Writing Podcast Episode 164 How to write an award-winning screenplay on your commute. And meet author of ‘Secrets of a Beauty Queen’ Stephanie Darling.

podcast-artworkIn Episode 164 of So you want to be a writer: How to write an award-winning screenplay on your commute; the 6 documents you need open when you write; how to edit your story. And meet beauty writer and author of Secrets of a Beauty Queen Stephanie Darling

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Show Notes

Vancouver lawyer uses daily bus commute to write prize-winning screenplay

Book Writing Software

How to Edit Your Story

Writer in Residence

Stephanie Darling

Stephanie Darling was born in a haze of Chanel No 22 and is obsessed with beauty, lifestyle, words and visuals. She has worked in the magazine industry for over 30 years, with the best of the best on Vogue Australia, Harper's Bazaar and madison and has interviewed Anne Hathaway in Paris, Dame Edna in New York, Aerin Lauder in Tokyo, among many others. Her most recent gig is as Beauty Director of Sunday Life in the Sun Herald and Daily Life online. Secrets of a Beauty Queen will be published by Penguin in May 2017.

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Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers' Centre

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@altait

@valeriekhoo

Email us

podcast at writerscentre.com.au

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Interview Transcript

Allison

One of Australia's most accomplished beauty journalists, Stephanie Darling has travelled the world interviewing celebrities, trialling new treatments and testing the hottest designer products. Her first book, Secrets of a Beauty Queen, is out now through Penguin Random House. Welcome to the program, Stephanie.

Stephanie

Thank you, Allison. It is an honour to be here.

Allison

Now, full disclosure for our listeners. Stephanie and I worked together. Shared a sub-editing desk back at Vogue Australia in the day. So we do know each other quite well. So, if there is giggling, I take full responsibility for said giggling. All right? Okay. So, Steph, your book Secrets of a Beauty Queen is part memoir, part beauty tips, part insider's look at the beauty industry. How did you come to write the book?

Stephanie

Well Al, it was interesting. I, you know, like a lot of us, I always thought I had a book in me and lo and behold, when the magazine I was working on, Madison, got axed, it was a bit of, sort of lift and jump off point for me and I was always very, sort of bonded with Nora Ephron. Not that I am her, by any stretch. But her book Heartburn, where she talks about her life with Carl, and Watergate and things and then peppered throughout the book were some actual recipes and I just thought, ‘Oh my God, that's such a great idea.' So, it is almost like two books in one. There is the autobiographical element with crazy stories that would turn your hair and then, at the end of each chapter, I relate that back to sort of the age I was. So, when I started at Vogue, it was beauty in my twenties, thirties, there is a chapter on my son, so everybody, no one escapes, they are all dragged in there, kicking and screaming.

Allison

So, it is a really interesting structure and it is a great way to deliver a narrative like that, because you are, as you say, sort of beauty in your twenties, beauty in your thirties, so there is something in there, tips in there for everyone at that age now.

Stephanie

Everyone.

Allison

But you are telling a story at the same time.

Stephanie

Yes.

Allison

So, did you, was that something that organically came about or did you go into the book thinking that was how you are going to structure it?

Stephanie

I think I always sort of… In fact, when I met with my editor at Penguin, before they signed me, and they were looking at sort of the draft, they were like, ‘Steph, is this one book or two books?' And I'm like, ‘Hey, people, no, it is fine. It is going to be one book.' Because I just, just the energy that it takes to even do this little baby. And it was quite episodic. I had sort of advice that maybe it should be a little more woven in, but I think the chapters work really well, because it is not like a magazine, but there are sort of elements of a magazine, a magazine approach in a way that it is written. Particularly with the tips.

Allison

Yes.

Stephanie

And just, yes, and it was so beautifully edited by my editor Sarah Fairhall who works, was working with fiction at the time and she just did the most amazing job of rejigging it, only slightly, I might add.

Allison

Of course, it was probably first draft perfect.

