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It’s time to announce the winners of our 2015 Flash Fiction Competition.

Once again, the high standard of entries means that we’re announcing a shortlist. All shortlisted authors will receive a three-volume subscription to our anthology series, starting with volume 9 (coming in August).

The three winners will also receive cash prizes, and their stories will appear in an anthology later this year.

Let’s start with the complete shortlist. There are ten stories, presented here in alphabetical order by author:

  • The Last Day – S E Craythorne
  • Wood – Tracy Fells
  • Nuclear Family – Jenny Harding
  • Two-Timer – Freya Morris
  • Five Toes, and So On – Dan Purdue
  • The Trouble With Men – Andy Shearer
  • Memories – Ian Shine
  • Beat the Brainbox – Mike Scott Thomson
  • That Buzzing Inside My Head – Ren Watson
  • Youth – Liz Xifaras

And now for the winners…

The third prize (£50) goes to:

  • Freya Morris, for Two-Timer

The second prize (£100) goes to:

  • Mike Scott Thomson, for Beat the Brainbox

And the first prize (£300) goes to:

  • Ren Watson, for That Buzzing Inside My Head

Congratulations to all of the authors listed above, and thank you to all of you who took part in our flash fiction competition this year. I’ll be getting in touch in the next couple of weeks to arrange subscriptions and prizes.

The Flash Fiction Competition will open again in spring 2016. The Newcomer Prize for short stories opens for entries next week.

Ghost story competitionIt feels slightly strange to be doing this in the spring, with the sun shining and everything feeling so lively and pleasant, but it’s time to announce the winners of our 2015 Ghost Story Competition.

We received a great batch of entries this year, and to acknowledge this we’re going to announce a shortlist as well as our three winners. All of the shortlisted writers will receive a year’s subscription to our anthology series, and the three winners will appear in an upcoming Fiction Desk anthology.

Let’s start with the complete list of shortlisted stories:

My Body Upstairs by Frank Babics
Poor Billy by Alex Clark
One Green Bottle by Leah Eades
Mrs Dabrowski by Gilli Fryzer
Things in the Dead Space by Jo Gatford
Soup — Condensed by Anabel Graff
Laptops and Coffin Lids by Sara Kellow
Every Ghost Story is a Love Story by Vera Kurian
A Rooted Sorrow by Norma Levinson
Sing Me No Sad Songs by Amanda Mason
Home Solutions for Mould by S R Mastrantone
Jonathan by Louis Rakovich
The Fowling Piece by Stephanie Shaw

And now for the winners, in reverse order:

In third place (£100): Poor Billy by Alex Clark

In second place (£250): Home Solutions for Mould by S R Mastrantone

And the winner of the 2015 Fiction Desk ghost story competition, in first place (£500): Soup — Condensed by Anabel Graff

Congratulations to all of the above, and thank you all for sending in such great stories and making my job very difficult. I’ll be getting in touch over the coming weeks to arrange the shortlistees’ subscriptions and winners’ prizes.

Now a little bad news (or good news, depending on your tastes): we won’t be doing a dedicated ghost story anthology this year. Thanks to our slightly erratic “when it’s ready” publication schedule, we’ve swung quite heavily in the direction of supernatural fiction lately, with two of our last three anthologies being dedicated to it, and we do need to rebalance that a little. It also strikes me that it’s a bit odd to try breaking down genre barriers by bringing in ghost stories, only to then segregate them into their own volumes.

As a result, the above three winners will be appearing in one of our regular, mixed-genre anthologies, which should benefit both the volume they grace, and those among our subscribers who prefer their ghosts as part of a more balanced literary diet.

The Fiction Desk Ghost Story Competition will reopen for entries at the end of this year. Our Flash Fiction Competition is open now, and runs until the end of May.

8-ngsii-3d-coverIt’s time to announce the Writer’s Award for our latest anthology, New Ghost Stories II.

The Writer’s Award is one of my favourite things about running The Fiction Desk. The Award is given for each anthology that we publish, and is judged by the contributors themselves: each contributor votes for what they think are the two best stories, and the writer of the winning story gets £100.

The votes for New Ghost Stories II are in, and the winner this time is…

… Tamsin Hopkins, for her short story ‘The Table’.

Congratulations, Tamsin! The virtual cheque is in the digital post.

You can read the winning story (well, all the stories) in New Ghost Stories II, out now in paperback and Kindle editions: see here for details.

Jane Alexander won the 2014 Fiction Desk Ghost Story Competition with ‘In Yon Green Hill to Dwell’. In the latest of our ‘Stories behind Stories‘ posts, here she is to tell us how she came to write it…

As so often happens, this story was formed from the coming-together of what I’d thought were two separate ideas.

