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Gabriel's Halo by Rhiannon Lewis

Featuring the accompanying case study:

How To Win A Short Story Competition

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Introduction, by Chris Fielden

'Gabriel's Halo' is a short story by Welsh writer, Rhiannon Lewis. Her story won the Writers' Forum short story competition in November 2016.

Writers' Forum logo

After winning the competition, Rhiannon contacted me. In her message, she said:

By the way, your feedback on Writers' Forum was incredibly useful. You were totally right about the valuable feedback they provide for a very small fee. The magazine is interesting and winning one of the competitions (which I did after reading your advice - 1st prize, November 2016) came at a very important time, just when I was flagging and losing hope that anyone would ever want to read my stories. So thank you again!

I asked Rhiannon if she would write about her experiences and share her story as a case study on my blog, so other writers could see exactly how she went about submitting to the magazine, getting a critique, editing the story based on the feedback she received and then winning the competition. She very kindly agreed.

So, in this post you will be able to read Rhiannon's competition winning story followed by her case study, showing exactly how / why she won the competition.

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Gabriel's Halo

by Rhiannon Lewis

The queue at the temporary desk for decommissioned halos had eventually shrunk down to one. It was the end of the day, and all the angels whose names started with G had been, and gone. One by one, they had shuffled past a series of signs: Returning halos ONLY, Please form an orderly queue! STRICTLY all general enquiries to the information desk. There was one more angel in front, then Gabriel would be the last. He turned to see whether anyone else had arrived, but there was no one. Above him, the sky was still blue, although darkening a little. The clouds were a thousand shades of white. They hovered and floated.

Halo

Eventually, a voice from the desk said, 'Well there, Gabriel,' and he turned to see Angel Oswald, arms wide, leaning forward on the counter. Oswald was wearing his usual pale grey work overalls, but on the right-hand pocket flap there was an unfamiliar badge which said, 'Head of Halo Reclamation — temporary.'

'Hey, Oswald,' replied Gabriel, and despite his best effort, let out a long sigh. He stepped up to the desk, and placed his halo on the thick pile of shining tissue paper that lay on the glass counter.

'Ah,' said Oswald, smiling. Already, the halo's brilliant glow had diminished; the golden hue was being overtaken by a bluish tinge, its smoothness was turning grainy, almost, the iridescence becoming matte.

'Aa-ah,' said Oswald again. His voice was deep and fatherly.

'What do they look like? Eventually?' asked Gabriel.

'Well,' said Oswald, turning his head slightly, but keeping his eyes fixed on the object in front of him, 'I don't rightly know. They've been around a lot longer than I have, and whenever we've had a defective one, or one in need of maintenance, well, the light has never really gone out of it altogether. The worst one I ever saw was the colour of a perfectly ripe Victoria plum – you know, when they're very fresh, and they have a kind of dust on them that you wipe off on your sleeve to make them shiny.'

'Oh,' said Gabriel.

Oswald's hair was looking particularly unruly that day. His crown was hair-free and surprisingly tanned, but the rest of his head was covered in long, wiry, dazzling-white hair, which grew outwards horizontally, lending him the air of someone in a perpetual state of shock. He reminded Gabriel of a brilliant, curmudgeonly archaeologist he had once known – slightly ruffled, always on the verge of a great discovery.

'This was always one of the better looking ones, of course,' said Oswald, extending his arm under the counter and bringing out a white cardboard box. 'People assumed they were all pretty much the same, but they weren't, you know — not at all. Some glowed peach, others had a bit of lavender in them. This one had a kind of resonance, like it had a piece of music moving through it.' Oswald licked the tips of his fingers, and was about to draw up the corners of the tissue when he hesitated.

'Why don't you put it on, Gabriel? One last time, for me to see?'

'Well... '

'It won't take a moment, and there's no one waiting now.'

'I suppose ... '

Oswald let go of the tissue, and placed his hands around the halo. 'Oh, it's all coming back to me now. It's heavier than you think, isn't it? And it has the texture of a warm block of ice,' he said, with delight. 'Stand back!'

Gabriel did as he was told, and gathered his long sleeves about him. Oswald held the halo in his right hand, balanced it, then drawing his right arm across himself, and with the lightest flick of the wrist, sent it flying up above Gabriel's head. He’d put a bit of spin on it, Gabriel noticed, but once it found its place, it settled, rotating gracefully. It came to life — brilliant rays of light bounced off the clouds around them.

Oswald slid his hands into his overall pockets, and grinned with satisfaction. 'Take a look in the mirror!'  

Oh, no, I'd rather not, thought Gabriel. He had gone through the same rigmarole that morning – putting on his best gown, setting his halo straight, gazing at his sad reflection in the dormitory mirror, taking it off for the final time (or so he thought), with a heavy heart.

Oswald produced a mirror. 'There!' He crossed his arms, and left it suspended in mid air. He always seemed to have an uncanny knack of placing halos just so. Whenever Gabriel did it, it never quite looked the same. Perhaps Oswald set them at a slightly jaunty angle? With his face illuminated like this, all the nooks and crannies were evened out, the dark shadows under his eyes and the deep hollows of his cheeks were erased. He seemed young again.

