Friday, 12 March 2010

How I Got Published: Lesley Cookman

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!


Marian Perera said...

Who was it said that it took ten years to make an overnight success? That was an enjoyable read, and I like the covers of Lesley's books as well.

Vivian Swift said...

As an American I am amazed by this story. It's so British (the modesty, the willingness to "have a go" at so many different genres), all the more so since one of your stepping stones was Pantomime. Pantomime! The only thing weirder, to an American, than Pantomime is a GUIDE TO PANTOMIME and I mean that with all Anglo-philic awe and respect for the irresistable mysteries of Being British.

I am now a dedicated Leslie Cookman fan.

Unknown said...

Good for you, Lesley. I loved reading this story, and wondered which magazine your husband worked for, as I have worked for so many. I had an early Amstrad in 1985 and thought all my dreams had come true, having seen people in American films using 'word processors' to write. That is how I envisaged myself. Thank you for posting. Josa Young

Lesley Cookman said...

Thank you all for liking the piece, which, of course, I forced Jane to put in. Vivian, how nice of you to become a dedicated fan. I'm not really modest, you know! But British - yes, and having a go at anything is probably more "Jack of all trades and master of none." I'm a bit of a ditherer, me.

Thanks, Josa. Brian worked for Which Computer, Business Matters and most of the EMAP business titles, starting before EMAP bought them all. So did I, as a freelance.

Anonymous said...

That's really interesting, Lesley. thanks for sharing.

Liz Harris said...

What a story, Lesley. I had no idea that you had had such an interesting, varied career prior to publication. It was quite inspirational to read.

Rachael Moore said...

Oh what a wonderful article, written by a very lovely person.

I too wrote screeds and screeds in the same Woolworth's jotters every year (Lesley and I have compared notes on this in the past). I do wish I'd kept them - they were unspeakably awful.

I tried about a million different jobs when I was younger. I used to think I was flighty: now I think I was gathering information for my writing career. I'm not convinced my parents will ever believe that though!

Nell Dixon said...

Fab article Lesley.

Sally Zigmond said...

This was a great piece, Lesley, full of self-deprecating wit. It once again confirms my belief that all writers worth reading spend years toiling away at unglamorous writing jobs, learning the art and craft--and the business--along the way.

I have no idea why so many new writers think that all they have to do is to bang out a few thousand words (which are far better than all that rubbish in the shops)and they'll be published, 'because they're worth it.' Can someone enlighten me?

Thanks again, Lesley.

Paula Williams said...

That was really fascinating, Lesley - and I'm a huge fan of your Libby series. Really enjoyed Murder in Bloom and looking forward to Murder in the Green. Long may the series continue - always assuming you want it to, of course!

Lesley Cookman said...

Really thrilled at all the comments, thank you all. Never had so many!

But as all of you who are published (in any way) know, you live in fear of someone tapping you on the shoulder and saying, "Sorry, this was all a mistake. You can't do it, really." Both my singer daughters(trained and pro) are exactly the same.

Sherrie Petersen said...

What a great story. I love that she found her success late in life. That's inspiring to us all.

Glynis Peters said...

What a fascinating story. What a journey you have had in the writing world, thanks for sharing.

Kathryn Magendie said...

Yes! COngratulations! And here's to us, um, "older writers" *laugh* - I was 51 before my first book was under published, 52 for this next one, and 53 for the one to come in the fall .... I used to bemoan the lost years of not writing as I'd planned to in my "youth," not any more!

Jane Smith said...

It seems I am not alone in thoroughly liking this piece, and Lesley too. It just shows you that opportunities can come in the most unexpected ways, and writers have to be open to them when they arrive.

Thank you, Lesley.