Interview with Competition Winner - ALASTAIR CHISHOLM

Alastair Chisholm is this years winner of the Exeter Short Story Competition with his story On Talon Moor. Alastair is a published children's book author with both a picture book and a young reader novel for pre-teens published by Nosy Crow. 

Hello Alastair….So first off, how does it feel to be this year’s Exeter Writer’s Competition Winner?

Amazing! I read the runners-up, and I was hugely impressed with the quality and the range of stories you must have received. And it’s an absolute delight to put something out into the world and have other people read it and see what you saw.

Tell us about On Talan Moor. Where did you get your inspiration from to write this story?

Often I start with an image, or a character, but with this story the opening line popped into my head – On Talan Moor my brother’s body lies – and absolutely everything rolled from there. I could suddenly imagine what kind of place Talan Moor would be, and the bleakness of it all, and the idea of it being a place of desperate people. 

How do you approach the writing process? What advice do you have for other short story writers?

I use the Ulysses writing app, which makes it easy to group notes and folders together. I keep a scrap note file of everything I’ve ever thought about the idea and just throw everything at it. Then I write a first draft, which is always terrible. I even title it “First Crappy Draft” so I don’t get hung up on how bad it is! Then I make a copy and try to fix it, and then I bring it to my writing group, and they give feedback. And, lastly, I run it past my wife, because she is the final arbiter 😀

My advice would be to not get too hung up on the first version – just get it done, that’s all that matters. Then take lots of copies and keep them well named (or use a tool to organise them) so that you can make big changes without fear. Finally, polish – read your proofs out loud or use tools like ProWritingAid to catch grammar mistakes and repetitions, or bits that just don’t quite work (and fix those bits! Don’t just hope they’ll be OK 😀).

Some of our readers may not have read your story yet. Can you sum it up in a sentence or two? Tell us why they should go and read it now!

On Talan Moor is a fun slice of gothic horror about brothers, obsession, willpower and death. Come for the bleak despair, stay for the creeping terror!

Tell us about the children’s books that you have written. How did you go about getting them published?

I have a picture book for younger children, The Prince and the Witch and the Thief and the Bears, illustrated by Jez Tuya and published by Walker Books, with two more out this year, and my first novel for children, Orion Lost, is a sci-fi adventure that was published by Nosy Crow this January. I’m currently working on a series of fantasy novels for younger children.

My route to publishing was an unusual one – as a bit of a computer geek, I became involved in the Sudoku craze a few years back and wrote a few books of puzzles for adults and kids. From there I was lucky enough to get an agent, and from there – after some time! – I got my first deal. 

Do you have any writing heroes? Who’s your favourite author and why?

So many heroes! Iain M Banks was an incredible writer of Really Big Stuff. He had the knack of looking at technology and really understanding how things could scale up, and much of ‘space opera’ science fiction these days is based on that. I’m a comics fan, and love 2000AD for the sheer number of ideas their writers and artists put out, and how efficiently – you have 3-4 pages per episode and every word and brush stroke is critical. I’m currently re-listening to Ian Fleming’s James Bond audiobooks, and they’re a real lesson in creating atmosphere. But my absolute favourite would have to be Terry Pratchett – he was such a genius at hiding jokes inside serious ideas, and serious ideas inside jokes, and his understanding of people was sublime.

Have you ever taken any courses in creative writing and if so are there any that you would recommend?

I haven’t, but I know others who have, and they’ve generally seemed positive. I think some people hope they’ll take a course and come out as, “A Writer”. My feeling is that if you want to be a writer you just have to write, and hate what you wrote, and fix it, and repeat…

How has lockdown impacted your writing? 

Honestly, it was difficult. In theory, lockdown sounds like a writer’s dream – stay indoors! Don’t socialize! Avoid people! But with the constant feeling of stress, and the relentlessness of the pandemic in the news, social media, everyday life, it’s hard to be creative – a lot of people struggled, and then felt bad for struggling. I’m grateful to other writers who stood up and said, no, this is hard. I was very relieved the first time I managed to grind through a piece of new writing.

Talk to us about your writing routine, what does an ordinary writing day look like for you?

Well, we have two children so sometimes it’s a bit grab-what-you-can! But Tuesdays are dedicated writing days. I try to have a goal defined beforehand, like a short story, or a chapter, something like that. I start early and try to have a rough draft done by lunchtime, then other stuff – editing, social media etc. – in the afternoon. On Tuesday evenings I go to a writing group, which is useful as it gives me a deadline (otherwise I would, frankly, spend the entire day playing games on my phone instead of getting anything done).

Any parting words of wisdom or encouragement for budding authors reading this?

Join a writing group, if you can. It’s harder at the moment but online groups exist, and they are a brilliant way of showing your stuff to others and getting feedback. It helps you spot problems in your writing, and learning how to positively critique others’ work will help with your own. It’s a huge motivator being around other writers, too. Look around for one you’re happy with, as they have different approaches.

And keep going!

Thanks Alastair, it was great to talk to you, and we wholeheartedly agree at Exeter Writers that writing groups can be a solid foundation of support for writers! That's why we formed and continue to attract new members! 

If you want to check out Alastair's other works  check out his website. You can also connect with him on Twitter by clicking here.

Interview conducted by Jessica Triana de Ford member of Exeter Writers, Interviewer and Reviewer for Loudstuff Blog, and Freelance Copywriter.