Welcome to the eighty-seventh of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, directors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. Today’s is with short story author and creative writing tutor / columnist (contributor to Tears and Laughter… anthology) Helen M Hunt. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate the author further. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled, and how you can take part) can be found here.
Morgen: Hello Helen. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Helen: I started writing back in 2005 after attending a weekend course on writing short stories. I got the bug and couldn’t stop!
Morgen: Me too, about the same time (January 2005) but my start was with crime writer Sally Spedding’s evening critique workshop (which I took over four years ago when she moved to Wales :)). What genre do you generally write and what have you had published to-date?
Helen: I mainly see myself as a short story writer and all my fictional work these days is aimed at the women’s magazine market. I also write non-fiction features for writing magazines and real life/nostalgia pieces. So far I’ve had fifteen articles and nearly forty short stories published.
Morgen: And I have some of them (mostly Weekly News and Writing Magazine). 🙂 Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
Helen: I was shortlisted in the Momaya Press short story competition in 2007. This led to my first fiction publication in their Annual Review that year. This was really important to me as it gave validation to my fiction writing and encouraged me to keep going.
Morgen: Absolutely, I’d recommend anyone to enter competitions as it’s always worth putting on a CV and as you say, it spurred you on (and we all need that from time to time). Do you write under a pseudonym? If so why and do you think it makes a difference?
Helen: I would find having more than one name far too confusing!
Morgen: At least you share yours with a glamorous Hollywood actress – Morgan (with an ‘a’) Bailey is a porn star. 🙂 What was your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill?
Helen: My first ever acceptance was from My Weekly for a real life story. Every acceptance I get, whether it’s for fiction or an article is still very much a thrill. It’s particularly exciting to break into new markets.
Morgen: 🙂 So presumably you’ve had some rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Helen: Hundreds. Short story writing is extremely competitive and rejections are part of the job description. You just have to develop a thick skin and when stories are rejected by one magazine, send them somewhere else. Never give up.
Morgen: Absolutely. It’s often dependent upon the editor’s taste (on behalf of their readers) and whether they’ve already bought something similar or not. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Helen: I write a new short story every week, and at the moment I am also trying to expand my non-fiction writing into a wider variety of markets.
Morgen: Although some opportunities are closing (too many women’s magazines for my liking are de-listing fiction over the past few years), I think as many are opening, especially on the internet. Do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
Helen: Yes, apart from the odd day off at a weekend or when I’m away from home. Recently I wrote four thousand words in one day, that’s probably about my limit.
Morgen: Plenty for at least a couple of women’s mag short stories. 🙂 What is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it? If so, how do you ‘cure’ it?
Helen: I don’t have time for writer’s block. My problem is always not having enough time to do all the writing I want to do.
Morgen: oh how I know that feeling. 🙂
Helen: I think the fact that I write a variety of different things helps with that. If I’m not in the mood to write a short story, I’ll pitch some articles instead or write a book review or blog post.
Morgen: Oh to have the time to review books (I do for short stories) but oh yes, I do love blog posting. 🙂 Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Helen: A bit of both. Sometimes stories will come into my head almost fully formed. Sometimes I have to sit and do some mind mapping, or go for a walk while I turn ideas over in my mind.
Morgen: Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Helen: I haven’t really got a method, but I recently wrote an article for Writing Magazine about creating characters for short stories and that helped me put my thoughts in order. I’m not sure exactly when the article is being published, but hopefully people will find it helpful. Recently I’ve been getting a lot of character names from Twitter!
Morgen: Some interviewees have said to me that the questions I ask have helped them with their writing (thinking more about their methods I guess) which is great, an unexpected on my side. Who is your first reader, Helen – who do you first show your work to?
Helen: I’m a member of an online critique group, so my writing group always see my stories before they get submitted.
Morgen: Aren’t critique groups great. One of our alternate Monday nights is critique and the amount of times they’ve pointed out things I’d not thought of… saves my editor Rachel a lot of work. 🙂 Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Helen: It varies from story to story. Some stories come out close to how I want them in first draft and then just need a little tweaking. Some take what feels like days of editing before they’re fit to send off.
Morgen: But presumably the more you do the easier it comes? It’s like that for me. 🙂 What is your creative process like? What happens before sitting down to write?
Helen: Sometimes the spark of a story will just come to me out of nowhere. Ideally I like a bit of time to ‘live with’ the idea before I start to write the story. I’ll turn it over in my head while I’m washing up, or driving, or dropping off to sleep. At this stage I may also jot down a title, snatches of dialogue etc. Hopefully by the time I sit down to write the story the idea will be quite strong and well developed.
Morgen: Do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Helen: Sometimes I write a first draft on paper, but usually I go straight to computer.
