Angela Smith asks a group of 15 authors about their day jobs – before they became an author. In her last post, it’s Jane Costello, Cally Taylor and Sarra Manning…
JANE COSTELLO (All the Single Ladies out now)
I was a journalist before I became an author, which I know some people think is the perfect training ground for writing fiction.
The truth is, writing novels and writing news stories are completely different disciplines, not least because the former involves about 100,000 more words, a deadline that’s a year longer and something that’s excruciatingly difficult to master: a plot.
I loved working in a newsroom. In my first job as a graduate trainee on the Liverpool Echo, there was an incredible buzz and camaraderie – I’d never experienced anything like it. I looked forward to going to work every day, even though it involved long hours and some experiences that meant I rapidly had to toughen up!
I became a bit of a jack-of-all trades during my twelve years as a journalist. I was a reporter, a sub-editor, a features editor, an assistant editor – and eventually, when I was 28, I got the job as editor of the Liverpool Daily Post.
Having all that responsibility was daunting at first, but I soon found my feet and ended up doing that job for four and a half years. I probably would’ve continued if I hadn’t had the opportunity to fulfil an ambition I’d held literally all my life: have a novel published. It was only when I signed my first book deal for Bridesmaids with Simon & Schuster that I relinquished the reins of the paper and said goodbye to that world.
It’s not a decision I regret – being an author is the best job in the world, bar none. But when I think back to those great days I had as a journalist I do get a little dewy eyed – it was a special time, there’s no doubt about it.
CALLY TAYLOR (Home for Christmas out now)
When people ask me about my job before becoming an author they’re surprised for two reasons. 1) Because I write rom coms and my job is in the scientific/technical world and 2) because I still do it! My official title is Design and Development Manager and I work for the Distance Learning department of a London University. I lead a team of ten and we create Masters degrees that are delivered via CDROM or over the internet. We’ve created Masters degrees in the areas of Clinical Trials, Infectious Diseases and Global Health and continue to work with academics to create new courses. There’s a creative element to my job – I have to come up with creative and visual ways of presenting the learning – but it’s a million miles away from sitting down at my laptop at home and losing myself in the lives of the characters in my novels!
SARRA MANNING (Nine Uses for an Ex-Boyfriend out now)
I always knew that I was going to be a writer. From about the age of seven I would tell people that I was going to write books when I was a grown up and I think that when you have a very definite idea of what you want to do with your life, you focus on making it happen.
That’s why I left school after my GCSEs and did my A-levels at college so I could also study journalism and related vocational courses, though to this day I have never needed to use shorthand! Then I went to University of Sussex to obtain a degree in English with Media Studies that wasn’t so vocational – my dissertation was on applying notions of feminist film theory to soap opera.
And then I was out in the big wide world with a burning desire to write for a living and no earthly clue as to where to start. In the end, I did a variety of jobs to pay the rent while I wrote for free, mostly for tiny little music magazines. I was an artist’s model (clothes stayed on) and transcribed tapes for a business journalist, which involved listening to men with very heavy foreign accents bang on about the Polish stock exchange or venture capitalism in the South American markets. Dark days, very dark days.
Eventually, through a friend, I got the chance to start writing reviews for a British music paper called Melody Maker and they even paid me. I freelanced for them for two and a half years and I got to see a lot of bands and scored a ton of free CDs but it wasn’t an environment in which I flourished. Caitlin Moran was at Melody Maker at the same time as me and if you read her amazing book How To Be A Woman, you’ll get a clear idea of what it’s like to be an awkward girl in the hostile boys’ club of a music paper.
