Of all the different types of writers in the world one thing above all unites us: the need to be heard. We want some recognition. This chapter assumes you are already writing and sending your work to publishers in the hope of becoming a successful author. It’s here near the start of our creative writing section because many writers feel at ease with non-fiction; and by sending articles to a variety of destinations, you glean confidence before embarking on a longer work of fiction. If you’re not yet sending off your work to prospective publishers this chapter will show how accommodating you might need to become.
Article writing is valuable for learning to meet the needs of potential readers. You might feel you are regarded as creative one minute and a jobbing writer the next. Doing anything to obtain a living wage. It’s a lonely job, though, and we’re all sensitive to the way our ‘babies’ are handled. It’s therapeutic to talk about it and to hear others’ experiences.
Whichever way you do it, writing – and getting those words noticed – is hard; but for all that you also need to consider the task of the editor or publisher – we are all human.
Remember editors are writers too. It is vital to have empathy with readers, and that means your work must first pluck a chord with the editor.
What to Expect?
If you’re a trained journalist you’ll know how much of your copy might be changed, censored, or cropped to suit the readership. You will have learned to see good work cut, and will know what level of alteration is acceptable to you.
If you’re a specialist writer – chosen for publication because of the knowledge you can impart – then you can set reasonably strict boundaries. If you’re wise, you’ll know the editor is always right. If you’re on the best terms, you can discuss, not dispute.
Creative writers who are trying to earn a crust have to learn by listening and trusting their hearts. Your mistakes are your best teachers. Here are some writers’ experiences from which you may glean insight, ideas, hope or succour.
From a specialist writer:
“There was a new editor and I was commissioned to write a double-page spread about my subject, on top of my long-standing regular series. I sent it off in good time, its arrival was acknowledged; but a day before the publication was due to go to press, I received the galley proof. This was most unusual – my copy was normally accepted and planted straight into the magazine verbatim. I looked closer and found that three of the headings and whole paragraphs had been changed – offering totally wrong, inappropriate advice.
I hadn’t found my letters until mid-afternoon so it was in shock and panic that I phoned the editor – who was conveniently absent. Speaking to the sub-editor I realised that saying ‘why?’ wasn’t the way forward. I suggested I rewrite those paragraphs, to be more in keeping with what the new editor evidently envisaged, agreeing a very short deadline – next day I think. Failing that, I said, the article would have to go under a pen name as I couldn’t possibly endorse the new editor’s advice. I wracked my brains and supplied fresh copy, so all was well. I could only thank the sub-editor for her unusual action in sending the galley proof. The inappropriate revisions would have destroyed my good name as an expert.”
“I was researching for a book and I appealed to members of the public to write to me with their experiences. The result was about 25 letters but they mostly said the same thing – there was clearly not enough material in the subject for a book. I tried to sell the idea for an article to one of the sensationalist weekly magazines, and the features editor was very interested. However, he insisted on having real names and photographs.
As I’d promised total confidentiality to all who responded to my plea, I couldn’t now ask them to participate in this.
The features editor pleaded with me, very sure it was a worthy subject. He even offered me a ‘kill fee’. These were new heights in my writing experience so I said I’d see what I could do. I played around with ideas, and wrote the whole thing very convincingly, all about myself, but using a pen name. I duly sent the manuscript with a promise to be available for the photos they wanted, as I’m not photo-shy. It would be worth the money!
The article was rejected and I heard nothing. A month later I sent an invoice for the kill fee – asking for half the amount they would’ve paid for publication. This was all done by guesswork; I had no one to turn to for advice. The kill fee was paid within days, without question. I wished I’d put another nought on the end.”
Sub-editor inserts mistakes:
“The girl phoned me and wanted to clarify some details of the recipes I’d sent in with an article. ‘Should it be Self Raising Flour?’ she said. We discussed a few ways of saying various things and her suggestions were all fine so I said go ahead and put those in. I thanked her for taking the trouble – because sometimes even I can’t make head or tail of what I’ve written and she’d picked me up on it.
“When the said publication appeared, the dear girl had inserted ‘Self Raising Flower’. Luckily, the image of it made me laugh. I wondered what the readers thought!
“I think a beginner would have been mortified. It takes confidence and determination to live down someone else’s mistake.”
It’s easy to get an inferiority complex:
“The reader had clearly been doing something else when he read my work and rejected it. He told me the title didn’t fit the story. I don’t think it was a case of obscurity in the story – he got the character’s name wrong as well!”
