Written by Colleen Jones, Regional Advisor
Morna Sullivan has a Bachelor of Arts in English from Queen’s University in Belfast. She joined the SCBWI in 2018 and is an active member of SCBWI Ireland in Belfast, and regularly attends the bi-monthly social events at a local café. She admits to being highly addicted to a good cup of coffee!
Photo: Morna Sullivan (taken at an outdoor theatre production of “Little Women” on National Writing day 2018)
I did an e-interview with Morna to find out more about her career development, writing and poetry successes to date, and future plans as a children’s book writer. Morna has won a number of competitions and had some of her writing, including, short stories, reworked fairy tales, and poems, published online or in anthologies.
Morna’s poem “The Vintage Fair” was selected for inclusion in the Community Arts Partnership’s 2018/19 Poetry in Motion anthology. All entries in the anthology were considered for the 2019 Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing. Judges for this were Damian Smyth, Maria McManus, Stephen Sexton and Conor Shields.
Photo: Reflections 2 contains a selection of stories and poems, including Morna’s short story “A Breath of Fresh Air” which was runner up in the Lagan Navigation Trust 2019 Storymaking Festival. The anthology is available from the Lagan Navigation Trust for £5.
SCBWI: How long have you been writing? How did your degree influence your writing? What else influenced you? What other jobs have you had to make ends meet while writing?
Morna: I’ve loved stories as long as I can remember – having them read to me and then reading them myself. I’ve been writing stories for as long as I can remember I was able to. The first time I remember enjoying writing stories was in primary 3. My teacher encouraged creative writing, and I have memories of looking forward to writing something every morning in class.
Photo: Some of Morna’s early writing from a scrapbook (age 7) – “I had already fallen in love with trees at this age!”
One of the first writing competitions I entered (encouraged by my Mum) was on Radio Ulster. I didn’t win, but I did receive a lovely first rejection letter and badge (which I still have!) from Gloria Hunniford.
Photo: Morna’s first rejection letter
English was always my favourite subject at school. As a primary school child, I dreamt of being a writer, and even invented a ‘nom de plume’ for myself! As a teenager, I wanted to be a rock music journalist and had a review of my first concert (Depeche Mode) published in the local paper. I continued to enjoy creative writing and contributed poems to our school magazine. By the time I was making degree choices, I opted to study English, still hankering after a career in journalism and definite that I didn’t want to be a teacher.
My English degree involved considerable intense reading and literary criticism. I had to cover two to three classic novels or plays every week. The result was that I didn’t have time to write anything (other than essays for tutorials, or for dissertations and exams) and I didn’t read any books for a year or two after I’d completed my degree.
As my degree course was ending, and I was thinking of my next steps, the thought of more study became less appealing, so I began applying for jobs in ‘management’. The first job that I was offered was as a junior manager in the civil service. I took it until I figured out what I wanted to do. Many years later, I’m still there, having held a number of roles, including being seconded to Brussels and being promoted a few times.
Thankfully my reading habit returned, and about 12 years ago I started writing again.
SCBWI: What age range you do you usually write for? What made you decide to focus on children’s books? Are you planning to write for YA or adult readers?
Morna: I dabble in different age groups and genres – writing for children and adults. I got the idea for a children’s story one day on the way to work prompted by a snail stuck to the car windscreen, with the snail clinging on for the entire journey. After I’d had a go at writing the story, convinced it would be a best seller, I sent it off to an agent. When I received a rejection letter, I decided to learn more about creative writing. I saw a course for children’s writing advertised at Belfast Metropolitan College and signed up for it.
I have also written a middle grade novel, which is currently with a publisher for consideration, and I’ve started to write an adult women’s lit novel.
SCBWI: I know there’s always a long list, but name a couple of authors or illustrators or books that have been an inspiration or had a lasting impact on you and why.
Morna: Some of my favourite children’s books were the ones I read as a child. I still love A.A. Milne’s books with E.H. Shepard’s illustrations. I loved all of Michael Bond’s Paddington books (illustrated by Peggy Fortnum) and Elizabeth Beresford’s Wombles books (illustrated by Margaret Gordon). These illustrations made the characters step off the pages for me. So much so that I even wanted to be a womble! One of my favourite children’s books (which I still have) was one I chose for my birthday present when I was 9 or 10 – Hilda Boswell’s Treasury of Poetry. We had it in school, and I loved it so much that I wanted a copy for myself. Her illustrations are beautiful, and I loved reading and learning the poems.
