An Interview with Allison Symes
I am thrilled to be joined today by fellow author and Swanwicker, Allison Symes. I first met Allison when she was sitting looking lost on a bench outside a train station in Derby. She is now a published author and regular Prosecco drinker at Swanwick Writer’s Summer School. Thank you for joining me today, Allison.
1 Please tell my readers a little about yourself?
Hello I’m Allison Symes, multi-published flash fiction and short story writer. I’ve also been one of the winners of the Waterloo Arts Festival Writing Competition for three years in a row with the latest ebook, Transforming Communities, released in June 2020. My story, Books and the Barbarians, was huge fun to write and I was thrilled when it was picked as one of the winners.
I also blog for an online magazine, Chandler’s Ford Today, where I often write on topics of interest to other writers. I sometimes interview other authors too. The magazine has to have a local link. When I interview other writers, I am the local link! There is a good sized writing and reading community in the area and my posts are aimed firmly at them.
2 What inspired you to become a writer/author?
My late mother taught me to read before I officially started school so I owe her a huge debt. I was privileged to inherit a lot of her books and she had everything from H.G. Wells to Ian Fleming to Jane Austen to Charles Dickens. A good old mix!
So the love of stories has been there for as long as I can remember, as has been the thought never limit myself to one form of reading only! I always enjoyed writing stories in English lessons but it wasn’t until much later I decided to do this “for real”. It took my reaching a milestone birthday and the birth of my son to make me realise if I was going to write, I ought to get on with it!
3 What is the best thing about being a writer/author?
Getting to create something that is unique to you. I’ve believed for a long time no writer is in competition with another. We all have our unique voice. I couldn’t write as you, Val, even if I wanted to! I have to write from the depths of my imagination and it is always fantastic just finding out what I can come up with for the next story, competition etc.
The Waterloo Arts Festival proves my point here. Fifteen writers including yours truly have written to a set theme and a set word count over the past three years. Each of the stories in all three ebooks, including this year’s one, Transforming Communities, have fifteen very different styles and moods of stories.
I also love writing because it encourages reading to help feed and inspire your own imagination. Not that I need encouragement to read! I also thoroughly enjoy dropping my characters right in it and seeing what happens. All good fun!
4 What is your writing routine like?
I mainly write 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 either working on flash fiction or short stories for submission to markets and competitions.
I also have a couple of 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 recently 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!
Another interesting recent development is that I am now a freelance editor. I carry out some work for an indie publisher and am branching out as a freelancer too. So my writing routine also includes the work I do here. I do see editing as a creative art. It is, honest! I’ve also been on the receiving end of editing for my second flash fiction book, Tripping the Flash Fantastic, which is due out later this year. And I can see how a good editor’s eyes can make you spot things you yourself didn’t see. So naturally I am going to wave the flag for editors, even if I wasn’t one myself!
I like to have a flash fiction or short story “out there”, another in draft form waiting to be edited, and still another one being drafted. It’s not always possible to do that but I go for this as often as I can.
5. What do you like about marketing?
I like having to think creatively on this. Something I’ve found useful to bear in mind when marketing is to ask myself what is in it for the potential reader? Also, if I was a reader looking in at what I am posting etc., would I be grabbed by it or put off? So I like the challenge of telling people about my books and stories in ways that will make them hopefully want to find out more.
I’ve also had to learn new skills recently and step out of my comfort zone and that is good for me personally and as a writer. I’ve learned how to make a video for the Waterloo Arts Festival which had to be online only this year. I’ve not long taken part in my first radio interview on Chat and Spin Radio, an internet station, and appeared as a guest on Wendy H Jones’ podcast, The Writing and Marketing Show. Thinking about what I would say and how I could engage with listeners was fun to do. It makes you up your game!
6. What do you dislike about marketing?
I think most people are turned off by the hard sell. I was once at an event where a writer was doing the “buy my book, buy my book” routine and I did feel sorry for them as it is not the way to engage with potential readers. I saw that as a useful lesson to me.
I suppose the biggest thing I dislike is that marketing has to be ongoing, there is a need to “feed the beast”, and that can take up valuable writing time. But I have learned to see this side of my writing life as another creative outlet and the two sides need each other.
