It was the summer of 2001. I’d recently finished working as a writer at Emmerdale. For several years I’d been teaching creative writing in Adult Ed, and had picked up some work as a correspondence tutor for the Open College of the Arts at Barnsley. My course leader there, Sara Maitland, was already reading for TLC and suggested I call them. Becky Swift sent me a couple of trial manuscripts and, after talking to me about the house style, took me on.
In the twenty years since then I have worked for ten (I think it’s ten) office… managers, for want of a better word: Becky Swift, of course, Rebecca De Saintonge, Patsy Trench, Caroline McCarthy, Jess Porter, Solvej Todd, and latterly Aki Schilz, Joe Sedgwick and Nelima Begum. I have enjoyed working with all of them; and more than that, talking with them. (Two have become friends.) I have never found any on that list wanting in terms of supporting me, informing me and, most crucially, sending me work.
There have been quiet periods, even the odd spell when I was busy enough to ask to be overlooked. But drought was often followed by flood. In the early years TLC were supplying as much as a third of my (paltry) income. In late 2003 and into 2004 I was seriously struggling for money – so much so that I worked a five-month season in the York sugar-beet factory (prior to swanning off to Florida for a 3-month spell as Jack Kerouac writer in residence).
During that time, as I worked nine-hour shifts with a horrible pattern of nights followed by 6 a.m. starts, I continued to receive manuscripts (full and partial), and returned invoices to a total value in excess of £2000. A life-saver – although only my journals can adequately explain how I fitted it all in. I do recall on one occasion taking four or five days off after a fall, during which I processed no fewer than four manuscripts. But I was younger then.
I appear to have read around 325 manuscripts in total for TLC. If I were to add up all my reports I am pretty sure I would find that I’ve written close to one million words. I don’t know how many gems of critical wisdom I have dispensed but boy, I have learned a huge amount. A recurring pattern in my work has been to read a manuscript, then spend hours wondering what the hell I am going to say. That is, what exactly is this writer doing ‘wrong’, how can I articulate it, how precisely can they correct it, and how in God’s name am I going to tell them without destroying their confidence?
The miraculous part is that, in every manuscript I have ever read, there has always been something to praise, something to offer hope – and always something to learn. Generally, there has always been some point of empathic contact with the writer, something to like or admire or at least comprehend about the person behind the writing, and that makes the report so much easier to write. (I find that I often open the door a little and talk to a client about my own writing and my own life. I sense that they can more readily take on my advice and criticism if they perceive a living breathing writer behind the wall of print.)
There is no doubt that the advice I dispense has permeated my subconscious and made me more aware of possible pitfalls in my own work – and, crucially, it’s made me more self-confident. It’s improved my writing, unquestionably. I really do feel I know what I am doing. And whenever I doubt my abilities, I can turn to a collection of emails and letters or forwarded messages from grateful writers telling me that, yes, I did do a good job for them. They’re one of my go-to mood enhancers.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Alan is far too modest to include any of these testimonials here, so we’ve taken the liberty of sharing a few words from happy TLC clients who’ve been lucky enough to be assigned to Alan. INSERT AS QUOTE FORMAT]
“This book would not have been completed without Alan Wilkinson whose guidance, re-writing and all round incomparable brilliance turned my words from a muddled mishmash into something publishable.”
“As I read the advice from Alan Wilkinson it was quickly apparent that he got what I was trying to say. He was clear and perceptive with his comments and honest in his rejection of what did not work.”
I have also learned that people really do want to know how they can improve. Yes, we all crave a bit of praise, and yes, we make a point of dishing it out – even if only to congratulate a beginning writer for having cranked out 50, 60, 80 thousand words – because we know that that in itself is one hell of an achievement, and it’s worth saying that to them. Just this past year I have read two full-length mss for friends. In each case I have agonised about what to say about work that needed a serious overhaul. In the end I took a deep breath, trusted my judgement and blurted it all out. The naked truth. They were so very grateful – and I was so relieved. Working for TLC has shown me the value of speaking the truth, kindly. I am constantly reminding myself that that is what people are paying for. Tell me where I’m going wrong. Tell me what I can do better. Just don’t batter me.
I think it’s worth adding a mention here about something else TLC has done for me. I’ve never made a secret of the fact that some clients have come back to me and asked for further help. And from time to time that has led to book-length projects of which I am proud. My association with Wasim Khan in 2004-5 led to my ghost-writing the Wisden Cricket Book of the Year 2007 – and the lad from Small Heath is now Chief Exec of the Pakistan Cricket Board. (Maybe there’s a connection.) A report for a former drug-smuggler led me to co-write a book which, if we ever get the movie deal it deserves, could yield me a small percentage of a very large sum. Which would be nice, because so far it’s brought in next to nothing. And a 2006 liaison with a very talkative, very persistent ex-copper – he’d call me as many as eight times in a day to tell me of his latest marketing wheeze – led to a series of seven books that have done pretty damned well for Hodder, and for us.
From time to time I have thought about quitting, usually after a particularly trying experience with a difficult manuscript. But the feeling soon goes away. Just this past month I have had two of the best manuscripts in my entire career as a TLC reader, and confidently expect to see both in print some time. Indeed, my response to one was, ‘I would happily have paid £10.99 to buy this and read it for leisure.’
I need to say one more thing. I never neglect to record my work with TLC on any CV, writer bio, or publicity hand-out I need to write. I am genuinely, seriously, grateful to work for such an excellent business. Grateful, privileged, and proud.