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A writer is born

by Malcolm Sinclair about a year ago in career · updated 11 months ago
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The creation of a protagonist... or an antagonist?

A writer is born
Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

My first ever written publication, although I use that phrase loosely, was in the Metro News. The local advertiser "delivered free to every household" in Manchester, from the people who brought you Manchester Evening News. Something had annoyed me! I wrote a letter. But it never got published! But somebody else's wimpy letter on the same subject did!

The controversy at the time, firing my passion to write about it, concerned the reintroduction of "the flourishing telephone chatlines": costing 25 pence per minute to call off-peak and 36 pence per minute at all other times. You need to remember telephone calls were charged differently in 1990. There was no such thing as inclusive calls, you paid the full whack for every call you made. Nor were there any itemised phone bills, until later that year. The subject of the local news story was a lone mother, working as a home-help supervisor. Without any warning, she received the £8,000 phone bill. Her unemployed 21 year old son was the culprit, reportedly spending "as much as three hours a day" calling these chatlines.

From "wimpy letter" what I remembered most was his quote, and I could imagine his monotone voice saying it, "It is such an easy way to part with money without realising". Now surely you know the minute you pick up the receiver and dial, it costs! Unless you choose not to think about costs. A voice from my inner somewhere told me, "Well, just re-write (your letter) and re-submit (it)" and the following week my revised letter was printed! “Gosh” I thought, seeing the heading "Pulling the plug on all that dear (expensive) chat" before realising "that's my letter". There was of course one glitch in "my publication". The newspaper removed a sentence, which did not destroy my letter's meaning. But they also chopped one sentence in half, so the sentence no longer made any sense. So as this new hobby went on, in "my portfolio", I kept copies of the original letters I sent. My instant fame started the same evening as that advertiser arrived. Calling a mate and saying "It's Malcolm" his response was "The one who writes letters to The Metro".

For about a year I had a few of these easy wins and I got it off to a fine art. Type it out on a Sunday. Drive to the sorting office to post the letter, where the "latest posting time" on a Sunday still enabled "next day delivery". I anticipated it landing on someone's desk, ready to read, on Monday morning. I had a couple of successes in another local advertiser too: the South Manchester Reporter. I worked out that if I was responding to what another "reader" wrote, it might stand more chance of getting published... especially if I disagreed with their viewpoint! I also read the news stories to see if there was anything controversial I could respond to, as it would prove I read the advertiser. I also supposed these advertisers might recognise who their "regular writers" in the Letters Page were. Eventually, if I kept my efforts up long enough, maybe I could suggest the Metro News ran a feature on their "regular writers", just like an advertiser in Portsmouth did in the 1980s.

I progressed to writing articles for professional journals at the end of the same year, having given the journal who published my first article a few "interesting letters" beforehand. A few immediate colleagues regarded these achievements with amusement, although one said "I'd love to see John's face when he reads that".

In 1989 I was working in the NHS, undertaking my post-registration Registered Mental Nurse training. After receiving the unsatisfactory conclusion, following a year of arguing about the final (basic) pay grade I was awarded in the clinical regrading fiasco, I wrote Article Number One: "Clinical regrading hazards". A positive outcome from this article, where I mentioned being awarded a "protected grade" for a previous job, was getting a letter from someone who read my article. She had also changed roles before the clinical regrading of 1988 awarded her grade. But nobody had ever informed her of "protected grades" as they had done for me, so she wanted to pursue the same back-pay I had received. Protected pay grades were awarded if your previous role was ultimately awarded a higher grade than the role you moved into before clinical regrading was implemented. In effect, the pay grade of your previous NHS role would be carried over ie "protected" until the pay scale in your new role exceeded that of your previous role. The reason being you would not have known, when taking up a new role, that you could also be taking a drop in pay grade. Confused? So were some payroll offices.

