H is for: Help! Don’t read this if you are of a sensitive nature, or male (or both). Our problem page editor was also the Mother of our union chapel. During one busy lunch-time meeting in her office, her phone rang and it was a reader whose tampon had got stuck. In front of everyone, the editor talked the distressed reader down, inch by inch.
G is for: Gardening. Another very popular part of the magazine. Many years ago, it was written by someone who enjoyed using words such as “thrusting” (out of the soil) “moist” (said soil, I presume) “erect” (plant stems?) and “creamy globes” (of flowers, I hope) with rather too much enthusiasm for a family-friendly magazine.
I once wrote a short, hopefully amusing feature for the magazine on why I preferred my garden in the winter. I expected an avalanche of complaints and ridicule but received none. I expect they were all too busy outside. I mean, it’s not normal, is it? Who else can say they prefer winter over summer? I explained my reasons in great length at the time and I’m not going to bore you with them now (maybe some other time).
F is for: “The fish and chip run.” A colleague who was lucky enough to live near the famous Sea Shell Restaurant in Lisson Grove, which Princess Diana apparently occasionally visited, could be seen most nights, her coat tightly wrapped around her pyjamas, racing round the corner for her takeaway supper. I was shocked – she was so proud of her appearance the rest of the time. Couldn’t she just have waited and got changed after her mercy dash? We will never know.
In fact, I have always been puzzled by those who like to change into their pjs or whatever night attire they favour the moment they get home in the evenings. A quick head count in the office revealed there are a lot of them about, surprisingly. I once got into quite a heated debate with someone who did this. She had a husband and family – what did they think of it all? I wondered. Didn’t they think it a bit odd? A strange example to set her children? I would have been really worried if my own mother had done this, thinking she was quite possibly heading for some sort of breakdown (in fact, my mother wouldn’t even go to the door to pay the milkman if she was still in her dressing-gown). What if her husband suddenly said: “Let’s all go down the pub,” or: “To hell with cooking. Let’s eat out,” or: “Shall we go and see that film tonight?” And what if someone came to the door? “What if they did?” was her only response, which was no answer, really.
F Is also for “Filthy Friday” – a term I coined when we shared office space with the knitting dept and it became clear that, by the end of the week, we were all slightly hysterical from tiredness and the stress of deadlines and also somewhat frisky, lapsing into telling dirty jokes and eyeing up the post boys and any male from the IT dept who was faintly fanciable. Or maybe that was just me. This bit of frivolity came to an end when we were able to work from home more often and, not surprisingly, everyone’s preferred day at home turned out to be Friday. It’s difficult to be filthy when there’s no one else around to laugh at your double entendres. Oo-er Missus.
I can’t leave “F” without mentioning “Fiction”, of course. A hugely important part of the magazine (“Famed for its fiction” was a regular coverline back in the day) and my happy place (mostly) for 29 years – that’s just about half my life. What’s not to love about a job which enables you to announce that you read for a living? For an avid, speedy reader such as myself, it was my ideal job. A “friend” once said to me that it sounded really boring to her but she was a nurse, so you can understand where she was coming from and can be excused that remark – just.
E is for: Eccentrics and Egos. Plenty of both on magazines. The most eccentric person I can recall was a middle-aged woman who dressed as though in a fifties time-warp and marched through the magazine’s corridors, whistling a cheery but unrecognisable tune, her Margaret Thatcher-style handbag carried firmly over one arm. She was unmarried and I think that had a lot to do with it. You can’t get away with being eccentric when your husband and family expect you to have dinner ready and the washing machine going through the rinse cycle before you’ve even taken your coat off. (A married colleague claimed she didn’t take her coat off for at least an hour when she got in from work; neither did she sit down all evening except to eat. As a singleton, I found this baffling and appalling.)
The one ego-related incident that stands out for me (though sadly I wasn’t at my desk at the time) is the one a colleague told me, about the time that a well-known TV presenter, who was in the building to be interviewed by another magazine nearby, came and stood in our office space for several minutes, obviously hoping that someone – anyone – would spot him and possibly ask for his autograph, only for him to be studiously ignored (probably not intentionally – everyone was just too busy, I’m sure), forcing him to shuffle back round the corner where, presumably, he was treated with a great deal more deference.
This was first published on the Womag writers’ website at the beginning of the year as a light-hearted New Year resolutions piece on writing for magazines, using a gym/fitness analogy, since getting fit/joining a gym is often on peoples’ minds at that time of year. But it’s still only March, so there’s plenty of time to catch up and learn how to GET WRITING FIT FOR 2018!
WALKING AND LIFTING
Power-walk your way to your nearest bookshop. Now, buy as many books as you can afford. Balance it out by buying an even number and size of books, so that the weight is evenly distributed.