I’d been trying for some time to write a story that jumped off from the 18th-century Border ballad ‘Tam Lin’. I’d first come across ‘Tam Lin’ as a teenager, when I read Dianna Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock – a young adult novel that relocates the ballad to a contemporary setting. The women in 18th-century Scots ballads tend not to have a great time of it, often ending up murdered or executed – but ‘Tam Lin’ stands out for its protagonist: a woman who knew what she wanted, and took it. Though it’s named after the young man claimed by the Faerie Queen, the story it tells is that of his sweetheart Janet. It’s Janet who takes control of her destiny; who does as she pleases, goes where her father has forbidden her to go. It’s bold, steadfast Janet who rescues Tam from being sacrificed to the Devil. At the end of the ballad, it seems like happy ever after for Janet and Tam. But the end is also the beginning of the young couple’s life together, and I couldn’t help wondering what happens next. What happens when the adventure is over, and all the responsibilities of motherhood kick in?

I knew I wanted to write about this; but I kept getting stuck, abandoning draft after draft. I didn’t yet know what, exactly, I was writing about.

At around the same time I’d seen a call for submissions of stories inspired by particular songs, and I was trying to write about an old Billie Holiday track, ‘You’ve Changed’. Or rather, the song I wanted to write about was a cover by the Afghan Whigs. It’s a much darker version than Holliday’s. The singer reproaches his sweetheart for changing, growing indifferent to him – you’re bored of me in every way – but his voice gives him away: lazy, unfeeling, revelling in his own indifference; like there’s a chip of ice in his heart. What’s really changed, I think, is the singer’s impossibly romantic perception of his lover as a perfect angel. He’s blaming his partner for his own failings, and for being a flawed, ordinary human.

I listened to the song on repeat; wrote drafts and scrapped them, on repeat.

So what changed? One day, I sat down at my desk and realised that the two stories I was wrestling with might actually be a single story. In ‘Tam Lin’, Tam is literally changed, over and over again, transformed from a snake to a lion to a burning coal. He’s saved by Janet holding him fast: by her faith that he’ll change back to his human self. But fast forward seven years, and I imagined Janet playing that song to herself. You’re not the angel I once knew… Does she feel cheated because Tam is no longer the charismatic poet she fell for? Does she want him to change back into the man she first met? Is that even possible: to recover our younger selves, and the excitement, the thrill, of first falling in love, or in lust? Is it Janet, not Tam, who needs to change – or who already has?

Suddenly, the theme came into focus. And since short stories are always more potent when they’re as distilled, as concentrated as possible, compressing two stories into one made sense.

Pretty soon I knew how the whole thing would unfold, right up to Janet’s confrontation with the Faerie Queen. I knew she’d beg the Faerie Queen to change Tam one last time, change him back into the man who’d captured her heart. At least, I thought I knew. In the end, though, she did something completely different. Somehow, that singer’s chip of ice had ended up in my Janet’s heart.

— Jane Alexander

Read Jane’s story in New Ghost Stories II, out now in paperback and Kindle.

The Newcomer Prize received a fantastic selection of entries, touching on a variety of themes, ideas, and styles, and has therefore been exceptionally tough (and rewarding) to judge. But judged it has been, and I’m now delighted to announce the two winners of the 2015 Newcomer Prize.

The winners are:

First place (£500 prize): Mark Newman, for the story ‘Before There Were Houses, This Was All Fields’.

Second place (£250 prize): Tim Dunbar, for the story ‘David Bowie’.

The two winning stories will be published in our next anthology, due this spring. They’re both excellent stories, and I’m looking forward to sharing them with you.

We hadn’t originally planned on announcing a shortlist for the Newcomer Prize, but during the judging process it became clear that simply revealing the two winners wouldn’t do justice to the quality and variety of entries we received. We’ve therefore added a shortlist step, along with some small extra prizes.

The winners of the 2015 Newcomer Prize will be drawn from the following shortlist:

Adam Blampied: The Cobble Boys
Tim Dunbar: David Bowie
K M Elkes: Game Face
Uschi Gatward: On Margate Sands
Gerald R Gore: Memories of Balham
Cathie Hartigan: Cleaning Up
C G Menon: Spring Tides
Norman Miller: Jellymen
Mark Newman: Before There Were Houses, This Was All Fields
Miranda Prag: Under the Wheels
Catherine Simpson: The Little Golden Apple with the Tiny Golden Bite
Amy Smith Linton: Cleaning Up
A J Stirling: Property is Theft
Chloe Turner: The Bronze Garden
Barney Walsh: Free the Prisoners

All of the authors above will receive a year’s free paperback subscription to our anthology series.

We’ll be announcing the first and second prize winners — taken from the list above — on Monday 16th February. The two prizewinning stories will also appear in an upcoming Fiction Desk anthology.

Matt PlassHere’s Matt Plass to tell us about some of the ideas behind his story ‘Next to Godliness’, which appears in our anthology New Ghost Stories II.

