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The Firestarter 2022

firestarter 2022 Mar 06, 2022

Every year, The Firestarter provides an exciting festival of talent at The Novelry.

Our members dare to share the all-important opening to their novel or memoirs in our online workshop for the reading pleasure of almost eight hundred writers (who are, of course, the most avid readers).

Each and every member gets a vote to choose the winner from the array of books-in-waiting based on a very simple test: which story would you want to read more of, most, and soonest?

Previous winners have been: Kathy Brewis, Cate Guthleben, Walter Smith, and Anna Verena Brandt.

The Firestarter in 2022 is sponsored by one of our formidable literary agency partners, Mushens Entertainment, home to Richard Osman and many more literary luminaries including Abigail Dean, Jessie Burton and our own Katie Khan.

The winner will be invited to submit their work when it's ready to Mushens Entertainment. They will also receive a cash prize of £150 or $200 to use to fuel their writing habit as they choose (coffee, coffee, and more coffee!).

Our team of authors and editors have been reading the entries with glee, and we have been dazzled by cracking concepts, startling sentences, devilish dilemmas, and the wit, wisdom and mischief which abound in these stories. You wondrous bunch!

Please do not feel badly if you are not this year's winner, folks.  Many of us (ahem) do many, many drafts to achieve the standard we're after, and many of the entries have been through the ringer at The Novelry. You can make it. But you have to see it, to write it. We can't banish good writing from our sight so as to kid ourselves that for some reason our early efforts are genius. As Ajay Chowdhury reminded us in his blog recently, it's all about revision. So, muscle up and make it better. We will always help you with ideas to fix problems, and we'll be with you all the way to help you write beautiful stories, boldly told.

This has been a stand-out year for the quality of your work. Well done to all! We don't have space to include every entry here, but we couldn't resist plucking out a few gems:

