The 2022 Tonia Bevins Awards for Poetry and Prose

This year’s competition is now open, and entries can be made up to midnight on Sunday, 30th October 2022.

The Award

The Vale Royal Writers Group has inaugurated this award in memory of the late Tonia Bevins, a founder-member of VRWG, and gifted poet who passed away in 2018. Tonia’s talents were widely recognised, and her ability to craft beauty out of words was admired and envied by writers of all genres.

The awards will be given biennially for the best poem, (maximum 40 lines), and the best piece of prose, (max. 1,500 words). The submissions will be reviewed as anonymous pieces by a panel of committee members. The panel will then draw up a shortlist, with the winner in each category picked by an independent judge who is not a member of the group (selected biennially).


A cash prize of £50 and a trophy, which will be held for a period of 2-years, will be awarded to the winner in each category.


The competition, which is restricted to ‘paid-up’ members of the Vale Royal Writers Group, is open to all forms of writing, with no restrictions on format, style, content, etc. and the terms ‘poetry’ and ‘prose’ will be given their widest interpretation. Members can submit to both categories if they wish, but only one submission in each category will be accepted.


Submissions should be typed and forwarded to Les Green, a member of the Group Management Committee, who will collate entries for passing, anonymously, to the judging panel. Each piece submitted should be given a title. The writer’s name should NOT appear on the piece of work submitted. Emails should be headed, either, “Submission: 2022 Tonia Bevins Award (Poetry)”, or “Submission: 2022 Tonia Bevins Award (Prose)”

Send to this email address:

From Nothing to Everything (by Shauna Smith Leishman)

After some months of a state of being building up, on 10th October, I reached peak nothingness. By the end of the day, after feeling this oppressive pressure over the weekend, I wailed “I am nothing, I do nothing, I can’t make plans, I can’t go anywhere, I have no voice, no thoughts, I can’t even think up anything I want!!” with a feeling of fury encompassing this empty bubble. I crawled through Monday, hoping that the biweekly class I have, where I get to sit in a comfortable, well-lit room all day with other women, making beautiful embroideries, would save me. But in the evening, my teacher called to say that even though she was
double-jabbed and only had some coughing as a symptom – she had tested positive for Covid and class was therefore cancelled. So much for my escape from nothingness the next day.

And then it got better (one of my favourite phrases needing to be said by an Englishman, comes from Monty Python in regard to newts). I was actually booked for two other things that Tuesday. In the evening I went to an exhibition on Raphael which was shown in a remodeled, beautiful little cinema in Knutsford and I was left swooning with the grace and beauty I’d just experienced. Then I ran straight to the first lecture in a three month course, on zoom, on how to better deal with the world as a sensitive or empath (highly sensitive person – that’s me). It kept going. I had a friend I hadn’t spoken with in months, call me in tears, who
had had a bad time of things and tell me that just hearing my voice would be uplifting. My voice? I found a hilarious gift in a thrift store which had someone’s name all over it and had fun putting it together for her. Got a haircut. Made a cake with the apples from a tree in my garden and ate only that cake for two days.

On the day of the Vale Royal Writing group meeting I was unusually busy all day. I’d started out with my usual podcast/embroidery routine which gets me going every morning. After lunch I went over to a friend’s house that I used to go to every week up until a couple of years ago, where we did self studies of various esoteric topics. Before I went, I hand-wrote a
four-page letter to her mother, who has been in a hospital for over four months. Then I went by a warehouse of health supplements where I used to pick up orders for my health shop over 12 years ago – and picked up some supplements for myself for the first time since letting the shop go. I thought as I left “I’d like to work there!” (haven’t thought of such a thing for years).
I’d caught up on some long-delayed email correspondence which I was feeling pretty good about. And then I finally made it to the meeting! The group has been meeting at the pub again for three months now but I wasn’t able to come in person for the first two meetings. I was just a bit excited and fully enjoyed interactions with all these people that trailed in after me (I was
first after Bob – who was so thoughtfully setting up the Zoom component for people who still couldn’t attend in person) and gathered around the table. It was so good to be around these people I’ve grown to know and appreciate for a number of years now, in this meeting.

The podcast that I had listened to in the morning that inspired me, was called Fiber Nation and is usually about all kinds of textile-related topics. On this one, they talked about doing some experiments with Artificial Intelligence (AI) to see if it could create some knitting patterns. They’d found a woman who was an AI expert who liked to play all kinds of games with her computers to test their capacity. They fed knitting patterns into the AI and then set it to create some – with hilarious results. One phrase that jumped out at me – as they reassured us AI wouldn’t be taking over human creative endeavours anytime soon – was that AI would ‘see’ creativity as chaos and act accordingly. And I thought that was brilliant – a true creative enterprise is bringing something wonderful – out of chaos. And apparently computers can’t do this.