To me, the most fascinating thing about ghosts is that they don’t exist.

In the song “God”, John Lennon lets us know that he doesn’t believe in (among other things) magic, I-Ching, tarot, Jesus, Buddha, mantra or Gita. To his list I would add sprites, spirits, faeries, ghouls, phantoms, spectres (at feasts or elsewhere), banshees, devil dogs, the undead, and of course ghosts.

I admit it’s a tragedy, not believing in visitors from beyond the veil. I know I’m missing out. I know my world is smaller than it could be. But that’s how belief works: you either believe in something or you don’t. And without belief, how do you approach the writing of a ghost story in a way that feels legitimate?

The answer, for me at least, is that you don’t.

There are, of course, countless examples of rational, well-adjusted, trustworthy and sober individuals convinced that they’ve encountered a spirit from beyond the grave. In fact, entire modern cultures believe that phantoms are as ‘real’ as the living. (Watch a Chinese martial arts movie—go on, I dare you!—and you’ll find that the human characters regularly bump into ghosts in the street, and converse with them as if such encounters are the most natural thing in the world.) I mustn’t forget, also, that many people—I’ll go out on a limb and suggest most people—believe in what Stephen King describes as ‘burnt toast’: when the bricks of a building retain a lingering memory of past deeds. It’s why you shiver in the murder house before you know it’s the murder house.

Despite all this, as a non-believer, I tend towards the view that a supernatural experience is essentially an aberration of the mind, a hallucination: drug-induced, psychotic, stress-related, or just the product of a virile and frustrated imagination. He imagined it. She saw it in a dream. Perhaps the subconscious likes to play tricks, conjuring our greatest desires or deepest fears as sights, sounds and feelings; our emotions made flesh. So the grieving widow sees the spirit of her lost husband weeding the forgotten rose garden. The man who abandoned his faith hears a scrape of cloven hooves from the attic overhead. The only-child passes two ghostly playmates each morning on the stairs as he hurries down to eat his cereal alone. Whatever the experience, the chances are it comes not from without but from within.

In ‘Next to Godliness’, a couple try to come to terms with the loss of a child. After a series of bizarre events, the mother starts to believe that their dear little girl is still with them in spirit. Look, she says to her husband, things are happening in this house that just cannot be explained. It’s her. It must be her! But what begins as a ghost story, develops into a psychological mystery. Because if it isn’t their daughter making things happen in the house, then who can it be..?

This transition from ‘what external force is making this happen?’ to ‘which one of us is making this happen? is where the business of ghosts becomes fascinating from a storytelling perspective. If a sane and rational person is convinced they’ve encountered a ghost, and you know there to be no such thing, then what you’re left with is a psychological mystery. And for me, a good psycho-mystery trumps the supernatural every time.

All that said, I love a good ghost yarn and I enjoyed the stories in New Ghost Stories II immensely. Nevertheless, I’ll continue to believe that the most fascinating thing about ghosts is that there aren’t any—until the day a ghost chooses to visit with me, and takes time out from its haunting schedule to scare me to my senses.

Meanwhile, for what it’s worth, unlike John Lennon I do believe in Beatles.

P.S. For writers, the British magazine Fortean Times can be a fantastic source of inspiration. It’s crammed with bizarre stories from around the world: UFO sighting, ghostly visitations, paranormal and supernatural activity. Take as a starting point that you are dealing with a psychological mystery, and the story starts to write itself…

Matt Plass

A while ago the website Love Books Love Travel (then known as Buena Vista Book Club) made a film about James Benmore, in which he wanders around London, talking about his relationship with the city and its role in his novels about the continuing adventurs of Charles Dickens’ Artful Dodger.

The film is well done, and has been split into easily digestible chunks of about six minutes each. Here’s part one:

For the other two parts of the film, and to find our more about Love Books Love Travel, visit their website here.

You can also read James’s guest posts for us about the writing of Dodger: Part 1 & Part 2. And finally, James’s excellent short story ‘Jaggers & Crown’ appeared in our anthology All These Little Worlds.

mike-scott-thomsonHere’s Mike Scott Thomson on the story behind his story ‘I Say Papaya, You Say Pawpaw':

It seems every time I log into Twitter or Facebook, someone has posted another soundbite about what it means to be a writer. You know the sort of thing. They’re usually scrawled in a large calligraphic font, plastered all over a grainy JPEG of a writing desk, computer keyboard, ink quill or, for some not entirely clear reason, a mountain panorama. Many of these I often dismiss as trite, but one which I’ve frequently noticed, and which does stick out in my mind, reads as follows:

“Writers see the mundane in the magical, and the magical in the mundane.”

This one is memorable to me because, like the narrator in my latest Fiction Desk story about a supermarket checkout worker, when I did the same job part-time in my teenage years, all I managed to see was the mundane in the mundane.

