The Joys of Being a Bookworm

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Glancing Through by Charles Dana Gibson (1867-1944)

Ever since I could coordinate my hands enough to clutch a book, my nose has been buried inside one. Some of my happiest childhood memories are of the long summer holidays when my sister and I were let loose in the children’s section of the library at the college where my father worked. I remember spending hours, sprawled on beanbags, poring over picture books, letting my imagination roam freely.

As I got older I ventured into chapter books but found my first true love in the form of the French comic books featuring Asterix and Tintin. I loved the humour of the Asterix books and was sucked in by the fantastic plots of Tintin’s many adventures. Throughout my childhood I returned to my Tintin collection over and over, I must have read each book hundreds of times, never tiring of the detail, the excitement or the intrigue. It gladdens my heart that my children are now enjoying the now rather dog-eared remnants of my Tintin library.

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My hero – Tintin

Sharing books I loved as a child with my own children has become such a pleasure. First the classic picture books, such as The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Meg & Mog and The Very Hungry Caterpillar – the words and illustrations so familiar, transporting me back to my five-year-old self. Then moving on to more complex reads as the children get older, enjoying the suspense and excitement of good children’s literature all over again.

My nine-year-old is a chip off the old block when it comes to books, never happier than when lying on his bed enjoying a good read. It has been such a joy to share more of my childhood books with him as he gets older and also to discover new books together. I have especially enjoyed reading him my copy of Philip Pullman’s Ruby in the Smoke – a wonderful Victorian-set mystery – which has allowed me to experience these books in a new light, seeing them through my son’s eyes.

The teenage years

As I moved into teenagerdom I was nothing if not an eclectic reader, enjoying both the literary delights of Victorian Gothic and the more earthy delights of Jilly Cooper’s Riders. Every birthday and Christmas I requested book tokens, which I would amass with glee and set off for Blackwell’s, Oxford’s most famous bookshop, where I would take my time selecting books for my ever-growing ‘To Be Read’ pile.

One of my seminal teenage texts was S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. The book transported me from my rather staid Oxford middle-class life into the American world of greasers and socs. The characters of Pony-Boy, Soda-pop and Johnny so vividly drawn I almost felt I knew them myself, although in truth they were characters far removed from my actual peers. I remember fighting to read the words through my tears when Johnny exhorts Pony-boy to ‘Stay gold’.

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A lovely pile of Brontës (note the bookmark in Jane Eyre, I am currently re-reading it again!)

My teenage years also saw the start of my obsession with the Brontës. I devoured their collective works and then further stoked my admiration for them by reading Lyn Reid Banks’ wonderful fictionalised account of their lives, The Dark Quartet. The escapism I found in their novels, with their strongly drawn female characters, helped me muddle through my teenage years and cemented the role of books in my life as a respite from reality.

Reading memories

Into my adult life books have remained central to my life – when I first met my future husband I gave him a fairly hefty reading list as I was so keen to share my favourite books with my now favourite person (and full credit to him, he happily read every book I slung his way and twenty years later remains my most frequent book-share buddy).

Books have a way of associating themselves with a certain time in my life. My carefree twenties working in London was a golden time for reading as I had an epic hour and a half commute from my home in south London to my job in north London. The perils of riding the underground while reading a good book are legion. It was during this time I first discovered the joys of John Irving and the perils of trying to suppress my guffaws while on public transport (tip: always have a tissue handy when reading John Irving, you will invariably need it to either dry some tears or pantomime blowing your nose as you try and disguise the snort of laughter with a faux coughing fit). I also associate this period with reading James Ellroy – getting so drawn into the intrigue of American Tabloid that I forgot to get off the tube at my stop and I actually gasped aloud when the twist of LA Confidential was revealed, much to the bafflement of my fellow passengers.

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John Irving’s The World According to Garp

Reading associations are not always happy. I read a lot less during my early thirties as I was in the thick of child-rearing. My one reading opportunity was as I struggled to get my limpet-like daughter to detach from me and go to sleep. I sat for hours in a dim room, straining my eyes as I ploughed through John Galsworthy’s The Forsyth Saga, hoping my daughter would fall into a deep enough sleep to allow me to peel her from me and escape. I’m not sure if the frustration of this period has coloured my perception but that book became more of a chore than a pleasure.

