Half Lives

I recently asked a former client, Lucy Jane Santos, to write a post about her recently published book, Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium. I edited some early chapters of the book, as well as the proposal Lucy put together for her agent. We stayed in touch, and I eagerly followed the book’s journey to publication. If you’re interested in beauty products, medicine, and/or science, you need to read this book.

Lucy’s account of writing Half Lives

It had been at the back of my mind to do a PhD for several years, but I couldn’t come up with a good topic. As a self-funding student, it needed to be good enough for a supervisor to consider, the institution to let me do it and something that could sustain my interest for almost a decade, as there was no way I could do full time study.

I knew I wanted the project to be something about beauty or makeup but what aspect? It was a struggle.

Tho Radia

Tho Radia packaging - the inspiration for Half Lives
Tho Radia (c) Sonee Photography

But one day the topic fell into my lap. I had been in the habit of scouring antique shops and auction houses for years and buying up weird and wonderful beauty products. And on one of these trips I happened on a pot of face powder from a brand I had never heard of before: Tho Radia. The ingredients, which were listed on the base, included the little nugget of information that it contained radium bromide. I was hooked.

It got me thinking – where, when and why did these products arise? Why would anyone buy this? What did it promise? What was their cultural significance? I got very frustrated because honourable exceptions aside like the wonderful website Cosmetics and Skin, I found very little about the use of radium outside of hospitals that didn’t seem to dismiss it as something that was merely fraudulent – quacks – or the people that bought it were just foolish.

This then, I decided, would be the PhD topic.

And it was, for a couple of years, anyway. My passion for the topic remained intact but I found the PhD experience too restrictive and the history too wide and unwieldy. So, I pulled out of the university, said goodbye to my (brilliant) supervisors and put together a proposal for a book. An agent picked it up and we soon had publishers’ interest before landing a contract with Icon Books who shaped my work into Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium.

Half Lives tells the fascinating, curious, sometimes macabre story of the radioactive element radium through its ascendance as a desirable item – a present for a queen, a prize in a treasure hunt, a glow-in-the-dark dance costume, a boon to the housewife, and an ingredient in a startling host of consumer products – to its role as a cure-all in everyday 20th-century life.

Eight years on and still passionate about the history of radium, I remain very grateful that I found that pot of Tho Radia.

About the author

Lucy Jane Santos is an expert in the history of 20th-century health, beauty and popular culture with a particular interest in (some might say obsession with) the cultural history of radioactivity. She writes & talks (a lot) about cocktails and radium. Her debut book Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium was published by Icon Books in July 2020.

Jump in at the Deep End: Be a Fearless Writer

Before a swimming lesson when I was about two years old I jumped in at the deep end of the pool.

I loved jumping into the water, so while we were waiting for the lesson to begin my mum had been putting me up on the side so I could jump in, in the shallow end, where she was waiting to catch me.

I had other plans.

Mum put me on the side and she saw me walk towards the other end of the pool, where my swimming teacher had just entered. She thought I was just going to get a pre-lesson hug.

Instead, I was headed for the deep end. I stood next to the diving board and jumped in. My mum figured out where I was headed and got to me shortly after I jumped.

At two, I’d already learned to swim the width of the pool unaided, but I really had no business tackling its length. But of course toddlers don’t think of these things. For me then, there was no real difference between one end of the pool and the other (I couldn’t touch bottom anywhere) except the diving boards where the big kids got to jump in.

I had no fear. I wanted to jump in the deep end, so I did.

Child-like fearlessness vs the ‘shoulds’

Parents and carers everywhere are relieved that not all children express their fearlessness as dramatically (and potentially dangerously) as I did – but all kids are fearless.

When you first started drawing pictures and doing colouring in, you thought nothing of making the sky bright pink with green clouds and a purple sun. It was only when you got older that you started editing yourself: you learned (whether you were formally taught or not) that the sky should be blue, clouds should be white or grey, and the sun should be yellow and orange.

These are just a few of the ‘shoulds’ you bumped up against early in life. None of these shoulds, on their own, made a huge difference in who you were or how you acted, but taken together, they have a massive effect on your life.

Some of these changes are good, life-preserving ones: I no longer jump without looking, but I still have no fear of water. Others can get in the way. Why can’t the sun be purple; it’s your picture, isn’t it?

Using play to keep the shoulds at bay

It can be helpful to know how to quiet the shoulds any time they’re getting in the way of what you really want to do – whether they’re interfering in a business decision, a life choice, or in your writing.

Unsurprisingly, we’re going to focus on how they get in the way of your writing. If you look back at early examples of your writing, you didn’t let little things like not knowing how to form letters or spell words get in your way. You wrote what you wanted to write anyway.

Now that you’ve grown up, you do need to edit your writing to make it easy for others to understand, but only after you’ve made the beautiful mess your inner child delights in.

How do you do this? You get creative.

Keep a stash of brightly-coloured, unlined paper and some crayons or glitter pens on hand. When you need to write fearlessly, step away from the keyboard, get your art supplies out, and create.

