Turning Points - Vanessa Gebbie's blog on her 2007 Bridport Prize win

Vanessa Grebbie the bridport prize Blog

We are delighted to welcome our first guest blogger to the website, author Vanessa Gebbie.  Vanessa will be writing a series of blogs for the next three months – the first all about her Bridport Prize win in 2007.  Do comment – we would love to start a conversation!



Vanessa Grebbie's first bridport prize BlogAutumn 2007, and a lovely phonecall from Frances Everitt of The Bridport Prize to tell me my story “I can squash the King, Tommo...” has come second. I can even remember where I took the call, what I was wearing, and exactly what I was doing beforehand. This must be the positive and delightful flip side of those questions that ask “Where were you when...?”

Maybe I remember it so well because at gut level I knew this would be a turning point in my writing career, even though at the time my thoughts were in a spin, shell-shocked as I was. Maybe I recognised that this was more far-reaching than a forthcoming injection of cash for my poor old bank balance. Maybe somewhere I knew this was validation of the very best kind for strange characters I didn’t really know back then, a very different voice, and a strange story that wanted to flex its wings and be part of something else.

It is lovely to be invited to be the first blogger in residence for the Bridport Prize. I have three whole months to share anything I want with you, and I’m looking forward to that very much. But I thought this first post just had to be about winning, and what it meant for this writer. You see, prior to that, I had found it very hard to answer the question, “Why do you enter writing competitions?” It’s a complex thing, isn’t it? Looking back, I certainly had my fingers crossed for a little income, but the biggest thing was validation. That this particular piece of work was ‘worth’ something tangible in the eyes of the Bridport Prize readers, the shortlister and that year’s final judge (the lovely Tracy Chevalier) was good stuff.  Better than good.

TC and Vanessa Gebbie

I well remember the trip to Bridport, and all the joy of meeting the other writers, the whole Bridport Prize team, readers, organisers and of course the final judge herself. I treasure her generous words at the award ceremony, but more than that I treasure the words she used when she signed a copy of her own book for me: “To a colleague”. I have not met her since, but perhaps that was the moment I felt for the first time that I really could be part of this writing world in a way I had not, up to that point.

Hey - we all make our own way. There are no real maps, not many short cuts. But winning a good prize like this one can indeed provide a great short cut, if you are lucky. The anthology is read each year by a great London literary agency - and if you are fortunate, as I was, your work is noticed and the long hard schlep of sending your work out to slush piles is suddenly bypassed. Oh, Bridport, thank you for that!

The Cowards Tale“I can squash the King, Tommo...” is now part of The Clerk’s Tale in a novel called The Coward’s Tale, which was published by Bloomsbury in 2011 (UK) and 2012 (USA). Oh, it took a while - the manuscript was finally handed in to my agent in October 2010, with loads of ups and downs on the way. But would it have got written at all without the validation it got from the Bridport Prize, among others? I doubt it.

After the award ceremony, I spent a very jolly evening with the team of readers, each one of whom, that year, had read over 500 stories. And another thing I have never forgotten, and have quoted many times, is the instruction given to the team by the chief shortlister, John Wyatt. He told me that he does not give them a detailed list of things to look for, no boxes to tick. He just asks them to send him those entries that ‘make them forget they are reading.’ Think about it - it’s a clever instruction - because for that to happen, all the craft has to disappear. It’s all about the story...duh! And yes, I quoted him with great gratitude when I was asked by Salt Publishing to pull together the text book ‘Short Circuit - guide to the art of the short story.’

Short CircuitWhat, me, write a text book? No - I have never managed to read one written by just one writer, so it would have been impossible to accept a commission to write one myself. But a team approach was fine - so with some twenty four writers contributing, among them a good cohort of Bridport winners,  the bouncing baby that is ‘Short Circuit’ was born in 2009. Bless Bridport again for being the first to endorse - calling it a gold mine.

I am still sending work to Bridport, because I like them, and what they stand for. I like their no-nonsense approach, the fact that the fees go in part to fund the wonderful Arts Centre in the town. I like the fact that the readers of the stories are just that, readers. The career paths of so many of the winners are a clear sign of the readers’ eye for quality, if they need one. And after all, it is your readers who will, later on, decide if your books get read or not - not writing teachers. So isn’t this a good place to start?

I have been sending them poetry, and am always delighted when pieces reach the shortlist - it means I’m on the right track as I explore this new obsession!  As I write this, last night I was in the audience for the T S Eliot shortlist readings at The South Bank. It was wonderful to hear Sean Borodale read the poem that won at Bridport a few years ago.

Last year, for the first time since 2007, I sent them a short story I wasn’t sure about. It bombed.  There is still work to be done, thank heavens!

Happy writing



PS.  If there are any writing-related subjects you would like me to address in this series of posts - please do say. I will do my best.

PPS. For those who like to know these things, I took the call from Frances Everitt in my upstairs study and was wearing yellow rubber gloves...I had just been cleaning the bath.  


Vanessa Gebbie is author of one novel (The Coward's Tale from Bloomsbury UK/USA) and two collections of short fiction (Words from a Glass Bubble and Storm Warning, both from Salt Modern Fiction). She teaches widely and is contributing editor of the writing text book Short Circuit - guide to the art of the short story (Salt). She also writes poetry, and was awarded the 2012 Troubadour International Poetry Prize. www.vanessagebbie.com


Lovely post, Vanessa.

Congratulations Vanessa! I will be following your blog. You are such an inspiration. Keep up the great work. I so loved "The Coward's Tale" and look forward to your sequel.

Marigolds or designer yellows?

