Leslie: Can you describe the kinds of imaginative language you loved when you were growing up, please? Where did you get your ideas and help from?
Sally: My two elder sisters were ten and eleven years older, and introduced me to imaginative language when they would tell me bedtime stories, made up and from books. As a small child we lived in Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was then known as. When my sisters were at school I was left in the charge of my Amah. I doubt that at two and three that I was aware that she spoke no English but I certainly remember my feeling of being loved and cherished by her. All those early years are infused with the aroma of spices, the earthy smell of the surrounding jungle and the pong of poop left on the veranda by the smaller monkeys who invaded the house. All those experiences I consider develop your imagination and the language that you use as an adult. It is made up of so many elements including smell, touch, images and emotion that are individual for each of us.
We lived abroad or away from our home in Portsmouth until I was 14 years old and I changed school seven times. Including two years in South Africa where I attended an Afrikaans speaking school where to make friends I had to learn to their language. It was not easy at first and I spent a lot of time on my own and it was books that I considered to be a constant. I read every book that I could get my hands on, and whilst I loved The Famous Five and Hans Christian Anderson, I also developed a taste for the epics such as War and Peace that I read when I had Chicken Pox at age 11. I then began to borrow my father’s library books, learning a great deal more than I probably should have, about language and writing style, from authors such as Harold Robbins and Wilbur Smith. That led to me buying my own copy of ‘When the Lion Feeds’, Wilbur Smith’s debut novel, at age 12 and the beginning of a lifetime of collecting every book he has written.
Leslie: What happened to your love of language as you grew up? How did that finally lead you to becoming an author?
Sally: I found myself retreating into the worlds created by books more and more as a teenager, especially when experiencing more changes of country, schools and English Literature at school. There is no doubt that the classics such as Mill on the Floss by George Elliott and Anthony and Cleopatra are rich in merit, but for teenagers in 1967 they were boring. I know that some of my friends left school declaring that they were never going to read a book again. Thankfully I had my imagination stimulated by so many authors by then; it was ingrained in me to keep reading.
I had been writing poetry (not very good) and short stories since my early teens and with work and life becoming the focus for the next thirty years it was not until my 40s that I wrote my first book.
‘Size Matters’ developed from a diary that I wrote as I lost 11 stone 22 years ago, and also shared the programme that I had designed to lose that weight healthily. A close friend suggested that others might be inspired if I wrote a book; it took two years, but it was finally published in 1999.
The second book was the result of too much red wine and a dinner party where we regaled each other with war stories from our working lives. Someone suggested that I write my adventures down in a novel and ‘Just an Odd Job Girl’ was the result.
So really if it had not been for someone giving me the push I might never have got started.
Leslie: What kind of books do you write? Do you have a favourite, and if so why?
Sally: I write non-fiction and fiction and like my blog I enjoy variety. I will spend a long time researching and exploring my own experiences of working with people with health issues when writing my non-fiction. With my fiction I tend to be prompted by images or memories based on my travels, the people I have met or my own experiences. But I also enjoy stepping outside my comfort zone and creating a ‘what if’ scenario for my short stories. I must admit to preferring a beginning, middle and end to a story, but I enjoy putting in an unexpected twist to mitigate the urge to have everyone living happily ever after!
I have two favourites… one is semi-autobiographical – ‘Just an Odd Job Girl’ – and the other is ‘Sam, A Shaggy Dog Story’ which I co-wrote with my Lassie collie who shared my love of music and cheese. I am also delighted that he has reached the hearts of others who have read his book.
Leslie: How does your self-publishing firm work? In your experience, what are the pros and cons of self-publishing as against seeking representation and being accepted by a publishing house?
Sally: My first two books were published by a self-publishing company in Canada and in fact I ended up acquiring other authors for them for the next year or so. However, like me, many authors found that the ‘one size fits all’ approach did not allow control over the format, cover or end product. David, my husband, had formatted my books and designed the covers, and he began doing this for the authors that we obtained. They liked the one-to-one approach, and after a few months, David found himself in more demand, leading us to set up Moyhill in 2004. We take care of everything from receipt of a fully edited manuscript to an eBook version for Kindle and epub as well as print copies when required. We have established a number of excellent print on demand printers in the UK which is essential to providing cost effective print copies. If an author requires help in setting up social media platforms and marketing assistance then I will step in.
We do work with new authors but mainly with writers we have worked with before over the last fourteen years. It is something that we look forward to doing for many more years to come, and it is great for me having an in house book designer!
