I’m delighted to bring you the one hundred and forty-fourth of my blog interviews, today with fiction writer, Writers Forum columnist and writing competition guru Sally Quilford. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate the authors further.
Morgen: Hello, Sally. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Sally: I was born in South Wales, but moved to Derbyshire in my teens. I left school with no qualifications, then after having my family and when I reached the big 30, I decided to return to studying. I started with a literature GCSE and you could have knocked me down with a feather when I got an A! It was after reading literature properly for the first time in my life that made me want to write. I’d always had some vague notion of being a ‘writer’, but without actually writing anything. I started writing in 1994-5 and have barely stopped since.
Morgen: I only gained one ‘O’ level from school (English Language – I excelled at primary school because my teachers cared about me rather than my grades so I did well and passed the 12-plus which took me to a ‘great’ school which I subsequently hated so didn’t try – and Princess Diana didn’t pass hers so we’re in good company). Anyway, getting back to writing, what genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Sally: The genre I’m now known for is light romance novels, as published by My Weekly Pocket Novels, but I’ve also written crime, sci-fi and horror in the past and still do sometimes. One of the things I like about writing the novellas is that I can incorporate elements of crime into the romance. I don’t know if I’d want to be locked into a genre, though obviously I’m doing what works for now. I like the idea that people are reading my novellas, so most of my ideas and genres fit around the particular requirements of that readership.
Morgen: I’ve seen many of your short stories (which are geekily filed with 3,000+ others in a dozen or so ring binders – A-Z by author surname and catalogued on an Excel spreadsheet – for research purposes, I did say I’m a geek didn’t I?) what have you had published to-date? If applicable, can you remember where you saw your first books on the shelves?
Sally: I’ve had quite a few stories published in magazines, both in Britain and abroad. I think the last count was in the mid-30s. I’m also a columnist for Writers Forum magazine, and have been since 2009. I’ve had articles published in The New Writer. And of course, the pocket novels. Last July my sixth pocket novel, Sunlit Secrets was published by My Weekly Pocket Novels. I saw the first pocket novel, The Secret of Helena’s Bay, on sale in Tescos, amongst the magazines. It was a huge thrill! I took a picture with my mobile and sent it to Facebook and Twitter. Five of my pocket novels, so far, have also gone on to be accepted by Ulverscroft / Linford Romance Library for Large Print publication. The most recent of those to be published is A Collector of Hearts, a spooky Halloween story (picture below) featuring one of my favourite secondary characters, Mrs. Oakengate. She’s appeared in two of my novellas so far.
Morgen: I love that name (I’m a name and title fan). How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Sally: Most of my marketing is done online, on my blog, Twitter and Facebook. Some writers don’t realise that networking and ‘selling’ yourself is essential in these media driven days, but I accept it as part of the package. Of course, as I haven’t had a mainstream novel published, I don’t get a chance to do book signings etc, but I’m fully prepared for that should it ever happen.
Morgen: Maybe you could have loitered in Tesco until someone picked up your pocket novel.
Sally: It’s also important to engage with people on a personal level. If I’m following someone on Twitter or Facebook who only ever posts what they’ve got coming out, or where they’re appearing, and especially if it’s clearly posted by a PR person, I very quickly un-follow them.
Morgen: Me too. I always reckon on 90% minimum info / chat vs 10% tout maximum. Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
Sally: As you know, Morgen, writing comps are my speciality.
Morgen: I do.
Sally: I write a column about them in Writers Forum magazine and I have the competition calendar, so yes, I think they’re a good thing for writers. I have been shortlisted and won comps. I don’t know that they’ve helped with my success, as they’ve been relatively small comps. But those wins / shortlistings are wonderful in terms of boosting one’s confidence. Having said that, I know of other writers who’ve won comps and gone on to greater things, so I’m not ruling them out as an aid to success. They certainly look good on the resume!
Morgen: They do, that’s what I always think. Recognition by someone else, especially of note, must only be a good thing. Do you write under a pseudonym? If so why and do you think it makes a difference?
Sally: I do indeed. Sally Quilford is not my real name. For me it was a way of not being myself when I write. Though it has to be said that over the years the lines between Sally and Tracy (my real name) have blurred somewhat so I’m not sure that barrier is there anymore. As I’m much more confident about my writing now, it doesn’t matter. Half the people I know now call me Sally. At my daughter’s wedding recently, they brought flowers for the two mums, and my new son-in-law pointed to one bouquet and said ‘they’re Sally’s’, closely followed by my daughter nudging him and saying ‘she’s Tracy today’. Oh and I also have another name I use for writing erotica, but you’ll have to use the thumbscrews to get that out of me.
