Hi Sally, welcome to my room. Make yourself comfortable. Tea or coffee, or perhaps a glass of chilled white wine? A few nibbles? Comfy? OK let’s begin!
Make mine a Baileys over ice please!
1) How long have you been writing Sally?
I started writing in around 1994-95, having returned to ‘school’ to do a GCSE in English Literature. I left school in 1979 with no qualifications so I wanted to put that right. I’d always loved reading, but it was learning how to read properly that spurred me on to write.
When did you realise that you wanted to be a writer?
I’d always had some vague idea of wanting to write, without actually putting pen to paper. I lacked the confidence, due to my poor record at school. But reading literature brought out the scribe in me. I started with poetry. And really bad poetry at that. I also tried a few short stories, all of which were rejected almost by return of post. I can see why now, but then it knocked me back a bit. I was further disheartened when I found out that the company which published some of my poems was a vanity publisher. After that I just wrote for myself. Fanfiction mainly, with the odd original short story and/or very bad novel.
What was it that finally convinced you that you are one?
I can’t really remember. I think it felt more official when I had my first short story published in Yours Magazine, but even then I didn’t think of myself as a proper writer. Then some wise person told me ‘If you write, you’re a writer, regardless of whether you’ve been published’. I realised they were right. We set too much store by being published writers, and don’t give ourselves credit for actually sitting down and doing the work in the first place.
When did you start filling in ‘writer’ in forms asking for your occupation?
I don’t think I’ve ever actually been asked that on a form (that I can remember).
2) Can you tell us a little bit about your writing day? When is the optimum time for writing for you – morning, afternoon or evening?
Generally my writing day involves logging on in the morning, checking my emails, checking facebook, checking a couple of private groups where I’m a member, checking my emails again… I don’t have a best writing time, as I tend to time it for when my husband is at his gun club. That’s two mornings a week, and about five evenings. But if I’ve got a project eating away at me, I do like to get started in the morning. Then I’ll throw him out of the house. I find that if I go out to do other things in the morning, it’s hard to get started later in the day. So on evenings when he’s out, I really have to discipline myself not to just sit and watch Bruce Willis films or Les Miserables…
3) Do you approach your writing in an organized and logical manner, eg sit down at same time every day, or do you write only when inspiration strikes?
I only write when inspiration strikes, and don’t believe you have to write every single day as a writer. But that’s me, and others are different. Speaking for myself, I have to have a story in my head. It’s a bit different when I’ve got my articles to write. I write two articles for Writers Forum magazine. Of course I can’t wait till I’m in the mood for them because I have a deadline. But when I do have an idea in my head, I’m capable of writing a lot in a short time. I’ve been known to write a 3000 word chapter in a morning.
4) Where do you get your ideas from?
Anywhere and everywhere. Things I’ve overheard, films I’ve watched, books I’ve read. That’s not the same as stealing ideas, by the way. The first short story I had published, Clarence, was inspired by the angel in It’s A Wonderful Life. My novel, The Secret of Helena’s Bay, was inspired by the Hitchcock movies of the fifties, but also by one of his early films, The Lady Vanishes. Only in my book it’s an old man who vanishes.
Do you wake up some days and decide that this is the day you’re going to start a new novel, or do you let the ideas, characters and plot lines percolate for a while before setting pen to paper?
As I said before I really have to have an idea in my head. I can spend several days with a story ‘knitting’ away in my head. At that time I seldom do any writing, though I may jot down a brief summary. But the whole story from beginning to end, or nearly the whole story, must be in my head before I start to write. I do have to add a little more to get to required word counts, but generally I know how a story is going to end before I write it. That’s not always the case. In my novel, Sunlit Secrets, I didn’t actually know what the hero’s secret was until he decided to reveal it to the heroine! In another novel, My True Companion, I changed the motives of one of the characters halfway through writing. So nothing is set in stone and it is important to be flexible as a writer, especially when a story doesn’t quite work out as you planned, or there’s a huge plot hole you hadn’t seen when the idea first appeared in your head.
5) Do you plot out your novel, or at least the important sections of it before you start writing? Or do you prefer to let the story develop organically?
As I said, I sometimes write a short summary (no more than 500 words), but that’s about it. At least with the 50k pocket novels that I write. My full length novel, The Steps of the Priory, took a lot more plotting and planning because there were several story strands going on and I had to keep track of them. In the pocket novels there are seldom more than a couple of sub-plots, and often only one, so it’s easier for me to keep it all in my head.
From then on the story does develop organically. I prefer it that way as if I don’t know everything that’s going to happen, it makes it fun for me to write!
