In the second instalment of my interview with Fiona Veitch Smith, she provides more detail about what a writer’s life is like for her…
You write in various genres, including children’s books, stage plays and screenplays. Where do you get your inspiration for each genre, and do you find writing for one of them easier than the others?
I didn’t set out to write for all genre and media. I set out to be a full-time writer and simply pursued whatever opportunities came my way. I would push at a door to see how far it would open and if it stopped, try another. The net result is that I am published and produced across the media but with varying success in each. I am first and foremost a storyteller. I come up with story ideas and then see which media would be the best vehicle to tell that story. So I rarely look at a genre then come up with an idea; it works the other way. Occasionally though I will be commissioned to write something for a specific medium and then I delve into my ideas bank and see which story would best suit the technicalities of the medium. Some stories are more visual (film) others require immediacy and audience interaction (stage) still others are simple stories with deeper truths (children) then others more epic with extensive back story (novel). Short stories and poems are better suited to a single image or concept. I wrote a poem this morning about an ageing apple tree. The concept would have been overstretched if I’d tried to write it into a film or novel. It could have been a children’s story, however, but I wanted to get across a deep spiritual truth which required the reader to have a bit of life experience to relate to – so a poem for adults it became. Each medium has its strengths and weakness. It’s like trying to choose your favourite child. At the moment though I am focusing on writing picture books for children with SPCK and novels with Lion Fiction.
For all those aspiring writers out there: how do you manage your time between being a lecturer in writing and writing itself? Are you working towards writing full-time or do you feel you have the balance as you want it?
I started lecturing by accident. A friend’s husband died suddenly and she asked me to take over her adult ed writing class. I’d never taught before, but I felt unable to say no. It turned out to be a very fulfilling experience. It also provided income to buy me time to write. Since then, now 11 years ago, I have continued to teach and lecture part time. I now lecture at two universities but I wouldn’t say it’s my day job – I only lecture a day or two a week between September and April. My day job is still writing. I think I’m beginning to find the balance. A couple of years ago I said yes to taking on more lecturing work because I needed the money but then my writing suffered. In the last two years I have tried to keep April to August completely free to write. It’s tough, because I only get paid for what’s called ‘contact time’ and I end up living off my credit card for a couple of months every year. Should other writers do it? That’s up to you. I gave up a full-time, well-paid job as a journalist to pursue creative writing, but my family’s income took a massive hit as a result. It’s not for everyone. I make sure I take on enough paid work to keep the wolf from the door. And that’s the reality for most writers. Very few people manage to do it full time without an additional income stream.
You also speak at conferences and offer creative writing workshops for both children and adults alike. Would you say that writers need to learn to diversify, or have those other avenues simply developed naturally for you?
I do that because a) I enjoy it; b) I have a natural gift for public speaking and teaching; and c) it helps to pay the bills (although some of the appearances barely pay enough to cover expenses – if anything at all!). This is something that suits me and my skill-set, but will not necessarily suit everyone. Yes it has increased my profile and hence gives me and my books a bit of a ‘platform’ but that’s not the primary reason I do it. I would advise writers to connect with their audiences in whatever way suits their personality and skill-set. But readers do like to meet authors ‘in the flesh’.
In 2011 you started your own ‘indie’ publishing company. How did that come about, and what was behind the decision to fold it in 2015?
Crafty Publishing was started when my husband was made redundant (and then got a bit of spare cash when he got a new job fairly quickly). I had written a series of children’s books called the Young David Books, which I had unsuccessfully tried to get published. After they went down so well at my church my husband and I decided to use some of his redundancy money to self-publish. It was hard work but ultimately a successful little enterprise. Within four years of self-publishing we were approached by three different publishers to buy us out – two in the UK and one in America. By this time we felt we had plateaued with the books and couldn’t take them to the next level. We decided to sell the books to SPCK who are doing a brilliant job with them now and are getting them the international distribution that we were unable to do.
As things were going so well with my own books I thought I would try to give some other writers a chance – as I know how hard it is to get published – and also to try a different genre. I brought out my own adult novel and then signed another writer. We had four other writers in the pipeline (one children and three adult) when we decided to stop publishing earlier this year. The reasons were financial. My children’s books were the only things that made any money (not much, but we were approaching break-even point) yet we struggled to find sufficient distribution for the adult books to make it a viable commercial concern. We were at the point where we would have to have started siphoning off our family’s savings to fund it and we weren’t prepared to do that. So sadly, particularly for the authors involved, we had to call it a day.
You have quite a presence online: an old website, your new author website, a Poppy Denby website plus your Crafty Writers website. How do you have time to keep all the content refreshed? What advice would you give to writers wanting to make more of a presence online?
The truth is I don’t. My many websites reflect different aspects of my career over a 12-year period. One of the sites was more active when I was making my living primarily as a freelance feature writer, journalist and blogger. Another when I was earning more from giving writing advice and freelance editing and copywriting. As my career has developed so my web presence has changed. The problem is the sites are linked in to other sites and it is not that easy to take them down. As my writing career is becoming more streamlined into me being a novelist with Lion Fiction and a children’s writer with SPCK I am trying to streamline my online presence – but this takes time. So my advice: don’t take on more than you can chew!
It’s the same with social media: I am on Linked In, Goodreads, Twitter and FB but really only focus on Twitter and FB. They suit me and my relational personality more. I might give Goodreads another go but there are only a few hours in the day that I can (or should!) devote to social media. I would advise writers trying to build their online presence to choose one or two outlets and do them well. That being said, these days, having an online presence and being active in social media is one of the things publishers take into consideration when deciding whether or not to take your book. So do it, but do it wisely (ain’t hindsight a wonderful thing?).
What now for Poppy Denby and future writing projects?
I’m very excited that Poppy 2 has now been sent off to my publisher. I will be focusing mainly on lecturing over the Autumn plus promoting The Jazz Files. In between I will start research for Poppy 3. In the New Year I am looking forward to working on a new children’s series with SPCK. Beyond that, I’m very tempted to start pitching Poppy Denby Investigates as a television series. I would like to do the adaptation myself. A girl can dream, can’t she? And sometimes, just sometimes, those dreams come true.
To purchase The Jazz Files, please click here.