The Stockholm Writers Festival First Pages Prize

I had to keep it all hush-hush until the award presentation on May 3rd, but oh it was a happy moment when I heard my memoir/creative non-fiction manuscript won second place in the Stockholm Writers Festival First Pages Prize. First prize went to Sara Johnson Allen, and third to Sarah Fuchs.

As I recently said to Lizzie Harwood, Vice President and First Pages Prize Founder (and author of the wonderful memoir “Xamnesia“), it is very unusual for a writer’s prize package to not only offer a really generous award in financial terms, but also to cover festival fee, accommodation, a travel stipend AND developmental editing of the first pages. I very much doubt there is another competition that does this, anywhere.

With this competition, it felt to me the Festival was not only hoping to give encouragement to the prize-winning writers, but really looking to support them to take a step forward with their work and their career. It’s nice to win competitions but then you go back to your quiet little room and try to face the blank page yet again. It’s a short lived ‘high’. But winning one of the prizes for the First Pages Prize felt totally different, as if I had been taken by the hand and guided, supported, inspired, encouraged in my long term journey of being a writer.

I had not been to the Stockholm Writers Festival before, nor to Stockholm, and to be honest I was bowled over.

The Festival has a very specific focus: to help writers find their path to getting published. In fact you cannot enter the First Pages competition if you have a literary agent.

There was so much about the Festival that impressed me. I have been given an award for my writing in public before, but it was a fairly short-lived moment in the spotlight. This time, the judge, Paul McVeigh, spent some time talking about each of the entries and what it was that impressed him. I am sure I was not alone amongst the winners in feeling a little weepy with gratitude as I sat there, listening to what he said. The prize was also presented by Jonas Nabbedo, Vice Mayor of Culture and Clydette de Groot of the de Groot Foundation (who generously support the prize packages), and they both gave heart-felt and inspiring talks about the importance of prizes for writers, and about the importance of writing. After this, all three winners had the opportunity to read from the first page of their manuscript. I love giving readings (I flubbed my lines!).

The Festival’s organisers keep the participation numbers fairly small, and this means that although I may not have managed to befriend everyone, it still felt intimate and easy to forge connections. The sessions I attended were exceptional, including Jane Friedman‘s “How To Get Your Book Published”; Julie Cohen’s “Learning Story Structure from Pixar Films”, Jess Lourey and Jennifer Dahlberg‘s “From Traditional to Indie” and Paul McVeigh‘s “Creating your Platform”. And although some sessions overlapped, it was possible to have a ‘taster session’ with each of the faculty during one of the events. I was able to spend 20 minutes with Cassie Gonzales on ‘Making Your Dialogue Do the Heavy Lifting’ for example.

I learned SO much. I have a notebook literally packed with scribbles.

I pitched my novel to two highly regarded agents. I have never I’ve done this before – not in person. Terrifying, but great practice. Both agents want to see the novel, and one in particular I felt a strong connection to (I must do another read-through to make sure it’s in the best shape possible!).

I also was honoured to be able to spend time with Clydette and Charles de Groot. What a pleasure! And special mention should go to the efficient (and gorgeous) team of volunteers who were on hand whenever I was confused, or lost (or lost something!).

I did make friends during the weekend, and I want to return to Stockholm as the little I saw I loved. So all in all a truly spectacular, informative time.

If you have read my previous two blogs about my ‘health situation’ you might wonder how I manage to participate in such a full-on Festival. The truth is it is incredibly challenging. I usually spend about 15 of each 24 hours lying prone in some form or other – trying to sleep. sleeping, resting. And this was 15 hours of sessions, events, walking, connecting…. It was hard. Very hard. At times I felt horrendous. But I was also doing something I love to do: spend time with other writers. Usually I get quite ill after such intense periods of activity. So far I’m just mindlessly exhausted (hence how long it’s taken me to write this blog), so I’m crossing thumbs all the positive energy from the Festival has helped my immune-system.