6) How do you approach the revision process? Recently I have heard about a method where one revises in layers, focusing on one aspect of the novel at a time, eg dialogue, or tension level in individual scenes – what is your opinion about this approach?
It sounds like a good idea, but I tend to revise as quickly as I write. I’ve been known to edit a 50k novel in less than a week. I also revise as I go along, changing phrases or picking up on errors, so that the final revision isn’t as onerous. Again that depends on what I’m writing. I’ve got the pocket novels pretty much off-pat now. My longer works need more work, obviously. But there does come a point I think where you have to step away from your work and trust it to the gods. I’ve reached a point with the pocket novels where I’ll get it as good as I possibly can, and then I know that if there are any more problems the editor will pick up on them. And she always does, and usually some problem that had niggled me but which I wasn’t sure how to change. So between us we get it right.
7) How long does it take you write a novel, that is from the initial ideas and development of them to final revision process?
I can think up, develop, revise and complete a 50k novel in one month. It’s a rather pragmatic approach on my part, because they don’t pay an awful lot. £300 per novel (plus extra if I can sell the Large Print rights). So I feel that to spend longer on them would be a waste of my time. I also tend to give up very quickly if a story is not working. That being said, I hope that what I produce in a month is good writing. I won’t send out anything I’m not happy with. As a result I’ve got several novels on my hard drive which aren’t good enough to submit, and lord knows how many first chapters that went nowhere!
On the other hand, my saga, The Steps of the Priory, took me two years to complete and revise, but it was a more complex novel.
8) How many novels do you write in a year?
Last year I completed 3 pocket novels, two of which were sold and one is due to be revised and hopefully sold in 2013. But I also completed edits on the saga, A Christmas Moon and several other projects.
Can you tell us a little about your latest pocket novels, including those recently published and those about to be?
The latest two pocket novels to be published were Bonfire Memories, which was published in print and is also available on Kindle. Another one was A Christmas Moon, which was supposed to be a pocket novel, but was instead picked up by Siren. That too is available on Kindle.
The one I’m due to revise and hope to sell is called Midnight Train and is pretty much Die Hard on a train, with a healthy dose of romance! It also combines my two fictional villages of Midchester and Stony End, and also visits Cariastan, which was first mentioned in my novel, A Collector of Hearts. The main characters, Angela Cunningham and Reverend Michael Fairfax already exist in my fictional world, but this is the story of how they met.
I’m hoping it will be published in print, but if not, I will make it available on Kindle as I loved writing it.
9) Why did you start e-publishing? Can you share a little about your experiences with e-publishing please?
Basically I wanted my ex-pocket novels to be available to readers who didn’t manage to buy them. The My Weekly and People’s Friend pocket novels are only on sale for a fortnight each, and not always readily available.
I’ve learned a lot from e-publishing. At first I had pretty awful thrown together covers, because I didn’t know how to get stock covers. I also had problems with formatting as it’s not apparent that actually pdf files don’t do very well on Kindle. It’s information you have to find out. As a result I barely sold anything and got some criticism for the lousy formatting. Even when I gave the novels away free!
Then a friend pointed me towards Dreamstime.com and Jimmy Thomas’s Romance Novel Center (that’s the American spelling of Center), and another friend of a friend taught me a bit about formatting. Those two things came together to create a much better product. Since then my sales have really risen. I’m not talking JK Rowling figures, but I had my first royalty cheque from Amazon last month so I must be doing something right!
Since selling my existing pocket novels on Kindle, I’ve got a bit bolder and put some previously unpublished work on there. That’s done pretty well too, I’m glad to say, so it’s nice to know I have a readership even if I can’t get published in print.
10) Do you still write short stories? Where do you target them for?
I do, but very rarely now, as it’s very hard to switch from novel writer to short story writer and back again. There is a particular mindset for writing novels and a different mindset for short stories. When I do write them I target them at women’s magazines and have just had one accepted for That’s Life Fast Fiction in Australia. The same story was also published in The Weekly News. So it’s nice to know I’ve still got it!
11) It has been suggested to me that a modus operandi for learning the craft of writing would be to practice short story writing first (which I’m doing, targeting womags), and then progress to serials and pocket novels. Have you anything to add to this advice for a wannabe writer?
That’s certainly how I started and writing short stories certainly does help to hone your skills. But any sort of writing does, and I also began by writing fanfiction.
Writing short stories does help to hone your skills, and you learn a lot about point of view, how to create interesting characters and situations etc. And if you get published in magazines, it not only looks good on the resume, but it also boosts the confidence.
