Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Leicester Book Prize 2018

By Jonathan Taylor

Over the last few weeks, I've had the pleasure of judging the inaugural Leicester Book Prize, with co-judges Farhana Shaikh and Matthew Vaughan. Farhana Shaikh runs Leicester Writes Festival, and Dahlia Publishing, and founded the prize; Matthew Vaughan is Development Librarian in Leicester, runs Leicester Writers' Showcase, and is also himself a storyteller.  

The prize was open to any book by a Leicestershire-based writer, published between May 2017 and April 2018. Books could be commercially, independently or self-published. Since this was the first year that the prize had run, we had to decide on judging criteria, and a statement about the prize. This is what we came up with:

“As well as literary and aesthetic quality, we will reward texts which represent or embody the values which we see as characteristic of the city: diversity, individuality, multiculturalism, democracy and an ever-surprising eccentricity. For that reason, the prize will aim to treat texts which are independently published, self-published or, in some way, marginalised, on an equal footing with books from major publishers. It will aim to celebrate books which have been overlooked by the mainstream.”

It was an absolute delight reading the books submitted. The books were remarkably varied and of a standard which would compare with any city in the country, or beyond. I have felt for a while that the literary scene in Leicester - with its multiple literary festivals, its nationally-known poetry and open-mic events, Leicester Writers' Club, its publishers and university courses - is going through a bit of a golden age; and the quality of the books on both shortlist and longlist is a testament to this. 

All of the books were celebrated at a special event on June 12th at the Exchange Bar in Leicester, which included readings, talks and the presentation of the award. I don't believe literature is a competition; so, although in the end we had to choose a "winner," it's important to stress that the prize celebrates all of the wonderful books published in the area over the last year. 

I've listed the books below, with a few thoughts on each of them. 


The winner of the 2018 Leicester Book Prize was Rod Duncan, for his novel The Queen of All Crows. This was a hugely imaginative, compelling and ambitious work of speculative fiction, which frankly I loved, start to finish. I've never read anything quite like it. 


The other books on the shortlist were:

Animal Lovers by Rob Palk: a very funny, and elegantly written novel, which was hugely entertaining throughout. 

The Things We Thought We Knew by Mahsuda Snaith: a thoughtful and poignant novel about friendship and loss - full of poetry and humour. 

Neon Sky by Maud Wainwright-Pilton: a sophisticated and musical novel in poetry - I couldn't put it down.


The other books on the longlist were:

Birds Without Sky by Malka Al-Haddad: a harrowing collection of poems, with beautiful illustrations, about the refugee experience - a politically important and hard-hitting book. 

Kingstone by Katherine Hetzel: a beautifully written and very original fantasy story.

Dream Dreams by Sandra Pollock: an inspiring pamphlet of poems. I particularly enjoyed the poems written in the Barbadian dialect. 

Restless Coffins by M. P. Wright: a crime novel full of adventure and political substance - vivid and compelling. 

Writers Rod Duncan, Maud Wainwright-Pilton, Rob Palk

Friday, 8 June 2018

The (Im)Precision of Language: Poem by Shaindel Beers

Shaindel Beers is author of the poetry collections A Brief History of Time (Salt Publishing, 2009), The Children’s War and Other Poems (Salt, 2013), and Secure Your Own Mask (White Pine Press, 2018). Her poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. She is currently an instructor of English at Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, Oregon, and serves as poetry editor of Contrary. Her website is:

The (Im)Precision of Language

How far the ring-necked dove is
from wringing a dove’s neck. The way
a stand of trees can hide a deer

stand, concealing the hunter who
will shoot the deer. The deer, who will
fall in the fall in the fallow field.

Once, someone who was dear to me
threatened me with a deer rifle. Cleaned
it random times, out of season when

he was upset. Said, I don’t want to be
divorced. We can make this work, while
working the polishing cloth along the metal

barrel of the gun. My blood barreled through
my body when I would see his truck in the drive.
I was never not scared to come home, to fall

asleep, to say the least little thing wrong.
Language became a tricky game where saying
nothing meant everything, where saying everything

meant nothing left to fear. I sang my sorrow song
to anyone who would listen, recognized the panic
of birdsong, the desperation of the killdeer

feigning its broken wing. Anything to lure the predator
from its nest. Its broken wing was strength
of a different kind. I figured showing my weakness

might help me. Someone might understand the bird
of my heart always crashing against the cage
of my ribs, the moth of hidden fear fluttering

to escape from my throat. Once, in my Shakespeare
class I learned that brace meant a pair, a brace
of kinsmen, of harlots, of greyhounds,

a brace of warlike brothers. In another time
I stood at the front of the classroom in a chest
brace because my husband had collapsed

the cartilage between my ribs. I couldn’t reach
the string on the movie screen and had to ask
for help. I said, I’m wearing a brace, so I can’t

stretch. I thought of the grimace stretching
across the nurse’s face when I said, I know, 
this sounds like domestic violence. It was an accident,

just goofing around. I wrapped the Velcro belt
around my ribs each morning as he ribbed me
that I should have given up, What was I trying

to prove by staying in a submission hold
until he cracked my ribs? How could I be
so stupid? So stubborn? I didn’t know he

was grooming me for greater violence,
the rock thrown at me in the car,
the wedding ring pressed so tight

by his hand holding mine that I bled.
Which brings us back to the dove,
the difference between ringing

and wringing and where language leaves us 
when someone controls every word we say,
when we have no one left to talk to.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

The End of the Beginning: Endings in Short Stories

By Dan Powell

The end of my first year as a full-time PhD student in Creative Writing is fast approaching. It’s a landmark in my studies that seems double-weighted given the focus of my research-led creative project: the endings of short stories.