Morgen: I’ll keep them handy should we ever meet in person, which I’m sure we will one day. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Sally: I don’t have an agent no. Are they vital to an author’s success? It depends what you want to do and who you want to be published by. I attended a workshop by Kate Walker several months ago. She’s one of Mills and Boons’ top authors and she told us she’d never had an agent, and had done very well, mainly because M&B manage all overseas sales. As Kate said, if she had an agent, she’d have to pay them a percentage of her earnings. On the other hand, if one wants to be published by a different type of publishing house, then an agent helps, as few publishers will accept unsolicited manuscripts anyway. An agent acts as a sort of filter, so that when they approach a publisher, the publisher knows they’re getting something that’s already been passed as good.
Morgen: That’s kind of what I think and yes, I know of Kate Walker; I see her books come in (and go out quickly) the British Red Cross shop I help out at. Given what you’ve said so far, I don’t know how relevant this question is but I’m hoping you’ll say “yes”: are your books available as eBooks? If so what was your experience of that process? And do you read eBooks?
Sally: Yes, I made some of my pocket novels available as ebooks earlier this year. The Secret of Helena’s Bay is available on kindle, and so are some of my earlier shorts that were originally published on Amazon Shorts. I quite enjoyed the process of putting them on ebooks, though it did throw up how important another pair of eyes are sometimes. Even with the best will in the world it’s easy to miss silly typos. Sadly because some writers don’t even seem to proofread their own work, independently published ebooks have been given a bad name, so it’s very hard to sell them when you’re not a big name.
Morgen: I have heard that which is why I have an editor (who’s very good – hello Rachel) but I still think that reviews will have their day – a non ‘big name’ can only so have so many friends or family.
Sally: I have only just started reading ebooks regularly, after hubby bought me an e-reader as an early birthday present. I adore it, but I’m still getting used to it. I must admit I do like the feel of a paper book in my hand. Also, ebooks, by established authors, are a bit expensive at the moment. I’m sure they’ll come cheaper soon when everyone is buying them. I take advantage of a lot of free ebooks. Mills and Boon often have them, and The Gutenberg Project is fantastic if you want classics for your e-readers.
Morgen: There are various debates (I’ve seen them on Twitter and LinkedIn) about the pricing of eBooks and I do think some known eBooks are expensive and hope they’ll come down in price but I suspect publishers will fight against it as some readers will buy their favourite authors regardless of cost… they just need to make them worth it (i.e. not a standard text file). What was your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill?
Sally: I’m going to completely leave out several poems I had published by what turned out to be a vanity publisher in my early writing days, and concentrate on the first story I ever sold. That was called Clarence and it was accepted by Yours magazine. I was virtually doing handstands and cartwheels when I got the letter accepting it. I have a lot of affection for that little story, even though when I read it now I can see it’s very raw. Thankfully Yours saw something in it though. Oh and it took me two more years before I had anything else officially published. So it’s sadly not the case that the moment you have one story accepted, you’ll have editors beating down your door asking for stories!
Morgen: That happened to me; first story accepted many thereafter rejected… and I love the name ‘Clarence’. So you’ve had some rejections… how do you deal with them?
Sally: I’ve had hundreds, though I’m glad to say that now I’m targeting my work better, my rejection-hit (success) ratio is falling, and I have less rejections now. They are a part of being a writer, and whilst they sting, they show you’re trying. That’s not to say they don’t get me down sometimes. I’ve had two major rejections this year. One from Mills and Boon and another from an agent. They hurt like hell, because they were my first proper step into the ‘big time’, but the pain was tempered by the fact that both M&B and the agent gave me some great feedback, which meant that I was very close.
Morgen: Ooh, well then you need to keep going. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Sally: I was working on a werewolf novella for My Weekly Pocket Novels, but that didn’t go so well. I loved it, the editor didn’t.
Morgen: Oh dear.
Sally: Luckily I had a back up novella half-finished, so I’m busily trying to get that completed. Next I think I want to try another romantic western, as I’ve done well with those. But I’m also tempted to try something a bit longer, as in a full length novel. I tend to go with my gut when writing, and will work on whatever I can’t get out of my head at the time.
Morgen: Maybe you could start both and go from one to the other when they need ‘cooling off’? Do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
Sally: No I don’t write every day, and I don’t subscribe to the notion that a writer must write every day to be considered a writer. Writing takes place as much in the brain as on the computer / notebook etc. Having said that, anyone who follows me on Facebook and Twitter will know that I can write as much in one sitting as others can in a week. When I get in the zone, there’s no getting out of it. The most I’ve written in one day was, I think, about 7000 words, because I was at the end of a novella and wanted to finish it off. But I couldn’t write for several days after because my hands (I have arthritis) seized up.