When you do this, your inner editor (the keeper of the shoulds) will get out of your way and let you write freely without fear of judgement. She knows that when you’re colouring, you’re not writing copy that’s going to go out into the world. Since she knows you’re not going to post things from your colouring pages to your website (though you could if you wanted to!!), she doesn’t mind how many ‘rules’ you break.

When you use play in the early stages of creation, you make connections and have ideas that you wouldn’t have had if you were following the rules. Being a truly fearless writer gives you the freedom to express yourself, explore ideas, and find your voice.

Once all the words and ideas are out of your head and on the page, your inner editor won’t be so fearful of them. She’ll see that you wrote them and nothing bad happened to you – she doesn’t need to protect you from them.

‘Anything can happen’

This post has reminded me of a poem by one of my favourite children’s poets: Shel Silverstein.

LISTEN TO THE MUSTN’TS

Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child,
Listen to the DON’TS
Listen to the SHOULDN’TS
The IMPOSSIBLES, the WON’TS
Listen to the NEVER HAVES
Then listen close to me—
Anything can happen, child,
ANYTHING can be.

from Where the Sidewalk Ends



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Conversation, Writing, and Coaching

On one level, it seems fairly obvious how I got from studying and teaching literature and writing, to being an editor, to being a writing coach. My training as a writer and a teacher are crucial to my work as a coach. But it goes deeper than that.

George Eliot

My thesis was on how George Eliot (penname for Marian Evans – see note) used music to represent emotion in her novels. If you feel your eyes glazing over and you’re wondering what the hell Victorian novels have to do with being a writing coach, bear with me a little longer.

Eliot wanted her novels to change the world one heart at a time. She didn’t believe that top down change imposed by a religion or a government could ever bring about meaningful or lasting change. The only way, she argued, that you could make the world a better, kinder place was to teach people to feel empathy with one another – especially with those they had very little in common with.

To do this, Eliot sought to teach her readers to empathise with her characters, in the hope that they would then empathise with the actual people they encountered in their everyday lives. Thus, she set herself the difficult task of making her readers understand how other people experience feelings like love, sympathy, and hatred.

Think about that for a minute – you know how you experience those feelings, but how do they feel to your partner, your child, or the person behind you in the queue at the supermarket?

That’s where music comes in – you can’t explain feelings without comparing them to something else. Eliot’s favourite comparison was music because music can evoke feelings without the need for words.

That’s nice, but what does this have to do with being a coach?

Good question. With my background, I could be a full time editor, a private tutor for pupils sitting their A-levels in English literature, or a teacher. I could also be a project manager, a time-management/organisation coach, or help people learn to give better presentations. So why be writing coach?

I gravitated towards being a writing coach because I’ve spent most of my adult life studying and working with words – and the better part of the last 20 years thinking about how words can change the world.

Over the years, I came to realise that Eliot got frustrated with trying to change the world through her novels. She saw that no matter how many people read them, the vast majority were not going to be more understanding of their scullery maids or try to really understand the feelings of their business rivals.

In the last few years I realised, first on an unconscious level and recently on a conscious one, that the problem wasn’t with her novels or the difficulty of communicating emotion. It was with her approach.

We do need to learn to empathise with each other, but we won’t do that by reading one writers’ novels. We need conversation to develop understanding and empathy.

Joining the conversation

Every time you publish or read a social media post, blog post, or book, you’re joining the conversation. When you publish, you’re presenting your view and inviting comments and reactions, even if your reader doesn’t share them with you. And when you read, you’re listening to and thinking about another perspective.

This conversation can be very quiet (though obviously not in some comments threads), but it’s vitally important to society that we have as many voices in it as possible.

I became a writing coach to help my clients join the conversation. It’s only when we welcome and celebrate multiple perspectives that we can create a kinder, more tolerant society.

How can I help you?

If you want to have a chat about how I can help you join the conversation, book a call below!

Note

Marian Evans changed the spelling of her first name several times – she was born Mary Ann. After studying French at school, she changed it to Mary Anne and then Marianne. As an adult, she settled on Marian. I use that spelling because it’s the one she chose as an adult.

Race, LGBTQ+, and Business

Over the last several weeks I’ve been quiet on here because I’ve been doing a lot of listening, reading, and thinking as we’ve seen problems that have been around for centuries come to the fore in ways that they haven’t in my lifetime.

I’m not going to respond to particular people or incidents, but in recent weeks, we’ve seen people with power over life and death choose death. And we’ve seen people with the social and/or political power to shape public opinion choose to stir up hate.

I’ve seen individuals get defensive and defend their privilege when they’ve felt threatened by others simply asking for life and equality. I’ve also seen individuals recognise their privilege and lack of understanding as a problem that they need to address – these are the people who give me hope.

Some of the issues I’m responding to here have had more press coverage than others, but they are interrelated. We can’t talk about race to the exclusion of gender or sexuality, or vice versa; and we can’t talk about any of these things without class, education, nationality, health, neurodiversity … Human beings are complex, and we don’t fit comfortably into the boxes we’re asked to tick on monitoring forms.

