I was privileged to win the 2016 Exeter Story Prize for my short story, ‘Oh Cheeses’, in which a journalist/librarian befriends a poet named Arin Hart. At the time I was living in a one-room flat in Edinburgh, and was in the process of completing my PhD in creative writing with Glasgow University. The stint in that flat was one of the few times in my life that I have had a rigid writing routine, something I’ve always struggled to maintain.
For this particular story though, I wrote five hundred words every day until the whole story was told whilst listening to John and Vangelis’s ‘I’ll Find My Way Home’ on loop. Now that song is inextricably linked with that time, and that story.
When I felt too dry to produce 500 words, I padded out what I could produce unashamedly. When I felt tempted to carry on past that mark, I reminded myself that the next stint would be all the easier for having something already in place to grab onto at the start of next session. I aimed for a strict final word limit of 5000 words, and during the course of editing, I cut the word count almost in half. This is an exercise that I would recommend to anyone in their writing - you don’t know what a ruthless killer of your little word-darlings you can be, until you’re faced with an immovable upper limit. You may think you write concisely; this is the real test. It’s also good practice for the writerly eye.
Another issue I have as a writer is an uneven regard for my own completed work, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What I mean by an uneven regard is that sometimes, for no discerning reason, I’ll look at something I’ve completed, and it seems like a work of pure genius. I then send it off to something, only to later discover typos and continuity/concept errors, or problematic pacing or problems with character, etcetera. Other times the work seems contrived, stuffy, and as if it had been forced out of me, but is surprisingly well received. That was what Oh Cheeses! was like from my perspective. Still, I couldn’t find anything concrete to change about it, no matter how much I combed through it, so I sent it off, on a ‘might as well’ basis. Much to my shock, and then delight once it had really sunk in, it won.
The prize money was in fact the first serious money I had won for my creative writing as an adult. I had won or been shortlisted in a couple of things before the Exeter Story Prize, and some of my work had been anthologised, but I think what changed because of this award in particular was that previously, what underpinned my own lack of self-confidence was the notion that I couldn’t, at least as an adult, write something good on demand, or write on the basis of a regular schedule. Most of the things that were sent off to competitions or for publication were things I’d written idly, then been rediscovered and launched into the world. Oh Cheeses! was my first adult attempt to sit down and write something specifically for entry into a competition.
Before the prize there was also the notion that somehow, things I wrote were either predestined to work or not to work, and that I would know straight away in the writing or editing of them; and that therefore if I was writing something that didn’t flow and was thus predestined not to work, there was no point in continuing. Being given the Exeter Story Prize for Oh Cheeses! gave me the confidence to push through that feeling and therefore, the freedom once again to write for writing’s sake, without being so judgemental of a mere concept or first draft. Of course, I still have failures, and I will still write ideas that are better kept for the purposes of plucking one element out and sticking it into another later work in which it really belongs, but I don’t think I’ll ever just abandon something purely because it doesn’t ‘feel’ like it works, or because it’s one of the more difficult pieces I’ve tried to write.
My debut novel, Anna, originally formed part of my PhD thesis, and is due for publication on June the 25th of this year, with Cranachan Publishing. At the time of writing Oh Cheeses! I was no more than halfway through the writing of this, and since then, I have made many revisions. One revision - at the request of my publisher - involved writing almost a whole extra chapter. During the writing of this I was especially grateful for the assurance that I was indeed capable of producing something decent on demand, however it may feel at the time.
I am now working - sporadically once again - on my second novel, Time of Kindness. This is an adult novel, about an imaginary island off the northeast coast of Scotland, which, over the course of five years, experiences an extra lunar month of time in between December and January. During this extra month, certain deceased members of the island’s community are restored to bodily, living life. The process of writing this book has been totally different to that of writing Anna. Although I don’t have a strict routine, I have a much stricter process, which involves using an electronic typewriter so as to be able to type fast without limitations on paper, and with full potential for corrections, but without the distraction of the internet or of being able to see and read back over the whole document in one go. Before lockdown I would drive to beauty spots such as Loch Clunie, Kilmorack Dam and Dornoch Beach, and stay in the car, with a drink and a snack. I would set an electric timer to one hour, during which I had to keep writing no matter what came out, and not go back and edit. Editing comes later.
I am now two thirds of the way through Time of Kindness, and am mentoring someone in the completion and editing of their novel, as well as seeing them through the process of sending it off for consideration on the part of agents and publishers. My goals are to finish Time of Kindness with an open mind, begin editing it, revive my short story writing activities, illustrate some of my short light verse, and find a process of engagement in writing that is more amenable to lockdown conditions, until I can return to my favourite spots.
Danny Murphy has worked as a teacher and headteacher Scotland, Malaysia and Cambodia. He is an Honorary Fellow of the University of Edinburgh. Though published in his professional field, he writes fiction to ‘reach the parts that academic prose can’t reach’.
