Category Archives: interviews

An interview with Tiny Tree

Following blog subscriber and critique customer Fiona Barker’s picture book acceptance by Tiny Tree, I caught up with James Shaw from Matthew James Publishing to ask him about his new picture book imprint and what he might be looking for in a submission.

matthew james publishing ltd.pngWhat made you decide to launch a picture book imprint?  How many picture books are you planning on publishing each year?

Not only am I a big fan of literature in general, I am also a huge art fan and a very visual person. Since taking over MJP I was always excited by the prospect of working on picture books, and as a father of two small boys I am constantly surrounded by the wonderful possibilities so many other publishing companies had produced. For me it was an obvious step. Although it hasn’t been easy, it has been very worthwhile.

As a small independent we don’t have a quota for how many books we publish each year and can be quite picky. Next year though we already have about 10 titles on the way, with many more submissions still filtering through. We like to keep it to no more than 1 a month though.

What length picture book are you looking for?  And do you accept rhyme?

We like to have 32 page picture books, but we will stretch to 48 or drop down to 24 at a push. We have done much longer titles, but we prefer 32 pages as a rule. We accept rhyming and non-rhyming books, the story is the important thing, and as long as it is told well it doesn’t matter if it rhymes or not.  Honestly not always fussed about a particular word count but we do find that around 600 words works best for children’s picture books.

Are there any topics that you are particularly attracted to?  Do you like books with a message?  What about humour?

Humour is really important to us. As a parent it is easier to read a book to my kids 40 times if it is funny. However, we at Tiny Tree love to provide books with a message. Bullying, friendship, loneliness, change, anything that could affect the life of a child is perfect. We want to stand out amongst the crowd, but we also want to provide something to the children, and the parents, above and beyond a beautiful book.

How are your authors paid, eg flat fee or royalties?  Do you pay an advance?  Do you sell foreign rights?

Our contract states a royalty of 10% on print versions, 25% on electronic versions. We also discuss with the author incremental increases in royalties based on sales. We don’t usually pay an advance unless one is required for a piece we absolutely must have. As a small independent we want to focus all our budget on producing and marketing a great product, and we like authors who are focused on that goal as well.

We can and do sell foreign rights, although we haven’t had much opportunity to up to this point. We have done our own translations for titles, to work with the authors from other countries though. Like any traditional publisher we are always looking for new avenues of sales for books and to make sure they get as much exposure as possible.

How do you find illustrators for your picture books?  Is this something the author would get involved in as well?

A multitude of ways really. Sometimes an author/illustrator will come to us with a title they have already illustrated, like Binx the Jinx. Sometimes an author will know someone who they would like to use or they have worked with before, like Russ Brown and Jamie Cosley. Sometimes we get portfolio submissions from illustrators which we keep on file for possible work.

There have only been a couple of times where we have had to find an illustrator from nothing, but there are so many organisations and communities out there that it always very simple. The only problem comes with trying to match up the work and trawling through hundreds of possible illustrators when there so many talented people out there.

What attracted you to Fiona Barker’s book?

Fiona’s book attracted me in a number of ways. First, it was a simple and heart-warming story. There is a message there, but it is surrounded by just a simple, funny, inviting story that makes it easy to read and something I could certainly see myself and others coming back to. Fiona herself is also easy to sell; she provided a great deal of marketing information, she already has a great presence and she has an approachable persona that makes it simple to plan around her.

She also provided us with an illustrator that worked perfectly for her title. Although having something illustrated before submitting can sometimes be problematic, in this case it really worked in her favour.

 

Details on how to submit to Tiny Tree here

Advertisements

An interview with Julia Patton

Julia PattonIn my last blog post I was delighted to share with you that the very talented Julia Patton is the illustrator for Professor McQuark.  I posed her a few questions and I think you’ll agree that, with her hectic schedule, inspired ideas and appreciation for the silly things in life, she is the Professor McQuark of the illustrative world!

Looking at your Amazon Author Page, you are a very busy woman!  How do you choose your next project?  What drew you to Professor McQuark and the Oojamaflip?

It’s true I’m a workaholic! I’m madly in love with my job and my passion for creating children’s picture books makes me skip to my studio each morning. (All of three paces, as my studio is my woodshed in my garden overlooking my vegetable patch!)

I am lucky enough to have a collection of dedicated Bright agents in London and New York who work tirelessly for me, internationally sourcing the newest and hottest authors and publishers to collaborate with. Most weeks a few new jobs pop up! I also source my own new publishers through attending the International Children’s Book fair in Bologna, which I visit each year. It’s a lovely break in the publishing calendar to look forward to during the long hours in the studio. I use this annual opportunity to meet face-to-face with existing international publishers, strengthening those all important relationships. It’s a delight to finally meet someone after 6 moths of daily emails (often at very unsocial hours). Attending the trade fairs is important for me to see the worlds finest publishing houses under one roof. I then can see emerging trends, where my work fits into the market and who is on my next wish list to work with. Very inspiring. Networking with a glass of prosecco is also rather lovely!

