Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Guest Blog by Sheila Norton - A thousand words? Or a hundred thousand?



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

18 comments:

CarolineG said...

So interesting to hear your story, Sheila, and I think anyone who is snobbish about writing short fiction is an idiot! I think it is much much harder to keep coming up with ideas the way you and writers like Geri do, than to work on a longer piece. Good luck with all your projects.

Samantha Tonge said...

What an inspiring post, Sheila. Congrats on your success.

Samantha Tonge said...

I spotted you in Writers' Forum magazine this week, as well:)

Rosalind Adam said...

Congratulations on all you've achieved. I too started out having short stories published in Bella, best, My Weekly and several others and experienced the same snobbish attitude - a heirarchy among writers. I recently had a children's picture book published and the first comment I got from a well-meaning friend was 'Why don't you have a go at writing a real book for grown ups now?' You can't win!

Susie Nott-Bower said...

What a lovely post - thank you, Sheila/Olivia! You are proof that perseverence pays off (even if it doesn't pay much). Hope the new novel gains a great contract!
Susiex

Helen Black said...

Isn't it ridiculous that people see writing short fiction as somehow less than novel writing.
Anyone whose tried it knows what a skill it is...I am absolutely hopeless at it.
HB x

Fionnuala Kearney said...

I am staggered at some people's attitude towards this business...you're writing a book and they ask 'Oh where is it, can I buy it?' Er, not yet. You write short stories that they can buy and they ask, 'When you going to do some proper writing?' Grrr.
Great to see your story on here Shiela and thanks so much for posting. Best of luck with all of your writing.

Paul Lamb said...

I never quite understood the whole "serious" writer appellation. As far as I'm concerned, any writer has to be deadly serious about his/her work, even if it is going to be a lighthearted frolic of a story. That's no easy task to do right. Anyone who wants to be called a writer has to take the work seriously.

In my experience, short stories are much harder to write than expansive novels. Congratulations on your successes.

Samantha Tonge said...

I agree, i find the prospect of writing short stories much more daunting.

Jenzarina said...

100 stories in magazines! I found this seriously impressive. As well as all the novels, of course!

womagwriter said...

Great post, Sheila, thank you! I love that you've come back to magazine short stories after writing novels, and that you've had new successes with it. I've come across the same sort of snobbery - a very good friend once asked me to promise her I'd only ever submmit to glossy magazines, never the rubbishy other type... Ah well, We just need to educate these people.

Karen said...

I've come up against the snobbery issue too, but reckon we're the ones having the last laugh!

You're an inspiration and long may your successes continue :o)

Chris said...

What a great story. I love to hear of success born out of self-belief and perseverance. I also like to hear that a foot in both camps (novels and short stories has paid off). I've tended to focus on one or the other at any one time in the belief that two can't be done together - but hearing your story has given me the idea to try it.

Thanks for sharing your experiences and good luck with many more successes.

Chris Warren
Author and Freelance Writer
Randolph's Challenge Book One - The Pendulum Swings

Olivia Ryan said...

OH!! Thank you all so much! I've just come back to 'life' after having yet another computer problem and being off-line since the weekend - so I had no idea my guest blog had been published! Thank you, 'Strictly', for doing me the honour of publishing me, and Geri in particular for inviting me to be a guest blogger. I'm glad you all enjoyed the post - it's lovely to think my story might help to encourage someone. And I'd love to help stamp out some of the snobbery involved in writing - it usually comes from people who don't actually write themselves! x

Geraldine Ryan said...

Great post, Sheila! I love writing short stories. It's a challenge and when you make a sale there's no other buzz like it!


Lovely inspiring story!

Lydia said...

Lovely post. Thanks Olivia. Interesting to hear how you cope with writing short and longer fiction. Absolutely agree with everything everyone has said about short story snobbery. Even well meaning friends ask me when I'm going to write a "proper book"! I wonder if they realise just how many people read your work if it's published in a womag? An awful lot more than many novels sell. Maybe it's the money thing. We do, after all. live in a society that measures success by financial gain. Don't get me wrong financial gain is fab (more please!), but writing doesn't do that in substantial amounts, does it?

Rena said...

How nice to find you here on Strictly Writing, Olivia. You can always be relied on to come up with a post that inspires. Your down to earth approach to the whole writing thing is refreshing, probably because so many of us can relate to your experiences.

I’ve been lucky enough to score several hits with short stories recently but missed writing them since starting my novel. Your idea of allocating some days for the novel and others for the short story sounds like a winner and I’ll be trying that one out for myself.

I’m sure we all have at least one “friend” who turns up her nose at short stories in women’s magazines as not “proper” fiction. After all, (they seem to think) anybody can write that stuff. Well they can’t! Creating a piece of writing, polishing it until it shines, and then editing it to satisfy the incredibly precise requirements of the target magazine requires skill, determination and a strictly professional approach to the job.

It is no mean feat to have a story accepted and published in a magazine that hundreds of thousands of people (perhaps all over the world) will read…a justifiable reason, I would say, to feel proud.

Olivia Ryan said...

Thanks Geri, thanks Lydia (you're so right about financial gain ... I wish!!), and thanks Rena - for all your comments.

You know, it's not just the magazine stories that some people turn their noses up at, either! I've had people ask me why I don't write 'better' books! Hilarious, isn't it! Silly me - why didn't I think of writing something better -there I was, just sitting down and writing the most mediocre thing I could come up with. Funny how it got published .... !