I never leave the house without my banana skins. Pipple touching me , euch! I'm sure we're the same.

Ach, only playtalk. Good luck with the blag.

Yellow rubber gloves. Wonderful!

There is no clear path to have a book read and it is difficult to assess what readers are looking for in a book. Writers suffer for their writing but find it hard for an assuming book that they most trust is not read. You might find ideas in other books and which give you an inspiration and a buzz. An author's success depends on many chances rather than the quality of the book. Writers contribute to world wisdom and knowledge and dispense their ideas to a wider audience. Yet the world is not thirsty for ideas and a writer without publicity is more unlikely to excel in the world of writing. All books are important and significant in there own context and shouldn't be underestimated. All knowledge has an origin and this goes back to the first man and woman who passed on their knowledge that God had given them. Without this original teaching there would not be knowledge. I was inspired to write by reading several authors and the list is long who gave me the confidence and skill. Writing is a skill and I guess it should be rewarded and appreciated by all those who seek knowledge.

Hi v interesting and inspiring stuff.

Hi Vanessa, first congratulations on your successes since winning - truly inspirational, particularly for aspiring writers! I bought The Cowards Tale for my mum as she is Welsh born and bred and she very much enjoyed it and it is now sitting in my to be read pile - I'm looking forward to it but can't allow queue-jumping I'm afraid :-)
I was wondering what your thoughts are regarding point of view in a short story? Can a shifting third person work or is it just not appropriate for shorter pieces?

Hello Melanie, and thank you for your lovely message about The Coward's Tale. Glad your mum enjoyed the read, and hope you do, too!

Thank you for your question - I will save a full reply up for a future post, if that's OK. But very briefly, if you need it to be that way, and, you can make it work, do it. But I would also say, please be aware of why people are advised not to do this - and be careful to ensure it really is the best way to tell your story.

Good to know you're still in one piece - or have been, since 2007. Frankly, if I hit pay dirt I'd be in Mars by now. Piecemeal. And would borderless (sorry for the pun) with the menace of the slush pile. Such incubus!

Congrats, by the way, for your next award; I know you dare not dwell on past (or even recent) glory.
Just one thought I was wondering if you might share some insights on: the monster called 'agenda'. It's all very nice to hear stuff like 'make them forget they are reading' , which is not far from the admonition to write 'a damned good work'. But do you think that in all these there is no McCarthy somewhere labouring to sniff out real or perceived 'agenda' purveyors? Now, let's assume for once that a work is good, as in real good, do you think a trace of an agenda might not whittle down its merit in the eye of assessors. I'm not talking about a work that blatantly pushes an/some agenda : pro- or anti- gay, war, poverty, feminism, etc, my concern is - and this has little to do with Bridport - must a work consciously purge itself of even a trace of what someone somewhere might construe as 'agenda' for one cause or the other? And do you not fear a foisting of self-censorship on writers in this manner?

I think this - a good piece of fiction is multi-layered, revealing more of itself at each reading, to the careful eye. If there are no layers, there is something (for me) sterile about the work. However - those layers have to be organic, utterly necessary to the story. An 'agenda' might be considered to be a layer - but If the writer imposes it regardless of its place in the story it fails, hits the reader about the head with the 'message', and switches the reader off.
Having said that, we all come to writing with everything that makes us human - our values, hopes, fears, loves and hates. If the work is 'of us' it will reflect those values naturally, whether we intended it to or not. It is actually very difficult to create something with feeling that reflects the opposite of what we believe/are. Try it! So, far from foisting any self-censorship on writers, I would say 'write what you must' - as well as you can, and what makes you 'you' will shine through far more successfully than if you wave a red flag with your agenda write large upon't.

I like what Keats wrote to JH Reynolds about his thoughts on the aims of poetry, which might be similarly relevant here as part response to the original question above...
"We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great & unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject.—How beautiful are the retired flowers! how would they lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway crying out, ‘admire me I am a violet! dote upon me I am a primrose! "


Would you do a blog on flash fiction, please?
Often I find that poems I've written work better as a piece of flash fiction.

Terrific idea - will do!

Great stuff, Vanessa, and congratulations on being appointed Bridport's first Blogger in Residence. I remember your win very well - you asked me what happened next and where you should look for an agent. I said you should do nothing, just sit tight and wait, and they would come to you. And they did! Bridport's arm is very long.

Hi Sue - how right you were. All very best to you!

Good luck with your future blogs - I enjoyed reading this! planning to enter this year so hopefully you will inspire me to get on with it! Will read The Cowards Tale too ...

Hello lollipopshoes (great name!) Thank you very much - and lots of good luck. Enjoy the writing.

Thank you for the encouragement, faith and determination. Perhaps one day I will find the path. It is not an easy progress for a woman. I'm still struggling to find my kilter. Break a leg Team Leader 'Nessa.xx

It's a tough old world out there - us writers need to stick together. There's safety in numbers. (!)
Seriously Alix - keep on going - the most important three words in the Writers' Bible are 'Don't Give Up.' I'm not sure its necessarily harder for women than men - just different - but the mantra is: If you think it is harder - then make sure that what you do is twice as good as the opposition. Go for it!

Hello Vanessa

An inspiring blog post as always. You asked about writing-related subjects and I have two suggestions. The first would be how to deal with critiques, who to ask to comment on your work and what to do with the comments. And the second related subject is how to deal with reviews - even once you've become a well known published writer like you and also for new writers. I should imagine these two topics will provoke lots of discussion.

Hello Caroline, I'n glad the words are hitting the spot. And thank you for two great topic suggestions. I will save them for a future post, if I may. Brilliant...

Must learn to type....