Stephanie

Of course, yes.

Allison

Of course, yes. So, you do actually mention products in the book. Is that, when you are doing something like a beauty book, given how quickly things change and how quickly things move on, were you quite conscious of choosing products that would stay the distance? That are still going to be there in two years' time, that are sort of classics of their type. Is that how you worked that?

Stephanie

I did. And it is quite funny you said that, because my top 100 products at the end of the book, I tried to be really aware of that and when the last edit came through I did sort of shuffle around a couple of things. But, I think the majority, probably 98% will still be around, hopefully, in 5 years' time. And certainly, all the fragrances and all the, you know, Touche Eclat, Beauty Flash Balm, all those oldies, but there is also really kind of insightful ground breaking new products in there too, so… And there is just so much… I don't know, there is so much detail, that is what another one colleague of mine said, who is pretty hard-core, she does not give many compliments. And I was like, ‘Oh my God, she is very, very complimentary about the book.' And she was sort of you know, talking from a professional point of view.

Allison

Well, that is interesting, because of course, you did begin your magazine career as a sub-editor, which is all about detail.

Stephanie

I did.

Allison

Which is all about you know, making sure that the reader gets the message in the clearest possible way. It is a real wordsmith’s job. So, how did you go from that to beauty editor and what do you think your training as a sub-editor actually brings to your writing even now?

Stephanie

Look, I think you can't… It is immeasurable, it is such a sort of innate skill. And I, when I first started at Vogue, when I was 23, I was taken on as a trainee sub. And I think I was the last trainee sub that they ever took on. And it was like, seriously, it was a baptism of fire, but it was a good baptism of fire because those women were just so accurate and, you know, it was hot metal in those days, no mistakes. If you made them they were sort of pretty labour intensive to correct. And I just think I got a reputation of being very good at cutting people's copy without losing the flavour. And I think to be a good sub-editor that is so crucial. Because, if you have ever been on the other end of the tool sometimes and its impact, you can lose your whole essence when someone else's essence can sort of creep in there. But, I think I was always very aware of that and I think that stood me in really good stead and made me probably the writer I am today. How can I even say that? The writer I am today?

Allison

Well, it is true though, isn't it?

Stephanie

Yes.

Allison

And I think, you know, you and I have both been sub-editors and we are of course incredibly grateful for that. We should probably explain a little bit what a sub-editor does, in case people don't know. It is essentially taking the copy as it comes in, in raw form, bringing it into the magazine style, adding headlines, introductions, cutting the copy to fit a page if the page is, if the layout of the magazine has been set, and then it is proofreading and doing all those other things to make sure that the detail, writing the captions, making sure that the detail of the story remains, the voice of the person who wrote the story remains, but that it is brought into the overall house style of the magazine as well. So it is an incredibly…

Stephanie

That is very well said.

Allison

Oh, thanks. Yes, I am a sub-editor. It is an incredibly invaluable training ground for learning how to work with words and how to work with them in confined spaces, because essentially you would be given, ‘All right. We need this copy to actually fit this one page.' And off you go and have to make it work. Going on from that, though, you have then launched into being a beauty editor, which is obviously a highly-coveted job. What do you think is the most misunderstood aspect of beauty writing as a whole?

Stephanie

I think, and sort of now because of all the bloggers and the bloggers who have come in, who have made their mark, who have made the area a very interesting space. But back in the day, you were, you know, you've been trained, like I have got a Bachelor of Arts degree so my English skills are hopefully reasonably good. But it is a very, it is editorial, it is knowing how to write, it is not just about putting on lipstick or mascara, eyeliner. Like, I still struggle with eyeliner. It is having a real… I do, I promise you. It is having a passion for that and getting immersed in it, but also love of craft in different ways of saying things. Because with beauty, it is like the little black dress, you have to write about, you know, the reinvention of red lipstick, you know the way, ready to wear and couture shows, like, rework it like… It is, there is a lot that goes into understanding it and it is so multilayered.