As you make your way home, you can congratulate yourself on two things. One: The weight of the books is giving your upper arms a much-needed workout. Two: You can treat it as research but, more importantly, you are supporting your fellow writers and keeping everyone in jobs, from the bookseller to the delivery van driver to the publisher to the editor to their assistant to the cover jacket designer to the printer to the coffee machine vending company to the office cat to… you get the picture.
When you do finally sit down at your desk, remember to take regular breaks every hour. Walk around your desk, walk around the room, walk up and down the hallway, walk up and down the stairs but try to resist walking to the fridge or food cupboard more than once every hour. OK, twice.
Your arms and legs are toning up nicely, but there’s another type of tone: your writing voice. Make this the year you develop your own unique tone and style. Remember what Oscar Wilde once said: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.” Target your chosen market and do your research on them. Buy a few issues of that publication, go online, look at their website, get hold of their guidelines, study their readership (their Facebook page will be great for this) and don’t give up too easily if you receive a few rejections before you hit the mark.
RESISTANCE TRAINING AND TREADMILL
You have been sending in your stories to various publications for months, if not years and you’re still not hitting the mark with them – see above. Resist the urge to take it all too personally. Step off the treadmill of negativity. It’s not the fault of the editors. They know their publications inside out and they know what their readers want. They also know about stories that have well-worn themes and are therefore predictable and guessable, with no real surprises. Plots that are not strong enough. Disjointed stories that appear to be about more than one thing and stories that are too far-fetched. Keep learning, keep trying and remember to be patient! Editors have to read hundreds of stories, not just yours (though, of course, yours is undoubtedly the best and most important one in the pile), as well as getting on with the many other sides to their job – and all to deadlines!
Don’t sweat the small stuff. House styles vary between publications and no two are the same. Your job is to provide the words, in a clear and readable manner, preferably double-spaced, with a word count. Put your contact details on there somewhere and let them take care of the rest.
It takes time to build the perfect body and it takes time to build a good relationship with your editors. Keep it polite and pleasant; don’t be stroppy or difficult. You won’t necessarily get any more acceptances if you are the former, or fewer acceptances if you are the latter, but who wants a reputation for being awkward to deal with? (Bribes won’t work, either, but they will make editors very happy. I like chocolate, btw.)
Don’t get yourself in a spin with words. There is such a thing as overwriting; a common fault seen everywhere. You may think, why use two words when you can use ten? But editors won’t be impressed with your exhaustive knowledge of the dictionary. It won’t help your story along. It will, instead, halt the flow and befuddle the reader. Less is often more. Many consider Raymond Chandler novels to be among the best. Read them to find out why.
STRETCHING AND FLEXING
If you have been sitting at your desk, beavering away for some hours (you have, haven’t you? I don’t mean catching up with everyone on social media, either), you will find that you will need to flex your fingers and stretch your neck and limbs. My top tip: never put food within stretching distance. Always have it where you have to leave the room to go and find it, thus building in a little more exercise along the way.
Back at your desk, stretch yourself a little with your writing: don’t just stick to the tried and trusted same-old, same-old themes because you’ve had some success with them in the past. Don’t be afraid to test the water with your editors – speak to them and run your ideas past them first (without giving too much away), so that you’re not wasting your time and theirs. If they’re not suitable for them, try elsewhere. Expand your markets. Flexibility can also mean taking constructive criticism on board and working with your editors to make the necessary changes to improve your story’s chances.
Sometimes, the cut and thrust of the writing business will get you down. Everyone has their off days. Take any criticism on the chin – see above. We’re all here to learn. Switch off that critical, nagging inner voice, cut yourself some slack, go into the garden and take it out on the weeds, maybe clear out a few kitchen cupboards as well, then get back in the ring. Raise those gloves. Slug it out. You can do it; you know you can!
ROWING (WITH AN “OH” NOT AN “OW”)
Don’t worry too much about how you are going to get there. Some have it all planned out and will only ever steer in a straight line, with no distractions; others won’t have a clue and are quite happy to meander endlessly around the byways and tributaries until they can see where they are going. Everyone has their own preferred method. It’s not a race. Just follow your own course.
PULLING, PUSHING AND PRESS-UPS
When you feel the pull of the computer, don’t fight it. Push yourself to write something every day. Get into the habit of a daily workout. Press yourself to do a little more each time. Enter competitions, review books online, send something to magazine letters pages. Build up your writing muscle.
Oscar Wilde (him again; he was a busy boy) wrote that we should always travel with a diary so we would have something sensational to read on the train and Mae West, who also led a somewhat colourful life, is quoted as saying: “Always keep a diary. One day it will keep you.” Maybe your entry will read more along the lines of: “Went to Sainsbury’s, waited ages for the bus, forgot cat food, forced to share my tea with Tiddles, had a bath, went to bed” but my point is that it’s all good practice and life, even at its most mundane and routine, will be fodder to an active imagination. Don’t forget that notebook and pen!
