SPECIAL FEATURE Secret Steps to Success

So what exactly is the secret to writing success? SCBWI writer Mel Green set out to find out...

When I first became serious about writing, I was given the same advice I think most writers get – read these books, go on this course and attend that conference if you want to succeed. These things can end up costing a lot of money, though. But that’s okay, isn’t it – if we can afford it – because they’re an investment in our writing careers that will pay off when we get published?

I guess I went along with this advice because subconsciously I thought that in amongst all the recommended books, courses and conferences, there must be at least one that could provide a secret step to success! That essential book which would make my story click into perfect place and win the hearts of everyone who read it. A key course that would catapult my prose to new levels of awesomeness. That revelatory conference where I would meet 'The Agent' and we’d all live happily ever after.

If those things exist then I haven’t found them yet. I’m still a pre-published writer, although recently that’s had to play second fiddle to the study required of my MA in Public Relations. So, when I had to do a small research project for an assignment, I decided to combine these two areas and investigate the pre-publication experience of published children’s writers to find out if they had had any secret steps to success!

I sent an electronic questionnaire to ten traditionally-published children’s writers who I knew, nine of whom responded. One of them offered to share the questionnaire with a Twitter group of about-to-be-published children’s writers that she was part of and, very kindly, ten of them also completed it. 19 responses – only a small sample (this was a small research project!) but were there any revelations to be found within those answers?

This is what I discovered…

The average age at publication was 44 (the youngest person was 31 and the oldest 54). As I’m around this age myself that was hugely encouraging. I haven’t missed the boat!!

Half of the respondents had been writing for 10+ years when they first had a book published. Again, a relief because my seven years was starting to feel like a long time even though it really isn’t that long in the writing/publishing world.

Seven writers had had their first story published; six their second; it was third time lucky for three authors; and for the rest it was their fourth, fifth and gazillionth stories that finally secured a book deal.

These were things I expected to find, based on writers I know and what I’ve observed in the publishing industry in general. But then came some surprises…

While SCBWI and YALC were the most popular conferences mentioned, attendance at them by respondents was still low. Also, about half the respondents hadn’t done any writing courses. I was aghast. Wasn’t completing some sort of writing course one of the essential criteria on the job spec for 'published children’s writer'?! Apparently not.

But then came more answers that blew my mind. Despite asking for recommendations for three writing books, less than half the participants offered that full number, with three people saying 'none'. What?! How had I been led to believe that the more books you read on improving your writing craft, the greater your chance of publication became?

In reality, this idea had become shaky recently as I know writers who study literally every writing book they can get their hands on, but still aren’t published. Personally, I’ve also found that the more books I read about writing, the more confused I become about how to write!

Of the books that were named, unsurprisingly Stephen King’s  On Writing  and John Yorke’s  Into The Woods were the most recommended, but still only by a third of respondents.

Whether or not respondents had done an MA in Creative Writing didn’t make a huge difference to publication success (just under half had). Neither did working with a critique group or partner – although the support of writing friends was highlighted by nearly all respondents as an important factor in not giving up when things were tough! SCBWI rocks!

Only one factor really jumped out from all the data I collected. Of the seven respondents who’d had their first book published (rather than their second, third or gazillionth), SIX of them worked with children in some capacity. Even with a small sample that was a potentially significant finding!

It makes a lot of sense because knowing your target audience is always key to success. If you work with children then you’ll have a better understanding of their perspectives, their concerns and their interests. You can probably capture their voices better, especially if you hear them for several hours every day. Although understanding children is true for parents/carers as well, we probably only have contact with a handful (our own and their friends), while a teacher, for example, would experience hundreds of different children regularly – a deeply rich pool of potential writing material!

I would love to investigate these factors further – for personal/SCBWI interest, not MA related – as well as reading habits, which I didn’t include this time (a big omission as Stephen King’s key advice for good writing is to 'read, read, read'). If you’re a traditionally-published writer and would be interested in being involved in that research, or to find out more, then please get in touch – melgreen73@googlemail.com.

All images courtesy of Mel Green

After studying English Literature at university, Mel Green didn’t read a book for ten years. Rediscovering her love of story through YA, she naturally turned to that genre when she started writing. She lives in the quietly awesome city of Sheffield with her family, where she works for a Widening Participation project funded by both Sheffield universities, as well as studying an MA in Public Relations and trying to write!

Twitter @melgreen73
Website www.onceuponamel.com

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