“A Theatre Company cut great swathes from the script – I wished I’d agreed to go along to rehearsals, even though there was no money available for my expense.”
“My TV film was selected for further development and by the time we’d all finished with it and made the thing, it wasn’t much like the original idea. But I’d got a foot in the door. You do these things for progress: you have to.”
“I had a TV Director interested in my screen play. He lived near enough for us to spend sessions together getting it right. There was a call for submissions that we were aiming for, and the TV company had already expressed interest in my little play. It all looked pretty hopeful. As a writer ‘new to TV’ they wanted me to choose and work with a director, and I felt lucky to find someone very keen and based near my home.
“Every time he turned up he had a different idea to pursue, and we produced numerous draft versions to try to find the right one. Four months of sleepless nights and sixteen drafts later I discovered he’d never previously directed a drama. The submission date was only days away when he broke it to me (as if he’d never realised it himself) that all his previous experience was with documentaries.”
“The version we finally submitted got nowhere. My original idea was so contaminated I haven’t touched it since.”
You learn to know when you are ‘nearly there’
“A good rejection is when you get a non-standard letter. Or better still, some hand-written (and constructive) notes on the title page. A bad rejection is when it comes back pristine clean as if unread, without even a compliment slip. Even worse, I suppose, was when my MS was returned covered in coffee stains, reeking with tobacco, very well thumbed but finally someone had scribbled ‘Not for us’. This was after 8 months.”
Write from the Heart
If you’re trying to write and get recognition, it isn’t all doom and gloom. As a creative writer rather than jobbing journalist you will undoubtedly be writing, first and foremost, for your own satisfaction or sanity. There are plenty of reasons for writing (see Diaries; and Literary Clout) where money takes the back seat.
Write what you want to write! There are ways of finding your niche. All you have to do is research your markets well, hit it off with someone high up the ladder, or – resign to that old cliché – sleep with editor. Remember, clichés are such because they’re well used and common.
The View from ‘Up There’
An editor writes:
“Yes I’ve got my favourite writers, people I can rely on. There’s one in particular who I know I can call on in emergencies. She’ll produce something relevant, the right length, right style – you name it.
“Yes the ideal is to receive unsolicited copy ready to be planted straight into the column, something that really fits the bill. A piece of writing which takes the readership forward in the direction our magazine wants to go – but this kind of thing is like gold dust.
“We all want to be able to write great work, and unfortunately those who have the freshness to do it, just can’t tailor their writing to the style and length and everything we have to produce.”
Another editor says:
“Everywhere you look in the How To… books and mags, writers are told to send hard copy in double spacing, wide margins, pages numbered – but do they do it? You wouldn’t believe the number of MSS I receive that totally ignore the ‘conventions!
“No numbers on the pages, no names, no covering letter, no SAE. We’ve started putting SSAE because people don’t put the stamp on!
“I can’t cope with phone calls from hopefuls – well – I have to be in a thoroughly happy mood if I do. People expect me to know what they’re talking about without my having the copy in front of me. Well it might be, of course, but which one – in a pile a foot deep? Oh if it were so memorable that I could find it and fall-in with their conversation straight away!”
“If I sense a professional, reliable approach to life, and potential for more of the same quality, then that writer stands a chance with me. I’ve got a job to do, a readership to satisfy, and a boss who demands the best – which is why he chose me. Writers I can’t rely on or who are so damn snooty about their precious work – they fall by the wayside very quickly indeed.”
Agents have the same problems
Carole Blake, Literary Agent and partner in Blake Friedmann Agency says in her book ‘From Pitch to Publication’, “Publishers and agents are not welfare organisations: they cannot offer detailed editorial criticism for books they will not publish or represent.”
Editor of a voluntary group magazine says:
“I have one chap who writes local history that’s very relevant to our publication. He is terrifically succinct and very good at making bare facts sound as interesting as a good gossip. He doesn’t type or even write in longhand, and his work arrives on torn-out reporter-pad pages. It’s very hard to read all capitals scrawled in soft pencil, but you know, his offerings are worth all the work they entail. Certainly for me, publishing this local magazine. And to see his face when it’s all printed within the book – I almost relish his next idea.”
It’s up to you
How precious are you with your work? How far will you compromise? How serious are you in pursuing that particular publication? These are the questions you learn to answer for yourself.