Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Guest blog post: Cally Taylor

I'm delighted to welcome Cally Taylor to this blog today, as part of her world blog tour following the publication of her book, Heaven Can Wait (which is brilliant, by the way!)

As most visitors to this blog are short story writers, I asked Cally to write about her background as a short story writer. So, over to Cally!

Like most writers I’ve written short stories since I was a child but it wasn’t until 2005 that I started to write them ‘seriously’. ‘Seriously’ is a strange word, it implies I was messing around with writing until 2005. In a way, I was. I mostly wrote for myself and wouldn’t have dared send a story I’d written to a magazine or a competition. Competitions and magazines were for ‘proper’ writers, not dabblers like me. Or that’s what I thought.

2005 was the year I discovered the BBC Get Writing website (now defunct). I was drawn there by a competition I’d seen on the TV – to complete stories written by famous authors – and was looking for hints and tips. I found lots of great advice but what I hadn’t bargained on were the forums where you could post your work for critique. Initially I lurked, actually I lurked for quite a long time, because I was scared to post my work online for other people to judge, but I grew increasingly curious. How did my stories compare to the ones that had been posted by other people? Were they any good? Was I any good? Tentatively I posted one of my stories and waited for the onslaught.

It didn’t come.

Instead I received some really positive comments (as well as some helpful suggestions about how I could improve the story). I started critiquing other people’s stories and posting a few more of my own. Before I knew it I was a fully fledged member of the site. The more I participated the more fascinated I became with the craft of creating a great short story. I bought books on the subject, read online articles and nosed around on competition websites to see what the winners’ stories were like. Gradually I started to improve as a writer and when one of my stories was included in the first BBC GetWriting anthology I was over the moon. Yes it was ‘just’ a downloadable PDF, but I’d been published!

When BBC GetWriting was closed due to cuts I looked for another forum where I could continue to grow as a writer. I’d sent off some of my stories to competitions and magazines and hadn’t had any luck so knew there was still a lot to learn. Finally I found a forum that had a fantastic, if scary, reputation. The leader of the group was a well respected short story writer – and hugely knowledgeable – but he had a reputation for being very...well...blunt... and I ummed and ahhed for ages before joining. I learnt a lot – a hell of a lot – about the importance of openings, theme, pace, language and characters and gradually my story ‘hit’ rate (getting accepted for publication or winning a prize in a competition counted as a ‘hit) began to increase. I had a short story published in a charity anthology by Leaf Books in December 2005, a piece of flash fiction accepted by Aesthetica in January 2006 and won a small flash fiction competition in February. In April 2006 I won my first short story competition (Bank Street Writers). So far so positive, right? The truth is the blunt critiques were starting to knock my confidence. Yes I was getting work published, and even winning competitions, but all my (anonymously critiqued) stories were receiving similar feedback – not literary enough. Too ‘womag’. Too ‘light’. I started to doubt myself and my ability. Maybe I wasn’t cut out to be a writer?

Everything changed in June 2006 when I was called by the editor of “Woman’s Own” magazine. My story “Wish You Were Here” had beaten thousands of other entries and I’d won the runner up prize and publication in the magazine! I was gobsmacked. People like me didn’t get stories into women’s magazines – professionals like Della Galton and Teresa Ashby did. The day I went into a newsagents and bought a copy of the magazine with my story and photo in it was one of the happiest days of my life.

I continued to write stories but something inside me had changed. I stopped worrying about whether my stories were literary or not and started writing what I felt compelled to write, in a style and voice that came naturally. I continued to enter my more literary stories into competitions and kept the commercial ones back. I searched the internet for fiction guidelines for the womags (this was before lovely Womagwriter created her fantastic blog) and started to believe that maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t a one hit wonder and I could get another story published in a women’s magazine.

I sent my stories out, dozens of them, to Bella, Best, Take a Break, Woman’s Weekly etc and..nothing. Brown envelope after brown envelope plopped onto my doormat. What was I doing wrong? I wasn’t actually reading the magazines that was what! I bought armfuls and studied them, getting a feel for the types of stories, themes and tones the editor liked. And I wrote more stories and sent them off. I’d set myself a challenge – I WOULD get another story published in a woman’s magazine, no matter how long it took.

