Librarians – the real Guardians of the Galaxy

When was the last time you ventured into your local library? Perhaps it was when you were accidentally blown in by the rain and hung around for thirty minutes staring out of the doors until the storm clouds cleared. Or perhaps it was when you had to kill a couple of summer-holiday hours with your children. You dragged them along, shoved them into the hands of the library staff, then sank back into the blessed sanctum of your mobile phone. And when they were done, you hustled them out again without a backwards glance. You probably didn’t even bother to thank the nice librarian gamely hoping you’d take a moment to notice the carefully laid out new book display. Perhaps it’s time to get reacquainted. There’s not much at stake, after all… Only the future of the known galaxy.

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It is currently Libraries Week, a curated schedule of events aimed at bringing us into the libraries – big and small – that grace our towns, cities and villages, a means of reacquainting us with that which we may have begun to take for granted. After all, most us grew to adulthood in a country where it has always been a given that we will have access to a place where books will be readily and freely available to all, regardless of class, creed, race, gender, ability or background. Libraries are the most egalitarian places on earth. When we step through those doors – a magic portal, of sorts – we are all reduced to a single simplistic equation; saints and sinners, penitents and procrastinators, we are all welcome.

Yet, how long will those doors remain open to us?

It is no secret that libraries are under the cosh. Years of sustained cuts, staff shortages, the advent of the Internet, all have taken their toll. A 2016 Guardian article by Simon Jenkins tells us that more than 300 libraries closed in recent years, with 8000 librarians hacked out of the system. The blame for this is placed (by those who hold the purse strings) on falling public usage and book borrowing. But this is a reductive argument of the type that ends with a society shooting itself in the foot. Yes, less people are coming into our libraries, but should our response be to shut more libraries, thus perpetuating a vicious cycle that, in the fulness of time, will reduce us to a dystopia where libraries have become as rare as shrines?

I am an author. Like most authors I have my own library tale to tell. I grew up in a household where my father did not read and thus could not appreciate the value of buying (fiction) books. The notion of me approaching him and asking for hard-earned cash to buy a ‘made-up story’ made his eyes bulge. Which meant that it wasn’t until I hit the library system that I was finally able to step into a world of books that I had hitherto believed out of my reach. It was here that I discovered Watership Down, The Lord of the Rings, and Terry Pratchett’s wonderful Discworld series. It was here that I discovered the thrill of browsing shelves and serendipitously encountering books that enticed me with gorgeous covers or intriguing blurbs. It was here that I discovered that I too wanted to be a creator of words and not just a consumer.

Inspired by those early library forays I wrote my first novel aged seventeen and sent it off to a couple of agents, fully expecting fame and fortune to beat a path to my door. There was, of course, one small problem with my cunning plan… the book was terrible. Over the next twenty-four years I wrote six more (rejected) novels until finally my ‘debut’, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, the first in the India-set Baby Ganesh Detective Agency series – featuring a retired Mumbai policeman and his baby elephant sidekick – was published. It became a Times bestseller and a Waterstones paperback of the year, setting the foundation for the series and my career as a novelist. Throughout this period libraries remained my go-to place for inspiration, for a quiet place to write after work, or to reflect on life in general when it gave me the occasional boot to the nether regions.

Just over a year ago, I was approached by my local library in east London and invited to institute a weekly reading and creative writing group. As someone in full-time employment, and an author contracted to deliver one novel a year, I was hesitant to take on such a commitment – how could I possibly justify the time? After all, though, like every author, I knew that libraries are an essential part of the literary ecosystem, at that time, I did not see any tangible benefit to me. How wrong I was.

The past year has been nothing if not revelatory. I have discovered how libraries actually work, and how they can be made to work. I have discovered how hard the people who run them have to fight to preserve what they have, how inventive they have to be (on shoestring budgets), and how passionate they are about the mission to which they have dedicated their lives. I have delivered talks in libraries around the country, from Perton to Rainham, in buildings as beautiful as Glasgow’s Mitchell library to far less grandiose venues – including half-a-dozen prison libraries. I have spoken to audiences ranging from book lovers to movie buffs to wide-eyed children armed with toothy smiles and plasticine. I have run workshops and short story writing competitions; I have met varied and wonderful members of local communities to whom the library is a haven, a home away from home, a hub of social life. Having mastered the intricacies of shelving one rainy afternoon I earned my honorary librarian spurs. In short, I rolled up my sleeves and got involved. And the benefits have flowed both ways. As an author I have felt welcomed, initiated into a not-so-secret society of inspiring folk working their tails off for the good of us all. Through all of this, I have been amazed at the resilience of my librarian colleagues. As a lifelong comic book fan, I find myself likening them to that other band of renegade misfits, the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Permit me to elucidate.