When the meeting started I got to watch this very principle play out. A group of people sat in this room and shared all kinds of creativity wrought out of nothing, an idea, a thought, an unwritten string of random letters. Sorry, but no AI could have done what we did that night. No digital interface could have worked on our emotions, our perceptions, our sharing, our writing experiences that moved the energy and thoughts all over that room and back again. Our writing exercise turned out to be a rather simple prompt – ‘what is your favourite word?’ – write for ten minutes. We got words like ubiquitous, bedtime, serendipitous,
speculate, karma – one member just made a long list. What I liked were the stories backing up the words chosen – and I thought – try and do that AI! Then we got to the readings. We got a couple of horror stories that moved us in a shadowy way that I know no computer could reach.

We got someone turning a Biblical writer – the author of Matthew in the New Testament – around into a personal story in an attempt to understand where this man was coming from. Someone shared a sweet poem about an upcoming wedding. And then David Varley demonstrated that rather than the malaise that has struck me – and some others – he is just getting even more impressive with his creativity.
I’d like to see him dancing to the song “U can’t touch this!”(MC Hammer)….to a master AI computer system. His writing sure does. Here is the ‘word’ he scribbled out in 10 minutes while sitting with us. I almost fell off my seat at the power in it – as well as how completely it fit in with my earlier thoughts of ‘creativity out of chaos – or nothingness’.

My favourite word is “unmade”. I occasionally find myself fixating on a particular word or phrase that can rattle around in my skull for days, weeks, years. This word sprung into my head suddenly one fine spring day as I walked through a farmer’s field about three miles upriver from Durham. It has been with me ever since.
Un-made. Un-made.
Two syllables of utter fascination. To make something is, in itself, an astonishing feat: the process of moving from nothing to something, a whole and infinite act of creation in that small verb. I make these jottings, God makes the universe, and that syllable covers them and everything in between. It is a syllable as wide as the universe. But what, then, of the “un-”? It reverses, it changes, but it is equal and opposite in scope to the syllable it modifies. It is every bit as vast. To unmake something is not to destroy it, exterminate it, or obliterate it – rather, it is the act of causing something that is to not be, or possibly even to have never been, So there you have it, fixed in two syllables, entire cosmoses of existence and negation, the two sides to everything that is and ever could be. And that is why it is my favourite word
.” DHV

Computers have developed in my lifetime and have become a part of almost every aspect of our life anymore. I love my little smartphone and the way I can keep close face to face contact with family spread around the world. Yes, I do. But I’ve also hated the way it has come to control so many facets as well as driving people into more isolation from each other. There almost seems to be an effort to turn people into digital beings or to at least act or be controlled like one. And computers have just been used in a way that has levied a huge burden and upturned the world as it was. I fear we will never return to “the way it was”. But I’m not
drifting in nothingness anymore – I’ve been shown that creativity is what wins over computing and chaos. And thanks to other people around me – I seem to be finally crawling back out from under that Lockdown Rock that unmade me.

Is The Pen Mightier Than Microsoft (s)Word? (by Marian Smith, July 2021)

On Christmas Day 2019 I received the usual gift from my sister, an A6 2020 diary. But since retiring I found I wasn’t using a diary so much, but as I couldn’t resist those empty pages, I decided to jot down a few notes about what I did each day instead. Trips out, what we went to see at the cinema, that sort of thing.

Of course, if I’d known how 2020 was going to pan out, I would have asked for a bigger diary. For the first two months I would barely fill the space for each day; my main focus was the ongoing problem with our boiler and the awful weather – remember Storm Ciara and Storm Dennis? The 29th January marked my first attempt at banana pancakes. At the time I was giving scant attention to world events apart from a passing comment on the 31 January ‘We leave the EU today’.

The first recorded death from coronavirus in China was on the 11th January but this momentous event passed me by (‘Went to Chester with Maggie late morning, had lunch in Bean and Cole’). Then, gradually the pandemic started to touch our lives and, on the 4th March, I wrote ‘there are now 85 cases in the UK’.

I recorded events in the order in which they happened, rather than by their importance, hence the entry on the 5th March: ‘Dropped my laptop while coming down from the gallery at Gladstone’s – it bounced off every step. Used the ‘F’ word out loud – doubtless eyebrows were raised. Turned on the car radio, first coronavirus death in the UK and now over 100 cases. All in all, a very bad day.’

By mid-March new words and phrases had started to be part of our conversation: lockdown, self-isolating, social distancing and Zoom.  And of course, there were the ongoing antics of Donald Trump. By the 29th July, the A6 diary was full and I had to buy another notebook. I recorded the impact of coronavirus on our daily lives. I logged the rising number of cases and the death toll, and I wrote about the daily government briefings at which they announced the ever-increasing restrictions. But there was always the underlying belief that life would be back to normal by Christmas.

Looking back at those entries from a year ago, it’s a sobering read.  Given that it is an account of an historic year, it would be tempting to add some telling phrases such as ‘read today of some weird bug which started in an animal market in China’.

But where is the honesty in that? A diary rewritten with the benefit of hindsight stops being a diary. Only in the raw, unedited version, do the accidentally prophetic entries become the gems, not to mention those events which only took on significance later on, like my husband’s eight days of persistent coughing back in January.