'Not so scary, really,' laughed Oswald.

That old joke, thought Gabriel. He was well aware of his terrifying reputation. He hadn’t meant to be terrifying. The issue was partly to do with timing. He was always compelled to appear at moments which were, for many people, not entirely auspicious. And, bafflingly, people expected him to have a kind of benign, wishy-washy blondness. They were invariably surprised to discover that he was dark-eyed and rather glowering. One of the novice angels once told him that his 'resting face' was unusually severe. Not much I can do about it, he'd thought, although, he had tried to smile a little more often after that.

So there he was, smiling at his smiling self. It was all an illusion of course. He reached up, removed the halo, and handed it back to Oswald. The light reflected on the clouds was extinguished, and everything was darker than before.

'Where will they all go?'

'They'll be sent back to central storage for safe keeping – in case they're ever needed.' Oswald licked his fingertips and drew up the layers of tissue. 'It's all climate control and whatnot over there now. They shouldn't come to any harm. I daresay they'll come out looking as good as new.'

If they're ever needed, thought Gabriel. He watched as Oswald turned the halo over deftly, enveloping it with rustling paper. It glowed wistfully, and Gabriel felt a painful dart of anguish shoot through him.

Angel Halo

'What about you, Oswald? Where will you go?'

Oswald began scrunching sheets of tissue into large balls. 'Oh, nowhere just yet. We have a few more weeks to go. Tomorrow, we're on the H’s and I’s. You wouldn't believe the names we've had! Gabriel's a nice name for an angel, I think. But, Grosmont?' Oswald chuckled. 'Greeber!' He laughed, and packed the tissue balls into the corners of the box. 'Greengage!'

They could be here for quite a while, thought Gabriel.

'And that's just the boys! Then there's the cataloguing, and the storage. Yes, we'll be here for a few weeks yet. But afterwards,' he said, folding his arms, 'well, believe it or not, I fancy going to New England. They say the folks are decent. I know a lake with a cabin, which would do me just fine. I'll hide myself away – become a fisher of fish.' Oswald patted the halo absently, and gazed past Gabriel with the far away look of someone who was thinking about his first catch of the day. 'Course, I've never been a travelling angel like you, so I can't be sure. It's all a bit of an adventure.' He picked up the halo and placed it in its paper cocoon.

Adventure, thought Gabriel. Is that what it was? Their being decommissioned was the one thing he could never have foreseen. They had all laughed at the first rumours, but soon stopped when they realized the officials were serious. The angels had become an irrelevance, it seemed. No one believed in them any more. Apparently, the last person to sense their existence had died in a bizarre accident involving an umbrella stand and a Swiss pianist. To Gabriel's thinking, it had all been more than a little suspicious.

'Do you believe them, Oswald?'

Oswald was making more tissue balls, and for a moment Gabriel thought he was deliberately ignoring his question. Eventually, Oswald shook his head, and let out a slow whistle through his teeth. 'There's no reason to doubt them,' he whispered.

'Them. That's another thing! Who are they, Oswald? Who's in charge, now? I mean, we haven't had any direct dealings with HIM for a very long time, not since ... well, to be honest, I can't remember when.'

More and more layers of tissue were being scrunched. Oswald whispered reluctantly, 'They say there's a new pet project.'

The halo seemed to give one last desperate glimmer through the shining layers, then Oswald closed the lid. Gabriel was gripped by an awful dread. He had an overwhelming urge to grab the box and run away with it. He steadied himself against the counter, and hoped the urge would go away. Oswald reached down and brought out a heavy dispenser, complete with luminous yellow tape. It landed on the counter with a thud.

'He KNEW I was there, Oswald.'

Oswald groaned. Gabriel had told him this story, many times already, of how, only days before the final declaration of decommissioning, he had saved a farmer and his baby girl from certain death at a junction.

'He told everyone, Oswald – his wife, his children, his neighbours!'

'No-one believed him!'

'That's not the point. He KNEW I was there.'

'He was being fanciful.'

'I don't think so.'

'You don't THINK so?'

'I know so, Oswald. And if he knew I was there, it means the decommissioning can't be right. It's based on a false premise!'

Oswald hunched his shoulders as if expecting a huge thunderball to come hurtling in his direction at any moment.  'You're just upset,' he hissed, furiously pulling and tearing strips of tape, and sticking them down on the lid. 'It's understandable. It's to be expected. It's natural, after all this time.'

The angels paused and looked down at the box. It was almost unrecognizable, covered in thick tramways of lurid tape.

Oswald sighed. 'I've had enough, Gabriel. I just want to go fishing.'

Gabriel placed his hand on the box. The light had gone, but still he could feel its warmth, like a beating heart. His friend was right. They had to accept the inevitable. He patted the box tenderly and hoped that the halo could sense his parting touch through the layers of tissue and cardboard and thick, sticky-tape.

'We worked our socks off, Oswald.'

'I know.'

'What more could we have done?'

'Nothing, Gabriel. You all did your best.'

A shiny trolley had appeared. Oswald lifted the box with the halo in it, and placed it on top.

Gabriel imagined himself leaping athletically over the counter, and absconding with the swaddled box. 'I bet the other side's not being decommissioned?'