Over the last year I have read hundreds of British short stories from across the last 200 years, compiling lists of sample stories for four self-selected periods of focus. I’ve experienced the breadth and depth of endings on offer, in a dizzying kaleidoscope of style and structure and voice. The goal of this research is to identify structural and linguistic trends at work in the sentences that create closure in the story. The data from the initial reading study will be used to build writing frames which I will use in crafting the study's creative element: a collection of short stories. 

I had hoped, back when I began drawing up the proposal for this piece of research-led practice, that examining the endings of so many stories might make writing the endings of my own stories a more straightforward activity, that writing endings would cease to be so damnably hard, or failing that, that they would be, at least, a little easier. Alas, wrestling my own endings into submission remains a complex and exhausting exercise. 

However, completing the analysis of fifteen contemporary British stories written and published between 1995 and 2015, and reading hundreds of other stories written between 1800 and 2015, has sharpened my understanding of this, the slipperiest feature of any narrative. So here’s the top five things my first year of PhD study has taught me about endings in short stories:

1. There are as many ways to end a story as there are stories. Don’t let your How To Guide to Writing tell you different. Every story needs its own unique solution (or negative solution in the case of contemporary British short stories). The greatest short stories were all lucky enough to have an author who took the time to find that story’s own unique ending.

2. Don’t be happy with the first ending that comes to mind. The first thing you think of is almost never the most fitting, or indeed surprising, ending for the narrative you have set up. Take the time to explore the weirder, darker, more hidden corners of your story. Or if the story is driving inevitably toward an ending that is visible from a distance, find a way to veer off just enough to make it memorable, to make it strange. 

3. The most effective endings are those you feel rather than those you have to think about. Endings aren’t about tying up the reader’s understanding of what they have just read with a neat little bow so they can take it away like a party treat. Endings are not a take-home message in a PowerPoint presentation. Endings should be a punch to the gut you weren’t expecting, a slap in the face you didn’t deserve; they should be the unanticipated stroke of a stranger’s fingertip across your skin.

4. Endings are as much about the journey as the end. My research maps (in part) the staging of closure within my sample stories. All of the stories I have studied feature preclosural sentences that mark the end of alternative stories within the overall final story, which is itself marked by the story’s final sentence. Each preclosural sentence, each alternative story, is a stepping stone to an ending. In a short story the end is both imminent and immanent. Build steps toward closure into the very fabric of your stories.

5. The real end of a short story happens off the page, somewhere in the post-narrational thoughts of the attentive reader. It seems Chekhov was right, short stories are, in fact, all middle. Or as Carver put it, "Get in, get out, don’t linger." Or as Vonnegut half-said, "Start as close to the end as possible" and stop just before you reach it. Of course, this means that even the final closure sentence of a story is preclosural. 

In short, there are no easy fixes. Endings are slippery beasts. Sometimes you have to wrestle them to the floor and pin them down. Sometimes you have to let them loose and pick up the pieces afterwards. Sometimes you have to stalk them from a distance, until they get where they have always been going. Writing a story that can stand on its own four legs is all about being able to tell when to do what.

About the writer
Dan Powell’s debut collection of short fiction, Looking Out of Broken Windows, was shortlisted for the Scott Prize and longlisted for the Edge Hill Prize. The recipient of a Royal Society of Literature Brookleaze Grant and Society of Authors Award, he is currently a Midlands3Cities-funded Doctoral Researcher in Creative Writing at University of Leicester and a First Story Writer-in-residence.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Poem by Victoria Pickup

Victoria Pickup studied a BA in English and MA in Creative Writing at Loughborough University. A freelance writer for seven years, she continued to write creatively and in 2008 won the CafĂ© Writer’s Award with a poem inspired by travels in Bosnia: ‘The Chicken that Saved my Children.’ She was shortlisted for the Poetic Republic (MAG) poetry award in 2009 & 2010. Victoria now lives in Hampshire with her husband, three children and, of course, a pet chicken. 

This moment too

Will be forgotten.

Through the foggy bedroom landscape 
And a muted dawn chorus
Curtains grow lighter
As the prospect of another day looms
Spent slumping over an empty coffee mug.

Snatched naps and
Fearful awakenings
Numbed by a cool breeze. 
The perpetual state of weary bouncing,
Which darkness brings with hushed sing song,
Lingers in aching joints.

And of you, 
Sacred, nocturnal child,
All I will take forwards
Is the day you placed your hands on my face
And kissed me. 

