Thanet Writers Question Rosemary Scott
I am a retired psychologist, therapist, businesswoman, and writer who has, over the years, published two books (The Female Consumer and Dyslexia and Counselling), and many articles, all in the non-fiction genre.
My father was a writer. An erudite and educated man, he supplemented our family income by writing romantic novels, plays for the BBC, and articles and poems for the magazines of the time (such as John Bull and Reveille). His writing was a thread that ran through my life. As a child, I remember him working long into the night, and the clacking of his typewriter was a comforting background noise as I drifted off to sleep. As an adult, I saw, on the day he died, that his typewriter held a half-finished article on local songbirds. Writing was a lifelong life-force for him, and he encouraged this in his four daughters which, unfortunately, led to us reading our childhood works to relatives on all family occasions.
When I was twelve, I won a national writing competition for Cadbury Schweppes, and my prize was fifty packets of Cadbury Miniatures. This gave me my first wonderful experience of how writing can produce tangible reward—and the importance of pleasing those in writing power.
This is where it all began: the encouragement of my father, the accompanying notion that writing was part of life, and winning all that chocolate.
My father was fond of the famous Samuel Johnson quote on writing: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”
Like Johnson, my father believed that writing was meant to be read, and being paid for it was the most direct indicator of its quality.
I agree, and this influences my writing today. I have no doubt that fifty packets of Cadbury’s Miniatures had their influence on me, but the value of this prize lay in the fact that it was an independent response: an objective indicator of quality.
This is why, by contrast, rejection—and understanding reasons for that rejection—is essential to a writer.
My most useful example of this was when, after publishing a successful book on the role of women in advertising and marketing, which was widely publicised and sold well, my second book, on children and advertising, was rejected as ‘lifeless and over-academic.’ I was mortified, but, in a calmer frame of mind, saw that this was a fair, if restrained, judgement. The text was boring and unreadable. It had rightly earned no chocolate. I learnt from that rejection, and my next book was written in a much livelier, more readable, style, and was accepted.
There is no doubt that writing for its own sake is therapeutic. As a former psychologist, I am aware of research that shows the psychological benefits of a journal, and there is evidence that intentions written down—rather than spoken—have a significantly greater chance of being enacted.
It can also be fun to let rip on paper, and happily glory in the finished product—your creation, your baby, your work of art. We’ve all been there, and it feels great, particularly when your friends and family say how wonderful your work is and how very talented you are as a writer.
This, however, is not professional writing. Just because you have written something does not give it market value.
Writing, for me, is something that is published and paid for. It is something others want to read and enjoy—or which touches them. This can only come from writing what sells and what people want to read.
In this respect, I have mixed feelings about writers’ groups. The ones that worry me are those where many truly awful pieces are praised indiscriminately, no matter how unmarketable or unreadable they are. Such a response does a writer no favours, and ensures they carry on in their unpublishable ways.
There’s certainly comfort and companionship in writers’ groups. Writing is, after all, a solitary activity. If, however, you can’t take, or don’t want (be honest), practical criticism and rejection, and yearn only for praise, then an uncritical writers’ group is probably the place for you.
If, on the other hand, you want to publish, then you need to steel yourself to do research and use the market—publishers’ and editors’ responses—to triangulate what works and, importantly, sells.
Excellent resources are, firstly, a good writers’ group run by professional, published writers who know what they are talking about, and who are not afraid to tell it like it is, and, secondly, a respected conference on writing, where top, published writers and experienced agents and publishers give practical advice. I used to enjoy Swanwick Writers’ School, held every year at Alfreton.
I have found a couple of self-help books on writing to be helpful, but most are a load of waffle and, often, out of date or only relevant to the American market. They can also too easily justify an extensive bout of procrastination, seductively wrapped up as ‘research.’
To conclude, what influences my writing—and the precious time I devote to it—are the questions: ‘What are the markets for this?’ and ‘Have I written it to address the style and presentation formats of the publishing outlets in those markets?’ To this end, I research all markets before I write anything.
