Friday 15 December 2017

How to Be a Writer

By Candy Gourlay

This is another one of those 'I pressed SEND' blog posts.

Douglas Adams: I love deadlines


I've been solidly working on final edits for a few weeks now,  interrupted only by the usual stuff that comes from actually having a life outside books.

Still, I was fairly confident that I would make the deadline, despite an unexpected intervention by Southwest Trains when I found myself spending a day riding cancelled trains and waiting on sidings for fires to be put out.

See, I had colour-coded my chapters on Scrivener, pink for FINISHED FOREVER AND NEVER TO BE TOUCHED AGAIN and blue for TO BE WRITTEN IN NICER WORDS. I could see that my manuscript outline was a sea of pink. There were only four items in blue. What could possibly go wrong? Well. Those blue chapters, it turned out, needed a complete revamp.

And so, dear reader, I did one of those marathon writing things where you write through the night, sleeping for an hour at a time when your eyes won't stay open anymore, while taking frequent showers to fool your brain into thinking it is still fresh.

My editor is usually kind about missed deadlines, but there was definitely a little frisson in her response when I sent her a grovelling message to say I needed more time.

Two days after my deadline had passed with that dreaded wooshing sound immortalised by Douglas Adams, I wearily pressed SEND and stumbled to bed, glancing at the clock on the way. It was 6.45 am.

I think I mostly did a good job in the end. Those are the key words: in the end. Because I spent the whole time on an emotional see-saw:

Fear, as the time ticked on.

Rapture, when I found words.

Despair, when I didn't.


Several times during this experience I asked myself what the point of it all was. Why I was doing it? What was I trying to achieve? Could I do it again and again? Why would I?

Did writing mean anything anymore?

To my readers?

To me?

When I woke up the next day, I  was so tired I found myself scrolling through wellness articles on the internet.

It being the end of the year, there was a bonanza of them: 8 Ways to Have a Better Relationship in 2018 ... 9 Ways to Live Healthier in 2018 ... 5 tips to Help You Figure Out What to Do With Your Life ...

That last one quoted this advice from Nathaniel Koloc, CEO of a recruiting services company:

Careers are long, so think long term. It's not about what job you want next, but what life you want.

How would all that apply to a writer who started writing books rather late in life? (I am 55 and have written only two books in seven years – in an industry where the consumer outgrows you before you've had a chance to build a body of work. )

Koloc advises workers to pay attention to four categories: legacy, mastery, freedom and alignment.


According to the article, legacy and mastery is about body of work, about 'what you want to achieve and the skills you want to cultivate and strengthen.'

Okay, so I'm putting a tick on that one. One thing you quickly realise when you begin writing books is that it is a life long learning experience.

I always quote Neil Gaiman quoting his friend Gene Wolf in the foreword to American Gods:  'You never learn to write a novel. You only learn to write the novel you're on.'

This is the part I love about being an author, the learning all the time, the figuring out how to do it, the craft.

But the other half of the question is what do you want to achieve?

When I started, what I wanted to achieve was to write a book that children will read and love.  I don't know that all my readers have loved my books, but some must have because they bother to tell me so.

But once you write one book, you have to write another one, don't you? Because author. That's what authors do. But what if my next book is the wrong one to write? What if I get halfway through it and it doesn't work? What if what if what if?

But that is not thinking long term. It's not about what job I'm doing next but what life I want, Mr. Koloc said.

Hmm. Something for all of us to think about.


The article defined freedom as 'the conditions you need to have the lifestyle you want, like salary, benefits, flexibility.'

The funny thing about being a children's author is that people are constantly offering you opportunities to promote yourself by appearing for free in a festival/book group/conference/talk. It always comes as a shock when they discover you want to be paid.

Most authors I know make their living from speaking engagements. The book itself does not make enough money to put socks on one's  children's feet. So in effect, this thing you had yearned for, that you created with heart and soul, turns out not to be the living you want to make. It's merely an entrance ticket to the world of paid performance.

But again, I am focusing on the next thing rather than the life. Where the money comes from is relevant, but what it's there for is to enable the life I want.

Hmm. There it is again.


Alignment, Mr. Koloc says, is about belonging. It's about culture. It's about values.

When I was still a struggling-to-be-published-rejection-punching-bag, I made one of the best decisions of my life.

I decided that I wasn't going to wait to be published to live the life of a children's writer.

I joined an organisation called the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators so that I could hang out with people like me. I love SCBWI. Even now as a published writer, SCBWI is where I continue to meet the best people to hang out with.

I attended every talk about writing children's books that I could find. I was learning. I was immersed.

And then, most important of all, I began to write, which really ... if you want to write, is the thing you have to do. You don't become a writer by saving it for when your children are grown/your job is easier/your dog is potty trained. You just have to do it – which I am proud to say, is what I did.

I suppose this blog post is me, after a particularly tough time, trying to remind myself of why I spent the last few days banging my head on a keyboard.

Yes, it's been hard ... but it was all part and parcel of enabling the life I want.

So many of my friends in the children's writing world tell me they feel fraudulent, that they can't call themselves authors until they've got that publishing deal. According to Mr. Koloc: that publishing deal? It's just the next thing.

Ask not how you can become an author, ask how you can live an author's life.

You're probably living it right now.

Candy Gourlay is the award-winning author of Tall Story and Shine. Follow her Facebook page to receive posts on reading and writing children's books. Visit her website to book her for school visits and other speaking engagements. Read Candy's previous Slushpile post: Why I Changed My Mind About Facebook Pages for Authors


  1. Well done for pressing SEND Candy, and thanks for sharing this honest and thoughtful post. I know I won't be alone in my delight at hearing there will be another Candy Gourlay book on its way. Also, as one who spends many long hours banging my head against a keyboard asking many of the same questions you mention, it's good to know we're not alone. Now take some time to celebrate and then sleep!

  2. Congratulations, Candy. Enjoy some well-earned sleep. We had our six-monthly SCBWI group review today, where we talk about what we've done over the past six months; what we're planning to do over the next six months; what's got in our way, etc. The essence of what you've said in your post is what came up over and over again by writers in the group. Thanks for writing the post. x

    1. I seem to be full of angst every time I press that SEND button!

  3. what a comforting post - thank you! And also YAY!! We inch closer to me getting my paws on your new book!


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