This post will focus more on race than other issues because race is putting more people’s lives at risk than anything else right now. Or in the terms of Chris Straub’s cartoon, race is the house that’s being gutted by fire, while the other issues I’ll touch on have burning embers on the rooftops that are threatening to engulf the whole structure.

Why am I addressing this here?

I grew up in the States, and when I was a child, on the rare occasion that race came up, the adults around me were very uncomfortable. The attitude seemed to be that if we didn’t talk about it, it wouldn’t be a problem. Gender and sexuality just weren’t discussed when I was a kid – I was in a cisgender, heteronormative bubble. Attitudes and awareness have changed dramatically among those I grew up with, but that’s not enough. If you’ve paid any attention to the news at all lately, you’ll have seen the tragic consequences of societies that haven’t, as a whole, learned to embrace difference.

In recent weeks, I’ve watched the various business communities I’m part of struggle to decide whether they should ‘just focus on business and carry on as usual’ or ‘address the issues of the day’. You’ve no doubt guessed which side I’ve taken in this debate.

As a business owner, I feel I owe it to my current and potential clients to let them know where I stand. I’ve seen other business owners worry that taking a stand will cause them to lose clients. I understand their concern, but I know that the people who will refuse to work with me (and some will) because of this post or the Black Lives Matter banner that’s currently on my website are not my ideal clients. I also know that by taking a stand some of those who have felt marginalised, threatened, or dismissed by others may be more likely to feel safe working with me. Finally, I know that neither this post nor the BLM banner will change a damn thing globally, but I still think they’re important for those who need to know where I stand.

Race

My education, like that of many educated in the US, was whitewashed. A few teachers and professors did what they could to redress the balance by assigning books like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Charles R. Johnson’s Middle Passage, Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine,or Toni Morrison’s Beloved. But there was only so much they could do to overcome the structural and institutional racism in which they lived and worked.

I was born in Tulsa and educated through degree level in Oklahoma, yet I knew nothing of the Tulsa Race Massacre (1921) until after I finished my PhD. We studied Oklahoma history every year in school, yet there was no meaningful discussion of what happened to the native peoples who had been force marched to the Oklahoma Territory when the US government decided to open it up to white settlers.

These are just two of the massive holes in my understanding of the specific place where I grew up, and they’re minute in comparison to the gaping holes in my understanding of what it’s like to actually navigate this world as a black or brown person.

I read a lot – it’s relatively easy to fill my gaps in historical knowledge. Filling the gaps in my understanding of how other people experience the world is much, much harder. As I’ve watched other white people reach similar conclusions to mine, I’ve been interested to see their reactions. I’ve also seen a lot of black and brown people being asked to explain their experience of the world.

On some occasions, these conversations have been productive because the white people involved recognised that they were asking someone to spend time, energy, and emotional labour on educating them. These were presented as the beginning of an ongoing discussion, while also putting in place clear boundaries around the educators’ time and energy.

Less fruitful have been the white people who fail to see their privilege in asking a black person to 1) speak for all black people and to 2) condense the ‘black experience’ into a soundbite.  

To the white people reading this: we must find a way to educate ourselves without putting black and brown people in these untenable positions – black lives are not soundbites. We don’t get to wallow in guilt or make it the responsibility of those who have been harmed by our privilege to make us feel better. If you’ve been sharing ‘all lives matter’ posts, stop. If you’ve been posting that you don’t see colour, stop. When you counter a BLM post with an ‘all lives matter’ post, you are denying the fact that racism is a problem that urgently needs to be addressed. When you claim you don’t see colour, you are announcing you don’t (or choose not to) see the ways in which racism threatens the lives of black and brown people.

What do my current and future clients need to know about race and me?

You need to know that though I would never promise to get it right every time, I’m trying to learn. I’m learning to recognise and challenge structural and institutional racism. I’m learning the real race history of both of my countries (I’ve lived in the UK since 2007). I’m filling the gaps in my understanding.

LGBTQ+ rights

My education has served me better on these issues, and a lot of my scholarly work made use of gender theory, queer theory, feminist studies, and masculinities studies. That said, there’s always more to learn.

You’ve likely encountered the acronym LGBTQ before now (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer [or sometimes Questioning]). So why have I added a +? The plus is to include other nonnormative identities including, but not limited to, intersex (a person whose body isn’t clearly male or female), asexual (someone who doesn’t experience sexual attraction), and pansexual (someone whose sexuality is fluid and not tied to gender).

I’m discussing LGBTQ+ rights here because sexuality and gender have been used to marginalise and discriminate against people.

First, we need to be clear that though the acronym encompasses both sexualities and genders, sexuality and gender are not the same. Broadly speaking, sexuality refers to how you experience romantic and/or sexual attraction, while gender refers to whether you identify as masculine, feminine, or nonbinary.