'Seems they've also gone off to the new project,' whispered Oswald. 'They like a challenge.'

It wasn't too late, thought Gabriel, glancing at the trolley. Surely, Oswald wouldn't stop him? But Oswald reached forward and gripped his hand so firmly that it brought Gabriel to his senses.

'Look me up in New England. You'll find me. I'll be the one with the largest basket of fish.'

They shook hands. 'Oswald – you take care now.'

Gabriel turned away from the desk, and made his way back to the dormitories. The evening light was fading fast. He paused for a moment to watch the sun’s last rays on the billowing clouds. Then, just as he was about to move off, he noticed something strange. Something brushed against his cheek. He brought his hands to his face. He was amazed. It was a breeze. There had never been a breeze in heaven. The clouds moved, not like earthly weather clouds, but of their own accord. They were not dictated to by climactic conditions. Something was changing. And, as if one strange thing was not enough, he realised there was a second thing. There was a sound – a low moan, like the sound of a rising wind through a great tree that has lost its leaves. The sound of absence. The sound of a door blown open, with no one left to close it.

Gabriel turned to tell Oswald, but Oswald had already gone. A makeshift sign stood on the counter. It said, 'Open again at 9am SHARP for H's and I's only.' Gabriel pulled his gown around him, shivered, and walked on.

So, it was all over. Oh, he knew what the angels were saying, that it was just a short-term state of affairs. They would soon get a call, or a sign. But the ache in the pit of his belly didn’t feel transitory. It felt like a wrongness that had settled in for the long haul.

Distracted, Gabriel’s boot caught in the hem of his gown, and he nearly tripped over his own feet. His hand shot up to stop the halo from toppling, but his fingers swished through empty air. He paused. The setting sun seemed to be melting, pouring precious metals into the sky, and gilding the edges of the world. He watched the colours ripple and flow all around. For a moment, he thought he could actually feel his heart breaking. You need to get a grip, he thought, tying his belt a little tighter.

That’s when he heard the noise, like wings flapping. He hitched up his gown and walked on. Everyone knew it was a myth – this idea that angels had wings. It had been concocted long ago, to explain how they could move around so quickly. Gabriel thought it was funny how at any other point in history, their skills would have been attributed to the use of roller skates, or jet skis or hovercraft.

There it was again, that irritating sound. He stopped and turned just in time to see Oswald running, red-faced, towards him.

Angel Wings and Halo

‘Come on!’ Oswald hissed, as he hurtled past, his baggy overalls flapping. Gabriel had never seen Oswald running. He wasn’t really designed for it. It was a kind of lolloping action, made more lopsided by his awkward cargo. Gabriel stared after him, his mouth gaping as he realised what Oswald was carrying under his arm. There was no mistaking the neon coloured sticky tape on the cardboard box.

‘Don’t just… STAND there!’ gasped Oswald, disappearing between the clouds.

Gabriel gathered up his gown and sprinted after him.

‘What’s going on?’

‘Fish!’

He’s losing his marbles, thought Gabriel. He would have to keep up with him just to make sure that he didn’t come to any harm.

‘All that talk… about fishing… got me thinking,’ Oswald wheezed. ‘You’re right. There’s something… decidedly… fishy… going on.’

Gabriel watched the box as it bobbed up and down under Oswald’s lurching arm. On Oswald’s back, there was a brand new rucksack. It pitched from side to side, slightly out of time with the box, and the whole ensemble gave Oswald the look and sound of a fleeing one-man-band, escaping from an aggravated audience. And, unless Gabriel was mistaken, he could just make out the distinctive, radiating circle of Oswald’s own halo tucked safely inside.

‘Got to… make a run for it!’ Oswald puffed, as he jettisoned the box with a fling. Gabriel reached out, and caught it with his outstretched fingertips.

‘I thought we were supposed to… hand them in? I thought we were being… put out to pasture? Pensioned off? Retired? Dis – charged?’

 ‘You have to… make a stand!’

‘What?’

‘Don’t worry. I’ll help you… with the practicalities… the resources… that kind of thing. You’ll have to come up with the strategy. You’re the brains. Tactics, lines of attack… I’m no good at that stuff. I know how you feel, Gabriel… but you’re not quite finished. You’ve been out of the river too long. I reckon… you need to get off the bank… and back into the white water.’

Oswald stopped abruptly, and Gabriel skidded to a halt, just missing him, causing a flurry of small clouds to whirl around them.

‘This is the spot,’ wheezed Oswald.

Gabriel fell backwards, hugging the cardboard box to his chest. It had taken months to get used to the decommissioning, and here was Oswald turning everything upside-down again. Surely, this was even worse – nebulous, uncertain hope, instead of cast-iron despair? Gabriel was about to utter a string of banned expletives when he felt the box being wrenched from his hands. Oswald, already wearing his own halo, was wielding a glinting fisherman’s penknife in the direction of the gaudy sticky tape. Within seconds, the box was opened, and Gabriel’s halo was released into the air. It settled, triumphantly, over his head.