Allison

Well, it is interesting you say that, because one of the questions I did want to ask you is, and I know this from just my own work in magazines, is that you are often writing the same story, aren't you? Like in the sense that you, every year you are probably going to do a story on mascaras, you are probably going to do a hair… Oh, the hair stories, one of my favourite. Having to come up with 18,000 different words for hair.

Stephanie

You know that that sells magazines. People are obsessed with hair.

Allison

I know. I know. It is just not, it is not easy to write about it without repeating the word hair fifty times. So, you know…

Stephanie

Yep.

Allison

Where do you, how do you… You know, the key here is going to be the angle of your story, as it is the key for every feature story. Like, every feature story that you write, the key is to getting it into the magazine and to getting it right is the angle of the story. So, where do you look when you are thinking, ‘Oh, I have got to write this year's summer hair story.' What are you thinking as far as, ‘How am I going to make this a new angle?' Where do you look for inspiration?

Stephanie

Well, funnily enough, because for me beauty is very personal and I have always had a voice with beauty… Because I think people like to relate back and hopefully the book will resonate with people. But I, now that I am doing digital as well, I love stuff like, like I had hair like blonded a block colour, like platinum blonde. And now I am sort of struggling, trying to make it look smooth and reasonably glamorous. So I will, I will talk about what happened to me and I often draw on personal things. So there's always a little personal, like skew. I drag my sons into treatment, so to give a bit of a different angle, you know so that the men kind of have access through something like… Funnily enough, my husband is a member of this very proper old men's club and sometimes women are allowed in there, haha. But anyway, so… And the men, they go, ‘What are you writing about this week? We love reading your copy.' Really? And it is that very like getting into your soul and being very honest with people. The beauty about working at Fairfax, it is about honesty. Like, it is really truth in sentencing. So, people pick you up on stuff. I get letters all the time with people asking me questions and I really like engaging with the reader and you have always got to remember that's who you are writing for.

Allison

Okay. I read your column in Sunday Life and I have a giggle, because you know, every week you are throwing…

Stephanie

Thank you.

Allison

Well I do, because every week you are throwing yourself on the altar of beauty experimentation and I think to myself…

Stephanie

That is true.

Allison

‘What could she possibly do to herself this week?' Do you ever have weeks where you think, ‘I just don't know if I can face another facial?' Like, do you ever have weeks where you think, ‘Do I really have to go and have the liposuction?' You know, like, what… When you are taking such a personal tack, it must get wearing sometimes.

Stephanie

You know what? Weirdly, it didn't. I am, I am just working on my 175th test drive, since I have been at Sunday Life, and that is not even to mention the ones that I did back in the day.

Allison

Wow.

Stephanie

But I never do, because you know what Al? You get out there and you meet new people and you find out new techniques and you could be, you know, hopefully, first in print with something that no one has ever heard of before. Like I did this crazy equine therapy up in Gwinganna. And that was so traumatising, but at the end, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I loved that.' The readers always like when there is a bit of pain involved, unfortunately. Sometimes they write in and they go, enough with the facials. I am like, all right.

Allison

So off you go to have some painful thing done to yourself.

Stephanie

I've had my toes lengthened. No, I haven't done that, but you know, there are so many random procedures out there that, that I… Yes, it is… I never tire of it. I know that sounds weird. And also, I hopefully look, it hopefully reflects on the fact that my skin is in okay nick and I still don't look quite as ancient as I actually am.

Allison

That you look fabulous. That is very interesting. Now, it is interesting that you bring up, because with Fairfax it is very much a, you know, it is objective territory. You are definitely, you are telling it exactly as it is with honesty. Because with magazines often there is a very strong relationship between beauty and advertising, which I would imagine can sometimes be quite difficult to, it is a very fine tightropey kind of walk to have to take, isn't it? Is that something you enjoy about your new role? In the sense that you do get to just test drive these things and say exactly what you think of them?

