Sunday, 19 May 2019

On "Whale Watching"

For a writer, there’s always something rather thrilling about featuring in a competition. It doesn’t matter if it’s a short-listing, a long-listing (I’ve talked about this in an earlier blog), or highly-commended – all of these are an indication that your story has met a certain writing standard, as judged by a knowledgeable reader, or readers. (There’s an interesting article on this subject by Kit de Waal on the Bridport Competition site.)

Earlier this year, I was short-listed for the H. E. Bates prize, for my story ‘Miss Bird Catches a Wave’, which was long-listed for last year’s Yeovil Prize. This is great – it’s telling me that two quite distinct sets of judging panels consider this particular work to be of note. It’s a story I myself think well of, so it’s good to have this external, objective approval.

Another piece I was especially pleased with was one called ‘Whale Watching’. After you’ve been writing short stories for a while, you tend to get a feeling for what’s good, what’s okay, and yes, sadly, sometimes, what is bad (you really shouldn’t have written this; what did you think you were doing…?!) ‘Whale Watching’ I liked from the first stirrings of the idea, through to the final draft. I also liked the fact that it was set in Fishguard, which I would now call my home town. The story centres around a narrator who, as a little girl, witnessed the filming of ‘Moby Dick’ in the lower harbour – a true event, which took place in nineteen fifty-four. The film starred Gregory Peck, and Richard Basehart, and was directed by John Huston, and is celebrated as part of Fishguard’s colourful history, although it tends to be rather over-shadowed by the later ‘Under Milk Wood’, which brought Richard Burton into the many pubs, happily drinking with the locals. Still, you will find ‘Moby Dick’ commemorated in the local heritage centre, and as part on the mosaics on the Goodwick sea front.

Film-making, perhaps more than any other form of arts genre, plays tricks with reality. The camera (which certainly can lie), the editing, the ‘acting’, the props, the stunts – all these fool the viewer. The rumours surrounding this particular filming are legendary. Was there a life-size white whale? One? Two? Three? Did Gregory Peck get swept out to sea, strapped to its flank? Did the coastguard have to be called?! It is hard to discover the truth from … not, perhaps, ‘lies’, but ‘fabrications for the purposes of publicity’. Or perhaps it was no more than poor memory, after the event.
Because memory is something that plays tricks, too. So it is for the narrator in my story. Seeing the filming was the highlight of her childhood, and remained the greatest excitement of her life. She is obsessed with it, as Ahab was obsessed with the whale. But what she remembers is not necessarily what really happened. 

I entered ‘Whale Watching’ for the Chipping Norton Festival short story prize. Despite my feelings that it was a good story, in the end, you never know. Luck has to come into it. And taste. There is such variety in the short story form, it is impossible to please all the judges all of the time. You may just submit to the wrong competition (which is why it’s important not to be too down-hearted if your story gets nowhere, and to keep at it, if you honestly believe your piece has merit.) 
At the beginning of March, I received an email listing the short-listed titles, in alphabetical order. Of course, as mine was called ‘Whale Watching’ it came at the end of the list of twelve, and by the time I reached it, I’d already written myself off, so it was a pleasant surprise to see I had made it through, after all.

Those twelve stories were then passed to judge Nicholas Royle, for his final judging.
Nicholas Royle has written three collections of short stories, and edited twenty anthologies. He is a reader in creative writing in Manchester Writing School, runs his own press, and works as an editor for Salt publishing.

So this is someone who is an expert in the field, both as writer and editor.
Did I stand a chance?

Then, in late March, the ‘winners’ email arrived – the three top-placed stories. And first was Diana Powell. It took me a few re-readings to realise I had actually won. And a few more days of waiting for an email telling me they’d made a mistake, before I fully accepted it.

Besides the actual monetary prize, (which is always very welcome!), the Festival held an Awards Ceremony, in which Nicholas himself commented on the top three stories, and who doesn’t feel happy to receive such praise!?  The word ‘masterful’ is in there somewhere.

Not only that, but as an additional bonus, my story, along with the second and third placed, was read out by LAMDA-trained actor, Karen Jackson. I’ve read my own work before, and I know I’ve improved over time, but to hear your entire story read by a professional is quite an experience.

Below is a short section of a recording from the ceremony.