Anyway, Britpop was over and I was tired of wittering on about whiny mope-rock bands and I was obsessed with this American teen magazine called Sassy, which was an absolute celebration of being a girl and being a feminist and still fancying cute boys so when the British teen mag J17 got a Sassy makeover and advertised for a features editor, I was all over it. I knew I wasn’t qualified to be a features editor but I was absolutely certain that I was meant to apply for the job and that it was going to lead to something amazing. I don’t often get feelings like that but I was convinced that this was the path I had to take. I designed a DIY, fanzine-y CV and still remember writing them a letter entitled ’10 Reasons Why I’d Make A Majorly Spiffy Features Editor”. And then I didn’t get the job…
But I was asked to go and meet the editor (who is now one of my closest friends) so we could talk about Sassy magazine for a life-changing hour, started freelancing for them and within three months I became a staff writer. I was on J17 for four years, eventually becoming Entertainment Editor, and it was wonderful. I wrote emotional pieces with a baby feminist edge, interviewed boy bands, refused to write any real-life stories and felt honoured to be writing for a magazine that I’d loved when I was a teenager.
I still wanted to write novels and I’d had a few unhappy run-ins with the horrible world of contract publishing where you were given a list of characters, a detailed synopsis and absolutely no royalties, but I was happy to be writing for a living and I was freelancing for other magazines as well as the day job and writing a novel was something I was going to do at some unspecified time in the future. While I was on J17, I started to write a fictional column called Diary Of A Crush about all the different stages of a relationship. It was only meant to run for four issues, but I was so caught up in my tale of shy Edie and moody art boy Dylan that I couldn’t stop. The readers really connected with it too and every summer I’d write a Diary Of A Crush novella that we gave away free with the magazine.
At about this time I had an idea for a teen novel and on the back of DOAC I sent it out to some agents who told me it was too left field and uncommercial and they could never sell it. I remember feeling so chastened and decided that it had been ridiculous to think that I could be a novelist. I was ready to put those dreams aside, until I was contacted by an editor at Hodder Children’s Books who loved DOAC and wondered if I’d ever thought about writing a teen novel. Had I?! I went to see her with the idea that had been rejected by the agents and I had a book deal for my first YA novel, Guitar Girl, within three weeks – I think there’s an important lesson in there about having the courage of your convictions!
So, then I had a dual career. I moved to the launch team of ElleGirl magazine, and eventually became editor, and wrote teen novels in my spare time. Every evening I’d come home and write for two hours, then write all weekend. All my holidays from work were spent writing novels. I didn’t have much of a social life but I was getting to write novels and people were actually reading them.
I had an idea that I wanted to write adult novels too but I felt that that was really pushing it. That I was lucky enough to be published for writing stories that I passionately believed in and that I probably wasn’t ‘good’ enough to write adult novels. Then about six years ago I got made redundant and I became an editor for hire and it just became too much. I was working full-time freelance shifts, then still coming home to spend all my spare time writing and I decided that if I was going to do this novelist thing, then I owed it to myself to really do it.
I took two months off work with the view that I was going to get an agent (because I still didn’t have one) and that I was going to write adult books. Getting an agent was really hard, even as a published novelist with a good track record, but I found the late, great, truly inspirational Kate Jones, who negotiated me a new teen deal to give me enough money to live on and mentored me for over a year as I tried and tried and tried to write a grown-up book. Eventually I got it figured out and signed a two-book adult deal just as my YA career was circling the drain under the onslaught of Twilight.
So then I wrote adult books and wrote for the women’s glossies in the UK, because I really needed the money, but no more freelance shifts. Hurrah! Then I freelanced a little less as my adult novels took off and now I’m suddenly back to writing YA again too. Two novels a year is a full-time job. I have a spreadsheet that my two editors have devised between them and there’s little time to even go to the gym, much less keep my journalist muscles flexed. So after years of defining myself as a journalist and author, I think I’ve finally earned the right to just be an author.
Angela Smith is a journalist from the USA. She writes for Chicklit Club and also freelances for local newspapers. She loves the perks of freelance work (especially the free concert tickets!) and the ability to work from home at her own pace. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, shopping (a little too much), watching The Amazing Race (and dreaming about being a contestant one day), and spending time with her array of dogs – all of whom give her unconditional love and make every day a little bit brighter. You can follow her on Twitter at @itsAngDarling