I'd like to welcome you to my interview with writer, Sue Millard. Enjoy.
Hello Sue, can you please introduce yourself?
I'm Sue Millard. Originally from Cheshire, and after 40 years here I’m now more or less an adopted Cumbrian. I’m on the east side of the county, near the M6.
How long have you been writing?
I started aged 7 writing consciously “for” other people to read. Sold my first poem at 10, tried a novel when I was 12 (it was crap) and studied literature at Chester College (now the University of Chester; I was on one of its first degree courses).
What first got you interested in writing?
Teachers who spotted my ability with words, I suppose. When I was ten I was very much encouraged by one teacher who used to read both prose and poetry to the whole class every Friday afternoon. Once you’re launched you never really stop loving words.
Do you attend a writing group?
I attend the Orton Scribblers, a group which I started in May 2008. People come in from a radius of about 20 miles of the village.
Why do you attend a writing group?
It helps to focus me on what I’m writing. I often re-write scenes I thought were completely finished, when I re-read them with the group in mind. Also, we have a very wide range of experience, and as we don’t structure our meetings, we can all bring questions and know we will get considered opinions even if not total answers.
What is the most valuable thing you have taken away from your writing group?
The way writing sounds when spoken, and the need to make sense.
What genre(s) do you write? What drew you to this/these genre(s)?
I usually say, “humour, history and horses, not necessarily in that order.” I’ve always enjoyed witty writing, and ever since I was about 2 I’ve been a horse nut, even though we didn’t own anything with hooves and it wasn’t till I moved up to Cumbria that I could find space to keep a Fell pony. History is one of those things I hated at school. The way it’s taught now and presented on TV is far more interesting. I only started to write historical books when I found material that hadn’t been dealt with before, and knew that the best way to deal with it was to write fictional characters into national events.
Are there any genres that you don’t enjoy writing? Why?
I don’t find womag stories easy. I buy pink fronted mags to see what is wanted and often find myself wondering if I live on the same planet. I can’t get into the right mindset.
What types of things do you write?
Poetry – both structured and free. I entered a pamphlet in this year’s Mslexia competition.
Non-fiction - Specialist equine material, mostly about carriage driving or Fell ponies (or both). It’s a shame that the Carriage driving Magazine which took my articles has chosen recently to do everything in-house. Most equine mags are the same, or only pay in advertising (if that.) One non-fiction equine book.Novels and novellas; either locally based, or based on an equine theme.Cartoon books, and activity books for children.
Have you ever had anything published?
One Fell Swoop, 1987 – cartoon book, by North Pennine Publishing, who disappeared, so I have re-issed the book twice under my own imprint, Jackdaw E Books Ltd.
Against the Odds, 1995 – YA novel, by J A Allen, London; they were sold to Robert Hale, and my title remaindered; so I now hold the only stock!Hoofprints in Eden, 2005 – non fiction account of the Fell pony breed in Cumbria, by Hayloft Publishing; won its class in the Lakeland Book of the Year awards 2006 and was featured on The Dales Diary in 2007.
Have you sent your writing to agents/publishers? Have you received any rejections?
Yes and yes. Publishers generally respond that they only accept agented authors. Getting an agent is like having teeth drawn, and they have preferences for people who can be marketed easily within a genre – something repeatable. If you don’t fit a genre, or if you write broadly across several genres, you don’t stand much chance.
Would you consider self-publishing/e-publishing? Why/why not? Are you interested in eBooks, or do you prefer the old fashioned paper-made books?
I’m doing it. Both self pub paperbacks and ebooks. I do both forms, because I love books, bookshops and book people, and to go only for ebooks would be to insult them. But ebooks are a way into international sales; to post real DTBs to USA and Australia would make them impossibly expensive.
Who/what influences your writing? Where do you get your inspiration from?
How long have I got? Everything you read, or experience, influences what you write. Little incidents, occasional phrases, random coicidences often bring together enough material to spark a storyline. You have to note things down at the time, so you can remember to use them later. For poetry, it has to be intense experience. The illness and death of my grand-daughter Naomi could only be coped with by writing poetry.
I find poetry very cathartic. How do you come up with your characters’ names and personalities?
This sounds crass but I sometimes use telephone directories and – for historical work – local directories for the time and place. In a novel I’ll have an alphabet and tick off when I’ve used that letter as the initial of a character name, so that I don’t have four people whose names start with S… readers get confused! In Coachman, I used my great-grandfather’s and great-grandmother’s names. They fitted the period. Others were real people whom I didn’t have to name!
I like that alphabet idea. I might have to give that a go! What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
“Don’t get it right, get it written.” You can edit and tighten and spellcheck once it’s on the page, but until it’s written, it only exists in your head.
What advice could you give to a new writer?
Read. Read. Read. Learn what you like to read. Learn what you hate to read. Those will help you to write what you will do best. Practise, but keep most of it under wraps. Don’t offer your work for anyone else to read until you are sure it is good enough, which includes strong editing, spellchecking, and proofing.
Do you have a writing routine?
I write best at night between 10 pm and 1 am. Crazy… I work a lot at the computer anyway because I design and maintain web sites, and much of that work gets done during the day. I’m not a caffeine or alcohol fiend though. When the eyelids begin to scratch it’s time to go to bed.
