firstwriter.com subscriber wins Ruth Rendell Short Story Competition
Christian Cook, a subscriber to
firstwriter.com, has won the prestigious Ruth Rendell Short Story
Competition. Run by InterAct Reading Service, an award-winning charity that aims
to stimulate the minds of stroke patients through live readings, the competition
is held biennially and is open to all UK residents. Christian (37), who lives in
Street, Somerset, was presented with his award by Baroness Rendell at a ceremony
Christian’s story, "Facing East", will be
included in a new collection of short stories, called Interactions. The
book, which is being sold in aid of InterAct, also includes contributions from
Ruth Rendell, Toby Young, Nell Dunn, and Nobel prize-winning poet, Seamus
Heaney, among others. They represent the thousands of stories that have been
read to stroke patients across the UK, at hospitals and in specialist stroke
clubs. The readings, which are all given by professional actors, not only
support stroke recovery but also encourage the patients’ own creativity.
Christian, who is a freelance designer and
photographer when not writing, said of his win: "It was a great honour to
receive the award from Baroness Rendell. InterAct is a wonderful charity that do
a tremendous amount of good work to support stroke patients, and I’m delighted
that my story will be included in their book."
firstwriter.com caught up with Christian
to talk to him about his writing and his success in the competition.
fw: Congratulations on winning the Ruth
Rendell Short Story Competition, Christian. Could you tell us a little bit more
about the competition?
CC: Thank you. The Ruth Rendell Short
Story Competition is a biennial writing contest judged by Baroness Ruth Rendell
and organised by the award-winning charity, Interact Reading Service, of which
Ruth Rendell is a patron. The charity arrange for professional actors to read to
stroke patients in hospital wards and stroke clubs. These readings do not just
help alleviate the boredom of the patients, but also help to stimulate the brain
in rebuilding the neural network. The prize involves being appointed writer in
residence to the charity and writing a further four stories over one year for
This year, for the first time, Interact have also
published an anthology to highlight their work and raise funds for the charity.
As the winning entry, my story is in the anthology alongside stories from the
two previous winners and other pieces by writers such as Ruth Rendell, Seamus
Heaney (Nobel Prize in Literature winner), Tony Young (author of How to Lose
Friends and Alienate People) and Nell Dunn (author of Poor Cow and
Up The Junction).
Out-of-control fire is always a frightening thing
to witness and those FAST adverts about the signs of a stroke on TV where the
condition is depicted in that way have always scared me. Some of the statistics
I have read up on since winning the award have been chilling and really opened
my eyes. One thousand babies suffer a stroke every year. I first read that and
time just stopped still for a minute while I rewrote everything I thought I knew
about strokes. Stroke is now the second biggest killer in England and Wales and
the number one cause of serious disability in the United Kingdom.
With all the voices clamouring for attention
nowadays, for a writer to be read by anyone at all is a great privilege, but to
have my work used in this way is a huge honour and very humbling. I cannot think
of a greater use of fiction than the work that Interact do.
fw: When you heard about the
competition did you already have a suitable story ready to submit?
CC: I came up with my entry a little late
in the day. I trawl firstwriter.com fairly regularly, but originally I
had another story lined up for this one. Then at the last minute I decided that
it wasn't a great fit. I think my original choice had been swayed too much by
the judge being Ruth Rendell and at the last minute I decided I needed something
that would fit better with what Interact do. So I wrote something in a hurry and
broke some golden rules of mine. I submitted a first draft and I accidentally
let some typos and grammar errors slip through. I thought that was the end of my
entry, but I must have got something right as it made it through the preliminary
panel to the final ten, then was shortlisted down to the final three by Ruth
Rendell herself and then she singled out "Facing East" as the overall winner.
fw: What kind of approach did you take
CC: I didn't want to create something too
happy and "syrupy", but thinking of the patients in the wards, I didn't think
they would want something too dark and sinister with all they would be dealing
with. So I deliberately went for something that wrong-footed the reader slightly
and played on their expectations. I also aimed for something very visual and
rhythmic that took people back to memories of endless days in childhood summers.
"Facing East" can be read online for free on the
Interact site at
The anthology Interactions is produced by
Roast Books and is available on Amazon at
and directly from Roast Books at:
Proceeds from the book go towards helping the
work of Interact Reading Service.
fw: Is writing something you've come to recently, or is it something
you've always done?