The Guardians of the Galaxy (for those of you unfamiliar with the characters) are a gang of misanthropic spacefarers who, in spite of the dark forces ranged against them, conjure up ways to save the cosmos. It is in the intriguing cast of characters that populate the Guardians’ team that I discover reflections of the wonderful (and enigmatic) library staff that I have come to know.

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For instance, there is Peter Quill, Star Lord, a half-alien half-human hero with cosmic awareness… Well, is this not precisely the description of that singularly brave soul given the thankless task of running a library in today’s environment? Cosmic awareness is practically a necessity for the job, as well as a certain out-of-this-world ability to juggle budget, staff rotas, customer ‘experience’, political bartering, and the not inconsequential problem of ensuring the library does not become a homeless shelter.

And then there is Drax the Destroyer, indestructible green-skinned giant. Every library needs a Drax, a surly bouncer whose role appears limited to shelving and filing – of what or where is rarely questioned – but who is brought into the fray whenever a bow-legged drunk stumbles through the doors, or a particularly chatty knitting circle must be reminded of the virtues of silence (preferably on pain of being picked up by the scruff and hurled into the street).

Next, there is Gamora, self-proclaimed “deadliest woman in the galaxy.” This is not a librarian that you want to get on the wrong side of. But it is the Gamoras in the system who, with an icy glare and a flick of their administrative wand are able to put visiting council bureaucrats in their place or conjure up little miracles when all seems lost. They are the motor at the heart of the engine, indefatigable, resourceful and ever reliable. If you find yourself having to organise that last summer reading challenge session but discover that, budgetwise, all that remains in the petty cash tin is £2.18 and a mouldy biscuit, it is Gamora you turn to.

Groot is a living tree, an alien plant monster, whose lack of verbosity – his only line is “I am Groot” – is matched only by his sunny disposition. But surely this is our ever-smiling librarian doorstop, a perennially friendly face at the front counter? Come winter or summer, come stroppy entitled businessmen or obnoxious teen, he is unfailingly polite as that most eternal of greetings falls from his lips like a stone tart:‘Welcome to the library, how may I assist you?’

Last, but not least, there is Rocket Raccoon. A surly alien genius who happens to look like a cuddly raccoon… Meet our library volunteer. Without this band of ever-willing brigands – on hand for busy days and seasonal events – the system would crash. Because, contrary to the message being sent out by government-enforced staff cutbacks there are simply not enough trained people in the system.

Make no mistake: librarian is a skilled role. Most librarians have completed a course of study (usually a degree) in information management or librarianship accredited by CILIP, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals. It is also a role of trust. Librarians are entrusted to work with and for members of the public, of all ages and backgrounds, and to do so with a smile on their faces and a song in their hearts. In some ways, they are like taxi drivers, only with better banter, and with the added advantage that they don’t expect you to tip them. The first step in saving our libraries is in appreciating the people who work in them.

So what does this all amount to? After all, it’s pointless complaining about a problem if you cannot also propose a solution. For me that solution lies in many quarters. With politicians and local councillors who make funding decisions and must decide what sort of country they wish to leave behind, twenty, thirty or fifty years from now. The solution lies with libraries themselves. They must (and are) evolving to become community hubs, with coffee shops, playgroups, and a full schedule of talks, events and activities ranging from Zumba to art displays. At the same time, they must advertise their traditional wares – as well as books, and creative spaces, libraries are home to vast and varied sources of information not available on the Internet. In particular, they are a font of local information: maps, magazines and periodicals, microfiche of local newspapers. Last, but not least, the solution lies with us – we ‘ordinary’ members of the public. There is no point bleating on about libraries being closed down if we are not willing to do something about it. And that something is to dust off our library cards, get down to our local library, and engage. Attend events, participate in activities, introduce your children to the library and the amazing people who work there and, most of all, borrow books.