‘Whale Watching’ can be read in full on the Festival website:

Thanks to all involved in the Festival, particularly Cathy Evans for organising the competition, and Nicholas Royle, and Karen Jackson.

And thanks, too, to ‘Moby Dick’ and the inspiration it gave me.

And the icing on the cake?  Nicholas Royle says ‘Whale Watching’ will be included in next year’s ‘Best of British Short Stories’. Wow!

Sunday, 14 April 2019


An interesting and varied couple of weeks, after the hibernation of a rather long winter in the depths of west Wales – or so it seemed at times…

March 21stsaw the launch of the Solstice Noon anthology, including my story ‘Noon Child Unknown.’ Sadly, I couldn’t make any of the actual launches (there were three, and there was cake!), but the anthology itself is full of captivating poems and stories, by many talented authors. An especially big ‘thank you’ to Cherry Potts of Arachne Press, for publishing the book – her hard work is much appreciated.

I was thrilled to have my story ‘The Cabinet of Immortal Wonders’ featured in Issue 37 of ‘The Blue Nib.’ This was a story that was short-listed for the 2016 Over-the-Edge New Writers’ Competition, and one that I really wanted to appear in print, so it could be read by others. I was particularly delighted by Fiction Editor Mimi Gladman’s comments about it. Such a great feeling when an editor appreciates your work!

 Then, on Thursday, 4thApril, I was lucky enough to read at First Thursday, in Chapter Arts, Cardiff, in the company of Damian Walford Davies – a debut fiction writer (me) alongside a well-published and distinguished poet. I had a fifteen minute reading slot, which meant I could read more of ‘Esther Bligh’ than usual, and I think (hope) I managed to link extracts that worked well together, and gave a flavour of the book, as a whole. 
I am extremely grateful to Amy Wack of Seren Books, and Leona Esther Medlin (Mulfran Press) for this opportunity in front of a knowledgeable, appreciative audience. And thanks, also, to Damian for his support.

A week later I attended an interview between Gaby Wood (literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation) and prize-winning author Sarah Hall, at Faber and Faber, Bloomsbury. It is always useful to be given an insight into the working methods of a great exponent of the art of the short story form. And although it can be humbling, it can also be inspiring – I came away with some fresh ideas, and a new way to approach a story I was about to give up on. 

Talking of prize-winning… More to follow…

Monday, 14 January 2019

A short review of the year

The highlight of 2018 was, of course, the publication of ‘Esther Bligh’ in June, by Holland House Books… the highlight of my writing ‘career’, in fact! Hence, the novella’s centre place in the photo.

Beneath it are the other journals or anthologies my stories featured in last year. I’m proud of these, too, because I love the short story form, and it’s something I always return to. So it was great to appear in ‘The Dawntreader’, ‘Leicester Writes Short Story Prize Anthology’, ‘The Cinnamon Review of Short Fiction’ and ‘Dream Catcher 37’. Thanks to those editors for liking my stories! And to them, the publishers, and fellow contributors for producing some excellent representations of the short form.

Otherwise, there were a number of readings, mainly of ‘Esther’ in a variety of venues, including the launch (best moment!), Tregwynt Manor, Llangwm Festival, and a Cinnamon reading in London.  

It was a particular pleasure to take part in Penfro festival, as a writer, after several years as a visitor, or competition entrant (see my earlier blog on this).

All of these were greatly enjoyable and, again, I am grateful to all the organisers, with a special thank-you to Seaways Bookshop, Fishguard, for hosting my launch.

2018 also seemed to be a year for long-listing. I was long-listed for the Leicester Writes prize, the Yeovil prize, the Cinnamon Debut Fiction prize, as well as a bursary I applied to.

How one feels about long-listing often depends on the mood of the moment. If, as a writer, you are in one of those ‘dark’ places, when rejection follows rejection, and you are dissatisfied with your work, then being long-listed can feel rather like ‘always the bridesmaid, never the bride.’ You may wonder why you are not making the jump up to being placed. Is there something not quite right with your work, which is putting judges off? Will you ever make it further?

But if you are in a positive state of mind, you can be thrilled to get long-listed, decide you must have written a good story – something that made it stand out from the crowd; it was merely a preference of the judge(s) that stopped it getting a prize. Quite often, being long-listed gets the story included in an anthology (as happened with the Leicester Competition), and this is always to be welcomed, helping to get you and your work out there.

