Writing a book when you have children, a cupboard of gin and zero attention span

I’d been meaning to write this for a while, but here we are, with all this time on our hands (or not, depending on if your children have worked out how to work their way around a kitchen with all the aptitude of Spiderman like mine have), and after receiving some messages over the last few months around how to get cracking with writing a book, thought it may be useful.

My pre-guidance caveat: I have the worst attention span. Proud to declare that I have had to spend an incredibly long time refining and correcting my ability to complete a task, I have to consciously map out anything of this size to make it achievable. Ultimately, writing something of this magnitude relies heavily upon the milestones, as the process was a little like a marriage at times, I imagine. I wanted to stop looking at it, on average, 78300 times a day. It’s worth it. Here are a few key principles to consider:

  1. Come up with an idea that you feel fired up about or that you would find useful. I know this sounds obvious, but it’s vital. The funny thing about writing is that if you are writing with somebody else’s needs in mind, it doesn’t quite work, because your ‘voice’ will get a little lost along the way. It’s important that you establish your voice before writing, and consider not just what you intend to impart, but how you intend to do so. If this proves somewhat of a struggle- you’re writing about something that you feel positioned as an expert on- write for your former self. Write as though you were guiding and equipping the you of the past. For #StopTalkingAboutWellbeing (STAW), I wrote for the teacher, and person that I was when I doubted myself the most in teaching, or I struggled with particular aspects of the profession as a whole. By reframing the reader as my former self, it became easier to address the various difficulties that my reader might face. It also enabled me to be far more assertive with my language, choosing imperatives over tentative words when providing a narrative and working examples so that the book had a practical element. A handy way to do this is to simply write the ‘blurb’ or the first 5000 words or so, mapping out your intentions- this will also help you to distill what exactly you hope people will take from the book. STAW changed shape many times along the way of its creation, because I hadn’t always fully ascertained what I wanted people to take from certain sections, or hadn’t consider what I might find useful.
  2. Map out your ideas. This may change ten times over, but consider what the key lines of inquiry are for the topic you wish to write about. What questions need to be answered? Can they even be, or simply contemplated? In the same way that we might map out a curriculum, we need a way to make sense of the mess of ideas, of course. It also helped me to consider where I would need to prioritise my reading or research, and what I may need further exploration of within my writing in order to answer my questions. At times, how a process worked in a particular way because of how I had interpreted it was not enough- I wanted to make sure I came from a place of knowledge and serious consideration. Here’s the original map. Anyone with kids and some IKEA drawing paper, you are already at a writer’s advantage:
A work of art, right?

3. Find a bloody lovely publisher. I spoke with John Catt because everything on my shelves is published by Penguin, and John Catt, and I definitely don’t think Penguin would want to hear from me. Joking aside, if I was going to put a book together, I wanted it to be with a publisher that I trusted, who had worked with people I admired, and who would make me feel that I knew what I was doing, even when I most definitely did not. John Catt ticked all boxes and the email/comment exchanges with my editor remain some of my most funny conversation memories to date. That poor man!

4. Be as systematic as you can with writing: Have rigid aspects to the way in which you write and areas that take a more flexible approach. By that, I mean, take an approach that every day you will do some stuff, but it may not be writing. For an hour to an hour and a half every night, I would research a chapter, or write that chapter. On the whole, I worked systematically through the first draft in chronological order, and unsurprisingly, spent longer on some areas than others, because I felt more informed by some areas. Once I had carried out the majority of the research that I wanted to gather, both through reading but also speaking to teachers, I committed to at least 1000 words a day writing. Sometimes they were absolutely shocking, others the word count was easy to surpass but it gave me something to set as a benchmark. I wrote my mapping out the questions that I wanted to consider, followed by attempting to answer the questions. Some were easier than others; some didn’t possess an answer, but it helped to shape the text itself and provide a sense of direction.

5. Find a bunch of trustworthy, constructively critical human beings. People who will help you to drive onwards, ditch ideas with merciless vigour or perhaps the most tricky, tweak ideas until they are more polished, this group of people are essential at all stages of the writing process. It may be that you select people that aren’t necessarily your target audience, who will be able to measure to what extent the narrative is decipherable to a reader, or it may be that you choose your most treasured Grammarian to unpick all of the metaphorical language and work out if it works for the subject matter. As you near the end of the writing process and in the stages of final drafts, select readers that will form part of your target audience, as it is a fantastic way to test the waters and see if the original message that you formulated has translated to the text. At earlier points, I deliberately asked a really diverse collection of people who I knew wouldn’t agree in their feedback, but would be brutally honest, as well as provide feedback that could again help me to work out what I hoped people would gain from reading it. I gave it to non-teachers to ensure it attempted to make a stab at some sort of cohesive logic; I gave it to people I knew well who knew me well enough to identify what I wanted them to focus on; I gave it to people I’ve still never met to see what they thought. I wanted to gauge where I may lose people: where my thoughts didn’t make complete sense yet. I’m forever indebted to Jill Berry who gave me some tough feedback about how to take the book in a particular direction that it would help the reader. Without her, I’m not sure book 2 would even have been set in motion! All of these readers were fundamental to ensuring I was on a track, maybe even the one I had originally intended.

Above all, the entire process helped me to cement what I think about many of the ideas discussed in the book. If you do enjoy writing, I would suggest that you explore one or two aspects that you have written about previously and go from there. Even though it is utterly terrifying to put your ideas to an unknown audience, I’m very proud of Stop Talking About Wellbeing and as I have always said, if it helped at least one teacher to make a decision or choice that helped them, that would make me happy. The fact that this book has done more than that has made the entire process worthwhile. I hope this blog will do the same!

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