Friday, 10 January 2014

How a copywriter becomes a children's author, part 1

This is part 1 in a 2-part post: The birth of a children's author will follow next week.
There's no stranger life, I'm sure, than being a writer.
You've probably heard that before, nothing new there. Long periods of silence
Icarus, Alexander Deineke
and stillness, where one lives entirely in one's head, are followed by intense bouts of socializing and reading in public. It's a curious mixture of talents. But people ask me a lot: how does one BECOME a children's author? I'm sure everyone's journey is different, is my usual answer (with "great writers are born, not made" ringing in my head, a sentiment I happen to not agree with, by the way). 
As I move further into the world of being a children's author, and slowly watch my copywriting life recede quietly on the leafy path behind me, I realize how beautifully these two professions dovetail into each other. 
I've been thinking a lot lately about why that is...
I've been incredibly lucky in my writing life. I'll tell you how I got here, but believe me, much of a writer's life is luck. Yes, there's early education, drive, hard work, trial and error, and skill of course. There's the need to read everything, to absorb language and media, to instinctively understand and feel different writing styles, to keep trying ... but nothing can replace a fantastic early employer.
My first job after graduate school, was as a production assistant in the circulation department at Key Porter Publishing in Toronto. They published Your Money and Canadian Business magazines, but the building also held the staff for Quill & Quire, Toronto Life, Where magazines and others. I was surrounded by smart young journalists and editors, and made contacts there that I still cherish, 25 years later. My cousin was an editor at Q&Q, and gave me my first taste of review writing (I wasn't very good at it, and still haven't quite got the knack). Key Porter's offices were above the Organ Grinder restaurant on Front Street. Likely no one remembers the Organ Grinder, but they did indeed have an organ, which they ground with abandon after six o'clock. If you were working late, you knew when it was time to go: the organ vibrating in the floor beneath your feet chased you from the building. It made for a hilarious carnival workplace atmosphere! That job, which only lasted six months, was my crash course in marketing and promotion. I went to press approvals, lettershops, data houses, and I sat in on marketing meetings. I was fascinated, watching words turn into art, then into film (this was the pre-digital mid-90s world), then into print, then into a mailed piece.
After Key Porter, I was hired as Production Supervisor in the circulation department at the Financial Post (thank you Mike Fox!), which was turning from broadsheet newspaper to daily tabloid that year. I already had an MA in English, but that job was my Masters in Business. This was in the Sun building on Front St. in Toronto, the huge web presses were in the building then, and at six o’clock, they fired up for the evening print run. Paper fell off desks, the windows rattled, chairs vibrated underneath you. If working above the Organ Grinder added a carnival atmosphere, working at the Sun after-hours was like sitting on top of a restless, grumbling dragon.
For three years, I learned how to balance a print budget, work with designers, printers, newspaper journalists, editors, cartoonists, illustrators, circulation directors, publishers and ... copywriters. I was instantly drawn to these chameleons of the written word.
I had lunch with them, hung out with them after hours, begged my boss to let me write last minute copy for our department so as not to bug them with our insignificant stuff. My boss relented. I was so thrilled, and spent hours listening to the presses roar beneath me, while labouring over brochure headlines, bullets, and body copy. I’m sure I spent more time on my first headline for a circulation renewal brochure than the journalists and editors on the floors below me spent on investigative and op ed pieces. Nothing was too small or insignificant for me, every job was important. Soon, I was freelancing as a copywriter, but I kept my day job in production.
Then, one day I got a phone call. A freelance client needed a full time copywriter, fast. And that was it, hard work paid off. And I was lucky: a job turned up. I went to work full time at Maclean Hunter publishing, as their senior copywriter in the circulation department.
And this was my PhD in writing, working among a full department of magazine designers, writers and marketers. We went on retreats – retreats! – to learn how to write and produce great work. We were sent to seminars and experts came to us: for a full year we had a monthly visit from a New York advertising consultant, flown in to Toronto to teach us how to be better writers and communicators. I’m not kidding. As a writer, those days were fantastic. We’d get an assignment, we’d write it, he’d review it and tell us how to make it better, all in one day. I remember a full day learning how to write better subscription blow-in cards (the ones that fall out at your feet when you open the magazine, yes, I was very, very good at those). Sadly, I’m sure we were the last generation of marketing writers who got such fantastic training.
For ten years I wrote everything, and I mean everything, for circulation marketing for Maclean’s, Canadian Business, Profit, Marketing magazine, Today’s Parent, then later HELLO! Copy for envelopes (get that envelope opened!), letters, renewals, invoices, newspaper inserts, in-book ads, in-book cards, transit ads, radio ads, speeches, letters from the publisher, 12-page magalog inserts in a national campaign for Maclean’s magazine, corporate letters to national sales divisions, and on and on.
I was so lucky, so very, very lucky, to have twenty plus years of learning exactly how to speak to people on a grand scale, and how to elicit a response. I learned how to treat every single reader like an individual, and how to express, exactly and succinctly and in an entertaining way, what they were supposed to do next. Pick up the phone and order now. Turn the page. Keep reading. Order a magazine subscription. Renew. Pay your invoice. Order a gift. Do it now. Here’s how. It’s easy. Here’s why you should, once again.
What a perfect crucible for a children’s author: every word counts, every word is valuable, and here’s how to keep vast numbers of very different people turning the page and nodding their heads. Here’s how to get them to DO something, to read, to enjoy, to agree to spend time with you after you’ve extended your writer’s hand, from the very first word.
More than all that though, my copywriting life has taught me how to be brave and experimental, and how to know and trust my voice, to take risks and wave my creative flag, how to be a chameleon at the carnival, writing on top of a dragon. 
Then, in the mid- and late 1990s, my children arrived.

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