Be A Writer – Part One: Ten Home Truths

“There is nothing to writing.
All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
Ernest Hemingway

I’ve been meaning to blog on writing for a while, because it’s something I get asked about a lot, via email and also on Twitter. In this new blog series I’m going to take you step by step through what you need to do to be an author, to publish books and articles, and to make a living out of your writing. I am eternally grateful that I get to sit down at my desk each day, type words into my keyboard, and people actually pay me to do it. I love writing – I love it so much that I’d do it for free if no one was willing to pay me. (I’m doing it for free right now writing this blog, although mainly it’s for the purposes of procrastination, since as per usual I have a book to finish.) Given the explosion in writing since the advent of the Internet, it seems like a lot of other people feel the same way as me. There is clearly something romantic and appealing about the idea of writing for a living, of turning your words into an actual book, because many people want to do it. Before I get started on the process and the advice and the tips though, in this first blog I’d like to sit you down and tell you ten home truths about what it means to “Be A Writer”.

First, the bad news …

1. Writing a book is a *lot* of hard work. It sounds really obvious, but it has to be said. Writing 50,000 plus words is not easy. Realistically, it’s not something that most people can do in their spare time, unless you plan to burn the midnight oil every night. Like any job, to do it well takes commitment and dedication. If you’re willing to give up your weekends and your holidays, you might just be able to combine it with something else, but the reality is that writing is as much a job of work as any other career.

2. Writing a book is not the hardest bit. The hardest bit is selling it. If you want to write for a living, you have to be willing to ask people to pay for your work. Anyone can write for free (and lots of people do). But to actually make money from your writing, it has to sell, and selling books is tough. Really tough. Interestingly, sales are not just about marketing and publicity, they are also about trust and word of mouth. I’ll cover all these aspects of the job later on in this series.

3. There is a *lot* of competition out there. Each year, around 184,000 new and revised books are published. And that’s just in the UK. Worldwide, it is estimated that more than 129 million books have been published in total, since publishing first began. The average person reads between 1 and 5 books a year. (Yes, I know you probably read more – if you’re reading this, you are likely to have a vested interest in reading, but sadly most people don’t.) As the saying goes, “you do the math”.

4. Most books don’t sell many copies at all. The average book sells around 250 copies a year, and 3,000 copies in its lifetime. I’m very lucky – my first book is still in print, almost 20 years since it was initially published, but this is unusual. Book sales tend to follow a graph that looks a bit like your classic bell curve – there’s a spurt of sales when a book first comes out but this usually tails off quite quickly.

5. No one is going to come to you. As a writer you have to learn to ‘pitch’ yourself, your work, and your ideas, to a range of outlets. Unless you are an established name, it’s unlikely that anyone is going to offer you a writing job on spec. It’s just like with any other job – you have to turn up in order to be interviewed. This means you have to learn to put yourself out there, which can feel awkward at first, but it’s just part and parcel of the work.

And now the good news …

6. Holding your own book in your hands is a deeply magical moment. Even though it’s almost 20 years ago, I can still remember the breathless excitement I felt when I held a printed copy of my first book in my hands. The excitement of this is very closely matched by the buzz you will feel on the day when you first see your own book in an actual bookshop.

7. These days, anyone can publish a book. Self publishing, and the advent of ebooks, has opened writing up to everyone and anyone. You don’t have to go through a traditional publisher anymore – there is no longer a ‘gatekeeper’ holding the keys and preventing you from putting your own work in print unless you are willing to pay heavily for the privilege. These days, with a bit of know-how about formatting, you can do it by yourself. (I’ll cover the ins and outs and the upsides and downsides of self publishing later on in the series.)

8. It gets easier, and you get better at it, the more you do it. Like any skill, the more experience you have at writing, the easier you will find it. The more you do it, the more you will also figure out how and when you write best (I tend to write better in spurts followed by a break, rather than in a slow and steady way). I like to think that, technically, I am a much better writer now than I was twenty years ago. In fact, I know that I’m a much better writer than I was when I first started out. All I need to do is read an old edition of one of my books to confirm that this is true. Over the years, one of the key skills you learn is how to cut out all the words that don’t have to be there. Interestingly, writing short is much harder than writing long.

9. Writing is fascinating and fun. One of the great things about being a writer is that you get to nose into different places, to explore different subjects and to ask people lots of questions. If you’re interested in other people and how they operate, writing is a fantastic job to have. The research you do when writing a book or an article can be almost as much fun as the writing itself. Fun is desperately under-rated these days – it has become almost like a dirty word in parts of the online education community. But if you ask me, what could possibly be better than doing something that you find fun for a living?