Sometimes we reach a plateau, stalemate, and need a fresh approach to reach our goals. It can seem we’re never going to get there. At the gym, we would be assessed regularly and our training program adjusted accordingly. Our trainer would hopefully be supportive and encouraging, too. Try joining a writing group or going on a course. There are many excellent ones out there. You will get valuable feedback and possibly some new ideas. If nothing else, it’s a break from your normal daily routine and you will likely end up with a few more friends on Facebook.
Because, when you have finished your piece and, even better, had it accepted, you will feel like jumping for joy. Probably best to do it outdoors, though. Never mind what the neighbours may think. They’re well used to you and your funny little ways by now.
D is for: Desks. At first glance, mine would have won any award going for the tidiest and most organised. I hated having anything on there other than my computer, keyboard and mouse and a wire tray or two containing my address book, diary, schedule book and a neat pile of manuscripts. But crack open any one of the drawers (which I always kept locked through shame) and it was a woefully different story. The accumulated detritus of layers of 29 years’ worth of stale sweets, melted chocolate, crumbled biscuits, packets of tissues, old post-it notes with indecipherable messages on them (that’s right, even I can’t read my own handwriting), long-lost bits and pieces of stationery, grainy photos of assorted leaving dos and retirement parties, old copies of the magazine kept for reasons long forgotten, enough plastic implements to supply the entire building, sachets of salt and pepper, old pens missing their lids and old lids missing their pens…you get the picture. Every time there was an office move, I lost the will to live at the thought of going through it all, so it just used to end up in a huge plastic sack, only to be decanted straight into the new drawers as soon and as discreetly as possible. Once, my gleeful boss caught me in the act of transferral and took a sneaky photo as evidence of my slovenly, sluttish ways.
However, with each office move our space dwindled until, with the final one, we had to embrace the delightful “hot desking” (or “agile working” as it’s also known. Not sure which is worse) and lockers. No more room for anything other than the bare essentials and certainly nothing was allowed to be left on our desks overnight. I still tried to cram as much as I could into my locker box, of course but most of it had to go and the rest – well, it came home with me when I left. And it’s still here.
C is for: “CAKE!” The cookery dept was famed for its traybakes and every now and then the siren call of Pat, the kitchen assistant, would echo round the corridors. The team had baked to perfection, the stylists and photographers had done their bit, the art dept were all geared up to work their magic on the pages and now it was every woman and man for themselves as they hurtled towards the source. Within seconds, the trays were empty as satisfied chomping sounds were heard from every corner of the office. An ex-editor once wrote in her weekly letter that, if a fire drill practice bell went off, there would be groans and grumbles as everyone reluctantly shuffled out of the building. Come the rallying call of “Cake!!” however, and it was a completely different tale.
C is also for: Christmas lunches, Canteen and Coffee shop. In our December pay packets, we received a voucher for a free Christmas lunch in our canteen. There was often some serious bartering going on and you would see the same people trot upstairs for their third turkey-and-all-the-trimmings that week. For one week only, the canteen had been turned into a festive grotto, grimacing staff having been forced to wear jolly hats and aprons. Santa Claus had been persuaded to come down from the North Pole, at great expense no doubt and carol singers went largely ignored as everybody stuffed their faces courtesy of the company for one day of the year (or three, in some cases; see above).
The rest of the year, there was a daily carvery for a pound, fish and chips on Fridays, separate hot and cold puddings counters and as much salad from the salad bar as you could cram on to your plate. As one of my colleagues liked to do. Not for nothing was her nickname “Desperate Dan” – her plates resembled small mountains. Her physique contained somewhat larger “mountains” and during one particularly riotous lunchtime, one of her earrings fell into her copious cleavage. Quick as a flash, our production editor quipped: “There’s gold in tham thar hills.”
In the really good old days, there was more than one canteen – a basic one for staff and a posher one with tablecloths and waitress service for guests and VIPs. After lunch, you could retire to the coffee lounge and – er – lounge about on the sofas until someone reminded you there was a deadline looming for your pages. It was all change in later years and the coffee shop moved downstairs. It lacked the ambience of the other place and there was certainly no longer room for any sofas. But good old Jean was still on the till, having moved down along with the tea, coffee and cakes and her bracing good humour, cackling laugh and no-nonsense attitude continued to perk us all up, including the time she announced that I was “on the verge of a nervous breakdown”. “I can see it in your eyes,” she informed me and the rest of the queue. It was true I was going through a particularly nasty relationship break-up at the time, but I had liked to think I was hiding it quite well. Dear old, good old Jean.
