Thursday 17 September 2020

Another inteview with a Waterloo Festival Writing Competition Winner - Allison Symes

 Allison tells us about her life as a writer and her stories in the Waterloo collections. 
1. What do you write? Why this in particular?
I write flash fiction (up to 1000 words) and short stories (1500 +). I’ve always loved reading short fiction so writing it was a natural progression for me. Discovering flash fiction was a happy accident. I’d been writing stories (1500 words or so) for Cafelit when I spotted their 100-word challenge. I thought I’ve got to see if it can be done so I sent material in, they liked and published it, and I’ve been writing flash tales ever since. It is addictive! I love inventing people for stories. With flash you’ve got to do this all the time. So from my point of view win-win!

2. What got you started on writing in the first place?
I’ve loved reading since I was tiny and owe a huge debt to my late mother who taught me to read before I started school. She was told off for it too - not that I minded! So the love of stories has been there for a very long time. I always enjoyed writing stories in English lessons when it was called “composition”. I guess I should have realized writing was in my blood a lot sooner than I did! It took a major birthday and the birth of my son that made me realise if I was going to write, I should get on and do some! I only wish I’d started much sooner than I did.

3. Do you have a particular routine?
Most of my writing is done in the evening. I start by blogging on my Facebook author and book pages, then go on to write or edit my Chandler’s Ford Today post for the week. After that I am working on flash fiction or short stories. I also have longer term projects on the go which I focus more on at weekends. I also blog once a month on the Association of Christian Writers’ More Than Writers blog spot. I’ve also co-judged a flash fiction competition they ran and that was good fun and interesting to do. So sometimes things like this come into my “normal” routine and fit in around my other work. Never a dull moment and that’s how I like it! I am now also an editor so find having a routine for that lovely work, as well as my own creative writing, is important. I’m sure I get more done having a routine in place though I appreciate it may not work for everyone. All I know for sure is it does work for me!

4. Do you have a dedicated working space?
Yes. I have a desk with printer and laptop on it. Close by is my writing diary and my dictionary. At the back of my desk is a nice pile of books which includes my flash fiction collection, From Light to Dark and Back Again, and the various anthologies I’ve been in over the years. I am very much looking forward to adding my copy of the Waterloo Arts Festival paperback to that pile!

5. When did you decide you could call yourself a writer? Do you do that in fact?
I think it was when I started receiving acceptances for my stories on a reasonably regular basis. You suddenly wake up to the fact your writing has moved on and it was then I was happy to call myself a writer. I should have done this sooner. I’ve been committed to writing regularly and giving everything I do my best shot for a long time before I was published. I think commitment to writing is the important factor here. If you’ve got that, and you write regularly, you are a writer. Hopefully then it is a matter of time before you make the breakthrough into being a published writer. And having an open mind and always being willing to learn are vital too.

6. How supportive are your friends and family? Do they understand what you're doing?
I am lucky here. My immediate family are supportive though they don’t always understand (a) what I’m doing and (b) how slow the publishing industry can be. That last point does strike people as strange when they work in industries where decisions are acted upon quickly. My family know writing is phenomenally important to me and back me. They are always pleased to hear when a new story or book of mine is out there. I’m fortunate there too. I have heard sad stories of writers whose families don’t support them, resent the time the writer is working, and don’t realise how important the “small steps” are for an author. It’s not all about getting the million dollar deal, which is just as well really!

7. What are you most proud of in your writing?
I will always be proud of my first story to be accepted and published in print - A Helping Hand in Bridge House Publishing’s Alternative Renditions anthology. That first publication acceptance is always special. Likewise, I’m proud of From Light to Dark and Back Again, my first published book (Chapeltown Books). I am most proud of my characters, even the unlikeable ones. I do outline and plan my characters and know where they are coming from, even when I disapprove of what they do. (I can think of a few of my people I would NOT want to meet for real!). So I think I can write for them realistically and that comes across to a reader.

8. How do you get on with editing and research?
I love both, though the amount of research I need to do for fiction varies. A memorable piece of research recently was looking up what poisonous flowers you could reasonably expect to find in a garden. That was for a story I’ve entered for a competition! I adore editing as I always feel relief when I’ve got the first draft written. It means I have something to work with and improve (and it will be improved!). I like knowing the edit strengthens the story by taking out wasted words, spotting plot/character weaknesses and correcting those, and knowing that with all of this work, the chance of the story being published has to increase.

9. Do you have any goals for the future?
I want to continue to improve what I do writing wise, for fiction and for blogging, and on the editorial side. I am working on a third flash fiction collection and hope that sees the light of day at some point. I’m also working on a non-fiction book, which is interesting to do, but is a longer term project. I would like to finish writing that this year/early into 2021 and start submitting it. I know with non-fiction you’re supposed to send in a proposal first but I want to write the book first to prove to myself I can do it! I’ve got the ideas, it is a question of getting them down. I also have an unpublished novel which I would like to sort out and see if I can get published at some point (though I was proud when that was long listed for a Debut Novel competition many moons ago).