CC: I used to happily play on my own for
hours as a child. I would always get into trouble for getting too many toys out
at once, but one thing never seemed enough to fully enact the plots in my head
and so all the Smurfs and all the Lego figures and all the Star Wars figures and
all the Play People and all the Action Men would become the various races of a
bizarre Middle Earth-like land of differing scales.
At school, I wrote an alternative school magazine
alongside with best friend that was very Dada and bordered on being completely
So writing fiction has always been bubbling just
below the surface, but what really brought it to the fore was joining the world
of "real" work. I graduated from a graphic design course and got a job as
a designer at a nearby IT firm. It was a great little company and I'm still in
touch with them, but it taught me that the 9-5 office environment was not for
me. I remember very early on sitting in the boardroom with the two partners who
ran the company to discuss the re-launch of the business. I was sitting there in
a suit chatting through various bullet-pointed action plans and then I just
froze and thought: "what on earth am I doing here?"
I felt like Sam Beckett. Not the Irish writer,
but Dr Sam Beckett, the character in the TV series Quantum Leap, who
would jump into people's bodies and have to fulfil some historically significant
task as them. I felt like running to the nearest mirror to find out if I was a
man or a woman and then wait for Dean Stockwell to show up with his tappy little
fw: And so was that the point when you
really chose to get into writing?
CC: I see my writing as more of a medical need than a choice. Tiny thoughts jump
into my head – a line of dialogue, a scene, a character, a piece of plot – and then they begin to grow and more dialogue and characters start appearing.
This continues until the concept fills my head and starts to push other
things out. I start forgetting appointments and find I am packing the dishwasher
as one of my characters. The only way of getting my head back is to drag
it out of my brain and onto paper (well, a laptop screen). This is an ongoing
process and often there is more than one concept growing in there.
fw: Has all your writing been short stories, or have you done other things?
CC: I wrote a couple of novels that I self-published years ago and they've been
languishing around gathering dust on Amazon without any proper marketing.
I then began a novel about a guy selling snow to the Inuit online and it
ballooned up to a huge, unwieldy 250,000 words and became a bit unmanageable. It
became a bit of an albatross. I am not sure which bit of an albatross it became;
whichever is the bit that brings on writer's block and means you hardly
do any writing for three or four years.
fw: So what drew you to start writing short stories?
CC: I had always been a little intimidated by short stories. You have to be so
disciplined and there's no room for any waffle or filler text. Every word
has to count and your editing has to be surgical. But I decided to give short
stories a go, as they were quicker and the feedback cycle would be a lot
faster. I also hoped it would sharpen my editing skills.
Once I started with short stories, I fell in love with them. I really like the
challenge of telling something compelling within such a tiny window.
Sometimes, I'll take a 3,000 word piece from one contest and try to chop it in
half to fit into a 1,500 word limit contest. Trying to remove half the
story and still have it work as a whole is a very rewarding and educational
My initial thought had been to write a load of short stories and publish them
all for free online just to boost my exposure. But having written a few, I
realised I had something that was worth finding a proper market for. That's when
I started entering competitions, which was about three years ago.
fw: How did you go about finding competitions to enter?
CC: I regularly trawl firstwriter.com to see what new competitions are coming
up. My memory is awful so I need something to manage it all. I use the info
from the site to populate a spreadsheet of upcoming contests that shows the
theme, closing date, word count etc. I also have an Adobe Illustrator
document with a small "card" for each story with its theme and word count and
another set of "cards" for the contests in order of closing date. I do my
best to match up every contest that appeals to me with a relevant entry.
The email alerts are great as well. As soon as it comes through, I'll click the
link to see if the competition feels like it fits with what I am
currently working on or whether I want to write something specifically for it.
fw: How do you work out which story is going to best for each contest?
CC: It helps where there is a theme, but it can be tricky. Seeing what the judge
has written can help, but you also have to consider that they might
appreciate reading something very different to the material that they normally
The sometimes-snobbish attitude that arises where people look down on genre
pieces does annoy me. There are some publications and contests out there that
claim they accept genre stories alongside literary fiction, but I have a feeling
that some misguided desire to appear as intellectual and artistic pushes
them towards favouring the literary works above the others. I never set out to
write something literary or within a particular genre. The concept grows
and then I see what direction it ends up going in. There is just good writing
and bad writing as far as I am concerned. My only aim is to ensure it is
fw: So do you mainly choose competitions on how well they fit with the stories
you have available, or are there other factors?
