Friday, 6 November 2015

Seven secret rules of being an author - Moira Butterfield

I’ve been thinking about the less obvious aspects of being an author. From my own experience over the years I’ve thought of seven hidden rules. They’re not in any order of priority. I hope at least one of them helps you in the future, and I would love to hear your own 'less obvious' rule additions or thoughts on my thoughts.

1. Don’t talk about the plot of your book too much. Talk about the concepts.

I find if I talk too much about a story I’m working on, it begins to die. I think my brain decides it’s finished when it’s not. However, I do think that discussing the concepts behind a story is helpful. They’re the underlying truths you want to present.  

2. Remember who you’re writing for.
Always. Who’s going to buy your book and who’s going to read it? In picture books you’re writing for a reading team – adult and child. You must engage both. 

3.  Have an answer for the following questions that I will guarantee you will get at some point. 

“Have you written a book that I would know?”
This is code for “Are you famous?”.
Suggested answer: “Possibly, if you read with children. I write xxxx books (insert type of writing).” Then ask the person about their own reading experiences, thus moving them on from the fame fixation.

“Do you make any money?”
The person who asks this is rude and nosy!
Suggested answer: “Yes, thanks.” (Even if you don’t). Then move away from this person or change the subject. 

Is this a rule? I'm not sure - Sometimes (usually at a party) I meet men who make default rude jokes about children’s stories, involving silly innuendo (often to do with Captain Pugwash) as soon as they are mentioned. I really don’t know why this is. Is this a secret rule of being a children’s author or is it just me this happens to? (Embarrassing if that’s the case!).

4. Don’t feel bitter about others.
      You may read a book that has been highly-praised and you think it is rubbish and it makes you angry that the person who produced it has been lauded. It happened to me recently. I heard good things about a picture book so I bought it. It looked good but the text was very wrong for the age-group and actually unusable. I tried it with my young 3 year-old friend but it was totally misdirected. We went back grumpily to Hairy McClary. You may think ‘how can this be?’ and gnash your teeth. It doesn’t matter. It happens and it always will. Move on. Ditto children's books written by celebrities. Life's too short to get upset about these things and there's nothing you can do about them. (I'd like to get my money back for that crap picture book, though.)

      5. Seek out other genuinely creative people.
These people need not necessarily be other writers. They could well be local people being creative in a different field, but with an imaginative mindset (e.g: musician, artist, poet, playwright). These people will, hopefully, inspire you without pressurizing you. You can talk about your creative urges and setbacks with them without feeling an idiot.

6. Don’t agree to read other people’s work, unless you are in a genuinely supportive creative group (see 5).
That means saying no to your neighbour, your kid’s teacher, your dentist, your in-laws, your relatives, distant friends of friends etc, etc….All or any of whom may want you to see their book idea. From experience they are unlikely to listen to your advice. If you tell the truth about it, they may get very offended because they are not used to treating creative criticism constructively.

Suggested reply: “I’m sorry. I don’t read other works-in-progress. To do it properly takes up a lot of time that I don’t have, and it’s hard to give creative criticism to a personal contact. It’s much better for you if you use a professional editorial agency who could help you in depth. I’ll send you a link to a list.”

It will be much better for them, and for you, too. I know it's hard to say no. You don't want to seem mean. But saying yes spells trouble. I warned you. 

7. Don’t beat yourself up if you feel unhappy about work.
There is definitely such a thing as creative unhappiness. In fact, it’s a regular feeling for a number of professional creatives I know who work in different fields. When it comes upon you, you probably need to plan in some time away – a few days if you possibly can - walking, thinking, relaxing, going to exhibitions – whatever is your relaxing bag. Then go to option 6 and find some positive creative souls to be with.

 If I add any more rules I'll be breaking a important one  – Don’t bore people by writing too much in a blog! So it’s over to you. Do you have some more ‘secret rules’ of being an author, that could help others?

Moira Butterfield has been a children's author and editor for her entire working career. 
She has recently been reading picture books with her great-niece, a very blunt and no-nonsense 2 year old critic. They have found between them that rule 2 is broken annoyingly often.


  1. An important rule in our house is that there MUST be buns for tea on the day any book contract is signed (thanks to The Railway Children for that).

  2. Great advice!

    Another reason to support a 'no' to people who want you to read their work is that you are afraid you might inadvertently steal their idea. Another: I'm not an editor and my response could be too personal. I have some general 'advice' notes I send to new writers instead.

    1. That's a great idea. Perhaps we could think about adding a list of notes as a free download. I'll get the den to discuss it!

  3. These are fabulous rules. Whenever I say I'm a children's author J K Rowling is always mentioned. in fact if I got a penny for every time this happened...

    1. Yup! Gotta take that one on the chin, everybody!

  4. You made me grin, Moira. Never had the innuendos - maybe the guys were trying to flirt with you (and failed!)?
    I'd add we must have skin as thick as a rhino whilst having the flexibility, enthusiasm and sense of fun of a monkey. Hmmm... can you tell I've been writing animal stories?

  5. Well if they were, they most certainly failed! Love your animals turn of mind today. The sense of fun is vital, isn't it. When that goes out of a project, things feel very tough.