Western culture has tended to treat cisgender heterosexual (cishet) as the norm. What does this mean in ‘plain’ English? Cisgender = your gender matches the one assigned at birth based on your genitals; heterosexual = straight.

Many, many cishet people never question their own lived experience of either sexuality or gender, nor do they realise that other people experience life very differently to them. These people tend to assume that their cishet experience is ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ and any other experience is an aberrant choice. I understand it can be uncomfortable for them to realise that just as they never chose to be cishet, being gay isn’t a choice. Neither is being bi or trans or asexual … Despite their discomfort, I think people need to be challenged to understand that the world is more varied than their cishet bubble, and all those other ways of being in the world are legitimate.

We won’t have a peaceful, inclusive society until people embrace diversity. This is made painfully clear by the cishet people – all too often those with physical and/or poltical power – who react with violence (physical, institutional, and/or structural) when faced with people from the LGBTQ+ community. Discrimination against this group is wide ranging: from facing lethal force at the hands of law enforcement or individual gun owners to feeling excluded by a data collection form that assumes binary gender (i.e. that everyone is either male or female).

Both of my countries are making moves towards being more inclusive (legalising same sex marriage, for example), but we have a long, long way to go.

What do my current and future clients need to know about LGBTQ+ rights and me?

They need to know that as with race, I won’t promise to always get it right, but I’m trying. I’m learning to recognise and challenge structural and institutional discrimination. I’m also learning to recognise and challenge my own assumptions about gender and sexuality and how they influence people’s experiences of the world and others’ encounters with me.

How do you decide what to write?

Whether you’re writing a blog post or a book, you’ve likely asked yourself what you should write. It may feel like you could write about anything – after all, thanks to the internet, you can research anything you want. But just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should.

If you’re writing for your business, instead of thinking about every topic you could write about, you need to identify what your current and future clients need to read from you.

Step 1: Feelings

I’m sure you’ve heard that people don’t buy features, they buy feelings. They choose their reading material the same way. So before you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), you need to ask yourself how you want your readers to feel after they read your post or book.

When I work with clients on this, I ask them to come up with three to five words that describe how they want people to feel after any interaction with their business. These are also called your brand values or brand words.

Take some time over this step to come up with the right list of words for you. These shouldn’t change in their core message. For example, my main words are supported, empowered, fearless, determined, and nurtured. So whatever feeling I seek to inspire through a particular piece of writing is going to be either one of these or something closely related.

Once you have a list you’re happy with, write it down and post it in your writing space.

When you write something new for your business, take some time to decide which of those words (or related feelings) you’re going to concentrate on.

Step 2: Where does it fit in your business?

Once you know how you want your reader to feel after they read your new piece, you need to think about how what you’re writing fits into your business overall. You can do this by asking yourself questions like these:

  • Is what you’re writing a product in and of itself, or is it meant to pique your readers’ interest in one of your products or services?
  • Are you writing something to help your clients solve a particular problem?
  • Are you trying to teach something?
  • Are you trying to establish your expertise?
  • Are you trying to help your client get to know you and how you can help them?

Step 3: Bring the feeling and purpose together

Write the feeling you want to inspire and the purpose of your piece on a sheet of paper and brainstorm. You’ll find it easier to brainstorm on unlined paper, and you’ll be more creative if you write with brightly coloured pens or pencils.

When you brainstorm, set a timer for 5 to 10 minutes and try to write continuously. Just write whatever comes to mind – you may be surprised by what comes out. Once time is up, reread what you’ve written. Underline or circle the topics you’re most excited about. Then, write your favourite at the top of a new piece of paper (keep the others for later).

Step 4: Write your statement of argument

In this step, you need to state the point of what you’re writing in one sentence. This sentence must be arguable.

For example, if you were writing an article about soup, this would not work as your statement of argument: Chicken noodle is a kind of soup.

Why wouldn’t it work? Because it’s a simple statement of fact. There’s nothing for you to explore or prove.

This would work: You should eat chicken noodle soup when you have a cold because it has been shown to have healing properties.

Unlike the statement of fact, this one gives you something to work with. You can present and evaluate the studies that have shown ingredients in chicken noodle soup to have healing properties. Also, you can address the effect of eating something that’s soothing and familiar when you’re feeling run down with a cold.

Step 5: Ask questions

Once you have your statement of argument, it’s time to write your outline. I always suggest doing this by asking questions of your statement of argument.

This method is useful because it easy to implement, and it will keep you focused on your main topic.

If you’re writing a blog post, you probably only need 3 or 4 questions. If you’re writing a book, you’ll need to start with 10 or so.

To begin with, just list the questions. So, returning to our statement about soup you could ask these questions:

  1. Are these healing properties peculiar to chicken noodle soup, or would other soups work just as well?
  2. What healing properties has it been shown to have?
  3. Why is chicken noodle soup good when you have a cold?

You’re going to answer these questions to produce your text. I prefer using questions for the outline to listing topics because humans better at answering questions than writing on topics.