Morgen: Me too (more the computer unless I’m walking the dog or to / from work) although I prefer editing on paper. What sort of music do you listen to when you write?
Helen: I have Radio 2 on in the background.
Morgen: I love Radio 2 (well, almost all the presenters). What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Helen: I have a preference for first person, although I do use third person as well. I’ve written a couple of pieces in second, but only when it felt really appropriate to the story.
Morgen: Ooh, I’d be interested to chat about that because I LOVE second person. 🙂 Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Helen: Loads of short stories, yes. But I consider each to be a learning experience. Nothing is ever a waste of time.
Morgen: And hopefully you can go back to them with hindsight and maybe tweak them for submission? 🙂 What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Helen: My favourite aspect is being paid to do something I love. My least favourite is the stressful financial status of freelancing.
Morgen: Ah yes, I still have the (part time) day job but do hope to eventually go down that avenue (although an agency I used to work for would have me back like a shot which is always a relief). If anything, what has been your biggest surprise about writing?
Helen: It is much harder that I thought it would be!
Morgen: But presumably getting easier with practice? 🙂 What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Helen: Have a clear idea of what you want to achieve and just go for it.
Morgen: Absolutely. What do you like to read?
Helen: I run a book review blog so I tend to read things that are sent to me for review by publishers and authors. This is great because it means I read a wide variety of genres including things I possibly wouldn’t have chosen. I love Kate Atkinson, Caroline Smailes and Isabel Ashdown. I’ve also recently read books by Sue Guiney and Leigh Russell that have been fantastic. I also read a lot of short stories and try to keep up with what the magazine market wants.
Morgen: Ah, Kate Atkinson – I’m a big fan. Have everything she’s done and almost met her once (I check her events page from time to time and she was doing a book signing near my mum but it was the weekend before I looked… and the weekend before a long tour in the US!). And Leigh Russell is lovely – I attended her workshop at the February 2011 Verulam’s Get Writing Conference and bought her ‘Road Closed’ (which I’m ashamed to say is still in my reading pile) but she’s agreed to do a blog interview with me which is great). Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful and would recommend?
Helen: These websites and blogs are all really helpful for short story writers:
And these for writing generally:
‘How To Write And Sell Short Stories’ by Della Galton is the women’s magazine short story writer’s ‘bible’!
Morgen: Brilliant – thank you. I know most of them. Sally’s also on board to do a blog interview. I’ve not asked Della or Teresa yet but would love them to take part (only I’m too chicken to ask them… yet :)). In which country are you based Helen, and do you find this a help or hindrance with letting people know about your work?
Helen: I’m based in the UK and feel very lucky to be part of the vibrant writing community here. I’ve had a few things published in magazines outside the UK, but I see the UK magazines as my main market.
Morgen: And I enjoy reading them – I only discovered The Weekly News a couple of years ago (at Joanna Barnden’s first workshop – I’ve been to three of hers) but it’s a firm favourite. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how invaluable do you find them?
Helen: I’m on Facebook and Twitter. I find Twitter in particular very helpful for networking with other writers, giving and receiving information. I’m @hmhunt on Twitter.
Morgen: You are and we tweet. 🙂 Where can we find out about you and your work?
Helen: I have two blogs. My writing blog is called Fiction Is Stranger Than Fact (http://fictionisstrangerthanfact.blogspot.com) and my book review blog is called Bookersatz (http://bookersatz.blogspot.com)
Morgen: 🙂 What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Helen: There are always possibilities and opportunities out there, the hard thing is deciding which ones to reach out and grab!
Morgen: And having the time… grab them all? 🙂 Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Helen: I’m now running workshops for people interested in finding out more about the women’s magazine short story market. The next one is coming up on 17 September. Other things in the pipeline include an online critiquing service and possibly online courses.
Morgen: You are and I’m booked on it – really looking forward to it. 🙂 Is there a question you’d like to ask me? 🙂
Helen: What inspired you to set up this site? It’s a fantastic idea.
Morgen: I’d been asked a couple of times to do online interviews and really enjoyed them and when I saw a link on LinkedIn where a blogger had a 6-month backlog (mainly because she posts once a week) I thought that it was something I could do and it grew pretty quickly from there. Well, thank you so much Helen and I’ll see you on the 17th. 🙂
Northampton-based writer Helen Hunt writes short stories and features for magazines. Her short stories have appeared in Woman’s Weekly, My Weekly, The Weekly News, People’s Friend and Take A Break Fiction Feast in the UK, and That’s Life Fast Fiction in Australia. She has also had real life stories published by My Weekly, This England and Evergreen magazines, and articles in Writing Magazine, Writers’ Forum and The New Writer. Helen is also a contributor to the ‘Tears and Laughter…‘ anthology.
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