Sian Hughes spoke to: Editorial Director, Debbie Taylor; Assistant Editor, Francoise Harvey; and Advertising & Digital Marketing Associate, Laura Steven – to hear their thoughts about creativity, writing, editing, and people that are difficult to work with…
Debbie, you’re the Editorial Director and founder of Mslexia Magazine, can you tell me a bit about how Mslexia got started?
Debbie Taylor (DT): I got the idea in 1997 after working on ‘Writing Women’, which was a literary magazine of short stories, poetry and reviews. We received about 5,000 submissions but only had about 500 subscribers. This is the sort of imbalance that many literary magazines face. My background was working in editorial on a magazine that at the time had 40,000 subscribers. It seemed to me that, that model of the literary magazine, lots of submissions but less subscribers was a bit crazy – or at least I had a lot of questions about it.
I was also a novelist and a journalist, my speciality as a journalist was Women’s Issues, the challenges facing women in the world. So I have a lot of interest in and knowledge base of the struggles that women face. As a woman and a writer myself, especially after I had my daughter, I had a particular interest in, and passion for, the issues facing women writers. Which made me think: ‘where’s the magazine that I want to read, about being a woman and being a writer’. Then, after a lot of fundraising and hard work, in 1999 the first issue of Mslexia was released.
Fran, can you tell me how you got involved with Mslexia?
Francoise Harvey (FH): I’d been a Mslexia reader for a long time – I started subscribing ages back. Before working for Mslexia I was living in London working in legal publishing. I grew up on the Isle of Man, so I’m a proper countryside girl. I was sick of London and I’d reached a point where I needed to move, and I saw an advert for the job at Mslexia (which is based in Newcastle upon Tyne). My job title is Assistant Editor but my work includes a lot of production, and I also deal with the website and the Indie Press Guide. My work in production in legal directories and legal magazine publishing set me up with the skills to work at Mslexia.
But you’re not only the Mslexia team – you all have published or award winning works as well. What would you say was your biggest success in terms of getting your own creative work out there?
Laura Steven (LS): I’m most proud of the book I have coming out in March, called The Exact Opposite of Okay. I wrote it during a really difficult time in my writing career, after my first two books tanked and my third and fourth didn’t get picked up. I wrote the book just for me and my friends – to make myself laugh – and to air some of my frustrations over the way teenage girls are treated in this world. The entire manuscript is told through the blog posts of a teen who’s been caught up in a sex scandal – her voice is like a younger Bridget Jones, with just as many inappropriate jokes. I didn’t think the book would go anywhere, but it just so happened that my agent loved it, and so did Egmont – the UK’s biggest children’s publisher. So now I’m endlessly grateful to my past self for persevering through the rejection.
FH: There’s a few different things I’m proud of. I started getting back into short story writing just before I moved up to the North East. I was sending out submissions and getting not very far – like most people, I think! Then in the last couple of years it’s really taken off, which I’m so happy about. I’ve got one story which was shortlisted for the Bristol Prize 2016 – and then picked up for the Best British Short Story Anthology 2017 (SALT). The title is ‘Never Thought He’d Go’. I don’t think of it as a very literary story – it’s a coming of age horror story about kids, so it was weird and nice to be shortlisted as I didn’t think it was the sort of story that would gain attention. Also I won a 2017 Northern Writer’s Award (organised by New Writing North), which is essentially a grant to allow me the space and time to do some more research and finish the project on a childrens’ book I’m working on. The terrible working title is ‘Cemetery’ (watch this space soon MIR readers). One of the things I didn’t take into account before I started working for Mslexia was that the name has clout. Even though I was a subscriber I didn’t realise how renowned it was. So I’m never sure when I’m submitting these days, whether to mention that I work here or not – the idea that my creative work might be accepted because of my day job makes me intensely uncomfortable.
Which of your own books are you most proud of, Debbie?
DT: It’s always the most recent book isn’t it? My first novel and my non-fiction books were written before my daughter was born, so they were more about battling my own inner demons, and to some extent finding the time. The novels and editorial work that I’ve done since my daughter was born were written under a great deal more time pressure, and I’m proud of that: being able to be a woman writer, a mother, and have a day job.
My latest book, Herring Girl, is the one I’m most proud of. I found it very difficult to write, but if you’re writing them properly I believe books should be difficult to write. Herring Girl is my second historical novel, and after the first I vowed I would never write another historical novel. This is simply because, you have to upload a whole world into your head and keep with it. If your novel isn’t contemporary you have to keep up that level of immersion in your world to keep it real. That’s something that is very difficult to keep up alongside doing other things, so I’m proud of that process for Herring Girl.
What fires you up most creatively: Working in the magazine world? Or working on a piece of writing?
FH: In the magazine world this can vary. I usually don’t see creative pieces for the magazine until they’re being put on the page. My role isn’t part of the selection process. So sometimes I’ll be working on an issue and feel inspired by the amazing writers who submit to Mslexia, itching to get home and do my own writing. And sometimes I’m just overwhelmed by the quality to the point of ‘why do I even bother trying? I’ll never be this good’.
Sometimes I can be working on an issue of the magazine and I get a really strong ‘yes’ feeling from an article. For example, someone has written an article about a particular technique and I really want to go away use the technique on my own work.
Being in the office is great too – everyone does some sort of writing or dabbles a bit, so we all egg each other on.
LS: For me, I’ve found that I need both in order to be at my best. If I’m holed up in my house all weekend writing, my work feels flat and uninspired. My creative well feels empty. A lot of people ask how I have the energy to go home and write after an eight-hour workday, but it’s that workday that gives me the energy. I’m like a plant photosynthesizing, except instead of sunlight, I rely on the energy and inspiration of others to sustain me.