After you list your questions, you need to put them in a logical order. The order for the questions I’ve listed isn’t logical. If I were to write this, I’d need to answer question 2 before question 1. Question 3, however, could come at the beginning or the end of the post. When this happens, you’ll just have to write the post and decide which placement is best.

What’s next?

All that’s left now is to write your text (by answering the questions you listed in step 5), and then polishing and publishing it.

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Why do you need to use reliable sources?

We are surrounded by information – television, radio, the internet, books, magazines, podcasts, … How do you recognise reliable sources when you see them?

As people living in this information-saturated world, we need to have ways of navigating it and deciding what to engage with and what to ignore. As writers, we have a responsibility to our readers to filter out unreliable information when we choose what sources to use in our books, blogs, and articles.

What is are reliable sources?

Reliable sources are ones that you can trust. They are created by authors with actual knowledge of the topic under discussion, and they rely on facts and well-reasoned arguments to make their points rather than sensationalism or emotion.

Some examples of reliable sources include:

  • academic books and journals (these undergo a rigorous review process in which other experts weigh in on their credibility);
  • major news outlets like The New York Times, CNN, and the BBC  (professional journalists are trained to present facts in a fair and balanced way);
  • sites like MindBodyGreen (they expect their writers to be trained professionals who support their claims with credible research).

What is an unreliable source?

Unreliable sources take many forms. Some are not necessarily created to obscure the facts or fool the reader; we’ll call these benign. Meanwhile, others are created to fool the reader; we’ll call these malignant.

Benignly unreliable sources

A popular unreliable source that wasn’t created to fool anyone is Wikipedia. Much of the information on Wikipedia is true, but anyone in the world can edit a wiki entry for any reason. This simple fact makes Wikipedia suspect as a source. This doesn’t necessarily mean you should never read wikis, but you do need to be careful and use them with caution.

If you find interesting information on Wikipedia that you want to use in something you’re writing, find out where it came from. Many wiki entries list their sources; if those sources are reliable, you can use them to support your claim in whatever you’re writing. If they’re not reliable, move on.

Malignantly unreliable sources

Clickbait is an obvious example of an unreliable source that is created to fool the reader. If you click on it and use it to waste a little time, no harm has been done. However, if you use the clickbait claims in your own writing and present them as true, you risk damaging your credibility and at the very least annoying your reader.

Other malignantly unreliable sources include propaganda and those social media posts that look like news stories but aren’t. These kinds of sources rely on emotional and sensational claims to convince the reader of something.

Recognising these can be difficult. The best way is to look objectively at what claim is being made and ask yourself whether the writer is using fact and reasonable argument, or emotion to make their point.

How do you vet your sources?

If you find an article (or other source) that’s not from an obviously credible source, you need to vet it to determine whether you want to use it or not.

Who wrote it?

To do that, you should first find out who wrote it. Is there a full author bio or link to the author’s other work? Once you find out who wrote it, find out whether they’re experts in the field. What are their qualifications and relevant experience? What else have they written?

Some credible sources don’t list individual sources, so don’t be too alarmed if you can’t find the author’s name. In these cases, you need to determine what organisation produced the source and ask questions like these: Are they credible? Are they likely to have hired professionals to write for them? What else have they produced?

What kind of language does it use?

Look at the language. Is it emotive or rational? If it’s emotive, ask yourself why it is. Is it trying to persuade you of something or is it simply on an emotionally charged topic?

For example, if the piece is on the writer’s experience of losing a loved one, the language will be emotive. But, importantly, the writer won’t be trying to convince the reader of anything. This means the source is likely reliable.

When was it written?

Depending on your topic, the age of your source could be important. If you’re writing about how the Victorians responded to the introduction of anaesthesia (as I will be in my next book!), sources from the nineteenth century are valid. However, if you’re writing about how your reader can treat a medical condition, your sources should take current research into account.

Let me know if you have any questions

If you come across sources you’re not sure about, contact me; I’ll be happy to have a quick look and help you decide whether they’re credible or not. Part of my PhD training was in how to evaluate and responsibly use sources.

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How will it feel to see your book on the shelf?

The test copy of my book arrived this week! When you publish your book as a printed book (as opposed to an ebook), you can order a test copy so you can see what your readers will get when they buy your book.

Before I get into how it feels to hold your book for the first time and put it on your shelf, I’ll briefly describe what you need to do when you get your test copy.

What do you do with a test copy?

Once you stop marvelling at the fact that you’re holding your book in your hand, you need to take a close look at it.

This is not at all the same as the proofreading stage – you’re not looking for sentence level errors now because they should have been sorted before your book was typeset.

So what are you looking for? When you examine your test copy, you’re looking at the overall layout and quality. Is the artwork arranged how and where you want it? Are the pages laid out correctly?

While at this stage you don’t need to read every word of your book, you do need to carefully look at each page. When you do this, you’re keeping your reader’s experience in mind. Is this the kind of book your reader will enjoy reading?

How did I feel?

I knew when the test copy was arriving and expected to feel excited the first time I held it.

It was exciting, but I wasn’t prepared for the emotional roller coaster I’ve been on over the last couple of days.