Stephanie

Yes, but just, also referring back to magazines, because I am so old school. When I first worked at Vogue, back in the late 1800s, that was how it ran. Editorial was king and advertisers came in purely on the back of the fact that it was Vogue, which was like so… That has always been in the back of my mind. With advertisers, everybody has an amazing product. That is a beautiful thing about beauty. With fashion, you have got one garment, with beauty you have got so many skews and interesting like, you know, people wear fifty products, you know with four and a half seconds. But with Fairfax and with my test drive, I am always honest but always in an upbeat way. So…

Allison

Yes, yes, yes.

Stephanie

Yes. And often, because I am so careful about selecting what I am going to do, I would not knowingly put myself at risk.

Allison

No.

Stephanie

Some might laugh at that proposition. Probably shouldn't, but…

Allison

So, I cannot imagine that the pressure to look good, because it is a job in which, it is about the immaculate presentation at all times. Does that kind of get exhausting sometimes? Do you, I mean, you even address the pressure of ageing in your book, which I think is a fantastic, one of the fantastic aspects about it, but do you sometimes wish you could just chuck it all in and flop about in tracksuit pants all day? She asks as one who does.

Stephanie

Thank God there is no camera here, because I am sitting at my home desk in my very smart running gear, I hasten to add.

Allison

Activewear.

Stephanie

Activewear. But you know what, my theory always was with, even before I started in magazines, I would always try and whatever look my best whenever in case I ran into an old boyfriend. Like, seriously, one day when you are in your painting gear… I am married, by the way. But, you know, you run into someone who you wish you had lipstick on or mascara so, that has always been my overriding premise.

Allison

I love it. Okay. I go out every day expecting to run into an ex-boyfriend.

Stephanie

No, no, I didn't say… You are twisting my words lady!

Allison

I know. I'm sorry. I'm putting them back in context. Prepare oneself.

Stephanie

I know. I know.

Allison

Yes.

Stephanie

Always be prepared.

Allison

Always be prepared.

Stephanie

Yes.

Allison

Okay. So, okay. What are the three questions, I mean, I would imagine that you are probably like, it would be a little bit like being a doctor, you go to dinner parties and everybody wants to talk to you about their beauty issues or their beauty questions or whatever it is that they had. What are the three questions that you are most often asked as a beauty editor fabulous?

Stephanie

People always want to know what product should you always use and I am like, so rabid about this, because we live in this crazy dangerous country with terrible UV, always an SPF 50+, either in a sunscreen on and moisturiser every day. Décolletage, face, back of the hand, because we just are so much older looking than our European sisters, so that… If people asked me what is the one product, it would be SPF 50+ or the highest SPF you can get your hands on. What outlandish procedures I am going to have next? That is a favourite. The men like to ask that, which is kind of cute. And what else? They are really…

Allison

The main ones.

Stephanie

What is up and coming? Which is quite interesting, because a lot of what is going on now is reformulating formulas that work well. Say, the retinol products, people reformulate them rather than sort of smashing through with new stuff. And I don't know whether that is because of the way the economy is sitting at the moment. And I am sure there are things in R&D but it is interesting. And the formulas that exist, a bit like we talked about in the book, like they are really strong formulas but can often do with a little tweak. So why would you throw out the baby with the bath water? So, yes, I am often referring to products that are really good and in existence now.

Allison

Okay. So just on that, what are you doing next? What is your next experimental beauty thing? What are you getting up to?

Stephanie

Okay, I am going to do cryo, cryogenics, which I think is not that new, but there is sort of, sort of reinvigorated and a lot of the football players I think use it to help with muscle, regenerating muscle fatigue and things. You basically pop into a little box with your head out and they put -30 degree oh I don't know, nitrogen or something and they freeze you up for two or three minutes. Hopefully, I don't have a heart attack. I shouldn't joke about that stuff.

Allison

They are going to freeze you and you are actually willingly signing up for this?