Sunday, 20 May 2018

My Work Experience at Shoestring Press

By Sonia Tailor

Whilst studying my MA in Creative Writing at University of Leicester, I had gained an interest in the book publishing industry. In order to work in that field, I knew I needed to gain some experience first. I was faced with the daunting task of applying for internships. One afternoon, whilst I was filling out a long application form, I received an email advertising an intern role at Shoestring Press.

I researched the independent publishing house and saw that it specialises in publishing poetry sequences and collections. This sounded appealing to me and I sent a letter to John Lucas, the publisher. Around a week later, I received call from him and we arranged a meeting. John kindly guided me through the different processes and encouraged me to get involved as much as possible.

I was provided with the opportunity to build brilliant work relationships with a variety of people, including writers. I had frequent meetings with one writer in particular, Alan Brownjohn. We would meet in coffee shops in London and discuss different ways to promote his novel, Enjoyment. This included having it reviewed by newspapers and magazines. John provided me with the contact details of the editors. I wrote a persuasive press release and began phoning and emailing them. It was an exhilarating feeling when I saw the first review published on London Grip. Although not everyone was interested, the experience gave me an insight into how the marketing side of publishing works.

I also had a number of admin tasks to do. For example, John asked me to arrange the location of Miriam Neiger-Fleischmann’s book launch. I learnt how to contact venues and deal with a variety of people. This helped strengthen my communicational skills. When I was at the launch, I was happy with the large turnout. It made me feel proud knowing that I helped with the arrangement of the event.

John also opened me up to the sales side of publishing. I was asked to assist with Shoestring Press’s stall at States of Independence, a book fair held in the East Midlands. I sold a number of books and pamphlets. It enabled me to meet more people who had a genuine passion for books. Furthermore, I was responsible for introducing two key speakers who had their poetry collections published by Shoestring Press. It was extremely exciting.

The experience was helpful and rewarding. It developed my transferable skills and gave me a true insight into how a successful publishing house is run. Plus, there was every book lover’s dream: free books!

About the author
Sonia Tailor studied an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. She is a peace activist who enjoys writing short stories and monologues. She has organised vigils and demonstrations, and in 2007, she travelled to Jordan to make a documentary about Iraqi refugee children. She currently runs a book blog on Instagram: @soniareads. 

Thursday, 10 May 2018

G. S. Fraser Poetry Prize: Call for Submissions

This is a call for submissions from current University of Leicester students for the annual G.S. Fraser Poetry Prize 2018.

A prize of £50 will be awarded to the author of the winning poem.

Any student currently enrolled at the University of Leicester may enter.

Entrants may submit up to three poems.

Poems may be on any subject but must not exceed 40 lines.

Poems must not have been published or have won another prize.

To enter please email your poem(s), one poem per page, in a Word or pdf attachment from your University email address to Nick Everett, with ‘G.S. Fraser Prize’ in the subject line and your name in the message. The deadline for submissions is: 5 p.m. on Friday 8 June 2018.

The result will be announced on Friday 22 June.

Good luck!

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Creative and Critical Digressions: On the Creative Writing PhD

By Paul Taylor-McCartney

I’m now a third of my way into a six-year part-time PhD in Creative Writing with Leicester University, working on a 50,000-word dystopian novel, entitled The Recollector, with an accompanying reflective commentary of 20,000 words exploring the function of memory and identity in works from across the genre, including my own. Ask any part-time doctoral researcher about setting aside some dedicated time to study and they’ll tell you it’s a slow-burn process – a little and often should do it. Indeed, taking a measured approach to formulating, creating, revising and continually reviewing sections of material, whilst receiving objective but supportive tutelage from an expert supervisor, comes with its challenges, but also a wealth of opportunities to explore and ideate to the heart’s content. 

For example, it’s taken the whole of my first year to get anywhere close to settling on an appropriate register for the creative piece. Third person - second person - then finally choosing first person and locating it entirely in the present tense. The course requires me to balance creative and critical interests, meaning I’m pursuing a range of digressionary journeys away from the core material, but each one actively deepening my appreciation of the processes and discipline required to achieve at this new level. A panel seminar at last year’s NAWE Conference has become an academic paper due to published later this summer. Last month, I returned to painting and the easel to create miniature canvasses to help define the sombre mood of my text’s dystopian setting - a setting in which the majority of the population suffer memory issues in one form or other, with a staggering rise in dementia cases. Elsewhere, drafting confessional poetry is helping sharpen the voice of the text, and I’m currently re-figuring the opening section of the novel as an installation piece for a small gallery in New York. This alone is asking me to re-engage with my previous performance work as both theatre director, actor and musician.  

At another extreme, I’m planning on producing a paper version of The Recollector using an antique 1930s Olivetti typewriter, in line with my protagonist’s need to avoid committing his memories to electronic devices of any description. 

Some may consider these various digressions unnecessary and even vain enterprises. For me, a PhD in Creative Writing is not simply about completing a full-length study suitable for publication across its creative and critical elements – although that is ultimately one criterion against which I’ll be measured. It is, more crucially, proving to be a fully-immersive exploration of the artistic process in its entirety, spiralling outwards from a central conceit – and the greatest expression of my writing career to date.