Books = work and pleasure

For the past decade or more books have been not just my chief pleasure but also my job. Although I dream of one day writing a novel, non-fiction is my genre and I love nothing more than spending hours in the library researching my next book. In my writing career my magpie-like nature and eye for a quirky story has served me well and I am constantly reading everything from the news, blogs, literature, history books, opinion pieces – searching out curious tales, interesting histories or amusing lists to use in a book or article.

It was this miscellaneous skill which collided with my love of books to produce The Book Lovers’ Miscellany. Here I was able to put my love of books to work creating a

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The Book Lovers’ Miscellany

smorgasbord of bibliophilic delights – writing potted histories on ink, paper, book binding, comics and quills. Curating lists of best-selling books, writers who were rejected multiple times, the most prolific writers, the oldest writers to be published first time and the most influential books of all time. And telling the stories behind Penguin paperbacks, dust jackets, Mills & Boon and the Detection Club.

Writing and researching The Book Lovers’ Miscellany was like writing a love letter to books, writers, writing and reading. It is a celebration and a culmination of all the many hours I have had my nose buried in a book and I really hope it will delight my fellow bookworms, reminding us all how much pleasure we can take from a humble book.

The Book Lovers’ Miscellany is out 29 September 2017 and is available to order here.

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On the perils of being a non-fiction writer

When meeting new people there is always a question I dread. The most innocuous of polite questions: ‘What do you do?’ The reason I dread it? The reasons are legion.

1) I am not a fiction writer

When I say I am a writer some people get quite excited. However, when I explain I write non-fiction the conversation falters, their face visibly falling as they realise I am not J. K. Rowling. Fiction has a gloss that non-fiction does not, people aspire to write fiction, people understand fiction, people want to meet glossy, aspirational fiction writers. Alas, that is not me. So when I ruin the tone by mentioning the ‘non’ word, the conversation generally returns to the weather.

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fiction

2) Non-fiction is so hard to define

I really struggle to sum up my niche. Non-fiction is such a huge genre, ranging from academic textbooks, through self-help bibles and narrative non-fiction, to biography. If I wrote in a neat sub-genre it might be easier, but explaining my books in one easy sentence is no mean feat. I usually resort to describing them as ‘gift books’ or worse, books you read on the loo (which when I’m feeling crass I might call ‘shiterature’). But really that doesn’t characterise what I do, it makes it sound too easy, like I just pluck any old thing off the internet, when in fact most of my books are the result of hours of research in the library. I think the problem is I always try and sum up my diverse body of work in a tidy blurb, which inevitably fails. I think from now on I am just going to describe the book I am currently working on, instead of trying to squash my work into a genre which doesn’t exist.

3) People are really patronising

I often find myself on the receiving end of some extremely patronising comments, usually from men or older people. Just this weekend I was chatting to a friend’s mum who I had not seen for a number of years. She said she’d heard I wrote books and summed it up with: ‘So you just collect together some trivia and then publish it’ and then added ‘It’s lucky your husband has a proper job so you can pay the bills’. I didn’t have the energy to explain the planning, research, thought and hard work that goes into every book. The pitches to publishers, the rejections, the revisions, the edits on the long road to publication.

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the long journey from idea to publication

4) I am not a man

Sometimes I think if I were a man and I said I was a writer it would be different. People would perhaps instantly picture someone of substance, writing a serious book. I accept that some of the problem lies with myself, I am naturally self-depreciating and as I mentioned in point 2, I do struggle to describe what I do in a short sentence. However, there are many occasions where I feel like people react to me differently because I am a woman, especially a woman with three children. It’s as if the fact that I have kids instantly makes any endeavour a sideline to my actual real job of ‘being a parent’. That writing is just something I do with my spare time while waiting for my children to get home from school, not a real job at all.

5) Everyone is an expert

I write quite a lot of articles for Mental Floss, often fun lists such as 6 of the World’s Most Mysterious Standing Stones or 5 of the Shortest Reigns in History. Readers often track me down on Twitter to berate me for my ignorance. Irate reader: ‘You didn’t include the mystic stone of Slough [not an actual stone] in your list of mysterious stones!’ Me: ‘That is because I only had room to do six, the article is not called ‘The Definitive List of All Mysterious Standing Stones Ever’ but ‘6 of the World’s Most Mysterious Standing Stones’. Reader: ‘Yes, but the mystic stone of Slough is clearly the most important mystic stone ever! You don’t know anything, the whole article is now null and void.’ Me: block.

