Meeting Debbie Young was one of those happy online occurrences that led to a real-world get-together where we talked non-stop for a good hour. (Who said writers were quiet types?) But even then I didn’t realise what a fascinating journalistic career career Debbie has had up to now. Now she is pursing her dream of fiction-writing, but I’m delighted she has come along to tell us about her past life and what it has taught her about the craft of writing. Take it away Debbie – I’m off to put the kettle on!
Like Ali, I’ve been writing for many years, but my path to becoming a fiction writer hasn’t been the most direct or obvious one. I’ve always loved creative writing, but was early on discouraged from relying on that route to earn my living by parents and teachers who had a firmer grasp of the real world than I did.
Instead of seeking out a writer’s garret in which to bash out my debut novel, I was encouraged to go to university, where I spent three years examining the fruits of other people’s creative writing via a degree in English and Related Literature at the University of York.
Writing essays about great literature helped refine my flamboyant teenage prose, while my perceptions of the world around me segued from adolescent to adult. Composing commentaries on some of the world’s best-honed prose and poetry sure shows up your own literary shortcomings. Secretly I felt disappointed to have had my youthful ambitions quashed, but I was also aware that I lacked the raw material and life experience necessary to compose a meaningful novel. What I did have, though, was a growing mastery of the written word, something that had always come easier to me than to others in my peer group at school. With my new worldly-wise, twenty-something head on, I sought other ways than fiction to put my writing skills to profitable use.
I carved out a career of which writing non-fiction was a cornerstone. One of my first and favourite posts was on the staff of Telecommunications International, a trade press magazine, turning what seemed to me at the time a dreary subject into well-crafted news stories and features. To my surprise, the magazine’s handsome young editor, Denis Gilhooly, turned out to be a kindred spirit: also an English graduate, he had a couple of years previously completed an MA specialising in Shakespeare. Suddenly my career path did not seem so perverse.
One day at a telecoms trade exhibition, I was lured across the fence into PR by a handsome man with a steel-grey ponytail. He rejoiced in the name of Brandon Gamester (ed – sorry I have to insert a !!!) , which would have been perfect for either hero or villain of a Victorian novel. Hs agency also had a technological focus, and ironically the reason he invited me to join his team was that he perceived me as a technology specialist. I needn’t have feared: his Southwark office, situated in an old banana warehouse, oozed creative vibe. The colourful characters in our tight-knit team were promising source material for any aspiring novelist.
For the more years than I care to confess, I devoted my working hours to PR, and not just for high-tech clients. Food manufacturers, pharmaceutical retailers, cat litter suppliers, NHS Trusts, schools, charities – I had to write compellingly about all of these fields at some point, in the form of brochures, newsletters, magazine articles, advertising straplines or, latterly, website copy and social media updates. Having to write to a high standard, conveying carefully defined key messages, about subjects for which I felt no emotional attachment, provided a painless way to further refine my writing skills. The need to meet print deadlines fostered a facility to make myself sit down and write any piece to order, to length, on demand.
I also had a lot of fun along the way, including some great expenses-paid business trips. That Caribbean cruise with a boat-load of pharmacists and the Hong Kong conference that brought out the true nature of sales reps would make great stories in themselves, provided I changed the names to protect the guilty.
Any fiction writer would find these attributes and experiences invaluable. Now that in middle-age I can afford to give up the day job, I have the luxury of time to pursue my fiction-writing ambitions at last. I’m counting my PR career as a lengthy but painless apprenticeship, though I must admit there were times when I would have preferred to choose my own subject matter. There’s only so much my imagination could fetch up to make cat litter and continence compelling.
I’m glad I’ve got over a snobbish irritation that irked me earlier on in my career. Whenever the name of a journalist from a national newspaper or and consumer magazine popped up on the spine of a novel, I’d feel aggrieved. These were “only” journalists, how dare they tread on the hallowed ground of “real” writers, where I felt in my heart that I belonged, even if I hadn’t reached it myself yet? I conveniently forgot that this route served plenty of great authors very well, including Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. I now realise that they too were serving their apprenticeship, and the relationship between writing non-fiction in the form of journalism and writing fiction is actually a close and valuable one. The cynic might observe that lesser modern newspapers are as much fiction as fact.
Ironically, my first published book is actually a work of non-fiction: Sell Your Books!, published my SilverWood Books last year, is a how-to guide drawing on my PR career to help other writers promote their own work. It’s been my pleasure and privilege to help other authors do what it says on the cover. Learning about the book production process was also valuable training for my planned collections of short fiction, which I’ll be publishing regularly from next year. Also planned for next year is a second non-fiction book, The Author’s Guide to Blogging, again commissioned by SilverWood Books.
You can find more information about both on my author website at www.youngbyname.me, which started life as a blog. I’ve been blogging there for last three and a half years – but that’s a whole different story…
Thanks so much Debbie for this glimpse into the world of journalism and PR (Brandon Gamester? You couldn’t make that up!) and also for relecting on what it has meant to you.
almost Meanwhile I’m now over at Debbie’s Off the Shelf blog talking about author platforms aka how to keep a blog going for ever .