So, this is the case for handwriting. Once that pen touches the paper, the words are set in stone. My ‘editing’ head doesn’t get a look in, because any subsequent changes would stand out and spoil a neat page of my very best handwriting. The only way I could go back and make those changes look like they were my original words, would be to copy the whole diary out again and, to be honest, I can’t be bothered.

But If I think that rewriting an A6 diary is too much like hard work, what about a full-length novel?

I believe a lot of people prefer to handwrite a first draft and then type it on a computer. Perhaps the pen feels like a conduit between the brain and the paper, the ink is the blood through which the inspiration flows. And that’s fine, because we have a choice.

But before Bill Gates made our writing lives a whole lot easier, authors must have been constantly editing and redrafting in long hand.  Jane Eyre was almost 184,000 words long, Oliver Twist 156,000, with War and Peace coming in at a whopping 587,000 words. The classics of literature could be overflowing with ‘darlings’ that never got killed off.

We are so lucky. When we type our work, we know that we can edit it again and again. That gives us the freedom to write that rough first draft, happy in the knowledge that with constant reworking and polishing, we can produce something which is sparkly and memorable.

I wonder what would have been the end result if Bronte, Dickens and Tolstoy had access to Microsoft Word or Scrivener.  Would their novels have been substantially different (though I’m sure no less memorable) if they had been able to cut and paste or find and replace? Who knows, perhaps Charles Dickens may have toyed with the idea of renaming his eponymous hero Douglas Copperfield, but then looked at the pile of neatly handwritten pages and thought “Sod that.”

I still enjoy the feel of pen on paper and so now, in the middle of 2021, the diary habit has stayed with me. But I’m looking forward to a time when we have put some distance between ourselves and 2020, our lives are back on solid ground and domestic trivia will once more fill the pages. I’m looking forward to a time when a year of my life will fit neatly into an A6 diary.

I also hope that one day, given the choice, my grandchildren would rather read my diary, written in a hand which is unique to me, rather than a printed Word file.

What happened to Bob on 7th of June?

by Shauna Smith Leishman, June 2021

Last Monday I had every intent to join the monthly zoom meeting of VWRG but all of a sudden about twenty minutes before it was time – which had been moved up half an hour to keep Bob in Cyprus in the loop – I was distracted into something else and didn’t end up checking in. I knew I’d missed some kind of chaos though, when a couple of hours later an email came in from Bob, apologizing for having missed the meeting and he couldn’t fathom how it had happened. I began laughing, bouncing about the sofa and just said “another MR strike!” We all know Bob is a super reliable, conscientious president who has always gone out of his way to accommodate many people in an organized, present style. He of course has good helpers to carry things along but everyone does look towards Bob, in the end, for his shepherding abilities because he can be trusted. At the expense of being misunderstood here, I’d like to try and explain.

So what is MR? I first heard about this when I was a young woman, probably still at university, and nodded my overwhelmed head at the thought. But within a few years, it became apparent that if I wanted to keep my mental health, it might be a good idea to learn about and pay attention, to dance around this little mischief maker – rather than be clobbered to the floor – that comes along about three times a year. I would be sailing along in life, always attempting to get a handle on things and grow in confidence and then things would suddenly start falling apart and when I’d finally begin to suspect I was genuinely going crazy – I’d find out we were about a week into a Mercury Retrograde. I began looking it up and sticking the dates on my calendar so I knew it was coming. It took another dozen years or so though, before I finally learned how to deal with it in such a way it wouldn’t knock me silly and I pretty much can successfully weave my way through them now, fairly stress free.

The planet Mercury going into retrograde means it’s a period of time when it appears to be moving away, or backwards, from earth as it does its orbital loop. All of the planets do this retrograde thing and all of them affect different things but I’ve never paid much attention to the others. The bigger, slower planets will go through their retrogrades for months and even years sometimes. Mercury is small and fast and so it does a complete orbit about every four months and this retrograde will last about three weeks. I’ve nicknamed it ‘the Universe’s built in humbling factor’. If you think you are in control of things, on top of the world, everything is going your way – this can all fall apart when an MR hits.

Mercury is the old Messenger god – also known as Hermes – who flew through the air on winged heels to carry messages. Basically this little god still affects communication and travel and I’ve noticed, electronics. So during an MR, miscommunications abound, machinery breaks down (cell phones, computers, appliances) and travel can develop all kinds of hiccups. I had to call an appliance repairman in on one washing machine for at least three Mercury Retros before giving up and buying a new one. Oh – and I make sure never to buy anything electronic during an MR. This probably did not have as noticeable an effect on people back in the days before our now constant, heavy reliance on all things electric and instant communications around the world on a little phone in your hand or box on your desk.