And really, it is better to think this way, whichever mood you are in. As writers, we need all the positivity and encouragement we can get – even if it is from ourselves…

Saturday, 1 December 2018

On Libraries…

 From Fishguard Library,

To Llanelli Library,

Or should that be the other way around?

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of reading from ‘Esther Bligh’ in my local library, at Fishguard.

As someone who has worked as a branch-librarian, and in a college library, this was a particular pleasure, along with seeing my book displayed on the shelves.

I was lucky enough to grow up in a house full of books, but many writers will have started their reading lives in libraries, leading them on to writing in the future… and, perhaps, to that proud moment.

The branch-library where I worked was in Talgarth, a few miles down the road from Hay-on-Wye, a job I loved in a place I loved. It was a joy to serve such wonderful people, and help them find the books they might like, or provide them with any information they may need. Sadly, our borrowing figures were never very high, and every week I gave thanks to the family who borrowed up to thirty westerns in one go, as long as we had been able to get new stock in – or even if we had not.

The college facility, or Learning Resources Centre, was a rather different affair, and the students were more challenging than my village neighbours, but it was still great to spend my days working surrounded by books.

Then, last Saturday, I took part in a Book Fair in Llanelli Library – another special venue.
Llanelli Library would have been the first I ever visited – probably with my grandmother, who lived just up the road, and was a keen reader, borrowing a new pile of books every fortnight.

Of course, the building has been modernised since then, with almost a ‘funky’ interior of lime-green and black. But this extension was built onto the original building, which has been kept with original features, and so it was possible to walk up the stairs and feel myself going back in time, treading in the footsteps of my grandmother, my younger self, and many family and friends.

And some of those friends were kind enough to visit my stand, along with the regular Saturday morning library-users.

The library was a great venue for a Book Fair – spacious, comfortable, with tea and biscuits provided, along with a warm welcome from the librarians. So thank you, to all at Llanelli, for organising and arranging, and making us feel at home.

It can be a strange feeling when past and present get mixed together. In this instance, it was a pleasurable experience.

It’s something that happens in ‘Esther Bligh’, but there, of course, it’s a much darker affair.

Sunday, 7 October 2018

London Launch of Cinnamon Review of Short Fiction

When you live in a rural location, a trip to London is always something of an adventure. We tend to come back saying ‘it’s like another planet.’ And it is, when compared with the far west of Wales.

But interacting with an alien culture is not necessarily a bad thing, particularly when the reason for doing so is a rather special occasion – and last month’s visit to the big city to read at the launch of the Cinnamon Review of Short fiction was certainly one of those.

The event had been organised to allow for introductions, chat and refreshments before the readings, with further socialising afterwards – a great idea, which worked well.

It was a pleasure to meet up with Jan and Adam again, and to meet other Cinnamon writers, who are all so friendly, as well as talented. And all this in the unique setting of the music room in a private house in Great Ormond Street, adding to the sense of occasion.

The readers were Kate Mitchell, Jane McLaughlin, Jez Noond, Sarah Barr, David Mark Williams, Isabelle Llasera and myself, whilst Tamsin Hopkins talked about the writing process.

Once again, the variety of the short story form was apparent – variety in subject matter, theme, style, genre – and indeed, delivery. The audience were responsive and kind, contributing to an enjoyable, entertaining evening, which flew by.

So a big thank you to Tamsin Hopkins for organising, and to Jan and Adam for the work they do at Cinnamon, and to all the other writers, who contributed to making both the launch and the anthology so impressive.

Saturday, 29 September 2018

PENfro Book Festival, 2018 – Writers’ Panel

Taking part in PENfro Book Festival earlier in September was a special moment for me. I was there, as a published writer, featuring in a Writers’ Panel, in which I discussed my work, and in particular, my novella, Esther Bligh. In fact, according to the adverts for the programme, I was one of the Sunday morning ‘stars’…!

I think it was in 2013 that I attended my first PENfro, not long after moving here. It had been wonderful to discover that Pembrokeshire had its very own literature festival, providing workshops and talks by some top writers – and to find that it was held in the beautiful setting of Rhosygilwen Mansion was an added bonus. It was worth a visit simply to explore the grounds, and sample their quiche and cake!

