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This month Stranger Than Fiction member Colin Salter tells us how he got his break in non-fiction writing.

Apparently there’s no such thing as a Job For Life anymore. A careers officer told me five years ago that we can all expect to have at least three different careers over the course of our working lives. Not counting diverse casual jobs (including my two-year stint as a picker-packer for a mail order hotel supplies company) I think I’m up to an even half-dozen now.

It took me 47 years to admit to myself that the best thing about any job I ever had was the parts of it that allowed me to write. I would volunteer to edit the in-house newsletter, insist on writing a report, even sex up the minutes of the union meetings. Any excuse for wordcraft. But despite that I stubbornly insisted that I was a hands-on maker and do-er, a rude mechanical – definitely not an intellectual, a writer or thinker.

Without “going there,” I can safely say that a forceful father who was an old-school English Literature lecturer may have had something to do with my resolute resistance to words. He certainly drove me to a lifelong passion for obscure alternative early 70s prog rock (ooh, twin guitars) through which, in a strange way, I came to my writing vocation.

No, it wasn’t liner notes for a 5CD Grateful Dead retrospective. I was in an internet chatroom for Manfans – hardy obsessives of the legendary Welsh band Man, or Manoraks as we actually chose to call ourselves – when the writer-editor of their fanzine came online. A hugely successful rock and sport journalist, he’d been commissioned to write a book that really wasn’t in any of his fields of expertise; did anyone in the room fancy themselves as a budding writer? Almost involuntarily my e-hand shot up; what was it about, I asked? Birdwatching. Not very rock and roll.

But I reckoned, what with the union meeting minutes and the fact that I had a bird table in the garden, I was as qualified as the next Manfan. Long story short, I wrote it and it went well – although the brief was to write a companion to a DVD in a Christmas Gift set, and they substituted another DVD without telling me, which made my book look a bit foolish in places! Since then I’ve had around a dozen further commissions from that journalist alone (including some CD liner notes), and I now have a CV which gets me work from other sources too (www.colinsalter.co.uk since you ask).

Beyond any inherent talent, it seems to me that it’s all down to luck, or at least the luck you make by networking, either accidental or deliberate: being in the right place at the right time. The most surprising consequence of that first break was a commission to ghost-write a University of Chicago text on marine gastropods – seashells to you and me – on the basis that, as a published bird author, I must have a natural history speciality.

No, just a bird table.

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