I started out as a short story writer. In fact, it was winning two short story competitions that established me as a ‘proper’ writer (in my own mind, if not in anyone else’s!) – and I went on to have stories published regularly in Woman’s Realm, Woman’s Weekly, Woman, etc. I was proud of this, and so were my friends and family – but I did come across a certain amount of snobbery from people who had no idea how difficult it is to achieve publication in these magazines, and who presumed I’d try to go on from there to ‘have something more serious published’. As if it were that easy!
Well, I’ve never had much ambition to have anything ‘serious’ published – whatever that means. But like lots of short story writers, having a novel published did seem like the ultimate goal. To be honest, working full-time, as I was back then, and with three teenage daughters, a dog and two cats to look after (not to mention a husband and a house), even finding the time to write a novel seemed more like a silly fantasy than a goal. I did try – several times – and abandoned the resulting pathetic attempts, most of them fortunately before submitting them anywhere. But then I had the idea for The Trouble With Ally – a kind of chick-lit novel about an older woman – a fairly new theme back in 1990 when I started writing it. I was so fired with enthusiasm, so sure this time it was going to work, that I finished it, liked it, submitted it. Don’t ask how I found the time – the job, kids, animals and husband must have all suffered neglect! Over the course of eighteen months I collected rejections, although several of the agents I tried were complimentary but didn’t take me on. I moved on to trying publishers direct and eventually, after several more rejections, got a two-book deal with Piatkus.
In the eyes of those who had been slightly toffee-nosed about my women’s magazines stories, I was now suddenly a ‘really proper writer’ – an author of a book. Friends and colleagues rushed out to buy it and some were surprised to find it was even less serious than the magazine stories. In fact, it was humorous and quite cheeky! But – OK, I’m only human – I’ll admit that the kudos of having a novel out there in bookshops, being translated into foreign languages, and actually being bought and read (by a few people) – was fantastic! What with publisher’s parties, interviews with local papers, invitations to speak to writers groups and so on, life as a novelist seemed more thrilling than that of a magazine story writer – or that of a medical secretary, my day job, for that matter! I don’t think I ever recovered enough from the surprise of being published to become ‘up-myself’ though – I try to remember I’m only as good as my next contract. Non-existent at the moment!
I’d like to say I went on to being able to give up the day job because I’d earned so much from my novels and was made for life. But as we know, this only happens in fairy stories or if you’re one of a tiny percentage of very lucky devils – or a celebrity. I did give up the day-job – after I’d had five novels published under my own name and started writing a series of three under the pseudonym of Olivia Ryan – but this was because of needing a fairly serious operation. I retired early and took on the title I’d craved all my life – ‘Full Time Writer’. Of course, this doesn’t earn me a living, so in an attempt to boost the income I’ve now gone full-circle and started writing short stories again, alongside the novels.
And it hasn’t got any easier! In fact, it’s harder now than it was a decade ago. There are less magazines publishing stories, more of us seeking publication, and editors’ requirements are more defined. So it’s been just as gratifying to have some stories accepted this time around, as it was the first time. Some days I work on my new novel; other days on a short story. With some experience of both now, I’d say neither is easier, or less satisfying, than the other. Different skills are needed – and both are immensely enjoyable. Trying to have a foot in both camps might seem crazy but with today’s difficult climate in publishing, I believe ‘hedging our bets’ between different writing forms is the way to go if we can manage it. In fact I also write the occasional feature. And now – thanks to Strictly Writing – I’ve written for someone else’s blog too!
Sheila Norton writes contemporary relationship-based fiction and has had five novels published under her own name and now a series of three under the name of Olivia Ryan. She’s also had more than 100 stories published in women’s magazines.
She lives with her husband in Chelmsford, Essex and has three grown-up daughters.
Her own blog is at http://oliviaryanblogspot.blogspot.com – and her websites are www.sheilanorton.co.uk and www.oliviaryan.com