CC: It depends on what the result is offering. I avoid all competitions that
offer to publish your work online on their website, as that will often rule
it out of future contests and can put agents off if it's out there for free
anyway. I always look to find evidence of what has happened to the previous
winners of the contest. If there's nothing on the site about their previous
successes then you have to question the true value of the prize.
The cash prizes never sway me at all. I am simply looking for anything that will
give me something to make agents sit up and listen.
fw: Do you think that writing for competitions differs from writing for other
CC: I am not sure it does differ much. I just write a short story and make sure
it adheres to my own personal aims for the piece. Rather than write for
each contest, I build up a backlog of stories and then adapt one or two to fit a
contest when I see what fits.
I have recently begun copywriting for companies and I just treat each page on
the website as if it were a short story. The company basically has a
"story" to tell to their clients about their business and I find an engaging way
of telling that story. It has a beginning and a middle and the end is
the call to action. So far, clients have really liked the results.
fw: Do you always stick with the same kind of contests, or do you enter a
CC: As long as it looks to be something that will produce agent fodder if
successful then I will consider it.
fw: Did find that you had to enter a lot of stories into contests before you
started to find success?
CC: You just have to keep throwing them out there until they start to stick. I
entered 25 contests in 2010. I won one, made one shortlist and one
longlist. I entered 55 in 2011. I was a third place finalist at the Morley
Literary festival and got into a number of anthologies, including Momaya
Press, The International Rubery Award Short Story Competition, The Gem Street
anthology from Labello Press and the Ruth Rendell Short Story Competition.
Although all these were entered in 2011, many of them were not announced until
2012. I have entered 25 so far in 2012 and I am waiting to hear back on
most of them.
fw: What advice do you have for other
CC: Read all the advice you can and don't ignore negative feedback, even if it
is obviously wrong. Criticism is preferable to silence. But don't try to
be all things to all people. Let all this input sharpen you, not swamp you.
I don't use the word "rejection" any more. It's such a big, ugly word; it makes
it feel like they're saying "you and your work and all you do and stand
for are worthless".
So I refer to them as "misses" now and try to keep the image in my head of someone
practicing basketball in a back garden. You throw the ball up over and
over. Some go in and some don't. When they don't, you just pick it up and throw
it again. It's not a rejection, it's just you missed that particular
One story that did not even make the long list on a small contest got thrown
straight back into a bigger competition without any alterations. It made it
into the final shortlist to be printed in the anthology.
I remember a particular week this year when I received three misses in three
days. When I first started out, that would have hit me hard, but I looked at
why they might not have been hits and resolved to work on them where they needed
tweaking. A month later, I was standing in a room with Ruth Rendell
handing me an award.
You have to enjoy the whole process of competitions. Obviously everyone is
aiming for success, but if you're just in it to win it then you're going to
find it a tough journey.
fw: What do you plan to do next with your writing?
CC: I love short stories and will continue to write them, but there is a
yearning to write some novels. I see short stories like those tiny boats that
throng around the big ships in a flotilla. I decided at the beginning of this
year that it was about time I brought out some more big ships. Short story
writing has sharpened up my editing and I am now ready to chop a novel's worth
of text out of the bloated 250,000 word monster.
But that process has not started yet. At the beginning of January, I was all set
to start hacking into my old novel when I realised it might be quicker
to write something entirely new rather than cut down that one. January and
February produced two new novels. On the back of my recent successes, I will
be approaching some agents with one of the two new novels. Once these take off,
I will buy some time to take a big cleaver to hack through those 250,000
words. Watch this space.
fw: Good luck with the novels, Christian, and thanks again for taking the time
to talk to us!
search firstwriter.com's database of over 150 writing
competitions to find the one where YOU could be a winner, click
literary agency launched
Two former colleagues from
Little Literary Agency have this month launched their
own literary agency: the Hardman
& Swainson agency.
Caroline Hardman and Joanna Swainson
have launched their agency with 18 authors on the books,
including Rebecca Wait, Anne Putnam, Rosie Fiore, Liz Trenew and Vanessa Greene, Michele Gorman and Professor Dan Davis.
new agency welcomes submissions of fiction across all genres and
nonfiction. Submissions by email are preferred, but they will accept postal submissions.
An SAE must be included if you require the material to be
details, click here.
the details of over 850 other literary agencies, click
New poetry magazine seeks reviews
Lummox is a new poetry magazine to be published in November of this year. The magazine will be a print product featuring poetry from around the world, though primarily
from the United States.
