Perspiration vs inspiration

Becoming a successful author has more to do with business than genius, as Jane Matthews discovers
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The Independent Online

When would-be writers dream, do they see themselves as Shakespeare, plying his genius like any tradesman at the whim of patrons? Probably not. While most aspiring authors might want to be as famous as Shakespeare, their fantasies have them achieving that success in the manner of Monica Ali or Marian Keyes: gifted, brilliant and unknown until an only slightly less brilliant mind sees their potential and offers a whopping advance.

When would-be writers dream, do they see themselves as Shakespeare, plying his genius like any tradesman at the whim of patrons? Probably not. While most aspiring authors might want to be as famous as Shakespeare, their fantasies have them achieving that success in the manner of Monica Ali or Marian Keyes: gifted, brilliant and unknown until an only slightly less brilliant mind sees their potential and offers a whopping advance.

Anyone harbouring such a fantasy should have been at a recent event for authors organised by The Open University's Alumni Association - where the bestselling authors on stage offered a persuasive alternative route to earning a living as a writer. In place of long, isolated hours sweating over each phrase, then the agonising wait for an agent or publisher to proclaim they have discovered the next Dan Brown or even Delia Smith, they suggested that the path to publishing success can be built on: the ability to recognise a good idea; to turn what you know into a marketable prospect; to have the confidence to convince others of its worth; and to find the energy to first deliver it, then go market yourself.

The journeyman's approach to becoming a bestseller may lack seductive power. But in allowing that the tools of a successful trade are within the writer's own control, it's an approach that must be good news for all those who aspire to earn a living stringing words together.

Janie Hampton has written 15 books, most recently a biography of family friend Joyce Grenfell (John Murray, 2003). Her life as a writer began with the months she spent labouring over lesson plans while working as a teacher in a small rural community in Zimbabwe. It is no coincidence that she was studying for an Open University degree at the same time.

Hampton recalls: "I was asked to teach health care and as there were no texts I wrote lessons on topics such as malaria and how to have a fly-free latrine. Then I thought if these were suitable for children learning in Zimbabwe they might be suitable for other rural communities in Africa, so I bundled up the lesson plans and sent them off to Macmillan." Macmillan saw the potential and the resulting book, Happy, healthy children, has only just gone out of print after 20 years.

Publishing credits in one field gave Hampton the confidence - and the CV - to pitch other ideas to publishers. She went on to write more school and college textbooks (for audiences in both Africa and the UK) as well as medical manuals, children's fiction and adult travel. She says: "The one thing common to all of them is the skills I learnt at the OU: writing clearly, making ideas come alive, convincing readers I know what I'm talking about, keeping to word limits and meeting deadlines." She also pointed out, for anyone who doubts the effort she's put into carving out a working life as a writer, that for every one of her books on a publisher's shelf, there are another 10 synopses - undeveloped, unmarketable or unwanted - crammed into files piled on her shelves.

Author Graham Lawlor shares both educational and writing background with Hampton. As a maths teacher, he dismissed the texts he was supposed to be working from as "rubbish". "They were a bit like a cookbook which says 'dig up the potato, wash the potato, then sauté it'. If you don't know how to sauté you are stuffed."

He decided to write his own maths books, which eventually led him to the door of the BBC where he pitched to the education team the idea of bringing text, TV and electronic media together. The outcome, BBC Bitesize Maths, made it into The Bookseller's bestseller list for 1998 and led to regular radio appearances as "Mr Educator".

Though he is still writing - with two titles on maths for adults and algebra due out this spring - Lawlor recently turned gamekeeper by buying his own publishing company, Studymates.

Lawlor would no more let slip a chance to promote his business and himself than he would sign up an author who can't deliver on time. He believes it is as much a part of a writer's role to do the rounds of book signings and radio shows as it is to produce the original manuscript. The years since his own OU degree in 1991 have been an unrelenting campaign of speculative letters to publishers, calls to TV and radio offering himself as an expert spokesman, and the recognition that for most success is about making your own opportunities and hard slog.

"You need to be your own brand," he says. "I'm aiming to be the guy you talk to about maths and financial literacy. Go out there and bang the drum. Always say you will ring them. And always ring."

Pauline Massey took one of the OU's 10-week Start Writing courses to kickstart her writing career. She found it an antidote to writer's block. "As a child, I used to write naturally, but as you get older and read so many good books you lose confidence and become more self-critical. I did the course to get back into the writing habit." Taught entirely online, but with virtual writers' groups offering constructive criticism, each presentation of the short courses in creative writing, poetry and writing family history, has attracted some 4,000 students. A full-credit undergraduate course in creative writing is to follow in spring 2006.

While Lawlor and Hampton approve of the courses, they are impatient for those who seek to follow in their footsteps to stop talking and start doing. "There are people who think you have to learn everything before starting out, but the only way to do it is to do it," says Hampton. "All the time you are telling people what you are going to write you could be writing it.

"Deadlines help so if you haven't got any you should invent them. And never send off a draft unless it's as good as you can make it. It's no good saying you've still got work to do on it because the person reading it doesn't know what work you're going to do."

Start Writing course head Nigel Warburton - the author of several philosophy titles and a biography of architect Ernö Goldfinger - advises "self-definition" as an author. "Seeing yourself as primarily a writer can be liberating. You don't need to be bound by other people's categories," he says. "Now I introduce myself as writer, I meet far more interesting people than I did when I said I was a philosopher."

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