Oswald peered through the layers of cloud beneath their feet. ‘Look at it, Gabriel. How beautiful it is!’ Sunlight caught the edges of the parting mists, and far beneath them they could see a dizzying patchwork of fields in every shade of enamelled green and gold. Here and there, small towns and villages were scattered. Rivers twisted and glinted like polished wire. Sprawling cities sparkled. ‘They need us now, more than ever. We can’t just abandon them.’

‘They abandoned us!’ wailed Gabriel, dizzy with a cocktail of incompatible emotions – fear, excitement, love, disdain. His heart thundered in his chest.

‘This is no time to be pedantic,’ said Oswald laying an ominous hand on Gabriel’s sleeve.

‘We have no authority!’ whispered Gabriel, drawing his face close to Oswald’s. ‘We’d be going against the flow!’

Oswald’s eyes glistened with excitement as he grasped Gabriel’s shoulder. ‘Like two salmons!’

Gabriel heard something about holding on to his halo, and before he knew it, they were plummeting towards the Earth, tumbling arm in arm, through layer upon layer, upon layer of heavenly cloud.

THE END

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Rhiannon Lewis's Biography

Rhiannon Lewis

Rhiannon Lewis

Rhiannon Lewis was born and raised on a farm near the West Wales coast. Educated at the Universities of Wales at Aberystwyth and Cardiff, she worked as a teacher and lecturer before going on to work in public relations, marketing and communications. In the past she has worked for the National Assembly for Wales, the Welsh Language Board, and as Head of Marketing and Communications for the UK’s leading organic gardening charity.

Rhiannon has published articles, poems and short stories and writes in both English and Welsh. She divides her time between London and Wales.

You can learn more about Rhiannon and read more of her work on The Literary Consultancy website.

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Case Study: How To Win A Short Story Competition

First, a little background. Before writing 'Gabriel's Halo', I had been concentrating on my novel, Imperial, a 450 page naval saga set in 19th Century Wales and Chile. Think rugged West Wales coast/Master and Commander/Chilean Civil War complete with unrequited love, sea chases, suicides, executions and plenty of explosions.

Galleon at Sea

It had taken me ten years to research, and four years to write in between working and raising a family. Most people start out by cutting their teeth on poems and short stories but I had gone straight for the literary equivalent of Everest's North Face. I had also, unwittingly, put all my eggs in one basket by concentrating solely on one piece of work.

Searching For An Agent Or Publisher – Staying Sane

Once the novel was complete, I started on the very different journey of getting it published. Anyone who has tried to get an agent/publisher will know that the long periods of waiting for responses can be utterly soul destroying. The only way I found to deal constructively with this dispiriting process was to keep writing.

I had an idea for a sequel to my novel, but didn't want to invest another four years on a piece of work which might also end up at the bottom of some slush pile. So the answer for me was to turn to short stories. My aim was to keep improving my skills, but also to have a bit of fun, and to try out ideas that I might not be brave enough to extend to the length of a novel.

One of these stories was 'Gabriel's Halo'. I wrote the first version without being quite sure whether it wanted to be a short story or the start of another novel. Having written it, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it as it seemed so quirky.

Here's how the story looked after I'd first written it.

Gabriel's Halo - First Draft

The queue at the temporary desk for decommissioned halos had eventually shrunk down to one. It was the end of the day, and all the angels whose names started with G had been, and gone. One by one, they had shuffled past a series of signs: Returning halos ONLY, Please form an orderly queue! STRICLY all general enquiries to the information desk. There was one more angel in front, then Gabriel would be the last. He turned to see whether anyone else had arrived, but there was no one. Above him, the sky was still blue, although darkening a little. The clouds were a thousand shades of white. They hovered and floated.

Sun Halo in Sky

Eventually, a voice from the desk said, 'Well there, Gabriel,' and he turned to see Angel Oswald, arms wide, leaning forward on the counter. Oswald was wearing his usual pale grey work overalls, but on the right-hand pocket flap there was an unfamiliar badge which said, 'Head of Halo Reclamation – temporary.'

'Hey, Oswald,' replied Gabriel, and despite his best effort, let out a long sigh. He stepped up to the desk, and placed his halo on the thick pile of shining tissue paper that lay on the glass counter.

'Ah,' said Oswald, smiling. Already, the halo's brilliant glow had diminished; the golden hue was being overtaken by a bluish tinge, its smoothness was turning grainy, almost, the iridescence becoming matte.

'Aa-ah,' said Oswald again. His voice was deep and fatherly.

'What do they look like? Eventually?' asked Gabriel.

'Well,' said Oswald, turning his head slightly, but keeping his eyes fixed on the object in front of him, 'I don't rightly know. They've been around a lot longer than I have, and whenever we've had a defective one, or one in need of maintenance, well, the light has never really gone out of it altogether. The worst one I ever saw was the colour of a perfectly ripe Victoria plum – you know, when they're very fresh, and they have a kind of dust on them that you wipe off on your sleeve to make them shiny.'

'Oh,' said Gabriel.

Oswald's hair was looking particularly unruly that day. His crown was hair-free and surprisingly tanned, but the rest of his head was covered in long, wiry, dazzling-white hair, which grew outwards horizontally, lending him the air of someone in a perpetual state of shock. He reminded Gabriel of a brilliant, curmudgeonly archaeologist he had once known – slightly ruffled, always on the verge of a great discovery.