Morgen: Oh dear, my mum gets that quite badly, it’s not fun. I hinted at writer’s block when I said “cooling off” a moment ago, what is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it? If so, how do you ‘cure’ it?
Sally: I’ve had writers block before. I once had it for six months. That’s not to say I didn’t write anything, but by my own standards, I wrote very little. Now I have a rule in that if I’m blocked I allow myself a few days of not being a writer. I do other things, like watch movies or listen to music, I read or go out.
Morgen: That’s a good plan and what a lot of my interviewees have said.
Sally: Then when I’ve permitted myself a break, I sit down and write my way through it. It doesn’t matter if what comes out is rubbish, as long as I’ve written something.
Morgen: Absolutely, you can’t edit a blank page. Freewriting’s good too – as you say it doesn’t matter what it is just write something and you’re brain will take over.
Sally: I think the biggest cause of writers’ block is the fear of being rubbish, and feeling that what you’ve written is awful. I think it’s a good idea to allow yourself to be rubbish sometimes. Often when you go back and look at what you’ve written, you realise that it actually wasn’t that bad and can be salvaged.
Morgen: I know! I’ve surprised myself sometimes (but other times I’ve gone back to it and hung my head ).
Sally: Even if it is rubbish, it at least clears all that litter from your mind so you can start writing something good again. Another good way to beat writers block is rather than starting on a new project, do some editing on some old work. You’ll be surprised when you put your mind to old ideas how new ones come to the fore.
Morgen: That works for me too. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Sally: I’ve tried plotting novels and they’ve got nowhere. The novellas I’ve sold have come to me in an idea and I’ve simply sat down and started writing them. I do sometimes write a brief summary of what I want the story to be and where I want it to end, but it’s no more than 500 words, and is often changed considerably by the time I get to the end of the story. But as I said earlier, a lot of writing can go on in the head. I will get an idea, and sometimes see the whole story from start to finish… more or less. I always have a beginning, a middle and an end in mind even if I haven’t written a summary. I can write a 3000 word chapter fairly quickly because it’s pretty much written in my head before I sit down. It helps that I can touch type!
Morgen: Me too which comes in really handy for the likes of NaNoWriMo, especially with the second one which ended up being 117,540 words. You mentioned Mrs Oakengate earlier, you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Sally: I don’t have a method, but I do find that until I have my character’s names, I don’t have a story. Then they reveal themselves to me as I write the story. For example, in Sunlit Secrets, I started knowing that my hero would have a secret, but until I got to the point where he revealed it, I had no idea what that secret was. It was as if he was withholding it from me and from the heroine! What makes them believable, I hope, is that they’re fully rounded human beings, with faults and failings, though essentially moral and good (in line with the market I write for).
Morgen: “to the point where he revealed it” I love that idea of a character being in charge, which they so often are, I think that’s one of my favourite aspects of writing, and of course they need failings, perfect is dull. Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
Sally: I have been lucky enough to be in two writers groups where I know I can get feedback if I want it, and often do, for short stories. But when it comes to the novellas, I trust my own judgement. That’s hard to learn, by the way, and it doesn’t mean I think my own judgement is absolutely fantastic. When I get it right, it comes from having researched hard and making sure I aim correctly. I do get it wrong sometimes, as I did with the werewolf novella, but when I do I often get feedback from the editor in line with that market’s requirements so I know not to do that particular thing again.
I’m not knocking beta readers, but from what I’ve seen of friends who have them those readers will often judge according to their own tastes and, sometimes how they would have written it. It can even become a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth, or too many different opinions completely confusing the writer. As a result they end up writing to please everyone and are left with a mess. That was a mistake I made in my feedback junkie days; trying to fit in everyone’s opinions. It takes a lot to learn to accept the advice that works for the story and reject that which doesn’t (whilst always being grateful to everyone who takes the time to read it, of course).
If you’re writing for a market, as I do, the very best person to get feedback from is the editor for that market, as well as researching that market thoroughly, of course.
Morgen: I belong to three groups and I agree, I pick and choose the feedback (because an author can only really know their stories inside and out) and there are stories that just go straight to Rachel. It sounds from what you say that your writing has strengthened over the years, do you still do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Sally: Yes and no. It depends. Sometimes I’ll completely change a first chapter to bring it in line with what’s come later because I’ve changed my mind about something (even who the murderer was in one case!). But I have been known to write, edit and submit a novella in a fortnight (and it was accepted!).