Debbie, obviously editing is a very creative process as well, can you briefly describe how that creative process works for you?
DT: I think there are three levels to the process, which all have different types of creativity:
Firstly there’s the shape of the magazine and making it a satisfying read. We publish all different types of things – poetry, stories, articles – and we’re producing Mslexia for many different kinds of writer, from complete beginners, to successful writers of all genres. So to shape the magazine with just the right balance, and please all these different readers, with the different levels and styles, that’s a creative skill.
Then there’s commissioning and responding to pitches – trying to decide what would be a good read that also fulfils all those criteria I just mentioned. Commissioning is a great skill. The feature that you want to commission is always a fantastic idea until it comes in. Sometimes it can be the writer has misunderstood or misread the brief, not followed instructions. The piece could be flabby, in the wrong voice, too long, or off topic on a tangent. Part of making it right is knowing what to ask for when you’re commissioning.
Lastly, there’s the editing. Actually line editing other people’s writing is the last stage of the editorial process. You have to do this with a lot of respect. You have to respect the writer’s personal voice. Try to only change what doesn’t influence the way that they sound, their individual style.
We also have a lot of interviews in the magazine. There’s a lot of ventriloquising you have to do when you’re writing an interview – you can’t always write things down verbatim as it can be pedestrian and boring. You have to write something that still sounds like the person and represents the person but isn’t always exactly what they said.
So in terms of how the magazine gets creatively put together, that’s the process. I also do the picture editing, but we do have a designer – I do the picture research and collaborate with the designer on the layouts and the images that go into the magazine.
Fran, how creative was the process of putting together the Mslexia Indie Presses Guide?
FH: It was definitely what I’d call a labour of love, but it’s not wildly creative as it’s almost straightforwardly admin. I suppose there was some creative thinking involved because I started it from scratch – so thoughts for design, lateral thinking. Even though I worked on legal directories for years, the first edition of the Indie Press Guide was a huge learning curve, with an unfamiliar databasing system and a lot of research to do. I had to think a lot about how much time it would take and how to approach people that we wanted to list in the guide. The second edition has been simpler, and the next one, when work starts, should hopefully, be the smoothest yet.
The second edition of the Mslexia Indie Presses Guide is available now: https://mslexia.co.uk/products/indie-press-guide/indie-press-guide/
I love the ‘mad passion’ and ‘secret indulgence’ section of the Mslexia website’s ‘meet the team’ – as a bit more of a pessimistic person I want the really juicy gossip: what is your industry pet peeve?
DT: The normal type of peeve to be honest. I’ve recently been looking at pitches for the magazine and on this occasion 40% of the pitches that have come in are people that clearly haven’t really read the magazine. They are pitching something that just won’t fit. It might be about a women’s issue, but it has nothing to do with writing.
It’s a shame really – because it’s just a waste of the writer’s time and their other good writing is suffering from their lack of research about where to submit. Then that writer will get a needless amount of rejections, which is disheartening for them.
LS: Both professionally and personally, I can’t deal with the attitude of “this is the way it has always been done, so we shall continue even though there’s probably a better way forward.” I’m always seeking improvement, trying out new ideas, thinking outside of the box. With every book I write, I tweak the drafting process, try new editing techniques, etc. So when I come up against someone who just wants to tick the boxes they’ve always ticked, I do struggle.
FH: incredibly hypocritically of me, my peeve is – people who have to be chased for deadlines. That’s my biggest frustration – even though I’m just as bad. People don’t realise how much time it actually takes to chase people up as well as put something together. But it bothers me more when, very occasionally, people excuse it by claiming it’s because they are a ‘flakey creative’ (this is a genuine excuse someone has given to me in the past). I think that’s a damaging stereotype because that often gets applied particularly to women, and poets in particular – when actually the majority are well organised and professional!
Finally, on a more positive note, who was the best person or people you’ve ever worked with – and why?
LS: I used to work for a glossy lifestyle magazine, and the Arts & Culture Editor was just one of the best people I’ve ever met. She’s a passionate, hilarious, quirky and inspiring goofball. She’s in London now working in videogames, and even though it’s been years since we worked together, I still miss her.
FH: I can’t name a single person because there really are just so many fantastic people. I will say that there are way more people who are absolute stars to work with than there are difficult people – which is why I couldn’t pick one or two out. Lovely to work with; good writing sent in on time; and brimming with ideas. If they read this and think it sounds like them, they should pat themselves on the back.
DT: There are one or two journalists who write for Mslexia who if you commission them to write something; it arrives on time, it’s spot on the word limit, and you don’t have to change a word. That sort of person takes it really seriously, they’re someone who writes carefully and to the brief and you just know that it’s going to be ok when their words arrive. They’re just gold really.
And what’s the most odd or daft thing that might happen in a typical day at Mslexia HQ?
FH: I couldn’t predict the sheer ridiculousness of our tea-break conversations. We’ve planned out our zombie apocalypse escape route, for example. Oh and for a while we had a map of Westeros (from Game of Thrones) pinned up in the kitchen. We were in a big office-wide discussion about how different armies’ strategies work in the story, and some people just couldn’t nail down where certain places were located. So we used the map (which we hid under a more official announcement poster). If the Mslexia team planned a coup in real life we’d either be marvellous or terrible, no in between, because though we’re really invested in strategy, some of us really struggle with geography…
Sian Hughes attended York University to study English Literature, then Leeds – for an MA in ‘Writing for Performance and Publication’ she now lives and writes in London. She currently markets TIE (theatre in education) shows and drama workshops for children – as well as writing a novel rooted in a similar storytelling tradition. Much of her work revolves around connection to landscape, particularly that of the Northern British Isles, and the displacement or loneliness of rural, isolated people.