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Writing Advice & News

In which we share advice on writing, from tips on technique to news for writers. (As always, take all offered writing advice with a pinch of salt. It’s often more important to understand why a writing convention exists than it is to actually follow it.)

Ghost story competitionIt’s time to announce the winners of the 2016 Ghost Story Competition.

Since our ghost story competition first launched in 2013, it has become an increasingly important part of our anthology series. As well as providing much of the material for two volumes of ghost stories, it has introduced us (and our readers) to some great new voices in short fiction. Perhaps it has also helped us to find our editorial identity, which might be said to lie somewhere in the curious territory between supernatural fiction and realism. (It might also be said to lie entirely elsewhere, of course: like readers, publishers shouldn’t try to define their tastes too rigidly.)

Today, though, we’re dealing firmly with the supernatural, and we have first, second, and third prizes to be awarded within a shortlist of fifteen stories. The three winners will receive £500, £250, or £100, while all fifteen shortlistees will receive a three-volume subscription to our anthology series.

Let’s start then with the shortlisted stories, whose authors will be receiving our next three anthologies in the mail:

  • Sean Baker: Grantchester Meadows in the Summer at Dawn
  • Kate van der Borgh: For Those Who Love
  • Bethan Hutt: Jack and Me
  • Jerry Ibbotson: The Intruder
  • Seth Marlin: The Dead Lie Dreaming
  • Amanda Mason: Apotropaic
  • David McVey: Last Bus to Carnshee
  • Karyn Millar: The Key to all Mythologies
  • Dan Purdue: A Simple Favour
  • Guy Russell: Beneath the Skin
  • Andrea Stephenson: The Last Bus Home
  • Ailsa Thom: A Rational Explanation
  • Josie Turner: 27 Exposures
  • Barney Walsh: The Crypt beneath the Library
  • David Webb: The Charm

And now the winners:

  • In first place (£500 prize): Barney Walsh: The Crypt beneath the Library
  • In second place (£250 prize): Jerry Ibbotson: The Intruder
  • In third place (£100 prize): Seth Marlin: The Dead Lie Dreaming

Congratulations to all of the above writers. I’ll be getting in touch with you over the next week or so to arrange prizes and discuss publication of the three winning entries, which will appear in our autumn anthology, the third volume in our New Ghost Stories series.

The next edition of our ghost story competition will open for entries on 1st November 2016. Keep an eye on the competition page for more details over the next few months.

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.

Here’s Richard Smyth with some thoughts on writing in the first person. Richard’s new novel, Wild Ink, is out now.

‘Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you.’

– TS Eliot, ‘The Waste Land’

Yeah – who is the third? Who is that, bookending dialogue with he-saids and she-saids, commentating on proceedings with a curiously proper and well-spoken detachment, mind-reading without explanation, casually omniscient, incomprehensibly well-informed, inhumanly objective? Who are these Third People, and what are they doing in our novels?

wild-inkI do most of my writing in the first person. My first novel, Wild Ink, is narrated by its main protagonist, the horridly decrepit but reliably wry Albert Chaliapin. My stories for The Fiction Desk, ‘Crying Just Like Anybody’ and ‘Chalklands’, adopted first-person perspectives, too. I’d seldom ever really stopped to wonder why – why have I so often preferred to step into my characters’ shoes, instead of maintaining a decent distance, an appropriate remove?

The way in which language is used on a word-by-word sentence-level basis – style, to use a rather loaded word for it – is very important to me. Writing your stories from inside a character’s head gives you almost unlimited stylistic freedom. Turns of phrase and figures of speech can be used that, coming from the pen of an unidentified third-person narrator, would invite unhelpful questions about who on earth is telling this story, and why they talk the way they do. Complex, original language creates, just by existing, a speaker, a person, a character; do this with a nameless third-person narrator and you will be thought to be playing postmodern games with the reader.

It’s a little unfair, of course. There’s seldom any secret about who is telling the story: their name is right there on the title page. Any quirks of language, flights of invention or unexpected editorialising come, of course, from them.

But modern literature shies away from the self-identifying storyteller. And ‘shy’ is the word: it feels unseemly, importunate, to step into the story one is telling with a bold Dickensian ‘I’; for the modern author, it seems to invite the rebuke ‘Who on earth do you think you are?’ – meant either literally, in the assumption that the author is creating an ‘author’ character, that the narrator is not Richard Smyth but ‘Richard Smyth’, or figuratively and indignantly, to suggest that the author has overstepped the mark. Sure, some writers – Anthony Burgess, James Joyce – get away with it, pushing stylistic limits in third-person narration without ever explaining how or why. But, well, we aren’t all Burgess or Joyce.