‘Anything’ is also a touchstone for a writer. While I prefer to write with passion and personal experience (who doesn’t?), I believe that a decent writer should be able to write with imagination and verve on anything.
Alternatively, if you want to write with passion and personal experience on one topic, then know your market. If you only want to write on, say, making train sets, then send it to a magazine that is interested in that topic; for example, British Railway Modelling Magazine.
I know this sounds blindingly obvious, but I have heard many talks from world-weary editors who recount how up to 80% of material sent to them is completely unsuitable: how it is simply thrown at them by the writer in some random hope that the magazine/paper might use it. What is frustrating to these editors is that they often lack the material that they do actually need.
Also, I am aware of the fact that while writing something grim and therapeutic is horribly satisfying, it is usually the light and funny that sells. (I remember a judge of short stories telling me how depressing most competition entries were, and how the energetic, amusing ones really stood out.)
Terror and panic motivate me to write—which is why I need a commission and a deadline where I have sold an idea and a market has been established. I am not a natural writer like my father who seemed to live to write. I really have to make myself do it, and I am an expert on the psychology of procrastination.
I am also a perfectionist, which makes it hard for me to relinquish my work to the post box or press the ‘Send’ button, but does ensure my work is well-presented, spell-checked and at absolutely the correct word length.
I am naturally a non-fiction writer, so when I did an Open University course on creative writing to see if I could hack it (I could, but it was not a pleasure), it was only the deadline at 12pm on a submission date that helped, with more than one piece of work going in at 11:58am. At times like this, I have hated writing, and sworn never to touch another word.
(Despite this obsessive care about presentation, I have never worked out why there is always, without exception, some error that gets through, and why I always spot it at the very moment the work is irretrievably sent.)
Once I start writing, however, everything changes, and motivation is not an issue. I am lost to the world, and become deranged; shoes in the fridge, personal hygiene to the wind, walking into doors, incapable of lucid conversation—that sort of thing.
As a writer, you really do need an understanding family and loved ones, because, when you are stuck in that underworld of words, they become ghosts to you, and you become a lost soul to them.
I am a circadian lark, and wake at 3–4am, but am dead in the water at 7pm—usually asleep by 8pm. So, my best writing times are early morning to 2pm. After that, I may do research and emails, but I never write or edit. If I write after 2pm it is always lifeless rubbish. I also never read through anything before bedtime, as the urge to edit kicks in, and I don’t sleep.
I also stop writing after two hours at the most, and take a half-hour break, or I get stale, and my shoulder aches. Writers do need to exercise and watch what they eat, or they can get tired and ill. All that sitting is unhealthy, too.
There is also a good deal of research that suggests the brain requires more sugar during decision making. Since writing is an endless stream of micro- and macro-decisions, this explains why writers crave sweets, biscuits and sugary stuff, and can end up a lot heavier by the end of a text than the beginning. I am aware of this, and keep lots of protein nearby (cheese helps), keep no sugary stuff in the house and, if all else fails, walk.
At the beginning of each day, I usually read through the writing from the day before, but restrain myself from any edits.
I believe in getting all the text on paper. Then, and only then, do I edit. That first draft is a load of weeds and neologisms (I am an inaccurate typist), but I can’t spot the good bits until it is finished. I also find that I get to my voice for that text more quickly if I just pour it all out.
I find editing the best bit of writing, and I do it in two phases. First, I do what I think of as macro-editing (turfing out repetition and rubbish and organising blocks of text), then, secondly, I do the micro-editing—usually through notes done on hard copy—for flow, narrative force and word length. I also read passages aloud when I know something is wrong, as this immediately identifies the raw bits, and shows where I have over- or under-written.
This two-stage method has worked for me because I tend to overwrite (up to 100% over), and I have no problems with deletions. In fact, I think it is deletions that bring a piece to life. Putting it another way, I think that the best writers are those who know when to cut out, shut up and stop. They know instinctively when to get out of the way of the text, and let the narrative flow.
Knowing this, I only edit when I am fresh. I always date my most recent edit in the title, so I know which is which if I want to go back and retrieve text.
