First Chapter Competition 2018 – Results

by Rebecca F John

Judging the PENfro First Chapter Competition has been a real pleasure and I want to say a big thank you both for the invitation and to all the writers who submitted their work.  It can be a daunting decision, to send your work out into the world, and so for that alone congratulations are in order.

The shortlist we eventually agreed upon is varied in terms of style, theme, and genre: it includes historical and contemporary settings, male and female protagonists, first and third person perspectives, flights from castles and bar fights and births, plane crashes, mysteries, and moments of deep contemplation; it is by turns colourful and dark, rich and sparse, fast-paced and serene.  It made for exciting reading, and each of the shortlisted entries showed merit, whether in its excellent characterisation, its vivid imagery, or its sensitive handling of subject.

When it came to selecting the winners, however, it was important that the chapters encompass all of these aspects, and more – that almost intangible spark that draws us into a particular story.

The second and joint-third placed entries certainly succeeded in this.

In joint third, Gabriel was an intriguing opening chapter, filled with tension, as a young woman laboured in 1950s Spain under the watchful eye of her midwife and a curse.  The character of Pili drew us close with insights into the life of the new mother and baby.  It had a hypnotic quality.

Also in joint third, The Scent of Roses again opened with drama – that of a plane crash.  However, it was the warm characterisation and careful details which really pulled me into the story.  The constructed world was well-realised and entirely believable.

In second place, The Last Days of Emmet Jones boasted a rhythmic, almost prayer-like quality.  The reader could not help but follow Megan as she travelled to an unknown destination, leaving everything, it seemed, at her back.  From the first sentence, the reader was presented with mystery.

These were all excellent beginnings which will no doubt be developed into interesting and affecting novels.

The first placed chapter, however, demonstrated a particular magic which ensured that it had to be named winner.  The Unlovely Sea, which focused on an artist named Alice at work in her studio, had me hooked from the very first exquisite sentence.  The writing was sensory, intriguing, heart-breaking, delicate, and beautiful in its every phrase, and I cannot tell you how excited I am to have read it.  In fact, it has stayed with me so powerfully that I have found myself often thinking about Alice, sitting at her open window and considering her messy palette, and I look forward to one day reading the novel in its entirety.

My heartfelt congratulations to all the shortlisted writers.  Thank you for letting me read your work and the very best of luck to you as you each take your novels forward.

Joint third:


by June Whitaker

“A moth darted through the open window and flitted around the lamp, white spotted wings blinking like Satan’s eyes. Pili’s heart stopped – and resumed beating fit to burst an artery. Her hand shook so wildly, she made two attempts at crossing herself – and countless attempts at catching it, clapping her hands while the flame dived and smoked. She brushed off the dusty mess with clumsy fingers and fumbled to adjust the lamp – jumping when her shadow reared up like a giant.”

Joint third:

The Scent of Roses

by Sandy Norris

“She closes her eyes. Listens to the chirp-chirp of the grasshoppers invisible in nearby bushes. Explores the distance for other sounds, hoping for the aircraft engines. Hears instead the bus returning from Southampton droning along the lane on the far side of the airfield and a minute later, the whistle from the London train, that will be full of people in uniforms returning to duty after their leave.

Her mind teeters.

She needs them home before she loses control.”


Second place:

The Last Days of Emmet Jones

by Gavin Eynon

“The landscape had changed from the streets of rain-soaked terraced houses into something altogether rougher and wilder. In a series of unkempt fields, of wind-distorted trees and tumble-down walls, she’d seen the reflection of her own face as she leant her forehead against the glass, so that it seemed her face overlaid the landscape, was part of it, and yet not part of it.”

First place:

The Unlovely Sea

by Rhiannon Hooson

“When other artists painted Alice Aubrey they would focus on her hands: long and raw with turpentine and salt, too angular and strong to be feminine, pigment ground into the calluses on her middle finger like soot into finely grained wood. She was private and they took it as a kind of monkish dedication at first, as if the old sycamore easel in the corner of her studio was an altar. But it was only that she found them, for the most part, a distraction. Only that she did not know how to talk to them of her past beyond what appeared in her paintings. Though she took lovers none of them lasted: they would talk sometimes of waking at dawn in the chill of her studio, the window open to a flat grey light, the sound of the sea loud on the rocks.”