SCBWI: What is your process for coming up with ideas and how do you develop them and decide on the format/medium?
Morna: When I get ideas in my head that I think may have potential, I mull them over and begin to write. I love free writing – having no idea where a thought will lead and just going with the flow – it’s amazing what emerges from my pen! If I’m stuck, I sometimes use writing prompts to get me going. At the start, I usually don’t know where the idea is going, or the genre. I let the writing decide.
SCBWI: You are part of a writing group at Coney Island in County Down, which is halfway between Dublin and the north Antrim coast. How did you become involved in that group? How has being part of that group impacted your writing?
Morna: The Coney Island (which isn’t really an island!) writing group meets every month. We are all aspiring or published children’s and young adult (YA) writers. It is run by Maddie Stewart, who has published several picture books. (I first met Maddie when she taught some of the modules at the Creative Writing class I took at Belfast Metropolitan College). We meet to support each other, share writing information and news, critique each others’ work, and try a writing exercise or two when we’re there. Maddie often focuses on a theme, for example, character, voice, setting, dialogue, endings, and so on. The group is very supportive of each other. We all encourage each other on our writing journeys, sharing our rejections and our success stories together. Because we’ve got to know each other and each other’s writing well over the years, I know the feedback I receive from the group is genuine and always helpful.
SCBWI: In addition to the writing group, has being a member of SCBWI helped you as a writer? How?
Morna: Yes, I try to attend the SCBWI Ireland socials in Belfast as often as possible. I’ve made new writing friends by so doing and found out about other writing events, for example, book launches and talks happening in the region, as well as learning from more experienced writers in the group. Being a SCBWI member, I’ve entered a few competitions, such as “opening lines”, and I submitted to this year’s SCBWI BI Undiscovered Voices. Last year, I was a runner-up in a writing competition organised by the Longford Writers Group. I travelled down to Longford for the judging by local children and was welcomed by some of the members of the local SCBWI Ireland group there.
SCBWI: You attended a workshop called “Rewriting the Future” in Belfast and weekly writing classes in a local museum earlier this year. What other craft development have you done? How have these helped you?
Morna: Writing can be a lonely pastime, so it’s good to engage with other like-minded people. The Rewriting the Future workshop really made me step outside my comfort zone as it was sci-fi based – a genre I don’t usually choose as a reader. But the world-building part was transferrable to any genre and, as in all the workshops or classes I’ve attended, I write something that may become a nugget I can use at a later date. I’m always on the lookout for workshops or events that offer me the opportunity to learn something new and to hear about the experiences of other writers. Over the last few years, I’ve attended writing workshops facilitated by Lucy Caldwell, Shirley McMillan, and Sheena Wilkinson, and had one-to-one feedback sessions on my work with Damian Gorman, Anthony Quinn, Brian McGilloway, and Eoin McNamee, as well as workshops run by the Community Arts Partnership in Belfast, and the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin. Each event/ facilitator provides a different perspective on writing to consider and build upon to improve my work.
SCBWI: A lot of your writing is focused on nature including riverways and trees. Where does this interest come from? What ideas do you have for writing longer works for children on this theme? Have you considered writing narrative non-fiction?
Morna: It’s in my blood – both my parents come from country backgrounds. My Mum grew up on the banks of the River Tay in Scotland, and I still return to the area a couple of times a year to recharge my batteries. I’ve lived on the shores of Belfast Lough most of my life, but when I lived in Belgium I couldn’t believe how much I missed seeing the sea every day. My middle grade novel is Titanic-based, and Belfast Lough is part of it. I haven’t thought about writing much non-fiction yet, but it could be something new to try.
Photo: “A Breath of Fresh Air” was runner up in the Adult Story category in the Lagan Navigation Trust 2019 Storymaking Festival and “Riverdance” won the Poetry category in the same festival in 2018.
Morna’s poem “Winter’s Trees” was included in Forestry England’s 100 Years of Forestry Celebration.
SCBWI: Who or what were your early influences for writing poetry? What are a couple of your favourites?
Morna: As long as I can remember, my Dad recited poetry to us at home, which he had learned as a child. This sparked my interest in learning and loving poems, and then trying to write my own. Some of his favourites included local poets W.F. Marshall’s “Me and my Da” and Elizabeth Shane’s “Wee Hughie”. Some of my favourite poems are those I learned at school – John Masefield’s “Sea Fever” and John Keats’ “Ode to Autumn”.
