Props and Prompts

Fancy your chances in a short story competition? Here are eight ideas to help you find your inspiration.

Unsplash – a generously free-to-use website, showcasing some amazing photos taken by some superb photographers. They upload their work and as I say, generously put it out there for anyone to use free of charge. All they ask is that you give them a mention. How big-hearted is that?

Read winning short stories. See if you can work out why they are winners. Do you agree with the judges? If yes, as a writing exercise, write part-two of a winning story – just for your own benefit and practice. If no, re-write the story how you think it should read and then compare the two.

Let the sounds do the talking. Listen to some on-line recordings of the sea (YouTube) or thunder and rain (YouTube), or fishes having a chat. Maybe the gentle mechanical turnings of a windmill (YouTube again). Immerse yourself in sound and see where it takes you.

Picture prompts are always a good one – see number 1 above – but this time try an art gallery, museum or art shop – all of which are free. One of the best forms of art and expression has to be graffiti. There is one particular piece of urban art local to me which always makes me smile when I pass it – across a derelict For Sale sign advertising an abandoned plot of land, some enterprising young person has spray painted the word TWAT in silver paint. I love a good four letter word, and this particular piece of art always brings a smile to my face because a) it’s written in silver. Who has a random can of silver paint hanging around?! b) the use of language is short and to the point – but who Expressive.JPGare they talking to? Are they calling the billboard a twat?!  c) why bother in the first place when they could just as easily have scaled the fence onto the abandoned land and got up to all sorts of mischief instead. But they didn’t – they chose to write a word, which is better than an exaggerated cartoon version of the oft-use phallus young males are wont to draw. The fact that they didn’t should be applauded. I think it could only have made me smile more if they’d written the word Bum instead.

The website of your local theatre/arts centre. Have a look to see who’s coming to town and that may jolt the creative juices into flowing for you. I’m not in any way suggesting you plagiarise characters from shows or anything like that, but for example, there may be a singer song-writer-stand-up comedian playing sometime and she or he may spark the idea for a character – someone you may not have considered before.

Three unrelated props. A key, a stone and a bag of flour. Write them together somehow. Borrow from your friends and neighbours – this way the items will be unfamiliar to you. Likewise three inexpensive things from a charity shop; and old book, a toy, a vase. You can take them all back when you’ve finished.

Visit your local tip and take a couple of photos of stuff being thrown away. I once saw an entire, perfectly recyclable and sellable oak dresser being chucked away. I also saw a woman chuck her car keys away along with the rubbish that was in her hand. Funnily enough the council tip guy had a very long pole with a hook on one end for rescuing such inadvertent deposits. Comedy gold Mrs, comedy gold.

Best prop and prompt ever: cup of coffee, large cake, seat by the window. You know what comes next.


the Apostle Annetta

Couldn’t let this pass without sharing. An online creative writing course from Don’t Confuse the Narrator. Have a read – it might be just what you’re looking for…

don't confuse the narrator

I’ve just published a new creative writing course on the Udemy platform: Inspirations for Creative Writing provides a range of practical activities, ideas and prompts for poets and other writers. The course has around 90 minutes of video classes, with a range of activities and examples to download. It’s the fifth course I’ve published on the site and I’m proud that The Essential Poet’s Toolbox for Readers & Writers, which has been online for a couple of years, is a bestseller.

One of the things that the Udemy platform does for instructors is provide automatic captioning for the videos; but although this is a useful service, it isn’t by any means a perfect system.

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Competition Time

Still not in Back to Work mode? Spend a few hours with these little opportunities and see what you come up with. Think of them as the hors d’oeuvres to the main meal of your story writing.

And thank you Unsplash photographers for the free use of the pic

Free To Enter – the Telegraph Online ‘Just Back’ Travel Writing Competition. If you are just back from somewhere slightly more interesting than a bus stop, then the Telegraph Online would like the exciting details in up to 500 words. You can read previous winners on the website. A ‘voyage’ across the Mersey is one of them – proving that you don’t have to write about anywhere exotic to scoop the prize.