Distinctions between first and third persons are not necessarily clear-cut. There are many instances of authors breaking the bonds imposed by third-person conventions by narrating through a secondary character – to each Jay Gatsby his Nick Carraway, to each Ahab his Ishmael. This gives the work an additional layer, another dimension; we are invited to view one character through the filter of another, a double refraction of reality. The catch here is that the narrator – while they may digress, switch between narratives, shift focus from character to character and indulge in other such authorial perks – may not be omniscient.

That may or may not be a problem. Only a true know-all can narrate War And Peace. In other novels, it’s necessary for the narrator to be in the dark (like John Self in Money, for instance).

Personally, I want to be where the fireworks are. I want to know first-hand what Gatsby’s going through. I want to read Ahab’s inner monologue! I want to get as close to the action as I possibly can, which often means taking one’s seat in between the character’s ears – even though what one sees in there might not be particularly pleasant. Good first-person narration brings you face to face with an honest and flawed humanity (if it’s honest, it’s inevitably flawed). For me, that’s really what fiction is for.

— Richard Smyth

The 2014 edition of our annual flash fiction competition is open now.

This year, we’ve boosted the first prize to £200, and reduced the maximum word count slightly to 1,000 words. (We thought that 1,250 words may be a little long for flash fiction.)

Entry fees are the same as last year, and the deadline is midnight on 31 January 2014 (UK time).

For more information visit our Flash Fiction Competition pages. You’ll find the full terms at the bottom of the entry forms.

We had a great response to last year’s competition – see the winning entries in our anthology Because of What Happened – so I’m really looking forward to reading this year’s entries.

Ghost story competition logoIt’s time to announce the winners of our 2013 Ghost Story Competition.

We had a fantastic response, especially given that the competition is only in its first year. Listing only the two winning stories wouldn’t really do justice to the strength and variety of entries we received, so we’ve decided to add a shortlist to our announcement.

The winner of the £500 first prize is:

  • ‘Guests’ by Joanne Rush

The winner of the £100 second prize is:

  • ‘At Glenn Dale’ by Julia Patt

The ten shortlisted stories are:

  • ‘Half Mom’ by Jason Atkinson
  • ‘The 25th Caprice’ by Linda Brucesmith
  • ‘Tom’ by Oli Hadfield
  • ‘Washout’ by Matthew Licht
  • ‘No Good Deed’ by Amanda Mason
  • ‘In the Walls’ by Miha Mazzini
  • ‘A Whole Bloody Century’ by Jonathan Pinnock
  • ‘Journeyman, a ghost story’ by Eloise Shepherd
  • ‘Chalklands’ by Richard Smyth
  • ‘Old Ghosts’ by Ann Wahlman

Thank you again to everybody who took part. The two winning stories will appear in an upcoming anthology, and hopefully we’ll be able to feature some of the shortlisted entries too.

We’ll certainly be running this competition again next year, so stay tuned for details of that. (We’ll also be running our flash fiction competition again this autumn.)

Ghost story competition logoWe’ve just launched a new writing competition: while the last one was about finding shorter stories than we usually publish, this one is about looking for stories in a genre we don’t see much of here at The Fiction Desk: the ghost story.

The top prize in this competition is £500, and the deadline for entries is May 31st; for more information about the competition, what we’re looking for, and how to enter, visit the competition page here.

Something I’ve noticed over the last couple of years is that most writers have trouble getting their manuscript formatting right.

I suspect this is partly due to the Internet. A few years ago, the standard way (in the UK) to plan your submissions was to get hold of a copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, which had handy sections on manuscript preparation. They were right next to the lists of magazines and book publishers, and hard to miss for writers getting ready to send out work.

These days, a lot of people submit just by Googling variations on ‘short story submissions’, or just by contacting their favourite publications direct, and so maybe miss out on that useful information. But even in the digital age, getting manuscript formatting right is very important. It doesn’t just show professionalism on the author’s part: it also helps the editor to connect to the words themselves. (If the editor spends the first 30 seconds with your manuscript adjusting it to be easily read, that’s your first impression gone.)

The key thing to remember about manuscript formatting is that it’s not about looking pretty, or showing off creative or literary credentials. The idea is to make the formatting itself disappear, so that the focus is on the words and nothing else. And the easiest way to make the formatting disappear is to make it look exactly the same as all the others. The six rules below should help you to do that.

Incidentally, I’ve written this post specifically with regard to electronic submissions, but the rules below apply equally to printed submissions (though the reasons may vary). And all publishers vary: if a specific publisher asks for different formatting, it’s always best to give them what they ask for.

The Basic Rules

1. Use 12-point Times New Roman. Everybody is used to seeing Times New Roman on their screen (or on paper), and every computer has it. It’s the most invisible font there is. On a standard paper size (see below), 12-point text is comfortable to read, and if reading on a screen, the editor will be set up for it.