I was in my late twenties when I went to buy a washing machine on credit.
It was the early seventies, and the feminist revolution was well under way, with The Female Eunuch having been published a few years earlier.
The conversation about the credit application went something like this:
“We can’t give you credit unless you have a bank account.”
“I have a bank account.”
“We can’t give you credit unless you are employed.”
“I am employed.”
“We can’t give you credit unless you own a house.”
“I own a house.”
“We can’t give you credit unless your husband is prepared to come in and counter-sign your form.”
“I am not married.”
“Well, we can’t give you credit.”
Anger and euphoria are considered to be both sides of the same coin. That day, I had never felt so uplifted by sheer fury. It turned out to be extremely inspiring.
It led to my article, ‘Women in Marketing,’ an attack on the marketing and advertising industry for their attitudes to their women consumers who—as the strap line of the article said—“made 80% of consumer marketing decisions.” Marketing Magazine bought it, and ran it as a lead article. This led to the commission for my first book, The Female Consumer.
Other articles and a subsequent book on dyslexia (written about the positive sides of dyslexia and in a format that dyslexics themselves could actually read) have been inspired in the same way; by a combination of experience and strong emotion. They seem to work for me in tandem; experience provides the meat of the text, and emotion brings it alive with juicy verbs and phrases as well as a fair bit of iconoclasm.
It is certainly exhilarating to write from anger, but the anger, on its own, is not enough. It can tip rather easily into a bit of a rant—an unpublishable rant—and editors get quite enough of this, usually in purple ink.
I see this sort of writing as harnessing the power of an express train (the strong feeling), but a train that has to run on rails (the arguments and research) and has a destination in mind (where I’m going with the argument), and I often write the conclusion or last chapter first.
If these are all in place, then I feel safe to whack it all out. Then, after the best bit—editing it ruthlessly (and adding in anecdote and humour to leaven it a bit)—what emerges, if I’m lucky, is something that expresses what inspired me to write it in the first place.
Pretty much anything holds me back from writing: the fact that my herbs are not in alphabetical order, that it is ages since I have tidied my tights drawer, that my garden will not weed itself and, most common of all, that the deadline is still a good seven days away.
The best tip that I have found for getting round this is to open a new document, and write The. Research shows that we are psychologically discomforted by the incomplete, so there will be a strong compulsion to continue. I use this trick when I stop for the day. I finish a sentence half-way through.
I wrote my first book when I was 22. When it was published, it was a major feature in newspapers here and abroad. I am now in my 60s, and I still think it is the most honest, alive, passionate and, often, funny thing I have ever written. I also said new things and in a new way, and that sprang entirely from my desire to cut through to my readers.
I did an Open University creative writing course, and had to learn to use the senses in my descriptions, write dialogue that was half-way human and expose myself emotionally—particularly when writing my first poem. My early marks were rubbish, as I sought to quell my non-fiction instincts, but I had a strict, no-bullshit tutor for feedback (bless him). By the end, I got it. I could write fiction. I also got a First. Now that really felt like the bee’s knees.
Only let an experienced, evisceratingly honest, professional, published writer read your work and check your presentation (including spelling, grammar and formatting). If necessary, pay them to do this.
No-one else will tell you the truth about whether it is publishable, and no-one else will notice that you have used the wrong spacing and wrong font.
I am not currently working on anything.
I am considering:
1. Deciding how, and if, I want to write any more. The market for novels is now dominated by celebrity texts, and non-fiction derives more and more from blogs. Pay is derisory for almost all commissioned work, and stables of established writers are largely supplying most women’s/non-fiction magazines.
2. Editing and proof-reading. I am good at this, and the rates of pay are better than writing to commission. My perfectionism is useful here.
3. Writing something truthful, funny, surprising and, above all, original about breast cancer. There is enough grim material out there—and not enough to raise the spirits.
© 2019 Rosemary Scott
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Dr Rosemary Scott is a journalist and writer, publishing articles and three books on economics, therapy and dyslexia.