21 Oct Words to live off (not live by)
I’ve always made a living off words. . . they just weren’t always the words I wanted to write. I’ve written about printers, hotels, broadband, motor racing and even beer. I wrote words to explain tricky things, words to get people out of trouble when the press phoned, and words to help executives tell people why they couldn’t keep their jobs anymore. I could write anything in double-time and people were happy. Well. . . everyone except me.
In 2015 I’d been running my own successful communications consultancy for two years while being a full-time Mum to two kids under two. My nearest blood relative is 16,000 kilometres away. It was a juggle and a half. I worked nights and weekends, and when I wasn’t writing words for businesses, I started writing children’s books for me. It was a side-hustle; moments that came in snatches while plonked on the linoleum floor during bath time, or while spoon-feeding puree into a baby who refused to eat. A good friend of mine and fellow Egg, Bruna De Luca, calls it writing in the margins of your day. It’s a perfect description of what it’s like having a career and a family, while clinging onto a dream.
In 2017 I got my first author endorsement when the Golden Egg Academy said I had potential as a picture book writer. It was a mindset switch. Time to get back into start-up business mode and turn the side-hustle into a career; this while still running the business and taking care of the family. It was intense. I did workshops, critiques, conferences, and put my hand up for agent and editor 1-2-1s. I soaked up every bit of brutal feedback and never stopped creating and editing (with the support of my lovely husband). Thankfully momentum started to build.
In 2018 on a “blind date” at a 1-2-1 event I met an editor and we hit it off. Two months later at a writer’s conference I signed with an agent. Two months after that I sold my first book at auction. A book I hadn’t even written yet. It was bonkers. But my brain was firing with ideas for children’s non-fiction, and that segment of publishing was growing. It played to my strengths as a journalist – write a proposal, find the angle, do meticulous research, and for goodness sakes stick to deadlines. But it also spoke to my heart, because I love nature and I hate seeing the changes happening in our wonderful world.
The proposal that sold at auction (publishing Autumn 2021) caught the attention of an editor at Puffin who shared my passion for conservation. What happened next blindsided me in the best possible way. In 2019, she asked if I’d author a four-book series of children’s non-fiction books inspired by BBC Earth’s nature programmes. The first in that series is Blue Planet II. And here it is just one year later.
On paper it sounds like a whirlwind, but in reality, it was five years of hard graft, sometimes facing set-backs and always eyeballing rejection. But going back to that point of turning children’s writing from a side-hustle into a career. . . it’s a long game. Just like a business, you can’t expect to be profitable in the first year. Possibly not even in the third. It took me five years, but I now have seven non-fiction books on the way. And remember that editor I met in 2018? Well, she bought a picture book two years later at the start of lockdown. I’ll say it again – LONG GAME. I’ve got multiple other books on submission and my fingers and toes are forever crossed. Hope is an author’s best friend.
So, my no-frills advice to anyone starting down this path. . .
1. Don’t quit the day job – a career in writing probably won’t happen overnight. Going to workshops, conferences, 1-2-1s – it’s all a great investment in getting published, but it’s an investment just the same. And when you do start to get paid, it’s lumpy. You need that gainful employment as a security net to keep your writing start-up afloat.
2. Don’t be a diva – almost everyone who works in publishing isn’t here for the big bucks. They’re here because they love the work and believe in the power of books to transform lives. Always keep that in mind when you get tough feedback or rejection. Yes, it’s personal, but it’s also going to help you write the best possible book. And these people aren’t getting paid enough to deal with meltdowns. Besides, the industry is SMALL, you need to be kind and nice to work with – you will cross paths again.
3. Don’t go on the journey alone – you will reach a point where your good natured partner or your family’s eyes will glaze over when you drone on about your books – like when an editor follows you on Twitter and you assume that means an offer is on its way; when you book doesn’t sell, and you just want to cry; or when you need to brainstorm a tricky bit in the text. It’s not your family’s fault, you just need to find some “book besties” to bore instead. Find a few people that you click with, but remember, this is your intellectual property, so choose your confidants carefully.
Tessa, Jo and Imogen at Golden Egg are good eggs. If you’re here, it’s because they believe in you. And even when your author career takes flight, they remember every chick and are always happy to take them back under their wing – their advice is impeckable.
That’s it for me with the bird puns. Look out for my books flapping to a bookshop near you (oops I did it again) – and happy reading!
Leisa Stewart-Sharpe is a trained journalist turned children’s author, who writes stunning non-fiction and picture books. Originally from Australia, Leisa’s childhood has inspired her love for the natural world and its strange and wonderful creatures. Her first book, Blue Planet II, is part of a major new children’s non-fiction series in collaboration with BBC Earth and published by Puffin. Leisa also has a handful of exciting nonfiction titles and picture books coming soon.