Friday 21 December 2018

The True Picture - off-line and online - by Anne Booth

The true picture by Anne Booth.

I am very proud of my books and grateful for, their existence. My first book, ‘Girl with a White Dog’, was published in 2104, and since then, incredibly, and thanks to my brilliant agent, Anne Clark, I have now had 14 children’s books published across the age ranges, and have contracts for 8 more to be published in 2019 or 2020. It can be very hard work writing and editing but I love it, and I love seeing the finished, beautiful artefacts my publishers create, and marvel at the design and the illustrations by the amazingly  talented artists I have worked with. 

The hardest  bit, of my job, however, is the promoting bit, and having to continually talk myself and my books up, subtly or obviously, and the more books I write, the more  talking up I have to do! I was told at the beginning of my career that it is part of the professional author’s job to be very positive about themselves as an author, and about the books they are writing. I know I am not the only writer to find this bit of our job difficult. I AM very proud of and excited by my books, and I especially love talking about my illustrated ones as I can talk about the artist and the art work as much as my words. I am also very good at talking about why I wrote the actual stories. 

The problem at times for me is projecting this image of being a successful author when the nature of our self-employed job and our personalities as writers is that we are often likely to doubt it!  Our books also have so much of ourselves in them, and  sometimes it feels, when promoting them, (as is your duty and reasonably expected by the publishers who have worked so hard to produce them ), as if you have become a massive show-off,  literally selling yourself - authors can sometimes become like brands, and you find yourself  picking and choosing the best bits of your life to put online to reflect well on you and your books.  I was advised early on that only undisputed successes like JK Rowling can afford to talk lots online about their rejections, and that publishers get nervous about their authors talking about failure and saying how other publishers didn’t like their books! Once the author’s book has become a success the publishers would, of course,  be delighted to be identified as the one which had the good taste and judgement to take them on, but only from that end of the process.  It makes sense, but for the writer it feels dangerous because, (like many people online, whether they are writers or not), you can appear to live this perfect, success-full authory life online and in posting about it, lose touch with your authentic self and your failing, not perfect, real, messy, human, loving, anxious, happy, normal, mistakes-full life offline, and the gap can be painful.  And also, in a  world of celebrity authors, it can feel that there is no way, however much you exhaust yourself blowing your own trumpet, that you can ever self- promote enough to compete!  You can feel at times as if you have worn yourself out showing off, and nobody is listening anyway!

Which is partly why it was so, so lovely and such a relief on the 18th this month when I visited a gorgeous primary school in Islington called St Mary’s. The whole school - from Reception to Year 6- had been working on my book ‘Refuge’ for literary, RE and Art and had posted their work on twitter.  (See - I have subtly self-self-promoted there - and I don’t care because I am terribly happy that my words and Sam Usher’s illustrations in ‘Refuge’ inspired such amazing work!)

I was so impressed and touched, and as I knew I was coming into London anyway for another Refuge-related event, I offered to pop in and say ‘hello’ to the children and look at their work. We arranged I would read out ‘Refuge’ at assembly  and talk about being a writer.  And the lovely Assistant Head teacher asked me if I would mind sharing the difficulties of being a writer! They said it would really help the children to hear how the first things I wrote were often not very good, and how before I got published I sent off lots of things which weren’t accepted, and I had to not give up and try again and get better.  I did an assembly and I visited every class and saw the wonderful work and read out some writing and admired gorgeous art work and I had so much fun and loved every minute. I am lost in admiration at the nurturing and creative work of the staff of St Mary's, and a bit appalled at the talent of the children (!) - as I told them - they are worryingly talented and I wasn't sure if I should encourage them to all become writers because I didn't want to  compete with them! Seriously - I read some brilliant work there!  Publishers - take note! The vision of the Head and leadership team and the teaching staff is so wonderful - and creativity in children (many of whom have serious disadvantages) blossoms with love  and encouragement. What a brilliant school in difficult times.

Anyway, I told the children about how when I first got back edits from my first novel I cried and panicked as I read the editorial suggestions and was genuinely worried the publishers thought they had made a mistake taking my book on because they wanted so many little changes. Then I told them that I realise now that that is completely normal and part of the thing I love about working with editors - and how, often after I have written the extra bits, or made the cuts they want, I can see myself how much better my book is. I told them that it is normal and I now feel (relatively) fine about writing lots of drafts and lots of books which might not get published, but I now have to learn that same resilience with illustrating, which I feel loads less confident about, but which I would love to get better at. I told the children that I can’t expect to get better at illustrating if I don’t draw! The teachers told me they were very pleased with what I had shared, the children were enthusiastic and encouraged, and it was therapeutic for me too - in reminding myself about how hard things had been and can be, and how I have changed and improved as a writer, I felt properly proud and hopeful and not a fraud! I had such a lovely time!

Apart from writing, the thing I most love about being a children’s writer is going into schools like St Mary’s and meeting wonderful staff and children and seeing the amazing ideas they have working with my books , and the creative results the children produce. I was blown away by the talent and loveliness of the staff and students at St Mary’s!  So, if you are tired of talking about success online, have fun offline being honest with children about your failures, and get motivated all over again!


Pippa Goodhart said...

What a wonderful school to have the imagination to ask an author to speak of the struggle of writing! Excellent. Happy Christmas, Anne!

Lynda Waterhouse said...

A lovely post full of honesty and integrity -like your writing Anne. Your words will have made a difference to the children at the school. Happy Christmas!