Stephanie

Yes, they snap freeze you. Well, I think a lot of people… Other colleagues of mine have done it and survived, so I have gone, okay, a tick to that. But what I try and do is, like pepper some stuff in it that is unusual…

Allison

That is unusual.

Stephanie

I want to do some acupuncture too and just… And I really try… Sometimes I will do an eating plan. A little bit of health comes in there.

Allison

Yes.

Stephanie

On occasion, but just it is kind of tricky but fresh and as I said test drive, getting the boys to test drive, which is hilarious.

Allison

Well, I would imagine it would be. Are they eagerly signing up to test drive or are they running a mile when they see you coming?

Stephanie

No. Oh no, no, no. Harrison is like the teeth whitening king of… He is in London now so he is really missing his, top up with his teeth whitening. He met his friends and the guy was so dazzled, this is such a funny story, I won't mention any names, but he was so dazzled by Harrison's teeth that he was even worse than us really. They were at the gym. Also, his mother still pays for his dental work. So do I for mine. But he went home, he went for his dental appointment and got his dentist to do a $900 procedure on his teeth. And came home and was like, ‘Mum, look at my teeth! They are amazing.' And she was like, ‘What the…' He told me the story and it is so crazy. So it is all about word of mouth.

Allison

It is all your fault Steph.

Stephanie

I think that is why people you know, get… After they have read the test drive a lot of, quite a few people do take their health in their hands and risk some of these procedures. But no, it is all good.

Allison

Goodness me. All right. Well, we will be looking out for the cryo. That will be fun.

Stephanie

Looking out for the cryo, exactly.

Allison

So, with the new book coming out, have you had to concentrate on building a profile that is sort of outside your byline, through social media and things like that? Have you actively gone out of your way to sort of like create Stephanie Darling author as opposed to Stephanie Darling by-liner page in Fairfax?

Stephanie

No, not exactly. But I… Because I have an Instagram and I have met, all my followers are real people, I think. I thought of melded…

Allison

Right.

Stephanie

So I do… And obviously, Penguin are doing some promotional stuff with me. But it is still very much… My Instagram is open to anyone and there is quite a lot of personal stuff in there, which I think people quite… Sometimes it is a bit, it is a picture of… Anyway, you can have a look a bit later. But… I… Someone said, ‘Oh, you should have a professional this and that' and I am like… I don't know. I think that is what people like hopefully about my book and my column is that it is quite personal. What you see is what you get. I am willing to talk to anyone, answer anyone's questions, so… I think they sort of, kind of think it is quite humorous seeing the boys in strange positions and…

Allison

Yes. Oh, I certainly enjoy it. Is Instagram your, would you say that is your favourite platform? Is that the one you just sort of naturally tend to?

Stephanie

I love it.

Allison

Oh great. And what do you like about it?

Stephanie

I love that you can take a picture and then you write a caption and as you and I know Al, captions are our thing.

Allison

Yes.

Stephanie

It was funny when they said… When I first thought about the book and I went to talk with Penguin. They said, ‘Right, okay. 80,000 words.' And I am like, ‘People, I write extended captions. Five hundred words are my limit.' So… Like, for me, it was a mind-altering exercise.

Allison

So the actual writing process of the book, was it, it was sort of a big… Was it an uphill battle for you, having to reassess your whole approach?

Stephanie

It sort of… I can't… Yes, I didn't love the process. I loved finishing each chapter, which is a bit like the whole subbing deadline thing, I think.

Allison

Yes.

Stephanie

But it is so ingrained in me. I loved finishing a chapter and thinking it was okay and then getting people to read it and getting feedback. But physically… I got to chapter five and I got stuck and then my husband took me away on a cruise. It was a cool cruise, though. It was a voyage, let's call it.

Allison

Right.

Stephanie

I finished the book, 14 sea days. I just, I smashed it. I had to write five chapters, because I just thought, “My God, I am never going to meet the deadline if I don't do this.' So… It was a bit of a challenge, but I am so proud that it is finished and I can actually touch it and it is about to launch.

