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Author praises University’s influence on her fiction hat-trick success

An award-winning author has thanked the University of Chichester for its influence on her writing career as she celebrated a hat-trick of triumphs in international fiction competitions.

English and Creative Writing graduate Melanie Whipman said that she was thrilled by the success of the short stories, which all took fascinating journeys to completion – and she was quick to praise the “incredibly helpful” role played by her University studies.

The three stories are ‘Memories’, which won first prize in a fiction contest organised by Woman’s Own magazine; ‘After the Flood’, shortlisted for the annual Bristol Prize, and ‘The Singing Fish’, which is to be published in the forthcoming Cinnamon Press anthology.

‘Memories’ is to be showcased in the Woman's Own Summer Special (on sale 5 July to 9 August) after being chosen unanimously by a panel that described it as “standing out from the hundreds of entries we received as it was so moving and well written.”

The story, which reduced one of the judges to tears, was inspired by an exercise that Mel set for her creative writing class at Farnham Adult Education Centre, where she has taught since finishing her BA studies.

“In one of my early classes I set a ‘second person’ exercise for my group, and thought I ought to tackle it too,” she explained. “The story’s been sitting in one of my numerous pc files ever since. I thought the second person might make it edgy, but it didn’t turn out that way, since the story was a little over-emotional, and didn’t tackle any current issues, so it wasn’t suitable for any of the literary competitions.

“When I saw the Woman’s Own competition, I thought I may as well give it a go, so I edited the story again, making it more commercial - a tear-jerker with a tight ending - entered it on day of deadline, then promptly forgot about it. I was absolutely amazed when I heard I’d won!”

‘After the Flood’, the story that was shortlisted for the Bristol Prize, took a very different journey, emerging from an exercise that Mel was given in an undergraduate drama module at Chichester.

“I’d been looking at poetry by Jo Shapcott, who holds an Honorary Degree at the University of Chichester, and tried to use it as inspiration for a monologue. Later, it became a play which has been sitting in a file in my pc ever since. However, English & Media Studies Principal Lecturer Ian Worden mentioned how much he’d liked the piece, so I went home and dragged the thing out, and turned it into a short story. It was shortlisted for two prizes, so I had to withdraw it from the Unbound Press so it could stay in the running for the Bristol.”

Mel joked: “This story is a weird subversion of a Biblical tale, about Mrs Noah having bestial relations with a lion, so it’s clearly not suitable for Woman’s Own! It’s very edgy and leaves a lot for the reader to do. While it’s set in Biblical times, it tackles very current issues - domestic abuse, control and the destructive nature of guilt.”

The hat-trick is completed by ‘The Singing Fish’, a story inspired by an exercise when Mel was studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Chichester.

“This one used artwork as inspiration, a very surreal painting by Kukowski,” she explained. “The finished story ultimately had no connection to the painting! It kind of morphed out of all recognition. Again, it’s a ‘literary’ story, I suppose, about the breakdown of a relationship after the death of a child. It’s very character-driven, with a redemptive ending.”

Like many writers, Brighton-born Mel came to fiction via a long, winding road. Initially a Languages student, she left her studies to go travelling, spending a year in Germany, ten months on a kibbutz, then countries including South Africa, Thailand, and Malaysia. She met her husband on a train in France while inter-railing through Europe, and “after a lot of very odd jobs, ended up living in London for ten years, working in sales and marketing”.

She now lives in a leafy Surrey village with husband, teenage twins, dog, cats, and chickens. Her first few stories were published in the ‘grey market’, but Mel decided she wanted to go back to full time study.

“I did the BA at Chichester, and loved it so much that I immediately signed up for the MA in Creative Writing,” she smiled. “And then I loved the MA so much I decided to do the PhD too!

“I have really enjoyed the writing community at Chichester, and found the structure incredibly helpful. I’m still in touch with my original workshop group from the BA, and we meet regularly to workshop our writing. I think my writing style has continued to develop through the BA and MA.

“I’m incredibly grateful for the inspiration from the creative writing team at Chichester University. Without that, I wouldn’t have got my teaching job, and I wouldn’t have continued to develop my own writing.”

Mel is keen to reflect on what she has learned from her experiences – and to share this with budding writers who are trying to strike a path through the maze of the publishing world.

“Interestingly, after I started the BA, all the stories I sent to the editor at My Weekly were rejected as they were ‘too sombre’,” she said.

Where many writers may have given up from disappointment, Mel persevered.

“To be honest, I found it fascinating, the difference between ‘commercial’ and ‘literary’ fiction,” she explained. “And the ‘grey market’ stuff was just as challenging in its own way, not dumbing down, but writing something that was much more accessible for the reader and was more overtly emotionally driven.

“The editors ask for a distinct framework, beginning, middle, end, all of it nicely wrapped up. In contrast, the literary stuff tends to be more open-ended, with more for the reader to do.”