Picutre Courtesy of Unsplash.jpg
Picture courtesy of Unsplash

Closing: Monthly. Prize: £200 in your choice of currency.
 Email your entry, of no more than 500 words (with the text in the body of the email), to

Free To Enter
– The Val Wood Prize

2018: Women’s Writes competition,  now open for submissions. This annual freebie from the website of author Valerie Wood is open to anyone over the age of 16 regardless of gender.  This year the contest is celebrating 100 years since married women won the right to vote.  Stories should therefore have a strong female protagonist.  Other than that you are free to write about anything you wish.  Story length 1,500 words Closing: 15.9.18 (5pm). Prizes: £100, £50, £25, £25. 
Details here

Free To Enter – Harvill Secker and Bloody Scotland have joined forces to launch a competition to find a debut crime writer from a BAME (Black Asian Minority Ethnic) background. The winner will have their book published, under the Harvill Secker imprint, in a publishing deal with an advance of £5,000. The winner will also receive perks alongside their publishing contract, including a panel appearance at the Bloody Scotland Festival in 2019 (this year’s dates are 21st-23rd September) and a series of three one-to-one mentoring sessions with Abir Mukherjee.
Closes 9th of September 2018. Details here

Hour of Writes Competition. To enter this new weekly peer-reviewed contest from Manchester, submit a piece of writing of any type you choose running to no more than 2,000 words. There is a different theme every week. Closing: 11pm every Friday. Prize: £50 (usually the minimum – prize increases if more entries are received).
 Entry Fee £3. Details here

Dark Tales Short Story Competition. For horror and speculative fiction – the sort that leaves you afraid to turn out the lights in case something other than a fly is hiding under the bed. Like a Spider, for example. No matter how small. All those legs. And far too many eyes…Anyway… your entry must be limited to 5,000 words. Closing: Monthly. Prize: £100 and publication. Entry Fee £4. Details here

Flash 500 Competition. Write an entire story in just 500 words. Easy peasy. (And you would have practiced with your Telegraph entry, right?) Now in its ninth year, this quarterly open-themed competition has the remaining 2018 closing dates of 30th September and 31st December 2018.
Entry Fee £5 per story or £8 for two. The results will be announced within six weeks of each closing date and the three winning entries each quarter will be published on their website. Details here

Words of Mouth

As recent statistics have shown – that Takeaway Time is an actual time and happens around 7pm anywhere in the world where there’s a menu and a mobile phone – I have noticed a lack of blogs dropping into my inbox. Aha! Must be the summer holidays, or the Sholidays, if you will. Not that everyone goes away to holiday – quite often holidays these days can just mean not wading into the on-line fray to blog or tweet, or leaving your phone turned off. Ah, the pleasures of being disconnected.

But if you are still connected, but in an indolent, can’t really be arsed, holibob kind of way, here is a little wordful summertime blog, embracing lots of silly words that absolutely should be used far more often. Thank you, OED, and every single one of you cyberwriters.

Starting near the top of the dictionary, I found this word – Abacist – which is a person who makes calculations using an abacus. They’re just everywhere aren’t they, those abacists. But what a great character for your next short story or even novel. Architect? Schmarchitect.  Doctor? No thanks. Pilot? Nah. I know! An Abacist…

Honeyfuggle: Not a type of hop, (although it should be) this means to deceive or swindle and has a soft gooey sound to it. It could lend itself to some sort of poem or imaginary recipe. Take three beans, a can of water juice, some starlight and splosh of mermaid tear, mix well and leave out under a full moon to set. Be careful not to use it to Honeyfuggle your neighbour.  

Lollygag: The origin of this word is unknown, but it first appeared in the 1860s and means someone who is messing around or wasting time, or who is doing something that isn’t serious or useful and is to all intents and purposes, idle. Not quite sure how you’d slip that into conversation these days

Dev:    See Dave over there?
Paul:   Yeah?
Dev:    ‘E’s a bit lollygag, isn’t ‘e?
Paul:   pause Not a clue mate…

Taradiddle: a posh word for a petty lie.
Tara Diddle: Age 32, single. Self-starter, entrepreneur, thief.
You can have that one.

ELI5: I like this one, and it’s courtesy of our friend the internet. For those who don’t know, it means Explain Like I’m 5. I used it recently when ‘chatting’ with a mechanic about an issue with my car. Once the mechanic stopped talking compressors and crankshafts at me I muttered ‘Eli5’ at him. Then of course had to explain what I was talking about…

Pauciloquent: not in use much these days, unfortunately, and it means a person who uses few words in speech or conversation. Makes a change from someone being simply dull, I suppose

Blimpery: An attitude or outlook that pompously and peremptorily rejects social change, new ideas etc., in the manner of Colonel Blimp; Oh and don’t we know a few of them?!!