It is time to reacquaint ourselves with all that libraries have to offer. There’s not much at stake, after all… Only the future of the known galaxy.

Photos: Delivering a talk at Perton Library in Staffordshire, and filing books at Manor Park Library in east London.

A Paean to Theakston – Notes from a debutant at the world’s biggest crime festival

‘Are you at Harrogate this year?’ A question I have fielded innumerable times over the past four years since the publication of my first book at the back end of 2015. Sometimes the question is poised coyly, sometimes aggressively, sometimes with an air of knowing camaraderie – we crime writers, after all, tend to flock together, schlepping miles to the same spots at various times of the year, as hardy and diligent in our migrations as Emperor penguins marching to their winter nesting sites. During those four busy years I have spoken at or attended some of the biggest crime and literary festivals in the world. I even ended up in Dubai last year, on panels (and on camels – don’t ask!) with national treasure Alan Titchmarsh, CWA Chair Martin Edwards, and Bones creator Kathy Reichs.

harrogateBut, until this year, I had somehow missed out on the biggest and brightest fixture of them all, the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival at Harrogate. Various unfortunate date clashes and injuries (cricket is a more dangerous sport than people realise) had kept me away. But this year, finally, I had a clear weekend, with all body parts relatively intact. I booked my train, purchased my Rover tickets, packed my bag, and set off for the north.

There was a particular reason for attending this year. Theakston, via their programming chair, the inimitable Lee Child, had managed to convince that doyen of the legal thriller, John Grisham, to board a plane and head over to our green and pleasant land. The double delights of a trip to a small town in Yorkshire – and a pint of its famous Theakston Old Peculier bitter (did you know that each bottle of Old Peculier features a ten-word crime story written by a renowned crime author?) – proved irresistible for ‘America’s favourite storyteller’. And for me, the lure of seeing up close, one of the true giants of crime fiction was similarly impossible to resist. Twenty-five years ago, I purchased a copy of The Firm, my first real foray into crime fiction. I still have that copy, ragged around the edges in spite of the plastic covering I’d shoved on it, and took it along in the hope of obtaining Grisham’s scrawl.

The train ride up from London on the Friday morning was straightforward – I even got some work done on my next book, in between watching a grown man drool onto his chin as he dozed above his newspaper. I checked in at my hotel, then headed off to the festival on a balmy summer’s day, a spring in my step.

The first thing you notice at Theakston is the crowds. Not since the decade I lived in Mumbai, a riotous city of twenty million, had I seen such a concentrated mass of humanity – though, to be fair, the Old Swan appeared to have fewer lepers, beggars, eunuchs and elephants on display. People, people everywhere, and every one of them a crime author, reader, blogger, reviewer, or general enthusiast. It was like settling into a steaming jacuzzi of like-minded souls. Don’t be shy, is the rule here. If you see someone you’ve always wanted to talk to – go ahead and approach them. Writers, whether they be on a panel or not, love chatting, especially about books, ours or anyone else’s, for that matter. We are lovers of crime fiction first and foremost, authors second. Don’t believe all that guff about tortured, prima donna artists. On the whole, we authors are salt-of-the-earth types, always up for a chat. (Until we encounter our latest half-baked Amazon review: “I didn’t actually read your crime novel but my Aunt Violet said it wasn’t as good as Winnie the Pooh so I’m giving you one star”,and then we transform into Jack Nicholson in The Shining). And we crave validation. There is no better feeling than someone approaching us at a place like Theakston and saying, simply: we love your books. I’ve seen grown authors weep and fall to their knees at such moments, the twenty-year-long struggle, the late nights, the divorces, the bankruptcy, the multiple smashed laptops, the cosmic soul-search for meaning, all finally rendered worthwhile.