Allison

I know. And how long did it actually…

Stephanie

Imposter syndrome.

Allison

How long did it take you to write it, do you think? Overall. Like, how long did it take you to get that first draft out? In total. Not just on the cruise, but the rest of it as well.

Stephanie

Yes, yes, yes. It took eight, about eight and a half months.

Allison

Okay. And do you think it was just the size of the project? Just that idea of having 80,000 words to write. Was that what kind of slowed you down, do you think? Because it is a different way to think about writing, isn't it?

Stephanie

How dare you? No, I am joking. I thought that was pretty good. Some other people I have spoken to have said…

Allison

You just said it was difficult.

Stephanie

‘Oh you should….' Some other people have said, ‘Oh, you are a first-time author, you should have a year to write that book.' But the funny thing is, if I had a year, it would have taken me like 18 months.

Allison

Yes.

Stephanie

I think, just because I had also my other work…

Allison

Yes, of course.

Stephanie

So I was trying to fit it in and trying to lock a week in, you know, we've got a farm, and just write, trying to get in and write it. Sort of, chunks of time to do it.

Allison

Yes. So you were finding that you needed chunks of time to get your head into the right space for it.

Stephanie

Yes.

Allison

Yes, okay. Because different people have different approaches to getting it done. And did you, did you have the whole thing planned out in advance before you started? Or did you just sort of like…

Stephanie

Yes.

Allison

Yes, okay.

Stephanie

I did. Rather, like a silly billy, I thought that that was all the work. I was like, ‘Yes, I have got the sample chapter. They love that. I have got the little precis for the other nine chapters. I am done here.' And then like, oh mate, no, no, no, no, that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Allison

Yes.

Stephanie

But I did have it planned, which was just gold. Because I think that, for me anyway, knowing that I had the structure there, again, kind of the subbing journalistic sort of thing…

Allison

Yes.

Stephanie

That I did think that I could do it.

Allison

Yes. Okay. Cool. Just to finish up today, what are your top three tips for aspiring beauty writers? Journalists. Beauty journalists.

Stephanie

Firstly, you have got to love that whole thing of the hair, the fragrance, there are so many interesting and sort of intricate levels and layers. So, yes, an innate love of reading beauty books or even reading perfumes. Just sort of… Because when I started out, I was not like a real beauty aficionado, but I have just become this, like beast. I am like the empress. And so, yes, get immersed. Read my book, obviously. And with your writing, just keep writing and try and write how you speak… I think that is probably, I can't remember who imparted, maybe even Marion Hume might have imparted that, but just, the way you talk and have a conversational style.

Allison

Yes.

Stephanie

Because, certainly with the way digital is going, it is all about that quick fast stuff where you don't have time to know necessarily to structure things in a laborious sort of way. It is all about grabbing people in a quick space, because the landscape changed so dramatically that people have to learn to write very differently.

Allison

Yes. Is that three?

Stephanie

Is that three? I think it is. I think I said, ‘Keep writing. Keep reading. And experiment with products.'

Allison

There you go.

Stephanie

There you go.

Allison

Thank you very much. I was listening, but I was so interested in what you were saying, I lost track. All right.

Stephanie

Don't mind me, I was like, ‘What was the question?'

Allison

Yes, what was the question? We are doing it so well.

Stephanie

What was the question?

Allison

Thank you so much for your time today Stephanie Darling and best of luck with your book Secrets of a Beauty Queen which is out now through Penguin Random House in Australia. And Stephanie, if people want to follow your fabulous Instagram and catch up with you on a daily basis, what is your Instagram handle so that they can find you?

Stephanie

Thank you, Al. It is @mrssdarling.

Allison

Fantastic. All right. And I will put that in the show notes and we, yes, we really appreciate it and best of luck. And keep being fabulous.

Stephanie

Oh thank you. Al, thank you, it was lovely to talk to you.

 

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