How I Started to Write

leolaptop2Everyone’s a critic…

If you read my last post, you’ll know that my father was a writer. He used to work part time at his day job and write for the rest of the working week. At lunchtime he’d read that morning’s output to my mother. I used to sit under the table, bored out of my skull until I’d get thrown out for making noises. I hasten to add that this was when I was too young for school, nowadays a polite grimace is the most I produce by way of negative feedback.

When I was a bit older, my mother started writing as well; short stories for women’s magazines at first, then novels. We kids didn’t dare ask our parents about publication, didn’t want to remind them that they were waiting – in those pre-email days of the nineteen-sixties – for a letter fluttering through the door from the agent.

Both my parents were self-taught writers and picked the tips, techniques and skills up as they went along. My father was the first person who told me about “show don’t tell”, although he didn’t actually say that. He gave me an example, when I was about 14, and I still remember it, or something very like it: “You could write ‘she was depressed’. Or you could write ‘she turned towards the wall and picked at a piece of loose paper. It came away in her hand and she let it fall to the floor.”  But, he was the hardest taskmaster when it came to my writing. After he savaged a story I’d written for school when I was about 15, I decided I couldn’t write and that was that.

Fast forward 37 years. I had a letter printed in the local paper and thought, maybe I can do this after all. I sent my father a few examples of articles I’d drafted and he said I had a fresh writing style. So on the next New Year, a few months later, I made a resolution to start writing and get published within the year. Pretty soon, I realized how unrealistic that was, but in fact it did work out because in December I rang up the paper and when I asked for their submission guidelines the switchboard operator didn’t know what I meant and put me through to the editor! He was newly in the post, his predecessor had never been in the office, if the fact that I was told he was out every time I rang was anything to go by. Anyway, the new guy had a 4-week slot he needed to fill, I sent him some examples and he said yes. When the first article appeared we went dashing out to get a copy of the paper even though it was Boxing Day (December 26th, a public holiday in the UK). My father was staying with us at the time, I showed him the article and stood next to him, heart a-flutter. He read it, then looked up and to the right, lips slightly pursed as though he was tasting wine (only without the spitting). “I give it B+,” he said. But I didn’t care, getting into print at last was the best Christmas present ever.