Sunday, 24 May 2009

Sally Quilford on Making the Short Story Pay

Sally Quilford started writing in 1995, but (in her own words) 'has only really been trying since 2002.' Since then, she has had work published in magazines and anthologies, and has placed in over two dozen competitions. She is also a monthly columnist for Writers Forum magazine. Born in South Wales, Sally now lives in The Peak District, with her husband and four Westies.

I first became aware of Sally's work through her wonderfully useful competition calendar. After I realised just how many short stories and articles she'd had published, I thought I'd invite her over here to talk about the secret of her success.

PWN: Thanks for coming, Sally. You've hundreds of links on your website to work you've had published or competition wings. What's the most rewarding thing about writing short stories for magazines and competitions?

SQ: There’s so many things, starting with creation, and ending, hopefully, in publication or a win. The feeling that someone else in the world thinks you’re a good writer is like a drug, especially for a feedback junkie like myself.But it’s not just about being published or winning. For me, becoming a writer was a chance, after bringing up a family, to do something that was mine alone. I love the feeling of being creative and all-powerful. In a story, I get to play God, moving my characters around like figures on a chess board, either giving them a much-deserved happy ending, or a more realistic ‘sad’ ending.

Of course getting published or being placed is rewarding too, as is any money that comes from it. But the most important thing for me is the enjoyment of writing. When I’m blocked, as happens from time to time, I write fan fiction, which no one but myself reads, and it’s just as rewarding for me as the stories I sell

PWN: Has your success in this area led onto professional opportunities in other, related areas?

SQ:I was invited to present two workshops at Wigan Lit Fest a few years ago, which was great fun, and I now have a monthly column in Writers Forum magazine. My name is also getting known among other writers and editors. When I did a workshop on marketing at Wigan, one of the things I said was that you must get to know other writers. Someone raised the issue that surely it’s the readers who you want to read your work, not other writers. That’s true, but other writers can tell you where the markets are, and help you avoid the pitfalls, such as vanity publishing.

SQ: We've already mentioned your website but you're also a blogger. How important has developing an internet presence been to your writing career?

SQ: When I used to read in the media about people getting publishing contracts because of their blogs, I always took it with a pinch of salt. I told myself that they probably had friends in high places to begin with. That was before the editor of Writers Forum magazine emailed me, saying he’d read my blog and seen my competition calendar, and asking me if I’d like to become a regular contributor to the magazine. Now I’m much less cynical about what the internet can do for a writer.

One thing I really wanted to do when I set up my website and blog was not just have pages that were all about me, me, me. I wanted to give something back for all the help I received early in my writing career. So I try and fill the pages with interesting articles, and information about competitions and markets. That way people (I hope) keep coming back, because they’re getting something useful from visiting. And as I stated in the last answer, getting to know other writers is an essential part of building up a writing career.

PWN: Is it possible to make a living out of writing for magazines and competitions?

SQ: I think it depends who you are, and how much you’re able or willing to put into it. I’m not yet in a position to make a living out of either, but I know other writers who do. For example, Della Galton sells many stories to magazines every year, but she also supplements that by presenting very good writing workshops. Della works blooming hard to get that success, and I sometimes wish I had half her drive. According to a recent report, the average writer earns around £4k per year. That left many of us feeling distinctly below average. Few of us can give up the day job (assuming we work) or rely on earnings from magazines and competitions to do anything other than buy a meal out or a new vacuum cleaner.

This is because in both magazines and competitions, there is an element of chance. A story might be turned down by a magazine editor because they’ve had one similar in the past few weeks or months. A story might fail in a competition simply because it doesn’t run to the judge’s tastes. In this instance, perseverance is the key. Just because one market or comp doesn’t like a story doesn’t mean another won’t. So you take the story back, dust it off (though it’s not always necessary to make changes) and send it out again.

PWN: Do you have any advice for short story writers?

SQ: Ray Bradbury (one of my heroes) gave better advice than I could ever offer. Ray says: If you write things you love, and do it with love, you can't go wrong. I read about a lot of writers who say they hate writing. My answer to that is ‘well stop doing it and leave it to those of us who love it’. I sometimes get criticised for my happy-go-lucky approach to it all. As if I’m somehow lying to myself and others and making it all seem to easy. The truth is I’m not like that all the time. I have days when the ideas won’t come and I feel miserable and fed up with it all. But I also know that I’m happier when I am writing than when I’m not writing.

But here’s some more pragmatic advice.

Never send out a first draft. If you can put your story away for a week or so, then take a look at it again, it will be better for it. It’s amazing what can be missed. I’m pretty good at making sure I edit, though that wasn’t always the case in the early days, but even recently I sent out a story where the MC’s name changed halfway through the story.

Look at the world around you. You may think you have nothing to write about, but the world is full of events that can lead to a story. I’ve written stories based on things I’ve overheard on trains or in cafes, or based on things that happened to family (though it’s important to disguise these quite heavily, for fear of being sued!)

Never waste ideas and never delete anything. If a story doesn’t work the first time you write it – I have a hard drive full of unused stories – let it sit for a few months, or even a couple of years. Last year I sent out a story I’d written ten years previously, after I took a fresh look at it and realised why it hadn’t been published first time round. The plot was okay, but the writing was terrible. I totally re-wrote it and sold it immediately.

If you do get ‘writers block’, then try writing some fanfiction, or stories just for yourself that no one else will ever read. When you’re not worried about form or content, it’s amazing how the words flow.

Write for yourself, but with one eye on whatever markets you want to be successful in. It’s no good hoping that your story will do just because you like it. Magazines in particular have specific aims and a specific readership.

Read! It’s amazing how many writers don’t actually read anything by anyone else. You should certainly be reading stories from the markets and comps that interest you. And if you don’t actually enjoy those stories, then ask yourself whether you should be writing for them.

It takes hard work and determination to make it as a writer, not just the wish to be one. I’d also add that it takes a willingness to listen to the good advice given to you by others. Some writers get really stroppy if an editor gives negative feedback on their work. I know of writers who can’t get arrested nowadays because they’ve been so churlish about feedback on their work.Don’t be like those writers.

Consider how busy that editor is. All they really have to do is say ‘thanks but no thanks’. Instead they’ve taken the time to give you advice. You don’t have to agree with it. A story of mine that one editor dismissed as ‘melodramatic tosh’ by one editor, went on to be shortlisted in a major science fiction competition. But you do have to respect that editor’s opinion and the time they’ve taken. If only because the next time you send something to them, they’ll remember you as someone they could work with.

Don’t let anyone else tell you that you can’t do it, because you choose to write for a particular market or genre. There’s a lot of snobbery out there, but we should all be cheering each other on, whatever markets we choose for our writing. I wasted too much time worrying that I wasn’t the ‘right’ sort of writer. Then I decided I’d be what I wanted to be, not what others imposed on me. But most of all, as Ray Bradbury says, love what you do. If you love your writing, then that enthusiasm will shine through in the prose.

PWN: Thanks for that Sally. Sally is also making her first foray into 'twitterature' with a serial novel in tweets you can read - and participate with here.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks again for interviewing me, Jenn! It was a great honour. Good luck to PWN for all your future endeavours.