Warmest thanks from Linen Press to the writers who entered our Beginnings: First Chapter Competition.

There were over forty entries and the standard was high with writing by published novelists, poets, playwrights, emergent writers, journalists, travel writers, writers in residence and writers with bursaries – a very broad range of experience and talent. The chapters were varied in content and style, tackling everything from sex trafficking to the drug industry to family politics. The settings were varied and diverse including Italy, Ireland, Singapore, and Germany. We were impressed by the range of challenging and hard-hitting topics and amused by how many chapters featured cats, both literally and figuratively.

A huge thank you too to LP intern, Rebecca Brown, who worked with me on this project from its conception through to judging the entries. We both read all the chapters and, in secret, we made our own long lists, and exchanged them when we both clicked SEND. Given the difference in our ages and experience, we were dumb-struck and delighted to see we had produced identical lists. Those chosen by both of us are listed below. We also each had ‘just one favourite’ which we didn’t reveal until again we emailed at the same time. Yup – the consensus continued. It remained to our runners-up and this was harder.

So how did we set about choosing? We knew that we had only one chapter on which to base our decision so even if later chapters were to burst into clarity and drama, we had no way of knowing that. We judged the entries on what we have here – words on paper. One chapter. One chance.

Many of the chapters fall by the wayside because the essential narrative scaffolding is missing. We don’t know soon enough what kind of a novel we are reading, where it is going, or what it’s about. I want the key narrative elements here in the first chapter so that my expectations begin to fall into place and I’m not confused or puzzled. I want to know if it’s magic realism or a historical novel or a comedy of manners. The best opening chapters lay out the foundations for what is to come with sign posts and hand-holds, taking the reader surely and safely onwards. That’s not say we want safe writing, far from it. But we want to see the architecture of the novel in the opening pages. Ironically, having said that, one Runner Up breaks all these rules and that is its strength.

We were looking for confident story-telling and an assurance and consistency of style. Often this comes with experience, though emergent writers are equally capable of writing with verve and panache. It takes confidence to plunge in, to take risks with words, to avoid cliches, to surprise us. Those who failed to do this included too much description and detail at the beginning, clogging up the pace and puncturing tension. They gave us too much domestic trivia as a day begins, or we’re told about the weather, or the view, or we’re introduced to a proliferation of characters – too many to keep track. There is too much clutter.

In City of Dancing Shadows, in the first para we are told that a woman on a train is traveling out of London to find her origins and to find out her father’s name ‘which has eluded me over the past thirty six years’. We have a landmark. We know where we are. This works. In The Homecoming – another train journey – the author uses the station names as a framework to lead the reader through parts of the past and to bring us up to speed with the present. In Or The Cat Gets It, Mrs Frobisher is writing her diary on the day of her 80th birthday and this is the hook on which everything hangs – the hatred of her children, the sourness, and the conspiracy theories. It’s done with masterly tidiness and tension.

There is some lovely, assured writing in these entries. The Homecoming has surprising word combinations, Tough Love rings with vibrant Irish conversation, The Colour Of Cherries has deliciously rich descriptions of the taste and smells of cooking.

The Long-List

The Homecoming by Rosemary Stevens
Or The Cat Gets It by Kate Farrell
Fair Trade Heroin by Rachael McGill
Talking Italian in My Sleep by Gerry Stewart
The Colour of Cherries by Carmen Nina Walton
City of Dancing Shadows by Felicia Yap
The Cat’s Mouth by Dawn Nicholson
Tough Love by Caren Kennedy
Reality Show by Jay Merill
Course of Mirrors by Ashen Venema


Tough Love by Caren Kennedy
Reality Show by Jay Merill

Despite the strengths of the other entries on the long list, we felt none was quite on a level with these two. I particularly liked Tough Love and Rebecca picked Reality Show. We promised critiques which we’ve posted separately.


Or The Cat Gets It by Kate Farrell

We were impressed by the confidence and assurance of the writing in this entry, as well as its contemporary, irreverent, painful look at the end of a life. The author, Kate Farrell, doesn’t put a foot wrong. She moves from one sign post to another, leading the reader into the narrative without any superfluous detail or description or padding. It’s consistently tongue-in-cheek and holds us in its grip while we reel from the ghastliness of events in the first pages.

The opening reveals an 80 year old woman writing her diary on her birthday: ‘Eighty. I like the number, an eight and a nought, it has a pleasing symmetry. In China eight is the number of good fortune, whereas in Greece when laid on its side it means infinity. Nought, which has no beginning or end, can also mean the infinite, or the finite.’

She expresses her satisfaction of celebrating her birthday alone, and her loathing for her three grown up children. She also writes with neurotic anxiety about some sort of conspiracy in which THEY ‘underlined’ are watching her and plotting against her. Even Boots The Chemist is suspect. It’s a sad, believable, funny, original portrait of old age, and of a woman alienated from society and her own family. Only the awful cat is loved.

Then – horror of horrors – the whole damn hated family arrive unannounced to surprise her; ‘Her hands gripped the chair arms as she saw spilling into the small apartment, her three horrible children: the doctor, the solicitor, the priest.’ The descriptions of the people are wonderfully acid like the perma-tanned son-in-law: ‘It was like being in the presence of a newly minted penny, and sometimes the colour hurt her eyes.’ And her grandchildren, and great-grand-children: ‘noisy, feral twins, with the silly, pretentious names, Ophelia and Orlando.’ They bring freesias. ‘After chrysanthemums these were her least favourite flowers for the scent reminded her of old ladies. The living room was beginning to resemble a chapel of rest.’

The shock is too much: ‘The family members leered and pranced like characters in Bedlam and she felt a tightening in her chest; something hammered inside her ribcage. Hot, sharp needles of pain shot up her left arm.’ Our heroine slumps in her chair, the birthday surprise delivering a heart attack. ‘The room was paralysed. Fourteen eyes were locked on her, and seven mouths were agape. Ophelia and Orlando were not included in this equation, and the only signs of life came from them as they giggled and poked at their newly deceased great-grandmother’s knees, just in case she wanted to play.’

It’s all done with a wicked, understated style that doesn’t falter. And we wonder what on earth will happen next.

You can read the first chapter of Or The Cat Gets It here on our website, and we invite Kate Farrell to send in the complete manuscript as a submission to Linen Press.

Congratulations, Kate!

The Winner

Or The Cat Gets It

The Runners Up

Tough Love

Reality Show

The Long-list

The Homecoming

Fair Trade Heroin

Talking Italian in My Sleep

The Colour of Cherries

City of Dancing Shadows

The Cat’s Mouth

Course of Mirrors