Photography: Birgit Walsh Photography
(The photograph of the volunteers which was taken by Catherine Pettersson Founder of the Stockholm Writers Festival)

What Has Been Given To You To Say?

As some of you know I was lucky enough to teach three creative workshops for the Fairway Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka in January, as well as a workshop for the British Council in Colombo.

One of the workshops, ‘How To Face The Blank Page’,  was part of the Festival’s outreach North-South programme, hosting students from 8 different national university English Language departments. About 45 students participated. Given the island’s only too-recent civil war, it was inspiring to be working with a classroom of students from different ethnicities of the country. They did indeed face the blank page and some wrote powerful pieces about the war and its aftermath, and they also wrote about the tsunami which took the lives of 35,000 Sri Lankans in 2004.

The two other workshops for the Festival were on Flash Fiction and ‘Diving into Story’, for younger people. For the British Council, my workshop was also on Flash Fiction and was also for younger people. Originally the numbers for this workshop were limited to 20, but at the last minute the number of participants bloomed to 65 when a teacher from one of the schools found out about the workshop and asked if her whole class could join. I have not taught those numbers before, so was a little anxious but the children were not only amazing, so was their writing, as you’ll read below. I took heart in our future, to know there were so many young people with a deeply adult understanding of themselves and the world we live in.

One of the prompts I gave for a short piece was called “Your Gift.”

I asked participants to put aside for a moment any fear of pride, lack of confidence or disbelief in themselves and to imagine the planet is in dire danger (not hard to imagine). I told them the gods had given them two gifts, the first being great skill in expressing themselves, the second something important to be said. I asked them to sit silently for a moment and then to write down the answer the question, ”What has been given to you to say?”

The answers were deeply moving. I read many of these out to the participants and in one case they all stood up and applauded. I read them out myself not just because the children were shy, but to encourage them to hear the beauty and strength of their words. Sometimes it’s easier to hear that in another person’s voice.

I have been collecting some of the pieces, and wanted to share them here:

Look around you. Look at everything and everyone around you. Who are they? What do they mean to you? If you left now and never saw them again, how would it affect you? Would you feel guilty for doing something, or for not doing something? Would you feel guilty for saying something, or for not saying something? If so, then do it. If so, then tell them.

~ Nora Deemer, age 14, Elizabeth Moir School


I Live in my mind a brave fearless charming and charismatic young girl with power to change the world. I Live in my life a snivelling scared stupid bitch without even the power to speak up for herself . I Die in my mind noble and valiant thousands of others weeping for me. I Die in my life wishing the girl I fantasised was actually me.

~ Rusandi Rosini Ranasinghe, age 14, Visakha Vidyalaya


When someone tells you that they want to make a change in the world, don’t let your narrow mind tell you that it’s not possible. Think about it, in the big picture, it may seem like all the issues in the world have already been addressed and solved, but break the picture to look at the gaps, the missed brushstrokes and the half shaded colours, has every single issue in the world reached a solution?

Ranuli Palipane, age 17, Musaeus College


Polluting is something we as humans do and it’s harming our planet. What should we do? We all should be recycling, it’s a good habit and it will save our world and animals. We should also teach our kids, if we have any, to up-cycle. Did you know that every one minute a garbage truck full of plastic is dumped in our ocean? It has to be stopped. Plastic survives for a long time. Did you know that 25 years ago a cargo ship carried 50 containers over the pacific ocean and one of the containers full of toy rubber ducks fell into the water? Still today 200 of those ducks are floating around in our big blue sea.

~ Neve Grace Coleman, age 9, homeschooled


And, there’s this one which made me smile: In response to the prompt: “The worst teacher you’ve ever had” (hopefully I won’t be on that list!):

For a challenging subject, he was the last teacher we wanted. We actually needed someone to show us how to strategically find x and solve y, not one who failed while trying to disprove age old theorems and claimed to have seen ghosts in the school hallways in broad daylight and tried to pull off a Matilda to move a marker with his mind. clearly, he was deprived of attention as a child, at least that’s what we thought.