Finally, in April 2007 I did it! My Weekly sent me a letter asking if they could publish my story “Secrets and Rain”. Could they? Of course they bloody could! (it actually took them two years to publish it but that’s another story...). I didn’t get another womag ‘hit’ until January 2008 when I received a call from Take-a-Break’s Norah McGrath asking if she could buy “The Little Box of Wishes”. It was a fantastic start to what was to become my most successful writing year, ever. I sold another four stories to Norah, a very short story to My Weekly and crossed some of my other ambitions off my list (to get a story in QWF, to place in the Writers Bureau competition – I came third - and get some flashes in the Your Messages anthology). Then, in September 2008, the most amazing thing happened - after a year of sending out my novel, revising it and sending it out again - I got an literary agent! One month later and I had a two book contract with Orion and a handful of foreign deals.

As I’ve been writing this guest post a couple of things have occurred to me about my writing adventure (I hate the word ‘journey’!):

1) I spent a lot of it feeling scared but overcame my fear so I could learn and progress as a writer (putting work up for critique, sending my stories out to magazines, sending my novel to agents etc)

2) I constantly gave myself challenges – get a story published online, get a story published in print, get a story published by a womag, win a competition, get a novel published - and whenever I achieved a challenge I’d come up with a new one*

3) I never, ever gave up. Not when my stories were being slated in the critique group, not when brown envelopes piled up on my doormat and certainly not when my agent told me my novel needed a lot more work before he’d even consider signing me. Yes those things hurt me, yes I went off and had a sulk or a cry (or a bottle of wine!) but I picked myself up and I tried again.

Yes you need talent to get a short story or a novel published but hell, you need a lot more than that. You need guts, determination, drive and resilience. And you need to believe - believe that one day it could be you. Because you know what? It really could be.

Cally Taylor

Author of “Heaven Can Wait”, a supernatural romantic-comedy about a woman called Lucy who dies the night before her wedding and tries to become a ghost so she can be reunited with the love of her life.

* One challenge I haven’t achieved yet is to get a story published by Woman’s Weekly. I’ve been trying for four years now and I’m not about to stop!

P.S. I wanted to ‘Pay Forward’ my big break with Woman’s Own by running my own short competition to celebrate the launch of my novel. Three prize winners will win a one-on-one consultation with the Darley Anderson Agency as well as some great prizes. You can find out more here:

Thanks Cally, fascinating story of your, ahem, 'journey'! I'm blushing here after your kind comments about this blog :-)

Cally has also kindly offered a signed copy of her novel to a person picked at random from anyone who responds to this post. Deadline 6pm Friday 6th November. I will put all names in a hat and ask one of my sons to pick one out. So if you'd like the chance to win a copy, post a comment below!


Anonymous said...

What an inspiring blog. My own path has been similar (without the novel success - yet!). Let's hope there's room out there for another Cally Taylor or ten!

Juliet Boyd said...

I must remember to call my writing an adventure rather than a journey. It's a much nicer term.

Thanks Cally and Womag for this great post. It just goes to prove it can be done, all we have to do is keep at it.

Lydia said...

Thanks for this inspiration, Cally. I remember the BBC competition to finish stories by famous writers - I was glued to the TV! One thing that strikes me about this is how reticent we all are to take ourselves "seriously". We're just "dabbling" aren't we? - as you say, Cally, it's Teresa and Della who are the "real" writers. That's a thought that still lurks in the dark, damp self-doubting areas of my brain no matter how much I try to banish it! A little self belief goes a long way - thanks for reminding us of that. Good luck with the novel.

Susan Wright said...

What an interesting post. I suppose my path has been quite similar to Cally's too although I'm going down the path much more slowly than her.
I haven't achieved success with a novel yet and I haven't sold a story to Woman's Weekly either although I've been trying for about eleven years!
I'm not going to give up either, but I have this awful feeling that they might write to me one day telling me not to bother them anymore!

Joanna said...

Thank you for all this great advice and I'm really looking forward to reading the book. Writing certainly is an adventure and the challenges never come to an end.

penandpaints said...

What a great post,
it is good to know how things can turn around for a writer if she/he just sticks at it.
I have yet to have my first story accepted, but I live in hope, I'm sure it's possible and will happen one day!
Thanks Cally and Womag!

Elaine said...

What an inspiring post. I'm still playing at being a writer really, but Cally has made me think I should set myself some goals. Look forward to reading the novel.

Colette McCormick said...

I'm a great believer in setting goals - as long as they're achievable (hard lesson learned.)

Sue Houghton said...