Morgen: Wow wee…
Sally: I think that eventually you do get a feel for what works.
Morgen: So do I… brain going into overdrive.
Sally: Interestingly, the two of the novellas I’ve submitted that were turned down by My Weekly Pocket Novels were two that I didn’t ‘feel’ as I was writing them. So I wasn’t surprised by the rejections. It’s important not to become complacent. It’s easy to think that because you’ve written one thing that needed little editing that your next piece of work will be the same. I have become better at writing for the market, which means editing is cut down a little, but I’m always prepared to work hard at editing if I need to.
Morgen: And that’s so important; to write for the market you want to sell to. You wouldn’t sell bananas to a rug factory (not sure why those two came into my head)… unless their employees liked bananas, I suppose. What is your creative process like? What happens before sitting down to write?
Sally: I think a lot. I see the story as scenes in my head, much like watching a film. Sometimes, as I said, I write a brief summary, which hopefully points up any plot holes, but usually it’s a lot of thinking, until the characters are screaming at me in the middle of the night to sit down and tell their story. That’s usually how I know I’ve got a good story. Because it won’t go away. It doesn’t always work. I’ve had what I thought were strong ideas, written the first chapter and thought ‘Oh, alright, that’s not what I thought it would be’.
Morgen: But maybe they could lead to two stories? Who knows what goes in our brains (rugs and bananas in mine, clearly). Do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Sally: I have several notebooks but because of the arthritis I can’t handwrite for a long time. Plus, I find my thoughts move faster than my pen, so even if I start half a page in the notebook, I’m itching to get to the computer so I can more easily delete the clunky bits.
Morgen: I always think that even if it’s slower writing by hand when you type it up it’s like a first edit, for me anyway and you do say to delete the clunky bits (I love that phrase). Some writers like quiet, others the noise of a coffee shop etc. Do you listen to music or have noise around you when you write or do you need silence?
Sally: None at all. I love music, but I also love lyrics. If I have music on, I’m listening to the lyrics. Even if I have instrumentals on, I stop what I’m doing to listen. Music is my reward for a good day’s writing. Then I put my ipod on and play my favourite songs.
Morgen: I’m pretty much the same although I find the dog more of an interruption (no offence, hound) so it’s classical music for me. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Sally: I write mostly in third person for the novellas. First person seems okay for short stories, but is hard for a long novella (and I don’t know if My Weekly have ever published one that was in the first person). The thing about 1st person is that the character can’t know anything they don’t witness or are not told, which needs a lot of discipline. Sarah Waters’ ‘The Little Stranger’ is a fantastic example of how it can work. I have written in the second person. One story came second in the Milton Keynes Speakeasy comp a few years ago and the other was published in translation in Swedish magazine, Allas, but sadly has failed to excite British magazines.
Morgen: Ah, I think Helen M Hunt has been published in that. A small world? I love second person (I think everyone I’ve ever come into contact with on here knows that). Do you use prologues / epilogues? What do you think of the use of them?
Sally: I have used them in works that weren’t published, but I don’t tend to now. I know that prologues are considered ‘bad’ things now, in one of these new rules that have come in since the internet, but I think that a story / novel needs what it needs. Oh I did use an epilogue in one of my self-published ebooks, True Love Ways, now I come to think of it. Epilogues are a good way of catching up with everyone some time after the event.
Morgen: I agree – I think it’s better to use an epilogue if the reader is going to be left with questions (how frustrating is that?). Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Sally: Yes, and they’re usually the stuff that I think is the best I’ve ever written. My hard drive is full of them!
Morgen: Oh that’s a shame… maybe under a third pseudonym? Isabella Fontaine du Bois or something. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Sally: Admin. I hate it. I wish I had a secretary. But I also hate the times I can’t write, even if it is only for a few days. I’m at my happiest when I’ve got a story in my head, and at my most miserable when I can’t come up with an idea that sticks.
Morgen: Ooh, I’m a secretary. Do you have an application form? If anything, what has been your biggest surprise about writing?
Sally: I think it is how happy it’s made me. I’ll spare everyone the miserable childhood, but I’ve found writing to be the most cathartic thing I’ve ever done. I don’t even mean writing about my childhood, which I avoid as much as possible on account of it being too painful. Just being able to disappear into a world of my own making, and, in a sense, to play God. Before I became a writer, I wasn’t good at anything. I can’t sew, can’t paint. I was a good mum and wife (I hope), but there was nothing in my life that was just for me. Writing has put a lot right that was wrong in my life and given me a purpose, as well as being something of my own that no one can take away from me.
