Today we hear how Lesley Cookman got herself into print while not really trying, and realise how working at our craft can bring far bigger results than expected.
When I was young, I had a vision of how and where a lady writer would work. In a dark panelled room, with french windows hung with yellow patterned chintz and a desk, unaccountably in the middle of the room, with, naturally, not even a typewriter, let alone a computer (a what?). This owed a great deal to dear Dr Brewster’s surgery in a grand Edwardian house, where I was taken for the usual childhood ailments after the passing of even dearer Dr Patel, with his tiny shopfront surgery in Trinity Road. Gosh, we were ahead of our time.
Of course, I eventually learnt that this was not How Publishing Really Works. Or even writing. I scribbled away as a young person, mainly pony stories, in brown covered Woolworth’s exercise books, narrow-feint (lines close together, in case you didn’t know). Then I grew up, realised that writing was not what I could do as a living and embarked on a varied, if not variegated, career, encompassing modelling, acting, DJ-ing, being a cabin crew member with BA and, after marriage, a personnel consultant (Brook Street Bureau) and lowly minion at The Observer.
Then I had two children. At this stage of my life my late husband was still a professional musician and we were very poor, a state to which I have become accustomed. When he gave up the business – or rather, it gave him up – he returned to the career for which he was trained and became an art director with a magazine publishing company. One day, when I was pregnant with our third child, he came home with a very large cardboard box and said “There you are. Open it, put it together and write an article on it.” It was one of the very first personal desktop computers, and I did as I was told. The subsequent article was a commission from Which Computer and it started me on a new career.
Over the next twenty years I wrote pieces on science parks, computers for the disabled, computers for the classroom and new water sports. I edited Poultry Farmers’ Weekly. I wrote pantomimes, (luckily still performed across the British Isles, and, occasionally, The World) and a commissioned book on how to do it: How To Write A Pantomime, now in its third edition. A friend at a conference pressed a copy of her new book on how to write twist in the tail short stories into my hands and, having had no previous interest in weekly magazines or, indeed, short stories, I wrote one. Hey Presto! Another string to the writing bow. I was now that familiar thing, a writing whore.
Then, for no other reason than I wanted to prove something to myself, I decided to do an MA in Creative Writing in Wales. These were still newish, in that there weren’t many of them. Now you can find one on every corner above the newsagents. It turned out that I knew far more about the publishing world than any of the tutors, and even gave the class a lecture on the Romantic Novelists’ Association, of which they had never heard (!) and of which I had been a member for some years. However, at the end of the course, a fellow course member had the idea of producing a book of short stories in aid of Breast Cancer. This too was still a newish idea, and we did the whole thing between us. It was called Sexy Shorts for Christmas, and the company was called Accent Press. I asked all my friends in the RNA to contribute a story, and bless them, they did. My husband designed the cover and we had a fabulous launch at The Groucho, followed by a mini-tour of venues in Wales, including the National Library in Aberystwyth.
I then sank into obscurity once more until, shortly after the death of my husband, my friend from college asked me if I had done any more to the mystery novel of which the first twenty thousand words had been my dissertation. She had seen and liked it. I hadn’t done any more, of course, but I hastened to do so, and after another few thousand words, she offered for it. And so Libby Sarjeant and her less-than-believable adventures was born, with the publication of Murder in Steeple Martin.
Libby is about to appear in her sixth adventure (Murder in the Green will be published in early April), with her seventh, Murder Imperfect, in October and her eighth next year. Accent Press, under the aegis of my friend Hazel Cushion, has gone from strength to strength, I’m glad to say: so, in a way, that MA in Wales did us both some good.
I do not work in a panelled room, I stare at a blank wall and I write straight onto a Mac G5. My hair, as once I had envisaged, is not in a neat and classy French pleat, my clothes not beautifully tailored Chanel. I am a scruffy, slapdash individual who never ceases, not for a day, not for a moment, to be glad and grateful that I have this new career at a time of my life when other people are beginning to think about the funeral plan and the bus pass.
And this is not How Publishing Really Works for everybody. But it was for me, and if Libby’s first book hadn’t been received well by a certain section of the reading public, then there would never have been any more, so all the honing of the craft over the previous twenty-odd years was necessary. It always is. Good luck!