How I became a writer

An old letter started everything (Image by Margarita Kochneva from Pixabay)

My writing journey started in 1985.

It started with a letter

A chance find in my late great-aunt’s belongings started a process that has continued to this very day. It was an old letter that finally threw some light on my father’s mysterious upbringing. He’d been brought up in an orphanage.

The letter was from a lady who used to live next door to my dad’s family back in 1920s’ Kidderminster in Worcestershire, England. (Pronounced Wuss-ter-sheer!) I won’t go into detail because that’s another story. But the upshot is that there then followed a few years of finding out about my dad’s past and his family.

I wrote to the local newspaper, the Kidderminster Shuttle, to find out more, not expecting to hear anything back, but the editor published my letter on the letters’ page. And the replies started to arrive. (This is back in the days of snail mail.)

The letters were full of such interesting stories, particularly about my paternal grandfather. Looking into it further, the more I learnt the more I decided…

I need to write a book about this

Throughout school, the career choices I was steered towards consisted of ‘nursing’ or ‘shop work’. The boys were offered ‘the Rover’ (where the Rover cars were made) or ‘the army’. Not once was a career in journalism or writing suggested to me. So I had no idea where to start in order to write this magnificent tome.

I did a silly thing

At the time I was reading a book by Jackie Collins that had been reissued by Corgi Books. I found an address inside the book, at Corgi, and I fired off a letter ‘to whom it may concern’, telling them that I had this great idea for a book and how did I go about sending it to them?

I know now, of course, that this was completely the wrong way to go about things. But in those days, I was young, I was naïve, I was enthusiastic.

That letter should have gone straight in the bin at Corgi, but no. There was a very kind lady who saw it and who took the trouble to write back to me.

Her advice was to join a writing class or a writers’ group and to subscribe to a writing magazine. She also suggested that I have a go at writing short stories, just to explore how good, or not, my writing ability was. She told me that I would find out everything I needed to know and to take it from there.

I followed the advice

I enrolled on a distance learning writing course with a company called Successful Writers. I joined a local writers’ group. And I subscribed to a magazine called Writers’ Monthly.

Founding members of the writers’ group had also been involved with the setting up of the Writers’ Summer School at Swanwick in Derbyshire.

Some of the members thought I was a bit of an upstart, suddenly deciding that I could write. Several members told me I was wasting my time because (a) I only had an English O-level, and (b) my writing wasn’t very good.

Oh, how they laughed

And when I announced that one day I hoped to make a living from writing… oh, how they laughed, telling me I should lower my expectations.

Nevertheless, I was still determined, and I studied every single magazine that published short fiction – at the time there were loads.

Just Seventeen

After blindly bombarding them with every story I ever wrote, I finally studied one particular magazine, Just Seventeen, because it was new and because they paid £100 per 1,000 words. (Oh! The heady days of £100 per 1,000 words!) I wrote a story that I knew was just perfect for Just Seventeen, and I sent it off to them.

At our next writers’ group meeting, I took great pleasure reading my story out to them, and when I finished, I waited for the praise and admiration and declarations that ‘we were wrong!’

Instead I was greeted with a stony silence accompanied by stony faces and an uncomfortable atmosphere as they decided between themselves who was going to break it to me first.

And then they all set in, laying into me, telling me it was the biggest pile of garbage they’d ever heard and how they hoped with all their hearts that I hadn’t sent it off. It. Was. Awful.

At the end of the meeting, and feeling just a tad dejected, I crept off towards the exit. However, one kindly member of the group caught up with me and told me not to be too upset by the reaction. She said that the reason they had all been critical was because there was something there worth criticising.

I thanked her for her kind words and limped home anyway.

The next day

The following day – and I truly mean the actual next day – I was at work when a telephone call came in for me. It was the fiction editor at Just Seventeen, and she hoped I didn’t mind her ringing me at work.

I told her I didn’t, but inside I was waiting for that ‘don’t ever send us any more of your crap ever again’. It took me a while to realise that what she was actually saying was this:

“I really enjoyed your story. I enjoy all of the stories you send to me, actually, but they’re not quite right for Just Seventeen. However… I also curate fiction for another magazine, True Romance, and I’d like to buy your story for them, if that’s okay with you?”

Did she really say ‘if that’s okay with me’? Was she on drugs? I muttered some kind of coherent reply, and she continued:

True Romance don’t pay the same rate as Just Seventeen…” (Hey, at this point I didn’t care how much they paid.) “But because it’s come through me, they’ve agreed to pay the same rate.”

My very first sale had just earnt me £135. In 1985 that was a huge bonus. I could not WAIT to go back and write my acceptance in the book at the writers’ group, and when I did, I received a huge round of applause.

The rest, as they say, is history. And every step of the way, I have a kind woman to thank.

(This story also appears on Vocal.)

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