My second article "Sleepless nights" described my positive and negative experiences of working nights, both in the duration of my nurse training and odd agency night duties, as most nursing agency shifts for extra cash were. I referred to the two relevant articles I scrutinised on the subject: circadian rhythms and anomalies between working days and nights. "Less accidents happen" among people working at night, the article claimed, but accidents were "more severe in nature". Perhaps I was rightly critical of that statement if, allegedly, less people actually work at night period. The fun happened when I found an academic had referenced my article, "you know, you really shouldn't have done that", and she referenced me incorrectly. I did take her incorrect quotation up with the journal that published her and she was aggrieved about it: "Well, I thought it meant..." and "Well, my interpretation of it was...". The cardinal sin being, making a definitive statement citing a reference that did not support it and not using an academic article. So either not much of an academic, or did she think nobody would notice?

Article number four, on the subject of employer references, was written after one previous employer did the dirty on me. The irony was, the "dodgy verbal reference" they supplied did not stop me getting the job if that was the hospital's intention. On that occasion, the journal's description of me was "the name of the author - a regular freelance contributor - has been withheld for legal reasons". So they gave me a very elevated status.

Another significant success was getting a second article published by Nursing Times. So definitely a prestigious achievement. This was a study I undertook on a three month course at a London eye hospital. From the minute I was informed of this course requirement, my brain went into overdrive thinking "sales". What could I write that was likely to sell at a later date? The subject of "Achieving patient compliance" saw me invited to speak on the subject at a pharmaceutical company annual study day. Publication of the said article happened at a time when an "ophthalmic week" in 1993 was imminent, so for the only time in my life I was "in the right place at the right time".

However, there were some downsides as well. If any letter or article gets adulterated by a journal's editor in the process of getting it published, which is always a risk, you just accepted some minor tweaks were an inevitable part of the course. Nursing Times sent me their final drafts to check I was happy with "tweaks" made, which was more about keeping to the word count they applied. But...

I fell out of love with the first journal to publish me, with the last article I wrote for them before a six-year hiatus. The article was about the cause of a stress-related absence from work, where my employer was not very understanding of the circumstances involved. To be fair, some personal life issues did not help with the work situation and vice versa. Ending my long-term relationship was definitely one of the most helpful recovery processes, followed by quitting my job and pursuing a different career. My General Practitioner (GP) was also unsympathetic and, it seemed, reluctantly certified me absent with "stress-related illness". The GP inferred I was just lead swinging, although they were prepared to play along with me. That is the only time I could say about any article I produced "I wish I'd never submitted that" and "thank God it was printed anonymously".

On publication, the key points referenced in the above article were removed, hence the article did not show me in a good light. In fact they reworked the article to the extent it made me sound like I was some spoilt little rookie, something I was not! Something they could make "fit" with the common gripes about nursing in that era. They projected me like a newly qualified nurse, which I was far from being, who had undertaken the modern style of degree nurse training, which I had not done. Someone who, throughout their nurse training, had been protected from the harsh realities of shift work and ward management until that point in time. Only now having the shock realisation of being in the real world, and finding as night does actually follow day, a need to rotate to working night duties ensued. That was in addition to working late shifts followed by early shifts and sometimes having to work day and night shifts in the same week. This being instead of “standardised” working hours modern nurse training got the student nurses accustomed to, as "proper students". The less than flattering title, "Help! I'm drowning", suggested I was someone "extremely naïve" and "about as in touch with reality as the man on the moon". Someone who could not cope with any of life's conundrums. The published version did not reflect the real circumstances, which caused me to leave nursing for several years.

I wrote about my experiences working in nursing agency recruitment. The agency were "very keen" to see the article I proposed writing, so I was told by the branch manager. "She (the area director) will get it published for you in our company magazine". But after sending it to her "she" never acknowledged it or said if it was any good, which was out of character. That is assuming she was still in post when the article reached her desk. So I sent the article to my usual nursing journal. "I did tell you I was going to do that in the first place" I planned on having as my defence. The only official outcome was being told by someone with no authority, and a tendency to exaggerate, "It might be difficult having you back in the office: Your article!" However the new branch manager was the one who invited me back to work there and the matter was quickly forgotten about without, it seemed, ever having caused a storm. The unofficial feedback was the postcard I received from a colleague in Manchester with the message "Dear famous Malcolm, to think I sat opposite you. A writer for the Nursing Standard".

