I think I’ve always been a bit of story teller (just ask my parents!) and over the years, even as a child, have always written something – stories, poems, bad song lyrics! I love having that initial creative thought and then being able to bring it to life in words. Even when I’m writing something that’s emotionally difficult and I have to get up and walk away for a moment, I can’t wait to get back and see what happens. It’s something that, most times, brings me an immense feeling of satisfaction.
How did you come to writing?
I think I’ve always been a writer of something (and an avid reader), but I can remember when I was in year 4 at school, Mem Fox came and did an author talk. We were this little mining town school so it was a big deal. And I can remember thinking that that’s what I wanted to do. To be able to write as a job – how awesome would that be?
What were your greatest obstacles starting out? How did you overcome them?
About eight years ago, I made the decision that I wanted to seriously write. I wanted to be able to finish a novel that I’d been thinking about for a while and maybe, just maybe…get it published. To do that, however, I had to be able to finish it – I had a tendency to be a fantastic starter but a pretty terrible finisher. So this was definitely an obstacle. Because not only did I have to finish it, but I had to do it around being a mum to three gorgeous kids, a wife, a part time social worker and looking after a menagerie of animals. How did I overcome the obstacles? That’s a really interesting question. Tenacity, probably more than anything. This was something that I really wanted to do for me. I also talked to my kids and husband about what I wanted to do and what this would entail. Luckily, there were extremely supportive – my first and best cheerleaders.
How do you keep yourself motivated and disciplined?
I think there needs to be a fine balance here. There are times when I can write a lot and times when the opportunity is not there (when life gets slightly more hectic) or when the words are just not flowing as well. For me, it’s important that at these times I don’t beat myself up too badly. I just do what I can. Otherwise, writing becomes a punishment rather than a joy. But if I can’t write, in order to still feel like I’m doing something, I might do some further character development or more planning of the manuscript. This helps to keep my motivation up. And really, I want to finish the story. I want the characters to be able to get to their resolution. That’s what keeps me motivated!
How do you manage your writing time with everything else you do? How has that changed from when you were starting out?
Luckily, I’m a bit of a morning person. That’s when my brain is the most ‘with it’. So, for me, writing first up in the morning before any of my kids are up is when I get the most done. Also, over time, I’ve honed my ability to be able to write anywhere – even if it’s just for fifteen minutes – it all adds up. So, while my son’s practicing hockey, while I’m waiting for my daughter to finish work, while I’m having a quick cup of tea before I have to go back out again. While the flow might be something that needs to be tweaked on the first edit, at least there are words there to edit. As Stephen King says – you can’t edit a blank page.
I also have some fantastic writing friends who I’ve started doing writing sprints with. So for one hour on a Wednesday, Thursday or Friday – we only have to make one if that’s all we can manage – we do a writing sprint. That’s our dedicated time. And, really, when it’s scheduled in, it’s so much harder to put off.
Where do you write? How do you arrange your work space?
Anywhere! I dream of having one of those spectacular writing spaces that I see pictures of all the time, where you have a view (of the water would be my preference) and your music going and a clear space…but realistically, it doesn’t work like that for me. Even if I had a space that was mine, I don’t doubt that the kids would follow me up and fill it with their stuff anyway and I’d spend half of my writing time cleaning up!
So my bed, the dining room table, the car, the hockey dugout…either on my phone or on my laptop. For me, flexibility is the key: otherwise there’d be so many excuses not to write.
What are your essential writing tools?
My laptop or my phone. A notebook so I can write down ideas, character notes, track the timing of the story – whatever is needed. I’m also a bit of a stationery-aholic, so I love to have a new notebook and pen for each book. It’s just a nice treat. Also, as I’ve continued to write, I’ve gone from being a real pantser to being a combination plotter and pantser. And I find index cards work for me. So they are the latest tool.
What’s the one thing you wish you’d known when you were starting out as a writer?
Attending conferences, going to workshops and making connections with other people in the field is one of the best things you can do. It is amazing how much you learn and how extraordinarily open to sharing writers are. I wished I’d started this a little earlier.
What do you read and how do you read as a writer?
Everything I can get my hands on! I love YA, especially with elements of fantasy or dystopia. I love a good romance or, when the mood takes me, a mystery or a biography. I also love to read children’s books. As a writer, I think it’s important to read in the areas that you write.
How do you overcome ‘writer’s block’?
Taking time out sometimes can be good. Write something else. Do some writing exercises – there are lots available. Physical exercise can be a great thing – even just a walk in the fresh air can get your brain working again. And, of course, have a shower. It’s amazing how many great ideas I’ve come up with standing under the water. Then I just need to remember them! Also, some great advice I’ve got over the years is, if you’re really stuck, put your character into an unexpected position or get them to do something they wouldn’t normally do. Even if this doesn’t end up being a scene in the manuscript, it can get the juices flowing again. Brain-storming all different possible options, no matter how insane they might look, is another great way to find your way out of the block.
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?
So many things – I can’t narrow it down to one! First of all, there will be people who will love your work and people who don’t. That’s okay. Rejection is part of this process but so is when people tell you they love it – and honestly mean it.
Be confident in your voice but be ready to take advice. Sometimes, we are so close to our work that it’s hard to be objective. And while things might make sense to you (because you have the whole story in your head!) it may not to readers. Surround yourself with supportive people – other writers especially.
Keep on learning. Keep on putting yourself out there. One editor who asked for my manuscript Aquila, after reading the first fifty pages, said about half of people who she requests the full manuscript from won’t send it! Sometimes you have to put yourself outside of your comfort zone. You’ll live and it may even be awesome.
Good beta readers are worth their weight in gold.
Edit, edit, edit! Especially if you’re going to submit. Sometimes, if you are getting conflicting feedback on your writing, a professional edit can be great if you can do it. Word of mouth is important with this. Make sure, if you’re going to spend your money, you use someone who knows what they’re doing. Lastly, enjoy it. Even those hard emotional scenes. You’re telling your character’s story. How awesome is that?
Sue-Ellen has had three of her stories published: Aquila, When Henry Met Gina and Streamer, with a picture book currently under contract. From being an avid reader and writer as a child to studying literature at university, she’s always loved the written word and where it can transport her. Sue-Ellen is a member of the QWC, RWA, Bundaberg Writers Group and SCBWI.