For those of you who don’t know, this week, two years ago, I won the Kelpies Prize at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. On Instagram this week, my publisher posted a photo of me accepting the prize from the wonderful Lari Don, and wonderful memories of the night came flooding back. The rain pounded down in Edinburgh that evening, just as it has been here this week. It made me realise how little I talk about my writing here, or anywhere publicly really. A casual reader might never know what a big part it plays in my life. Delayed by Covid, my middle grade novel The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle will be published by the Discover Kelpies imprint of Floris books in spring 2021. I’m getting better but I still feel all wriggly about saying that. Regular followers of this blog will know I have huge legitimacy issues! I harp on about nearly every other aspect of my life but not writing. Yet I love reading about other people’s writing process, how they juggle writing with the rest of their lives, and the craft of writing. So here goes. Let me tell you a little bit about my writing life…
Average author earnings in the UK are around £10,000 a year. This figure is median earnings, which prevents the data being skewed by big-hitting outliers, giving a good idea of what authors are actually earning. Figures reported by the Guardian in 2005 show that only 17% of children’s authors earned over £30,000. There’s no reason to think things have changed much. Winning the Kelpies Prize was not going to see me quitting my day job any time soon. It’s been a bit of a journey getting to where I am now (that’s a story for another day and I don’t want to bore regular readers), but where I am now is working two and a half days as a District Nurse, mum of three, allotmenteer, countryside rambler, and children’s writer.
I am incredibly lucky to work fixed days as a nurse; no nights, and one weekend in four. This is as rare as hen’s teeth. There is a reason why nurses call their work pattern “off-duty” rather than rota or roster, schedule or timetable. When you are off duty is very important. This is because the nursing profession demands that nurses be infinitely flexible to meet the demands of the service, potentially available to work any day or night of the year. Nursing managers aren’t total sadists so generally you get four shift requests over a four-week period which they will try to honour. Once you’ve done birthdays and hatches/matches/dispatches there isn’t usually much left over. Like I said, I am very lucky with my shift pattern. Fixed days means I can plan and I don’t pay out on childcare I don’t end up needing. Nursing covers my bills, gives me sick pay and a pension. I don’t have to worry about any of these things. It’s also a job I can only do when I am with my patients. Once I leave work, I can’t do any more. That’s not to say I don’t worry about things when I get home, it’s a very intense job after all. But in general, I work with an amazing team who will pick up anything that needs sorting. It’s not a job like teaching say, which from the outside at least, seems to be all-consuming and relentless (teachers, you are amazing).
I am also very lucky to be part of a two-income household which massively takes the pressure off. I have a wonderfully supportive partner who thinks equal share of household chores and the mental load that comes with running a busy home is a no-brainer. He does his fair share of school pick-ups, cooking, cleaning etc, etc. This usually leaves me with one school-length day and one ‘office hours’-length day a week to write. There’s not much scope for snatched moments on a daily basis to write but I do try. I wake up before the kids every day to get some exercise in (hurray for bicycles) and our evenings are ever diminishing now Little Owl is a tween. I would say evenings are really out for me for writing in general. I’m so shattered by that time of the day and there’s really no other time to write shopping lists, do the cleaning and washing up, pay bills, do the laundry, and hold an actual conversation with Big Dreamer.
I am someone who is ‘writing’ in my head all the time. I find that tough going with three children. There is non-stop noise, chatter, and questioning in our house, all at a million miles an hour. Sometimes I feel like I might burst being asked about whether our house will be okay in worst case scenario climate change flooding, when (oh when!) can X have their half an hour on Minecraft, did I know something is burning, and could I get some clean pants down from the drying rack please, all the while untangling a knotty plot problem in my mind. I have tried to switch it off and be fully present with my kids, but it doesn’t have a switch, so on I go, writing as I live. By the time I get to my writing days I can barely type fast enough to download my brain. Often I have to disappear with a notebook for ten minutes now and again before my writing day, just to clear my head. Most of it’s drivel but it’s all part of the process. It would be part of my process even if I could write it down as I think of it so I try not to stress too much about it. I imagine if I could write it down straight away, there would probably just be more drivel!
Holidays are tough though. As much as we would love to sustain that sort of writing pattern through the holidays, we can’t afford it, so childcare generally falls to me. I am usually sobbing with desperation to WRITE SOMETHING/ANYTHING by around this time in the summer holidays. This is when my magnificent mother-in-law swings in to action, sweeps the children off to Yorkshire for a week, and I get to write enough to see me through until term starts. This coming term will be my first with all three at school. This default of childcare falling to me is a tricky psychological balancing act. Not because I think I should get to have that time for writing and be damned with the cost, but because it sends out a message that my writing days are disposable. Some of my extended family would never dream of expecting me to pop out of a patient’s home to sort something out for them but because I work from home, and it’s not a real job with earnings that bear any sort of relation to the hours I put in, if needs must, Hannah can step in for almost every eventuality. It’s only in the last month or so that I’ve finally got my Dad to stop calling my writing days “days off”. So you’re off on Thursday are you? No, Dad, I’m not, I’m WRITING!
It’s a funny thing, all this balancing and juggling. On the one hand, I definitely need to build up momentum to write well. It works much better for me if my writing days come together. My most productive moments will often be those last couple of hours on Day Two before I power down and go back to the real world. I am always chomping at the bit to get back from school drop-off to crack on, and any request to run a ‘quick errand’ is met with disproportionate ire. I need every precious second to warm up, get into gear, and get those words down. However, if I am ever lucky enough to have more than three ‘office hours’-length days together, my productivity drops massively. After that third day, the pull of social media or a quick read over the news headlines is almost impossible to resist. It’s as though my brain needs the down time and the variety. I need to do something else for a few days to recharge and re-fuel. And while it would be wonderful to head off into the hills for long walks I’m not sure it would be the same. My chattering children, my brilliant patients, the general bustle of life gives me loads of ideas and inspiration. Often an intractable writing problem works itself out by the time I get back to my desk.
There’s so much more to say: writing groups, feedback, working with an agent and editors, the editing process, where I write, how I write. Maybe, now I’ve started I’ll have more courage to talk about those things. And maybe you’ll find a little inspiration for your journey here, in the way I have in hearing so many other writers talk about their lives.
I won’t be posting next week. It’s the last week of the holidays in England before school restarts. We’ll be getting ready for Little (now big!) Owl’s first day of High School and Wren’s first day of Primary School. That’s a lot of uniform to label. Wish me luck and see you the week after!