  • Jane Mansour's FILTERED. A recent winner of the Eve White Literary Agency Twitter pitch competition, the set-up delivers on this premise and left us wanting to read more. There are moments of such keen observation in the details, we're envious! It hooked us with its confident and arresting first line: Nothing could save the afternoon. We are straightaway on Katya’s side as she reluctantly joins the baby shower, in this assured and relatable opener. As Katya’s predicament escalates, we’re treated to smart observation and quick humour. 
  • Ruth Husain's 93% STARDUST sets up an extraordinary speculative novel with its affecting opening: We held your soul in love as your memories dripped out. When we released you upwards, joy erupted in your chest.
  • The opening to THE SOUL LOTTERY by Verity McLellan is surprising, original and so generous to its reader. Bo is a stand out character and the story is full of heart from the get-go. Bo wanted to see the real details, the shadowy, deep ones, the ones that creep in the dark. The details that dance when imaginations are switched on.
  • Amy Sandiford's prologue for THE BIRD KEEPER ends with an absolute smasher of a line: The time has come to assemble my lover.
  • Confident and true to its title, BRAVERY AND OTHER LIES by Angela Marino kicks off with aplomb: Juliet Winters did exactly what, in her estimation, any other unlikable person would do. She made it clear she was unlikable from the start. 
  • A dangerous love affair in occupied France leaves a lifetime of guilt in its wake in THE WRONGDOING by Carol Williams. We are plunged quickly into the heart of the matter. The butcher appears on the street in a blood-stained apron to deliver his news to the grumbling crowd. ‘There’s nothing left!’ He folds his blackboard, smudging the chalked prices. She hurries over to her bicycle before anyone can beg her to share the meat. She doesn’t notice the soldier on his own by the railings until it’s too late.
  • They used to burn witches at Launceston Castle. Thus begins GILGORRYAN by Viv Frances. We were captivated with the Daphne du Maurier-esque atmosphere and subtle menace of her story: Tolby is no longer the subject of discussions in coffee shops or in columns of type, and someone, somewhere, has already written an obituary. It will sparkle, just as he does, with accolades and witty comments. A life written in black and white; a different life to the one I see, full of colour, humour and love.
  • The opening lines from Shylashri Shankar's BLOOD CASTE unfold so naturally, a confident, take-the-reader-by-the-hand opening which is also just so intriguingWhen Soob first saw the body, he thought it was a child or a dog. In the sooty light of dusk, he'd glimpsed something wriggling on the rock ledge in the middle of the Musi River, leashed by streamers of green algae and ribbon weed. Shylashri plunges straight into the story in impressive fashion, deftly conveying both character, theme and setting. We loved the detail of the police officer as a naturalist, and with Soob’s mission clearly stated, I’m rooting for him to succeed: The British and the rich nawabs had a stable of protectors; the whole apparatus worked for them. But the poor only had him, Soob.
  • Ragan Rhyne's opening sentence for THE MURDER OF HESTIA BOURGEOIS had us hooked at hello! Everyone has their breaking point.
  • THE LACEMAKER OF VENICE by Anouska Huggins brilliantly establishes a character with just a few words: She avoids looking at passers-by, hopes they will not notice her. We love the vibrancy of the writing and originality of description: She tries to imagine her scrubbed chair, the seat worn smooth. The stuffed roll of satin on her knee. The Lagoon lapping. Women chattering like gulls as threads flow: loop, catch, pull; loop, catch, pull.
  • Ordinarily, cows wouldn’t be Florrie’s problem begins Caroline Davies' warm-hearted and humorous novel THE UNFINISHED BUSINESS OF FLORRIE FAIRWEATHER which reminds us of Joanna Cannon's much-loved novels.
  • There’s so much world-building and mystery involved in John Goodman’s opening line to THE SEVENTH TENET: I’ve broken the Seventh Tenet, and that means death. It establishes the stakes, the main thrust of the story and an immediate mystery to be solved: what is the Seventh Tenet and why does it mean death?
  • The beautifully depicted luscious detail of THE BASTARD by Courtney Palmbush left us wanting more. Courtney has a Hilary Mantel-like knack of bringing a long-distant period to vivid life. Robert, Duke of Normandy, was changed. A dream did it, or whatever it was he saw the night the skald sang in his hall. She’s also brilliant at describing the confusion of a child trying to navigate an adult world. The night before the last time he is with his father, William dreams that a bear with an eagle’s head is prowling outside the walls, waiting to peck him into gobbets.
  • We loved the luminous detail in Fraer Stevenson’s wonderful DARK HORSE: Diana smudged the charcoal lines, her hand moving swiftly until the outline of the shadow horse was blended with the sharp-eyed crows surrounding it.
  • For a pacy first sentence for younger readers, try this from Martin Gooch's WHIRLED WORLD: A baby! A basket! A doorstep!
  • Mark Lyons’ opening line for THE CHRYSANTHEMUM SWORD reminded us of Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea and promises mystery and wonder: In a vast, wild sea, ruled over by the Dragon King, RyĆ«jin, and under the watchful eye of the sun goddess, Amaterasu, lies a string of magical islands, strewn carelessly over the waves like millet. seed.
  • Monica Balt's THE SHADOW IN THE TREE is packed with sensational sentences. There are echoes of Jean Rhys’ brilliant and unsettling Wide Sargasso Sea here. I smile at Mathilda. She does not smile back. Her eyes bristle and snag. The last thing I see before sleep claims me is Laverne, a ghostly figure in the chair, staring at me through the netWe were struck by the rich, evocative prose that somehow manages to be both lush and sinister. The sense of a journey’s end (or just the beginning) makes for a truly immersive opener: The drumming grows louder, overpowering the cicadas as Jonas drives us up a path that snakes its way through a tunnel of trees. With every bump, the carriage lanterns sway, illuminating leafy branches reaching towards the carriage like outstretched hands.