10. And finally, remember that, at some point, someone will ask you for your autograph. When I was a kid I practised my autograph for ages, until I felt I had got it perfect (I hate it now, but that’s a whole other story). I always fancied being a writer, or at the very least being famous, as I suspect many kids do. So if you ever meet an author, please don’t be embarrassed to ask her or him to sign their own book, because deep down inside they will love you for it.

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Swimmers

Babies have a natural affinity with water – they’ve just spent nine months floating in the womb, so a warm swimming pool feels very familiar to them. The advice used to be to wait until your babies had their first vaccinations before taking them swimming, but these days the NHS says that you can go right from birth. We’re not a particularly sporty family, but we do love to swim, and we spend a lot of time in places where there are pools, rivers and beaches. As well as being a lot of fun, and good for your health, being able to swim is a crucial life skill – it could literally save your life one day. And so, from when they were tiny babies, we have done a lot of water based activities with our kids (especially during the holidays). These days they are highly confident swimmers: they are at home diving into a swimming pool to do lengths; they adore bombing off a jetty into the river; they will tackle any size slide at an aqua park; and they love to spend hours battling the waves in their wetsuits in the sea. It’s interesting to consider how they got to this point. How they learned, not only to be able to swim in the technical sense of the word, but to feel relaxed and confident enough to swim in any environment. How they came to be swimmers.

The first step in the process of learning to swim is to feel relaxed around water – to enjoy the act of being in the water in its own right, rather than seeing it as a means to an end. The best way to do this is to spend lots of time doing things in water, without turning “you must learn to swim” into the main event. In the early years, the most important thing is to focus on the fun – to splash and laugh and mess around and generally have fun in the water with your tiny baby. When the sun shines, you get out the padding pool and stick them in it, you run through the sprinkler, you head to the beach. What you must not do is force it too early on, especially if you have a nervous child. I remember being at the swimming pool once with my friend. We were splashing around with our babies in the warm water, as we did once a week. At the other end of the pool was a mum with her daughter. The little girl was in some distress – she really did not want to get in the pool – but the mum was insisting that, not only must she get in, but she must also try to swim. The situation escalated until the little girl was crying, the mum was screaming, and no one was getting anything positive out of the experience. Gently does it, every time.

Another key part of the process is to spend lots of time around water, in lots of different contexts. It’s a bit like getting children to read for pleasure – if they spend their lives in a home that has loads of books and newspapers in it, and they see the adults reading in their own time, purely for the love of it, then they pick up on the fact that reading is (or can be) enjoyable. Being at the seaside is as natural for our children as breathing, because they have done it so often. So is jumping into a swimming pool and swimming from one end to the other. However, even if your children can swim brilliantly in a pool, you can’t just rock up to the seaside one day and let them loose in the sea without close supervision. They might be able to swim, you might have warned them about the dangers, but waves and tides add a whole new dimension. You need them to understand what is and isn’t safe in any given situation and they mainly learn this through supervised experience. I remember being at the beach in Portugal once with our children, when they were tiny. We were playing close to the waves, but the wind was getting up, and the waves were getting bigger. A little old Portuguese lady came over to us, and gave us a good telling off, pointing to the sea and making it clear that we needed to move back. Just as you don’t dive into the shallow end of a pool, so you must always pay respect to the ocean.

Next you need to develop some technique, because learning to swim is not only about having fun in the water, and you can’t wear arm bands or use floats forever. This is where a bit of direct instruction comes in handy. Both our kids had a handful of lessons at what felt like just the right moment for them. Not so early that they weren’t physically ready for it, or so that swimming became a chore, but not so late that it held up their progress. If you plan to be a competitive swimmer, then you would obviously benefit from lots of coaching. However, if you’ve spent a lot of time in water before you learn to do it ‘properly’, a short series of lessons is usually enough.

Once you’ve got your technique in place, the only thing left to do really is to focus on building up your confidence as a swimmer in different environments. Perhaps the best way to do this is through lots and lots of practice, and by gradually ramping up the level of challenge. Again, it’s best not to push this. While our oldest took one look at the giant slide and immediately threw himself down it (not just once, but what must have been 50 times in a day), it took a number of visits to the aqua park before our youngest felt ready to tackle it. The first couple of times she wouldn’t even countenance going up the ladder. The next couple of times she climbed up the ladder with me, took a quick peak over the top, and climbed straight back down. But eventually the day came when she not only climbed up the ladder, but she also whizzed down the slide, screaming with laughter as she hit the water at the end.

