What do professional writers get in their Christmas stockings? Simon Whaley unwraps a few ideas from Christmas past to sneak onto your list this year.
What’s the perfect Christmas gift for a writer? A publishing contract? A competition win? Or some space in which to write? The best people to answer this are professional writers, so I donned my tackiest Christmas jumper and went round the offices of Writing Magazine asking some of the regular contributors about their favourite writing-related Christmas presents.
My first port of call was travel writer Patrick Forsyth, who had just returned from an exotic location somewhere east of Writing Magazine’s Leeds office. ‘When I first started working full time from home and set up a better home/office/study’ he recalls, ‘my wife gave me a very nice desk lamp: always in front of me and still stylish after twenty-five years.’
What a great present. Creating a comfortable environment in which to work can keep our creative juices flowing. Perhaps your writing space needs something to make it more comfortable and conducive to writing.
Leaving Patrick to his unpacking, I almost tripped over Research Queen Tarja Moles, on her knees by the filing cabinets with her head and arms inside the bottom drawer. The lengths she goes to for her research tips column are amazing. My quest to discover her favourite writing-related Christmas present was much easier. ‘My husband gave me a large, fat Oxford English Dictionary ten years ago,’ she said. ‘Not because he’s unromantic, I hasten to add, but because I’d specifically asked for it! It’s been really useful over the years and I frequently use it to check things.’
I have to agree with Tarja. I too had that huge Oxford English Dictionary as a Christmas present, (not from her husband I should point out), and I’m regularly dipping into its 2,069 pages to check on a spelling or recommended usage of a word. Every writer needs a good dictionary close to hand.
Thriller writer Adrian Magson was at his desk, pouring over maps, deciding which venue would provide the most dramatic tension for his next novel’s main character, Close Protection Specialist Marc Portman, to escape from. ‘My best writing present EVER,’ he told me, while covertly looking over his shoulder, ‘was a Mont Blanc pen, given to me by Ann, my wife. She felt that if I was going to do signings, I should at least have a decent pen rather than pulling out the tired old ballpoint I tend to carry with me. It means a lot because it’s something I would never have bought myself. It has also done a good job over the years and is a pleasure to use and, let’s face it, is rather swanky.’
This raises an interesting point. There are some gifts that won’t make you a better writer, but having them will make you feel like a writer. And if you feel like a writer, you’re more likely to do writerly things … such as writing.
Gifts for writers needn’t be physical products though, as Writing Magazine’s Agony Aunt, Diana Cambridge, points out. (Her desk is easy to spot. It’s the one with the large red Helpline telephone on it.) ‘The best writing-related gift I had was this year, a one-day workshop in London with the Industrial Script company – a day on basic script and screenwriting. It was really worthwhile. There were no groups or discussions, just listening to the trainer, a script editor, and watching clips on the screen. This was given to me by my daughter who got it for a good price on Groupon. There were about a hundred writers there, and it was held in a Victorian church in Soho. I learned so many practical techniques. It inspired me to start working in a short play, which has been at the back of my mind for ages!’
Suddenly, Diana’s big red phone rings, so I leave her to dispense advice to a poor writer from the South West seeking help for his tendency to dangle modifiers in inappropriate places. In the corner furthest away from the editor’s office, I spot an old roll-top wooden bureau, surrounded by piles of books. Michael Allen, the Grumpy Old Bookman (who isn’t really grumpy, but don’t tell him I told you that) pulls up a chair from a neighbouring empty desk and beckons me to join him.
‘By about the age of eleven,’ he begins, ‘I was already interested in writing for newspapers and magazines. I had not yet contemplated writing a book, but I would soon do so. I hadn’t spent long on the writing-for-the-press business before I discovered that I would get nowhere unless my manuscripts were not in fact manuscripts but typescripts. So I made enquiries about the cost of typewriters. The results were discouraging. The cheapest portable typewriter on sale in shops was priced at £19 19s 6d. Or thereabouts. Maybe 11d, if you have the faintest idea of how old money worked.’
‘This was way beyond my pocket money,’ he explains. ‘We are talking about 1953, and £20 then was equal to about £510 today. So the first naggings addressed to my parents naturally elicited no response. Then – tara! – the Chancellor’s budget in the spring following that first Christmas included a reduction in Purchase Tax. So I rushed off to the shop to see how much this reduced the cost of a typewriter. Alas. There was no Purchase Tax on portable typewriters, so I was no nearer success.’