Thanks for this post, Cally. Very inspiring!
I know which forum you're referring to and felt like you they were 'anti' anything they didn't consider literary. I forget the maths but womag fiction sells more than anything else if you consider the circulation figures.
Your novel sounds intriguing. I'll put it on my list!

Anonymous said...

What a great post. It's interesting to see how Cally's writing adventure has progressed. I set a fiction goal for 2009, but still haven't achieved it yet. I'd better hurry up!

Thanks Cally and Womag for the inspiration and a very useful blog.

Sonja M

Karen said...

Great interview :o) Persistence is definitely key, but with the best will in the world I think there are a couple of the womags that I'm NEVER going to crack!

AJ said...

What a lovely down to earth person you are.
I am setting myself little challenges too and a bit like you I did not take writing seriously; that was for professionals. Until I joined a creative writing class and by sheer luck(I think) I had one of the first stories I sent off published in That's Life Aus. A bit like you too, no others have been wanted, but I am determined to have another published. I will keep going on with my pen. Thankyou for the inspiration.

RKCharron said...

Hi :)
Thank you for having Cally Taylor here today & thanks to Cally for the great inspirational post!
All the best,

Suzanne Jones said...

Great interview. Thanks Womag and Cally.

Bernadette said...

Great interview. It's not that I enjoy seeing how other writers have suffered before they succeeded (really I don't!)but it does make you feel you are not alone.

And the book is fab! (My mum is reading it at the moment.)

Can't leave without saying thanks to Womag for hosting and for all the wonderful support she's given us short story writers over the years.

Debs said...

Thanks for the great interview.

You're an inspiration, and I'm going to keep working on my writing until I achieve something, not sure what, maybe madness. (Can you tell I've been working on billing spreadsheets all day?)

Patsy said...

I'm glad you didn't let the pople who criticised you as not being literary enough put you off altogether. Wouldn't it be dull if we all wrote in the same style?

Helen said...

A real inspirational article. I think the final comments about never, ever giving up say it all!

Cathos said...

Look forward to reading your book and very inspirational messages to remember. I've been trying to get something in WW for years too! Perhaps I need to set myself a target around sending more out to them in the first place rather than focussing on womags that have published me before.

Antonia said...

What an inspiring post! Great stuff, Cally. Just shows talent will out.

Antonia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Antonia said...

Sorry, the above came out twice. :-)

Quillers said...

What a wonderful and inspirational post. Thanks Cally and Womag for giving us less 'literary' writers such validation.

And as I haven't yet bought the novel (am slapping my own wrist as I type), I'm going to be the first one to say 'pick me!'

Lexi said...

What I find most encouraging is Cally Taylor's frankness about her doubts; the times her confidence in her writing dipped, but she kept going.

Persistance carries the day.

AJ said...

I have just read that I ahve the chance to win a signed copy of book. Yay!, please be me. It's my birthday on Monday not that I want to emotionally blackmail =D

Xuxana said...

Ha! That's funny when you said at first you weren't actually reading the women's magazine stories. That's exactly what I DON'T do too. But I've read yours and I really enjoyed them, so I know it will be worth it to start reading others. Who knows, maybe I will like writing short stories too and give it a go myself ;)

Jane said...

Great post - I always find it inspiring to see that persistence pays off - looking forward to reading the book - whether I win a copy of have to buy it myself!

LilyS said...

Great post - I'm feeling so inspired and I've started setting myself challenges. I'm going to sub to a womag and my bed is strewn with them! Thanks for all the advice so far!

Jenzarina said...

I'm always happy to see that most writers don't just pop up from nowhere with a 6-figure publishing deal.

Thanks for making me feel its ok to burn slowly, working on my writing style. Your hard slog and perserverence are an inspiration.

Rosie said...

Very inspirational, Cally. Here's to your book selling in truck-loads!

Doglady said...

Cally, I've really enjoyed following your adventure and long may it continue. I too recall the BBC forum and remember some of the battles between a certain literary man and the female womag writers - a few of them are here. Things once got so heated that many of the womag girls were booted off the forum by the beeb for answering back when we females should have bowed to a 'knowledgeable man'. It took a well known novelist friend to get us reinstated - happy days!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Cally & Womag - this was very inspiring, especially as I'm nearing the end of week 1 on NaNoWriMo and flagging a bit.

Alice Anderson said...

Cally, thanks so much for sharing your story. Very inspirational and packed with great advice! Wishing you many sales.