Choosing the next project?….rather more difficult than first anticipated. I’d love to say yes to everything, but it’s is impossible. At one intense period I had 6 books on the go simultaneously. As you can imagine this is not sustainable or really giving everyone your best. A freelance creative has to carefully select what works best for them, everyone works differently. I know illustrators who deliberately take weekends off and others that work flexibly around busy families. Unfortunately these decisions usually depend upon timing: what I’m currently working on, what’s lined up for the immediate months and what I have lurking in the not-so-distant-future. Deadlines vary greatly so calculating what I’m capable of achieving to the highest standards has to be estimated. Saying no to any project is very hard. I also specifically put aside time to write and develop my own stories- I have maybe 4/5 ready to pitch, a few in the pea-pod stage and others just scribbles in my sketchbook that require frequent watering to blossom.
Professor McQuark
I was delighted to be offered Professor McQuark from Maverick Publishing as we’d wanted to work together previously  but I’d been too busy unfortunately. Timing. The text was exceptional – if you can visualise each line, word and character on the first read-through you know it’s going to be very special. Exciting, busy and beautifully rhymed! A female professor empowering a new generation of mini-inventors and engineers! YES PLEASE!

How do you come up with a look for your characters?  For example, I love the fact that the Professor has four pairs of glasses!

Character development is important to make each book distinctive, we have to care about our protagonists and this requires creating them with love and attention to detail. A redheaded character can subliminally be seen as the underdog we all secretly champion and we all can imagine what adding copious amounts of freckles to a little boys’ nose can possibly achieve!!! Professor McQuark is so clever and busy that she’d obviously require numerous spectacles and it was also a reference to my childhood hero, Professor Branestawm, who had multiple glasses too.

The level of detail in the illustrations is amazing!  Were you a Richard Scarry fan when you were younger?  Who inspired you?

I believe my role aScience fair walking chairs an illustrator is to illuminate words, suggest the magical and interpret the unspoken. A good illustrator can capture the imagination and hearts of not only the audience, but visually interpret the emotions of characters and the adventures they explore. We have the tangible tools of colour, tone, texture and composition at our disposal and the responsibility to capture audible drama, anticipation, and physical emotions. The pause that a ‘page-turn’ gives offers an illustrator infinite possibilities. I love the idea that nothing is impossible to render and breathe life into. It can be quite an overwhelming responsibility and challenge sometimes. Professor McQuark was an amalgamating of many of my historical visual influences: Lego manuals I poured over for hours, and my beloved Richard Scarry (whose books I read as regularly now as in my infant years). Not forgetting Heath Robinson. Many days have been lost in delight fanatically deliberating how his contraptions were created. I loved discovering a 1912 dictionary definition of ‘Heath Robinson-esque’ as an “Absurdly ingenious and impracticable device” Even my children’s love of Wallace and Gromit is a modern embodiment of the same theme. A perfect partnership for Professor McQuark I thought!

I love the Science Fair page with all the wacky inventions you have come up with.  What is your favourite illustration or spread in the book?

I really Science fair parrot interpreterlove diagrams. All those dotted lines, numerical influences, keys explaining odd symbols has me giddy with excitement. Combined with all those Heath Robinson and Richard Scary influences, the science page was a sheer delight. Your description of each object was delicious, just enough to give me a spring-board and leaving just enough to the imagination to create the sublime and the ridiculous. You can never underestimate how magical something ‘plain silly’ can be. The science fair page took me almost 2 weeks to create. I loved every second. I’d really like the ‘parrot-interpreter-radio’ to be achievable please – I imagine macaws are just hilarious company.


And finally… Your latest publication is the Children in Need celebrity co-authored book, The Curious Tale of Fi-Rex.  I have to ask: did you get to meet any of the celebrities?  Who came up with the best page?

This new book is raising vital funds for the BBC Children In Need charity which is very close to my heart. It was a huge privilege to be a part of. Fi-Rex is a collaboration between some of the finest sportsmen, musicians and creatives in contemporary society. A bonkers story based around a traditional game of ‘consequences’ which concludes happily I can report! The launch party was really quite marvellous, attended by many famous faces. Trying to give a sense of consistency to so many voices within one book what a delightful challenge. (Between you and I, Bear Grylls’ page was the most atmospheric and tension building – this was my favourite. Shhhhhh!)

