What did being listed for the Exeter Novel Prize mean to you?
I think it was a really significant moment in developing my self-confidence as an author. I had received really positive and constructive feedback from my fellow students on the Creative Writing MA at St. Mary’s University, but I had just started to submit to agents, and as any writer will know, those first few replies saying ‘this isn’t quite our thing’ can give you a knock. And of course, it’s rare to get any feedback from an agent. So a little piece of you is still wondering, ‘is this a question of commercial fit or is it that my writing isn’t quite there yet?’ So being listed for the prize and the feedback which showed that the judges ‘got’ my writing and liked it was really affirming - at a point in the process when I most needed it.
How much did you bring your own work experience into Melting in the Middle?
I’ve experienced many different forms of corporate culture, from working in one big multinational company to observing others from the agency side. So yes, I’ve drawn from experience of situations and characters in office life and judging from the reviews that has resonated with other people who have worked in business. It’s often felt to me that some people seem to become defined by that culture, at the expense of their personal and inner contentment. I’m interested in what happens when they open up to the ‘still, small voices’ in their lives. In the case of my lead character, Stephen, this involves confronting his guilt and searching for a form of redemption amid the often-absurd world of corporate politics.
What made you decide to take the Indie road to publishing?
What did winning the Exeter Novel Prize do for me? Well, I’d have to take a few steps back and start with ‘What did entering for the Exeter Novel Prize do for me?’ I’d already been working on ‘Sealskin’ for a few years, just ambling along enjoying the journey. For a first novel, I think that’s fairly normal. But then the team at Creative Writing Matters dreamed up the Exeter Novel Prize, and just to support them, I decided to enter. That meant two things: presenting the first ten thousand words and writing a synopsis.
The writing was ready to go, but getting the synopsis into shape was tough, partly because I didn’t yet know how the novel would end. But if you’re going to submit to an agent or a publisher, a good synopsis is essential, so even if you get nowhere in the competition, you’ve come out of it a little more ready for the next stage of the journey. I’d have gone on putting it off indefinitely, so that was a big plus.
We were delighted to hear that John's 2017 novel prize shortlisted novel, The Trauma Pool has now been published. His submission had us gripped right from the start. Below, John tells us about his journey to publication.
About ten years ago, someone gave me some very valuable criticism and advice. It boiled down to two basic ideas. ‘There’s just too much of you in this,’ and ‘Your writing errs towards the literary’.
I had not long finished a creative writing MA, had completed a draft of something I was calling a ‘contemporary fiction/thriller with funny bits type of thing’ (that wasn’t what I was putting in the cover letter) and I’d had an editor look at it. And that’s what he came up with.
Too much of me in it. How could there be too much of me in it?
Unless he meant that I’d basically taken various parts of my life and rolled them into a narrative involving characters who were all pretty much me, maybe me on different days, and written a pillow fantasy about what I wished had happened at a certain point in my life. I wasn’t telling a story, or if I was, it wasn’t really a story anyone but me would want to read.
Okay, but erring towards the literary. Really?
It usually takes me a few days with criticism. I have to let it percolate and see what sits right with my internal judge, the voice that knows what’s right, even when it’s been convinced otherwise by my ego, or other people’s egos. But this one took maybe an hour. It comes back to the ‘contemporary fiction/thriller with funny bits type of thing’ I mentioned earlier. I knew I could write, but I was mistakenly assuming that whatever I wrote would be great, just because I was writing it. That the rules didn’t apply.
The advice that went with it was frighteningly simple. ‘Just tell a story. That’s enough. And choose a genre and aim yourself at it like a ground to air missile.’
So, I did. I’d always loved crime. Why not, I thought?
A year later, I started getting shortlisted for competitions. Some of them, like the Exeter Novel Prize, were very prestigious. I had my first brushes with literary agents as a result.
It wasn’t all plain sailing from there. There were other obstacles; changes in lifestyle, the juggling of commitments, all the stuff every writer has to deal with. Oh, and a pandemic of course.
But I kept telling the story.
Earlier this year, I got a publication deal with Sharpe Books. My Crime Fiction novel, The Trauma Pool, first in a series, is the result. I’m really proud of it.
Being awarded the Novel Prize has been a real boost to my confidence. The final revisions to the novel kept me busy throughout 2018, begging the question of how we ever know when a book is finished.
After that, I made a start on my current novel, also contemporary, set in the UK and Iran.
Then the pandemic arrived.
I remember back in March – and what a long time ago that seems! – being so terror-struck that I couldn’t write a word and feared I’d never do so again. Thankfully, life has settled down, for me at any rate, although we all know it will never go back to what it was.
Part of the new normal is walking around looking as if we’re about to hold up the nearest bank. But, on a more serious note, it has set me thinking again about the characters we create and how and at what stage we reveal the people behind the masks.
don’t recall when I first began writing. As far as I know, I’ve always loved stories. My grandmother told me that even before I could speak I would scribble with crayons on paper and babble away, trying to articulate ideas without possessing the words. However, the moment when I first knew that I was a writer is clear in my memory; it was at the award ceremony for the 2016 Exeter Novel Prize.
After spending the previous day travelling to the venue with my grandparents, I arrived as one of six shortlisted contestants. The time came to announce the winner and the judges read out the names of the runner-ups, until only two of us remained standing. When it was my name that finished the sentence, “The winner of the 2016 Exeter Novel Prize is,” I couldn’t believe it. All I could think to say was, “Are you sure?” It wasn’t until I looked over and saw my grandmother crying in the second row that I knew it was really happening. From trying to write before I understood language to the moment I won a writing competition, she saw me become this person. I had never seen her cry before.
inning the Exeter story prize in 2017 for my story The Improbable Yarn of Clark Curtis was such a fantastic boost. Winning a prize, being published and (not insignificantly) being paid. At the time I had just finished my MA in Creative Writing from Chichester University and like many people found the transition away from having the input of tutors and peers really difficult. I was encouraged by the course and my feedback to begin sending off some of my work but I never thought that it would win.
The validation and feeling of elation that it gave me knowing that other people had enjoyed my work is hard to describe. The same story was also nominated for the Trisha Ashley award for humour – this also meant a great deal. I am drawn to the silly and comical and love work that manages to be both funny and moving.
When the anthology arrived, I greedily read the other stories and was delighted by the company I was keeping. I think without having this boost I would have drifted along a bit, lacking the confidence to share my work. As it was, I started sending off everything I had. I was shortlisted both for the Cambridge story prize making their anthology of stories across 2017 and 2018 and for the Myriad First draft awards.
What they did next...
Scroll down to find out about our previous winners.