How to find your voice in the noisy world of writing!
At the end of an interview with a journalist from the local Dorking and Leatherhead Advertiser for an unashamed plug for my novel, I was asked my marital status. I was fortunately in a good mood so I answered without my usual brittle tone, and said “Miss.”
It got me to thinking about how when I began writing five years ago one of the first mistakes I made was about where I was sending my work.
The general advice given when I first started was to write about what you know. And this is generally sound advice. However it was here that I hit a brick wall.
I have travelled the world, generally on my own to far flung parts of the world, working in such places as The Galapagos, Mongolia, and Madagascar, an endless list of remote, exotic and sometimes glamorous destinations. I was convinced these life experiences which included, horse riding with Vinnie Jones in Mongolia,(yes he of Lock stock and two smoking barrels) searching for the killing machine of Madagascar, wrestling a lion from my tent in Kenya to spending Christmas Eve in an Ethiopian brothel would be snapped up by magazines. Wrong!
Rejection after rejection, led me to believe that my writing abilities were sadly lacking. And I was half contemplating giving up on my new hobby. Then fortunately I had a lucky break. The editor of a long established woman’s magazine wrote to me and in the letter she said “You have a lovely turn of phrase and create very warm, atmospheric scenes with your words”. Finally the re assurance I needed. I was a good writer.
But still over the ensuing months more rejections came through the letter box. And one piece about volunteering in Madagascar was described as depressing by the editor. Why I don’t know, nobody died, got run over or had their house repossessed. Although admittedly a few dead ancestors were dug up for what is locally called the turning of the bones.
Another short story was rejected as being boring. Which considering the remit said no gratuitous sex, no violence, no substance abuse and ends in an uplifting note, I felt I was rather limited in my story line to begin with.
Then I read an article in a particular woman’s magazine which covered what I saw in a very patronising manner, “the bravery of solo women travellers.” With examples of women who had donned their ruck sacks and gone off into the wild blue yonder on their own.
What! What’s so brave about travelling alone? I have been doing it for over 30 years. I wrote a letter to the magazine. Explaining bravery has nothing do with it. You wouldn’t say a man was brave if he went off to India on his own. The letter was presumably ignored. And then it slowly dawned on my just what I was doing wrong.
The vast majority of women’s magazines on sale in supermarkets and newsagents aim for certain groups of people. Married, divorced or widowed women, working mums, single mums or stay at home house wives. In fact a very large percentage of the female population.
To be fair these woman were embarking on a journey after miserable sometimes violent marriages or perhaps after children had flown the nest. But I was none of these types of women.
I was a single woman who even in the 21st Century is called a spinster. A name that conjures sadness, unfulfilled desires, loneliness and a life devoted to cats. Oh dear!
Not sure what the editor of the item of “Christmas Eve in an Ethiopian brothel.” made of that piece, when the writer was a “Miss” Walton.
So I had to change my strategy. I did have a voice. I just had to find alternative magazines whose readers would want to listen to a single woman of a certain age and her escapades round the world, without husband, divorce certificate, children or excess baggage.
Slowly things got better. And more of my work started to be published. One week I had a small piece in the Lady magazine, that stalwart of femininity, and also an item about Dan Brown in Freemasonry Today, that bastion of masculinity. The irony was not lost on me.
I realised at this point. I was actually very lucky; my options were not limited by my status at all. In fact the complete opposite. I could go where the words could take me.
I still pitch to mainstream women’s magazines and I am quite often successful but they are no longer my objective. When writing for them I am not really writing about what I want to. The articles and stories in these magazines are written to a very precise formula.
Usually I am now writing the things I want to write about for people with similar interests as my own in some very high quality magazines.
I still have to laugh when I read about “solo female travellers” being brave. Back in the 18th and 19th century, women were already exploring un chartered territory.
Many of these ladies were my inspiration. Amelia B Edwards A 1000 miles up the Nile. (1877). Travelling in a time when, there was no such thing as email, face book, twitter or even a telephone, yet alone a mobile.
One thing I love is the way these ladies defied convention, not averse to turning the male female roles on their heads. Picking up male distractions as and when they wanted to and dropping them just as easily when the attraction had waned. Sorry guys but fair play to them.
Bravery was the likes of Mary Kinglsey, Lady Mary Wortley Montague, and Gertrude Bell. They paved the way for many a wayward woman traveller like me. And at no stage did I presume to think I was being brave.
My change of track and my persistence has started to pay off.
One of my favourite commissions at the moment is in a magazine that is geared towards ex -pats primarily American. The magazine is not sold in supermarkets. I got hold of an edition when working at an American school during my free evenings. I love the magazine; it is full of quirky items and things about England that Americans love.
So ladies, and gents -of course! If you are struggling to find a venue for your “voice”, don’t give up, just be more realistic about who wants to read your life experiences. Start looking at alternative markets and pitch accordingly. There are plenty out there. But you have to look because supermarkets will unfortunately only have the mainstream on their shelves.
On occasions I experiment with my own title, adopting the French Madame, it really can cover a multitude of sins. But eventually I am determined to create a name that describes a single woman of the 21st century. Sexy and exciting and not a cats whisker in sight. With perhaps just the odd Bedouin hiding in the wardrobe, who I forgot to send off packing after a trip to Jordan.