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“I could open the case, have a peek, and sneak out again. Just a peek. No one would know…”

Uncle Dougie's Suitcase, Alastair Chisholm

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Houses Borders Ghosts

If you subscribe to our email newsletter, you might already know that last week we launched our first themed call for submissions. ‘Houses and Homes‘ is all about the places where we live and the way that they affect our lives.

There should be plenty here for short story writers to get their teeth into: from domestic dramas to haunted houses, it’s an opportunity to explore psychology, class, politics, generational and cultural divides and a whole host of other issues.

In the UK (where The Fiction Desk is based), rising house prices have impacted hugely on the lives of their inhabitants and reshaped whole communities, as have the tensions between the different roles that housing plays: not just homes but investments, refuges, businesses, repositories of family memories. The conversation is by no means limited to Britain, either: as always, international contributions are very welcome.

Submissions to our themed calls work exactly like normal submissions. You submit through the same submission form, it’s still just a £3 fee, and we aim to reply to all submissions within two weeks. We pay at our usual rates for any stories we publish.

The ‘Houses and Homes’ call is open now for submissions, and you can find out more here. The deadline is 30th September. We’ll be announcing more themes over the year, so do sign up for our newsletter if you don’t already get it.

And Nothing Remains

Today we’re announcing the latest winner of the Fiction Desk Writers’ Award.

Although we’ve recently stopped running writing competitions (here’s why), the Writers’ Award is something a little special. It’s awarded to the best story in each anthology, as voted for by the contributors themselves. As well as getting the thumbs-up from their fellow writers, the winner also receives £100.

In the case of our latest anthology, And Nothing Remains, we have a tie between two stories: ‘Thirteen Wedding Dresses’ by Douglas Bruton and ‘All Washed Up’ by Chris Hogben. To break the tie between these two very fine, and very different, stories, we’ve asked our previous contributor S R Mastrantone – now writing as S R Masters – to cast a deciding vote. Over to you, Simon:

And Nothing Remains is an extremely strong collection, and it is unsurprising that this issue’s Writers’ Award came down to a tie. I found plenty to admire about Douglas Bruton’s ‘Thirteen Wedding Dresses’, an optimistic story on the unifying meaning of objects that had an exceptional sense of place. In the end I chose Chris Hogben’s ‘All Washed Up’, which grabbed me from the opening sentence right up until the final moving image of a man drifting in and out of visibility beneath street lights. Chris’s voice is confident and compelling, and the first section of dialogue between the friendly bear and Tommy was very funny and incredibly clever.

So congratulations are due to Chris Hogben (and to Douglas Bruton, for running him such a close race), and thanks to Simon for casting the deciding vote. Now it’s time to get back to work on our next anthology…

(If you’re wondering how to enter a story for the Writers’ Award, it’s simple: just submit your work to our anthology series. All the stories we publish are entered automatically to the competition.)

Over the years we’ve found some fantastic stories through the writing competitions we’ve run here at The Fiction Desk. There’s no doubt that our pages have been enlivened by ghost stories, newcomers, and flash fiction that we might not otherwise have had the chance to see – and there’s more to come, as our most recent winners will be appearing in our next anthology.

Still, we’ve decided to take a break. We won’t be running any writing competitions in the foreseeable future – although we continue to welcome both general fiction and ghost stories through our standard submissions system.

So why such a drastic change? There are a few reasons:

  1. By choosing stories through a regular submissions process, we can go much deeper into the work. We can take into account context, and if necessary follow up with the writer before making a decision. We can look at the synopsis, the bio, the writer’s other work, and any other information people choose to include with their submission. We can get back to potential contributors with questions or suggestions if we need to. Publishing is about development as well as selection, and the binary yes/no of a writing competition doesn’t allow for this.
  2. Although rewarding, running writing competitions takes a lot of time and energy: from launching a competition to publishing the winner can take anything up to a year, and we’d rather put that energy into reading regular submissions and creating great anthologies. Freeing ourselves of the competition timetable also allows us to be more agile in terms of trying out new ideas in editorial and publishing.
  3. There are a lot of writing competitions around these days, and more seem to launch all the time. We’re seeing a lot of writers whose bios are little more than a long list of prizes and shortlistings. It’s great if that’s working for them, and writing competitions definitely have their place, but at the moment we can probably make a better contribution to the short story in other, more unique ways.