  • We loved the opening to Prudence Nasse's SEDUCTION IN SUMMER and how the reader is immediately drawn to mischievous Ivy. ‘I’m not sure why,' said Ivy, shrugging her shoulder with a slight smirk. 'I think I’m rather fabulous.' There's a Jane Austen tone to the ironic barbs and asides in this first chapter, and any historical romance reader would be enjoying this backseat journey to the beautiful Hackett-Wood. 
  • Sarah Martin's opening lines for THE NIGHT PARROT had us transfixed. The young woman held her breath. The bird, appearing to look in her direction, stood still as if it had seen her, and blinked one eye. The reader is frozen there looking through the lens of the camera with Marie, tense with anticipation, and Sarah navigates the tension and suspense of this opening chapter so deftly. 
  • Justine Gilbert sets up a tense page-turning crime story with SOMEBODY ELSE'S LIFE with compelling characterisation and a superbly vivid setting: A crime. A crisis. A reason for his blood pressure to shoot up. They’ll both need a strong morning cup. She drizzles olive oil inside a piece of focaccia and wraps it in a paper serviette.
  • Verity McLellan has that most incredible and rare gift of middle-grade writing which is to make the combination of fun, adventure, imagination and complex themes seem completely effortless. The voice of Bo is so delightful in the opening chapter to THE SOUL LOTTERY: with the perfect main character balance of quirky and relatable, which makes readers of all ages desperate to see what happens to him next. 
  • Jennifer Stein's opening lines to RAQUEL GOLDEN TAKES FLIGHT are such a brilliantly punchy way to get a reader hooked: It had to be a good omen: I breezed through security without the TSA detecting my vibrator. Yes please, the reader feels like the character's already their best friend! The storytelling is completely compelling thanks to the sassy, confiding tones of Raquel Golden. Her insecurities are laid bare from the off – as is her wry humour: Fortunately, for modern neurotics like myself, cognitive-behavioural therapy and meds could at least take the edge off, if not cure, a crippling fear of flying. A couple of cosmopolitans tossed back at the airport bar couldn’t hurt, either. When a narrator feels like good company, you know you've struck gold(en). 
  • Stephen Woodward's MASKS is Stephen King-like in the ability to invent a legend that feels like it exists: All kids had heard about The Doctor - he was a classic Urban Myth, like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster - but Pete seemed more obsessed than most. In his eyes, The Doctor was a superhero, with one mission in life - to liberate kids from the tyranny of the mask.
  • Saima Ismail's ambitious CHRONICLES OF QAF-THE MESSIAH, THE MONSTER, AND THE ANDROID begins: The clamor of monsoon rain clutters Rushdie’s mind. He tosses and turns in bed as his wife snores beside him, oblivious. He turns away from her, and his mind drifts to the love of his life. Saima's work thrilled us with its brilliant world-building: Waves of Samandar-e-Azli, the Endless Sea, rise and play as the salty breeze lifts the jasmine musk from the wavering bushes.
  • We were so impressed by the elegant prose in THAT HAPPY FAMILY by Veronica Birch, the clever set-up of family dynamics, and the brilliantly sparky dialogue: 
    'This isn't a fuss. This is just a party.' 
    'With a marquee?' 
    'It's only a gazebo, really. And people will need the shade. It's going to be hot today.' 
    'Old people, you mean? Well, make sure you save a seat for me.' 
    'Don't! You're not old.' She pulled him closer. 
    'I'm sixty fucking five, darling.' 
  • We really enjoyed Natalie Poulson’s LET IT BE FOR THIS, the voice both fluid and controlled: A bead of sweat rolled between her breasts as Éloïse rose to light the lamps. She longed to open the window and feel the breath of spring across her skin. She’d been too long in this stifling room. An opening chapter that’s intimate and quietly spellbinding.
  • There's something tender yet momentous to Trisha Smith's THE SHAPE OF BELONGING that creates a lasting impression on the reader: In a forgotten part of Africa, two women hid, gently held by the warm earth and protected only by a canopy of mealie plants, while one put her lips close to the stomach of the other and sang to camouflage the echoes of war from reaching a new life. For a brief moment there was silence, then a loud explosion ripped through the night shaking the ground and my family home disappeared in flames.
  • Misia Smith's The HAUNTING OF ANNIE BIRD opens with an unsettling scene of ghostly tenderness: We creep like ink on wet paper through her softly moonlit room. It reads like a Shirley Jackson with such poised prose:  Rosemary and lavender, woody and wild, lean across the path, releasing their scent every time the postman scuffs by, on his way to the yellow front door.
  • In ADAM’S AT THE WINDOW, Don Royster’s account of a young boy’s first experiments in creativity is a joy to read. The prose is tender and delicate, with a beautiful sense of observation:
    An electric charge shot up his leg through his chest and shoulders and down his arm and onto the canvas. His hand quit shaking as a long blue stroke became a branch of a tree, reaching for the sky. His grandfather released the boy’s hand. The hand reached for another brush and swathed it with green and swiped the brush across the canvas. Leaves dripped from the branch.
    “Follow the brush,” Peter urged Adam. “It will lead you to the place where you are to go.”
  • Brooke Nolan's DARK ARCHIPELAGO has an arresting opening with a brave and singular vision that combines absurdist humour with vivid prose to create something really original: Rain hits Labia Majoropolis in chunks. The harbour is all chop and hurl. Along the brim: a dark clutch of edge and slab, houses like looming diamonds, the last one lit up.
  • The opening lines of MY LIFE OF CRIME by Sam Hudson had us smiling, charmed by the voice of the young narrator, Cal: I have stolen a cat. Calm down. No animals will be hurt in the telling of this story. It’s currently very relaxed in my arms, flat against my chest, a paw on each shoulder. This is helping because I’m running. Running for my life. But when the first chapter flips from humour to poignancy, we're completely involved in this story, wanting the best for our kid hero – and wanting to read on. 