'This was always one of the better looking ones, of course,' said Oswald, extending his arm under the counter and bringing out a white cardboard box. 'People assumed they were all pretty much the same, but they weren't, you know – not at all. Some glowed peach, others had a bit of lavender in them. This one had a kind of resonance, like it had a piece of music moving through it.' Oswald licked the tips of his fingers, and was about to draw up the corners of the tissue when he hesitated.

'Why don't you put it on, Gabriel? One last time, for me to see?'

'Well...'

'It won't take a moment, and there's no one waiting now.'

'I suppose...'

Oswald let go of the tissue, and placed his hands around the halo. 'Oh, it's all coming back to me now. It's heavier than you think, isn't it? And it has the texture of a warm block of ice,' he said, with delight. 'Stand back!'

Gabriel did as he was told, and gathered his long sleeves about him. Oswald held the halo in his right hand, balanced it, then drawing his right arm across himself, and with the lightest flick of the wrist, sent it flying up above Gabriel's head. He’d put a bit of spin on it, Gabriel noticed, but once it found its place, it settled, rotating gracefully. It came to life – brilliant rays of light bounced off the clouds around them.

Oswald slid his hands into his overall pockets, and grinned with satisfaction. 'Take a look in the mirror!'

Oh, no, I'd rather not, thought Gabriel. He had gone through the same rigmarole that morning – putting on his best gown, setting his halo straight, gazing at his sad reflection in the dormitory mirror, taking it off for the final time (or so he thought), with a heavy heart.

Oswald produced a mirror. 'There!' He crossed his arms, and left the mirror suspended in mid air.

Oswald always seemed to have an uncanny knack of placing halos just so. Whenever Gabriel did it, it never quite looked the same. Perhaps Oswald set them at a slightly jaunty angle? With his face illuminated like this, all the nooks and crannies were evened out, the dark shadows under his eyes, and the deep hollows of his cheeks were erased. He seemed young again.

'Not so scary, really,' laughed Oswald.

That old joke, thought Gabriel. He was well aware of his terrifying reputation. He hadn’t meant to be terrifying. The issue was partly to do with timing. He was always compelled to appear at moments which were, for many people, not entirely auspicious. And, bafflingly, people expected him to have a kind of benign, wishy-washy blondness. They were invariably surprised to discover that he was dark-eyed and rather glowering. One of the novice angels once told him that his 'resting face' was unusually severe. Not much I can do about it, he'd thought, although, he had tried to smile a little more often after that.

So there he was, smiling at his smiling self. It was all an illusion of course. He reached up, removed the halo, and handed it back to Oswald. The light reflected on the clouds was extinguished, and everything was darker than before.

'Where will they all go?'

'They'll be sent back to central storage for safe keeping – in case they're ever needed.' Oswald licked his fingertips and drew up the layers of tissue. 'It's all climate control and whatnot over there now. They shouldn't come to any harm. I daresay they'll come out looking as good as new.'

If they're ever needed, thought Gabriel. He watched as Oswald turned the halo over deftly, enveloping it with rustling paper. It glowed wistfully, and Gabriel felt a painful dart of anguish shoot through him.

'What about you, Oswald? Where will you go?'

Oswald began scrunching sheets of tissue into large balls. 'Oh, nowhere just yet. We have a few more weeks to go. Tomorrow, we're on the H’s and I’s. You wouldn't believe the names we've had! Gabriel's a nice name for an angel, I think. But, Grosmont?' Oswald chuckled. 'Greeber!' He laughed, and packed the tissue balls into the corners of the box. 'Greengage!'

They could be here for quite a while, thought Gabriel.

'And that's just the boys! Then there's the cataloguing, and the storage. Yes, we'll be here for a few weeks yet. But afterwards,' he said, folding his arms and leaning forward against the counter, 'well, believe it or not, I fancy going to New England. I've always felt an affinity with the place. They say the folks are decent. I know a lake with a cabin, which would do me just fine. I'll hide myself away – become a fisher of fish.' Oswald patted the halo absently, and gazed past Gabriel with the far away look of someone who was thinking about his first catch of the day. 'Course, I've never been a travelling angel like you, so I can't be sure. It's all a bit of an adventure.' He picked up the halo and placed it in its paper cocoon.

Adventure, thought Gabriel. Is that what it was? Their being decommissioned was the one thing he could never have foreseen. They had all laughed at the first rumours, but soon stopped when they realized the officials were serious. The angels had become an irrelevance, it seemed. No one believed in them any more. Apparently, the last person to sense their existence had died in a bizarre accident involving an umbrella stand and a Swiss pianist. To Gabriel's thinking, it had all been more than a little suspicious.

'Do you believe them, Oswald?'

Oswald was making more tissue balls, and for a moment Gabriel thought he was deliberately ignoring his question. Eventually, he shook his head, almost imperceptibly, and let out a slow whistle through his teeth. 'There's no reason to doubt them,' he whispered.

'Them. That's another thing! Who are they, Oswald? Who's in charge, now? I mean, we haven't had any direct dealings with HIM for a very long time, not since ... well, to be honest, I can't remember when.'

