Could you write a school-based best-seller?

27th April 2006 at 01:00
You don't have to tell me how hard it is. TES readers are constantly trying to tap the same source as Zoe Heller whosenbsp;Notes on a Scandal was shortlisted for the Booker and is currentlynbsp;packing cinemas,nbsp;or Jilly Cooper whose Wicked! was based on four years of research in schools.

They kindly send me their efforts: an average of one novel a month set in a school, with a cluster towards the end of the summer holiday.

Some authors are looking for a publisher and submit their hard work in a ring-binder; many have taken the self-publishing route, having been rejected by publishers and agents (or just because it appeals).

I haven't yet found a book that I want to pass on to someone else's slush pile, but I send many of them out for review, and publish reviews for those about which the reviewer and I agree that there is something constructive to say. The most common faults cited in reviews (always written by people familiar with schools) are lack of editing and the sheer dullness of some of the detail. And, sometimes and rather strangely, too much swearing.

Why you shouldn't give up the day job...
Staffrooms are full of villains, saints and eccentrics ripe for characterisation and a building packed with so many hopes and fears ought to be able to deliver high drama. But as one of our regular reviewers put it, "the essential smallness of school life seems to lurk in permanent ambush".

It's hard to make education page-turning material that will sell to outsiders. In general teachers who want to write fiction are probably best advised to cut their teeth on a story about something - anything - else.

Or, if you are going to write about school life, don't try to do all of it. Roddy Doyle, who was in the classroom when he started his career by self-publishing The Commitments, was inspired by his North Dublin teenage pupils and their language but wrote about their lives out of school.

Two warnings
First, authors who are writing for revenge on their head, governors, inspector or pupils should be aware that if the same story as a piece of journalism would be libellous, any fictional treatment worth reading is equally likely to see you in court.

Second, it's hard to write well about sex too (that's why publishers enjoy their annual Bad Sex Award so much) and authors who successfully tackle sex and schools in the same book are invariably experienced writers already. If there are gaps in their staffroom lore, they can fall back on storytelling ability.

Learn from the professionals
Jilly Cooper turned to schools after a long full-time career in commercial fiction and spent four years researching and writing Wicked!, in the course of which she built on her existing affection and respect for teachers and children.

Weighing in at about a third of Wicked!'s mass, journalist Daisy Waugh's Bed of Roses, a romantic comedy starring Fanny Flynn and her battle to save her special-measures primary, was published last year. Bed of Roses was Waugh's fourth novel; it wore its research lightly, getting the essential facts about rural schools right but not labouring the education content while the storyline spilled into village life and loves.

Zoe Heller's Notes on a Scandal, shortlisted for the Booker in 2003, shows a sketchy knowledge of schools but is both riveting and chilling as a tale of a teacher-pupil affair and a stifling staffroom friendship.

Meanwhile former French teacher Joanne Harris, after a clutch of successful novels with no whisper of a school setting, in 2005 published Gentlemen and Players, set in a traditional grammar not a million miles from Leeds grammar school where she has taught.

The fictional school is almost a character in its own right, as an institution which harbours secrets and a resentful "enemy within", but the story is above all a strong psychological drama that happens to take place in a school. Sex is barely hinted at, but the departmental politics are at least as absorbing: that's how you know it was written by a teacher.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today