But like all successful writers, Michael never gave up. ‘I continued to nag, and by Christmas of 1954 my parents were so fed up with this continual questioning of their gift-giving strategy that they did something to end it. They bought me a second-hand typewriter. As with some previous expensive gifts, such as a bicycle, this was not the machine of my dreams. But it was serviceable, it worked, and it lasted me a good few years. And I did get into print.’
Be realistic with gift ideas. Do we really need the latest gadget, or could something simpler be just as useful? Several Christmases ago I asked for a digital voice-activated dictaphone. What I got was a cassette dictaphone with clunky Stop/Record buttons. But it did its job and enabled me to do my first magazine interviews.
Alison Chisholm calls me over to her desk. It’s not far – five steps, turn right, then seven steps, turn left, and then five steps later I’m by her side. I think I’ve just haiku’ed across the room.
‘My best present ever,’ she says, ‘was from my Uncle Fred – a secondhand electric typewriter he reconditioned for me, to replace my manual office machine, which was so old it had a cork roller. It made me, and my manuscripts, feel like a real, professional writer.’
See? Using the right equipment can make us feel like a writer, which makes us write more, so that has to be a good thing.
There’s one more writer I should chat to, which means stepping inside the plush, swanky office of the man all regular contributors worship on a daily basis: The Editor. I straighten my tie, rub the tops of my shoes against the back of my trouser legs to increase the shine, and tentatively knock on the door. A butler opens it and points to the small, solitary chair in front of the imposing desk, where the great Mr Telfer sits.
Knees trembling, I perch awkwardly, waiting for when I can speak. All I can hear are the incessant clattering of fingers against a keyboard, and the regular ticking of a clock. Suddenly, the keyboard falls silent. I’m now the centre of his attention. Gulp. Somehow, my question escapes my mouth. He pauses, leans back in his chair, throws his feet up onto the table, and grins as he looks up at the ceiling, allowing his mind to wander back through time.
‘It’s a long time ago, but at Christmas 1981, my Great Uncle Peter and Auntie Pauline bought me a pair of annuals, Beano and Dandy. I devoured them both within hours and that set me off for a lifetime of reading and inspired my love of the written word. I’m sure there would have been some other trigger if not that, but that early inspiration helped make me the writer I am today. And yes, my dream job is still Beano editor.’
So there you have it. Professional writers prefer practical gifts, that help them get on with the job of writing, or gifts that inspire them to write. What do you want to achieve with your writing in 2016? What do you need to achieve those dreams? It needn’t be expensive. A notebook and a pen is all you need to capture the one idea that could become your bestselling novel.
Business Directory – Gift Ideas From The Professionals
Patrick Forsyth: ‘A second keyboard is useful and practical – one flat, one ergonomic. Using them alternately helps avoid getting repetitive strain injury.’
Tarja Moles: ‘Scrivener software. Scrivener allows you to keep your research notes in one place and organise them in a way that’s helpful to you.’
Adrian Magson: ‘You can’t beat a seriously big dictionary. I mean paper and HEAVY, like it would break your foot if you dropped it.’
Diana Cambridge: ‘I think either a voucher for a writing workshop, or a copy of my favourite how-to book – Patricia Highsmith’s Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction.’
Michael Allen: ‘The very ‘best’ gift of all would be something along the lines of: (i) a realistic sense of one’s own limitations, both present and future; (ii) an awareness of the statistical probability of a would-be writer every achieving any degree of ‘success’ at all. Success, that is, however you care to define it: loadsamoney, literary reputation, showbiz celebrity, personal fulfilment.’
Alison Chisholm: ‘The most beautiful hardback A5-size notebook and pen you can hold (and write with) comfortably. Perfect tools make for a beautiful writing experience, which equals better poetry.’
Jonathan Telfer: ‘Is it disingenuous to say a subscription to Writing Magazine? The best gift any writer could be given is time. It’s the one thing all writers bemoan the lack of and it’s also one of the most selfless gifts for somebody else to give, requiring them to actually give up something on your behalf.’