Mercury is affiliated with the Gemini sign and both my husband and I are Geminis. It took awhile but I finally noticed that we would get into a big nonsense argument – around the time an MR started. It took me another few years before I stopped my tendency to fly into arage at a perceived offence, often during an MR and get into a squabble with someone. I began to break out of that one by stopping – mid rage flow – and saying “let’s stop this, put it aside and consider it again for discussion when MR is over”. I don’t recall ever resuming the fierce quarrel a couple of weeks later.
When I had my shop, I trained my employees to watch that orders would be coming in with lots of errors and the till would often break down in some way and that I wouldn’t get annoyed about it during an MR. Just wait until it is finished and clean up the mess.
One time I was telling a couple of newish friends about it over lunch, because there had been some kind of hassle around us getting together and while they were grumbling, I was nonchalant. At my explanation, they pretty much scoffed at me and thought I was nuts and we carried on. I’m used to this. My friend called me a few hours after we’d parted to tell me something weird was going on at her house. She lived in a cul de sac in a newer housing estate and realised suddenly, that she was hearing a conversation in a house across the road – through her telephone. She had run over to knock on their door and in everyone’s shock, they figured out that the telephone lines – had somehow turned their houses into an intercom/loudspeaker system for the other. She now became a believer in this newfangled idea and I added her to my list of people that I warn an MR is coming. Through the years, as friends and relatives encounter a mishap and my diagnosis – they welcomed being on my list for ‘the MR is coming!’ notices. To brace, to be in the know.

There are two international incidents which I can recall, that I feel were hit by the MR affliction. The both happened in the early 2000’s. One of them was when a US submarine bounced up to the surface without warning and knocked a Japanese ship to pieces, killing a number on board. They never could conclusively pin the blame on any one person and the inquiry even said “the accident was caused by a series and combination of individual negligences onboard the (submarine)”. The other famous oopsy was the 2000 election of the second President Bush – when there were a bunch of voting machines in Florida which malfunctioned and held up the election results for weeks and still ended up with a conflicted result. Voting day was on the last day of an MR and I saw it as the MR donkey kicking a last backward punt as it ran off. I can’t wait to hear how the G7 summit currently being held in the UK is actually going. I often fantasize about being called in to be a consultant with top officials to advise on scheduling and dealing with MR mishaps – like that wise old woman or man or Yoda gnome who shows up to mouth mysterious oracles in times of crisis in the movies. My close circle in the know, sometimes spend MRs passing around mishaps they’ve encountered in the day at work, or how many times a till has gone down or an email has disappeared or a package or a reservation on a vacation goes missing, etc. Or your phone gets mysterious ideas of it’s own or something that normally works on your computer suddenly gets creative without your permission. People have learned to walk away from squabbling or mediate others to calm down. In the last week I’ve personally encountered several “I can’t see what you sent me/was posted” “oh, there it is”. Bob’s letter would go into that pot. A friend the other day was fuming at how idiotic and useless some deliverymen had been with a washing machine and I just said “and you bought a washing machine during MR?”

Mercury Retrograde is a good time to organize things, prepare contracts to be signed after it’s over, not start any big venture, just hold steady. Let go of the idea of rushing to get something done. Make sure if you do something – like shopping or going anywhere or puttering at work – you leave time and attention for slowing down, needing to untangle a mishap. I grow even more careful in my communications and am not frustrated when I can’t understand – or be understood by others. I now laugh a lot, during an MR, rather than think I’m going crazy. I highly recommend this perceptual filter to be worn a few times a year.

Yes, Bob, in my view, it was explicable. You were hacked by a planet going ‘backwards’

Soul Food

Images appear as words ring in the ears of the listener!

A picture prompt for a writing exercise set the scene for creative juices to flow to enrich the flavour of the forthcoming delights at the March meeting.

Pleasingly proven within the organic ingredients of a poem invoking and nurturing memories, reeling me in to savour the Irish soda bread!

Replenished I was tempted into an early taster hors d’oeuvre, as a chapter of a novel began opening a window on a journey of ancestral discovery and truth!

Refreshed I travelled ahead light years in time, to experience the ruminations of the early colonisation of a new planet, the killing of the ‘shell cows’ inviting discussion and food for thought!

Back down to earth to unwind I found myself soothed by the gentle rhythm of seduction, a pleasant interlude with two young teenagers exploring friendship and tasting their first kiss of sweet love!

Imagery complete and my senses satiated, this was indeed food for a writer’s soul!

Christine Edwards March 2021


Screenshot from Zoom meeting

What happens when you vaguely ask a Zoom full of writers to submit three lines, or sentences, or thoughts, or whatever?

I can see fellow inmates through the bars of my cell, people sitting in front of curtains and bookcases. I see a live picture of myself as well, my hair is long and I’ve gone slightly mad.  (Definition of open-ended sentence: a set of words without a full stop; incarceration with a fluid parole date.)

Oh no, they’re asking about the blog again. I always feel guilty whenever they bring it up. What on earth could I write about?

