Tuesday, August 23, 2016

A Cinderella Evening

I came across an unusual writing competition earlier this year, in a magazine that I subscribe to – the UK-based Writing Magazine. WM was teaming up with JustWrite team (John Murray Press) for a short story competition. I am not very skilled at short stories;  IMO it requires tremendous skill and  I find it very daunting, actually. But this competition was different; first of all, the reward was unique: six shortlisted winners would get to meet folks from publishing and the winner would get a detailed critique of his/her work. What better prize could a writer get? Secondly, the word count was very generous at 8000 words. I decided to go for this and as usual I did not get around to developing a story till the very last minute.

The last day of the submission dawned and I sat down for a 12-hour writing marathon. It was a bank holiday Monday. The deadline was midnight. I completed the story at about 10 in the night. I had just two hours for editing and it was simply not enough. I shot past the deadline by a good 15 minutes. Surely, my entry would not be considered now? I closed my laptop utterly dejected. Thankfully, thankfully I changed my mind – I thought I had nothing to lose by sending it out, even if I’m late...even if I knew all the flaws in the writing...and I emailed the story. 

Weeks later, when I got an email from the editor of Writing Magazine, Jonathan Telfer, informing me that I’d been shortlisted, I simply could not believe it. I read and re-read the email. Maybe it was spam? Maybe they had made a mistake? Such was my disbelief that I waited for the dreaded email that confirmed it was all a mistake, and I must be “disqualified”. No such calamity occurred – I was chuffed to see myself on the September issue of Writing Magazine, along with five other shortlisted writers. The shortlisted winners were invited for the promised party on August 18th evening at Hodder & Stoughton office in London.

Come August 18th, I admit, the disbelief stayed with me even as I boarded the train to Paddington, rode the tube and stood before the venue—one of those quintessential London buildings, bang opposite Blackfriars Pier on the Thames.  Hodder & Stoughton is on the fifth floor, where I met my fellow shortlists – Dan Purdue, Emma Myatt, Ian Laskey, LouiseHare, and Sally Jenkins - what a delight that was!  Such diverse backgrounds – all united by a passion to write.  We spent a leisurely couple of hours chatting over coffee, posing for photographs, and browsing through the amazing display shelves stacked with all the new releases from H&S. 

L-R: Emma, Yours truly, Dan, Louise, Sally, Ian and Jonathan Shipley of JW.

We were all given a bulging goodies bag – books and gift vouchers – a true Santa’s sack!




Each of us was whisked away for a short video interview in what is probably the most beautiful room I’ve ever stepped into. Nestled in a corner away from view, the Darwin room is a capsule of silence, lined with books, furnished with plush armchairs and settees, with windows overlooking the road and river below.  If ever the Room of Requirement came true for me, it would certainly look like this!

We all then trooped to the H&S rooftop terrace garden – the venue of the party. London’s steel and glass skyline twinkled and shimmered in the evening sun. Below, passenger ferries churned the dirty brown Thames with white foam ever so often.   The traffic noise was muted but relentless.  There have been a few moments in my life when I’ve thought,  ‘Am I really here?’ – this was one of those moments! 




The winner’s name was announced in true movie award style (congratulations to Emma). The biggest surprise came when our books were revealed – they’d put together our short stories in slim paperbacks with a beautiful cover (Emma got a hardbound copy :)) – to be freely distributed.   We had a great time autographing the copies! You can read all the stories here :)




For me, the most amazing part of the evening was meeting so many different people connected with books – be it authors, publishers, editors or literary consultants. Everyone was so kind and generous in sharing their experiences, listening to our writing processes and they were genuinely interested in our journey as writers.  Iain Campbell, the publisher director at H&S; the team from the literary consultancy Cornerstones – Helen, Rebecca, Alex;  the WM and JW teams including both the Jonathans, Jan, Lauren and so many others made the evening even more special for us. 

I came away feeling like Cinderella – only I did not have any midnight deadline! As a writer still struggling to find a foothold; as a writer with a very limited exposure, it was with much trepidation that I entered this competition. What I got in return has been far beyond my expectation - I feel fortunate and humbled and buoyed that my writing can find a readership outside India.

My only regret – I should have eaten the spectacular cupcakes.


© Sumana Khan - 2016