Looking after The Books

If you have ever wondered what goes into looking after a famous writer’s literary estate – apart from nice liquid literary lunches and denying access to anyone you think might write an unflattering biography (or is it just me who got that impression??) – read Lizza Aiken’s account of reading, and wrangling, every single thing her mother ever wrote:

Joan Aiken

The Books

Looking after a Literary Estate sounds like a dream job, especially if you are a reading addict…the danger is that you may never leave your room again, or in my case, the shed…  I had the unbelievable good fortune to be Joan Aiken’s daughter, and was brought up in her world of stories, but did for many years escape to travel the other world, and trained and worked as a mime – probably to avoid endlessly being asked when I was going to write a book myself!  But eventually Joan’s world caught up with me again; as she said when she was getting older, ‘Someone is going to have to look after the books when I go, and it will have to be you!’

I now realise what a tremendous compliment this was, but it has taken me all of ten years and more since her death to understand why. …

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10 Writers’ Displacement Activities

We ought to be writing. We want to be writing. But when we get the chance, what are we doing instead?

1.  Housework

If there are household chores that need doing, we’ll do anything else, which is only logical because housework is boring, tiring, and soon enough it’ll need doing all over again.

But when we’ve got some writing time, suddenly there’s an urgent desire – no, a compulsion – to clear away the breakfast things first. And it would only be sensible to put a load of dirty clothes in the washing machine so that they can be doing in the meantime. And, oh, there’s gunk that’s really crying out to be teased from of the plughole in the shower. We don’t exactly turn into domestic gods and goddesses, just furious tidiers and fixers, laden with clean laundry, dirty cups, and distracted good intentions, on our way to whatever space we write in.

2.  Caffeine top-ups

No one writes without a cup of coffee in them first, right?

And now it’s probably time for another.

Might as well make a pot.

Maybe tea would make a nice change now.

Just have to wash up the favourite cup.

And nip to the loo, again, what with all the fluids…

3.  The working lunch

This isn’t a time-saving meeting of colleagues over ordered-in sushi to thrash out ideas or go over the last month’s figures. It’s the planning and assemblage of something you can eat with one hand while typing with the other. Hazardous.

4.  Going for a walk

Julia Cameron – she of The Artist’s Way and Walking In This World – reckons this is a good way to unblock creativity, and she’s certainly not alone. Going for a vigorous walk in the fresh air does help us rethink, solve problems, and just sets the brain going. At the very least it gets us off our backsides. But a walk to the corner shop for more snacks, all the while contemplating what snacks to get, is not the same as striding for miles over the windswept fells and thinking about daffodils.

5.  Sharpening pencils

There is absolutely no reason for sharpening all our pencils to a perfect needle point in this day and age, unless it is to use them for poking tiny bits of cheese or biscuit crumbs out of the crevices of the keyboard. See (3) above. In which case, it’s a valid use of time.

6.  Social media

It’s kind of work. If we’re not out there, our publishers tell us we ought to be. It will help our public profile. So we keep checking if it’s helping our profile. And then we see other writers with much better profiles. Or who are just much better at social media. Or much better writers. So, feeling a bit low, we succumb to any of the other displacement activities, especially food-based ones.

7.  Actually quite tedious and repetitive on-screen games

We don’t play the really involving ones because that would be, well, really involving. Just the dull ones. As a bit of a break from all that vital creativity.

Research shows that repetitive self harm sets up receptors in the brain just like drug addiction, so that nothing else quite fits the bill. Hard to think that could apply to Spider Solitaire, but there you go. Click. Click.

8.  Snack time

Well, we only had a sandwich for lunch and half of that fell on the floor due to eating one-handed while crouched over a keyboard. So a little boost is probably necessary about now. A little sugar rush. Just to liven things up.

9.  Research

Oh, God, and now there’s Pinterest as well…

10.  Daytime TV

In conversation at a party once it became to clear to me that all the people who ‘worked’ from home were familiar with Diagnosis Murder, while all the people with go-out-to-work jobs just looked blank. They had no absolutely no idea that in his latter years, instead of retiring to his lovely beachfront property and spending his days fishing, veteran actor Dick Van Dyke retrained as a medic, solved a whole load of crimes, and kept his extended family in gainful employ. He wasn’t a time-waster.

Dick Van Dyke in Diagnosis Murder

Snot glue and other eternal verities of the children’s publishing industry

It’s said that much in the way of significant business deals and networking still takes place in male-only sanctums. But at the Nosy Crow Conference at the St Bride Foundation on Saturday the (very long) queue for the ladies’ loos was the place to be! My networking skills are a work-in-progress but even I managed some worthwhile conversations while the predominantly female audience waited patiently for the 3 available cubicles – though a break-away contingent did annexe the second gents’ facilities on the top floor.

(I’ve already written too much about toilets and nothing about publishing. Note to self.)

Billed as Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Children’s Publishing (but were afraid to ask), that kind of summed up my feelings as a relative newbie in the field. Nosy Crow are relative newbies too, as a publishing house, but have squillions of years of collective experience between them. (Exaggeration, moi?)

Others have blogged more comprehensively and sensibly about the event here and here but I’d like to share some of what I learned at this packed and exciting day.

Lucy Mangan, Guardian columnist and bibliophile – and that’s putting it mildly – said that reading “sets you free”. Access to books, in particular through school and public libraries, was invaluable for aspiring to and achieving that slightly touchy subject, social mobility. I felt that children’s authors and readers (of all ages) were together planting a flag for the value of books, like in the famous Iwo Jima photograph. Somebody with more advanced expertise than mine Photoshop it for me, please.

The Nosy Crow editorial panel, with their eyes on worldwide sales, said useful things about picture books like, ‘Don’t make your story too British’. (Hedgehogs are a no-no on that basis. Who knew?) That blows my story about a Dartford Warbler right out of the water. Also, ‘If it rhymes, is the story strong enough to work as prose in another language?’ And stories about ordinary everyday life for 5 to 7-year-olds just don’t really cross borders, too culture-specific. Fantasy worlds do translate.

As for their wish-list, quite frankly I don’t want to share that with you. I want to keep it all to myself.

Hilary Delamere defended agents against the theoretical defamation that they were only money-grubbing parasites. But personally I had always thought that they were the golden key (elbow? Metaphor!?) to pushing past the slush pile.

Tracey Corderoy wowed with energy and charm but scared me with her crafting super-powers in a talk about live author events. ‘Take a story sack’ was the lesson I learned, even if it’s only to clutch to your terrified bosom. Jon Reed had to follow on with a session about on-line marketing while one of Tracey’s sparkly spiders still dangled from the lectern. A good tip from Jon was paywithatweet where readers get a free extract or 1-page resource but have to ‘pay’ by tweeting your link.

From Melissa Cox, children’s book buyer for Waterstones, I learned that the ideal book for 9s-12s (the age-group I am currently writing for) has good writing, a good cover, a strong story and leaves ‘em wanting more. Hope that’s sorted, then. And that foil covers aren’t the thing any more, it’s all about sprayed edges. Unfortunately by this time the data projector had done a diva-flounce and stopped cooperating, so we couldn’t see all the titles Melissa wanted to illustrate her talk with.

From there we moved into the strange but fascinating world of children’s story apps, but we’d had cake by then and wine was promised so nothing felt too mystifying.

My last lesson of the day was: snot glue. Think about it. It’s that stuff that sticks things to things. Free stuff on magazine covers. You can roll it up into a ball…eventually. Yes, now you know what I’m talking about, and now you know it has a technical name. Snot glue. You heard it here, courtesy of Nosy Crow.