 

There is a difference between teaching a child to swim, and a child becoming a swimmer. Technique matters, instruction is important, but neither are enough on their own. As a teacher, you can be as efficient as you like in the way that you instruct a class, but in the end you cannot make your children learn something simply by instructing them in the techniques behind how it is done. For learning to happen children have to participate in the act of learning as well. They have to be confident enough to take leaps and to push themselves, without a fear of failure holding them back. They must be brave enough to dive into the waves and know that they are going to come up again on the other side. They must be immersed in an experience, until it becomes a part of who they are. You can teach a child as much as you like, but you cannot force her to learn. And you can lead a child to water, but you cannot make her swim.

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Making Memories

There are all kinds of ways that you can get yourself to remember things. You can remember things by repeating them over and over again. You can remember things by using clever memory systems like mnemonics, the Roman Room or the number-rhyme system. You can remember things by making notes and diagrams of them, or recording and listening to them. And you can remember things by making them more memorable. The most memorable things tend to have certain features. Moments of joy, excitement, shock or horror stick, as does anything unexpected. Multi sensory experiences tend to drive a memory in deep as well.

For years now, we have looked across at the wind turbines on the top of the Serra d’Arga and wondered how tall they are. We’ve tried a couple of times to get up there, but the Portuguese do a great line in disappearing road signs. Of course, we could have looked the answer up online and found out how tall they were. We could have memorised their height and got full marks in an exam if the question ever cropped up. But somehow that is not quite the same as actually going to see them in real life. Luckily, the Portuguese approach to health and safety meant that, when we finally found the dirt track to the top of the mountain, so long as we didn’t mind destroying the paintwork on our car, we could see the field of turbines at the top. And we discovered that, if you want to remember how tall a wind turbine really is, you have to make the memory for yourself.

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Working with the Enemy

I have a confession to make. I have taken my children out of school for educational reasons. Personally I’d never do it just ‘to go on a holiday’, especially not to Disneyland (which they’d hate anyway). Even though we have family overseas and we pay painfully over the odds for going to see them a few times a year, if they’re in school, they really should be in school, unless there’s a very good reason. But we did take them out for six months to Road School them – and before anyone threatens me with high court action, they were off roll at the time. Did we do a bad thing? Or did we do a totally brilliant and lifetime memory making thing? Only you can decide and it’s too late for me to worry about it, anyway. My problem with today’s high court ruling on term time absence is not that it is going to stop me taking holidays when I want to, because I don’t. It is that the government has found another way of making the system more difficult for some people than it is for others, and their policy will impact on those who can least afford it, yet again.

If you have very little money, or a particularly fine-prone local authority, then you won’t want to risk taking any time off during the term, whatever your personal circumstances. (Single parent, forces family, someone who has to work every August because that’s when the tourists arrive in your area, your personal circumstances have ceased to matter.) Your children may never go overseas, which is very “Brexit means Brexit” of our Government. However, if you can shrug off a £60 fine, if you are willing to lie to your children’s school, or if you can afford to go to a private one, then you’ve just been incentivised to say ‘what the hell, I’ll do it anyway’. I’ve seen websites today that suggest parents might be asked to provide a death certificate, in order to have the right to go to a family funeral. And the head teacher of your children’s school has been tasked to be the final arbiter of whether you are deserving enough of not having to be there. Their Ofsted result depends on the way you behave. Talk about the law of unintended consequences. Insisting that ‘parents are obedient’ is no way to run an education system, if you value parent partnerships.

For the last eight years, I have helped to run my local preschool setting. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you are probably bored of me going on about it by now. I started there as a parent, but I stayed on, and I have now committed hours and hours and hours of my free time to helping a small part of the education system thrive and survive. During those eight years, I’ve had to work with our parents. Not in an ‘ask their opinions occasionally’ way, but in a ‘you are running this setting and we need you to do these things because they are legal requirements’ kind of way. The parents who have helped me have given up their free time, just like thousands of governors and PTAs do, all around the country, every single day of the week. During this time, I’ve also run a school magazine club, and I’ve watched my parent friends do their bit to be supportive, in all kinds of ways. Yes, some parents really don’t care about their children’s education, and I know that is painful, but most of us really do. So, please don’t let the Government make you think that you are working with the enemy, because we are not the ones that you need to attack.

Posted in Parents, Schools, Teachers | 2 Comments

A Baseline

“Spring has returned. The Earth is like a child that knows poems.”
Rainer Maria Rilke

Yesterday I was over at the allotments, and I was lucky enough to bump into the preschool children, who were doing their Thursday forest club. Forest club is probably more accurately described as ‘explore the local environment club’, since we don’t have any forests close by. We do, however, have big clumps of trees, farmland, a river, horses, mud, bee hives, a large allotment, and sometimes there are even pigs. The children were digging up part of my neighbour’s plot – he had come along to help – and they asked me if I had any chitted potatoes that they could plant. I had some spare Pink Fir Apple, which are the weirdest shaped potatoes you have ever seen. Anyway, there was lots of excitement as the children dug over the area, pulled out the weeds, found worms, planted the potatoes and watered them in. Later on the children came into my allotment, weaving their way carefully around the paths, spotting tadpoles and picking chives.