Thrilled

It’s thrilling to hold your book, to see that it’s real, to know that the hard work of writing and revising it is nearly finished!

I was happy, relieved and excited all at once. I wanted to show it to anyone who would look at it. I also loved putting it on the shelf and seeing that it looks like it belongs there amongst all the other books!

Sad

I was a little sad. I feel like I should have anticipated this because of how I felt when I finished my thesis. But I didn’t – it caught me by surprise.

On reflection, this response makes sense: this part of my journey is over. Endings, even ones we look forward to like finishing school, are inherently sad. We’re moving from what we’ve known into the unknown, or at least something we know less well than what came before.

Explaining this feeling to those closest to you is another matter. I’m pretty sure my husband is still confused by my response yesterday. He kept saying, ‘but it’s good that you have your book now’. He’s a published author (Purity and Contamination in Late Victorian Detective Fiction), he’s been here, but he responded very differently.

This isn’t the first time I’ve perplexed him, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

Scared

I was scared. This book is going to be out in the world very, very soon. While it was an idea, it was safe. No one could read it. No one could decide they don’t like it. No one could decide they think it’s brilliant and start referring people to me.

I knew this response was likely, and I address these feelings in my book in chapters 19 (Dealing with criticism) and 20 (Dealing with praise). I’m trying to take my own advice here and remember that judgements (good or bad) of my book are not judgements of me as a person.

This response is another one that perplexed my husband. I don’t like arguments that men are one way and women are another way (men are from Mars, women are from Venus). Humans are too wonderfully complex to be put into neat little categories like that. Nevertheless, historically, female authors have been more likely to have, or at least to give voice to, fearful responses to publication.

They range from Anne Bradstreet’s poetic response in ‘The Author to Her Book‘, in which she calls her book ‘Thou ill form’d offspring of my feeble brain’, to George Eliot’s (pen name for Marian Evans) avoidance of all reviews. She feared positive and negative reviews in equal measure. Eliot thought positive ones would make her feel she’d never write so well again (and therefore shouldn’t try), while negative ones would reinforce her self doubt which would cause her to stop writing.

If you respond to impending publication with fear, try to remember to sit with your feelings for a bit: counter any arguments your impostor syndrome throws at you and trust that this too shall pass.

What’s next?

I’ll have a publication date soon. That still seems weird. A year ago today, I hadn’t even started writing the first draft! I started writing it on 23 April 2019.

If you’re thinking of embarking on this weird and wonderful journey of becoming a published author, sign up for my free ecourse: How to get clear on your book and who it’s for in just 3 days!

What Happens When You Work with a Publishing Consultant: Interior design, proofs, and metadata

So you’ve finished your manuscript, thoroughly revised it, sent it to your beta readers, applied their feedback, and sent it to your proofreader. You must be done, right?

No. Sorry, you’re not.

Now it’s time to get your publishing consultant involved.

What is a publishing consultant?

I hired Sam Pearce of Swatt Books to help me publish my book, There’s a Book in Every Expert (that’s you!). My book is ‘self-published’, which means I retain all rights to it, but Sam has sorted all of the formatting, ISBN numbers, etc. If you want details of everything that’s involved in self-publishing a book, you’ll need to read Sam’s afterword in my book!

Here, I’m going to discuss what working with her has been like from my end.

Interior design

After I signed the contract to work with Sam, we agreed a date by which I would send my manuscript to her. Once she received it, she started on the interior design for the book.

First, she gave me a questionnaire to get an idea of how I wanted the inside of the book to look. This included questions about my preferred size for the finished book, which fonts I like/can’t stand, and which already published books I like the look of.

Sam took this data and my manuscript and produced three mock-ups for me to consider. She included pages with chapter headings, pages with lists, and pages with just text and subheadings, so I would get a feel for how the whole book would look with the three different layouts.

I then chose the aspects I liked from each and she made a composite mock-up. We tweaked a couple of things after that (spaces between paragraphs to give the reader room to think and font size to make the text easier to read).

When I was happy, she made the first set of proofs.

Why couldn’t I just use my typed manuscript?

You may be wondering why, since I typed my manuscript, I needed any interior design at all. I needed it because a word processed document is not a book.

You want your book to look and feel like, well, a book. You also want it to be easy to read for as wide an audience as possible.

Publishing consultants should know which fonts are easiest for people with dyslexia to work with, for example. You don’t want to publish your book in your favourite font only for it to be inaccessible to a significant portion of your target audience.

Also, consultants understand how to set the margins correctly – you have to allow for binding the book – and how to ensure optimal readability by choosing the right line height and spacing.

I’ve been a writer for a long time and a reader for even longer, and it didn’t occur to me until Sam mentioned it that it’s useful to have spaces between paragraphs in nonfiction books. Having that visual break gives the reader a break to process the information given in the paragraph.

Finally, it’s irritating to read a badly designed book, even if you can’t pinpoint what you find irritating about it. It’s a publishing consultant’s job to help you make choices that will make your book easy for your audience to read!

