Monday, 10 January 2022

Extra income stream -and so much more. The value of RLF Fellowships for picture book writers by Juliet Clare Bell


I don’t know about you but I feel really uncomfortable about the money side of writing, and writing-related events (author visits, etc.). I feel very lucky to have an agent who deals with contracts so I don’t have to do the excruciating discussions or negotiations with editors or publishers. Occasionally I do (when it’s a slightly different kind of writing project not covered by my agent) but the less I can have to do with the financial side of it the better. I struggle with the admin for anything but there’s something I find so uncomfortable about sending invoices that it’s enough to make me think twice about taking certain writing events on. And don’t remind me about January 31st tax deadline… (or you probably should, because I forget, many times every day and then have a jolt of remembering and write it down again)

Eek. So talking about finances in a blogpost doesn’t come naturally to me at all, but it’s something we have to do if we’re going to write for our living.

The vast majority of published picture book authors (and other authors) don’t make a living from their books alone, and here is where the RLF (Royal Literary Fund) Fellowship comes into play. I’d heard about RLF Fellowships years ago from my brother-in-law who works in university libraries, and he’d suggested I apply for one. The Royal Literary Fund is a charity that supports authors, and RLF Fellows spend two days a week (during term time) at a university

University of the West of England (UWE)'s Frenchay Campus where I'm one of the RLF Fellows

having one-to-one sessions with students about their writing, and a further half day doing the admin, arranging sessions, writing up reports etc. The RLF provides you with a grant given out at the beginning of each term, and it’s generous enough so you can afford to spend the rest of the week writing -and if you don’t earn anything from your books in that year, you’ll still earn more than the average annual earnings for a writer in the UK (I think that’s around £11000 per annum). So it protects writing time for you, and it’s amazing.

It took me over six years after my brother-in-law suggested it to me for me to pluck the courage to apply. You need to have published at least two or three traditionally-published books (I can’t remember exactly) if you’re an author (if you’re a journalist or playwright, it’s slightly different). I looked at some of the people who had Fellowships and I didn’t see any picture book authors, and many of the writers were well-known and had long lists of awards (in fact, my fellow Fellow at UWE last year had previously won the Costa Novel, Costa Book of the Year, James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and had been on loads of impressive shortlists). It didn’t feel like I was worthy of a Fellowship or that I would be successful if I tried. However, six year after forgetting about it, then remembering (and dismissing it as unrealistic) and forgetting, and remembering (and dismissing etc.), I decided to give it a go.

By the time I applied, I knew quite a few other children’s authors who were doing it, or were about to start (still, none of them picture book writers) and I started my application. Successful Fellows suggested that I be really honest in my application and talk not only about things that had gone well for me with my writing, but things that I’d struggled with (and what I’d learned from my own mistakes and struggles and how that could help students). RLF Writing Fellows work with university students to help them with all aspects of writing so I dug deep and thought about anything personal that I might bring to the sessions with students that related to picture books in particular and writing struggles in general. Preparing the application made me focus on how a really good understanding of picture book structure for me might help me help students with their own assignments (mostly essays) and which aspects of writing I feel I have good insight into and which I find really hard I also thought about what I struggled with in university myself. I actually used to work as an academic in university and the thing that I struggled with the most? Definitely the writing!

I was concerned that I’d been too honest in my application but I was over the moon when I was taken on! Even when I had doubts (over all those years) that I wouldn’t be successful in an application, I knew two things: one, that I would like it, and two (for the couple of years before I dared apply, at least) that I actually did believe I had something to offer to the students and that I could do a good job of it.

If you think that it sounds like something you’d be able to do well, and that you’d enjoy (the challenge of helping each student you see to improve on their own work/find better ways of studying, reading and writing) -and you’re eligible in terms of number of books traditionally published, then I’d highly recommend applying -even if you don’t think there’s a great chance of success. I know now at least two other picture book authors who are doing this and I suspect there are others. It’s got to be worth a try!

What I’ve gained from being an RLF Writing Fellow

There is, of course, the financial side to getting a Fellowship (and it was extremely helpful in lockdown where school visits are very few and far between). There is huge value in that relief of knowing there’s money coming in from your writing-related activities whether or not you sell any books. But there’s so much more to it than that.

Having an RLF Fellowship has allowed me, and continues to allow me, to explore. The RLF is there to support writers and so I am justified in researching things beyond what I might be writing right now and allow myself to play when thinking about what I write and what I want to write. I have read more in the last eight months or so than I have in the previous thirty (where I read very little). It’s given me the freedom to think about everything and how that can all fit into writing and any writing-related activities. The Fellowships are generally for two years (so more writers can benefit from them) and although it’s helped me during my Fellowship, it’s actually changed the way I think about lots of things in relation to what I’m really interested in writing, and how I’d like to write it. The benefits from the freedom to write and know you’re financially secure for those years, and the acknowledgement that this is actually you, a writer -and will continue to be you for the long term will continue for the rest of my life.

In terms of the actual sessions with the students, I love them! I enjoy it even more than I thought I would (and it’s especially good to do in-person sessions after a year of seeing students online from home). I enjoy the fact that I’m put on the spot (which I’ve often hated in the past) but because as a writer, I really do feel like I have something to offer them, it’s an exciting exchange where we explore problems and issues together. I think it has been part of the reason I realised I had ADHD because I had time to stop and examine myself a bit and that I was recognising myself in so many of the students who were struggling with procrastination and starting and finishing things, and easily going off-topic. In fact the things that have held me back for so many years and been really hard (which have turned out to be because of ADHD) are the some of the things that can really help you when working with some of the students. It’s a privilege to be able to work with students and be authentic so you can come up with strategies and suggestions that will help them move forward with their writing and studying. I feel very lucky, and I’ve learned loads from the students and from the sessions.

All my life I’ve struggled with admin and the RLF admin is much less onerous than many other things. Students come with a piece of work you’ve not seen before so you work on it there and then and the appointment system works really well and it sends things out for you without having to understand how it does it. And for the admin that needs to be done? I have my wonderful picture book accountability partner who stays on a skype call, silently, for an hour a week, her working on her stuff, and me on my admin, but I know she’s there so I have to get it done!

There are lots of different ways to earn extra writing-related income. If you genuinely think you’d like working individually with university students to help them improve their writing, and you can really think about how what you write and the way you write and organise your writing life could help them (and you’re in the UK), then do consider applying for an RLF Writing Fellowship -even if you think you might not stand much of a chance. I know the experience has changed me in a really positive way and that it’s affecting what I’m writing and how I’m thinking about writing.

Good luck!


Juliet Clare Bell (always called Clare) has written over thirty picture books and early readers and is working on a young adult novel. She feels very lucky to be working as an RLF Writing Fellow.





Lynne Garner said...

A really interesting post, thanks for sharing.

I've thought about applying for an RLF Fellowship but have been put off when I look at the writers I know who have done one and think I'm not in their league. However, having read your post I will take a look and see if it's for me.

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Well worth applying for, Lynne. I love it!

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