My experience with mainstream publishing was in 1999 after I had written my first book; I was with an agent for about eight months who sent my manuscript to seven major publishers. The overall opinion about the book was that it was very good. However they said that I did not have public presence and would be difficult to market.
Times are very different now for both indie authors and those who choose to go the agent and publisher route. I am reluctant to call it ‘traditional’ publishing as it is not. In fact self-publishing was the norm between a writer and a printer until relatively recently when agents inserted themselves as the middleman as a way to make a lot of money. I know that makes me sound cynical, but today I am actually approached by authors who have been ‘represented’ and then left to their own devices when it comes to the marketing of their books.
There is no doubt that any of us who are self-published would be thrilled if approached by a publisher with an offer of a book deal. In reality, very few authors today receive an advance, and with millions of titles being released each year, they have just as tough a time as Indies getting their book noticed, without some serious money being spent and a great deal of exposure.
Now if someone would like to offer me a fortune for the film rights to a couple of my books I would be only too pleased.
Leslie: Why do you write and why do you blog? What are the connections and differences between these two activities?
Sally: Writing is not just a job it is an important part of who I am as a person. I might not have been writing fiction (except at annual budget time) during all my career. Even so there was a great deal of satisfaction in producing a detailed business report, marketing materials or a training programme that achieved its intended purpose. When I started working for myself I continued to write, and ‘Just Food for Health’, which is a family health manual, was written for my clients initially.
The blog is a place to write every day and receive immediate feedback. This is not the case with a book that might be years in the writing and publishing process before hitting the shelves. The connection is that it also provides a platform to experiment with various forms of writing, and to identify if a particular theme or plot will work. Because I am not affiliated with Kindle programmes and only sell my books through Amazon, I can share as much of my book with my readers as I wish. For example ‘What’s in a Name’ volumes one and two were written over a year on the blog, although I did have several stories that were exclusive to the books by the time they were published.
Leslie: What advice would you give to anyone trying to become an author and blogger today?
Sally: There are so many sites that give you advice on both being a published author and a blogger so perhaps I can share some key elements that I feel are essential.
The first is that you as a person is as important to your marketing and future success as your writing. I get so frustrated when I go into an ‘about me’ page on a blog and find no photo, no information or a name that I can address the blogger by.
If you are a writer you are by definition creative. If you do not want anyone to know who you really are then make up a name, a back story and find a photograph that personalises your profile.
This also applies to authors who do not have an Amazon author page, a biography or photograph, even when they have multiple books. It is a nightmare as a book promoter to bring it all together and create a decent showcase
The second is that if you are writing your first book, find a genre that you are comfortable writing in, read copious books on the subject and make sure some of them are bad ones.
Make two lists side by side. What made the good books so effective and memorable and on the other what made the bad books fail. Clearly if you want your book to be successful you want to incorporate all the elements from one and avoid the others.
But you don’t want to be a copycat, and to avoid people feeling that they have read this story line many times before, you need to find your unique voice. That might be writing style, humour, twists, characters, heroes, villains, action, and emotional content. Whatever it is, your first book is going to contain your signature style that you will carry over to every other book that you write. It needs time and patience and also outside counsel from time to time.
Finally, don’t rush the process. Whether it is a blog post, poem or a book, read it out loud to yourself as it changes the grammar, context, light and dark shading and depth of emotion. You will be amazed at the difference it will make, not just to you the writer, but to those who read the words later.
Next week I interview Watford-based singer/songwriter Tom Craven who has played funk, pop, folk and high-energy rock and now runs his own events company.
ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:
- Heaven’s Rage is a memoir that explores addiction, cross-dressing, bullying and the hidden sides of families, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
- Purple is a coming-of-age novel, a portrait of modern love and a family saga. Set in the North of England, it follows the story of shy ingénue Matthew Lavender living through the wildness of the 60s and his grandmother Mary, born into a traditional working-class family. You can read more about/buy Purple here.
- Blue tells the story of Richard and Vanessa Lavender, who join a 90s feminist collective sharing childcare, political activism and open relationships. You can read more about/buy Blue here.
- Violet is about late-life love. It begins in 2003 with Beth Jarvis and James Lavender on a blind date in a London restaurant. Attracted by James’s openness, Beth feels an immediate, deep connection between his honesty and her own romantic faith. From then on they bond, exchanging love-texts, exploring sea walks and gardens and sharing their past lives with flashbacks to Beth’s rural childhood and her marriage to a dark, charismatic minister… Signed copies of Violet can be bought here.