He won the Costa Prize in 2016 (Rogey) and the Exeter Prize in 2018 (Time to Come Home), but has had less recent success with two very different novels he’s been trying to get published: Finding Closure - a dark thriller - and All That We Can Be - the ‘coming of age’ story of a young teacher in the first year of his career. It’s difficult to get agents or publishers to commit - so he’s considering publishing these online.
Winning the Exeter Prize really motivated Danny to believe in his writing. ‘As I'm sure you know,” he said, ‘In the long lonely hours when you're stuck at your keyboard. or when you're reading a master at work (just finished reading Ian McEwan's The Children Act), it doesn't always seem that your own writing is worth reading. I'm sure I'm not the only writer who has such feelings.”
Danny’s online life is a bit uneven – improving it is on a long list, which includes starting a new novel! He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 e.g. Dealing with Dilemmas, Schooling Scotland, Everyone’s Future
Winning the Exeter Story Prize remains one of my fondest memories. Not just a writing moment, a life moment. Coming to creative writing in early middle-age, I was still very much on the learning curve. I’d completed my MA the year before so had lots of stories but no publications. My wife and I drove from Sussex and made a weekend of it, wondering at my chances of making the top three, but of course you have no idea. When Cathie read out my name, I was genuinely shocked and I still am. Luckily, I’ve won competitions since, but nothing quite compares with that moment.
It meant that I could write stories that people might enjoy. For all the kind words of friends, relatives and tutors, you never really know. To be judged the top story by three successful novelists mattered a great deal. It also gave me confidence in my method. Battle Town was born on a grey day in Perryville, Kentucky. I went there to find a story with no preconceptions. I just experienced the battlefield, the museum and crucially the town. As I was driving away the core of the story bubbled up, so strong that I turned around and drove back. That approach, of travelling in search of a story, of being open to finding one, I’ve used ever since.
Edit: You can find out more about Richard on his website HERE. His award-winning novel Whirligig Part 1 of his epic US civil war series is available HERE
You're all winners! It's a phrase I've heard so many times, and I've said it myself to those shortlisted at every Exeter Novel Prize ceremony, but how can that be really? Having had both my novels, Secret of the Song, and Notes from the Lost shortlisted for competitions, and then not win, you're allowed to think that I'm making excuses, but I can certainly say that being shortlisted is hugely thrilling, whereas not winning is not so hugely disappointing.
Having had more than a decades-worth of experience as a judge, that's exactly how it seems. Why one novel receives the big prize money over another is can be for one or many of a myriad of reasons, often it's a decision on the day that may be different the next.
For me, the cancellation of the London Book Fair award ceremony was almost more of a shame than not winning, as I would love to have met everyone. Ah well, it's a small price to pay in these worrying times. I'm in awe of all the people in the front line helping to keep us safe and in good health. Being a novelist doesn't seem to be much of a contribution, but if I can stay at home, do no harm and not be a problem to anyone, then that is the best part for me. If my novels can entertain or our textbooks be of use to those stuck at home, even better.
A few months ago, I submitted Notes from the Lost for the 2020 Selfies. This is a competition run by BookBrunch, which is a daily journal for the publishing industry. The competition, seeks to find the best independently published fiction in the UK. So - are you already anticipating what's coming? - you can imagine how thrilled I was to discover that darling Alfie and all the cast in Notes from the Lost, had made it to the shortlist! You can find out HERE, how they judged the book. Yes, the writing and story had to be good, but I also had to tell them about my marketing campaign, and I want to shout out loud to the wonderful Berni Stevens who designed such a great cover.
A disappointment was the cancellation of the London Book Fair. I'd been invited to go for the announcement of the winner. Oh well - a shame to miss meeting my fellow authors, and of course, all those photo opportunities! Who will win? I don't know yet, but have all my fingers and toes crossed. I may know tomorrow.
Researching for a novel is always a joy, although it can be problematic. What to use, and what not to use? In Notes from the Lost, two captured soldiers, Alfie and Frank, escape from the train taking them to a WW2 POW camp in Germany.
I based the story on the experience of my friend Martin’s father. Captain William Wright was sheltered by a very brave Italian family who lived in a mountain village near Avezzano. Eventually, he was recaptured, but in my story the young soliders have a very different fate. You’ll have to read the book to find out what happened to them.
This different outcome meant that I couldn’t use one of the most touching things I found amongst William’s WW2 letters and journals. It was a letter written by the man who had sheltered him to William’s father in 1944. Clearly whilst in the German camp, William had written to his father about the Italian family and his father had then written to them. What we have to remember is that one day William left the Italian family to try and make his way to the Allied line. Whether he lived or died, they didn’t know. This is the reply, and it still brings tears to my eyes.
Captain Wright did return to Italy after the war, and the photo of the family group was taken during that visit.