In 1994, one article won me a "kill fee". To the initiated that is a fee paid when publication was agreed, but the journal renegaded on their decision. I can only speculate, was the subject too controversial? It was written about my experience, and the outcome, from my post-registration Registered Mental Nurse (RMN) training. At the time the conclusion was "it's a Mickey Mouse qualification". Hence an article entitled "Really Means Nothing". The journal had reportedly accepted too many articles for publication. So it made me wonder, was their editorial policy very discriminating or would they just accept any old rubbish? But as this journal requested two rewrites from me before agreeing publication, I thought they were a bit cheeky trying to buy me off with £25 like they did for everyone else. "... in view of this", I told them, "the minimum acceptable kill fee will be £40". Thereafter they needed some coaxing to pay out, followed by the threat of a county court summons when they did not pay... but I got the £40 in the end.

At one time, before the novelty wore off, I did list my "published articles" on my CV. One hospital in Hull found a copy of "Achieving patient compliance", because I saw it in their "bundle" when I was interviewed. But the interviewers never mentioned having it or reading it. Being interviewed by "a gobby Medical Sales Recruitment Consultant", I had hoped my "listings" would show "I had balls". Something such recruitment consultants claimed most candidates seeking these medical sales roles lacked. Instead he just said "they (articles) were all a bit controversial". Today in an interview I would be tempted to throw that comment back by saying "Yes they were, weren't they" and possibly follow that with "why do you think I wrote them?"

The last article I had published in a nursing journal was in 2000. "A very good article" which I recycled from being published twice elsewhere in 1999, in two journals that are now deceased. The respective titles those journals generated were "Cheers girls! Just stick it on the plastic" and "Plastics not always fantastic". I was talking about the ease of getting yourself into debt. The nursing journal gave it a less glamorous title, "When all your credit runs out". It was not the point I was making, nor did it reflect the published article's content. The point I was making was about not waiting to seek help until it was "game over". They randomly cut and pasted my paragraphs all over the place, it seemed. At least this time the journal did not alter the article content beyond recognition from my original draft, although they seemed to treat the original like a prototype model. Unlike my previous anonymous "effort", apart from the title, they did not change the meaning of the content to something completely different. But, they moved my high impact introductory statement to the end of the article. I had begun by stating how compulsive spending was demonstrated by Garfield, the cartoon cat. Seen brandishing a big camera, and surrounded by expensive consumer goods, Garfield says "I'll have fun-fun-fun until daddy takes the plastic away". Presenting a misconception that credit cards are a license to spend. The journal added a sentence of their own, which I thought made the conclusion sound childish! "Remember that by the time "daddy" intervenes you might be facing years of repayments". But that infers you have a "daddy" with plenty of money who can come to your financial rescue, which is not the case for everyone.

Is publishing the type of articles I produced going to get more difficult going forwards, or was it ever easier? I had a run of good luck at the beginning, for which I have to be grateful. If I found the knack of "a winning formula", it worked at the time. I believe the first editor involved was on the same wavelength as me. Twenty-one years after my last journal article was published, the scope for publishing freelance writing is different, although not impossible, and so are the ways you might get paid. It reflects writing and publishing in different times. I have come across websites that exist solely as a database of articles from which publishers can select content for publication in their own journals. Platforms exist that will pay you to write articles, but only if anybody reads your articles. I also understand why actors and artists develop attitude problems about their own creative control. Especially today, when "authors" need to stand out in a saturated market and a market where a lot of content is published online.

So perhaps now is the time I should press on in earnest with my lifelong ambition. Writing the successful novel, which I have threatened to write for many years. "One which shocks, informs, makes a lot of money and gets me fired from my job when it's made into a movie".

Author note: In the UK The Writers and Artists Yearbook lists all current agents and publications and how, and what work, they will accept.

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About the author

Malcolm Sinclair

Over 50 and still very sexy.

Freelance writer, published author and second-time undergraduate student.

Retired healthcare professional.

Remember the quote and avoid the plagiarism:

"What could have been, never was"

[Enid B Goode]

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Nice work

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