Frabjous: – this means joyful, apparently, and was created by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass. Not sure it really caught on…

Quaaltagh: (Manx English) This is the practice or custom of going in a group from door to door at Christmas or New Year, typically making a request for food or other gifts in the form of a song. Or in other words, annoying your friends and neighbours by singing loudly, out of tune and in their faces, encouraged by a little too much beer or lager. Most popular songs include ‘I Reeeeeally Love You’, ‘Kebab! Kebab! Kebab!’  ‘Sh*t I’ve Lost My Phone’ and ‘Can I use Your Loo?’

How can you not use this word: Roocoocooing. It means the cooing of a pigeon or dove. Awww

Rosal: hardly used anymore, this means, unsurprisingly Rose-Coloured or Rosy. Easily infiltrated into an historical novel MS if tried hard enough (‘cause everyone’s got a spare one of those hanging around somewhere)

You might not use this one very often, and I’ve only included it here because I like the word proglottids: Strobila – the segmented part of the body of a tapeworm that consists of a long chain of proglottids. Police Procedural anyone?


I can’t remember when I last heard this word being used. Or the first time, come to that. Yolkiness: the quality or character of being…er…yolky. But then any word with two ‘y’s and a ‘k’ in it has to be good. Or maybe Dutch.

And number fourteen in this (I like to think) educational list, Nollie: (and it’s one I do All The Time) – a jump performed in skateboarding and snowboarding without the aid of a take-off ramp, executed by pressing the foot down on the nose of the board.

Not included for the word itself, but because I like the idea of needing a take-off ramp. For anything. The applications are endless, starting with getting out of bed in the morning…

Happy Hols!


Today it gives me great pleasure to host this poem by writer and adult literacy expert  Hugo Kerr. Hugo has published several books on the subject and is a wonderful exponent of just write it – it’ll be right!

He says on his website I love to debate with like-minds of like-enthusiasms. It has been my experience that great fruitfulness often results. Sometimes heat is generated, but so is light. If you want to discuss literacy with me you are very welcome to write to me via
Over to you, Hugo…


Some people find it hard to spell
While others do it very well.
The latter can be very quick
To criticise; they get a kick
From knowing how to spell a word
Of which most people haven’t heard.

They like to think this proves they’re clever,
Although they practically never
Stop to think if this is true
Or not. I recommend that you
And I should give some thought
To what it means to spell; we ought
To look at history – this will tell
That William Shakespeare couldn’t spell
For peanuts, and his royal queen
(H.R.H. Liz one, I mean)
Was twice as bad. One can tell at a
Glance, though, that it didn’t matter!

Dr Johnson hadn’t yet
Thrown his stiff, pedantic net
Over the language; he had not
Invented standard spelling – what
You wrote was what you thought looked best;
You simply wrote and left the rest.

You left the reading to the reader
Who, at this time, didn’t need a
Massive dictionary. (Which was
As well, you understand, because
There wasn’t one as yet.) You see
A writer, way back then, was free
To spell exactly how he liked.
His writing had not yet been spiked
By the debilitating fear
That folk might giggle, sniff or sneer
At what he’d written – for no better
Reason than they thought his letter
Patterns were a little odd
Compared to those laid down by God
(Or was it Dr Johnson) for
A standard spelling, evermore.
A “spellist” age we live in now,
Where you are often judged by how
You spell liaise or guarantee,
People or Arachnidae.

It’s very easy to admit
You have more than a little bit
Of problem with your maths, and yet
There is no way that you would let
The knowledge that your spelling’s bad
Get out at any price.

It’s sad
To say this, but we know
That spelling well just doesn’t show
Intelligence, for any fool
Can learn to spell in infant school –
Given the chance

For reasons why
Some don’t achieve this we should try
Examining the wider picture,
Which would make our theory richer.

As well as this, though, we should learn
How negative it is to spurn
A person (just as though he smells)
Simply because of how he spells.

Spelling is spelling, nothing more.
It isn’t “authorship” and nor
Does it equate to writing; it
Isn’t wisdom, truth or wit.

It is an unimportant skill,
A simple, boring memory drill;
Nothing to do, as you can see,
With art, or creativity.

Writing that’s beautiful, or true,
Has its influence on you
Not, for heaven’s sake, because
Of how the bloody spelling was!

Jelly Fish Fingers

If Jelly Fish
Had jelly fingers
I probably would linger
to look.
Although the fact that they don’t
still means that I won’t
hang about
any more than I need to.
For something that swims
without eyes brain or fins
is by sure
an amazing creature.

Even if they are bit creepy..

jelly fish.JPG
Moon Jellyfish having a love-in somewhere on the south coast