Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Joanne Harris at the Essex Book Festival

My eldest daughter and I went to see Joanne Harris last night, making an appearance at a school in Great Dunmow as part of the Essex Book Festival. The large school hall was packed to capacity, and Joanne proved to be an amazing speaker. She mostly talked about her forthcoming new book 'Blue Eyed Boy' - which sounds like yet another brilliant novel from her! - and also read a couple of passages from the book.

It was interesting for me, having given quite a few 'author talks' myself now, to see how a true expert does it! I always make notes, but try to use them only as a guide, to keep myself on track and make sure I don't forget things I want to say. Joanne had some notes with her but barely glanced at them at all - even though she started off by saying that this was her first talk promoting this new book so she expected to ramble slightly! Not a bit of it ... she was extremely eloquent and there certainly weren't all the 'ums' and 'ers' I find myself so guilty of uttering!

She talked at length about how she got the idea for 'Blue Eyed Boy' and developed it into a story, and also about the characters and their relationships with each other. Somehow she managed to do all this without giving away very much of the plot - afterwards I found myself wondering how on earth she talked about it for over half an hour without doing so! She then took questions from the audience, and when she was asked about her own favourite books as a child, my daughter and I exchanged raised eyebrows! My own responses would have been something along the lines of 'Heidi' or 'Wind in the Willows', (and of course, Enid Blyton's Famous Five books!), but Joanne's were far more serious and intellectual and made me aware of how different her upbringing must have been from that of, perhaps, the average reader. Obviously a very clever child who grew up to be a very clever lady!

Well, we're all different, aren't we, and thank goodness for that. I love Joanne's novels and I loved listening to her speak; but when I give my own talks, one of the things that gives me great satisfaction is that people often remark that they find it interesting to hear about my life as a writer, and how I got published, simply because I'm from a fairly 'normal' background, without a degree or any writing qualifications. Perhaps it gives hope to other aspiring writers.

I was thinking about everyone being different, and enjoying different types of books, when I read a feature in yesterday's paper, too - about the lack of 'real men' as heroes in modern romance novels. The feature focused on the short-listed books for the Romantic Novel of the Year Award, and has inevitably led to a lot of discussion among my fellow members of the Romantic Novelists' Association. Apparently the writer wasn't keen on the sensitive, 'New Man' type of heroes, or stories focusing on problems in people's lives - although it's been pointed out that the feature has of course been edited and cut so that the writer's opinions aren't being represented quite the way she intended. Anyway, I reckon it's just another situation of 'horses for courses'. If you don't like certain types of books, with certain types of heroes, you won't buy them. If they're selling well, then lots of people obviously do like them!

If only I had been as gifted as Joanne Harris and could write the type of novels she writes ... ah, if only! But we're all different in our capabilities, as well as in our reading tastes, and we have to be realistic. I hope to continue to have books published and to have readers who enjoy them; that'd be good enough for me, and I'd be very grateful too!

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Responses to my survey - thanks again!

When I started writing my feature about novelists who start by writing short stories, I hoped to ask perhaps a couple of dozen writers how they started. I know everyone's busy with their own work so I thought I'd keep it simple and just ask for a 'yes' or a 'no' ... never anticipating the generosity of SO many writers, who took the time and trouble to send me e-mails or messages on the blog, Facebook or the RNA forum - and SO much valuable information!

As someone has so wisely pointed out to me - I should have known that a load of writers * would not be able to stop at one word answers - don't we all just love the opportunity to write about our writing!

Well, it's certainly been fascinating reading all your comments; and it's lovely to welcome some new people to the blog too. My feature is now virtually finished; I even managed to do percentages (with the help of an on-line percentage calculator!). I'm not going to reveal all the statistics that will appear in the feature - if/when it's accepted - but I CAN at least tell you that those who wrote short stories before progressing to novels are in the majority. You'll have to wait to find out the rest ... hopefully until the magazine publishes the feature!

The short story I was expecting to be in the last issue of 'Yours' wasn't: it's in this week's. And I've just had another one rejected. Which just about sums up a writer's life, doesn't it!

* What should the collective term for a lot of writers be? A scribbling of writers? Any thoughts?

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Our Essex Book Festival event

Here's my lovely group of Essex writing friends at our first Essex Writers' Panel event, this afternoon at Halstead Library as part of the Essex Book Festival.