More and more layers of tissue were being scrunched. Oswald whispered reluctantly, 'They say there's a new pet project.'

The halo seemed to give one last desperate glimmer through the shining layers, then Oswald closed the lid. Gabriel was gripped by an awful dread. He had an overwhelming urge to grab the box and run away with it. He steadied himself against the counter, and hoped the urge would go away. Oswald reached down and brought out a heavy dispenser, complete with luminous yellow tape. It landed on the counter with a thud.

'He KNEW I was there, Oswald.'

Oswald groaned. Gabriel had told him this story, many times already, of how, only days before the final declaration of decommissioning, he had saved a farmer and his baby girl from certain death at a junction.

'He told everyone, Oswald – his wife, his children, his neighbours!'

'No-one believed him!'

'That's not the point. He KNEW I was there.'

'He was being fanciful.'

'I don't think so.'

'You don't THINK so?'

'I know so, Oswald. And if he knew I was there, it means the decommissioning can't be right. It's based on a false premise!'

Oswald hunched his shoulders as if expecting a huge thunderball to come hurtling in his direction at any moment.  'You're just upset,' he hissed, furiously pulling and tearing strips of tape, and sticking them down on the lid. 'It's understandable. It's to be expected. It's natural, after all this time.'

'Oswald, you're not listening to me!'

Oswald looked more flustered than ever. The angels paused and looked down at the box. It was almost unrecognizable, covered in thick tramways of lurid tape.

'I don't think that halo's going anywhere, is it?' said Gabriel, feeling sorry that he was causing such distress.

Oswald sighed. 'I've had enough, Gabriel. I just want to go fishing.'

Gabriel placed his hand on the box. The light had gone, but still he could feel its warmth, like a beating heart. His friend was right. They had to accept the inevitable. He patted the box tenderly and hoped that the halo could sense his parting touch through the layers of tissue and cardboard and thick, sticky-tape.

'We worked our socks off, Oswald.'

'I know.'

'What more could we have done?'

'Nothing, Gabriel. You all did your best.'

A shiny trolley had appeared. Oswald lifted the box with the halo in it and placed it on top.

Gabriel imagined himself leaping athletically over the counter, and absconding with the swaddled box. 'I bet the other side's not being decommissioned?' he said, attempting to distract himself from this unexpected image.

'Seems they've also gone off to the new project,' whispered Oswald. 'They like a challenge.'

It wasn't too late, thought Gabriel, glancing at the trolley. Surely, Oswald wouldn't stop him? Perhaps the time had come to be a rebel angel? But Oswald reached forward and gripped his hand so firmly that it brought Gabriel to his senses.

'Look me up in New England. You'll find me. I'll be the one with the largest basket of fish.'

They shook hands. 'Thank you, Oswald. You take care now.'

Gabriel turned away from the desk, and made his way back to the dormitories. The evening light was fading fast, and the sky was taking on the magical hues of dusk. He paused for a moment to watch the sun’s last rays on the billowing clouds. Then, just as he was about to move off, he noticed something strange. Something brushed against his cheek. He brought his hands to his face. He was amazed. It was a breeze. There had never been a breeze in heaven. The clouds moved, not like earthly weather clouds, but of their own accord. They were not dictated to by climactic conditions. Something was changing. And, as if one strange thing was not enough, he realised there was a second thing. There was a sound – a low moan, like the sound of a rising wind through a great tree that has lost its leaves. The sound of absence. The sound of a door blown open, with no one left to close it.

Gabriel turned to tell Oswald. But Oswald had already gone. A makeshift sign stood on the counter. It said, 'Open again at 9am SHARP for H's and I's only.' Gabriel pulled his gown around him, shivered, and walked on.

THE END

Christopher Fielden's Website

I came across Christopher Fielden's website, and his list of competitions was really useful. I saw that he was recommending the short story competition in Writers' Forum magazine. He mentioned that he had won the competition himself and a link directed me to his Devil's Crush page where he talks in detail about his experiences with the magazine.

Christopher Fielden Logo

Being able to enter a story for a competition and also receive feedback for a modest fee really appealed to me. I wasn't sure how detailed the Writers' Forum feedback would be but I was prepared to give it a go. By paying a subscription for the monthly magazine, the entrance/feedback fee becomes even cheaper, so if you think you are going to submit several stories then subscribing is definitely worth it. And you get a monthly magazine full of useful articles in the bargain. They haven't paid me to give them a plug by the way!

Entering 'Gabriel's Halo' Into The Writers’ Forum Short Story Competition

My story was well within the 3,000-word limit so I entered it into the Writers’ Forum competition on 27 April, 2016. I received a response surprisingly quickly, on 11 May, which was really refreshing after waiting months for responses from agents and publishers.

Although Lorraine Mace, the judge, did not single the story out to be on her shortlist, her comments were positive and very useful. Here is a copy of the first critique.

Writers' Forum Critique 1

Hello Rhiannon,

Gabriel's Halo

Thanks for entering the Writers’ Forum competition.

Presentation: Manuscript layout is good, but opening paragraphs shouldn’t be indented.

Title: Apt for the story and intriguing.