Theakston, taking place in the same hotel that Agatha Christie turned up at after her infamous disappearing act, is organised without parallel sessions – which means it is one session at a time, and those sessions are always full. High quality authors, famous chairs, and knowledgeable audiences – these are the hallmarks of this wonderful festival. There’s a lot crammed into the four days. The announcement of the Theakston Crime thumbnail_IMG_20180721_220541Book of the Year – which this year went to fellow connoisseur of the written word, Stav Sherez, for his excellent novel The Intrusions, described by no less than Ian Rankin as a ‘Silence of the Lambs for the Internet Age’ (Stav also won “Fanciest Rodeo Shirt Ever Worn By A Major Crime Award Winner); a terrific new blood panel by ‘Queen of Crime’ Val McDermid introducing the likes of British ‘Scandi’ author Will Dean and his deaf protagonist Tuva Moodyson. There’s a murder mystery dinner – with well-known authors seated at your table, a quiz night hosted by crime legends Mark Billingham and Val McDermid, and a big headline grabber of a main event. This year there were two, in fact – the aforementioned Grisham, and fellow American, Don Winslow – writer of dark, muscular, fact-based novels such as his Cartel series.

The town itself is relatively small, picturesque and hilly, and well worth a little mooch around. On the Friday I ended up at lunch with good friends and fellow authors Abir Mukherjee, Imran Mahmood and Leye Adenle. We drifted into a tiny new Thai place. It thumbnail_IMG_20180720_141333was deserted, but the welcome was effusive. The enthusiastic lady proprietor told us they had just opened and were much in need of our coin. So much so that she actually locked us in … but that’s a story for another day. My point being that Theakston is also a great place to meet up with fellow authors, exchange notes, and offer each other a supportive pat on the back.

I enjoyed all the sessions I attended, watching old friends speak, and new authors I had not heard of. I bought books. A lot of books. You must resign yourself to this. Whatever resolutions you make about not adding to your TBR pile will vanish at Theakston. On Friday evening I listened, awestruck, to the reminiscences of John Grisham as he recalled his incredible career in a riveting back and forth with Lee Child.thumbnail_IMG_20180720_200029

After the event, I headed off to dinner with a stable of fellow Hodder authors. I ended up next to fellow cricket lover and crime reviewer Jon Coates of the Sunday Express, discussing England’s chances of beating India this summer (fifty-fifty, we agreed, though there was only a twenty percent chance of us actually being right), and an author I had long been a fan of but seemed to keep missing at events – Yrsa thumbnail_IMG_20180729_061737Sigurðardóttir, the‘Queen of Icelandic Crime’. Yrsa managed to unscramble my garbled murdering of her name so that I can now, with complete confidence, mispronounce it in at least ten different ways. We turned out to have a lot in common. She is from Iceland, and I recently played the national cricket team of Iceland in a game of cricket (yes, they do have a team, and, no, they didn’t win).

Theakston is both a celebration of crime fiction and a giant love-in of those who are passionate about the genre. It hosts the friendliest bunch of people around, is brilliantly organised, and is as inclusive as anywhere. The winds of diversity are being felt throughout the arts and Theakston has responded by ensuring that their speaker programming reflects this – I was delighted, for instance, to see A.A Dhand talking passionately about the Bradford of his youth. For four days, this little corner of Yorkshire is the most egalitarian place on earth. It’s also great value for money. For an £89 Rover day ticket you get lunch, coffees, a goodie bag full of books, attendance at all the sessions on that day, and most importantly, the opportunity to bump into, chat, take selfies with, and wrangle autographs out of dozens and dozens of the best crime authors around. How can you put a price on that? Hats off to the Theakston team.

It’s been a wonderful weekend, and I can’t wait for next year to roll around.

 

 

 

Bradford Literature Festival – a testament to two unique entrepreneurs

 

My first visit to the Bradford Literary Festival (located, for those of you not intimate with British geography, in the picturesque English region of Yorkshire) has stayed with me long after the dazzling colours, sights, and sounds of the event have receded. The festival, a ten-day extravaganza that brings in tens of thousands of people – of all feathers and from all walks of life – with a shared love of the arts, has become one of Britain’s largest such gatherings. The hundreds of events, including some 300 speakers, presenters, authors, artists, actors, poets, dancers, and singers, have something for everyone. I myself – in between participating in my own panel session – managed to attend a terrific range of talks, including traditional ‘author’ fireside chats, but also an illuminating academic disquisition on the ongoing Israel-Palestine situation looking at possible solutions.