So there it is. We’re stepping away from writing competitions, but continue to welcome the same kinds of story through our regular submissions system, which we will continue to evolve to create better opportunities and support for writers. If you were thinking of entering one of our competitions, please do consider sending us the story as a regular submission anyway. You’ll find full details over in our submissions area.

Incidentally, the competitions did serve one other purpose: the entry fees helped to keep us going. So if you like what we’re doing, please consider supporting us in the old-fashioned way: by picking up one of our anthologies!

A selection of Penguin Little Black Classics

Penguin’s Little Black Classics are a collection of short books (mostly around 64 pages, although some are longer), originally published in 2015 as a series of eighty volumes, to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the founding of Penguin. These first books were priced at 80p each. The volumes cover short stories, poetry, miscellaneous bits and pieces, and the odd slice of non-fiction. All are older works, largely from the 19th century; but with some going much further back, and the odd volume creeping in from the early 20th century.

The first eighty volumes did rather well: within a year combined sales of these little books had comfortably exceeded two million copies, and so in 2016 Penguin added a further 46 volumes (the first Penguin Classic was published in 1946, you see). Now they dropped the 80p business, with the new titles priced at £1, or £2 for a few slightly longer volumes. In 2017 the United States Constitution was published as a sole additional title, making the total number of Little Black Classics in print today 127.

This isn’t the first time that Penguin Classics have bombarded us with tiny little books: the 1995 anniversary was celebrated with Penguin 60s: those cost 60p, and totalled 180 volumes covering a range of subjects including biography, travel, classics, and sixty more modern stories from the likes of Martin Amis and Muriel Spark — perhaps Penguin had more of a budget for licensing and royalties in those heady 1990s. (The full list of Penguin 60s is on Wikipedia.) In 2011 they marked the 50th anniversary of Penguin Modern Classics with fifty ‘Mini Modern Classics’, a series of slightly more recent volumes at £3 each.


Gogol Little Black Classic

Getting back to the current series, when the first volumes came out I took note, vaguely hoped to find a cheap boxed set of all eighty books somewhere, and then forgot all about them. I must admit, I expected them to disappear quickly. Not because they’re not worth buying (they certainly are), but because in the days of online free postage and real bookshops with squeezed margins, small very cheap books didn’t seem particularly practical. But as the list has grown, and been embraced by millions of readers and at least some bookshops (my nearest Blackwell’s has a full bay of them; or did until I got my hands on it), perhaps it bears revisiting.

For writers in particular, the Little Black Classics series is a fantastic resource. It’s vital that writers read as widely as they can, and familiarise themselves with as many authors, styles, and ideas as possible.

Anthologies are one great way to do this, whether they’re specific themed collections of periods or genres, or attempts to take in a wider picture, like the two-volume Penguin Book of the British Short Story that Philip Hensher edited a few years ago (and there are of course still wider pictures than just British short stories). As a quick overview, these anthologies are terrific; and for obvious reasons, The Fiction Desk likes anthologies.

Anthologies generally only contain one story by each author, however, and while these individual stories might bring a writer to your attention, they can only tell you so much about their work. The logical next step, the single-author collection, will take you much deeper into an author’s work, but it’s impractical to read as many of these longer collections as you might want to, particularly when you’re also trying to keep up with more modern writers.

The Little Black Classics come somewhere in between, usually containing two, three, or four stories by the featured author. Having these extra stories on hand gives you just a little of the context and depth that you normally need to go to a collection for, but the price and size makes them much more accessible, much easier to take a chance on.


Rudyard Kipling Little Black Classic

Here then is an opportunity to find out whether Mark Twain’s humour still hits the spot, and think about why it succeeds or fails in the modern era; to take a look at how Arthur Conan Doyle’s supernatural fiction compares to the Holmes stories (sometimes Conan Doyle is surprisingly good, and sometimes he’s surprisingly bad); to examine HG Wells’ ability to spin a gripping tale with economy and vitality (Wells is one of the few authors to be honoured with two volumes in the series); to finally take a look at the short fiction of Thomas Hardy (another one); or Balzac or Washington Irving or whoever else you’ve not quite got around to yet — or whose work you need to revisit to freshen your memory.

