When I was a young woman – young enough to think the menopause was a punctuation mark – I had the most extraordinary stroke of luck with my writing. I submitted an unsolicited article to The Sunday Times Magazine for the A Life In The Day page. That page was read by hundreds of thousands. It featured luminaries from all aspects of public life, people who had towering public profiles, from David Beckham to Oprah Winfrey to Paddington Bear.

I, by contrast, was a housewife from Northumberland looking after two small children. Most days, even I wasn’t remotely interested in myself, and the highlight of my week was finding lost bits of Lego under the sofa. I had only ever written letters, and school reports. My public profile was flush with the ground.

And yet. And yet, my article was accepted, and published without editing, thus making me a writer before I had written anything. I have Susan Raven to thank for this, she was Assistant Editor of the magazine at the time, she had guts and was prepared to take a chance.

There was a lot of interest in the article when it came out, people enjoyed it, and among the people who enjoyed it was Alan Coren, then editor of Punch. Not only did he enjoy it, but he rang me at home to tell me so. I remember the occasion clearly. It was lunchtime, I had fish fingers under the grill and I was searching for the eye of my daughter’s panda, which had dropped into a packet of breakfast cereal. The phone rang. It was Alan Coren’s secretary asking me if I could take the call. Yes, I said. Absolutely, definitely, yes. I could take the call.

And during that phone call – another extraordinary stroke of luck. Alan Coren told me that Hunter Davies was going on holiday for six weeks over the summer. Hunter wrote a weekly Father’s Day column for Punch, so would I fancy filling in for him with six episodes of a Mother’s Day column, until he came back? Yes, I said. Absolutely, definitely, yes. I would fancy that. Thank you Mr Coren. I thanked him then, and I’m still thanking him today. He knew I had only written 1,000 words professionally, and he thought, “What the heck. She can probably write a few more.” He took a chance and I didn’t let him down.

It was all so easy. My pen was golden. My words, rubies. I could write about anything – spiders, comets, Tupperware, money, motoring, wine, sex, books, things that go bump in the night… I was magnificent.”

Offers came tumbling over themselves after that. I was invited to write a weekly column for Eddie Shah’s newspaper Today. I wrote two little series of articles for The Times. I dashed something off and sent it on spec to the Independent, and they published it. I wrote a couple of articles for Wine Times, despite knowing less than nothing about wine. Someone from the BBC wrote to me and asked me if I might be interested in writing scripts for radio. Literary agents travelled up from London, beyond Manchester, beyond Leeds, to talk to me and buy me lunch. A publisher of great renown bearing the same name as their publishing house wrote to me and asked me if I would write a book.

My goodness. It was all so easy. My pen was golden. My words, rubies. I could write about anything – spiders, comets, Tupperware, money, motoring, wine, sex, books, things that go bump in the night – you name it, and I could turn it into entertaining copy, on time, on word count. I was magnificent.

So, who am I again? What went wrong?

What went wrong was this. I decided to take a break. We were moving house, and there were boxes to pack. I reasoned that it was so easy to become a successful writer, I could pick up my writing again at any time. I was busy, and gosh, those boxes weren’t going to pack themselves! It just wasn’t a very convenient time for me to dazzle my growing following, I would put things on hold for a while. What could be more sensible? (Writing in invisible ink would come close, but still…)

So I took a step back, and wrote a regular weekly column for local newspapers to hone my skills in preparation for leaping onto the literary stage again, when I felt good and ready.

One thing led to another. I enjoyed the weekly columns. I did an OU degree. I took a teaching job. Years passed. More years passed. So it was much later than I had originally planned before – bingo! The Time Was Right.

I wrote my book. It didn’t take long, about nine months strangely to incubate it, and then I set about finding a publisher. I thought I should really get in touch with the publisher who had asked me to write a book all those years ago, to give her first dibs, as it were. So I emailed her with the good news.

