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.
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