I’m concentrating on the short fiction because that’s what we do here; the poetry and non-fiction volumes in the series offer similar delights and, again, further opportunities for exploration and discovery.

The Little Black Classics are available from some online outlets, but not all: Amazon has them in both paperback and Kindle form; The Book Depository — whose ‘free worldwide delivery’ seems to steer them away from any book costing under about £2 — have only the boxed set of the first eighty volumes. But ideally, you want to find a physical bookshop in your area that has them there on the shelf, where you can browse properly and make a habit of picking out a volume, or a handful, whenever you happen to be passing.

It would be great if the series could be expanded to include slightly more recent work, as was the case with the Penguin 60s, but there’s still plenty here to be getting on with. You’ll find that one of those nasty plastic fivers can be converted into a lot of nice black books.

— Rob

Newcomer Prize for Short Stories 2018

It’s the end of July, which means it’s time to announce the shortlist and winners of our 2018 Newcomer Prize for Short Stories.

The quality of the entries this year has been as high as ever, and the judging has been as difficult and exciting a job as ever. The shortlisted writers will all win a three-volume subscription to our anthology series, and the two winners will also receive a cash prize. The two winning stories will appear in an upcoming Fiction Desk anthology.

Let’s start with the shortlist, which this year features nine stories:

  • Holly Barratt: ‘Daniel Sprinkles Stars’
  • Lahra Crowe: ‘Seelence’
  • Becky Docton: ‘Just Breathe’
  • Michael Hurst: ‘Speed Awareness’
  • Amy Smith Linton: ‘Pete and Jenny at the Starlite’
  • Katherine Mezzacappa: ‘Rare Orchid, Late Flowering’
  • Russell Reader: ‘The House That Jack Built’
  • Poppy Toland: ‘Our Gaff’
  • Declan Wilk: ‘Master of Cryptozoology’


Now for the winners:

In second place, with a £250 prize:

  • Poppy Toland: ‘Our Gaff’


And in first place, with a £500 prize:

  • Lahra Crowe: ‘Seelence’


I’ll be getting in touch with all the above authors to sort out their prizes over the next week or so. In the meantime, thank you again to everybody who took part in this year’s competition.

We aren’t running a writing competition this summer, as we’re turning all our attention to our standard short story submissions, which are open now. If you’re thinking of sending us something, you’ll find the guidelines here, and the submission form here.

Ghost Story Competition 2018

It’s time to announce the shortlist and winners of the 2018 Ghost Story Competition. Judging this competition is always a challenge: it brings in some of the best writing we see here at The Fiction Desk. This year we’ve got three prizes: a first prize of £500, and second prize of £250, and a third prize of £100. Those three winners will also be published in our next anthology, while all of the shortlistees will receive a three-volume subscription to our anthology series.

So let’s get on with the shortlist, which this year consists of twelve stories:

  • Kris Ashton: ‘Highway Memorials’
  • Steve Bilsborough: ‘The Sweet Wrapper Incident’
  • Michael Button: ‘A New Beginning in a New Home’
  • Bruce Coker: ‘Leggers’
  • Anthony Cule: ‘The Glass in the Bathroom’
  • Jan Haniff: ‘Widow’
  • Chris Hogben: ‘The Star That Stayed Till Morning’
  • C B McCall: The Spare Room
  • Alice Nuttall: ‘The Flat Above the Joke Shop’
  • Rosalie Parker: ‘The Moor’
  • A D Stuart: ‘Gnomsense’
  • Christopher Williams: ‘The New Normal’


Now for the winners, in reverse order:

In third place, with a £100 prize:

  • Kris Ashton: ‘Highway Memorials’


In second place, with a £250 prize:

  • Chris Hogben: ‘The Star That Stayed Till Morning’


And in first place, with a £500 prize:

  • C B McCall: The Spare Room


I’ll be getting in touch with the shortlistees and winners over the next week or so to arrange prizes. In the meantime, congratulations to all of the above – and to everybody else who entered the competition and sent in such fine work, making judging the entries an absolute pleasure.