From left to right, Maureen Lee, Fay Cunningham, myself, Fenella Miller and Jean Fullerton (who did a great job as our chairperson, keeping us all in order and making sure none of us did more than our fair share of yakking!).

The event went really well: Halstead is a lovely library in a beautiful small Essex town, and the people were all so friendly and welcoming. We all chatted a little about ourselves and our writing, and then answered questions from the audience.

In fact we could have gone on answering questions for the rest of the day, they were all so lively and interested!

As you know I give quite a few talks to various groups on my own, and I enjoy it, but being part of this panel is a whole different experience - great fun, especially as we all get along well together (it does help!) and we all write different types of books so each of us brings something different to the discussions. Actually although we advertise ourselves as a panel of five, I think they are getting real value, as I am there both as Sheila Norton and Olivia Ryan!

We all enjoy giving something back to the libraries, as they provide such an important service - and an important part of our income through the Public Lending Right payments. Now we've done our 'inaugural' event as a panel, we're looking forward to further events we've got booked, after the end of the Book Festival. If they're all equally successful, I think we'll be very happy!

Monday, 15 March 2010

Short fiction to long: can you help with a poll?

As I've probably said dozens of times on this blog already (sorry, is it a sign of old age - repeating yourself? Hope not!) - I started out as a short story writer before becoming a novelist. Winning two short story competitions was what really made me believe in myself as a writer, and spurred me on to getting published.

I often mention this when I give talks, too, as for me, it really helped : I don't think I could ever have written a 100,000 novel without first having mastered the art of the short story. But everyone is different, and I know there are plenty of published authors out there who went straight into writing novels without trying short fiction first.

Well, this is what I'm trying to find out - and I need your help!

For a new feature I'm writing for 'Writer's Forum', I want to find out how many novelists (the percentage of those who respond to me) started off as short story writers, and how many plunged straight into writing novels. The more responses I get from any authors out there, the better - so I'd be really grateful for just a quick 'yes' (if you started with short stories) or 'no' (if you didn't) via this blog, or straight to me via e-mail ( if you prefer. Thanks so much, in advance! Oh - and if you've got time, and don't mind copying this request to your own blogs, to reach even more writers, I'd really appreciate that too!

That's just the first and most important question. There are others ... for instance I'd be interested in hearing from short story writers who never switched to writing novels because they prefer short stories. And in following up some of those who did make the switch, to find out whether they found the transition difficult, and whether (like me) they're still writing short stories alongside the novels. So if you're willing to be quizzed further I might come back to you.

I'll be repeating this request on Facebook and forums to get as wide a coverage as possible. Hoping the results will be interesting! Thanks again for any help you can give.

Friday, 5 March 2010

'Yours' magazine

Any short story writers amongst you who might have submitted to 'Yours' during 2009 and haven't had a response - please take note! I queried one of my stories that had been out with them since June last year, as the wait seemed a bit excessive for them. Marion Clark has got back to me saying it must have gone astray because they've now returned all submissions received before December 2009. I was glad she let me know, because I had another one outstanding since August, so presume that one's gone astray too!

Marion has invited me to resubmit, but has also warned me that their story length requirement has now changed from 1000-1500 words, to 1000-1200. Quite significant as I find it enough of a challenge to keep below 1500 words, so mine will both need to be cut before resubmitting!

Good luck anyone submitting there. I've got a story out with them next week as it happens!

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Essex Book Festival

This morning I've been along to Chelmsford Library for the launch of this year's Essex Book Festival. It was a superb event - quite a few of us local Essex authors who are taking part in the Festival were there, and other big name authors including Barbara Erskine and Penelope Lively. It was a lovely opportunity to mingle and chat with local librarians, as well as people from reading groups (there are 500 groups in Essex!) - and the whole thing was live on BBC Essex.

I'm excited to be appearing in this year's Festival as part of a panel of Essex writers, together with some good friends of mine from the Romantic Novelists' Association: Fenella Miller, Jean Fullerton, Fay Cunningham and Maureen Lee. Don't be fooled by the term 'romantic': in fact we all write completely different types of books. Maureen is a hugely successful 'Liverpool saga' writer who now lives in Colchester; Fay writes crime novels and has been shortlisted three times for a Crime Writers' award; Jean writes historical novels set in East London and has recently been shortlisted for the 2010 Romantic Novel of the Year award; Fenella writes historical romance novels and novellas; and I write contemporary relationship stories, both as Sheila Norton and as Olivia Ryan.