I'm glad to hear that you do actually get some sleep there! Do you start out with a complete idea for your stories, or do you just start writing and hope for the best?
It depends. Dragon Bait came out of a challenge to write a story that re-told a myth – and I decided to turn the original stereotypes on their heads and just see what happened. Usually I’ve had the theme or story in my head for decades before I really set about writing it. Sometimes it’s a concept that sets me off: Coachman is about the decline of horsedrawn coaching at the dawn of the railway era, but I outlined it strongly before I started. It did make the job easier to have a set timeline, although it was a very messy book to write because so much research needed to be done before I could rely on facts to surround my characters.
Do you have an editing process? Do you have someone else read over your work? Do you read your work aloud to yourself in front of the mirror?
I write, then put away for a few weeks and edit. and repeat the process. I bring material to the writers’ group and read it there. I don’t read to the mirror. Far too self conscious to do that.
What do you enjoy the most/least about writing?
I enjoy getting it right – Dorothy L Sayers makes her writer Harriet Vane say, “It makes you feel like God on the Seventh Day – for a bit, anyway.” The hair on the back of your neck stands up when you know it’s absolutely right. I don’t mind cutting, editing and rewriting until I get to that point. It drives me to sit here, with a stiff neck, hungry and with a dry mouth, until the ideas are in a reproducible form.
Have you ever attended an open mic night for spoken word performers, and either an observer or a performer?
Yes, I’ve done a bit of open mic stuff – and we read our own material at the writers’ group, so that is good practice. I love reading strongly rhymed and structured material with humour in it – it goes down really well with audiences. However, I find reading highly emotional poetry, the Naomi poems, for instance, almost impossible. When I recorded a poetry sequence locally, another writer has to read the really tough stuff, because I just couldn’t have spoken it. But as a former lecturer, in general I don’t have any problems standing in front of people and flapping my mouth.
Have you ever entered any writing competitions? Have you ever won?
I’ve won them with poetry in the distant past, and been placed more recently. And Hoofprints won me a nice award in 2006 and lots of stickers to put on the books.
How important is it for you to share your writing?
I have to do it. It’s something that gives me peace – to know that people have read what I’ve written, and cared about the characters, or shared the emotion. It’s lovely when people come up to you and say, “I really enjoyed that poem you read / that book I bought,” and can tell you which bits they liked. I adore hearing that people have recommended my books to other people – that happens a lot with Hoofprints.
Apart from writing, what are your other hobbies/interests?
Apart from my husband, you mean? I am handmaiden to a self satisfied cat, a dog, and a Fell pony with whom I carriage drive and teach. I play the harp, rather badly, but it makes such a beautiful noise I don’t care.
Where can we find you on the internet?
If you could have written anything, what do you wish that could have been?
The “His Dark Materials” trilogy, by Philip Pullman. The later poems of W B Yeats. And anything by Terry Pratchett.
What types of things do you read? Do you think your writing reflects your book tastes?
I read everything. Sauce bottles, cereal packets. Classics, crime, biographies, Regency novels, contemporary historical accounts, equestrian manuals, trade directories, Booker winners, bad self pubbed stuff, beginners’ material on the web forums I look after… I’m a jackdaw.
What are you working on at the moment?
Selling – having got three books out in paperback this year, I’m having a quiet spell from writing, but I’ve got two ideas for books that are simmering in the background. Well, three, actually…
Would you be able to provide a short piece of your work?
One of each – the opening of Coachman (2012), and a poem.
Coachman - Chpter 1
April 1838“You up there! Wake up.”George heard the voice, but his eyelids refused to lift. Surely he could doze for a few minutes while the coach changed horses? Now that the roof-top seat was still, oblivion was sucking him into its delicious depths, so that he was back in Carlisle with Lucy, saying goodbye in the firelight, wrapping her in his arms while dawn filtered through the shutters.In his half-dream she was repeating, “Go…I’ll follow you as soon as I’m better. Go now. Go.” And he didn’t want to, but he’d applied for the job and if he didn’t keep the appointment …The voice spoke again at his elbow: “Coachman!”The title roused him, but then he remembered he wasn’t the driver, only a very weary passenger on the “Albion,” who’d travelled all yesterday and half today. And he’d left Lucy behind at the Blue Bell. Damn it, he should never have set off without her. He should have waited till she was well…“Come on, boy. Are you fit to drive us?”He dragged himself out of sleep, and saw the grey-bearded guard balanced nonchalantly on the tread half-way up the coach side, waiting for him to answer.
This poem was published by The Interpreter’s House in February 2012 and reprinted by Candlestick Press in June 2012. It’s part of the long sequence I wrote about Naomi.
white horses still their clattering feetand wait for youin shadow street their pink-plumed headsstand straight for youthe lady at the bus-stop signsa cross for youthe walker with the terrier dogsighs loss for youthe traffic at the roundaboutmust queue for youthe metronome of trotting hoovesbeats true for youthe wagons on the carriagewaychange gears for youthe rider on the cycle-pathwipes tears for youpink rose-bay and foxgloves paintJuly for youthe sunlight on the fell pours downgoodbye for youthe smiles of all who met you weavethe pall for youthat pink box in a white hearse istoo small for youa sailing group of pink balloonslearn flight with youand high the wings of wheeling birdsdelight with you
Thank you very much Sue.
© Sue Millard