I click and you all appear on my screen, you’re there: we laugh, exchange news just as we did in The Blue Cap – then down to business with News, David’s new Community Project and that his books are to be relaunched, also Peter’s success – his book Bosnian Dawn is out “come & buy” and plans for the future”. Liz S’s update, and absorbing readings. Joyce’s new project – letters from history; David Varley’s was the last reading; he made us shiver with his ghost story, one that should be printed!! 
At 9.30 I leave; it’s been a great meeting for I’ve seen 15 of you all via Zoom our way to be together – the VRWG won’t be beaten!!!

Children, let me tell you what we all did in the summer of 2020. We gathered round the radio at teatime every day and listened to Hancock’s Half Hour. Grandpa didn’t think much of it though – he said Hancock was much funnier when he was a boy.

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14+ members managed to Zoom in and share an evening. The exercise for the evening was ‘I turned on the radio and …’, and it easily managed to elicit tales from every genre, from murders to love stories and more. To close the evening Dangerous Dave told us a ghost story in his classical style. Although Peter found Dave’s road map a little awry with County Durham moving 100 miles further south – no doubt to escape the snow.

Space to write. A writer’s life is full of challenges. Ideas have to emerge, characters evolve (and behave), plots thicken and stick. And we need space. Headspace to fill with stories, poems, or plays. Living space to write without distractions. Sometimes you just want to be on the moon.

Fast, clever writing kindly received; readings, varying from somewhat prosaic, poetic, exciting, and to send us to bed, shivering, a creepy horror story. Creativity, constructive criticism, and sometimes (twice in a good year) cake. Most of us aiming for some form of publication, maybe, some already there.

During the meeting I mentioned that stamina was needed in self-publishing. Novels I’ve read recently included a quotation; this is one I used in Bosnian Dawn. ‘Our greatest glory is not in never falling but in rising every time we fall.’  This has been attributed to the following people: Confucius, Nelson Mandela, Vince Lombardi, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Christian Nestell Bovee.

Monday 1st February raced by in a flurry of active projects for me, including being able to keep pushing on with editing my own book project. I thought it was brilliant to hear the news from David Bruce about the reading work he has been doing for the Redwalls NH along with his own books that are being re-launched too. It was great to hear from Peter that his book Bosnian Dawn has now been published on Amazon and he was able to show it us in full paperback format too!! Impressive and motivating!! If I took one thing to bed with me last night, it was Peter’s comment that everyone can get there, you just need to have the stamina to keep going. I particularly liked Peter’s comment about editing and how it looks wrong, then you edit again and still it needs working on!! It was inspirational to know that it is ok to keep editing until you get there!! Fantastic seeing another new person joining the group. It was lovely to welcome Christine back to the group too and have missed her fabulous poetry!! Best of all were the two outstanding storytellers last night, David and Shauna!!

You will have heard of Leonardo, Canaletto, Degas, Pissarro. But I guarantee you will not have heard of Bürstenmacher of Bechhofen. His story has never been told – until now.

Joined the group today and heard some marvellous pieces of work read out. Read one of my own scribblings which seemed to go down quite well. I definitely enjoyed being called creative by someone. Think I like this group. Oh dear, have just realised I now have a competition piece to write as well as finishing my 3 novels and several short stories.

I zoomed into the meeting after a spell of absence and what a Zoom! Fingers flexed with a writing exercise, eyes wide and ears popping at achievements and readings, ending with my brain being gripped in the hands of a storyteller’s horror magic. I was done … what a workout!! My boots are now filling with inspiration, my pen is in hand to dip into my writing well, my radio is on and I’m singing folks!!

Having hit a writer’s block – or seriously high wall – for most of the past year, I’ve been delighted with the way VRWG has been slowly eliciting some writing ventures out of me the last couple of months. Some people on the gallery view have developed a lovely orange glow about them, which gives an added warmth to the proceedings. I know there is always a rate of attrition and coming and going of various members, but am missing some old regulars who I know would be there if we were in person.

We Zoomed together and wrote for ten minutes about what happened when we turned on the radio; I thought I’d read mine out, but some people wrote such brilliant pieces I thought better of it. Maybe next time. There was friendship and poignancy and hilarity and events to look forward to doing; so much done in just two hours. 

Emotional Roller Coaster – I am hungry – Yay! Bob is closing the meeting! 😊 Oh No! He’s going to squeeze in one of David Varley’s not-short ‘short’ stories! Wow! That was good and I even forgot I was hungry!  😊

Two dimensions or three? Four might be pushing it. Zoom, reality, or imaginary? Flat screen, limited vision; perhaps the tail of a cat or a partner’s right hand offering cake/coffee/custard intrudes for a moment. Glimpses of shelves of books, piles of washing-up, Farrow and Ball walls, gas log fires. Reality offers real ale, gin, ears, and hugs, fidgeting, cold walks to cars. Imaginary meetings produce flights of fancy, beaches, mountain lakes, narrowboat cabins and damn all work done. Common to all, applause, suggestions, smiles, concerns, opening doors. 

I missed the meeting again tonight. Strange really, that the more I miss it, the less I miss it. Perhaps I’m missing something?

All photographs are either in the public domain or the property of the contributors.

