Procrastinate – it’s good for you! – click to read my latest blog for Author Allsorts. The theme was how to be healthy when you spend all day writing. Top tip – watch how much butter you put on your toast…
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.
“I was trying to get Jonathan Stroud.”
“But he’s going to be in America.”
“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?
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’.
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”).
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.
So, the hot news in evolutionary biology is that women with sons die earlier than women with daughters.
Nature, which I read all the time (when I’m not following links tweeted by
@zooarchaeologis), reported that each son born shortens a woman’s life by 34 weeks. I have three boys, so that’s nearly TWO YEARS of me-time I’ll never get back.
But why? The researchers aren’t sure. Their study was based on pre-Industrial Finnish villagers, so it’s a bit late to ask. Are the reasons biological (boys are milk-guzzling energy leeches) or social (daughters help more with the housework)?
To help unravel the mystery, I devoted a morning to science and collected some data. Our house has pre-Industrial hygiene levels, so I’m confident it will stand.
The day begins at 2 am, 4 am and 6 am. Support for the biological theory that boys are “energetically more demanding to breastfeed”. Though I suspect only my baby boys think four night feeds is the deal for the first year.
The day really begins at 6.30 am, when my other sons pad into the room. I open my eyes to see my four-year-old walking up the bed, sans nappy.
“My nappy’s dry. Can I have a star?”
“Where’s your nappy?”
I turn my head and recoil in horror. The nappy is laid out, Godfather-style, on the neighbouring pillow. And it is dry, so I’ll have to reward him for this. Another point for biology – boys spread bacteria.
08:45. The baby naps and the boys are ready for second breakfast.
“I’m going to hop to the table,” announces the eldest, carrying four pints of milk without a lid. I remain calm. Crying over split milk could lop a couple of weeks off an already truncated lifespan.
09:08. We need to leave the house at 9.30 am to get to swimming. We’d better get dressed.
“Where are those pants you had?”
“Upstairs, in the pirate ship.”
And they were. A point for the social theory. In a house of boys, nothing is ever in the right place.
10:00. Take children swimming. An aging experience, whatever their gender.
“What did you do in swimming today?”
“We played nits.”
“Oliver had nits, and he had to catch someone, and then they had nits.”
Time and a fine-toothed comb will tell if that’s the latest version of tag, or a biological reality.
12:05. Garden time! “I’ve got flowers for you Mummy.” My two year old comes in holding most of a shrub, ripped from the ground. Boys love their mums, but the way they express it often doubles your workload. It’s 4–3 to the social theories.
12:20. My two-year-old is back inside, in tears, peeling off wet, muddy trousers. He eat three-quarters of my lunch and heads for the stairs.
“Don’t go upstairs. The baby’s sleeping.”
“I be quiet.”
[Fierce voice] “What do you want up there?” Whatever it is, it can wait.
[Sad whisper] “Trousers.”
That actually seems reasonable. I feel like a mean mummy.
As I creep across his bedroom to fetch dry trousers, there is a crunch underfoot, a silent cry of pain, and a light bulb moment. It wasn’t hungry babies, bacteria or even stress that killed those Finnish mums of boys. It was 32.7 years of picking up Lego.
There were Mother’s Day cards to collect at preschool pick-up. They’d asked every child to answer the question ‘I love my Mummy because…’ and stuck the answers to hand-painted pictures.
I got a preview of other kids’ answers as my four-year-old’s keyworker flicked through the pile:
I love my Mummy because… “She tickles me and it’s funny”
I love my Mummy because… “She is beautiful”
I love my Mummy because… “I love her”
And then we came to my son’s card:
Added to his assessment of how I spend my time when he’s at preschool, I think they are building up a fine picture of my parenting technique.
Happy Mother’s Day!
I wrote a piece for Guardian Children’s Books for World Book Day on 7 March.
Click here to read it on the Guardian website!