A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
2015. It would be so easy to say ‘that was the year my second and third books were published’, or ‘that was the year I did events at the Hay and Edinburgh festivals’, or ‘that was the year one of my books was reviewed in a national newspaper’. So easy to make it all seem effortless, to add to the myth that once you have your first publishing deal everything from there on is relatively plain sailing.
But instead I think of 2015 as the year I forgot, and then relearned – torturously, painfully – how to write.
Lots of writers warn debut authors that having their first book published won’t suddenly solve all their life problems and produce happiness for ever after. Like fairy tales, however, that happily-ever-after story is one that debut authors tend to cling to. After all, you might have been writing for years before you get a publishing deal. Of course it’s going to effect some miraculous transformation and make you instantly ecstatic. Duh! And naturally once you’ve got that first book deal you’re an author, a member of that mysterious club you’ve been waiting for so long to join. You can write, dammit, of course you can.
There’s a Venn diagram, that you’ve probably all seen, which puts ‘writing’ at the intersection of ‘narcissism’ on one side and ‘crippling self-doubt’ on the other. So possibly all writers, even ones who have been published for years, go through a horrible ‘I can’t write’ experience at least once in their careers. For me, however, that came last year; the feeling that I had completely failed and couldn’t write at all.
I found my writing voice, or what I thought was my writing voice, relatively late in life. Part of me had always hoped I might be a writer one day, but nothing I wrote was ever much good. But then I turned to children’s verse, and later picture books, and suddenly I found I could do it. I soon got an agent (the wonderful Eve White). Several publishing deals followed.
However, by last year I wanted more. I love writing picture books, but I felt that in writing picture books exclusively I had put myself in something of a straightjacket. There was a limit to how many picture books I could get published in one year (in part because the terms of my picture book contracts limit me to a single publisher), and a limit to what books for older children I could write in rhyming verse.
And so I began the process of searching for a new direction in my writing. I was able to write picture books, so it should have been easy, right? Wrong. Very wrong. Text after text was sent to my agent. Text after text was met with a firm ‘no’. Much as I adore my agent, we were becoming increasingly frustrated with each other.
Then eventually I asked her to try and pinpoint what was wrong with the stuff I was sending. I was writing other picture book texts in the meantime, and she still loved those, so at least I knew it wasn’t my writing per se that she objected to. Her answer wasn’t the detailed list of faults that I was expecting, but it was far more constructive. What the texts I was sending her lacked was a sense that they came from me. She didn’t use the word ‘inauthentic’, but I think that’s what she meant. I’d been trying to be someone I wasn’t in my writing, and it didn’t work.
Luckily, I did have something else though. Rather shyly and nervously, I showed my agent something I’d started at the beginning of the year and then abandoned. The text was, I thought, pure self-indulgence. It was written in a style that felt natural to me but which might put some people off, and the subject matter was both serious (my picture books have all been humorous) and somewhat obscure. But to my surprise and delight my agent liked it, and encouraged me to continue.
Finally, finally I felt I was able to write again, and had found a new voice. The best analogy I can give is whereas writing my bad prose had felt like ordinary speaking, writing this new text felt like singing.
It is still very early days yet. My agent has yet to approve the final draft of the text, and it may never find a publisher. But for now, at the beginning of 2016, the feeling of not being able to write has disappeared, at least for a little while. And naturally if the text ever does get published it will solve all my life problems in one fell swoop. What else? Until the crippling self-doubt creeps in again…
At the age of four Elli wrote her first picture book, involving her best friend, a tricycle accident, blood everywhere, and the author emerging as the hero. Several years later she completed an MA in social anthropology, moved out to Thailand, taught herself the language, and has since worked variously as a Thai to English translator, a copywriter for a domestic appliance insurance firm (about as interesting as it sounds) and an assistant editor in academic publishing. She now lives in London where she combines writing with freelance translation work, looking after her four children, butchering nice music on the piano and being dictated to by her deranged cat.