Reading your proofs

As I said above, after the design phase, Sam typeset the book and sent me the first of three sets of proofs.

She typeset the manuscript as it was after I had made the changes suggested by my editor. The point of reading the page proofs is to make sure the editor’s changes made it into the proofs and to check for other errors. This isn’t the time for major changes like restructuring your book – that should happen before the book is typeset. Waiting to do it later may cause you to incur extra charges for the extra work it requires of the typesetter.

By the time you get to the proofs stage, you’ve likely read your book a number of times. Most of these readings will be on your computer screen, and all of them are likely to have been of your word processed manuscript.

You’ll be better able to spot errors now that your book has been typeset because it looks very different to the manuscript you sent off. However, you still need to print it out. We proofread better on paper than on the screen.

Once you’ve printed your proofs, read them through start to finish and compare them to your final (professionally edited) manuscript. This will take time and energy. I don’t recommend trying to do more than about 20 pages in a sitting because the work requires intense concentration.

So, when you get your proofs back, you need to plan your proofreading time wisely to make sure you get them back to your consultant on time – if you’re late you’ll delay the production of your book.

My proofs were sent in PDF format and I made comments on them for what the typesetter needed to change. When you receive your second proofs, you need to make sure the changes you requested for the first ones were applied correctly. You’ll mark this one like the first and, hopefully, in the third set, you’ll just confirm everything is complete and correct.

Help your consultant help you

At some point, you consultant will ask you for both a short and long description of your book and for metadata, or which genres/subgenres it should be listed under. You need to take your time with these steps because they will influence the success of your book.

Your consultant will help you refine your choices, but you’re responsible for doing most of the work.

Your book descriptions need to be concise, engaging, and detailed. You may think it should be easy to summarise your own work, but you’ll be surprised by how tricky it is to do so in 400 characters or fewer!

The metadata is important because it will help booksellers understand what kind of book yours is. This will help them understand where it fits among all the other books they sell and will help your readers find your book.

Do you have to hire a consultant?

Of course you don’t. It’s your book, you may publish it however you wish. If you decide to go it alone (or must because of financial constraints), you need to allow yourself time to thoroughly familiarise yourself with all aspects of self publishing.

I hired a consultant because I understand how much is involved in self publishing, and I know I didn’t have the time or the inclination to learn all of it. After all, there’s little point in writing a book, if you’re not going to give it its best possible chance of reaching the people who need to read it!

Click below to order my book!

How I fit writing in around my life

If you follow me for any length of time, you’ll find I’m insistent that you can (almost always) fit writing in around everything else you need to do. If you’ve resisted hearing that message, you’ve probably wondered what it looks like in practice.

I’ve been there. I used to imagine that ‘real’ writers, because I (then) a lowly PhD student couldn’t possibly count amongst them, spent hours and hours at their keyboards every day churning out beautifully written, thoroughly researched prose.

That’s not how writing works. Not for you, not for me, not for anyone!

This is how writing works for me

I wrote the first draft of my book, There’s a Book in Every Expert (May 2020), in four weeks. I never wrote for more than two hours a day, and I didn’t write on weekends.

Also, I only rarely wrote for two consecutive hours. Usually, I wrote in half hour spurts spread throughout the day.

I wrote on trains, in cafés, and, sometimes, at my desk in my office.

I rarely had uninterrupted time – phones must be answered, appointments must be kept, laundry must be changed; in other words, life goes on even when you’re writing.

My day would go something like this: Write first thing in the morning (because I often woke up with ideas and needed to get them on paper before I forgot), had breakfast, showered, started work, paused to write for a bit, worked some more, had lunch, and then spent the afternoon dividing my time between work and writing. I usually quit for the day by 5 or 6 and leave the writing until morning.

To write your book, you only need to find a few windows for writing in your day, most days. You do not need to retreat to a remote cabin, cut off from civilisation to write it.

How did 10-ish hours a week produce a book?

I wrote quickly, and I’ve learned to accept that all first drafts need to be shit. These points are related.

First drafts that are not shit, never get finished. Instead, they remain pristine, imaginary drafts that never make it to the page.

Your first draft’s only job is to be finished.

That bears repeating: your first draft’s only job is to be finished.

There’s no point in trying to write a ‘good’ first draft. When you try to perfect draft (write a first draft that’s good enough to be your final draft), what you end up doing is taking a really long time to produce a shitty first draft.

Are you still sceptical? You don’t have to take my word for it. Anne Lamott, the writer of one of the best writing books in print – Bird by Bird, agrees. She discusses it in her chapter called ‘Shitty First Drafts’, which you’ll find here.

Returning to the question of how I wrote a book in about 40 hours, the answer is simple: I wrote as quickly as I possibly could.

It really is that ‘simple’

Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security. Neil Gaiman, a talented and prolific author, wrote, ‘hardest by far is the process of simply sitting down and putting one word after another to construct whatever it is you’re trying to build: making it interesting, making it new’.