The brainchildren (is that a word?) behind this unique carnival of the arts are Syima Aslam and Irna Qureshi (pictured with me below). The pair are described on the festival’s website as “self-confessed book worm Syima Aslam and filmophile Irna Qureshi”. Speaking with them at one of the regular evening gatherings – where Irma insisted that I try yet another of the fabulous deserts on offer at My Lahore, the restaurant reserved for presenters during the event – I was gently dazzled by the charm and grace of these two ladies. Having organised events myself I know full well the degree of effort, dedication, and bloodymindedness it takes to pull off even the simplest such occasion. To organise a tour de force such as the BLF takes a particular clarity of vision, and, I suspect, a willingness to sacrifice one’s desire for a peaceful life!

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The event has plenty for purists – talks by some of the biggest names in literature and the arts – but at the same time isn’t shy of taking on ‘tough’ topics, of tackling thorny political matters, and wearing its avant-garde credentials on its sleeve. Multiculturalism is at once lauded and dissected. Feminism is given a seat at the table. Modern forms of the written and spoken word are not consigned to the margins, but placed right up front to encourage ‘a wider conversation’. Syima and Irma are saying to us all: here is what contemporary really means. Don’t be afraid to get your feet wet.

My personal highlights? Firstly, I was delighted to speak as part of a four-person panel on “The Secrets of Crime Writing’ with fellow authors AA Dhand, Abir Mukherjee, and Alex Caan. The audience was boisterous, and engaged, and hopefully left a little bit more inspired than when they came in. Secondly, meeting Booker-prize winning novelist Ben Okri (complete with signature black beret) over dinner. I adore literary fiction and Okri’s The Famished Road is an old favourite. I even managed to convince Ben to help me get into the Authors Eleven – a cricket team of ribald repute for the scribes amongst us. And, lastly, visiting the city of Bradford, a place that I had never previously been to. Experiencing this resurgent city, with its richly diverse community, and its commitment to pioneering its own brand of cultural unity, was one of the more memorable experiences in my recent literary calendar.

Long may the festival continue, and long may our two entrepreneurs continue to reign over it.

Independent Bookshop Week – why buying local can make you happy

Over the past three years since the launch of my first book, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra (book 1 in the Times bestselling Baby Ganesh detective agency series, about a Mumbai policeman investigating a murder, whilst grappling with the surreal dilemma of an inherited baby elephant) I have visited and spoken at numerous independent bookshops around the country. What has struck me has been the wonderful stories that have brought the owners and staff of these shops to their calling.

For many it was serendipity, a chance twist of fate that gave them the opportunity to follow a dream. For others it was a linear progression from book lover to bookstore summer job to book emporium colossus. Of course, the glue that binds all of these rebels-with-a-cause together – and binds them to the authors whose works fill their shops – is the love of literature.

Book selling in the world of the independent is no easy task.

Margins are wafer thin, hours are often long, sales are rarely predictable. And yet, as I talked to these intrepid entrepreneurs – about my books, literature, their dogs, the price of fish, and the arcane art of book selling – I realised that there was something else that they all had in common … they were happy! They were happy because they awoke each morning to the knowledge that they would spend another day in the company of books. They were happy because they had the opportunity to make others happy – their customers.

I am certainly not against online sellers or large bookstore chains (most authors understand that they are just as vital to the modern book ecosystem; and I, along with innumerable authors, have certainly benefited from their support) but there is something special about browsing through a local bookshop, a place where, like that old bar from Cheers, “everybody knows your name”. In such a magical setting, anything can happen. Coming across, by sheer serendipity, a book you hadn’t even considered buying. Meeting a fellow admirer of a particular author, and engaging in a passionate conversation about their latest offering. A quiet nook where you might sit and read, disturbed only by the sound of the little bell above the door jangling as another stalwart wanders in, shakes off the rain, and greets the owner with hearty bonhomie.

Admittedly, this vision of the local bookshop might seem a little rose-tinted, but I assure you it is not too far from the truth. Recently, I took cupcakes along to my local store, which has been around forever. I was born less than a mile from the shop, have grown up with it. The store has been a constant in a place that has changed beyond recognition in the past forty odd years.

