Are you sitting comfortably?
Then I'll begin ...
Once upon a time, (last night actually) I attended the Brit Writers' Awards at the O2. G and I were sitting at a table with a very nice group of people but one woman in particular stood out for her warmth and friendliness and she shared her personal story with us.
Catherine Cooper worked as a primary school teacher for 29 years until four years ago, at the age of 50, she was simultaneously diagnosed with both breast cancer and a debilitating genetic condition resulting in severe disability. She was forced to take immediate retirement on medical grounds, thereby losing her health and the job she loved in one devastating double whammy.
As we all know, we can't control what life throws at us. All we can control is how we react to the hand we're dealt. Catherine's response to her situation is awe inspiring.
'I always said I'd write a book when I retired,' she told us. 'The retirement came somewhat earlier than anticipated, but I saw it as an opportunity to get going.'
Disabled, pumped full of drugs and in constant pain that prevented her sleeping at night, she began writing a series of children's books, illustrated by her husband.
'I wanted to write the kind of magical fantasy adventure story I would have enjoyed reading to my classes, had I still been teaching,' Catherine said.
She told us it was writing fiction that kept her going through the dark days and nights, and she gave thanks for the chance it gave her to escape from a grim reality into a fictional world of her own making.
Catherine self-published the first three books and began taking them into schools, inspiring children with her love of books and reading. She set herself a target: 500 books to be sold by Xmas; another 500 by Easter; 1500 by the summer. Each target was met and exceeded.
Humble in spite of this impressive success, Catherine was surprised and delighted to be short listed in the BWA children's category. When her name was announced as the winner and we watched Catherine, walking with the aid of two sticks, make her way to accept her award, all of us on the table were choked.
But the story doesn't end there. Oh no ...
The evening wore on, with more uplifting tales of writers achieving their dreams. The only category for published writers was won with universal approval by the mighty Terry Pratchett. All around the O2 applause broke out as each new winner went to collect their awards.
And then ... the grand finale as we waited to hear who had won the overall BWA award. £10,000, an instant book deal, 300 copies of the winner's book already printed and hot from the press, universal acclaim ...
Drum roll, please ...
And the winner was ... Catherine Cooper!
So, if you're one of those people who are always making excuses why they can't write ... or who crumple under life's knockbacks ... or believe dreams can't come true ... be inspired by Catherine's story.
But note: this success didn't come to her out of thin air. It came about through her determination to rise above adversity; her ability to create something positive from the most negative of circumstances; days, weeks and months of sheer hard work; the generosity of her spirit and the magic of her own imagination.
There's no doubt that this is just the first day of the rest of Catherine's life and I'm sure you will be hearing more from her in the future. Meanwhile, you can get a sneaky preview of her Jack Brenin series of books here.
Amazing though it is, Catherine's was not the only magical personal story last night. I was blown away to hear that the winner of the short story category was Helen Hardy, longstanding and valued member of the East Dulwich Writer's Group. (Before anyone suggests corruption, let me hasten to add that I judged the full length novel category, so had no hand in Helen's well-deserved success.)
Helen was unable to accept her award in person because ... she gave birth earlier the same day! How magical is that?
And if I may be so bold, I'd like to add one small piece of personal evidence that I have had a small part to play in The BWA story. On page 5 of the souvenir brochure there were quotes from Cameron, Clegg, Alex Salmond, a Local Literacy Leader, a member of the Muslim Writers' Awards (from which BWA grew) and two judges. One of them was Professor Thom Brookes.
Guess who the other was ...
Here's what I said:
With the dire situation currently reflected in the publishing industry, and the almost insurmountable difficulties faced by new writers in achieving that elusive first deal, initiatives like the BWA provide a much-needed and welcome opportunity for new authors to receive recognition for their writing.
So there we go. That's the end of the (true) fairy tale and I hope all involved live happily ever after.
As for you, what are you waiting for? Come on. No excuses now. Get writing!