It’s like this at parties. I might say I am writing a book about the Golden Age of the Garden and the person I am speaking to will then talk to me at length about that time they went to Chatsworth and fell in the fountain. Or I might say I am writing about the history of the Bodleian Library and I’ll get an anecdote about their time as a student at Oxford. Obviously it’s lovely to hear people’s personal stories but sometimes it feel like people don’t expect me to actually know anything about my subject.

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Some of my books

7) It’s not a real job

If I were an accountant or a doctor or a hairdresser people would instantly have a picture in their mind of what my job entails. Say writer and people imagine a fiction writer. Say non-fiction writer and the frame of reference is lost.

Saying all this I have recently discovered that being a writer is actually a real job. A friend asked me to sign the back of her photos for her passport. I expressed doubts that I was eligible, after all I think you have to be a professional to qualify. My friend threw caution to the wind and got me to do it anyway, and in the space where I had to put profession, I wrote ‘writer’. Two weeks later she got her new passport and with that I realised at least someone, somewhere thought I had a real job.

 

 

The importance of a book review

Book reviews are becoming ever more important these days as more and more people chose their books online. Book bloggers and reviewers can be vital to the success of a book. The power is in your hands to help your favourite authors do well, freeing them to write more of the books you love.

On Amazonfour-star-reviews

Amazon reviews can help a book to become more visible, the more reviews it gets the better the book will get promoted on Amazon.

After 20–25 reviews Amazon includes the author’s books on ‘you might like’ and ‘also bought’ lists.

After 50–70 reviews Amazon puts the book in a more prominent position and may include it in a newsletter.

Help an author, leave a review!

So if you have read and liked a book, please help the author by leaving a review. It only takes minutes but can really make a difference to how well a book sells.

How to write a non-fiction book proposal

Notebook and pencilA great starting point when writing a non-fiction book proposal is to create a one sentence description of your book. This will help you to crystallise your idea and focus on the essence of your book.

Think carefully about what your book is going to do and who you are trying to reach. Condense your thoughts into a well-crafted, one sentence blurb that encapsulates your work and it will help you to grab a publisher or a reader’s attention.

There are times when I have had what I thought was a good idea but as I tried to formulate my thoughts into a pitch it became clear that my idea was muddled and unclear. There was no single sentence to sum it up, it turned into a sentence with a couple of sub-clauses because my idea was just too complicated. By stripping back my thoughts to the very nub of the idea I was able to get a much clearer vision of my book.

In general non-fiction books are pitched to a publisher via a proposal which should include one or two sample chapters. Because the book is not completed before it is commissioned it means that a lot of the thinking and planning is done as the proposal is created.

Remember that at its heart a book proposal is selling your book idea.

Key elements of a non-fiction book proposal

The elements of a non-fiction book proposal are as follows:

  1. The hook: This is where the one sentence blurb comes in. A simple description of the book and its title. Use this to grab attention.
  2. Outline of your book: Include a short description of each chapter with what each chapter brings to the book as a whole. Estimate the final word count.
  3. Market overview: Answer the questions: who cares? And, so what? Identify a specific target audience and demonstrate why this audience would buy your book.
  4. Author biography: Who are you? What is your background? And why are you the best person to write this book?
  5. Competitive analysis: Identify the rivals to your book. Which titles are similar and have done well. Demonstrate knowledge of your sector and where your book would fit into it. You need to prove there is a market for a book like yours.
  6. Marketing plan: How will you help sell your book? Do you have useful contacts that could be used? A good news hook? Do you have a website, blog, Facebook page, Twitter feed? Could you do a talk at a local library, bookshop or book group?
  7. Sample chapter: Provide a sample chapter of your book. Try and choose a chapter that will show off what is special about your book. Avoid sending the introduction.

Proposals should generally be written in Times New Roman, 12 point and double spaced so they are easy to read. Make sure you edit the proposal with a fine-toothed comb, you want to come across as someone who chooses their words carefully and can write an engaging and interesting book.

Once you have created your proposal you will have done a great deal of research (which will come in handy later) and got your book fully planned out. Then you can think about whether you want to approach an agent or a publisher directly. This calls for yet more research because you are going to need to tailor the proposal to each agent or publisher you approach but by creating the proposal in the standard form first you’ll have a clear idea to sell.

Writing a book proposal takes a lot of work and research, but it is a great way to focus your thoughts and begin to think like an author who needs to sell their work.

Read my blog post ‘How to find an agent or publisher for your book’ to find out what to do with your proposal next.