And then, the following year, I won the Short Story prize, for my story ‘Ingrid, Audrey and Jean.’ No-one was more surprised than I was, and I still worry that I didn’t thank anyone when I received my prize – I was in such a daze! It was a real boost to my writing – an indication that my work had some value. Particularly inspiring were the words of the judge, Maria Donovan, who said: ‘This is a short story perfectly in tune with itself. From its enigmatic title and first arresting image to the underlying themes of escape and belonging, it always keeps ahead of expectations. Calm, confident and disturbing: a treat to read and re-read.’

It was rather a case of ‘oh, did I really write that story?!’
Because of these comments, Maria is one of the two authors I acknowledge at the end of ‘Esther Bligh’, along with Helen Carey, for helping me believe that I could write.
The story was later chosen to be included in the anthology ‘Secondary Character and other stories’, a collection by the Welsh Short Story Network, published by Opening Chapter. This was the first time for my work to appear in a book – another proud moment.

And I read ‘Ingrid…’ at Rhosygilwen the following year, one of my first experiences of open mic. So it is no wonder I have a lot to thank PENfro and Maria for, on account of that story alone. It still remains one of my favourites.

In that next year, 2015, I was commended for the Memoir Prize, a result I was more than happy with, as this was a new genre for me, and my piece is still the only ‘personal essay’ I’ve written.

In 2016, I was short-listed for the ‘First Chapter’ competition, with my YA novel, since put to one side, but another useful validation of my work.

And now, this year, to appear on the other side of the table has been another significant step on my journey as a writer – which was, indeed, the theme of the panel. I was there along side Hilary Shepherd, another fiction writer, whose novel ‘Albi’ was published earlier this year. The talk was facilitated by Brenda Squires, chair of the festival committee and owner of the beautiful Rhosygilwen, who effortlessly prompted us with questions about the writing process, in relation to our recent publications. 

The Writers’ Forum at Tregwynt had started me thinking about such things (see previous blog), and this was an opportunity to delve deeper into the issues raised. ‘How did ‘Esther’ come about?’ ‘What has it meant to you?’ ‘What are your experiences of the publishing process?’ – these questions were about my novella, but we were also asked how we came to writing, and where our journey was taking us next.

With all this in mind, I started a sort of ‘writing journal’, where I put my thoughts on various topics, and also quotes from other writers, that I feel echo my own views. It’s very useful to see where patterns emerge, so that you begin to think ‘yes, that’s where I am with my writing.’

We both read from our work, and ended with questions from the audience, which can be a scary moment, as it could be about something you haven’t thought of at all. 

So, a big thank you to PENfro, to Brenda, and all the committee, for inviting me. And to Hilary, for being there with me. And to the audience, who were very forgiving, and who did applaud at the end, which is encouraging! 

Pembrokeshire now has another literature festival, at Llangwm, in August. 

I, personally, think the county has enough room for two (if not more!), as there is sufficient variety between them. And, with a wealth of local talent, and top writers from further afield more than happy to visit our beautiful part of the world, I see no reason why they should not both be able to continue to flourish. But I suspect that PENfro will always have a special place in my heart. It seems quite appropriate that the subject of the panel was The Writer’s Journey, as PENfro has been such an important part of mine.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Reading at Llangwm Literary Festival


Yesterday, I had the pleasure of reading in the open mic at Llangwm Literary Festival.

(It was raining, hence the wet hair…)

I read the opening of ‘Esther Bligh’, then answered a few questions about writing, from organiser Philippa Davies and the audience, including one about the novella form, reminding me it’s a subject I want to consider more carefully.

 The readings included prose, poetry, historical non-fiction, memoir, and biography – a great variety, which made for an entertaining event.

Llangwm festival is only three years old, yet it has already become established in the literary calendar, and attracts some of the best writers, performers, artists and foragers (Julia Horton-Powdrill!). Even in the rain, the village is delightful, and the people are so friendly.

After the open mic, I was lucky enough to see Dervla Murphy talking about her travels. She is eighty-six now, and says there will be no more, but she has given us some of the best travel literature of recent years. 

So… thank you again to Philippa, and Michael Pugh, and all who work so hard to put on this fascinating weekend.