The key to writing your first draft is to not get too hung up on making it interesting or new. You just need to get the words on the page.

In the revision stages (yes, there are more than one), you polish your writing and shape it into something interesting and new.

How do you stop yourself from getting hung up on the quality of your writing or ideas? Chiefly, by writing as fast as your pen will go or your fingers will type. When we write quickly, we don’t have time to censor ourselves.

Those of us (many of us) with highly developed internal editors struggle with this and experience impostor syndrome as a result.

Silencing your internal editor

You don’t want to do away with your internal editor altogether – you’ll need her when you revise your book. However, if you are struggling to keep her quiet long enough to let you write your first draft, the best thing you can do is to practice freewriting for 5 to 10 minutes a day for several weeks. This involves writing whatever comes into your head during that time – don’t let your pen leave the page and don’t go back to correct mistakes. To learn more about freewriting, click here.

You also need to remind yourself that all good writers produce multiple drafts. This is what I say about drafting in Chapter 9 of my book:

Unless your goal is to irritate your reader, the first draft is never the final draft (neither is the second or third draft, for that matter). The idea that a ‘true artist’ or a ‘real writer’ doesn’t need to produce draft after draft has been with us for a long time. It goes all the way back to the Greeks with Athena springing fully formed from Zeus’s head. You wouldn’t expect a newborn to get a job and be a productive member of society, so don’t expect your first draft to be your final draft.

There’s a Book in Every Expert

I assume your draft is not Athena, so it doesn’t need to be perfect! Keep reminding yourself of this until you believe it. Use it as your mantra, meditate on it, do whatever you have to do to convince yourself your draft doesn’t need to be perfect.

After all, your first draft’s only job is to be finished!

Works cited

Gaiman, Neil. ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ Retrieved from: https://www.neilgaiman.com/Cool_Stuff/Essays/Essays_By_Neil/Where_do_you_get_your_ideas%3F

Jones, Jennifer. There’s a Book in Every Expert (that’s you!): How to write your credibility building book in six months (Maggie Cat Books, 2020).

Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anchor Books, 1995).

Don’t commit intellectual property theft

I’ve had a few clients lately who had concerns about how to responsibly use other people’s words and ideas. In other words, they wanted to know how to be sure they weren’t committing intellectual property (IP) theft.

What is intellectual property?

We’ll start with the UK government’s definition of IP:

Intellectual property is something unique that you physically create. An idea alone is not intellectual property. For example, an idea for a book doesn’t count, but the words you’ve written do. (https://www.gov.uk/intellectual-property-an-overview)

IP is property, and just as stealing someone else’s physical things has legal consequences, so does stealing their IP.

In the UK (if you live elsewhere, check the laws in your country), written work is automatically protected by copyright. You don’t have to register it anywhere.

Why should you be concerned about it?

Plagiarism is the proper term for IP in written work. Another way of thinking about it is presenting someone else’s work as your own. We all knew at school we weren’t supposed to do this, but in the business world the consequences can be far more severe than a failing mark on an assignment.

If you commit IP theft, at the very least you risk ruining your reputation. At worst, you risk facing legal proceedings because IP theft can, in certain circumstances, be a criminal offense.

How do you avoid IP theft?

The short answer is to give credit where credit’s due: reference all of your sources. This doesn’t necessarily have to involve using the, sometimes, convoluted referencing systems used by academics, but you will need a system of some sort.

In this section, I’ll explain the one I use.

Above, I quoted the gov.uk page on intellectual property. When I introduced the quotation, I mentioned the source (UK government), and immediately after the quotation, I gave my readers the link so they could find the quotation themselves.

If you were to quote a book, it would look like this:

In No Plot? No Problem! Chris Baty encourages writers to stay hydrated; he says, ‘Beverage scientists have discovered that dehydration is one of the main factors in making a person feel tired’ (82).

In this example, the underlined words are mine and those enclosed in inverted commas are Baty’s. I’ve given the page number in parentheses.

The words in bold introduce the quotation and include a shortened form of the full title: No Plot? No Problem! A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days. I’ve used the shortened form because my reader doesn’t need the full title to make sense of the point about staying hydrated. I’ll give the full title in my works cited list (aka bibliography) at the end of this post.

I hope it’s obvious that we must cite direct quotations; we’re using someone else’s words, so we need to indicate that to our readers.

We also need to cite all paraphrased or summarised passages – in these, we use our own words, but someone else’s ideas and must give them credit.[1]

Finally, remember that it is possible to plagiarise yourself. If all of your work is self-published, this isn’t likely to cause any problems. However, if you publish something through a traditional publishing house or in a collection for which someone else owns the copyright, it could become an issue.

Works cited

Baty, Chris. No Plot? No Problem! A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days (Chronicle Books, 2014).

Gov.uk. ‘Intellectual Property and Your Work’, https://www.gov.uk/intellectual-property-an-overview


[1] When you paraphrase a part of a text, you change the words and sentence structure but include all of the detail. When you summarise a text, your summary is in your own words and it only includes the main points.