When I first became serious about writing, I was given the same advice I think most writers get – read these books, go on this course and attend that conference if you want to succeed. These things can end up costing a lot of money though. But that’s okay – isn’t it? – because they’re an investment in my writing career that will pay off when I get published…
Seven years later, I’ve spent more money than I dare to add up on developing my writing, but haven’t as yet earned anything from it. Thankfully, I’ve been able to afford it and have enjoyed every book, course and conference, but it definitely hasn’t been the “If…Then…” situation I was led to believe.
I guess I went along with this advice because subconsciously I thought that in amongst all the recommended books, courses and conferences, there must be at least one that could provide a secret step to success! That essential book which would make my story click into perfect place and win the hearts of everyone who read it. A key course that would catapult my prose to new levels of awesomeness. That revelatory conference where I would meet “The Agent” and we’d all live happily ever after.
If those things exist then I haven’t found them yet. I’m still trudging along with my writing, although recently that’s had to play second fiddle to the study required of my MA in Public Relations. So, when I had to do a small research project for an assignment, I decided to combine these two areas and investigate the pre-publication experience of published children’s writers to find out if they had had any secret steps to success!
I sent an electronic questionnaire to 10 traditionally published children’s writers who I knew, nine of whom responded. One of them offered to share the questionnaire with a Twitter group of about-to-be-published children’s writers that she was part of and, very kindly, ten of them also completed it. 19 responses – only a small sample (this was a small research project!) but were there any revelations to be found within those answers?
This is what I discovered…
The average age at publication was 44-years-old. As I’m around this age myself that was hugely encouraging. I haven’t missed the boat!!
Half of the respondents had been writing for 10+ years when they first had a book published. Again, a relief because my seven years was starting to feel like a long time. It really isn’t that long in the writing/publishing world though.
Seven writers had had their first story published; six their second; third time lucky for three authors; and for another three it was their fourth, fifth and gazillionth stories that finally secured a book deal.
These were things I expected to find, based on writers I know and what I’ve observed in the publishing industry in general. But then came some surprises…
While SCBWI and YALC were the most popular conferences mentioned, attendance at them by respondents was still low. Also, about half the respondents hadn’t done any writing courses. I was aghast. Wasn’t completing some sort of writing course one of the essential criteria on the job spec for “published children’s writer”?!
But then came more answers that blew my mind. Despite asking for recommendations for three writing books, less than half the participants offered that full number, with three people saying “none”! What?! How had I been led to believe that the more books you read on improving your writing craft, the greater your chance of publication became?
In reality, this idea had become shaky recently anyway, as I know some writers who study literally every writing book they can get their hands on, but still aren’t published. Personally, I’ve also found that the more books I read about writing, the more confused I become about how to write!
Of the books that were named, unsurprisingly Stephen King’s “On Writing” and John Yorke’s “Into The Woods” were the most recommended, but still only by a third of respondents.
Whether or not respondents had done an MA in Creative Writing didn’t make a huge difference to publication success (just under half had). Neither did working with a critique group or partner – although the support of writing friends was highlighted by nearly all respondents as an important factor in not giving up when things were tough! SCBWI rocks 😊
Only one factor really jumped out from all the data I collected. Of the seven respondents who’d had their first book published (rather than their second, third or gazillionth), SIX of them worked with children in some capacity. Even with a small sample, that was a potentially significant finding (and one it’d be fascinating to investigate further)!
That would make a lot of sense. If you work with children then you’ll have a better understanding of their perspectives, their concerns and their interests. You can probably capture their voices better, especially if you hear them for several hours every day. Although this is true for parents/carers as well, they probably only have contact with a handful of children (their own and their friends), while a teacher, for example, would experience hundreds of different children regularly – a deeply rich pool of potential writing material!
As the only potential “secret to success”, this was disheartening at first as I don’t work with children and have no desire to change my day job currently. But then I remembered that I worked in further education and did teen youth work for many years. My target audience and one of the reasons I chose to write YA – how could I have forgotten?! I’m finally (yes, finally!) submitting my first story properly to agents, so I guess I’ll find out in the next few months if that experience has improved the odds in my favour! I’d better keep working on my second story though, just in case…