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Author's life as a 'comper' was novel inspiration

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: October 19, 2013

Jon McKnight entered hundreds of competitions a year, back when they required skill rather than just your address  picture: Roger Malone

Jon McKnight entered hundreds of competitions a year, back when they required skill rather than just your address picture: Roger Malone

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Jon McKnight thought nothing of buying 99 tins of cat food from a garage forecourt – even though he didn't have a cat.

In the early 90s swan-song world of serious "comping" – before competition gamesmanship became devalued to a talentless lottery – such dedication gave him a head start in the winning stakes.

As a journalist, writing for a living, creating a 12-word slogan was second nature – and talent, coupled with tenacity, paid off. Prizes rolled in regularly, from small items like golf brollies right up to a £1,500 satellite system – and, finally, a car.

Jon entered 465 competitions in his first year – and about 300 the second.

"That was my golden period. I won a car and that was equivalent to a year's salary," the 52-year-old says of a world now two decades away.

Jon's game plan of winning a car a year failed to materialise. However, this competitive and long-since abandoned addiction has ultimately been the source of a different form of success.

It gave him an insight into this strange, somewhat enclosed world – and provided the inspiration for his first novel – A Prize To Die For.

Set in and written in the early 1990s, it languished in a drawer for 20 years despite favourable interest from publishers. Now it has been released by Middle England Media for the Kindle, Kobo and iBookstore at £3.49 – and has received highly favourable reviews on Amazon, with people describing it as "achingly funny" and "unputdownable".

"I spent thousands of hours writing slogans. I visited every supermarket in Plymouth, several times a week, looking for the word 'Win', entry forms, or packets with a competition on for things that I didn't even need!" recalls Jon, whose commitment to comping verged on obsessive before becoming inspirational.

"Getting numerous entries off on time was an art. It was fun – but a serious business," he says.

The heyday of such enterprise was just before the Lottery, with its promise of instant multi-millions.

"Today most people wouldn't go to the end of the road to win a car. And the element of skill is all but gone. Most competitions are cynically run by promoters who want to part us from our money and sell our data to the highest bidder so we'll be junk-mailed to kingdom come."

Adopting a blunderbuss style to a competition's "write an original slogan", he would blitz the brand with a calculated mix of "traditional-type" entries while hedging his bets with some "off-the-wall, lateral thinking" ones.

That style of comping reached its peak in the early 90s – a time, he says, when it was "at its most exciting".

Jon had much in common with his shy, socially inhibited hero Tim Wembury. "There was a lot of me in the early bits – not because of lack of imagination but because you should write about what you know. I knew I was living an unusual lifestyle and I thought a lot of people might find the world of comping interesting and amusing," he says.

The story is spun around a "What if?" scenario. When Jon was entering competitions there were prizes of £1,000 a month for life.

What if a shady company bent the rules to save money by ensuring that only an elderly person won it? What if the youthful Tim Wembury scooped the prize, only to find himself in mortal danger? And what if love interest entered his hitherto monastic existence?

Result: intrigue, a touch of the surreal and liberal doses of comedy. Set mainly in Plymouth, city locations like Smeaton's Tower on The Hoe play their part.

Even Jon's favourite cafe, Les Jardins de Bagatelle, in Old Town Street, where he crafted some of his chapters, makes several cameo appearances in the novel as Tim Wembury's choice romantic rendezvous for clandestine tête à têtes.

"I wanted to convey a sense of time and place. I hope the book can act as a draw to Plymouth because people who enjoy it might be tempted to visit," says Jon.

While researching the plot he obtained permission to go inside the war memorial on The Hoe – an integral cog in the plot's deadly intrigue.

"Hardly anyone knows that there's a chamber inside the war memorial – and even fewer know what it's like in there. It's a secret part of Plymouth," says Jon.

"When you're a journalist you're constrained in what you write by the facts. The novel gives you the licence to create what you want with complete freedom."

From the comparatively short written sprint that is journalism to the 72,000-word marathon of a novel is a daunting literary leap, but Jon convinced himself he could do it. "Once I began the words starting pouring out. I wrote it in 23 days, and on 14 of those I was working full shifts as a journalist," he recalls.

"My day job became an interruption to my writing day. I would stay up all night writing and writing and writing. I couldn't get it down fast enough. It was exhilarating but it was also exhausting."

Now happily married with a family, he runs his own public relations consultancy. Having completed his third book he recognises that, for so many novelists, writing can be a cathartic experience. His lead character, Tim Wembury, was a creation which reflected many of Jon's idiosyncrasies at the time.

"It was a vent for one of my frustrations. I was single and useless at meeting women. I wanted people to know what it felt like to be a lonely man who wanted to be invited to the party – and felt he never would be."

In the intervening years the gulf between creator and character has widened to the point they would barely recognise each other.

"He had a lot of me up to a point – but everything after that was down to Tim Wembury, not me. I gave him licence to do things I wouldn't," says Jon.

"He had good taste in cafes. He isn't the man I would have wished to be – but he did bear a striking similarity to the man I was."

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