Welcome to the six hundred and eighty-third of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with short story writer and The Casket host Joanna Sterling. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Joanna. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Joanna: I was born in London and have lived here most of my life. I would consider myself a Londoner. I took up writing after early retirement. But I have always told stories and as a child had a fertile imagination.
Morgen: I went the other way; I early retired last March (a few months before my 45th birthday) to write full-time and can’t see me ever having a proper job, although I’ll be teaching creative writing for my local council’s adult learning from January so that still isn’t ‘work’ to me. 🙂 You predominantly write short stories (my first love), did you pick them or did they pick you?
Joanna: I think they picked me. I’m comfortable writing short stories and I enjoy the discipline they impose. There is a craft involved in their construction no matter how concise the story.
Morgen: Absolutely. I started off writing short stories having ‘discovered’ creative writing on an evening course eight years ago and despite having written seven novels, they will always be my first love and would ‘win’ if I had to choose between the two formats. Is there a particular market you aim for when writing stories for publication?
Joanna: Generally I would say my stories are aimed at a female market, but not exclusively.
Morgen: Are there any publications you can recommend for short stories (submissions and reading)?
Joanna: I regularly read Mslexia and the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthologies. Also One Story which comes from America and arrives once a month. A single story in a slim booklet that can be slipped into a bag or pocket.
Morgen: I subscribe to all the writing magazines, including Mslexia, and recommend writers get at least one of them as it does bring the writing community into your home. I’m intrigued by ‘One Story’. I was going to add it to submissions-flash-fiction-short-stories but then found out it’s already there. Your The Casket site is listed under both categories too. 🙂 Why do you think short stories are so hard done by (with most readers going for novels)?
Joanna: The publishing industry focuses on novels and puts the weight of their marketing budgets into this area. They are what readers see when they first go into the big bookshops and at supermarket shelves. Short stories are often published by small independent publishers with limited resources and therefore unable to compete. Whenever I read out my stories, at events like National Short Story Week, people enjoy them. And often comment that they wish more short stories were readily available.
Morgen: That’s the great thing about eBooks and self-publishing, we can publish our own and really they can be any length – my shortest (free) eShort is just over 600 words. You accept flash fiction, do you write it too? Can you remember the word count of the shortest story you’ve ever written?
Joanna: Yes, I love writing flash fiction and regularly have it on my website. One of the hardest flash fictions I did was a ‘Drabble’ which is a story in exactly 100 words, no more no less. Now that is difficult. My shortest to date is ‘Lunchtime at St Vedast’s’ which was published on London Literary Project – that was only 60 words.
Morgen: My first published story (back in the day when Woman’s Weekly took them) was a 60-worder. 🙂 I’m currently doing Story a Day May and the first day was to write a Drabble; I loved writing it (called How the Drabble came about). What have you had published to-date?
Joanna: I have had stories published in a couple of anthologies, on some flash fiction websites and on English PEN. And of course my own website.
Morgen: Are your stories available as eBooks? How involved were you in that process? Do you read eBooks (novels or short stories?) or is it paper all the way?
Joanna: On my website some of stories are available as downloads for eReader. Converting and uploading them is a time consuming process which I do myself, which is why not all stories are available for eReader. But there is a print option on the website so anyone can have a free copy. Generally I tend to read paper versions, but not exclusively. I do have a Kindle and I do read stuff on the web and on my smart phone.
Morgen: It’s amazing how many people do, including novels. I have a BlackBerry with a lovely clear screen albeit fairly small as it has a full QWERTY keyboard so short stories would be enough for me. I love reading longer pieces on my iPad. Do you have a favourite of your stories or characters?
Joanna: Oh yes, my favourite character has to be Susan Tate, a quirky librarian who lives in Canterbury. She rides a tricycle and has a cat called Charles Dickens. There are several stories about her on the website. I hope one day to have a whole collection.
Morgen: It sounds great. Do let me know when you do have a collection, you could come back and do an author spotlight, and I can list them on books-other-peoples/short-stories. In the meantime I do welcome <1,000-worders for Flash Fiction Fridays. 🙂 What are you working on at the moment / next?
Joanna: I have just launched Tube-Flash, it is in conjunction with Transport for London. I have paired a number of London Underground stations with brooches and writers have, and are, contributing flash fiction stories inspired by either the stations or the brooches. It started as a small idea of just one flash fiction based on the Elephant and Castle and then sort of grew. It is all terribly exciting a new flash fiction story is published on the website every Monday morning at 09.55, except Bank Holidays, Christmas & Easter and during August. Like all good public transport we are closed for our summer holidays and maintenance! Tube-Flash will create a diverse collection of stories by a wide range of writers. They are recorded every six weeks, published on a Wednesday at 09.55 and put onto iTunes as free podcasts. They are another way to enjoy Tube-Flash, great fun with train sounds and announcements. I couldn’t have imagined how wide reaching the project would become when I started. And there is still more in the pipeline.
Morgen: It’s a wonderful idea. Do you manage to write every day?
