Category Archives: Getting published

The call of the wild

At a meeting of The Singapore Writer’s Group this week, I was reminded of the importance of playing and experimenting with language. When you’re busy learning the craft of writing a novel, as I am, there’s a tendency to focus on the mechanics – character development, dialogue, structuring a plot.

I think carefully about the words I use because I want to achieve an economy of language and capture exactly the right metaphor and so on. Mastering all this brings great satisfaction, but in this pursuit of writing a well-crafted book that will sell, have I forgotten to play? I mean really revel in words and let the imagination run wild.

Authors do play with language but then they tame it, discipline it, strap it down and, after a while, it comes out walking to heel. This is part of learning your craft. You learn to use language effectively to create story, suspense, subtext and to make your reader fully believe in your world.

Then a song-writer called Parijat Mishra read a short piece to our writers’ group that was like a wolf howl to my urban fox brain. He had wanted to write something like a dream, a piece of art, a painting with words. And so he read us Tough Syrup, (it’s the second story in his blog) which we decided was a ‘prose poem’. Me included. The automatic reflex to put it in a box. We loved it, were confused and impressed by it in equal measure and called for story, discipline. And that is what his work needs if his intention is to write a short story or a novel. But I don’t think this is his aim. Not with that piece, anyway. He’s an artist at play. He achieved what he wanted and created a piece of art. His imagery was disturbing, surreal and extraordinary. It was an outpouring of imagination, a dreamscape painted with words.

One writer saw it as a comment on the emasculated male in a female world, I saw it as a comment on living in Singapore where everything is made safe and how suffocating that can be. It provoked thought and we brought our own interpretations to it. And that, I think, makes it art. We recognised that it was raw and wild and ugly and beautiful.

I hope Parijat does develop and apply discipline to his writing because his work reminded me of Kurt Vonnegurt and that kind of talent should be recognised. And at the same time, I like that it’s wild. I like that it roams the boundaries. So thank you, Parijat, and thank you to The Singapore Writers’ Group and all who shared their work, for the inspiration.

Hope shimmers on the horizon

The new year has started with a glimmer of hope. I sent the first three chapters of The Smuggler’s Daughter  to a small independent press in Dublin after I heard the managing editor speak at a SCBWI retreat at the end of 2011. I received a lovely email back saying she was ‘impressed’ by my work and I had ‘real talent’ and she wanted to see the rest. Woohoo!

This was tempered by her preparing me for the ‘not right for our list’ rejection as they are a small press and only have one historical title which is also set in Napoleonic times. But she still wanted to read it and she was interested to hear my ideas for my next project. Hope shimmers on the horizon. I’m praying it’s not a mirage.

Are the stars are aligning, at last? Or maybe it’s just taking a positive step like going to a writing retreat that is continuing to reverberate in opportunity and  possibility. I needed the encouragement and support of fellow writers. They understand about the process, about dealing with rejection, about picking yourself up, about persevering. Steve Hartley, who wrote the children’s series Danny Baker Record Breaker, spoke about how it took him 15 years to get published and was afraid that might discourage us. But as someone who has spent 12 years writing (well 10 years writing and two years sulking), it gave me hope. I wasn’t alone.

I’m happy putting the time and effort in to learn the craft. With each of my three books, I’ve got better and got closer, getting shortlisted for competitions and having agents ask to see the rest of my book after years of standard rejection letters. Then, with Smugglers, which I wrote for my MA in Creative Writing (another of those positive steps), I found my voice and got lots of agent interest and a couple wanting to represent me. And then came the barrage of publishers’ rejections and two years of writer’s block.

It’s  harder to pick yourself up when you’ve got so close. But it’s what you have to do and my fellow writers encouraged me not to lose faith in the book. Children’s author Patricia Forde (Hedgehogs do Not Like Heights) gave me the nudge I needed to talk to the editor about Smuggler’s and it worked. It’s being considered again.

Wordism: Take positive steps to achieving your goal of finishing your book or getting it published. Take courses, go on retreats, join a writer’s group, network all you can, develop an online presence.

Just after the retreat, I discovered that my MA friend Liz Trenow had got a two-book deal with Harper Collins’ Avon imprint for her book The Last Telegram. Again, it gives me hope that it can and does happen. The following day, I saw a familiar name on the SCBWI Facebook page. Tina Orr-Munro – a former colleague from my days as a journalist. She had a book cover as her Facebook photo, Ellie Foster’s English Courseworkand sure enough, when I got in touch, I discovered that she too had got published. Not only that, but she’d been through the same journey as me. She’d got an agent only to be knocked back by the big publishers. She gave up writing for two years then decided to try some small independent presses and, hey presto, Rickshaw jumped at it.

The right book has to land on the right desk at the right time. You can have the talent. You can have the craft. But what you really need is luck. I wish you lots of it!

Egmont UK – what the editors say

I went along to the first of the SCBWI Professional Series events in London last night and heard commissioning editors Peter Marley and Ali Dougal talk about what Egmont UK is looking for in a manuscript.

