Novella review – The Listening Project by Ali McGrane

The Listening Project book coverBook Balm recommendation: Read to sink into a symphony of sensations.

The opening story of Ali McGrane’s novella-in-flash The Listening Project, Arnie’s Bear offers a cascade of impressions, textures and churning emotions buried deep. It’s a clear indication of the treasures, and pleasures, in store from this beautiful debut, and the mastery at work. At less than a page in length, this concise flash has the depth of a novel-length exploration of the bewilderment of loss from the viewpoint of a child, Imogen.

This is the start of a journey of more than forty years, beginning when Imogen is seven, and her brother Arnie is nineteen – the age at which he becomes fixed by death. Each story is labelled with the year it is set, starting in 1976, and rippling through to 2019, with Imogen asking questions and seeking truths while finding her way through a world with the volume gradually being turned right down. In Life Lessons, McGrane writes: “She’s learned to lip-read, alert to clues, running parallel possibilities, backtracking, re-routing, bridging chasms.”

McGrane engages all our senses in her storytelling, so that your skin tingles and your lungs contract in rhythm with the protagonist’s. In Seedlings, we join Imogen in planting sweet peas, anticipating the scent and tenderly separating tangled roots as she remembers her brother through the colour green: “A darker green jacket with a hood. Green sea-glass ranged along his window sill. (…) Were there green flecks in his eyes?”

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Writing prompt – jigsaw

Jigsaw pieces.Judy Darley

During the past 20 months or so of the pandemic, some people I know have written books; others have grown addicted to jigsaw puzzling. Whoever experienced this jigsaw-piece cascade was either utterly fed up or had a moment’s calamitous cack-handedness.

What intrigues me is that they opted not to gather up their fragments. Does that mean it really was the last straw? I suspect a temper tantrum of epic proportions, but what other distraction or emotional fall-out could explain this pavement disarray?

Or perhaps they’ve deliberately strewn the pieces here in a superstitious act intended to keep Covid-19 at bay.

Can you use this as the prompt for a tale about how we hold up (or fail to cope) in challenging times? What could these scattered jigsaw sections represent? Or what could you swap them with to give your tale a surreal edge?

If you write or create something prompted by this idea, please send it to me in an email to judydarley (at) iCloud.com for possible publication on SkyLightRain.com.

Curtis Brown Creative courses for aspiring writers

Notebook and pen cr Judy DarleyAs the new year gets underway, why not rev up your writing skills? Curtis Brown Creative, the creative-writing school run by Curtis Brown Literary Agency, is inviting applications for an array of writing courses, including plenty of online options.

Whether you want to dig into specific genres such as historical, psychological or YA and children’s fiction, or want to untangle the knots of editing and pitching your novel, there are opportunities to gain insights and hands-on help from successful authors and experienced editors. The creative writing school was launched in 2011 and remains the only one run by a literary agency.

Upcoming courses include a one-day ‘Edit Your Novel’ course with the Rewrite Doctor aka Anna Davis from 15th February, and an intensive online five-day short story writing course with award-winning short story-writer Cynan Jones, starting on 21st February.

“I’m proud to say that over the past few years, many of our alumni have gained deals with major publishers,” says Curtis Brown Director Anna Davis. “Some of our former students have written international bestsellers, others have won prizes and several more have gained representation with literary agents and are working to edit their novels for publication. Yet more are still working away, often with the support of their former Curtis Brown Creative cohort. It’s great to see how many of our alumni stay closely in touch with their student groups long after their courses end.”

Find full details of upcoming courses here.

Got an event, challenge, competition or call for submissions you’d like to draw attention to? Send me an email at JudyDarley (@) iCloud (dot) com.

Poetry review – The Country With No Playgrounds by Elena Croitoru

The Country With No Playgrounds by Elena Croitoru coverBook Balm recommendation: Read to have your empathy heightened and awareness deepened.