To make your allotment thrive you need to do a lot of hard work; you have to pay attention to detail and give it plenty of energy. At the same time, though, it needs to breathe – to be a place where you can go to be creative and to learn, making something that wasn’t there before out of old bits and pieces. A place where it doesn’t matter if you make all sorts of mistakes. A place you can go to be yourself. Of course, it’s tempting to get fixated on measuring your productivity; to think that you can only tell how well your allotment is doing by how many vegetables you pull out of the soil. It’s so easy to forget that our lives are made up of moments, not of where we might get to at some future point. Yesterday, when I looked at the children laughing, and running, and tripping over, and exploring, and digging the soil, and watching out for the nettles, all in their different ways, I didn’t think ‘this is the point that each child is at now, and we must measure exactly how far they get from this moment, to a preordained point’. I thought, ‘look how amazing these children are already – how can we help them grow into the people they want to be?’.

Posted in Gardening, Testing | 2 Comments

The Pause, The Look, and The Deadly Eyebrow

One of the odd things about being a teacher is that your teaching behaviours can begin to bleed over into your home life. You act a lot at work so you find yourself doing it when you’re not being paid to. Maybe you find yourself giving someone a disapproving look on the tube because they dropped a crisp packet, or you sigh exaggeratedly when your partner leaves the kitchen in a mess. I can’t be the only one to have heard “Don’t use your teacher look on me” or “You’re not in the classroom now.”  But there are some very good reasons why teachers get into the habit of using non verbal communication, and why we struggle to stop doing it in our spare time. It helps us maintain the flow of a lesson, it encourages children to regulate their own behaviour, and it teaches them to read social cues – to know what human beings mean by how they look as well as what they say.

Once children know what is expected and what you need as a class, those who struggle most with behaviour will be the ones who can’t read or respond to the social context, or who just generally struggle to control their bodies (school typically asks for a lot of sitting still). Those children who struggle most might need a more explicit explanation of what is expected, to help them achieve it, but in the end the goal is for them to read the situation and understand how to control themselves in order to learn (not least because it’s a LOT less work for everyone concerned). This is hard to achieve, especially at secondary, but it’s still an important aim. The alternative – punishment, consequences, whatever you choose to call it – tends to be time consuming, and has the habit of doing damage to relationships. If you want children to see learning as the most exciting thing of all then learning needs to become the ultimate reward.

The children are wriggling and fidgeting. Daryn is annoying Mary and Nancy is shuffling her way to the back of the carpet again, as though she just wants to escape. Kate is plaiting her hair and Tim is gazing off into the distance like he can see something that no one else can see (which you often suspect he can). You pause. Maybe you heave a little sigh. Then you look at the picture book that is sitting in your lap with a wistful look in your eyes. At this point, Andrew goes to stand up (perhaps he has had enough of waiting for Daryn and Mary to finish fussing). You give Andrew a look and a shrug and he sits back down again. He knows that it isn’t really you he is waiting for. Finally, you bring out your most powerful weapon. You raise a single deadly eyebrow and you say in a (not too scary) pretend witch-y voice: “I wonder what Winnie the Witch would make of having to wait so long for everyone to be ready? You don’t suppose she might turn you all into frogs? Should we find out?” Now all the children turn towards to you and most of them lean forwards a bit. You open the book. And Kate finally looks at you, with eyes lit up, because she doesn’t want to miss a word. 

Posted in Behaviour, Engagement, Reading | 2 Comments

You Have a Choice

You have a choice.

Well, we don’t really. That’s what you choose to call it, but in the end there’s only one school that we can get our children to, realistically.

You have a choice. There’s public transport.

That doesn’t really help. If we don’t live in the right part of town, or hit the right point in the fair banding tests, we only get to express a preference. And we might not get that.

You have a choice. If you don’t like what we offer you can go somewhere else.

But our child is settled in your school. We can’t just move her away from her friends and disrupt her education. Could we work in partnership? Figure out what’s best together?

You have a choice. You could always apply to a selective school.

But even if we choose that we might not get it. And we don’t support selection.

You have a choice. The school doesn’t have to become an academy.

It does if you’ve stripped all the funds out of our Local Education Authority.

You have a choice. You can attend worship regularly and get into a faith school.

We’re atheists.

You have a choice. But we don’t think we’re best suited to meet your child’s needs.

Say what?

Look. If you don’t like it, there’s always private school or home education. See? We told you; you have a choice.

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