2. Double space your text. Even if the days of making notes between lines are over—on the screen, at least—the extra white space helps your writing go down easily. Always apply double-spacing through the formatting menu: don’t just hit ‘return’ twice at the end of each line. (We get a few of those.)

3. Mark a new paragraph by indenting the first line; don’t leave an empty line between paragraphs. Each new paragraph, or line of speech should be indented. Again, there’s an option to indent the first line of each paragraph automatically in the paragraph formatting options: don’t use the tab key to do it. Leaving a complete blank line between paragraphs is something you’ll see when reading online, including on this site but, has no place in text documents.

3a. If you want to mark a change of scene or time, the kind of thing that would have a blank line left in a printed book, mark it with a centred hash, as I’ve done at the bottom of this list. This means it will still be visible when the text is copied into other software for typesetting. An empty line may just get lost at this stage.

4. Leave margins of roughly an inch. A little more or less won’t hurt, but don’t go too far in either direction. There’s no need to shrink the margins to squeeze more words onto the page, or to make them larger to give the text ‘breathing space’.

5. Use a normal ‘paper’ size. In Europe this means A4, in the USA use US Letter. Don’t try to mimic the page of a book or use any other size.

6. Use a simple header. Personally, I’d suggest having author name on the left, title centred, and page number on the right. For the first page, use a unique header (it’s a Word setting) that has your full name and contact details, and word count. All of these details belong in the header and nowhere else: never try to put the page number at the top of each page within the body of the manuscript, because the smallest edit near the top will make a mess of the whole thing. (It’s rare that people do this, but it does happen.)


So there are six basic rules. If you can stick to those, your formatting will be in the top 1% of manuscripts we see. And while it may feel like you’re jumping through hoops, it’s really just about making sure that you’re showing off your writing to its best advantage.

For writers, international travel is generally a very good thing: even if you don’t write about your travels directly, encountering different places, cultures, and people gives you a certain perspective and insight when you come to write about your own.

There are however certain dangers, afflictions that can show up in a travelling writer’s prose, a sort of literary equivalent of 19th century Grand Tourists coming home with venereal disease. I’ve identified four of them below.

(The examples are invented, but the afflictions are all too real.)

1. A pedant writes…

This condition is particularly common among visitors to cities that have a strong and visible history, a typical example being Rome. The sufferer becomes so overwhelmed by the information they receive and research about the city that they need to pass it on to their readers, whether it belongs in the story or not.


The two new lovers arrived at the Trevi Fountain in Rome, and stopped to admire the elaborate Baroque craftsmanship.

‘It was originally designed by Bernini in 1629,’ he said lovingly. ‘But not constructed until a century later. It’s 26 metres high and 20 metres wide.’

‘I notice that people are throwing coins into it,’ she said, pointing at a coin glimmering in the water and hoping that he might continue to talk about it for ages. He sounded so erudite when he spoke; just like Wikipedia. She moved a little closer to him.

‘It’s funny you should notice that,’ he said. ‘They say that up to €3,000 are thrown into the fountain every day. The money has been used in part to subsidise a supermarket for the city’s poor. People often try to steal the coins, too.’

‘That’s very interesting,’ she said. ‘Now could you recommend me three hotels in the €50-€75 bracket, and perhaps share some useful weblinks?’

2. “I am literally the only person who has ever eaten a pizza!”

Or a baguette, or a croissant, or a frankfurter actually served in Frankfurt.


I bit into the pastry: it was sweet and fresh, not at all like the croissants sold in supermarkets at home. It was still a little warm from the oven; the pastry flaked lightly away as I bit, and drifted around me in a cloud of flour-based ecstasy that nobody who hadn’t been to Paris could possibly imagine.

I lingered for a while. I may have been a space detective sent back in time to capture the evil Marspirate CheLuck, but right now I was having my croissant moment.

3. “The Henry Miller rush”

This one is most frequently found in prose coming from Paris, where idealistic young authors go in search of poverty and cheap wine, in the mistaken and perplexing belief that sleeping under a stolen urine-stained blanket will somehow make a writer of them.

The symptoms visible in the prose are an almost complete lack of story, an impressive amount of energy expended going nowhere, a hint that there’s probably a very interesting rhythm underlying the prose, if only you as a reader can consume the exact same combination of cheap French wine and narcotics as the writer. Some extreme cases will also leave the reader with the slightly uncomfortable feeling that the author was probably sat naked at a typewriter when he wrote it.


