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Writing

Our local paper carried a little article about me last week. Quite a few people got in touch to say congrats, all very exciting.

A few days later I met the headteacher of my son’s new academy, and we got chatting about the fact I write children’s books.

“I’ve been looking for a local children’s author to open our new school library,” she said.

Oooh!

“I was trying to get Jonathan Stroud.”

Oh.

“But he’s going to be in America.”

Oooh!

“It’s so important to show the children that they shouldn’t limit their horizons. It’s great for them to meet local people who have been really successful.”

I flex my red ribbon-cutting muscles.

“So let me know if you can think of anybody.”

And with those words, my 15 minutes of fame were officially O to the V to the E to the R.

Does anyone have a number for Jonathan Stroud?

Baby look at me. And tell me what you see. If you squint, I could be the face of First Capital Connect's failure...

Baby look at me. And tell me what you see. If you squint, I could be the face of a failing First Capital Connect…

Author – officially the 156th best job in the world!

This was the verdict of a recent survey comparing 200 occupations – their physical demands, work environment, income, stress and outlook. The 155 jobs considered more relaxing, profitable and pleasant than writing books include:

  • funeral director (116)
  • pest control worker (95)
  • sewage plant operator (87)
  • tax collector (85)
  • nuclear decontamination technician (65).

According to the survey, actuary is the World’s Best Job. Yet Amazon lists just 115 ‘become an actuary’ titles, versus 24,166 that tell you how to ‘become a writer’.

Rough artwork from my Dealing with Feelings series (Raintree, 2013), by the very talented Clare Elsom

On Twitter (and I always am), #AmWriting trends more often than #AmDecontaminating. The web is not (yet) flooded with tips for breaking into the sewage industry. And Frank Lampard was keener to branch out into children’s books than pest control.

Why do so many of us want to write books for a living?

Even careers website Prospects says the prospects are bleak. A 25-34 year old writer can expect to earn, on average, £5000 for a year’s work. Experienced authors earn less than a third of the national wage, and 60% of professional writers need a second job.

I knew this as an undergraduate, but I ignored the Milkround and applied for publishing jobs. I knew it in my early 20s, but went weak at the knees when given the chance to write my first children’s book. (Extra work? For free? Yes please!) In my early 30s, after ten years of freelance authoring, I’m well aware of the downsides (no security/sick pay/colleagues/morning cappuccino).

But apart from one WILD evening when I thought ‘Yes! I should totally retrain as an actuary!’ I still really really really want to write for a living.

And so do hundreds of thousands of others. Self-publishing statistics are a good indicator – last year, some 235,000 books were self-published in the US alone.

Despite anecdotal evidence from literary agents, not everyone who writes a book can be anticipating JK Rowling- or Julia Donaldson-sized success. It’s true that big deals and big sales are headline news. But most writers know that publishing is a ‘winner takes all’ market, where 10% of authors earn 50% of the income. (The figures are even worse for self-publishing, where “75% of the royalty pie is going to 10% of authors”). 

Contains the very best 50 words to describe a backhoe loader.

What of the theory that writers are born that way, inspired only by the need to “sit down at a typewriter and bleed”. This sounds plausible if you’re a novelist, sitting in your garrett, writing about the human condition. Less so if you’re a non-fiction writer, like me, working out the best 50 words to describe a backhoe loader.

And yet. Perhaps non-fiction writers are born, not made, too. As future novelists drafted their first stories, geeky 8-year-old me was recording holidays in book form, in a process longer than the trips themselves. At 10, I was writing a thrice-weekly family magazine, ‘148 Mag’, circulation: three. At 14, I produced a French Exchange write-up that suggested I’d spent a year in Provence, rather than two weeks watching classmates slip snails into bowls of nuts.

Was I born to write information books? Were my efforts to plot more lucrative careers – lawyer, engineer, economist – always doomed to fail?

I think I found my answer last week. In a flurry of procrastination I took a quiz to determine my ‘mothering style’, based on that thinking-woman’s horoscope, the Myers-Briggs score.

