We continue our Author Profile series with this from Chris Cottom, whose short story The Counter was placed third in our competition in April 2021.
His stories have also been listed seven times in competitions with Strands International, Segora, London Independent Short Story Prize, and Hastings Litfest.
Firstly, tell us a little bit about yourself, and the kind of stuff you like to write.
I’m a married, alcohol-free, smokeless, vegan, Christian, cycling father of three adults. I’m an escaped stockbroker-belt southerner hiding out near Macclesfield and retired from a jumbled (chaotic) succession of jobs, including a 12-year stretch as an insurance copywriter (Key Features of Your Stakeholder Transfer Plan, etc). I’m now trying to write other short fiction: boy meets girl, human relationships. I’m just getting into flash, interested in novellas in flash, and can’t imagine writing a novel.
How long have you been writing, and what was it that first got you started?
I wrote marketing materials like direct mail packs for ages even before the insurance job and am now up to about 30 years writing minutes as the secretary of different charities (with time off for good behaviour). For our cycling club I wrote everything from policy documents to web content as well as up to three ride reports a week. On a ride, I’d often be writing it up in my head, and the more creative I got, the more I enjoyed it and the better the accounts were received. I did three iterations of creative writing evening classes, producing about four stories that I thought I wouldn’t mind people reading. Since taking it more seriously since I retired at the end of 2018, the four are staying firmly in the ‘need more work’ folder.
What does your writing day/schedule look like?
Either get up and read short stories (and some novels) or, if I’m lucky enough to have a story started on my PC, switch on and obsessively rewrite and rewrite. Fit in normal life, ie. cycling, eating, husbanding. Go to bed. Get up. Repeat.
How have you found writing during lockdown times? Has your writing day changed much from how it was pre-lockdown?
I initially struggled to write anything for months, possibly due to a dearth of ideas following limited interactions with other humans. I’m back to normal now, meaning I lurch from frustration that I can’t think of anything to write about, to a pain in my abdomen because I can’t tear myself away from the PC to go to the loo.
Tell us about the last thing you were working on. And also, a little about your very next project.
I’m doing the second of two six-week Flash courses with Retreat West, which are great because they make me write something each week. I’ve come to enjoy fusing memory with imagination. For ages, if I used a ‘real’ event, I thought I needed to report it as accurately as possible. But I don’t. So I’ve been writing a 1000-word piece prompted by my grandparents, changing names and locations, imagining episodes and making lots up. Next project – no idea.
What successes have you had in the past? How do you feel when you see your work in print?
I’ve been shortlisted and longlisted before, but not placed until now. It’s great to see the story online, not least because it’ll preclude me from fiddling with it any further.
Do you have a particular place where you go to write?
Desktop PC facing the wall in what used to be the kids’ playroom, now really my space as my wife has commandeered our daughter’s old bedroom as her studio (she’s a textile artist). Took my laptop on holiday, and used it.
Do you have any tips or advice for other writers?
Apply arse to chair.
Join or start a writing group and critique each other’s work. You will learn from feeding back, from receiving feedback, and from hearing and reading other people’s feedback on other people’s work. OK, it can be like opening your soul, but absolutely invaluable. And if three writers say they don’t understand your painstakingly honed opening sentence, what does that tell you?
Edit your work as if you’re your own worst enemy.
Never submit anything without listening to ‘George’, ‘Susan’ or ‘Hazel’ on the Read Aloud button on Microsoft Word’s Review ribbon (or equivalent). You’ll hear the repeated words, the pauses you didn’t intend, etc.
Don’t be in too much of a hurry to submit. Let your story simmer and keep coming back to it. Get your peers to review it. There’ll always be other competitions.
Finally, some quickfire answers:
Planner or pantser? Proud to be a pantser.
Computer, pen & paper, or typewriter? Computer.
Do you write every day? Probably, even if it’s only a tweaked word or comma.
Do you have a daily/weekly word count target? No thank you. I’m doing this for fun, and I’d rather write one great word than 100 rubbish ones.