10. Which writers have inspired you?
Oh so many! Jane Austen for her irony, P.G. Wodehouse for his sublime humour, and Terry Pratchett for showing me that humorous fantasy WAS and is a wonderful thing indeed. (There are many aspects to human nature which come across better in humorous writing I think). And I love the classic fairytales. Those have inspired my writing. As for Dickens, his A Christmas Carol is for me a strong contender for best fairytale/ghost story of all (and I do see it as a combination of those). I am also inspired by writer friends I know whose books I love and it is thanks to them I am reading more contemporary fiction than I once did and that is great.

 I’m thrilled to be included in all three Waterloo Arts Festival Writing Competition ebooks so will chat a little about what inspired all three stories.

The first one was Progressing in To Be…To Become

 Tell me about your story in the collection.
Progressing is about a trainee tooth fairy on secondment to Earth. She is being supervised by her immediate boss but things go wrong and both are under pressure to stop the wrong things from happening. My trainee fairy faces the prospect of being sent back to her formidable mother if she mucks things up. The boss faces getting the sack from the Fairy Queen.

 What inspired you to write this?
I love humorous fantasy and the theme To Be… To Become struck me as ideal for this. To be gives you the idea of what someone is and to become is whether they get to be what they want to be or not. There is a lot of potential for humour and tragedy there.

 How did you hear about the competition?
I am a Bridge House author and details about the competition were flagged up by them.

 Have you had any other success in short-story writing?
Yes. I’ve had several stories in Bridge House Publishing and Cafelit anthologies, as well as online. I’ve been shortlisted a couple of times in Writing Magazine competitions. And I’ve been one of the winners of the Waterloo Festival Writing Competition three years in a row. I am very proud and pleased about that!

What for you makes a good short story?
It is all about the characters for me. If they grip or intrigue me, I will want to find out what happens to them so will read their story. I like a good pace, dialogue that makes me feel as if I’m listening in on a private conversation, and a punchy ending which is suitable for the tale.

Do you have any tips for new writers or writers seeking publication?
The big tip has to be to read widely and across genres. Read novels. Read novellas. Read short stories. Read flash fiction. Read poetry. (You pick up so many ideas for stories of your own from what you read so it pays to read widely and well. See it as casting your imagination net widely!).
Always check out publishers and competitions carefully. There are charlatans out there. Never be afraid to ask for advice. Good publishers and competitions will spell out the conditions carefully.
Never sign away all of your rights.
Accept that writing takes practice to get right and rejections happen to everyone but the good news there is just because your story gets turned down, it doesn’t have to end there. Have another look at it and see if you can submit it somewhere else where the theme fits etc. I’ve had work turned down which was accepted by someone else later on.
Write, write, write. Accept it takes time.

My second winning story for the Waterloo Arts Festival was The Professional.

Tell me about your story in the collection.
The Professional is about a salesman from a lowly background who has worked his way up the ladder but he sells meat from around the universes to discerning buyers.  And he’s not fussy about who provides the meat! But the salesman has transformed himself and is proud of what he has achieved. He sees what he does as necessary but you might not agree with him!

What inspired you to write this?
The idea of transforming being immediately brought to mind the thought of having someone from a lowly background do so well in their chosen profession that their so-called superiors would have to acknowledge this being has done well. Also I like the idea of a lowly character triumphing over odds and prejudices to get on in life. The twist here is where this salesman work and what he sells.
My most recent winning story for the Waterloo Arts Festival was Books and the Barbarians.

Tell me about your story in the collection.
Books and Barbarians was such fun to write. I do have a soft spot for humorous tales but again here I have a main character who is looked down on for being “weedy” who makes good here.

 What inspired you to write this?
 The theme of Transforming Communities immediately brought to mind books and the way they can impact on individual and community lives so knew I had to write a story with this being the transforming point. And my weedy character who teaches the more macho people of his society how to read amused me. Let’s hear it for the weedy characters!

An excerpt from Books and the Barbarians

“What good will Sparos be coming with us, Derentia? He throws up on every dimension jump trip,” Resmos told his co-pilot.
 Resmos glared at the forlorn seven stones weakling who stood at the time machine’s steps.
“Sparos finds things useful to our tribe,” Derentia beckoned to Sparos to come up. “Discovering how to make fire was useful. We now all enjoy hot food.”
Resmos swore. “Okay but you clear up if he’s sick this time. What the hell is wrong, Sparos? Don’t you know what hoops we’ve had to go through to get the permissions needed for you to come with us? You repay us by vomiting!”
“I don’t know, Resmos, sir. I’ve not been right since I was a kid. You know that.”
Resmos laughed mirthlessly. “Well, you’re honest.”
“I couldn’t help being ill, Resmos, sir. Everyone had that sickness.”
“Only you never went on to grow strong. Picking up sticks would be too much for you.”
Sparos bowed. It was his rotten luck to be born into a species prizing physical strength.
The virulent illness that swept through his tribe, killing many, left him with a physique that was not only undesirable (as the females all made clear), but made him the butt of every weakling joke imaginable.
So, he had to justify his continued existence. By finding things the community found useful, he’d gained the nickname The Scavenger, but there was grudging respect behind it.
Sparos swore Resmos wouldn’t know what might be useful if it hit him. What was it about being muscular that led to not being able to think? Mind, there was nobody else you’d want on your side in a fight with an alien species.

Allison Symes - links

Don't forget the paperback that includes all three e-books will be out on 5 December.  

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