This blog has been jointly authored by Mollie Blake, Joan Carter, David Bruce, Peter Dyson, Christine Edwards, Les Green, Andrew Hilton, Joyce Ireland, Tom Ireland, Jo Kirwin, Linda Leigh, Shauna Leishman, Carolyn O’Connell, Liz Sandbach, Marian Smith, David Varley, and Bill Webster.

© VRWG 2021

I Wish I’d Written That – by Joan Dowling (May 2020)

When reading ‘Little Women’ as a child, I lost myself so completely in a new and exhilarating world that, although I wanted to see a happy conclusion, I dreaded reaching the end of the book. When I did, I felt positively bereaved to be parted from the March family. I have experienced that sense of loss many times since and, whether I am reading a sad, joyful, thrilling, or even disturbing book, I never cease to marvel at the sheer genius of writers who are able to draw me – sometimes reluctantly – into an imagined world of their own creation.

Joseph Conrad wrote, “I, too, would like to hold the wand giving that command over laughter and tears, which is declared to be the highest achievement of imaginative literature”.  This accurately describes my own wishful thinking. As a voracious reader, I spend a huge part of my life living different lives, some uplifting, some exciting, some sad, some life-changing – but, most, totally engaging and absorbing. When I finally emerge, disoriented, back into my own life, I often struggle to regain my equilibrium. I am left in awe at the sheer power of the words that I have just read and the talent that has organised them in such a way that I was transported into an entirely new existence.

Conrad, of course fulfilled his own aspirations, never more so than in his compelling masterpiece ‘Heart of Darkness’. His command in this case was over the mounting sense of evil that pervaded his dark tale of Kurtz in the jungle. The sense of despair and depravity was so palpable that it was difficult to shake off even after the story was finished. “The horror! The horror” came as no surprise. I felt repulsed and contaminated by the book, but I still couldn’t put it down.

In the same vein, Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes of Wrath’ so fully captured for me the choking dust and suffocating heat of the California dust bowl that it was impossible to read it without instinctively raising my head occasionally, just to take in a deep breath of clean air. Despite this, I accompanied the Joads on every step of their grueling, futile journey.

Of course, we all have our favourites. A novel by Jane Austen can be relied upon to comfort, amuse and gently chastise, Stephen King will always keep you on the edge of your seat – and Dickens will break your heart every time. It’s also deeply satisfying to know that, if we ever tire of the classics, modern writers are constantly introducing new, original stories and innovative ways of telling them. We still have many new realms to inhabit and explore ahead of us.

However, sometimes, it doesn’t need to be a whole book that captures our imagination. Conrad also wrote, “Give me the word and the accent and I will move the world.” This for me is the very essence of a ‘great’ writer – and also, I suspect, what holds me back from writing as much as would like to. So many times, when I am writing, the ‘word that will move the world’ hovers, tantalisingly, on the periphery of my brain. Occasionally, it materialises – usually the day after I have sent my story off to the publisher!

I am filled with admiration for writers who are able to select, seemingly at will, a phrase that is so sublime in its context, or an adjective that is totally irreplaceable, that I have to stop reading while I savour and applaud this enviable gift. Then I throw up my hands in surrender and vow that I will never write again.

Who could resist Daphne Du Maurier’s persuasive enticement into her novel ‘Rebecca’ – “Last night I went to Mandaley again”?  And who doesn’t still shudder when remembering the words of Thomas Harris in his ‘Silence of the Lambs’ – “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti”?

When Dylan Thomas wrote the dedication to his father, “do not go gentle into that good night”, I wonder, jealously, if those words leapt fully-formed and unbidden into his consciousness.  Or, like me, would he have agonised over a multitude of inferior alternatives before alighting on that perfect sentence?

During his final illness, Bruce Chatwin wrote about seeing a vision which included a troupe of glass horses that ‘galloped off in a shatter’. It’s years since I read that, but the splintered fragments of those horses have stayed in my head ever since.

I could go on recalling the many memorable words of gifted authors who have made me gasp in astonishment, while highlighting my own inadequacies. But, instead, I will finish with my current favourite.

I am a huge fan of Hilary Mantel. Her fictionalised account of the life of Thomas Cromwell in the Wolf Hall trilogy is a tour de force. Her erudition, riveting story-telling and perfect prose – to say nothing of her sly touches of dry humour – are matchless.

But it was in her memoir ‘Giving up the Ghost’ that she earned my undying envy. When writing about her schooldays, she explained that (like me) she had to wear big convent knickers. Unlike me, she was a rebel. When her first passion killers wore out, she scavenged amongst the usual scraps of cotton and lace in the airing cupboard for a replacement. As a result, she spent the remaining years of her schooldays – including her stint as head girl – ‘with an illicit bottom’.

Oh! I do wish I’d written that.

VRWG Life of a Writer Series (#06) Nemma Woolenfang

Name: Nemma Wollenfang
What genres do you write in?
I dabble in many fields. Mainly speculative – Science fiction, Fantasy, Horror. If it’s novel length it has to have a romantic twist.
Have you ever had any work published? If so, what and where?
Yes. As I’m sure many of you know. 😉  So far only short stories and a few poems – I’m working my way up to trying to publish something novel length. I’ve had a number of small press and pro-sales, as well as shortlistings or wins in competitions. A friend set up a website for me to collate my work if anyone is interested: But I’ll list the more significant traditional publications below.