And there are many other practical reasons why we need indie bookshops to not only survive, but thrive. Without indies many books would simply not be published. Indie bookshops drive sales in niche titles, hand-selling to customers they have spent years building relationships with. Without indies many new writers would struggle to find a voice; and mid-list authors would find themselves doomed to extinction, perhaps feted one day by a moist-eyed and faintly accusing David Attenborough. In a time of declining literacy, indies offer a friendly local environment that can serve to bring along reluctant readers of all ages. Economic theory tells us that the book industry as a whole benefits from the variety and reach provided by this network of sellers, expanding the total market of readers.

One incident stays with me. At a particular shop, I was astounded to see a panicked customer charging in, in dire need of a birthday gift for his other half. ‘Leave it to me’, the store owner said authoritatively. ‘I know her tastes.’ Needless to say a recommendation was swiftly forthcoming invoking a sigh of relief from our customer. It is this bond between indie bookseller and reader that leads to me believe that whatever the doom-mongers may predict, the little bookshop around the corner will be around for a good while yet.

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Jewel Heists – the Crown Jewels of Crime Fiction

In my latest novel The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown, book 2 in the Baby Ganesh Detective Agency series, Inspector Ashwin Chopra (Retd) is on the trail of the legendary Koh-i-noor diamond, aided by his sidekick, one-year-old baby elephant Ganesha.

Alongside the paperback publication of the novel I wrote a piece for the Shots Crime and Thriller E-Zine looking at how jewel heists have featured in fiction over the years. You can read the article by clicking here

In the meantime the books are conspicuously visible in Waterstones and WHSmiths across the land …

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Literary festivals – my trip to the Emirates Lit Fest in Dubai

 

Literary festivals are an important part of every author’s life. Since being published two years ago, I have spoken at many such festivals, and, all in all, have enjoyed them immensely. I love the interaction with readers, and, because I am comfortable speaking publicly, I also feel the audience gets something out of my colourful descriptions of life in India and the back story behind my books. Recently I attended the Emirates Literary Festival in Dubai. Click here to read a piece I wrote for their blog describing a very special event.

Competition to find Newham’s next writing star

Bestselling authors Vaseem Khan, Barbara Nadel, and Abir Mukherjee are looking for Newham’s next writing star. Newham resident Vaseem Khan waited 23 years for his first book to be published. The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra – a charming crime novel set in India and featuring a baby elephant – went on to become a 2015 Times bestseller, and launched Vaseem to the front ranks of British crime fiction. Working with Newham’s Manor Park Library he is inviting budding authors, young and old, to enter a writing competition. “Publishing has long suffered from being a closed shop,” says Vaseem, who is published by Hodder, one of the world’s biggest publishers. ‘But things are changing fast. There is increased room for diverse new voices. People living in communities such as Newham bring colour and stories from all over the world – there is a new appetite in the publishing industry for this sort of work.”

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Barbara Nadel, author of 28 novels and the bestselling Cetin Ikmen series set in Turkey, will be judging entries and presenting the winners at Manor Park Library on the 25th of April at 6pm (put the date in your diary!). She says “My own career shows that anyone from any kind of background can get published and build a strong, loyal readership”. Her latest book The House of Four marks the nineteenth in the Ikmen series.

Abir Mukherjee, whose first book A Rising Man was named The Sunday Times Crime Book of the Month, has been helping Vaseem run a creative writing course at Manor Park library. His journey to publishing is particularly apt. He won the Telegraph Harvill Secker Crime Writing Competition 2014. “I’d always wanted to write a book but never had the confidence,’ says Abir. “Then one morning I saw an interview with Lee Child where he talked about how, at the age of forty, he started writing, and I thought why not? I didn’t expect to win, so it was a complete surprise when I was told that my book was going to be published.”

All three authors explore foreign cultures in their work, but at the same time are rooted to the region in which they grew up. Now they want to encourage other local residents to take the next step. Happy writing!

How to enter

The competition is open to all residents of Newham, London

There are two categories of entry: Adult fiction and Young adult/Children’s fiction

Prizes: £50 to the winner of each category plus a book bundle

Entries can be short stories or the first chapter(s) in a novel

Maximum word limit: 3000 words

Format of entry will be: Computer typed PDF document, double spaced, stating the title of your work, your name, and contact details including email address on the first page.

All entries should be emailed to: CN.Manorpark@newham.gov.uk

Deadline for entries is: 31st March 2017