Debbie Taylor founded Mslexia magazine in 1999, and as well as being Editorial Director, she’s a published novelist, journalist and non-fiction writer. She took time out of her busy schedule to talk to Bec Evans about what she’s learnt from a lifetime of writing and working with writers.
As many ways to write a book as there are people
There’s an in depth interview with a writer in every issue of Mslexia. Having done a lot of the early interviews herself Debbie found that there are as many ways to write a book as there are people. Poet and novelist Sophie Hannah told Debbie she likes to shake things up when writing, and would move house before starting every book if she could, while poet Selima Hill writes in tiny handwriting without her glasses on so she isn’t tempted to edit as she writes.
“There’s no right way to write.”
“There’s no right way to write,” says Debbie. “I’ve had people say to me that if they plan it, it loses its magic. They don’t know what they are going to write until they start writing. I think that those people tend to start many times, throw things away, and end up with many drafts, but it’s necessary for them to do it that way. Planning might not work for them at all.”
Write the first draft quickly
In her own writing Debbie is a planner and likes to think carefully about each chapter. Even though there’s an enormous amount of preparation, she believes in writing the first draft quickly. She ‘splurges’ and then edits her work. Her impression is that planners, on the whole, suffer less anguish than exploratory writers. “They tend to throw less away,” she says. But she believes the splurge stage is important too. “If you insist on getting the first paragraph right before going onto the next, that’s a recipe for writers’ block.”
“It’s important to allow yourself to produce a bad first draft.”
This experience feeds into the guidance Mslexia offers its thousands of readers. The 2015 Writers’ Diary takes a theme close to Debbie’s heart. “It’s important to allow yourself to produce a bad first draft. Don’t berate yourself for it – just accept that it’s part of the process.”
Writing every day
As Editorial Director Debbie has a full-time job – one she is passionate about – but it takes up a lot creative energy. Her professional role has both a negative and a positive effect on her own writing. The negative effect is mainly time however, she says, “the positive side of it is that I’m writing every day so I don’t get writers’ block, I just write all the time in various ways. I’ve become much less precious – and much, much quicker!”
Competitions to help writers’ careers
The most-read pages on the Mslexia website are for a small portfolio of high-profile competitions which showcase emerging talent and boost the careers of women writers. Following the launch of its first annual Women’s Poetry Competition in 2005, Mslexia introduced the Women’s Short Story Competition in 2009 – in response to overwhelming reader feedback.
Its Women’s Unpublished Novel Competition started in 2012 and launched the career of Rosie Garland, who had all but given up hope of becoming a published novelist. But running the novel competition wasn’t a straightforward decision. “It had been on the back burner for a long time,” said Debbie. “We weren’t sure how to manage it; then we decided on a model that worked for us and it’s been very popular.”
Poets in particular have a hard time getting noticed, so Debbie wanted to provide a proper stepping stone for them, bridging the gap between getting a poem published and compiling a whole collection. To help them along the way Mslexia introduced a Women’s Poetry Pamphlet Competition in 2013, with publication by a leading poetry publisher as first prize.
Building a community through listening to writers’ needs
Mslexia asks questions of its readers and listens to what they say. Readership surveys have been running since 2002, and each issue now features the results of writer surveys, including investigations into procrastination, writers’ block, the links between creativity and mental health, and whether our reading is prejudiced. Debbie says it’s amazing to get all that feedback: “They help me understand who our readers are and where they’re coming from – but occasionally I’m completely wrong! I was very surprised at how involved our readers are in social media. I predicted that there would be a hardcore of about 20% who were blogging or tweeting, but it’s far, far more than that.”
“I was very surprised at how involved our readers are in social media.”
Writers’ Twitter addiction wasn’t the only surprise. “When we ran our first novel competition I contacted every one of the 100 longlisted women. Now these are people who have written very good novels, but I was astonished to find out how few of them had submitted them anywhere else except to us.” This reassured Debbie and the rest of the team that Mslexia has an important part to play in the crowded literary landscape.
Publishing excellent new writing for women
The first issue of Mslexia came out on International Women’s Day 1999 and the model has remained the same ever since: to publish excellent new writing by women alongside information for women writers about writing and publishing.
Debbie explains why she started Mslexia: “I had a baby! Up until that point I realised it was quite difficult being a woman writer, but I saw that as a minor challenge I was happy to take on. Then I had a baby and every factor was suddenly magnified a thousandfold. I suddenly thought motherhood – a woman’s caring role in general – is a real issue for women writers. Creative writing goes on the back burner and there is no way escape unless you are prepared to wage a total battle with your partner about the division of labour – and many women don’t even have partners to do battle with!”
“motherhood is a real issue for women writers.”
This feminist experience, coupled with her professional experience as an editor, prompted Debbie to become an arts entrepreneur. She was determined to create a scalable business that was different from running a small literary magazine. “I wasn’t interested in starting a writing magazine for men and women,” Debbie explained. “It had to be a women’s writing magazine or I wouldn’t have been sufficiently passionate about the idea. I knew it was going to be very difficult, so it had to tick a lot of boxes for me personally before I was prepared to take it on.”
The unique selling point of the magazine is that it’s about women’s lives and women’s writing. It’s had various incarnations over the years, for example, changing the review section to being much more about reviews for writers rather than reviews for readers. This section is now packed full of practical advice about how books are marketed, what the developments are in publishing, and why publishers are choosing particular genres to focus on.
The future is digital. And print!
The printed magazine has 30,000 readers and the website gets almost as many unique visitors a month. There are exciting new digital plans afoot too, explains Debbie: “We’ve recently redesigned the website and we’re also producing portfolio of small downloadable ebooks. The first one is coming out in April, the second in May, and then the third in June.”
But the future isn’t just electronic. Mslexia has ambitious plans for a series of original writing guides produced in print format as Debbie believes they’ll be the sort of thing people will want to have on their shelves rather than on their e-readers.
After 65 issues, Mslexia is still going strong and fulfilling its purpose of providing information, guidance and inspiration for published and unpublished women writers. It aims to help improve the quality and standing of women’s writing in all literary spheres. Check out the website for details on subscribing or submitting articles or new writing.
The Debbie Taylor Method for Writing
- Plan – think through the structure carefully before starting to write.
- Splurge – write the first draft quickly, just get it on the page.
- Edit – your first draft will be bad, accept it, and spend your time editing rather than judging it.
- Learn – from talking to and reading about more experienced writers.
- Support – find your writing community, and offer to help however you can.
- Compete – enter competitions and calls for submissions, get your writing out there and get noticed.
Debbie Taylor is the founder and editorial director of Mslexia. Her latest novel, Herring Girl, a paranormal historical murder mystery set on the banks of the Tyne, is out in paperback now. Her books include My Children, My Gold and The Fourth Queen and she has written for Oxfam, UNICEF, Anti-Slavery, WHO and others about women and social issues.