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.
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!