Saturday, 29 March 2014

How I started out as a writer

Like most authors, I'm often asked when I give talks 'How did you get started?'  Understandably, aspiring writers are always looking for help and advice, which I do try to give whenever I can. But I have to say, my path to publishing success wasn't a straightforward one!

I always wanted to write - from as far back as I can remember it was what I did for fun. (Some might say I was a strange child!). It remained my hobby all through school, through my teenage years when I scribbled endlessly in diaries and wrote experimental poetry, right to the time when I had my three daughters and wrote stories for them. But I never seriously considered becoming a published author at that time. It was certainly a dream - but I didn't think it was a realistic one. Even back then, I knew how hard it was and probably didn't think I was good enough.

It was a story for children that became my first publication - I'd seen the little stories in the 'Brownie' magazine that my girls enjoyed at the time, and for the first time, thought: 'I could write one just as good as that'. But I was still completely stunned when it was accepted!  I remember I was paid £28 - this was in the mid 1980s. I went on to sell them quite a few more short stories and serials, and when my daughters were a little older and took 'Today's Guide' magazine instead of the 'Brownie', I sold stories to them too.

At this stage, I started wondering whether I could try something more ambitious. I had no idea where to start - but then I saw an advert in the paper for 'Writing Magazine'. At this stage I still felt quite self-conscious about the whole thing, like I was being ridiculous even expecting to be taken seriously as a writer. I didn't tell many people what I was doing - it wasn't so common then to have these kind of aspirations. Nobody in my family had done anything like it, I hadn't got an relevant qualifications apart from an A-level in English, and I'd never been to a class, writing group, a talk of any kind or asked anyone's advice. 

But there was a short story competition every month in 'Writing Magazine' (there still is) - and something made me have a go. And to my amazement, I won first prize. A year or so later, I entered another one, won first prize again, and was then judged their 'Winner of Winners' for the year - which involved me attending a big posh 'do' in London where I received a shield, and a very nice cheque.
And it was there I met Dawn, another prize-winner, who's been a good friend and fantastic support ever since although we live at different ends of the country. Dawn was already having short stories published in women's magazines and talking to her, I decided I was ready to try going down the same route. I suppose the competition wins had given me the confidence I'd been lacking.

My first submission, to 'Woman's Weekly', was accepted - and then I was on a roll. I finally believed I could do it, and that other people might take my dream seriously. Over the course of the following ten years or so, I would have over 100 short stories published in the various women's magazines, but my best market was 'Woman's Realm'. I was earning a nice, fairly regular extra little income, and was chuffed with my success. But when 'the Realm' went out of circulation, I suddenly had a vision of the future. Fiction in magazines was becoming less popular. The other magazines weren't publishing so many short stories. I needed to investigate other possibilities.

I'd tried a few times before to write a novel - but it had somehow never worked. Looking back, I think I probably tried to be too serious, or too clever, or to produce something that I thought people ought to like. This time, I just wrote what I wanted to: a very light-hearted story about an ordinary working mum approaching her 50th birthday whose life was hectic and difficult but also very funny.

I approached agents, then I approached publishers direct (some of them still allowed direct submissions at that stage). For about 18 months it was a continual stream of rejections - but I was heartened by the positive tone of some of them. ('I loved it but it wasn't right for us', etc). So I kept going. And in February 2002 my first novel 'The Trouble With Ally' was accepted by Piatkus Books.

That was the start of my career as a novelist. I was working full-time in a busy job, so I'd still never done a writing course, joined a group, or read any how-to books and still didn't have an agent (I have now) - so I had absolutely no idea what I was doing at any stage of the process! Luckily my editors were very helpful, and so was the Society of Authors, who checked my contracts for me. And after the first few books had been published, I heard about the Romantic Novelists' Association. Joining the RNA introduced me to my best writing 'buddies' locally, and they've been a fantastic support through good times and bad.

Now on the verge of producing my twelfth book YESTERDAY - which is in a completely different genre - I've taken a couple of twists and turns along the road including the big change to self-publishing, which has worked out well. As you can tell from my 'career path', it's quite difficult to answer that question about how I got started ... it was a very gradual process!  I was obviously not young by the time my first novel was published! And although in some ways I wish I'd had the confidence to try to make my dream a reality when I was younger, in other ways it's been fantastic to have enjoyed this success later in life - doing what I've always enjoyed.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Changing direction

I've sometimes been asked, when I give talks about writing, which were the most exciting moments of my writing career. So far it's been quite easy to answer. There was the day in the early 1990s when I went to a posh event in London to receive an award and very nice cheque for being the 'Winner of Winners' in a national short story competition. Then, of course, the day in 2002 when I got the email from a publisher telling me that there was a contract in the post to me: my first novel had been accepted. That was the best moment of all!  It was exciting, too, when my editor suggested, on accepting my sixth novel, that she'd like me to take on a pseudonym (Olivia Ryan) for a series of three books. And it was also exciting (if a little nerve-racking) when I decided to start self-publishing.