Opening: This is wonderful scene setting and contains a strong hook. Well done!

Dialogue: The dialogue is very good – it aids characterisation and helps to drive the story onwards.

Characterisation: The characters are so well drawn and credible I wanted to help Gabriel reclaim his halo.

Overall: This story was heading straight for the short list, but the ending isn’t strong enough. In all fiction there has to be a reason for the characters to be on the page – there has to be a payoff for the reader. This is not a story with a dilemma that has been resolved. Something needed to happen – the story opens really well, continues throughout as if we are heading to a fabulous climax, but ends on a damp squib.

Needs some work but has potential

You might find this blog post on rewriting after a critique useful.

Best wishes,

Lorraine Mace

Redrafting

Clearly, the ending needed more work so I redrafted, as Lorraine suggested.

This was a painstaking process. I had to cut out enough text to give myself the space to make the ending more uplifting. I found myself agonizing over sentences, going over and over parts of the story in order get rid of unimportant phrases or superfluous words.

I re-submitted the story on 28 June, 2016 and on 13 July I heard that 'Gabriel's Halo' had been short-listed. Again, the quick response was great and just the thought that someone out there was reading my work, let alone giving me useful feedback, was incredibly motivating.

Writing can be a very lonely process and unless you're lucky enough to be surrounded by particularly creative friends and family, finding the right support to sustain you through the long months/years of slog is really hard. Even on that basis alone, the subscription to Writers' Forum was money well spent.

More Waiting But It Was Worth It

Waiting for the outcome of the shortlisting took a bit longer – but it was worth it. On 18 August 2016 Lorraine Mace emailed to say that I had won, and that 'Gabriel's Halo' would be published in the November edition of the magazine. I was thrilled!

This is what the second review looked like.

Writers' Forum Critique 2

Hello Rhiannon,

Gabriel's Halo

Thanks for entering the Writers’ Forum competition.

Presentation: Manuscript layout is good.

Title: Apt for the story and intriguing.

Opening: Lovely set up of characters and situation.

Dialogue: Very good – it made me believe in the characters.

Characterisation: Very good – the characters are well drawn and credible.

Overall: You have a lovely style and I enjoyed reading your work very much indeed. I’m short-listing this – congratulations! Should the story move forward to the top three, someone will be in touch to let you know.

Shortlisted

Best wishes,

Lorraine Mace

The Value Of Feedback

Because of the facility to pay a small fee for feedback, the enormous advantage of this competition is that your story doesn't disappear into some black hole where you don't win, and you never find out why. If you're serious about writing then ask your family for a birthday/Christmas subscription.

I won £300 for the story and I will plough this back in to the entrance fees for this and other competitions. Winning the competition really gave me a boost in the sense that it was 'proof' that I could write. I don't know of any other job where you have to work so hard, for so long (sometimes years) without receiving any positive feedback or reward. And seeing your work in print, even in a magazine, gives you a real buzz. The publication also included feedback on why Lorraine had chosen the top three stories.

Lorraine Mace's Feedback on 'Gabriel's Halo' In Writers' Forum

Competition round up - Angel at work

When tackling topics that have been recycled over and over again, originality in the way the subject matter is used makes all the difference. During my time judging this and other competitions I have read all sort of angel stories – good angels, bad angels, guardian angels, angels of doom, and angels bearing messages from on high for mankind to follow – so it was incredibly refreshing to come across an angel story that was totally original in both theme and content.

In ‘Gabriel’s Halo’ Rhiannon Lewis has created a new type of angel story – that of the redundant angel about to hand over his halo! She opens with some excellent scene setting, but doesn’t feel the need to explain what is going on. She trusts her readers to understand and accept the scenario. We can see something is not quite right up there in the celestial skies.

There was one more angel in front, then Gabriel would be the last. He turned to see whether anyone else had arrived, but there was no one. Above him, the sky was still blue, although darkening a little. The clouds were a thousand shades of white. They hovered and floated.

There are so many good descriptive passages that it was hard to pick a few as illustrations, but I particularly liked this one where Oswald answers Gabriel’s question about what the decommissioned halos will look like.

'Well,' said Oswald, turning his head slightly, but keeping his eyes fixed on the object in front of him, 'I don't rightly know. They've been around a lot longer than I have, and whenever we've had a defective one, or one in need of maintenance, well, the light has never really gone out of it altogether. The worst one I ever saw was the colour of a perfectly ripe Victoria plum – you know, when they're very fresh, and they have a kind of dust on them that you wipe off on your sleeve to make them shiny.'

This is a story brimming with good things all the way through. I love the ending which reverberates with hope. We don’t have too much to worry about as long as Oswald and Gabriel are still on the job.

'Gabriel's Halo' in Writer's Forum

This is what the story looked like in print.

Writers' Forum Short Story Competition

Still Looking For An Agent/Publisher

The hunt for an agent/publisher for my novel continues, but in the meantime, I am concentrating on short stories.

At the moment Christopher Fielden's website is invaluable. His up to date list of competitions is so useful and, where I can see that my stories are compatible in terms of word count and subject matter, I have been entering as many as I can.

I see it very much like the process of sowing seeds in the garden – if I sow enough, something's sure to come up.