As a group, we were delighted to be given the venue of Halstead library, on Wednesday 17th March at 2pm, for our event. We will be 'five for the price of one' - what value! - and as a panel, will be there to answer questions from the audience, to meet, chat, and offer signed copies of our books. If anyone from the Essex area would like the chance to buy a ticket (£4, or £3 for concessions), please visit or call Halstead Library on 01787 473431.

Following this, we're taking our panel 'on the road', to appear at various libraries in Essex after the end of the Book Festival. The idea has been very warmly received, and already we have bookings for the libraries at Chelmsford, Galleywood, Ingatestone, Harwich, Frinton, and Chipping Ongar - with others in the pipeline. Some of these will be 'closed' events for local reading groups, others will be open to the public: so if anyone's interested, let me know! I'll be posting details, and dates, on the Blog after the end of the Book Festival.

It was great, today, to have coffee and cakes with the rest of the group, after the Festival Launch, and discuss our forthcoming events. We've organised all this ourselves between us, and feel very optimistic and enthusiastic about it. We all appreciate the income we recieve from library readers, via Public Lending Right - and these appearances, as well as being a good PR opportunity for us all, are a chance for us to 'give something back' to the libraries. Without them, we'd be a lot less read, and a lot worse off! I'll look forward to reporting back on the Halstead event in due course but meanwhile, please do pass this on to any friends in the Essex area! Thanks. x

Monday, 1 March 2010

Talking ... about rejections

The talk I was supposed to give last week to a creative writing class was postponed because the class tutor had the Flu. In a way it did me a favour because I had a croaky sore throat myself (not that I'd wish the poor woman the Flu, of course!) ... and I'm now due to give the talk tomorrow.

It's quite timely. One of the things I always stress when giving talks to any group of writers or would-be writers is the importance of anticipating rejection, not taking it personally, treating it as part of a writer's life and taking it on the chin. And so on. Of course, we all know it isn't always easy to follow that well-worn piece of advice! - but it's important to recognise that rejection goes with the territory and that it's possible to recover from it.

I'm aware that, because I've had a small degree of success over the years, some of the people listening to me spouting this stuff might think, "It's all very well for her to talk!" Of course, I tell them about all the rejections I had before I finally had a novel accepted - and about all the short stories I've had rejected over the years, and still get rejected now - and I like to think that this gives some of them a bit of hope: I did get lucky along the way, and it could happen for them too.

But I certainly never got complacent! I often quote Graham Greene's very depressing statement that 'For a writer, success is always temporary. Success is only failure delayed.' ! Of course, there are those writers who find success easily, and go on to be successful for the rest of their lives ... but these are the minority. For most of us, we're only ever as good as our last contract, and those contracts are increasingly difficult to secure.

My recent writing career hasn't exactly gone swimmingly. I had an agent briefly last year, who having been enthusiastic about my work and professed herself optimistic about getting me a good publishing deal, worked hard with me for a few months and then abruptly left the agency, informing me that none of the other agents there were interested in handling me, and leaving me wondering if it was something I'd said! So I was back on my own again, unagented as I'd been throughout most of my writing life, and (to be honest) thinking maybe I'm better off that way.

As some of you know, I've recently had a stab at writing a serial for one of the women's mags. This was my first attempt and I knew it wasn't going to be easy, but the editor was really helpful and encouraging, and I tried my best to follow her advice - ending up doing two complete re-writes. I can honestly say it was the hardest thing I've attempted to write - and I've just heard that the third version hasn't been successful - so that's the end of the road with it. Maybe I can eventually adapt it and try it elsewhere, but for the moment the thought of doing that is quite overwhelming and I'm just going to sink back into the comfort of writing some more of my new (as yet unsold) novel!

I found writing the serial a tremendous challenge - and quite a humbling experience, not that I needed one! - reinforcing my admiration of those writers who do write them successfully. Of course I'm feeling disappointed, but (always looking for the silver lining), I'm now in exactly the right frame of mind to talk to the creative writing class about coping with rejection!

Today I've visited my ex-colleagues at the hospital where I used to work, and as always, found myself wondering if I wished I was back there. The answer is always NO - although I still miss them all, and have some great memories of my years there, I know I'm happy with my life now. I refer to myself as a full-time writer but in fact, I think it's important for those of us who aren't MEGA successful (!) to have lots of other things in our lives as well as our writing, so that the disappointments don't feel like the end of the world.
And yes, I'll be telling the creative writing class that, too!

Here's one of the other lovely things in my life!