Winning 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.
My background is in theatre and puppetry, mostly as a performer and sometimes director. On the back of my writing successes I managed to gain a commission from Get Lost and Found Theatre Company to to write a theatre show for the Southbank Centre in connection with their Moomin Installation as part of the celebration of Finnish Independence. I co-wrote the piece with Emma Edwards and it has toured nationally for the last 3 years and enjoyed two runs at Southbank.
Recently I co-founded a company called Puppetbox which provides puppets for education, training and performance and this has been absorbing most of my creative energy. A lot of my writing has been channelled into creating education packs, copy for website and newsletters. It has been really exciting launching a company from scratch and I am immensely proud of it.
I do however have a few short stories on the go and a third of a novel that needs some attention. That’s the plan for 2021! More importantly being a writer has become part of my identity, something that I can say that I am, that I do. Winning the Exeter story prize was the first big step on that journey.
As a performer Sophie works frequently with Long Nose Puppets amongst others. A regular teacher at Rose Bruford Drama College she has also taught at Central School of Speech and Drama, Northbrook College and in many community settings.
You can find her on Instagram @apinchofsaltsophie and @puppet_box and on twitter @SophiePowell
I’d like to start by saying I never dreamt of winning a prestigious prize like the Exeter Novel Prize and going on to become an author. But it wouldn’t be true. I dreamt exactly that: secretly, hopefully, and not really believing it could ever happen for a woman like me – a very ordinary army wife and mum-of-three.
Back in 2014, it really did all feel like a bit of a fantasy. How could I possibly think I had it in me to write novels for a living? But after a couple of years of scribbling love scenes with Scooby Doo blaring in the background, and feeling the crunch of uneaten Cheesy Wotsits as I shifted position on the sofa, I had a manuscript, and I had a feeling it might be good enough to publish, so I filled in the ENP application and crossed my fingers…
Fast forward to 2015, and I had won the Exeter Novel Prize, I had an agent, and I had a two-book deal with a major publisher. Through winning the prize and getting published I was now more than just a ‘wife of’ on an army administration form or a ‘parent of’ in letters from school. My name was on the spines of real books, in bookshops and libraries – it felt like a bit of a dream.
As any author will tell you, the publishing industry is fickle, staying published is a challenge, and the financial rewards are, shall we say, uncertain, at best. I count myself very fortunate to have had four titles traditionally published (and a fifth in the pipeline). If you’d told me back in 2014 that by 2020 I’d have four books in print and tens of thousands of readers, I’m not sure I would have believed you.
But writers are good at thinking up seemingly impossible scenarios and conjuring them into existence – it’s what we do.
In a way, making dreams come true is just part of the job description.
If you’d like to know more about Clare Harvey or her books, you can find her here:
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.