In her debut poetry pamphlet The Country With No Playgrounds, award-winning British-Romanian poet Elena Croitoru has captured a place and period in time so precisely and skilfully that you’ll find yourself transported.

Stark scenes are highlighted with words that seem fondly chosen for their beauty: “We grew up in our spare time,/ beyond a tower block island/ where pearly cement dust lay…”

Relayed with disarming matter-of-factness, many of the poems are almost cinematic, such as in The Last Wedding: “She looked out of the window/ at the militiamen who watched our balcony/ from below, the way one would watch/ the funeral of someone still moving.”

It’s heart-stoppingly alarming, yet clearly for the inhabitants utterly normal, to live with such a palpable threat. As worrying as the situation must have been for the adults she mentions, for the children Croitoru counted herself among, this was nothing more than ordinary. This gives her the tools to describe moments with a lightness of touch that draws us in rather than pushing us away, so that we read each stanza with wide open eyes.

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Writing prompt – dragon

Hill Crest School dragon by Judy Darley

As I walked by this primary school early one day, I was struck by the atmospheric beauty of its towers against the morning light and paused to take this photo. At that moment a man came outside, and to explain myself I told him how dramatic the vapour looked pouring out of the boiler flue. I even commented: “I suppose that’s from the central heating.”

He responded with a grin: “Or the dragon.”

Ah, what a response. Now, here’s your choice: either write about the dragon that keeps a school cosy all winter long (what does it do in summer?), or write about the man who lives in the school and tells perfect strangers that it’s inhabited by a dragon. How could his imaginative whimsy transform the outlooks and lives of other people?

Whichever angle you opt for, make sure it has plenty of heat!

If you write or create something prompted by this idea, please send it to me in an email to judydarley (at) iCloud.com for possible publication on SkyLightRain.com.

Enter the Lucy Cavendish College Fiction Prize 2021

Bud. Photo by Judy DarleyThe Lucy Cavendish College Fiction Prize 2022 invites entries from women over the age of 18 who have written a novel “that marries literary merit with unputdownability.”

Deadline for low-income writers’ submissions: 12 noon on Wednesday 9th February 2022.
Deadline for paid submissions: 12 noon on Friday 11th February 2022. 

The judges say they’re equally open to literary fiction and genre fiction, as well as to young adult fiction and children, providing they are primarily word-based.

Your submission must be previously unpublished, and you must not have had other full-length novels published. However, having short stories, poetry, non-fiction or picture books published previously does not exclude you.

To be considered, you need to submit the first 40 to 50 pages of the novel via the online form and a three to five-page synopsis of the remainder. Authors must not have agent representation at the time of submission.

The entry fee is £12. Sponsored entries for low income writers are available – simply tick the appropriate box on the entry form. You will need to be able to provide proof of financial eligibility such as: Jobseeker’s Allowance; Disability Benefit; Income Support; Working Tax Credit; proof of being a full-time student; Housing Benefit; proof of being a full-time carer.

All shortlisted entrants will be offered a one-to-one consultation, editorial feedback and advice on the marketability of their work from PFD literary agency.

In addition, the 2022 winner will receive a cash prize of £1,500.

Shortlisted applicants will also be invited to the prize-giving ceremony where they will have the chance to meet and mingle with industry specialists.

Jackie Ashley is chair of the judging panel.

For full details, visit www.fictionprize.co.uk, and make sure you follow the competition Terms and Conditions.

Got an event, challenge, competition or call for submissions you’d like to draw attention to? Send me an email at JudyDarley (@) ICloud (dot) com.

Poetry review – We Have to Leave the Earth by Carolyn Jess-Cooke

We Have to Leave the Earth by Carolyn Jess-Cooke book coverBook Balm recommendation: Read to immerse yourself in wonder.

The contents page of Carolyn Jess-Cooke‘s third collection offers a clear indication of the skill at play here. Poem titles are mini-masterworks, with each offering sense of perilous climatic times we live in couple with an awe for the world we inhabit.