Ø  ‘You Think You Are Safe’ contemporary horror in Flame Tree Publishing’s ‘Footsteps in the Dark’ (due June 2020).

Ø  ‘A Study of Mesozoic Schistosoma of the Late Cretaceous Period and their Abundance in Large Theropods’ humorous SF in Cossmass Infinites Issue 2 (due May 2020).

Ø  ‘Lot No. #024: Intergalactic Death Ray’ humorous SF flash in Abyss & Apex Magazine Issue 73 (Jan 2020). Free to read on website.

Ø  ‘Weave Us A Way’ reprint fantasy in Flame Tree’s ‘Epic Fantasy’ (Nov 2019).

Ø  ‘Imperatrix’ Space Opera in Beyond the Stars: Rocking Space (Aug 2019).

Ø  ‘The Hollow Tree’ contemporary horror in Flame Tree’s ‘American Gothic’ (May 2019).

Ø  ‘Solved’ in Chicken Soup for the Soul’s ‘The Wonder of Christmas’ (Oct 2018).

Ø  ‘GOD is in the Rain’ reprint SF in Flame Tree’s ‘Robots & AI’ (Sept 18).

Ø  ‘Echo the Damned’ in Flame Tree’s ‘Pirates & Ghosts’ (Nov 17).

Ø  ‘Fragments of Me’ in Flame Tree’s ‘Murder Mayhem’ (Aug 16).

Ø  ‘Clockwork Evangeline’ steampunk reprint in Flame Tree’s ‘Science Fiction Short Stories’ (Sept 15).

(Some of these places have continuous open calls for various themes if anyone is interested in trying themselves – they were all great venues to work with).

Do you have a preferred place in which to write?
Definitely. In a medieval château with soaring arches and dusty tapestries, sequestered in the fathomless depths of its library working by candlelight. In true Shakespearean style I use quill and ink. The quill is a fancy peacock feather.

Or perhaps not…

To certain people’s dismay it’s the floor of my room, with my doddering laptop propped up on a stool. I like it, it works for me. And contrary to certain concerns, so far my back is fine. It has to be quiet too. Night is best for me – no outside traffic or harried daytime noises, or I can’t focus for anything more than to check email.

I’ve never been able to write properly outside my ‘zone’. I envy other writers who can.

Let’s talk about your muse. What/who inspires you to write?
*crickets chirping*

Alright… This is a difficult question. Not because I have no answer but because it’s so expansive. To be honest, I’m often inspired by many other people’s work. It’s hard to pin a select few. Not just big names but those who run in the quieter circuits. There’s a lot of beautiful work out there. And it’s been a privilege to hear/read some it from VRWG members too. Many of the professional short story magazines – several online and free to read – house a lot of exquisite work. Some of my favourite places to search are: Lightspeed Magazine (SF/F), Nightmare Magazine (H), Clarkesworld (SF/F), Interzone (SF/F), Daily Science Fiction (SF/F), Flame Tree’s Gothic Fantasy range… to name a few. I feel that reading from these frequently has definitely helped to improve my own work.

Tell us about your writing ambitions
I very much want to get one of my novels published… when I can eventually convince myself that any of them are ‘ready’ to venture out into the world. I find it harder to build up the nerve to send those out than I do for short stories. The rejections sting more keenly.
Who are your favourite writers?
Haha! *Rubs hands together* Now’s the time to make many of you cringe. I was a big Twilight fan when the books came out, so Stephanie Meyer (I can hear the groans). I also grew up in the Harry Potter era, so J.K. Rowling. I’m sticking by those. They did good jobs in their genres and they prompted me to read more when I wasn’t reading much at all.

But really, I’m happy to try most speculative writers. I’m currently working my way through a lot of the older classics, like H.P. Lovecraft and H.G. Wells, and enjoying all the flourish-y prose – something which seems to be sadly lacking (out of fashion?) in current works. Although, admittedly, a lot of this reading is for specific research purposes.

My most recent favorite would be Josh Malerman – for his ‘Birdbox’ novel. Some of you may have seen the film adaption with Sandra Bullock. Plus, we’re Facebook friends, which after years still has a certain ‘wow’ factor to it (He replied to my comment, eee! Be cool, be cool). An older favorite is Laini Taylor for her ‘Daughter of Smoke and Bone’ series.

What’s your ideal writer’s life? Go on, let your imagination run wild!
Where every story goes according to plan with limited edits…

Wild? No, no. I have simple dreams. 😉

Outside of writing, is there something else we should know about you?
… There are things outside of writing?

… Are you sure?

