Versatility is Essential When You’re An Expert on Nothing By Mary Cook

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I first met success while staring down the twin barrels of poverty and debt. My husband and I were going through a bad patch financially. Actually, “patch” doesn’t begin to describe this encumbrance the size of Asia. And our rented house in rural England had all the conveniences of the average garden shed.

Writing was a relatively painless way of making extra money, I decided. It was something I’d done as a hobby since my schooldays. Occasionally, I’d fire off a filler article to a magazine, gaining a cheque for my trouble. Naively, I thought everyone who wrote had stuff published. It didn’t occur to me that there was an element of competition.

I read as many writers’ books as I could lay my hands on. Most recommended filler articles as stepping-stones to greater things. But I was clueless about preparing manuscripts, so I signed up for an “earn as you learn” correspondence course.

Nothing focuses the mind like insolvency, and I soon sold short stories and articles to a wide variety of magazines. My aim was to resemble one of those multiple-bladed knives coveted by schoolboys. Versatility is essential when you’re an expert on nothing. And humor is a key to otherwise inaccessible markets.

Like anyone else, I had rejections. But every negative has its positive aspect. When I felt ready to teach others the craft of writing, my published articles included A Translator’s Guide to Rejection Slips.

I constantly reminded myself that “freelance” means “mercenary”. I’d write for anyone for pay, but my lance didn’t come free.

One of my articles on bees prompted a publishing editor to commission a business manual for beekeepers. Meanwhile, I added verse to my portfolio of skills, winning a poetry competition.

Next I became a village correspondent for my local newspaper. In those days I could only afford a manual typewriter, which meant I couldn’t churn out copy fast enough to make mega-bucks. So when a post fell vacant, I joined the newspaper’s salaried staff as an editorial assistant. At 52 I was the office junior, writing wedding reports, obituaries and other routine items. Within months I gained promotion, becoming the oldest cub reporter in the business. From natural deaths “following illness bravely borne” I went on to cover murders and other unnatural endings.

Always on the lookout for fresh markets, I came across the Tokyo-based Hiragana Times while on a visit to Japan. It was advertising for overseas correspondents. I applied for and won a year’s contract to report on English affairs. Some of the stories I sold were recycled from those I’d covered for my main employer.

There weren’t enough hours in the day for everything I wanted to do, so it was back to freelancing. A year ago I left my job, taking with me my contacts book and a quiver of new skills to set up in business as WORDMATE. Working from home, I write anything and everything. Words are my job, my hobby and my passion.

Whether this is truly a success story depends on your system of measurement. I’m pretty small fry in the overall scheme of things, but writing keeps me young. Now in my sixtieth year, I’ve just sold my first erotic short story – and no, I didn’t have to rely on distant memory!

Mary Cook was born and raised in England. Now an all-purpose writer, she lives in rural Lincolnshire with Nick, her psychiatric nurse husband, and their Border terrier puppy Brucie and cat Lotus.