The Ghost Story Competition will return this November. In the meantime, our Newcomer Prize for Short Stories is open now for entries, both supernatural and non-supernatural. Find out more here.

Whitaker's Almanack 2018

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Whitaker’s Almanack, a reference book whose history is intertwined with the history of British literature, both as a tool for writers and, occasionally, as a plot device.

The Almanack, which stretches in the 2018 edition to 1141 pages (plus colour plates and index), covers subjects from the workings of the British government to tide charts; from a brief guide to politics in every country of the world to a series of essays on the year’s developments in a range of art, political, and financial fields.

Want a quick rundown of the past year in literature? It starts on page 999. Decide it’s time to find out how the European Union is actually run? Pages 611 to 620 will do their best to fill you in. Pages 365 to 377 list the current fees of (almost) every private school in the UK, while an explanation of the differences between the NHS in England, Wales, and Scotland begins on page 382. It’s effectively a user’s manual for residents of the United Kingdom.

Dracula and Sherlock Holmes both consulted Whitaker’s in the course of their adventures. A character in Somerset Maugham’s story ‘The Round Dozen’ passes on Trollope’s advice that ‘the two most useful books to a novelist [are] the Bible and Whitaker’s Almanack’ (admittedly Maugham’s narrator isn’t convinced, and doesn’t himself possess a copy). Whitaker’s crops up in Orwell, too: his early novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying contains the observation that, ‘After all, all works of reference are pornographical, except perhaps Whitaker’s Almanack’.

Of course, all of the information here – aside from the various essays – is also freely available online. Isn’t a reference book like this a bit of an anachronism? Something for retired civil servants to snooze over while they digest their Christmas dinner, rather than a genuinely useful tool? It’s not a cheap book, either: the RRP of Whitaker’s Almanack has climbed rapidly over the years, to the point where the complete 2018 edition is priced at £90 for a single hardback book. That price is largely academic, though: it sells at around £55 online, and is clearly priced to be discounted. (That’s not great for bricks and mortar bookshops, who tend to get a raw deal out of this kind of pricing strategy.) There’s also a concise edition available, containing a selection of the UK material, priced at a more High Street-friendly £25.

But if you can afford it, or settle for the concise edition, it might just be worth getting hold of a copy.


For general usage, it’s good to be able to consult Whitaker’s rather than disappear down the rabbit hole of the internet, or indeed going near a screen at all. Even using a book, you might very well find yourself starting to browse the pages and read up on other topics once you’ve found what you were looking for, but still, the context is at least relevant. There’s no clickbait, no advertising, no notifications, nobody trying to message you.

If a question comes up when you’re with friends or family, it’s a lot more pleasant to pull a book from the shelf, rather than have everybody cluster around an iPhone, or get drawn into one of those tedious information races where everybody is trying to be the first to Google the prime minister’s salary (p.177) or what happens if you die without leaving a will (p.545), or what the flag of Ghana looks like (unpaginated colour plates, following p.800).

For a writer, having a copy of Whitaker’s Almanack nearby – shelved somewhere close to the dictionary and the style guide – means that when a question comes up about the workings of the UK, you don’t have to leave the environment of your work-in-progress in order to open a browser window, with all the dangers to concentration and productivity that entails. And much of the information contained in Whitaker’s is useful for fiction: if a character dies intestate, you won’t want to give your readers a three-paragraph summary of the relevant legislation, but you probably want to make sure that whatever happens next in the story is realistic. If you’re writing crime, your chief inspector’s lifestyle is going to need to be funded on an annual salary of roughly £55,000 (p.309) – unless he’s bent, of course.

The other benefit to having all of this information in a physical book is that although most of it might be available online, that doesn’t mean writers will actually access it. Most of the short fiction written today doesn’t take the national context into account; there’s no suggestion that the writer is aware of the workings of the country, or the particular social and political backdrop against which their story is taking place. Again, it’s not necessarily information you’d use explicitly in your fiction, but it’s background that’s worth having at your elbow. A copy of Whitaker’s on the desk of a fiction writer might get consulted less often than it would be in the hands of a political journalist, but it could also serve as a reminder of the importance of context.