I remember my older brothers learning poems for school homework. I learned many poems by ear from listening to them, long before I ever read the poems – I’m thinking especially of TS Eliot’s “Macavity” and “Skimbleshanks”, and W.H. Auden’s “The Nightmail”. What I love about these poems is how skilfully they were written – the rhythm, the rhyme, and the language. (I recently bought copies of Macavity and Skimbleshanks, beautifully illustrated by Arthur Robins, for my nieces.)
I’ve always enjoyed humorous verse – “Daddy fell into the Pond” by Alfred Noyes was a favourite as a child, and “Purple” by Jenny Joseph is a more recent favourite.
In school we were encouraged to try writing poetry. In Primary 7, I won a prize (a crème egg!) for writing another verse to John Masefield’s “Cargoes” – mine was about ocean liners – I wish I’d kept a copy!
Photo: Copy of a winning poem Morna had published in a Belfast Telegraph Fathers’ Day poetry competition – payback for her Dad reciting poetry!)
SCBWI: How did you first get published online with such projects as Paula Matthews’ The Launchpad? Have you also entered competitions and how did you find those? What criteria do you use to decide where to enter your work for either?
Morna: I saw the submission call for The Launchpad, which sounded exciting and decided to submit a story. It was selected and included in the first issue, and I took part in a dramatized reading of the story using puppets at the launch event.
I subscribe to a writing magazine and through it hear about submission opportunities and competitions. From reading articles in the magazine, online, and in the Writers and Artists Yearbook, it’s clear that publishers and agents are keen to see someone with a track record of being published – it shows your work is considered by others to be of a high quality and that you’re prepared to work hard at getting published and can cope with rejection. Like any career, I’ve been building up my writing CV over the last few years.
While I continue to submit manuscripts to publishers, I also enter competitions. A few years ago, I read an article saying that in order to have some publishing success, a writer should be aiming at having 100 rejections in a year. I decided to aim for that, and in one year received 150 rejections, but I also had a few competition wins and successes. It was hard work, and I learned a lot about the submissions process.
When looking at the competition entry criteria, I consider if I already have a piece that I could use or re-work, or if the theme excites me to write something new. I also look at the entry fees, some can be quite high, which puts me off. I tend not to look at the prize too much – my main reason for entering and possibly winning is to gain independent recognition, and I’ve enjoyed competition success at local and national level – the best prizes have been book tokens and lots of chocolate!
SCBWI: What have you learned with each piece of writing or poetry that has been published?
Morna: That hard work and persistence pays off. You have to be resilient and build up a tough hide. The first rejection is probably the worst. Just because a piece of work is rejected doesn’t necessarily been it isn’t good enough – sometimes it just doesn’t appeal to the judge. I’ve learned this by submitting the same piece of writing to a number of publishers over a period of time before it was accepted. Very few rejections offer feedback, but one submission I entered a few years ago received an offer of feedback, and I took up the offer. I was advised that there was ‘nothing wrong’ with my story – it was just that there were other ones they liked more. A year later, I dusted the story down, edited it again, sent it in to a competition, and then won a prize in a national story writing competition with it.
SCBWI: You are publishing an ebook about Saint David, hopefully before the end of 2019, with Sainted Media. How did you get involved in that project? What made you decide to publish an ebook for your first children’s book?
Morna: I didn’t make a conscious decision to publish an ebook as my first children’s book, and it’s not a book I initially set out to write, but I’m a firm believer that when a door opens, you shouldn’t close it. During the year of my “150 rejections”, I was trawling the Internet looking for publishers accepting work, and I came across Sainted Media. I sent them a query email and was delighted to receive a prompt, positive response. I worked on the story with my editor and was involved in reviewing the accompanying illustrations as they developed. It’s been an exciting process and I’ve learned a lot from it.
SCBWI: What are your next steps with the publication of the ebook and beyond? What have you got planned for 2020?
Morna: I’m looking forward to the Saint David book being launched. I’m hoping to find a home for my middle grade Titanic novel, and I’m continuing to work on an adult novel. I’m sure I’ll be entering a few competitions. But mostly I’m looking forward to continuing to meet up with my writing buddies, both with SCBWI Ireland in Belfast and at Coney Island, for coffee, cake, giggles, and hearing their writing news.
Thank you so much, Morna, for taking the time to answer all my questions!
Morna Sullivan has always loved stories – reading and writing them. She loves playing with words and dabbling at writing. Morna’s had a number of short stories and poetry published in magazines, journals, and online. She’s also had success in a few writing competitions. Morna is working towards getting her first children’s book published.
You can see a list of Morna’s published writing on her blog.