But as I said before, writing short stories requires a different mindset to writing novels, and I know some short story writers who haven’t been able to progress to novel length, and some novelists who don’t do so well with short stories. It is easy to get stuck in a rut with one or the other, which is why I still try to keep my hand in with short story writing from time to time.
Personally speaking I’m not sure I like the term ‘modus operandi’, as it suggests there’s a rule for doing these things, and there isn’t. We all do what works for us. I started with short stories, progressed to 30k novellas (which was the length for My Weekly a few years back), then to 50k novels. But there’s nothing to say you *have* to write short stories first. You can learn just as much about writing by trying to put together a 50k word novel.
12) Can you recommend any how-to writing books, magazines and/or resources which you have found to be particularly helpful in learning the craft of writing?
Stephen King’s On Writing is an excellent resource, and so is Della Galton’s How To Write and Sell Short Stories. I’d also add, if you want to write romance, that Kate Walker’s 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance is also very helpful.
But I would also caution about becoming so hung up on reading about writing that you don’t actually write anything. It’s also a case that *some* writing books are too prescriptive. They tell you too much about what you should or shouldn’t do. My advice with any writing book is to take the advice that suits you and your lifestyyle and ignore that which doesn’t.
13) Do you write for a pre-set number of hours a day, or a specific word count? Starting in January you will be once again running your writing challenge, 100k in 100 days which I have signed up for. What do you think is the best way to use this challenge? What acted as the initial impetus for this challenge?
When I sit down to write, with my idea already in my head, I try to write a chapter of the novel I’m working on. For me a chapter is usually around 3000 words. I don’t always reach that, but it’s my goal. So it’s definitely a word count rather than a set number of hours.
How you use the 100k in 100 days challenge is entirely up to you. Even though I don’t necessarily think writers should have to write every day, it will at least get you into the habit of writing regularly and, just as importantly, finding time to write.
One thing I learned when I first started writing was that one has to learn to be a little bit selfish with one’s time. It’s too easy for the family to keep making demands on you. The best thing to learn is to be there for the big stuff, but teach them to fend for themselves with the little stuff. For example, is it impossible for your husband or older children to make their own hot drinks? Or to maybe make their own sandwiches for lunch?
They can rail against it to begin with, but once they realise you’re not there to be walked over, they actually appreciate you more.
Use the challenge however you want. As I’ve said, we’re all different so we take different things from writing. But maybe promise yourself that you will complete something, whether it’s a novel, or a few short stories.
14) When you officially start working and writing your new novel how do you organize your notes and ideas – pen and notebook to catch any stray developments which might pop up while say cooking or shopping? Or do you keep everything in organized files on the computer? I would love to learn more about the way you actually go about the practice of writing, how you approach it as an activity, if you know what I mean.
And I now wish I was more organised! I’m not at all. I just somehow have a knack of getting things done. I do have notebooks spread all over the house, but none of them are full, and they just have a few scribbles in. Mainly I keep ideas in my head. As a result it’s very busy up there, which tends to make me seem a bit flaky to people in real life… ahem…
I do organise my work in files on my computer, and my main writing file is also linked to Dropbox, so that all my work is backed up. So I am better at that. Each year I open new folders. So this year my folders will be ‘Stories written in 2013’ and ‘Pocket Novels written in 2013’ (but I only move a pocket novel into that folder when it’s completed). That way I can tell how much I’ve written of everything. I have separate folders for my Writers Forum articles, and other longer fictional work.
15) What is your opinion on Master courses in Creative Writing? For someone like me who cannot afford such courses, what approach would you recommend as an alternative route?
I’ve often thought I’d like to do an MA in Creative Writing, but I’ve also managed to be quite well published without them. An MA In Creative Writing is very different and not necessarily aimed at getting people published in the more commercial publishing world. It depends what sort of writer you want to be. I think MA’s tend towards more literary writers, and I know I’m not that!
I think there is a misconception that having an MA will lead to instant publishing success, but I don’t think that’s the case, though I’m not an expert on which published writers have MAs. However, I have heard they’re pretty good for networking purposes.
But I am living proof that you can get published without an MA in writing and I think there are hundreds of writers out there who manage it.
One method which I can recommend to any reading this interview is to take one of Sally’s splendid online writing courses. I took Sally short story course last autumn and am very excited about her upcoming course in writing pocket novels starting in February. [link here – spaces still available?]
Yes, spaces are indeed still available! My courses, as you know, Edith, are very informal, but I hope very helpful too.
It’s been great having you Sally. You are always such a joy to chat to about ‘writerly’ things. Thank you so much for agreeing to take this interview.
Thank you for having me, Edith. It’s been a pleasure!