Just over 30 years ago the seagulls started coming inland to feed on the rubbish tips. I was walking across Worcester bridge with a friend when a flock of them passed overhead. ‘They’re a long way from the sea,’ I said. And my friend replied, ‘Oh, it’s not far if they come up the motorway.’
I wrote that down and sent it off to Woman’s Realm, for their letters page. Woman’s Realm sent me a cheque for £2. The Two Quid That Changed My Life.
Never has so little produced so much. Not in my life anyway.
Seeing my letter in print went to my head. I was elated and suddenly remembered how, in my early days at school, I had wanted to be the second Enid Blyton.
On the strength of that letter I phoned the offices of the local freebie newspaper and asked the editor if he had any work for me. ‘Got anything interesting on local history?’ he wanted to know. So I said yes and he said, ‘500 words by nine o’clock tomorrow morning.’ And I said yes and put the phone down and panicked.
Then, once I’d had some caffeine, chocolate biscuits and a think, an idea came to me. The year before I’d been in the city centre with the kids and we’d seen boughs of oak decorating the gates of the Guildhall to celebrate Oak Apple Day, so I wrote about that.
And that was it. From letter-writer to reporter. No questions asked. No wanting to see GCE certificates or qualifications of any sort. Just as well because I hadn’t got any due to being asked to leave school when I was fifteen. (So the rest of the class could concentrate, the headmistress said.)
Soon, everything that wasn’t an advert was written by me. Pieces about plumbers, decorators, carpenters, wine bars opening, more local history. I never said no to an opportunity.
When I saw an artist’s ad asking for card ideas I sent him some. When my husband’s boss asked me to write his advertisements, I did. When a property column in the paper was suggested, I wrote it.
My one problem was my creativity. ‘You never allow the facts to get in the way of entertainment,’ one editor told me.
I longed to spice things up a bit but you’re not supposed to do that in reporting so I sent a partly-true piece to My Weekly who had a regular page about home life. 1000 words written humorously. Easy. I could do that. Write about my family and things that happened to us. No problem because none of my family are normal and I’m the kind of person who attracts loonies.
My Weekly took my first three pieces, then returned the fourth. My first rejection broke my heart and I nearly gave up writing. It was a while before another family life piece was sent off. I had no-one to tell me that rejections were part and parcel of writing life – until I joined Worcester Writers’ Circle.
For years I’d never considered myself anything more than a hobby writer. I was doing all right. I’d had two books published, lost count of the number of stories and articles I’d written but never considered myself a professional.
It takes a big turning point to turn you into a full-time or professional writer.
Six years ago that point arrived in my life. We’d been running a cycle shop for ten years but the mountain bike boom was over, an out of town Halfords had opened and there were half a dozen other similar shops to ours in a very small area. There wasn’t enough money coming in for all of us. I had to get a job. There I was again, with no qualifications, visiting the Job Centre and nothing there to interest me. Then I walked past a dress shop and saw a card in the window. Part Time Staff Wanted. I got the job. Minimum wage, start Saturday. I wasn’t looking forward to it.
On the Friday evening I received a phone call from Norah McGrath, fiction editor of Take a Break and Fiction Feast. She wanted to buy a story I’d sent her and asked if I had any more. At £300 a time, of course I did. It would take me three weeks to earn that much as a part-time assistant in a boring dress shop. I phoned to tell them I’d changed my mind about the job. I became a professional writer instead.
It’s not so much the money but a change in attitude that does it. Turns you from amateur to professional. I started to get up each day and get ready to go to work. Most days I worked office hours. For the past four years I’ve managed to sell one story a fortnight. Not just that, I’ve done other things too.