She didn’t reply. She must have missed it. I emailed again. Still no reply. Odd? I sent her my manuscript, and waited two weeks. Still nothing. There could only be one explanation. She must be dead. I looked her up on Google, she’s not dead. I was stumped.

Oh well, I thought, while I’m waiting for her to come to her senses, I’ll query some of the top literary agencies and let them fight over it. So I submitted to a handful of agencies with beautifully crafted websites, and prepared myself for a bidding war, and hoped it wouldn’t turn nasty.

I thought, I’m doomed. I’ve blown it. I have sent a shirty email to my only hope, and my only hope will probably not reply.”

No need to worry because not one agency replied. I wondered if I had accidentally emailed the wrong file. Was I looking at the file labelled ‘Bake’ instead of the file labelled ‘Book’ and sending out my mother’s Christmas cake recipe? But no, I had sent the right file. I tried another cohort of literary agencies, and then another, and then another. I got one or two polite replies, saying that everyone in the building had loved my writing, simply adored it, but they just didn’t know what to do with it. Oh dear. They would have to pass.

Rejection. This was new. I tried to be philosophical. I tried to feel a mosaic of stoic and heroic but there was no denying I didn’t like it, not one little bit. I panicked. A ship had sailed, I should have been on it, I wasn’t on it, and now I was destined to wallow about in shallows. Serves me right.

It seemed such a shame that my manuscript would have no readers, so I sat down and read it myself. When I finished it I thought, I enjoyed that, it’s fun, I’m not ready to give up yet. I going to have another try. So I sent my first fifty pages to Bluemoose, an independent publisher in Hebden Bridge, to see what they made of it.

Some weeks passed, and I heard nothing. To plug the gap between submission and rejection, and because it was July, my husband and I went on holiday in our campervan and meandered through France and pitched up in the Pyrenees. And there, something about the altitude made me feel indignant. I told myself I was too short of oxygen to be philosophical or patient, I would not be ignored, I would be rejected with style in an email of several paragraphs expressing deep regret. I was done with waiting, and so I took up my computer and emailed Bluemoose to say, “How about it? Do you want my stuff or not?” Absolutely heedless of the fact that this is not how you address publishers, I pressed ‘Send’. My frosty email flew out of the campervan, pinged off a few chilly Pyrenean peaks and swung around to the north, heading for Hebden Bridge.

Immediately afterwards I thought, I’m doomed. I’ve blown it. I have sent a shirty email to my only hope, and my only hope will probably not reply. It’s over, I told myself, and it’s time to love gardening, because that’s what I will be doing with my spare time from here on in. I heaved a sigh, but while I was squeezing a tear from my eye in recognition of my trashed writing career, an email dropped into my inbox.

From Bluemoose! “Hi Jane, I loved your first fifty pages, send me the rest. Cheers, Kevin.”

And all at once the altitude was wonderful, the breeze sublime, the slight whiff from the septic tank an amusing backdrop to campsite living. I was back on track.

Now here’s the thing. I have had years of experience of succeeding, and failing, at the business of becoming a published writer, and I can tell you that finding your way through this requires faith and guts. But don’t worry if your faith wavers and you don’t have guts, because you won’t be needing yours, you’ll be needing someone else’s. Your job is to sit at home and write good stuff, while your Champion, the faithful gutsy one, negotiates the battlefield and fights for you to be heard, and wins you the breaks.

I have had three of these Champions, Susan Raven, Alan Coren and Kevin Duffy, and without them I’d have done a lot more gardening. So thank you to all three, and to you for reading this. Thank you, and I hope this time, not goodbye.

Jane IonsDomestic Bliss and Other Disasters was published by Bluemoose Books in March 2021, and was shortlisted for the Comedy Women In Print prize. Its sequel, Love, Politics and Possibly Murder followed in September 2022. The third, as yet untitled book in the series is in the offing…
Domestic Bliss and Other Disasters
Love, Politics and Possibly Murder