In a book printed late last year, there are obviously things that are out of date. Political appointments change, as do politics themselves: perhaps a little optimistically, p.613 tells us that Brexit negotiations are due to conclude in December 2017. There will certainly be times when you’ll want to confirm a detail online after consulting the book. There’s something comforting in this, though, in being able to step outside of the eternal ‘now’, the telescoping of time in the digital age, and to look at the world from a fixed, defined point in time. (This might explain why some people find themselves trying to collect a complete set of Whitaker’s, all 150 volumes from the last 150 years.)

You can even access Whitaker’s online, purchasing chapters at £1 a time, or sections for £5 – although this rather defeats the purpose of the whole thing, and anyway the execution feels a little rushed, with for example the list of abbreviations separated into 25 different chapters of just a few words each. (At least they don’t charge you for X, which has no entries.) Given that people going online will be able to find the information for free elsewhere anyway, the future of Whitaker’s would probably be best assured by embracing its merits as a physical object, and fundamental difference to the world of digital information.

One purpose of Whitaker’s Almanack is to describe in uncritical detail the workings of the British establishment. Depending on your own politics, some of the content might feel redundant or complacent to the point of being objectionable. The sheer breadth of the topics covered also means that most people won’t find every section useful. But think of the book in its entirety as the real-world equivalent of all those notes JRR Tolkien made for himself as background to the Lord of the Rings, or simply as a handbook to the great machine of which your characters – if they live in modern Britain – form a part, and you may just find a place for it on your desk.

Flash Fiction Competition 2017

Today we announce the shortlist and the winners of the 2017 Flash Fiction Competition.

First, a quick reminder of the prizes this year: the two runners-up will each receive £100, and the winner of the first prize will receive £300. The three winners will be published in our next anthology, and everybody on the shortlist will also receive a three-volume subscription to our anthology series.

We’ll start with the shortlist. This year it’s ten stories, and here they are in alphabetical order by author name:

  • Alastair Chisholm: The Castle
  • Steve Clarkson: Excuse Me
  • Martin Dufield: In Memorium
  • Justina Eckert: Hiding
  • Sean Gill: The Computer Man
  • Kevlin Henney: On the Science and Complexities of Having Sex in the Family Caravan While One’s Parents Are There
  • Lynsey May: Beyond the Body
  • Miha Mazzini: Rock’n’Roll Life
  • Rachael Swindale: The Orchid
  • Jud Widing: Hazards

And now the two runner-up stories:

  • Alastair Chisholm: The Castle
  • Sean Gill: The Computer Man

And finally, the first prize, which this year goes to:

  • Steve Clarkson: Excuse Me

Congratulations to all of the above, and thank you again to everybody who took part in the competition this year.

The three winning stories will be published in our next anthology, which is due in early 2018. I’ll be getting in touch with the winners and all of the shortlistees next week to sort out prizes.

If you missed the flash fiction competition and still want to send us a story, our general submissions system is open now for stories over 1,000 words. Our ghost story competition is also open for entries until the end of January 2018.

New Ghost Stories III

It’s time to reveal the winner of the Writers’ Award for our latest anthology, New Ghost Stories III.

The Fiction Desk Writers’ Award isn’t like the other competitions we run from time to time: it’s awarded to the best story in each anthology we publish, and is voted for by the contributors to that anthology. It’s a great way to get the writers’ own view on their peers’ work, and it’s always a close race. There’s also £100 for the winner.

This time around the award goes to Will Dunn, for his story Des Nuits Blanches. Congratulations, Will!

New Ghost Stories III, featuring Will’s story and six other fine tales of the supernatural, is available now in paperback: you can get your copy right here. The 2018 edition of our Ghost Story Competition is open now for entries. See details over in our submission section.

Ghost Story Competition 2018

The 2018 edition of the Fiction Desk Ghost Story Competition is now open for entries. This year there’s a first prize of £500, along with second and third prizes. Entry costs £8, and the closing date is Wednesday, 31st January 2018. (The competition closes at midnight UK time, so don’t get caught out if you’re sending an entry from overseas.)

The main page of the competition can be found right here. Full terms of entry can be found at the bottom of our online entry form.

Winners from the last two years appear in our latest anthology, New Ghost Stories III. It’s well worth picking up a copy if you want to see the stories that have been successful in the past – or if you just want a good spooky read to get you through the winter nights…

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