~ Ranuli Palipane, age 17, Musaeus College


Note: if you attended one of the workshops and would like to send me some pieces you wrote there for publication on my blog, do let me know! You can email them via the Contact form.


British Council in Colombo
British Council Literature website in the UK
British Council Literature on Twitter

The Galle Literary Festival on Facebook
The Galle Literary Festival on Twitter

Creative Writing at the Galle Literary Festival, 2018

I’m delighted to share that I have once again been invited to teach creative writing workshops at the Fairway Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka in January (24th-28th), including a workshop for teenagers and another for the North-South Programme.

This year speakers at the Festival include Amit Chaudhuri, Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke, Kimaya de Silva, Pankaj Mishra, Maylis de Kerangal, Louis de Bernières, Richard Flanagan, Ashok Ferrey, Alexander McCall Smith, and Dame Maggie Smith. My author page on the Festival website is here.

I will also be teaching a writing workshop at the British Council in Colombo on the 29th of January.

Come and join me!

The Festival on Facebook
The Festival on Twitter

Cork Short Story Festival and Other Bits and Pieces


The Cork International Short Story Festival is coming soon — 19-23 September,  2012 – with some wonderful authors giving readings and workshops: Short Stories for Beginners with Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Advanced Short Story Writing with Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, Writing Flash Fiction with Tania Hershman, I plan to attend Tania’s workshop, hope to see you there!


A short story of mine, “117 Days” has been selected by Beverly Lowry as the winner of the second annual bosque Fiction Prize. The award includes a $1000 cash honorarium as well as publication in the Fall 2012 issue of bosque this November. The prize is awarded by the ABQ Writers Co-op, a creative writing community in New Mexico. Beverly Lowry is the author of six novels and several works of nonfiction. She teaches writing at George Mason University.


In addition to my volunteer work saving slow lorises, I am also fundraising to support animal rights volunteers in Bosnia, where the situation with stray and abused dogs and cats is very bad. I fundraise to help pay for food, veterinary care and medicines. If you can help or have any ideas of how to help, please go to In Memory of Vučko.

Events in Sri Lanka 2011

I’m a participant in the Galle Literary Festival, January 26th – 30th. My workshop on how to get published in literary journals is on Friday 28th, 2:30 – 4:30. This workshop is sold out, but if you are attending the festival please do look out for me, I’ll be happy to connect.

I’ll be in Colombo after that and will be giving a talk on February 2nd:Aspiring writers: Do you dream of being published? This talk is hosted by the British Council.

A literary event in paradise

Screen Shot 2013-08-19 at 16.08.03I’m very happy to share that I have been invited by Shyam Selvadurai, festival curator for the Galle Literary Festival (and author of ‘Funny Boy’), to attend and offer a workshop in the main programme of 5th annual festival in Sri Lanka, which takes place from January 26th-30th 2011. Established in 2006, the event is now a regular fixture on the literary calendar. This year speakers include Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Damon Galgut, Kiran Desai, Lawrence Hill and Orhan Pamuk.

I will be offering a talk for new and unpublished writers on how to move from being an unpublished (fiction/poetry) writer to a published one, particularly in literary magazines and using new media (audio publishing and mobile publishing).

I am particularly excited about attending the Galle Literary Festival because the novel I am presently working on is set in Sri Lanka (inspired by events that occurred when I was there in the early 80s). I was fortunate to receive a Canada Council grant in 2010 to develop this work from novella length to novel, and to undertake a research trip this year, which I did in August/September 2010. It was an extraordinary trip in many ways. However, I was not able to visit a small town just south of Galle where several scenes occur, so I will be able to do this in January.

This will be my first literary festival as an invited participant. I hope I don’t get stage fright! At the very least I’m sure I’ll feel quite overwhelmed meeting so many extraordinary writers.

My author page on the Festival website is here.

If you are thinking about a holiday, I can highly recommend Sri Lanka, and what better holiday than a literary holiday? Come and join me!