Now I'm approaching another of those moments! In less than four weeks I'll be publishing another new book on Amazon (as a Kindle ebook) - and for the first time it's NOT contemporary fiction, NOT a RomCom - in fact it's something so different from all my previous books, it's almost like I'm starting a brand new career!

YESTERDAY is set in the 1960s - one of the most exciting and socially interesting periods of recent history, and the heroine of the story, Cathy Ferguson, is an ordinary teenager growing up during the years of the Beatles and the Mods and Rockers.

Cover image for YESTERDAY  - publication 17 April

The publication date will be 17 April - this Easter - to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the first violent clashes between the Mods and the Rockers at Clacton-on-Sea, which took place at Easter 1964 - and there will be more information about the book on this blog over the next few weeks.

But why did I choose to change genres - and why choose the 1960s?  Well, I was given a piece of advice a few years back my an ex-editor of mine - that I should try writing historical fiction. I laughed. I've got so much respect for my author friends who write historical novels - they love what they do, and the amount of research needed is unbelievable. But history has never been my 'thing' and I couldn't imagine doing it.

- 'Only if the 1960s ever became history!' I replied to the editor at the time.
- 'It is, already,' she said.
I was quite taken aback. I was a teenager during the Sixties and it doesn't feel like history to me!

Me during the 1960s

But the conversation kept coming back to me, and the idea of writing a novel set in the Sixties became more and more attractive until I couldn't resist it any longer!

I've been very lucky that my contemporary books have been popular and I have many loyal readers who might be surprised by my change of direction. So, at the same time as promoting the new book, I'm letting everyone know: it's going to be different! And I really, really hope my readers will enjoy the change as much as I have!

Watch this space for more info about YESTERDAY.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Made to last?

Does anyone else, like me, still live in the past in terms of how long we should expect things to last? By 'things' I mean gadgets, electric and electronic items, household appliances and so on. I hate sounding like I'm continually going on about the 'good old days' (which often weren't), but ... come on!  Kettles and irons etc now don't get repaired because it isn't worth it - we chuck them out and buy new ones. Washing machines, dishwashers and so on  - if they last more than five years you're told you've been lucky. (We've had our washer and dryer for about twelve years and I have no intention of getting rid of them). Some people seem to replace their TV sets or lounge furniture every time they redecorate the room! No wonder they say they haven't got any money!

When we got married in 1970 (here's the 'going on about the good old days' bit), we were given my parents' old fridge, black & white TV set, iron, and hoover - because they were then in a position to replace them with new ones. Mum and Dad had had them for God-knows how many years, but they still served us well for the first few years and we replaced them gradually as they conked out. They also gave us a couple of half-worn-out carpet squares for our first flat, and some old curtains which I altered to fit the windows. I still have the 'curtain' habit - our bedroom curtains in our current home came from our last house. We've been here ten years and they still look fine. A lot of our crockery, cutlery and so on were cast-offs too, and I still use a few things I had new as wedding presents, to say nothing of ancient items I've inherited from Mum and my auntie when they passed away.

We also have a range-style cooker in our kitchen which is over 30 years old. It came with the house - the previous owners had inherited it from the people before them - and it still looks fantastic and cooks like a dream. When we had our kitchen refurbished last year, the boss of the company doing the fitting said if we'd been getting rid of it, he'd have it himself! But we weren't, obviously - in fact we weren't changing any of our appliances. They're still working - why would we change them?

I don't think I'm particularly thrifty - it's just the way we always managed, for most of our lives, without credit cards or loans. I suppose the problem is that technology is moving on so fast, things we buy today will already be out of date next year. I don't really care if there are better versions of my Smart phone, for instance (although I'll change it when the contract's up), and I don't care about having the latest PC, laptop, tablet, Kindle ... as long as the ones I've got do the job I want them to do efficiently. But this situation was brought home to me again recently when I wondered about getting a new digital camera. My old one had a bit of a delay between pressing the button and taking the picture - annoying when trying to capture a baby's smile or getting a toddler to pose! - and everyone told me the latest cameras are much better. 'But I've only had this camera for seven years,' I told the guy at the shop, feeling guilty and extravagant for considering trading up already. 'Seven years?' he scoffed. 'That's a really long time to have a camera.'

I bought a new one. And yes, it is much better. But it still feels extravagant. It must be my age, or my upbringing during the hard-up days of the 1950s. Anyone else feel the same?