The publishers already have over 250 poems, but are in need of reviews of poetry books, eBooks, and magazines (both print and online). Black and white artwork is also
The first issue will feature "favourites", so corresponding reviews (your favourite books, etc.) are particularly welcome.
Reviews are required by September 1, 2012. See
for more details.
For details of over 1,500 other magazines, click here
Waxman and Leavell form new literary agency
Scott Waxman, of the Waxman
Literary Agency, is forming a new entity with fellow
Waxman Literary Agency agent, Byrd Leavell. The new agency
will be called the Waxman Leavell Literary Agency, and in
future the efforts of both agents will be directed towards
the new agency only. The "Waxman Literary
Agency" name will be phased out over the summer.
A domain name for the new
agency has already been secured, but at present it simply
redirects to the existing website for the Waxman Literary
For more information about
the Waxman Literary Agency, click here
For the details of over
850 other literary agencies, click
Sky Blue Theatre International Playwriting Competition announces highly commended entries
The judges of the Sky Blue
Theatre International Playwriting Competition have
announced the list of highly commended entries. They have
thanked all those who entered, and describe the response
as fantastic and the standard as very high.
The list of highly
commended entries is given below. From this list a shortlist of plays will be chosen to be rehearsed and then performed to a public audience who will vote for the winning play.
The highly commended plays are (in no particular order) :
Con-no-ta-tion – David Belke, Canada;
- Hot Seat – Dan Borengasser,
- Russets – Marietta Kirkbride,
- The Cell – Ashley Harris,
- Instant Harmony – Joseph Starzyk,
- The Hollywood Sign Girl – Alex Broun, Australia;
- Brief Encounters - Mark Roberts,
- Battle Stations – Mark J.Fowler,
- Angelic Voices in Ritarodando – Vickie L.Williams & Michael Laurenty,
- Bar Flies – Alan Barkley & David Broyles,
- The Grade – Seth Freeman, Canada;
- When the Gods – Morag Sealey,
just how I write
By Marcella Simmons
Here I am again, writing about my personal writing experiences. That's
just how I write but apparently not what editors are seeking. Or at least
not what one editor wants for her website. She did however, publish at least
seven or eight of the articles I submitted recently before rejecting my work
altogether. Why did she do that? After placing my edited article on her
site, she wrote me an "almost rude" note asking me not to submit to her any
more. Here is a portion of her letter explaining the reason. "...Most of the
pages (articles) you have submitted are about you (and your writing
experiences), but they are not helpful writing tips.... Your latest
submission had one good and well-worded tip in it. So I removed all the
I enjoy writing about my writing experiences, and I do believe that,
although they are about me to some extent, other writers can learn from
writers like myself who have been there and done that, tried this or tried
that. In my own words, I hope to be able to pave a way for writers who, just
like me, are looking for an easy way through the hectic hustle and bustle of
being a writer. How else can I do that if I don't share my personal writing
Writing an article filled with tips is one thing – nothing personal
there. But writers can get that in a writing course or a book. That little
personal touch can go a long way in smoothing the hard rubble road of the
writing life into a smooth path to being published.
From now on I will be a little more careful when submitting my
"personal writing essays". I will make sure that they are what editors are
seeking – sure, I can write a 500 or
1,000 word "how to write" piece minus the personal feeling, but then it becomes just another how-to piece that
writers will read only once. But if you're like me, that little extra
personal touch sure goes a long way, and it's not always about me
– in one sense, it might be but in another it's about you
– the writer. You know,
that writer that you would like to be. Maybe not like me, but that writer
who needs encouragement, inspiration and a little personal touch from
someone else who has been there.
Writing with a personal flare is just how I write
– it is me.
The next time you encounter an editor who can't appreciate your
personal qualities then move on. I've been published in hundreds of
publications and many websites over the past twenty years. This was my first
encounter with an editor who didn't agree with my style of writing. My
question is, why did she publish my work seven or eight times? I will never
really know because she asked me not to submit anymore –
so I won't – at least not to her. But I will continue writing and continue learning, and
someday, I'll write something that's not all about me!
However you choose to write, write. If you find your niche and it works
for you, keep at it. Maybe after a few published credits an editor will
complain to you as well. It will be at that time you know your work means
something! Good luck in all your writing endeavours!
writers at firstwriter.com
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