I’m walking down the streets and they’re the wet streets, the wet, the rain-soaked, the boulevards under the torrents and the thunderclouds that aren’t like the ones back home but this is something new and different and I can feel it in my veins like back home and like where I’m going. Pierre told me once that the real wine, the good wine is like another thing, not wine at all but a way forwards, into your life and into yourself and Pierre was right, damn him, damn Pierre, damn Pierre with his moustache that cried in the winter back there in Avignon where I was before my trust fund ran out.

But there are other Pierres and I have other trust funds and the sky is grey like the mercy they showed him and maybe they’ll show me; like God’s mercy and the mercy of these boulevards that they call the boulevards of dreams, the old dreams, European dreams and hopes and I have my notebook in my pocket and two old pencils with the ends chewed and the leads blunt but my wits are alive under this rain; as alive as Pierre is no longer alive; as alive as the cockroaches in my garret that costs me three thousand euros a month, money I stole – I had to steal! – from the Trevi Fountain when I was there.

Now, let me tell you about the girl.

No. Let’s not let him tell us about the girl.

4. This story sponsored by Linguaphone

More of a technical problem, this, but some writers can get terribly unstuck when it comes to dealing with foreign languages.


‘Guten tag,’ said Berthold in German. Hello.

‘Hello,’ I said, using Gerthold’s own language: Guten tag.

‘Wie geht’s?’ he asked me: how was I? ‘I hope that you had a good trip, and didn’t have too much trouble with your passport at the border. The guards have been getting more strict later, since the recent political changes.’ He said all that in German as well, but I can’t be bothered to transcribe it.

‘Nein,’ I replied in the negative. ‘Es war nicht a difficult trip, aber it could have been shorter.’

There was a pause. Somewhere in the distance, ein hund barked.

So there you go: four conditions to watch out for when travelling with your muse. The cure, sadly, is almost certainly not less travel but much, much more.

The votes are all in, and it’s time to announce the winner of The Fiction Desk Writer’s Award for our latest anthology, The Maginot Line. The winner is…

Matt Plass, for the title story!

Matt Plass

The Writer’s Award is one of my favourite things about The Fiction Desk. It’s voted entirely by the authors who contribute to each volume — even I don’t get a vote — so it really reflects the views of the author’s peers. There’s also a cash prize of £100, which doesn’t hurt.

So congratulations to Matt, who joins previous winners Ben Lyle and James Benmore in our award hall of fame. And those of you who enjoyed his story ‘The Maginot Line’ will be pleased to know that we’ll be featuring a new story from Matt in the next anthology.

Those of you who haven’t yet read The Maginot Line should now run to their nearest stockist, or buy it directly from us.

Or you could subscribe, of course, and help us to keep discovering and publishing excellent new stories like Matt’s.

Quite a few of the short story manuscripts we receive at The Fiction Desk are headed with quotations from other sources. These can be anything from religious texts to ’80s pop lyrics; sometimes the writer provides two or three — or a pageful — before getting to their story.

We are very, very unlikely to publish a story that starts like this, and if we did accept one, it would almost certainly be conditional on losing the quotation(s). I thought it might be worth writing a quick blog post here on why that is, and why writers might want to avoid the temptation to add quotations to their short stories.

As usual with our posts aimed at writers, the following is specifically from the point of view of The Fiction Desk, but much of it will apply to other publishers as well, or to good writing practice in general.

1. Thematic cannibalisation

Often, quotes are used by writers to simply express in brief the idea or theme that the story is going to explore in more detail. If the story explores the ideas well, there’s probably no need for an accompanying quote, and it can even take some of the punch out of the story. If the story doesn’t succeed, sticking a quote on the front won’t save it. (That said, there are times when a quote might give a different or more humorous take on the subject to the one the story provides.)

2. Typography

Take a look at the first page of one of our short stories: at the top is a comment introducing the story, then there’s a space, then the title, then the author’s name. The story itself begins at least halfway down the page. If we were to shoehorn a quote in there between the author’s name and the start of the story, there would probably only be three or four lines of story on the page, and so many different styles of text that the first page would be a hell of a mess, and not terribly tempting for the reader.

3. Pomposity

Using a quotation, especially a poorly chosen one, can sometimes make the writer look a little pompous. Novels seem to get away with it in a way that short stories often don’t.

4. Depowering the opening

The first few lines of a short story are where you meet the reader and have your chance to engage them and set the tone. Why compromise such an important moment by delegating it to Janis Joplin?

5. Rights issues

This doesn’t always apply, but if the quoted text is still in copyright, we’d likely have to get permission to use it. This takes time and often money, neither of which we really have to spare.

There are of course exceptions to every rule, and certainly not all of the above points apply in every case. But it’s worth thinking them over, even if you ultimately decide you disagree; and if you’re sending work to us, it’s definitely worth clipping Cicero or Pink Floyd off the top before you do.

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