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Five great tips to help us keep our dreams alive!

PUBLISHED: 15:30 31 January 2020 | UPDATED: 13:31 07 February 2020

Usborne have gone to town with publicity for the book, sending out review copies wrapped in a fictionalised Edwardian map of Cambridge   Picture: STEVEN RUSSELL

Usborne have gone to town with publicity for the book, sending out review copies wrapped in a fictionalised Edwardian map of Cambridge Picture: STEVEN RUSSELL

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In just a few years, Ann-Marie has gone from novice writer to a two-book deal. What can we learn from her?

Ann-Marie Howells day job is with West Suffolk Council, in planning policy   Picture: USBORNEAnn-Marie Howells day job is with West Suffolk Council, in planning policy Picture: USBORNE

She read a lot as a child, wrote little stories and "obsessively" kept a diary up to her 20s, but Ann-Marie Howell never thought of herself as a potential professional author. Surely not a dream for a girl from "an ordinary comprehensive school" who seemed to have missed out on formal training in grammar. Literary stuff faded into the background as she went to the University of Manchester (geography and town planning), worked in local government, met husband-to-be Jeremy in a Sainsbury's checkout queue and had two children.

It was only in her 40s - with a bit more time available, once her boys were more independent - that Ann-Marie had the chance to read more. And start thinking that, just maybe, she could write something of her own.

In 2015 she won a place on a "creative writing for children" course. An agent followed. But three stories failed to hook a publisher.

A real sticky patch came in 2017. The third offering was with a publisher's acquisitions department when Jeremy became really poorly with pneumonia. Ann-Marie then learned the publisher was passing on her tale.

She told her husband, still in hospital, and said she didn't know if she could write yet another. He had faith and urged her not to give up.

For distraction, Ann-Marie later went for a walk on the National Trust's Ickworth estate, near her adopted hometown of Bury St Edmunds. She had a brainwave: to switch from contemporary teen fiction to historical stories.

Scenes from the clock collection at Moyses Hall Museum, Bury St Edmunds   Picture: West Suffolk Heritage ServiceScenes from the clock collection at Moyses Hall Museum, Bury St Edmunds Picture: West Suffolk Heritage Service

Debut novel The Garden of Lost Secrets was published by Usborne last summer, fuelled by a gardener's 100-year-old notebook found at Ickworth.

On February 6 the 47-year-old's second novel is out. The House of One Hundred Clocks, aimed at youngsters aged from about nine to 12 and set in 1905, was inspired by a clock collection in Bury (though the house is set in Cambridge).

At Moyse's Hall Museum, Ann-Marie was taken by the story of Frederic Gershom Parkington. In the 1950s, he bequeathed the borough his clocks, in honour of son John, who died during the war. What prompted the professional cellist to collect the timepieces?

Later, she was at The Clockmakers' Museum in London's Science Museum when everything began chiming - "an amazing sound".

They must all be wound by someone, Ann-Marie mused. Maybe the fictional collector in her story could have a clock-winder who comes. If the ticking ever stops, everything will be lost.

Sitting pretty, then? Well, Ann-Marie says that although she secured an agent quite quickly, it took another three years to have a book accepted. "It wasn't easy, and I used that failure to spur me on, really."

Moyse's Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds, where Ann-Marie found inspiration in the clock collection   Picture: West Suffolk Heritage ServiceMoyse's Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds, where Ann-Marie found inspiration in the clock collection Picture: West Suffolk Heritage Service

Here are her "survival tips".

Persistence is everything

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"At the first failure, I could have given up very easily. Every knockback I had, I thought 'Well, I could give up, but, if I do, it will never happen'."

Scenes from the clock collection at Moyse’s Hall Museum, Bury St Edmunds   Picture: West Suffolk Heritage ServiceScenes from the clock collection at Moyse’s Hall Museum, Bury St Edmunds   Picture: West Suffolk Heritage Service

Don't compare yourself to others

"Somebody once said 'Comparison is the thief of joy'. You can be really proud of yourself, then look at someone else and think 'Oh... they've done it better', and it steals the joy you've felt in your own achievement.

"There's always going to be someone who's written a better book than me and had higher sales. I don't think about that. All I think about is how I'm doing and what my achievement is."

Don't forget to mark small achievements

"I wrote three books that didn't get published, but I don't look at those as failures - just part of the journey I went on to get where I am.

Part of the cover of Ann-Marie's new novel   Picture: USBORNEPart of the cover of Ann-Marie's new novel Picture: USBORNE

"I'm just really proud I got enough words together to write three books! Just celebrate the small things you've done: from cooking a recipe to just getting through the day."

It's never too late to learn

"I really started writing in my 40s. I was not taught grammar. I've always loved reading, and just taught myself, really. With the creative writing course, I thought 'I'm just going to try this and give it my all.'

"Don't be half-hearted if you want to pursue something - give it everything."

Scenes from the clock collection at Moyse’s Hall Museum, Bury St Edmunds   Picture: West Suffolk Heritage ServiceScenes from the clock collection at Moyse’s Hall Museum, Bury St Edmunds Picture: West Suffolk Heritage Service

Finally: Better to try, and fail, than wonder what might have been.

Paperback The House of One Hundred Clocks is published by Usborne on February 6, at £6.99

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