B is for: Birthdays. A WW birthday was a revelation. I had been warned when I first joined the magazine but, even so, it was all a bit overwhelming at first. The cookery dept baked a cake for you, there were cards and presents galore, everybody crowded round your desk to sing “Happy Birthday” and almost everyone on the magazine came out to share your birthday lunch. The cakes were pretty special and specifically geared around the recipient so, for me, it was nearly always chocolate and for my boss, who had wheat and dairy allergies, a glorious edifice of ices in various hues and flavours (she didn’t really get on with sugar very well, either, but hadn’t the heart to tell them by then).
Leaving cakes could also be quite – er – interesting. One year, a red-haired male colleague was presented with a rather startling concoction complete with a naked icing sugar man reclining on top, anatomically correct down to the last detail and with extra embellishments, also red, to match the hair on its head.
The first sign that the cutbacks were biting deep came when an apologetic email was sent round to announce that the cookery dept were no longer able to bake cakes for everyone. So that’s “S” for “Sad end of an era” plus “S” for “Spoilt”.
B is also for: Books. It was Christmas every day for us when a small avalanche of jiffy bags would hit our post tray. Whether they contained early book proofs for forthcoming titles or the finished published product itself, each package was pounced on with great glee. Since leaving, I have found myself on a bit of an ongoing book-buying spree which, as someone tactfully pointed out, was most likely me trying to “fill a void”. I tell myself it’s all research but, whatever it’s called, it’s certainly filled my bookcases.
A is for: Awards ceremonies (and Alcohol). Every year, my company held an in-house awards ceremony at a swanky venue in town. On the Big Day, the excitement and tension were palpable and, as soon as was decently possible, we all left our desks to crowd into the loos, which had morphed into highly-scented changing rooms where our party outfits were duly admired (or not). A fleet of coaches whisked us all off to the venue and drinks and canapes were served as soon as we arrived, followed by a sit-down three-course dinner and raffle, a celebrity compere announcing the awards and a disco to round off the evening (my favourite part. I didn’t get out much). Awards ranged from best art director, best feature writer, best use of design, best campaign and many more, culminating in the Lifetime Achievement award, which the recipients used to joke meant the kiss of death for what remained of their careers.
A colleague who liked a drink or three had ignored earlier warnings to tone it down by those who had seen it all before and ended the evening on the floor under the table, shouting to any passing young waiter: “You just want to have me.” It took several men and women to wrestle her into a taxi, then some kind soul thought it best to make sure she got home safely and tossed a coin as to who should go with her. In the end, after much huffing and shoving (she was a well-built lady), they had to leave her in the stairwell of her block of flats. There was no lift and no way they would have been able to get her up to her flat, which was on the top floor. She turned up late for work the following day, apologetic and contrite, but no one was very amused.
While waiting for my taxi home from the venue one year, I spotted two men having a scrap outside. They were from opposing music magazines and one had the right hump because the other had received an award he felt he was more entitled to. “It should have been me!” I heard him wail.
The same evening, I overheard the editor of a notorious lads’ mag giving a taxi driver his address. I had imagined he must live somewhere really edgy and “hard” (in those days) – the Elephant and Castle, Hackney or Peckham, say. Not a bit of it. “Primrose Hill,” he chirruped, as he climbed into the cab.
I’ve just written a very short biog piece and tightened and updated my notes on how to get stories published (there’s always room for more editing). All in readiness for my first-ever stint at a literary festival in June, where I will be part of a panel of experts on writing (ahem) and will also be critiquing and talking through a selection of stories previously sent to me for my opinion. Talk about out of my comfort zone (or CZ)! Well out.
In fact, ever since I reluctantly took redundancy last year, I have been pushed out of my comfortable and cushioned CZ in ways I would never have expected. I was definitely cocooned while nestled in the Fiction Dept of Woman’s Weekly for 29 years. I had found my niche, or my “happy place” as they say these days and I never stopped feeling grateful. But pressures of work and the stresses of commuting, horribly early starts (I had two alarm clocks at one point), not to mention lugging bagsful of books and manuscripts back and forth between the office and my home, meant that I didn’t always make the most of any invitations that came my way and, if I regret anything, it is that I could have enjoyed that side of my job a lot more, with the added benefit of expanding my contacts. (My other regret is that I didn’t start my pension much, much sooner – only about halfway through my working life, when I had a promotion. There is no doubt that I am going to be poor!)
Well, I’m certainly making up for all that now. I have no excuses for no time any more. I’ve written blogs for a writers’ website, given a talk on how to write stories for magazines to a writers’ group I now belong to and been to a book launch lunch – any more out there?! I’ve critiqued stories for writer friends for free and have started to do a bit of my own writing – still very much a work in progress. I take my hat off to writers everywhere. I don’t know how you all do it but, as I used to say when I was working, I’m very glad you do, or I’d be out of a job! There were many hair-raising times when we realised we didn’t have any stories for an upcoming issue but somehow we always managed to find something, often at the eleventh hour.
And now – eek – the festival and the most important thing of all: Is it possible to lose three stone between now and June?!