Friday 10 January 2020

Well, how did I get here? Luck & making your own luck

I honestly think most of the things that set us down one path or another and change our lives forever are random chance.

Take my start at university. My air force dad was transferred to Edmonton, Alberta, to take effect the summer after I finished high school at the other end of Canada, in Nova Scotia. I sent off for the engineering prospectus at the University of Alberta; they accidentally sent me medicine. I read it and found a thing called medical lab science – and hey, presto: I applied and did the first year! It didn’t last, though: as soon as I found out if I kept on the course I’d have to spend the third year in a hospital taking blood, I was out of there. I have an absolute phobia of needles, and swiftly switched to science in my favourite subject that year, microbiology. 

It’s startling - and a little embarrassing! - how many of my other major decisions weren't planned or even imagined before the moment.

Was pursuing writing and getting published any different – was it inevitable or more a combination of unexpected twists of fate?

Yes and no to both.

I loved reading and making things up as long as I can remember. When I was 17 I decided I wanted to be a writer, so the intention was there from quite a young age – but the belief wasn’t. I’d never met an author or heard one speak; nobody I knew wrote. It felt kind of like saying I wanted to win lottery: it’d be great if it happened, but how likely was it, really? I was also desperate for independence and set out to get it – studying and working at various things in Canada and then Australia: science, law, optometry. I still wrote; poetry, mostly. But it was something I did on the side, didn’t talk about much and definitely never let anybody read.

What changed? In one of those twists of fate I found myself moving from Australia to England to get married, and needed to either retrain as an optometrist - my profession at the time - or have yet another career change. What was I going to do this time? And I remembered being that 17 year old who wanted to write but never really took it seriously. At that point I decided I didn’t want to wake up one day decades later and never have tried.

And try I did. My first novel I finished in the summer of 2006. Titled Life Lists, it followed three lifelong friends and how their lives changed from what they'd been so sure of as teens, written on lists and opened when one of them died years later. It was for adult readers and In hindsight it wasn’t great – though at the time I seem to remember feeling so immensely proud at finally having finished something that surely someone would congratulate me and publish it! Alas, no. But I did get some personal comments from submissions. 

I carried on writing – short stories, novels – but somehow felt something wasn’t quite right. Without really understanding why, I started to fall out of love with the process.

Then, chance intervened. I got a job at Calibre audio library – a charity that does audio books for the visually impaired and dyslexics – to develop the children’s side of things. For the interview I had to convince them I knew a lot about children’s books: I didn’t. I did a crash course in libraries and bookshops and somehow got the job. And then I thought I better read some of the authors I'd been telling him I knew all about: children’s books. Something I hadn’t done in years. And I fell back in love with words, reading, writing. This was where I was meant to be. 

I started my first children’s novel on an overnight flight back from Canada. My dad there was very ill and it was an emotionally fraught time to say the least. Soon after I read about the Winchester Writer’s Conference in a writing magazine, and I think I was desperate for an escape, to do something that was just for me. Away I went! I entered that first children’s story I’d started on the overnight flight into a competition … and it won. I'd tell you what it was about but it's still in my might-rewrite-it-one-day file. 

I finished it and then started subbing it to agents and publishers using the handy Children’s Writers and Artists Yearbook, and somewhere in that book a children’s writing organisation was mentioned: the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I looked into it. And went off to their conference that November, in 2008.

And there I found my home. I met Candy Gourlay and loads of other children’s writers at that first conference. Other than one year when I wasn’t well I’ve been every year since, as well as to countless other events. I got a reality check or two along the way – apparently just finishing a novel that wins a prize isn’t enough to guarantee fame and fortune? And I learned and wrote and shared the good news and bad along the way.

There were all the slings and arrows of writing more novels, getting rejected, getting encouraged, getting rejected some more … and some more … and yes, you guessed it: some more. Finally, my novel Slated – the ninth I’d written and submitted – found a home with agent Caroline Sheldon and publisher Orchard books back in 2011; it was published in 2012.
So. How much of getting there was written in the stars, and how much was total luck? I like to think a bit of both.

Teri Terry is the author of best-selling award-winning thrillers for teens, including Fated, the Slated trilogy, Mind GamesBook of Lies and the Dark Matter trilogy. She has lived around the world but now calls a village in Buckinghamshire home. Teri loves all animals but especially Scooby, the world’s cutest puppy.

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