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Second Place – Justin Tonna, Malta

Justin Tonna

At the news that his wife was pregnant with their first child Justin made, what most people would call, a crazy move – he changed career to follow his dreams to become a writer. With hard work, determination and a little help from The Writers Bureau Justin exchanged a high-flying career in insurance for a high-flying career as a writer and editor.

 

The Economic Update

 

It's amazing how a little pink line can change your life.

One day I was a high-flying insurance manager, having spent years clawing my way up the corporate ladder. The pay was good, my prospects were excellent and the future looked brighter than teeth in a toothpaste advert.

Then a little pink line in a pregnancy test announced that I was about to become a father and, as my wife and I jumped about and celebrated, I suddenly realised that I had to quit my job.

You see, I had always wanted to be a writer but life always managed to keep getting in the way. And now I wanted to tell my child to chase her dreams, but how could I when I had turned my back on my own?

So, in September 2006, I applied for the Comprehensive Writing Course with the Writers Bureau. I had applied before, but pressing concerns such as mortgage repayments and utility bills always took precedence. But this time it was different. This time I wasn't just doing it for me, but also for my unborn daughter.

I started out by writing match reports for the local rugby union. I worked for free, but I was being published in the sports section of a local newspaper. I received excellent feedback on my work and my reports began to appear in other newspapers, even being translated into the local language.

By the end of the season my match highlights were in every local paper, as well as on some websites, and crowd attendance increased dramatically. The Malta Rugby Football Union thanked me with a lovely plaque which still sits on my desk to remind me of freezing cold Saturday afternoons spent at the rugby pitch and that old saying about oaks growing out of acorns.

Having established my name, I began to seek out paying markets and soon became a regular contributor to the numerous magazines that are distributed with Maltese newspapers. These 'glossies' run the gamut from general interest to specific food magazines and are very popular. Within a year I was writing for almost all of them and built up quite a successful sideline as a freelancer. Certainly, my weekends and evenings were always busy.

Investing in copies of Writers Market and The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook I began to branch out into foreign markets. My articles have since been published in quite a few overseas publications, including K9 and Military Illustrated in the UK, Rugby and Fate in the USA and Dadi e Piombi in Italy – which actually saw my work translated into Italian. In September 2007, I wrote the cover story for Military Illustrated and that issue sits proudly atop my magazine stack.

Then I began to receive job offers from local newspapers and publishers. "Would I like to become a full time writer," they asked. My head couldn't nod quickly enough.

The problem was that, because I didn't have a large amount of writing experience, I was consistently offered junior positions whose salaries couldn't compare with my insurance job. With the birth of our daughter, and the resulting baby expenses, this became an even bigger issue.

And then I got a call from Malta's largest magazine publisher – Network Publications. They needed a writer with previous business experience for one of their niche magazines. With my insurance career and freelance writing, I fitted their requirements perfectly. It was still a junior position but the remuneration was reasonable, so I closed my eyes and took a leap of faith.

That was almost a year ago.

The concepts I had learnt in my course – interview techniques, market analysis, writing styles and research – all paid off. I began to look at business trends and explained complex issues – such as inflation – in simple terms. When covering politics, I encouraged politicians to explain the reasons behind their decisions and how they affected the man-in-the-street.

As a result the magazine – The Economic Update – doubled in page count and tripled in advertising revenue, going from niche to mainstream.

In recognition of this success I was promoted to editor and – never content to rest on my laurels – set about designing a whole new look for the magazine. The new look launched in October 2008 and received excellent feedback. My next project is expanding the magazine's distribution network overseas.

Very recently, our publication company went through a restructuring and I was made editor-in-chief. I now oversee all of Network Publications' magazines – there are eight of them – and manage a team of writers. I even have my own PA!

Today I get invited to all the top local events, travel and meet very interesting people all as part of my daily job. I think of myself as being very lucky – I now have the career I always wanted. But, even more importantly, I can also look my daughter in the eye and tell her that dreams really do come true.

Of course, it is also very hard work. I generally produce a few thousand words every day and sometimes work through weekends, as well as very late into the night. I have also learnt why it is so important to send an editor a query letter first – we rarely have the time to read unsolicited articles.

Although writing and The Writers Bureau have changed my life, it is the ability of the written word to change the lives of others that has become truly important to me.

Back when I was still doing interviews as a freelancer, I met a young girl with a disabled father. She was a karate champion at the young age of 13, although the family were struggling to meet the growing financial demands of her sport. After I wrote an article on her abilities and situation, sports shops began falling over themselves to sponsor her. As her father shook my hand and thanked me with tears in his eyes I realised that you really can change the world – perhaps not all of it, but certainly the little piece you live in.

I also used my writing to help a poor, battered pony. My mother witnessed the pony's owner beating it until it collapsed. Horrified she called the police but they were uncooperative – unfortunately Malta has a less than sterling animal rights record. She called me and I immediately wrote a letter to the newspapers. When the letter was published it caused uproar amongst the animal rights community. The police, humiliated, investigated the case and took the pony owner to court. My mother gave evidence in the ensuing trial and we are now awaiting final judgement on the pony owner, proving that the pen truly is mightier than the sword.

Charity work is also becoming an increasingly large part of my life. I have contacted a local writing scheme that helps children develop reading and writing skills and I am hoping to get my whole editorial department involved in the project. After all, today's children are tomorrow's writers.

I have also volunteered my writing services with a local charity for the disabled. Whenever they need leaflets, promotional material or press releases I can donate my time and provide these for them, allowing them to allocate their resources elsewhere. And a forthcoming issue of one of our magazines will be used as a vehicle for charity fundraising, enabling us to give something back to the community.

Anyone who believes that writing is a free ticket to an easy job is going to become disillusioned very quickly. It has some excellent perks, true, but it is also an extremely demanding profession that requires long hours and a fair bit of mental gymnastics. But the satisfaction you can get by applying 'the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair' is immense. And, like many other things in life, what you get from writing depends on how much you put into it.

When I signed up with The Writers Bureau a little over two years ago, I hoped it would change my life and was ready to work for it. Today, that hard work has paid off and my course has instead given me a whole new one.

 
 

Sarah Plater Writers Bureau's Writer of the Year 2017

“I’m currently working on my fourth book, have been paid for my writing by at least 15 different magazines, and now earn half my income from writing – all thanks to The Writers Bureau’s course."

Sarah Plater - Writers Bureau Writer of the Year 2017

Read Sarah's full story.

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