And now...

In third place this year is Saima Ismail with CHRONICLES OF QAF-THE MESSIAH, THE MONSTER, AND THE ANDROID.

In second place, joint runners-up this year, are Viv Frances with GILGORRYAN and Sam Hudson with MY LIFE OF CRIME.

Well done and congratulations to you!

Honourable mentions to those securing numerous votes must go to: Angela Marino, Misia Smith, Ruth Husain, Caroline Davies, Anouska Huggins and Brooke Nolan.

The winner is Monica Balt with THE SHADOW IN THE TREE.

When a woman goes to live with her handsome, charismatic husband on his jungle plantation, she discovers he is a monster and her very life is at stake. 

Set in the early 1900s, wealthy physician, Sir George Bennett commits suicide having lost all his money on gold-prospecting, and his death throws his family into debt and exposes them to blackmail. Adolphus Muir, a charismatic stranger, proposes marriage to the late doctor's daughter Mabel and she accepts. Mabel is a biracial ‘throwback’ (a Guyanese/West Indian term for a dark-skinned person born into a passing-for-white family). The married couple set up home in Adolphus’s sugar plantation, Goed Leven, in the jungle of British Guiana. Adolphus is frequently absent. Mabel must deal with a difficult pregnancy, the extreme jungle environment and the hostility of the female household staff. Her unease and isolation are compounded by strange noises at night, the superstitions of the maid who claims that the grotesque silk cotton tree (‘jumbie tree’) on the plantation is haunted by the spirit of the sadistic founder of Goed Leven, Pieter De Veer, and the tower is haunted by the ghost of his pregnant daughter-in-law. Mabel takes chloral hydrate (a hallucinogen) to sleep. One night, she runs out to the tree because she heard it call her. Adolphus brings her back to the house and admits that De Veer is his ancestor, and Adolphus and his family, his descendants, are victims of a generational curse.

Our huge congratulations to an incredibly deserving winner. Monica is at work on the second draft of her richly drawn, gripping novel and we look forward to presenting it soon to our friends at Mushens Entertainment.

Last words.

We know how hard you work. We're all writers writing too, so we know that the price of success is a few drafts sometimes. If we weren't a little bit hard on ourselves from time to time, we'd never get our writing to where we want it to be. So, if you didn't win, dust yourself off, and join us this evening for the start of our new mini-course in advanced creative writing: The Six Week Story at 6 pm UTC; and pop into our Sunday Evening Team Chat at 8 pm, too.

We believe in you and we are here to help you get your amazing stories into the hands of lucky readers. Happy writing, always.

Louise x

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