Joanna: No, I don’t. I do set out every day with that intention, but I’m easily distracted. Life gets in the way.
Morgen: Doesn’t it just. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Joanna: I usually start with an idea; often it is an incident or a character. I have a beginning and the end, I then mostly let the story run. Sometimes I do more detailed plotting if the story requires it, for example ‘The Female of the Species’, a thriller about a female assassin, I needed to ensure I had the key player in the right place at the right time, winging it was not an option.
Morgen: You mentioned Susan Tate – do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Joanna: The name of a character is often the last thing I decide. Among the earliest choices are the clothes and mannerisms. Does she wear high heels and twirl her engagement ring round and round?
Morgen: Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Joanna: I do a great deal of editing and reworking. A story often ends up quite differently from how it began. I also ask people to read and give feedback on my writing, you can be too close to a piece. I find it helpful to have others’ views and input.
Morgen: Second opinions are vital and why I set up five online writing groups. It’s all too easy for us to know what we mean by something but a reader without knowing our intention can often become stumped and therefore the story doesn’t work for them. Do you have to do much research?
Joanna: This will depend very much on the story. I have one that is in the pipeline called The Lady Elfleda set in the North East in 680 AD. This has involved a fair amount of reading around the subject, what people wore, ate, how they lived. The story is loosely based on real people so I do need to be accurate in terms of place and atmosphere.
Morgen: I write very little historical – it was one of my worst subjects at school, so there’s probably no coincidence, although I submitted a story to Writing Magazine this week about Sir Walter Raleigh and QE1, which was great fun (although a lot of research including a Black Adder 2 clip on You Tube :)). What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Joanna: It will depend on the story. I switch around depending on the story. That is one of the joys of short story writing you can switch between points of view and tenses in each story both for variety and to stretch yourself. The second person is interesting but I don’t think is sustainable, mine have all been flash fiction stories.
Morgen: It’s my favourite point of view but I agree. I’ve tried reading Jay McInerney’s ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ but never (yet) made it to the end and it’s not even that long; 182 pages of reasonably-sized print. Do you enter competitions? Are there any you could recommend?
Joanna: Yes, it is a good discipline, a story has to be complete and as good as it possibly can. Makes you finish a piece rather than leave it languishing as nearly there but just needing that last bit of polish.
Morgen: Do you do much marketing for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Joanna: At the start I had business cards printed and my husband calls me a ‘card tart’ because everywhere I go I try to have them with me and hand them out. People ask me about the brooch I’m wearing and it is a great introduction into the site and my writing. For my latest project I’m having printed postcards so the writers can hand them out or post them to friends. A bit more fun than the traditional flyer. I also have a Twitter and Facebook.
Morgen: It’s all about getting out there in one form or another, isn’t it. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Joanna: My least favourite aspect has to be promoting my website and the Tube-flash project. You can put a lot of work into something like a press release, send it out, follow up with phone-calls and nothing. Sites like yours are a godsend, responsive and interested in writers but they are rare and far between.
Morgen: Marketing has mostly been the answer to ‘least’ favourite. Even if an author enjoys it, it takes so much time away from what we should be doing; the writing. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Joanna: I attend a writers’ workshop, I find this invaluable. It is a safe environment to share work. You can criticise each others’ work and test out new ideas or writing styles you have not previously attempted. If your fellow writers have difficulty with something it is likely that your readers will have even more difficulty. Writing is by its very nature a solitary activity so it is important to meet other writers.
Morgen: I run / belong to four writing groups and love them, but then I live and breathe writing so talking about it with other writers is always enjoyable. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Joanna: For the last couple of years I have been part of National Short Story Week and held events called ‘Telling Tales & Taking Tea’. Reading both my own and other writers short stories to my local community. These have proved popular. I also collect brooches. I have over 450 and counting. I wear one every day sometimes more than one. And they feature on my website and are playing a key role in Tube-Flash.
Morgen: Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful?
Joanna: As a short story writer the best book I have read is ‘Write short stories and get them published’ by Zoe Fairbairns. In terms of general reference the two books I use most are Collins ‘Thesaurus’ and Penguin ‘Dictionary of literary terms & literary theory’.
Morgen: What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Joanna: Technology is changing how readers want to interact with material so writers need to reflect this and be flexible.
Morgen: Indeed. Where can we find out about you and your writing?
Joanna: I have a website where I publish both my own and guest writers’ work: thecasket.co.uk. A whole new area has recently been created to allow online submissions – anyone wanting to submit a short story or flash fiction to The Casket can find details at thecasket.co.uk/submit. I’m on Twitter at twitter.com/casketfiction and have a Facebook page at facebook.com/casketfiction
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Joanna: I would like to mention that The Casket is a Made for Mobile website, which means you can read everything on the site on your smartphone or iPad or Tablet as well as your computer. I believe this is the way forward. Particularly for short stories and flash fiction. I’m not sure but I think The Casket is one of the first literary sites to adopt this technology.
Morgen: I love technology and apparently it’s getting more people reading so that can only be a good thing. Thank you, Joanna.
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