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7th May 2015

Ah, letters. So many possibilities. We write to say thank you, or hello, or I'm sorry. We could pick up the phone, but we don't, because - well, that's part of the complexity. Why don't we call? Because we want to have the chance to be uninterrupted, because we want time to find just the right phrasing, and the pen gives that when the tongue does not, because we don't know quite what it is we want to convey until the act of writing creates the words? And we could email. Sometimes we do. But we know that an email isn't a substitute for a letter. Picking a handwritten envelope from the doormat is a moment full of possibility, for the reader and the writer.

And then there are the letters we write to be unread, at least in the usual sense of the word. We write to our past selves, our future selves, our higher selves. We write what we should have said to the dead and we write what we hope can be to the unborn. We write letters to past lovers that, if we've any sense, we put to the flame rather than send.

Letters offer a world of possibilities, in life and in writing, and it was wonderful to see this so thoroughly embraced in this competition.

I chose 'Letter to Alice' as the winner. This lovely piece of writing has the best and purest quality of a letter about it: it is completely authentic. I could hear the voice of the character right through it. There wasn't a false note. And although the piece is short there's a world of story, of loss and pain and hope and possibility, in it. Something that looks extremely simple, like this, is very difficult to get right: there is absolutely nowhere to hide. I congratulate the author.


‘Dear Alice
I am leaving tonight on the troopship Arethusa to join up with the boys who are fighting the Turks in Anatolia. I don’t know where it is but I’m told it will take us about two weeks to get there and it will be hot!
I couldn’t go without letting you know my feelings for you since we have been going out for a while now and I hope you will not mind my writing to you like this.’


I also enjoyed 'Cold sober. Lover'. It's a very clever evocation of a life - missing slats in a blind, a delivery of strawberries - and it captures a moment perfectly. The narrator both has what she has wanted, and doesn't know whether she actually has anything at all. The fact that she wrote a letter is significant; it's the thing that brought this man to her bed. I'd like to know more about this character and this story and I hope that the writer explores and expands what s/he has here.


‘The letter. Her letter, returned, left behind with a late delivery of tomorrow’s strawberries when she’d gone out on her break. Whatever he’d thought he had reduced it to this in writing: “52 Oak House, 10pm” and a key tucked inside the torn envelope. His seeming casual embrace and warmth at New Year returned to her.’


'My Lovely Girl' is another exercise in complex storytelling masquerading as simplicity. It has a true voice and what's striking about it is the matter-of-factness of the character as she chronicles what has happened to her and what she hopes for. There are enough hints in the letter (believing she will be sent back to her mother, knowing that she will have to keep her child a secret) to make the reader see that the narrator's chances aren't great; this contrasts with her plans to work hard and make her baby proud of her.


‘I have to go back to school in September. Everyone’s been told I had glandular fever for six months, so no-one knows about you, and that’s sad. I’d like to be able to talk about you with someone. I’ve got to go back a year because I’ve missed so much, but I’m going to work really hard and try and get some qualifications.’


All in all, some excellent writing, skilful storytelling and strong voices here. Well done to all of the shortlisted entrants.


Stephanie Butland has written two books about her dance with cancer: 'How I said Bah! to cancer' and 'Thrive: the Bah! Guide to wellness after cancer.' Her first novel, 'Letters To My Husband', is out now, and her second, 'The Other Half Of My Heart', is published in autumn 2015. Stephanie lives in Northumberland with her family and writes in a studio at the bottom of her garden. In her other life she is a specialist trainer in thinking skills and creativity, work that takes her all over the world, and gives her plenty of people-watching time in airports.

My Notes