There I was, at the alarmingly young age of 19, holding my first acceptance letter from a Conde Nast publication: the editor of BRIDES magazine had accepted my very first piece of writing submitted in the hopes of being published, a humorous article entitled SISTER OF THE BRIDE, and was paying me £15 for the privilege.
I was launched! This was going to be easy, I thought. A career in freelance journalism to sit alongside a few years of teaching, after which I would abandon the classroom in favour of devoting myself entirely to the (manual at the time) typewriter.
And I did have a few more articles accepted over the next four years. Not exactly raising enough revenue to pay the rent, but nevertheless a fairly steady stream of acceptances for non-fiction, light-hearted pieces about learning to drive, holidaying as a single 20 something, moving flats etc etc. Women’s magazines at the time seemed happy to consider and accept such articles from an unknown, fairly untested writer who submitted poorly typed copy at random intervals.
Another world, another time ………
Fiction came next. Stuck in the classroom teaching English, I grew envious of my students spending time using their imaginations, creating characters, weaving stories at my instigation. (again, another world, another time – the freedom of a teacher’s life impulsively being able to ask a class to spend an hour or so simply writing …)
I wanted to write fiction. Inventing characters and creating situations, using the observations, emotions and incidents of the everyday and weaving them into a structure and form was so much more appealing to me than non-fiction writing.
And I wrote hundreds of stories. And had many,many (wish I’d kept count) accepted and published: Woman’s Realm, Woman, Woman’s Weekly, Bella in the Uk and abroad – well, I have no idea the names of the magazines, but I sold stories to Australia, to South Africa, Denmark, Norway and Sweden on a reasonably regular basis. Still not regular or lucratively enough to leave the classroom behind, of course, but slowly, slowly, surely, I was edging there.
And writing short stories of a prescriptive length, tone and content was a wonderful apprenticeship. Yes, it was frustrating always to need an ‘uplifting ending,’ and ‘nice’ characters always winning through. It was constraining to write to a certain length and to keep an eye on the constantly shifting ‘required’ length, but it was a very good training and discipline as a writer. A preparation, as I saw it, for the day when I would be writing full-time…..
But of course that day comes to very, very few.
I wrote and sold short stories on a regular basis for over 25 years. Yet it’s impossible to survive, to pay the mortgage, the heating and gas bills, the supermarket trolley loads, put petrol in the car and clothe offspring on the revenue that results from such sales.
But all the time I was at least writing. And learning. And thinking about what worked and what didn’t: the rhythms of sentences, impact of language, conveying character detail as swiftly and economically as possible – when you might only have 1,500 words to get a story told, you can’t afford to waste words.
(The luxury of suddenly having over 80,000 words – 100,000 plus, in fact – when writing a novel is both liberating and alarming. How luxurious to take time in developing an idea or character, but how worrying that self-indulgence could get in the way of an effective, compelling story.)
So now when people see that I’ve written two novels and am working on my third, they think I’ve been writing just a few years. And I’m anticipating such questions when I talk at the UK SOUTHERN BOOK SHOW in Worthing on Sunday.
“When did you start writing?” people might well ask, imagining an answer in single figures.
“My writing career,” I could answer pompously, but truly, “began with my first acceptance and publication in 1973.”
In other words, my writing apprenticeship has been close on 40 years ….
It really is about time I abandon the day job ….