoring to help pay off his disgraced father’s debts. Although the later separation while he is making his name in London brings difficulties, the strength of the bond is never in doubt; O’Farrell fairly points out that when he’d made enough money, Shakespeare came home to Stratford for the rest of his life.

In this version (spoilers!) Hamnet dies tragically of the plague, voluntarily taking on his twin sister’s fatal illness. Agnes is horrified to hear that Shakespeare has produced a play apparently named after his son, but ultimately realises that in that play he has brought him back to life while voluntarily taking on the death in turn by casting himself as the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

Maybe Shakespeare did think that way to some degree, and it rounds out the novel into a memorable read. But the historical background suggests a different picture. It seems very likely (to me at least) that the Shakespeare twins Hamnet and Judith were named after close family friends Hamnet Sadler and his wife Judith. It may well have been reciprocal, with Hamnet Sadler naming two of his many children after Will and Agnes (or Anne). Hamlet the prince was named after neither Hamnet, however. He comes from a character in a Danish legend named ‘Amleth’; it’s probable that Shakespeare took him from an earlier play or text in which the name may already have been Englished as ‘Hamlet’. In short, neither Will nor Agnes would have supposed that Hamlet was named after, let alone meant to depict, their son, any more than he depicted Hamnet Sadler the baker.

But this is a novel, not a scholarly monograph. As a novel I recommend it and think it was a worthy winner.