Egmont publish Lemony Snicket and Mr Gum but is publishing more teenage fiction now, picking up on the paranormal trend with The Dark Divine by Bree Despain. The vampire trend is beginning to fall off, according to Ali, but paranormal is still going strong with angels and werewolves taking up the slack. Michael Morpurgo’s brilliant War Horse is on Egmont’s list and the film, directed by Stephen Spielberg, is out soon.

With a picture book, Peter Marley is looking for ‘iconic’, memorable characters that are full of personality. He likes funny or quirky characters. Writing must be concise – around 800 words – and age appropriate. There should be a good story arc and a strong ending.

Ali Dougal deals with young fiction (age 5+) through to YA and crossover. She’s is looking for a clear ‘hook’. By which she means a plot you can hold in the palm of your hand, a high concept.  She has to champion a book to her sales and marketing team at the acquisition meeting, so it needs to be an easily understood, marketable concept. One submission that stood out recently, she said, was a book called Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick (brilliant title), a YA action thriller that was fast paced and fun. It was ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off meets Kill Bill‘. This hook helped her pitch it to the acquisition team.  It’s due out later this year.

To make Ali sit up and take notice, it needs one or more of the following: A stunning voice, mass market appeal, a character she loves or something genuinely funny. It can be commercial or have prize-winning potential. If it has both, all the better. International appeal (they have offices in the US and Australia) or film potential also hits the right buttons. Basically, she has to absolutely love it and it has to have the potential to ‘sell by the truckload.’ Publishing is a business, after all.

Ali mentioned a couple of other memorable submissions, also out later this year. The Shadowing, a horror series for boys aged 10+, which had a clear series arc, was commercial and the writing was great. And Dear Dylan, a coming of age story written in email form which dealt with issues but was also fun and had a very real voice.

Egmont is the biggest children’s publisher in the UK and one of the only ones that still accept unsolicited manuscripts. A junior staff member will read them first and pass those they like to an editor. But Ali warned that they receive 180 unsolicited submissions in a two week period so it does take time. If you have an agent, of course, it will go straight to an editor. But all submissions are read. Send your manuscripts to: childrensreader@euk.egmont.com

Thanks to SCBWI for hosting a great event.

Getting to the top of the slush pile

Yesterday evening I was out celebrating with some writing buddies from my old creative writing MA class because one of our number has got a book deal with HarperCollins in the US. A big cheer for David John. Well done, mate and well deserved.

It gives me hope because it’s tough out there for new writers. David hasn’t got a UK deal yet, which is bizarre as his book is a thriller set around the 1936 Berlin Olympics and, with London hosting the 2012 Olympics, you’d think UK publishers would be snapping it up. I expect a UK deal will follow soon but publishers do seem to be risk averse at the moment. And new writers are a risk. It’s understandable, I guess, in the current economic climate, but not helpful to those of us trying to get our first publishing deal.

So how do you get to the top of the slush pile? How do you differentiate yourself?

1. First off, it helps to have a high concept idea or a unique selling point. By high concept I mean like Vampirates. (This is particularly the case with children’s or YA novels.) You need a strong, marketable idea with a plot you can sum up in a sentence or two. Another writer friend Liz Trenow comes from a silk-weaving family and her book, currently being pitched, is set in a factory manufacturing parachute silk during the second world war. It’s a quirky take on the genre and her knowledge of silk is a great USP. It makes her, the author, marketable as well as the book.

2. You need a brilliantly written, well structured novel. That means sympathetic characters, page-turning plot and a strong voice. Get feedback from other writers before you send it out to an agent. This could be through an online community like Writewords, people you’ve met on a writing course or a professional literary consultancy like Cornerstones. Criticism, when it’s constructive, can be enormously helpful. There will be some criticism that you just don’t agree with but often people will pick up on something that you’ve felt unsure about yourself. Listen to that. Sometimes you’ll know there’s a problem in your work but you can’t quite pinpoint it. That’s when you need a fresh pair of eyes to look at it. Your book needs to be the best it can be before you send it out.

3. When approaching an agent, presentation is important. (Read the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook for guidance.) Check for spelling mistakes and make sure it’s in the format that a particular agent or publisher prefers – usually three chapters, a synopsis and a covering letter.

4. But for an agent to get to the book, you need to stand out in that covering letter. Showing professionalism, that you take your craft seriously, will get them to sit up and take notice. Having done creative writing courses / retreats / an MA will help. If you’ve won or been short-listed for a writing competition, mention that. (Writing magazines often run such competitions.)

5. Belonging to a writing organisation will also help distinguish yourself from the crowd. For instance, I belong to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Such organisations are great for networking with other writers. But often they’ll get agents / publishers/ published authors to give talks. And if you’re approaching an agent or editor, having met them or having heard them speak somewhere is going to get their attention. It means you can say: ‘At the SCBWI conference this year, you said you’d be interested in seeing a good ghost story…’ That kind of personal connection is invaluable.

Good luck!