In praise of editors…

In Praise of editors.

I first started writing for the women’s magazines back in 1999. I still remember having my first story accepted for publication (yes, a bottle of bubbly was bought and probably cost almost as much as I was paid but, as discussed in my previous post, all successes must be celebrated). I felt fantastic - I was on the road to being a ‘real writer’. I could stop doing housework (not that I’d ever really got started) and chain myself to my desk to suffer for my art. The fact that my next 3 stories were all politely turned away dented this confidence a little but there were good reasons for the rejections and once I’d worked out where I was going wrong I crept forward, having work accepted by more and more editors.
And what lovely people they are. OK, so they don’t feel quite so lovely when they reject you (reject your story, I know, but we all understand how personal it feels when it happens) but at heart they are true fiction lovers and very engaging people and I honestly believe that writing for the womags over the years has really helped me improve my general style. There are people who look down on the womags in the same way as there are people who look down on chick lit or sci-fi or romance and for the life of me I fail to see why. These genres sell. Readers love them and what better accolade is there?
I remember hearing the Derbyshire writer Stephen Booth speaking at a writers’ conference in Loughborough once. It was a fantastic speech throughout but the one bit that sticks in my mind was an anecdote he told about touring America. He was taken to a vast warehouse-style bookshop and told his signing would be in the section where his books were shelved. He duly looked up at the huge signs over the aisles and made for ‘fiction’ at which point he was stopped by an apologetic shop worker who told him he was very sorry but Stephen wasn’t in ‘fiction’ – he was in ‘popular fiction’. Why apologise, Stephen asked him – who wouldn’t want to be popular?
I couldn’t agree more and its one of the reasons I love writing for the magazines. There is little more satisfying than receiving a letter from a reader saying they can’t wait to get into the newsagents for the next part of your serial. Old-fashioned maybe (Dickensian even) but wonderful. My main aim as a writer is to involve readers – to create stories that draw them in and make them want to know more and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the lovely editors at the People’s Friend, My Weekly, Women’s Weekly, Take a Break and Yours for helping me learn how best to do that.
My first ever serial with The People’s Friend was a huge learning curve in pacy plotting. For those who don’t know, the outline of a serial is usually accepted with the first episode but every subsequent episode has to be approved on its own merits before you are (a) paid and (b) asked to crack on with the next one. The poor lady editing my work gave me patient and hugely valuable feedback on upping tension, keeping characters consistent and interweaving storylines. I don’t think it was until episode 5 that I got it right first time but some of her wisdom must have rubbed off as from that point on I only had minor re-writes. My next serial sailed through in comparison to the first, though I’m still prone to the odd stupid mistake, always very gently pointed out!
These editors know their readers inside out and that seems to me to be the key to successful fiction. I – along with most writers I’m sure - write from the heart about characters that burn inside me and plots that keep me awake at night and settings that (when I finally do get to sleep) haunt my dreams and I think that’s the only way to do it. Anyone chasing a market is unlikely to succeed – we have to write the story inside us, not the one (tempting though it certainly is) currently flying off the shelves. I do, however, always try and edit with my readers in mind to make sure all those characters and plots and settings are as vivid to them as they are in my own tiny head.
I’m now, very excitingly, embarking on the edit of Book 1 of The Queens of the Conquest, with my new (and hopefully just as patient and kind) editor, Natasha at Pan Macmillan and I’m hoping that years of perfecting short stories to the women’s magazines’ very high standards is going to help. It’s a daunting task trying to get that high-shine to my work and one I’m grateful not to be doing totally alone.
So this entry goes out in praise of editors. My especially thanks go to Shirley Blair at The People’s Friend and Liz Smith at My Weekly and I look forward to continuing to work with them even as I launch into the new waters of my novel. And, of course, I have one consolation – polishing my prose, however tough, will always, always be preferable to polishing the furniture!

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Hope to see you soon - Joanna