Without stories and books to talk about, there is nothing to market. Without marketing nobody is going to know about what I write.
I think you need to be comfortable with whatever marketing you are doing and to be consistent with it too. You have to accept it is a long term thing. The nice thing about writing flash fiction and short stories is I can turn those out reasonably quickly and get results from them equally reasonably quickly. You don’t get that with marketing. It is a slow, continual build up. Some things work better than others. And you do have to accept that things are not always going to work out as you think so you have to accept you may “waste” time in trying something. And getting the balance of marketing right so you get the word out there without annoying everybody is not easy to do. It is also tricky to get the balance between marketing and getting your writing done right!
7 What do you think is most important when writing a book? Characters, plot, setting, etc
Oh for me it is always about the characters. They must grip me and hook my interest. You can have a terrific plot let down by weak characters. Good characters will shine even if the plot is weak. If a character works for me, I will want to find out what happens to them no matter what. Though, of course, what you want is a story with great characters and equally great plots!
I also think plots arise naturally out of characterisation. A character that is a loud mouth is always going to land right in it. You can have a lot of fun working out what they do and what the consequences are. You couldn’t do that in the same way with a reserved character. The problems they face are going to be different. So I think you’ve got to know “your people” before you can write their stories. One of the things I love most about flash fiction writing is I have to invent a lot of new characters frequently. It keeps me on my toes!
8 What is your latest book about?
Tripping the Flash Fantastic due out later this year is a collection of flash fiction tales of differing length. Some are funny, some are dark, there are poetic justice tales and I’ve written some historically set flash pieces too for this. I like to write across the spectrum of word counts for flash and across a range of moods of story too. I like to think of my collections as almost like chocolate boxes. There is something in there that will suit most people!
9 What inspired it?
My love of fairytales inspires those tales set in a fantasy world. My love of history does the same for the historical ones. I am fond of “outsider looking in” tales. I’ve also linked some flash tales in this book in that one character in one story turns up again in another. This is the first time I’ve done this and I think it works well.
I also like reading crime fiction so my love of those spills over into some of the crime flash pieces I’ve written. I’m also very fond of reading flash fiction and short story anthologies. I love the mix of materials in these so it is lovely to be writing my own collections and having them out there for others to hopefully enjoy.
You, Val, once referred to flash fiction as the perfect bus stop read and I love coming up with different stories that might suit a short hop trip. I know we can’t go very far right now but if you’re short of time to read, try dipping into a collection like this. I also hope flash fiction might be useful in bringing in the reluctant reader. I’m not asking for someone to commit to too much in one go for a start. Once you start reading books of any kind, who knows where you’ll go next?
10 Why did you pick the genre or genres that you write in?
I didn’t start out as a flash fiction writer. I hadn’t even heard of it. I’d been writing stories (1500 words or so) for Cafelit for a while when I spotted their 100-word challenge. My first thought here was you’ve got to be kidding me, there’s no way you can tell a complete story in such a small word count. My second thought was hang on, Allison, they wouldn’t have issued the challenge if it really was impossible so give it a go, why don’t you? I did! I quickly became addicted to the form and have not looked back since.
What I love about flash is you can turn the whole mood of a story on one word and where you place it in the story. Also as you don’t have a big word count to play with, it has to be character led, but you can set those characters whenever you like in time and in genre too. I’ve found writing flash has taught me so much about editing and that continues to be useful.
If you would like to check out some of my stories, please go to my Cafelit page – see Allison Symes – Cafelit Page – http://cafelitcreativecafe.blogspot.com/search/label/Allison%20Symes
11 How did you go about getting a publishing deal? Or how did you become self-published?
Chapeltown Books are linked with Cafelit and they issued a call for single author collections. I collected the flash tales I’d written, added more material, and sent it in. To my great delight they accepted it and From Light to Dark and Back Again was published by Chapeltown in 2017. The follow-up book, Tripping the Flash Fantastic, will be coming out later this year. Incidentally I wouldn’t rule out self-publishing for other projects I’m working on later.
12 What authors have been an influence on your writing?
Jane Austen (for her irony). Terry Pratchett (for fantasy and wonderful humour). P.G.Wodehouse (for his humour and wonderful prose – it is such a joy to read). I’m also influenced by the classic fairytales and stories such as Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.