Section 1, Songs for the Arctic, illuminates scenes by scattering words across the whiteness of the page. in We Flicker too briefly, you can roll the flavour of the lines over your tongue: “Bone sky./Ocean’s oil-dark/cloth unsettled” and “green sky-rivers/ arrows of geese/ water scythes of whales.”

Section 2 opens with the title poem, which sets the tone for a sequence about beauty and strength in fragility. In Birdsong for a Breakdown, we’re introduced to the extremity of sensations experienced through the rawness of mental ill-health: “Because sweetness amidst such unnameable dark/ is magnesium, too bright to miss.”

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Writing prompt – instruction

Take Next Left by Judy Darley. Shows a yellow Post-it note pinned to brambles in a rural setting with a path running along one side.A yellow Post-it note pinned to brambles instructs us to take the next left.

How intriguing to come across an instruction like this in an urban woodland! What would you do? Walk on in the direction you’d already chosen, or follow the sign wherever it leads?

I particularly like the ps: If you dare…

What dangers or rewards might lie ahead?

Can you weave these possibilities into a tale of peril and adventure?

If you write or create something prompted by this idea, please send it to me in an email to judydarley (at) iCloud.com for possible publication on SkyLightRain.com.

The Fiction Desk seeks ghost stories

Arnoa Vale Cemetery cr Judy DarleyIn these early days of the year with so many hours to each dark night, The Fiction Desk invites you to seek a home for your spooky scribblings by submitting an entry to their annual call for ghost stories.

They say: “’Ghost story’ can mean a lot of different things, from an encounter with an actual phantom to more unusual paranormal phenomena and unexplained events. All types are welcome, so feel free to experiment: we’re very unlikely to disqualify a story for stretching the definition of a “ghost”. Keep in mind that our general readership (and by extension our judge) may be more likely to respond well to psychological chills and unexplained mysteries than in-your-face gore.”

They pay £25 per thousand words for stories (i.e. £100 for a 4,000 word story, or £150 for a 6,000 word story). Contributors also receive two complimentary paperback copies. The stories we publish are also eligible to enter the Writer’s Award, a cash prize of £100 for the best story in each volume, as judged by the contributors.

Rules of this call for submissions

Entries should be between 1,000 and 10,000 words in length.

The deadline for entries is 31st January 2022. To cover admin costs, submission fees are £4 per story.  Stories should be submitted online.

You might find it helpful to take a look at their previous ghost story anthologies.

Find full details of how to submit your ghost stories here.

Got an event, challenge, competition, new venture or call for submissions you’d like to draw my attention to? Send me an email at judydarley (at) iCloud (dot) com.

Recent publications

Judy all at seaI relish writing and editing short stories and flash fiction, and have a self-imposed rule of submitting every month. If you write, I highly recommend this trick. It ensures that for every rejection, there are still a handful of tales out in the world that may yet be published, plus a gentle flurry of successes to bolster your writing mojo!

Here are some of my recent publications.

December 2021

Reasons Your Kefir Might Sour – Litro Magazine Flash Friday

The Only Language He knows Now is Touch – Blink-Ink, Moonlight #46

The Finch in My Sister’s Hair – The Birdseed

The Sea Lives in Her Mum’s Head – Ellipsis Zine

November 2021

The Salt Sting of Learning When To Say No – Flash Frontier

September 2021

My Choice – Six Sentence Stories

Three Shades of Summer – Flash Fiction Magazine

Storm Beckoner – Bandit Fiction

June 2021

Leaf After Leaf – National Flash Fiction Day Write-In

The Hare I Miss – Thimble Literary Magazine

What’s That? – Spilling Cocoa Over Martin Amis

May 2021

Reaching (collaborate work – I wrote the first stanza) – 100 Words of Solitude

April 2021

Stretching Out – Hencroft

The Sideways House – Twin Pies Volume IV

March 2021

Unstill Life With Plums – The Pomegranate