My ‘INTP mother profile’ proved that a multiple-choice test really can peer deep into your soul. “You can be relaxed about clutter, but struggle to do chores regularly and keep the house in order.” Oh yes. A required skill for a work-at-home writer.

“You relish those times with a child when you are learning something interesting together. You spark to answering his or her “whys” with in-depth responses or new knowledge.”

This is exactly what I love about writing – researching weird and wonderful things; digging out the most mind-boggling facts; explaining the world to children in a fresh way.

So, my boys. Your house may be messier than those of actuarial parents. I may be more stressed (though less likely to glow in the dark) than mums who work in nuclear decontamination. And I’ll probably never earn as much as JK Rowling. But hit me with your why why whys, and I’ll always have the best (50-word) answer.

It’s National Libraries Day! To celebrate, I’ve put together a catalogue of my best library memories. Organized using the Dewey Decimal Classification, natch.

781.53 Music in specific settings
You’re a ten-year-old boy. You quite like a bookish girl in your class. Unfortunately, she’s too bookish to seal the deal during kiss chase. What to do? It was 1990, and the Righteous Brothers were back in the Top Ten. So the boy and his sidekick cornered me in our primary school library, and serenaded me with You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’. Looking back, this was probably the most romantic thing that ever happened to me. At the time, I ran for it.

Pile of books392.14 Customs relating to attainment of puberty
To secondary school, where at 13 I was still bookish, and still unkissed. Yet I found myself in a rare position of romantic power. I heard that a boy in my year fancied me. I think it went to my head. He helped out in the school library at lunchtimes. I put so much effort into acting disinterested and absorbed in my books, I couldn’t read a word.

One day I returned some books to him in ice-queen mode, and headed for the door. “Um, Isabel,” he said, quietly. I turned towards the desk, wondering how I might go about rejecting his advance. “Is this yours?” he said. I looked down. Oh. I’d returned something else, slipped inside a library book. My just-in-case-puberty-starts Always Ultra. Farewell, upper hand.

152.41 Love and affection
At university I entered library heaven: the magnificent Bodleian Libraries. Here you can read anything ever printed in the UK. So the first thing I looked up was the book self-published by my Grandpa. In that pre-Amazon era, seeing his name in the Bodleian catalogue made him seem famous.

To get a book, you filled in a slip of paper and put it in a wooden box. After four hours the books appeared as if by magic, in the reading room of your choice. And what a choice. The Radcliffe Camera. The New Bodleian. The Radcliffe Science Library. College libraries. Faculty libraries. You couldn’t take the books away, so I spent three years sitting in these beautiful places. Perhaps that’s why they were the scene of so much romantic drama – tearful break-ups, passionate make-ups, bitter arguments. All in a respectful whisper, of course.

Why Do I Burp?392.13 Child-rearing customs
In 2013, you’ll find me in our local library, herding my sons towards the picture books. Sometimes I sneak a visit to non-fiction, and get excited if I spot something written by me. I imagine the day the boys read one of my books, rather than using them as a place to wipe excess food. Perhaps they’ll be proud of me, as I was of Grandpa. And then I picture their teenage friends shouting, “Oi, did your Mum write this book ‘Why do I Burp?’” And the circle of library learning, love, and embarrassment starts all over again.

Telling writers how to get published is a boon industry. More than 4 million web pages offer advice on writing the all-important query letter. They’ve left out some important points though. Here are my own top tips, collated during my years as a commissioning editor. True stories, people.

The opening gambit

Do not start by telling the editor that angels told you to approach her, and only her. Especially if she publishes books for primary schools, and you are pitching an adult self-help book dictated by said angels. Do not get cross when the editor suggests that the angels were wrong, and that you might have more luck with Mind/Body/Spirit publishers. Tell the angels to hold back on the publishing advice until they have consulted the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook.

My shelf of wishful thinking – literary & otherwise!