My outlook began to change when I started using the cheque-signing pens and misappropriated receipt rolls to jot down my thoughts and observations. Some of these I drew upon, half a lifetime later, into my story. However, listed below are a few extra snippets, precisely how I scribbled them in my spidery handwriting, way back when:

  • Why is there never a J-cloth on your till when you need one? Yoghurt, strawberry juice, and olive oil cannot be cleaned up using your sleeve.
  • Why do customers stand bottles on their ends? Ten bottles falling over at once on a moving conveyer belt sounds like a herd of elephants. And when they fall over, what do the customers do? Stand them back up again!
  • Customer at checkout: “Excuse me, are you open?” This question is asked when the cashier is either a) doing sweet nothing in a particularly quiet period, or b) elbow deep in a litter bin, cloth in hand, bucket nearby, lights off, broom between legs.
  • Are plastic milk bottles made of some kind of strange, intergalactic plastic substance that actually makes the milk seep through? Why are milk bottles so milky on the outside?
  • Sorry, I don’t know what had happened to the Greek cheese with purple grape pips. I can only assume it has been taken off the shelves (wisely, by the sound of it).

Despite being gratified to now notice what must have been my first ever use of the Oxford comma, I can’t in all honesty say that some of my first written attempts at making sense of the world were all that articulate. Yet it was, of sorts, a start. Whilst I also can’t admit this dreary environment and monotonous job became in any way magical, in some small way things did become less mundane.

There Was Once a PlaceSeveral years later, the same supermarket is now opening a “local” branch in my home village. This was a contentious decision, and bitterly contested, centred mainly on the fact that there was no demand, or space, for it. Yet the numerous objections were to no avail. Now they’ve knocked down two old buildings, are constructing their own standardised affair, and will be launching shortly. Already in the high street is an award-winning grocer’s shop: vibrant, unique, and full of local character. I hope, as does the village, that the presence of this new retail giant won’t force it to go out of business. But it has made me wonder what happens to small retailers when, as so often happens, they are driven out. My Fiction Desk story is one such imagining.

Does it, as the intro notes to my story suggest, end with a flash of optimism, or a descent into Orwellian darkness? I can certainly say I had no dystopian imagery when I was writing it. But it’s interesting to note that 1984 is one of my favourite books, and that I would have read it for the first time not long before starting my supermarket job. So, could it have influenced me? I guess in my story, the main character uses, in his own way, a variety of doublethink to adjust to the new reality in which he finds himself. But, is it acceptance? Is it compromise? Those are, I think, questions best answered by the reader.

Personally, the following minutiae particularly intrigues me. Did I really not know until a few moments ago that the chestnut (as per the “spreading chestnut tree” in the closing lines of 1984), is actually a fruit? When I started work on my story, did I ever anticipate examining, more closely than perhaps prudent, the trays of papaya in the local supermarkets? And did I also imagine studying, surreptitiously and with said fruit at the forefront of my mind, the backs of motor vehicles? (This was, I hasten to point out, purely in the name of hypothetical research, and I never actually did what transpired in the story.)

What I do know is that there is no vocation, other than being a writer, which can personally inspire me to look at the world so askew. It’s not quite putting the magical in the mundane… but I surely owe some thanks to those incalculable hours I spent on checkout number eleven, all those years ago.

— Mike Scott Thomson

Read ‘I Say Papaya, You Say Pawpaw’ in our anthology There Was Once a Place, out now in paperback and ebook editions.

Ghost story competitionHot on the heels of our Writer’s Award announcement, it’s time to reveal the winners of the 2014 Fiction Desk Ghost Story competition.

This year, we have one first prize winner and ten runners-up.

All of the stories listed below will appear in our autumn anthology.

The runners-up, who will each receive £100, are:

  • Alice Adams, for ‘Watching Kate & Gustav’
  • Die Booth, for ‘Twice a Day with Water’
  • Lucinda Bromfield, for ‘The Time of Your Life’
  • Bernie Deehan, for ‘Hell for Leather’
  • Tamsin Hopkins, for ‘The Table’
  • Matthew Licht, for ‘The Bear Got Me’
  • Amanda Mason, for ‘Incomers’
  • Miha Mazzini, for ‘Armies’
  • Matt Plass, for ‘Next to Godliness’
  • Melanie Whipman, for ‘End of the Rope’

And the winner of the £500 first prize is:

  • Jane Alexander, for ‘In Yon Green Hill To Dwell’

Congratulations to all of the above. It was another great year for the ghost story competition, and once again we’ve found ourselves handing out more prizes than expected.

We’ll be sharing more news about the autumn anthology over the coming weeks. Next month will also see the launch of a new competition (one we’ve not run before), so keep your eyes out for that.

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