Morgen: I didn’t have a miserable childhood (just not a particularly memorable one, but then I don’t have a great memory full stop) but I feel exactly the same about writing. <pop away from desk to get some tissues> What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Sally: Put bum in seat. Write. Read anything and everything you can. If you’re not a reader, you shouldn’t be a writer (why should anyone read your work if you don’t read anyone else’s?). Enjoy your writing. Enjoy what you write. Take no notice of writing ‘rules’. The more you write, the more you’ll get to know what works and what doesn’t. But what works for others may not work for you, so don’t listen to anyone who tells you what you ‘should’ be doing (not even me!). But do listen to editors. If an editor takes the time to give you feedback, even if they’ve rejected you, be very grateful. I’ve often heard new writers talk of rejections saying ‘What do they (the editors) know?’ Well they know what’s right for their readers and if you want to be published by them, you have to adapt to them, not the other way around.
Morgen: Very true, and I love your advice to ignore the rules, I’m so not a red tape person. You mentioned reading there, what do you like to read?
Sally: Anything and everything. I like thrillers, as they’re the sort of novels I was brought up on; Jack Higgins, Frederick Forsyth, Alistair McLean. Current favourites are Lee Childs and Stephen King. I also love Sarah Waters’ books. I also like ‘old’ writers like Agatha Christie and Nevil Shute. But I’ll read anything as long as it’s good and don’t care if it’s genre, literary or whatever.
Morgen: Regular readers of these blog interviews will know that I adored Stephen King as a teenager and that I reckon he’s why I wear glasses (and for those who don’t, two words: torch, duvet). What do you do when you’re not writing?
Sally: Erm … nothing. It is my life (Oh God, did I just say that?!).
Morgen: That makes two of us.
Sally: As I said earlier, there is absolutely nothing else I am good at. I do listen to music, read, watch films, cuddle my grandchildren, spend hours playing Cityville on Facebook…
Morgen: I’m occasionally invited to play games on FB but sadly I have no spare time, certainly at the moment. Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful and would recommend?
Sally: Stephen King’s On Writing is an excellent book for writers. It’s mostly a memoir, but has the best writing advice I’ve ever read, which in a nutshell is as I’ve said above: ‘put bum in seat, write’ (though Stephen says it much better). For anyone wanting to write for women’s magazines, womagwriter’s site is a must.
Morgen: Two popular recommendations (the latter by Helen only just this week). In which country are you based and do you find this a help or hindrance with letting people know about your work?
Sally: I’m in Britain, which is pretty central, I think. Or maybe I just think that because I’m here! I think the only drawback, given where I’ve been published, is that my work doesn’t have a chance to reach a wider audience. This is one of the reasons I’ve put some on Kindle, to try and address that problem.
Morgen: Oh great, let me know how that goes (I’m almost there). Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how invaluable do you find them?
Sally: I’m on Twitter (@quillers) and on Facebook as Sally Quilford. I love them because they put me in touch with other writers. As you know it’s a lonely job, so it’s nice to be able to chat to others. I gave up writing forums a while ago. I got fed up of the petty jealousies and arguments, which sadly, get worse once someone has become a successful writer. The forums tend to be full of writers who believe all the conspiracies around publishing. There is no conspiracy. If you write well and can fit the market, you’ll be published.
Morgen: I’m only really on LinkedIn (and Twitter / Facebook) and it does sometimes go off-track but there are sturdy members who slap virtual wrists where appropriate. Where can we find out about you and your work?
Sally: It’s already harder to become a writer than it was when I first started. So many people want to do it, so editors are inundated with submissions. It’s also becoming harder to be paid a decent rate for writing for the same reason. Too many writers (I include my younger self in this) are happy to give work away for free, so why should anyone pay? I think we do need to keep up with new technologies. I love paper books, but I accept that ebooks are the way forward for the new generation of readers, and we have to be prepared for that.
Morgen: Is there a question you’d like to ask me?
Sally: Yes, how did you manage to come up with all these dastardly questions? I didn’t mind the light in my face, but I thought the electrodes were going a bit too far…
Morgen: Just wait until I dig out the thumbscrews. This list is much longer (probably double) than those asked when I started doing these back in June. The original set (about 15-20) was based on the questions I asked in my podcast interviews. I always say to my interviewees that they don’t have to answer all the questions but they always seem masochistic enough to do so… for which I’m always grateful. Thank you Sally.
Sally Quilford is a fiction writer and columnist with Writers Forum magazine. She has also had articles published in The New Writer. Her stories have appeared in women’s magazine in Britain and abroad, and to-date she has had six My Weekly Pocket Novels published. Woo hoo
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