Keep Chipping Away

Even if you don't win, there are other good reasons to try competitions. Deadlines are always a good incentive to finish that story which has been in need of serious attention. Word counts can be a blessing too. Often, I have cut out a few hundred words in order to make my story qualify, only to discover that it works so much better without them. You have to turn all your negatives into positives and just keep chipping away.

One last thing about 'Gabriel's Halo' – it was a story that I had been carrying around in my head for years, probably before I even started writing my novel. In fact, I had got to know my characters so well that the process of writing the story itself was very straightforward. I knew exactly how my characters would react in any given situation. In a way, they wrote the story for me.

I only say this to highlight something that I have often thought about the process of writing. It is not just about putting pen to paper, or fingers on keyboard. In my case, there's a process of mulling or distillation, which is really important, and which can take months or years. I don't think writers should feel guilty about this.

Equally, you can't use it as an excuse not to write for weeks on end. At some point you need to get that story down on paper so that people can read it. This is where competitions can come in useful, by providing the right incentive to get the work done.

Things To Take Away

Try to find creative, supportive people who can read your work before you send it off. This is not always as easy as it sounds. Other writers can be competitive and family members can be secretly critical of the fact that you’re ‘wasting time’ writing. Pick people who make you feel positive about what you’re doing, even if they are critical about parts of your work.

Try to write every day. If you have time for nothing else, write a letter or a diary entry. Even these things will keep your mental wheels turning.

Competitions are good for you but only up to a point. If you aren’t getting anywhere, remember that your work, however good, might not appeal to a particular judge. Whenever you feel disillusioned, it’s worth reading Nick Cave’s letter, My Muse is No Horse which is fantastic. After all, writing is not a maths test or a cricket match. There are many different ways of getting it right.

Kylie Minogue, reading Nick Cave's letter to MTV

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Big Thanks To Rhiannon

I'd like to say a huge thank you to Rhiannon for sharing her experiences so openly. This kind of case study is invaluable. It illustrates exactly how an author wrote a story that failed to be placed in a competition. It then shows how Rhiannon turned this into a positive. She listened to feedback, edited the story and improved it, meaning it won a competition, was published in a popular magazine and was read by thousands of people.

This just shows you should never give up. Keep writing, keep editing, keep subitting and keep seeking out and listening to constructive criticism. It really does work.

Have you had an experience similar to Rhiannon's? Would you be open to writing about it for my blog? If so, please see my submission guidelines.

How to Write a Short Story book ad

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Your comments:

Susan R
Congratulation, Rhiannon, and thanks for illuminating your award winning process. I feel inspired.

Thank you, Chris, for sharing all the helpful things you share with all of us who hope to achieve some level of success -- whatever that means -- as writers.

Chris Fielden
No problem, Susan. Glad to hear you feel inspired by Rhiannon's story :-)

John D
Thanks for sharing Rhiannon!

Lots of useful info, particularly the recycled snippets of critique. It was an instant help in a passage of dialogue I was working on earlier today. By the way, I came across a terrific Ray Bradbury quote yesterday (apologies if you've already heard it!): "Write a short story every week. No one can write 52 bad stories every year."

Best always, John

PS Love your name - Rhiannon!

Rhiannon L
Hi Susan R and John D. Thank you for your comments. I'm so pleased that writing about my experiences has been useful to you both. It's difficult to know which way to turn sometimes and this website has been really helpful.

So helpful in fact that I have just won another short story competition - The Frome Festival Short Story Prize. I'm pretty sure that I read about the competition for the first time on Christopher Fielden's website. Thank you, Chris, once again.

I love the Ray Bradbury quote!

Best wishes, Rhiannon

Susan R
Thanks again to you both, and congratulations on another win, Rhiannon!

Lynden W
Hi Chris. I just wanted to say how much I enjoy reading your blogs and how I wish you all the best as you devote yourself to writing.

Chris Fielden
Thanks very much, Lynden – really glad to hear you’re enjoying the blogs :-)

Nick S
Great post, and great story, too. Some good advice there. Very best of luck with the novel.

Rhiannon L
Hi Nick, thank you for reading my story. It makes such a difference to get good feedback.

And talking about feedback, my novel will be getting the full adjudication from a 'big' competition this weekend. It will be interesting. The short adjudication said that my work showed evidence of 'enormous research', that 'I could write', that my work had some 'beautiful touches' but that my use of the research (I think?) was 'too enthusiastic'. I am really looking forward to seeing exactly what that means in the context of a novel. Sometimes it is a challenge in itself just to interpret feedback properly. It can get particularly difficult to respond to contradictory feedback, especially on a long piece of work. Another professional reader/author/editor commented that the research (on the same novel) was used lightly and that the overall effect was 'terrific'. Confusing.

Short stories are so refreshing in that way. You're not investing so much of your time and effort into a piece of work and if someone doesn't like one of your stories, there's a good chance they'll like something else. You don't like stories about a woman who makes a disastrous batch of Welsh cakes and loses her husband? Here, try this one about about the Elvis impersonator who crashes a supermarket reunion and finds a wife.

Hope your writing is going well and thanks again for the kind comments.

Rhiannon