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.
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.
What they did next...
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