13 What writing advice would you like to share?
My tips are:-
Be open to trying new forms of writing. You may well find something you love. That happened to me with flash fiction and blogging (for Chandler’s Ford Today).
Always edit on paper. You miss things on screen.
If something seems too good to be true, it is! Always check things out. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice from the Society of Authors or the Alliance of Independent Authors.
Network with other authors. You’ll be glad of their support in the rough times. You’ll have people to celebrate with in the good times! And it is so much fun!
Accept you will be in for the long haul and that rejections happen to everyone. It is never personal.
Always write for the love of writing. That will help when all that seems to come in are those rejections!
Read, read, read across genres and include non-fiction. You do pick up how things work when reading what is already out there. DO include contemporary works as well as classic ones. Styles change over time. Another advantage to networking is it does help with your contemporary reading. Why? Because when your writing pals bring books out, you will want to check them out! I like to think of that as a win-win for the writer and for me!
14 What has been your favourite book so far this year?
This is a toughie! For short stories, it has to be Jen C Wilson’s Kindred Spirits: Ephemera. And I’ve loved Fran Hill’s hysterically funny Miss, What Does Incomprehensible Mean? The title alone tells you that you’re in for a treat with this one.
15 What is your all-time favourite book and why?
Confession time: I have loads of all time-favourite books, the kind I can’t imagine my life without, but if I have to pick one it has to be The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. It is a very different detective novel and changed my views on Richard III. The book has influenced many people over the years and it is also an entertaining story. (If I could cheat and sneak another book under the radar, it would be The Lord of the Rings in the three books in one edition!).
16 What genre do you read?
Fantasy including fairytales, historical, crime, short story and flash fiction collections. I read non-fiction too, especially history.
17 What are you currently reading?
I’ve got two books on the go at the moment on Kindle. One is Dawn Kentish Knox’s The Basilwade Chronicles, which is very funny. The other is Paula Readman’s Days Pass Like A Shadow which is very moving. I do like contrasts in my reading!
18 What is on your To be read list?
Far too many to list here! I am just glad Kindle bookshelves can’t collapse under the weight of books otherwise I’d be in trouble!
19. Do you go to any writing conferences? What would you say were the benefits?
I try to go to a couple of events during the year, when that is possible. You and I met, Val, at the Swanwick Writers’ Summer School and where do you start with the benefits of going to that? I’ve made so many friends from it, including your good self, and learned so much from the courses and talks there.
20. Do you have any writing regrets?
Not starting a lot sooner than I did because it took me longer than I thought to find my writing voice.
21. Name your three writing “yippee” moments!
1. Having my first story published (A Helping Hand in Bridge House Publishing’s Alternative Renditions anthology back in 2009). I think you always remember your first publication credit.
2. Being published with From Light to Dark and Back Again and again later this year with Tripping the Flash Fantastic.
3. Being a winner of the Waterloo Arts Festival and learning to make a video for it and having fun doing so!
22. What is your favourite adaptation of a book to TV, film, or radio show?
The Lord of the Rings films directed by Peter Jackson were beautifully done. I loved the Inspector Morse series with John Thaw. I’ve read a lot of the Colin Dexter series and thought the TV version reflected it really well. The theme is one of my favourite pieces of music too. For radio, The Daughter of Time is sometimes read on Radio 4 Extra with wonderful background music added to it. Not really an adaptation I suppose but if you like to listen to your stories, that would be a good one to pick.
23. Anything else you would like to add?
Firstly, a big thank you for interviewing me, Val. Secondly, if anyone would like a taster of what flash fiction is, I suggest have a look at my book trailer on my website for From Light to Dark and Back Again. I include one of the stories, Calling The Doctor, from that collection here. The trailer is available on my landing page but also on a specific book trailer page, which also has trailers for some of the anthologies I’ve had work in too.
See https://allisonsymescollectedworks.com/book-trailers/ for more.
Allison Symes Amazon Author Central Page –
Twitter – @AllisonSymes1
Website – https://allisonsymescollectedworks.com/
Allison Symes – Linkedin Page – https://www.linkedin.com/in/allison-symes-43922075/