About the book

Do not refuse to disclose key details of the book – such as the title, or contents – on the basis that a rogue publisher might steal your idea.

Why I chose this publisher

Flattery only works if it’s grounded in fact. If you mention existing books in your query letter, be sure to look inside them first. Or you might find yourself praising a 15-year-old flop that lingers in the catalogue in an attempt to shift vast volumes of unsold stock, and is frequently a source of embarrassment to sales reps.

About the author

When writing your author bio, concentrate on the positives. Four dark pages detailing your recent road accident – with strange hints that you may have actually, accidentally, killed someone – will not win you the sympathy vote. There is no sympathy vote. It’s all about the book. (Not that editors are heartless. I can identify with the badness of a car crash, having previously been kneecapped by my own ignition key. But I rarely use that experience to win over an acquisitions meeting.)

The unique selling point

Do not make your USP “it has never been done before”, based on the contents of your own bookshelves and a ten-minute browse in Waterstones. Remember the famous biblical quote: “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing on Amazon.” (ish)

The memorable sign-off

Do not tell the editor how grateful you will be if she were so kind as to publish your humble little book pretty please with a cherry on top. If your book is good, the editor will be grateful to have found you. And no, it’s never a good idea to surround your signature with animated flames.

In summary

Do not be insane. Or at least, don’t let it show.
And never, ever, ever ever, ever even think about using Comic Sans.

Publishing types, leave a comment and tell me about the memorable query letters lurking in your filing cabinet!

Last week we hit Cornwall’s beaches for a summer holiday. Postponed to autumn because we suspected a holiday might not be very relaxing with three children under four.

As it turns out, that long-awaited fourth birthday was not a marked transition towards adulthood, turning oldest chimp into useful third pair of hands. Instead, his chimpacity was ramped-up to record levels. Still, the sun shone, and 80 percent of the week was idyllic rockpooling, dam-building, steam train-riding, farm animal-feeding fun.

8 (hours of fun) + 2 (year old toddler) x 3 (ice creams) / no nap = meltdown

The other 20 percent we’ll write off as collateral damage.

As a freelancer I have a habit of taking work on holiday. From my point of view this is no bad thing. Compared to the daily zookeep, a stint at my desk is rather relaxing. But it doesn’t always go down well with the rest of the party. Like the Christmas I eschewed pudding and post-dinner games for 1000 words on stem cell research (true story).

This time I planned ahead and even turned down work (sob) to guarantee a clear week. All the better for starting some long-overdue admin!

Step one was ordering three of my own books, J.R. Hartley style, having lost hope of this particular publisher sending advances before they go OP. The idea is to photograph all my new titles together for my website, so I can totally justify spending £20 on a collection of my own words. Totally. And anyway, they have really pretty covers.

I see, but do you have it for Kindle?

As I was AT THAT VERY MOMENT changing a nappy in the West Country, the delivery driver kindly left the Bookpoint box in our recycling bin. Luckily it was not put out… but nor was the lid put on. I returned at the end of the week to find the books weathered, warped, watermarked and thoroughly unphotogenic.

I’m sure J.R. Hartley never had these problems. But then J.R. Hartley probably knew that holidays are not for catching up on admin, but for kicking back, cracking open a beer, and bingeing on Breaking Bad.

There are fabulous things about freelancing, but being my own IT department is not one of them. Left to my own devices, all my files sit on my Desktop. Or, if I’m feeling really organized, in a folder on my Desktop called ‘Desktop’. Software manuals remain unread. Client-facing websites are abandoned in 2010.

My biggest problem is sharing a workspace with two chimpanzees, who have learned to hack into the mainframe and play Disney movies at will. One thinks the screen works like an iPad, but requires more pressure. The other finds the power cord an ideal chew toy for his sprouting molars. Here is the crime scene this evening.

Even Nemo disapproves

What is the error code for keyboard vandalized by Peppa Pig stickers, museli and Biro scrawl? It’s almost enough to make me back up my files. Almost.

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