Well, considering the current lockdown, I’m not doing all that much that’s interesting. However, I seem to have developed a menagerie of wildlife in the back garden which is expanding daily. It’s like a miniature zoo! Birds, squirrels, hedgehogs, ducks, bats, etc… We have something of a ‘soup kitchen’ set up going on with more dishes being added each day. I’m not sure if that’s because it’s spring or because people aren’t managing to feed them as much as usual. It’s taking more time to get around them all now, morning and evening, as well as to offer/change bedding and clean their baths etc. But it’s fun and they all seem happy, and with less traffic moving about at night I’m less worried about the hedgehogs when they go out roaming (we currently have 2-3 lodging with us).

Well, this has been fun. Take care and stay safe, everyone. ❤

VRWG Life of a Writer Series (#05) Les Green

Name: Les Green

What genre/s do you write in?

Poetry, humour, flash fiction, puns, limericks, music … I don’t think I have a specific genre, I just tend to noodle based on what pops into my head

Have you had any work published? If so, what and where?

Not unless you count those fabulous anthologies produced by our very own VRWG. Or the blog. I seem to be writing more for the VRWG blog than to satisfy any personal writing urges I may have

Do you have a preferred place in which to write?

No. I don’t usually sit down to write like the serious writers do. If I get the mood to write, it’s done wherever I am at that time. Sometimes it remains in my head and never makes it to paper and I’m okay with that. At the suggestion of a number of people through the years I started carrying a little notebook around with me, but on reading it back some weeks after starting it I discovered it was full of impromptu shopping lists and phone numbers with no names next to them so I don’t do that any more

Let’s talk about your muse. What/who inspires you to write?

A common trigger is boredom. If I’m bored and there isn’t a guitar to hand or an unfinished book to read, then I may compose something in my head. A challenge will also get me going, which is probably why the exercise before group meetings usually works out for me. But sometimes all I need is the challenge to get a cheap laugh (the cheaper the better!) And sometimes I just sit down with an empty mind and some blank paper, then just open the tap until I get the urge to do something else (hello Netflix).  I wrote in one of the blogs that I usually run out of discipline before I run out of anything else, and that’s a remarkably accurate way of describing it.

Tell us about your writing ambitions.

I don’t have any ambition to be a writer, which is just as well because I don’t have the discipline for it either. The longest thing I’ve ever written is only 16 pages long. I enjoy making people laugh though so as long I can continue to do that then I’m happy. To write 17 pages would be ambitious for me

Who are your favourite writers?

There’s been so many over the years. My mum was/is a great fan of horror so I did a lot of Dennis Wheatley type of stuff as a teen, and short story collections about ghosts and vampires etc. And my dad liked westerns and crime so I discovered Elmore Leonard (I love his dialogue and scene setting) and Louis L’Amour. The craziness of Spike Milligan’s war diaries left an impression in my youth too. So many though; Charles Dickens, George Pelecanos, Stephen King, Terry Pratchett. I also admire the blockbuster specialists that people can get a bit snobby about, like Dan Brown, or the rip-snorting page turners by the likes of Andy McNab. I don’t often see that kind of breathless pace in other books. It’s a real skill. But I also read non-fiction too when the mood takes – mainly from the branches of physics … I keep returning to cosmology and quantum mechanics, but I don’t have the kind of memory that can retain complex information so it tends to leak out of my ears, which means I tend to re-read stuff in the hope it’ll stick.

What’s your ideal writer’s life? Go on, let your imagination run wild!

To illustrate my lack of writing ambition (and for comedic effect) I was tempted to leave this bit blank. My ideal writing situation is pretty much what it is now. I write when I feel like it without putting pressure on myself to write a certain number of pages, or for a certain number of hours. I don’t even have a story I’m urged to tell. Plus, I only have to please myself, and I don’t imagine I’ll ever need to present anything to a publisher. My writing life is good and healthy, and exactly like it should be, thanks for asking

VRWG Life of a Writer Series (#04) Tom Ireland

Name: Tom Ireland
What genres do you write in?
Poetry, short stories, travel fiction
Have you ever had any work published? If so, what and where?
Ten novels published on Kindle as eBooks and paperbacks. Short stories and poems in VRWG publications
Do you have a preferred place in which to write?
Gladstone’s, Theology room, second desk on the right at the top of the spiral stairs
Let’s talk about your muse. What/who inspires you to write?
Cake, preferably rich fruit with marzipan, and biscuits. Any biscuits. Coffee, double espresso
Tell us about your writing ambitions
Started the Malinding series as a short story which became an opening chapter which became a trilogy …  the idea was that sale of the books would finance GOES, a micro-charity which sponsors education for girls, and medical care.

Pulitzer prize would be good. Maybe sell a few more books? Generally sell one book a month.  Perhaps finish this pesky ghost story …

Who are your favourite writers?
Ransome, Conrad, Shakespeare, Thomas
What’s your ideal writer’s life? Go on, let your imagination run wild!
A small house in the Gambian village which is the basis of Malinding, not too far from the river, near our friends’ compound. Views of the market place and the river
Outside of writing, is there something else we should know about you?
An archbishop of Canterbury once held a door open for me