Please welcome three past Yeovil Prize winners - Terri Armstrong, Jackie Gingell and Babs Morton – in fact the very same three authors who I shared a panel with at the Brympton Festival. They have kindly agreed to answer a few questions for this blog.
Please tell us a little bit about yourselves and your writing.
Babs: I’m a Geordie girl living in a small village in North Northumberland. I’ve written all my life but only sat down to write a novel when our family escaped the rat race, moving from Newcastle to Upper Coquetdale. I write primarily crime fiction and historical fiction and tend to write more in the early hours when there are fewer distractions. Living in a such a rural location, I rely on contact with other writers through an online community.
Jackie: Along with my identical twin, also a writer, I am the eldest of six children. I have a degree in English Literature from the OU and am a long term and active member of the Yeovil Cre8ve writing group. I work as a School Secretary. I initially took the job on for six months, twenty three years and six Headteachers later I’m still there. I’ve always written, ever since I could hold a pencil. I have kept a diary for the past twenty-five years, chronicling life’s ups and downs. I have been successful in writing competitions and have had articles published. Ee Eye Addyeo is my third novel but the first to be published.
Terri: I’m lucky enough to work part-time (not sure for how much longer!) so I can spend time writing. I’ve always loved to read; novels are a fascinating and vital way of learning about society, individuals, ourselves. In writing fiction I can both tell a story and explore complex ideas about how, why, when? The possibilities are endless. I try to write about ten - fifteen hours a week. Never on weekends (it’s called ‘work/life balance’ my husband tells me).
Tell us about your prize winning novel.
Babs: Mrs Jones is a fast paced crime thriller set in New York, which follows a British girl, Lizzie, as she evades the unwelcome attentions of the mob, aided by Tommy Connell a New York detective. It’s been described as an action movie in print ... and the longest foreplay in literary history
Jackie: Ee Eye Addyeo is a romantic comedy set in a fictional Somerset Village. It tells the story of a farmer who is desperate to inherit the family farm but can’t because he is single. Unfortunately he is also useless with women. Into the village and into his life – after many setbacks – comes Margot, a romantic novelist from London who is most definitely a square peg in a round hole. Throw in some quirky village characters, a philandering builder and a hidden secret and you have the tale of one man’s quest to find the perfect mate.
Terri: Standing Water has three main characters, all on the cusp of change in their lives, who come together in a harsh Australian landscape; their relationships and interactions affect the choices they make. Developing characters the reader could believe in and empathise with was my main focus – I had a general idea of the whole story when I started, but it flexed and changed as the characters developed. I chose to set it in a very arid, damaged landscape, as I felt this mirrored/highlighted the characters’ situations.
What inspired you to write it?
Babs: Pure escapism. The premise of a naive young woman being thrust into the centre of a conspiracy in a foreign country, opened up opportunities for a complex plot. Throwing in a “will they, won’t they” sub plot allowed me to develop the main characters a little further.
Jackie: It started out as a writing exercise at the Yeovil Writing group. I pulled the character of a farmer out of a hat and was told to write a story about him. A chance conversation with the local farmer in my village about how difficult it was for young men in the farming community to meet girls gave me the theme of the novel and once I started I never looked back.
Terri: I thought, years ago, when I started writing short stories, that my first novel would be very political, but it didn’t turn out that way (though if the personal is still political…). I may have worked out that the novel is not a good medium for polemical arguments. I did know that I wanted to write characters who are marginalised in mainstream society. I suppose I had some idea of trying to emulate Martin Millar (author of such beauties as ‘Milk, Sulphate and Alby Starvation’ and ‘The Good Fairies of New York’), in the way that his disenfranchised characters and their world are completely central – it’s mainstream society that’s on the edge of things. I don’t think I achieved that at all. But no matter – the characters in Standing Water are strong, and my style is my own.
Please tell us about your journey to publication?
Babs: I’m a member of an online writer’s community. A friend on site persuaded me to enter the Yeovil Prize. After learning I’d been short listed I submitted Mrs Jones, my first novel, to a publisher. On the day I received news of my success in the competition I also learned I’d been accepted for publication. Mrs Jones was published in December 2011.
Jackie: Not an easy one! I entered the Yeovil Prize and was Highly Commended. I used this as an opening in letters I sent out to agents and publishers. I had an incredibly encouraging letter from an agent who loved my sense of humour and my style of writing BUT (there’s always a but) it wasn’t quite right for him. However, he suggested I try a smaller publisher who might be willing to give an unknown writer a chance. I sent off the synopsis and first three chapters and was asked for the rest of the manuscript. Ee Eye Addyeo was actually published six months before I expected it to appear so the promotion was a whirl of talks and book signings but I loved every minute.
Terri: It was a long one…I don’t like to think about it! Literary fiction tends not to have the mass-market appeal of other genres, so even though agents and publishers said they liked the book, they were worried about sales figures. I had a lot of rejections. I’m very grateful for the Yeovil Prize, and to Pewter Rose Press, a small independent publisher who picked up Standing Water after I won the prize.
What has the Yeovil Prize meant for you as a writer?
Babs: Discovering that my novel had achieved second place in the 2011 Prize, gave me the assurance and confidence to believe in my own work. I’m sure it also influenced my publisher’s decision. The Prize has also opened other doors. I was recently interviewed by North East Life Magazine and was privileged to be invited along to Brympton for the first festival. This allowed me the opportunity to experience public speaking and sharing my work with others by reading excerpts; a wonderful experience, with some equally wonderful people.
Jackie: It has given me tremendous confidence. I am now a long list judge for the Yeovil Prize and I know that just to get to the short list is a remarkable achievement as the standard is so high. I would not have had the courage to put my novel up for publication had it not been for the Yeovil Prize.
Terri: Recognition! As I’d had a number of rejections from agents and publishers prior to winning the Yeovil Prize, my writing confidence was low; now I had confirmation that my writing did stand out. It wasn’t complete trash. I carried on.
What advice would you give to the aspiring writer?
Babs: Write what you like to read, rather than following perceived trends. Listen to all advice but only make changes that you are happy with. Don’t be disheartened by rejection, believe in yourself and the story inside of you.
Jackie: Don’t talk about it, just get on and do it. I joined the BBC Radio Scotland Write Here, Right Now writing initiative. You had to commit to 1,000 words per day, every day in February. By sticking to this I attained continuity and fluidity in the narrative and didn’t lose my thread. Believe in your writing and above all really care about and love your characters. If you don’t care your readers won’t either.
Terri: Write, write, write. Cut, cut, cut. Cut again. Never give up.
What are you working on next?
Babs: I have a few projects on the go. I’m putting the finishing touches to Molly Brown, the sequel to Mrs Jones. Wildewood, a Historical Fiction/Fantasy set in medieval Northumberland, is ready for release by my publisher and two crime thrillers one U.S and one UK are my current works in progress.
Jackie: “Judging by the Cover” is a comedic murder mystery/thriller about a Vicar found dead and naked in the church vestry. Like Ee Eye Addyeo it is set in a fictional Somerset Village. It is not so much a whodunit but rather a why-on-earth-would-they-dun-it novel.
Terri: I am in the process of completing my second novel