Thank you Julia!  We will let you return to your woodshed where no doubt new and amazing illustrations are impatient to burst forth!

www.juliapatton.co.uk

Julia’s Amazon author page

Interview with Penguin Ireland’s Claire Hennessy

Thank you to everyone who suggested questions for Claire Hennessy, children’s author, writing teacher and Penguin Ireland children’s editor.  And thank you Claire for sparing the time to talk to us in between your many commitments!  (Where appropriate I have removed specifics in the questions to make the answers relevant to everyone rather than just the individual concerned.)

Seeds of Liberty by Claire Hennessy

Is Penguin Ireland is open to submissions from across the UK or does it just focus on the Irish market?  How about overseas authors, eg Australia?

We get submissions from all over the place but as Penguin (now Penguin Random House!) is international it’s probably best to approach the division closest/most relevant to where you live.

It is unusual for a big publisher to have an open submission policy.  What are your reasons for this – and are you swamped?!

A little swamped! But in a great way. The publishing scene in Ireland is slightly different to the UK, in that most Irish publishers will deal directly with writers rather than having an agent be almost-essential. Combine that with it being a small country with a huge amount of creative talent – open submissions mean that lack of an agent doesn’t stand in the way. Though there are submissions from agents too, of course.

What word counts are you looking for in the different age ranges?

There’s a really good post here from American literary agent Jennifer Laughran which is worth looking at: http://literaticat.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/wordcount-dracula.html

Generally once something is within the rough parameters of its age group, it’s fine. If it seems not to match up, there are usually other problems with the manuscript in terms of being a fit for the age and genre.

Do you publish fantasy and science fiction?

Currently open to everything (if it’s good!).

Do you accept books that have already been self published?

Never say never. But they’re very tricky. It’s best to submit something new, and include any relevant details (sales figures, etc) about your self-published work.

What information do you like to see in a covering letter?

Basically what it says in the submissions guidelines (http://www.penguin.ie/static/penguinirelandsubmissionguidelines/index.html). Shorter is better. A brief summary of the book – including a word count – and then anything relevant about the writer (e.g. previous writing or other creative experience, bookselling experience, etc). Did I mention shorter is better?

Every Summer by Claire HennessyIn your opinion, is it worthwhile spending money on professional editing services before submitting to agents or publishers, to make a book the best it can be?

It’s definitely worthwhile investing time and energy and (if possible) money into your manuscript and into your writing career, in the same way you would with anything else. That might be working with an editor at a literary consultancy, which, although it can seem pricy, can really help someone view their manuscript differently and also teach them how to edit their own work (current and future) more effectively. Or it might be taking writing workshops, or joining writers’ groups – anything that helps them move past their early drafts and really polish up their work so that it’s as good as it can be. It’s really difficult to learn how to edit your own work – we’re not trained for it in school; it’s a much bigger and more dramatic and often more exciting and creative process than we imagine it might be – but it’s also crucial. Editors and agents are looking for work that is as good as you can make it – and then to work with you to make that as good as you can both make it. ‘Writing is rewriting’ as they say.

What are your views on picture book apps?  Do you think they have a future?  Should picture book writers be writing for this new market?

Picture books are not something I’m handling at the moment but I would agree with the sense that apps need to complement books, and do something different to them, rather than replace them. It’s a different medium. Picture books are still gorgeous physical objects which both parents and kids appreciate.

Would you recommend joining a writers group?  Friends and family, although wonderful, can be too kind. Can you recommend any other way to get honest feedback?

Writers’ groups (which includes online writers’ groups too) can be terrific but the quality varies hugely. You need to ensure that the other writers are at roughly the same level you’re at – e.g. have been writing for a certain amount of time, and also are taking it as seriously as you are – and that they’re prepared to give constructive feedback rather than just telling you what they think you want to hear. Adding new members every so often can also help in terms of keeping things fresh.

If you have friends who are writers, it can be useful to get feedback from them too – but I think it does need to be a reciprocal arrangement and something where you both understand that non-glowing feedback isn’t something that’s going to destroy a friendship.

Non-writer friends and family are to be avoided – too much else going on in those relationships!

With the advent of technology, smart phones and kindles, what is the best piece of advice you can give to a beginner?

Use them! For example: if you’re on your phone the whole time – make notes about your story or your surroundings or an idea you’ve just had, rather than scrolling through Facebook. (And it looks less awkward than pulling out a notebook to scribble down your ideas.) But also: don’t let them distract you too much. There’s a lot of publishing information out there online, which is easily accessible, and brilliant (when I started researching publishing in the ‘90s things were a bit different), but it can distract you from the absolute most important things when it comes to writing: thinking, reading, writing (repeat as needed).

You were first published while still a teenager.  Why do you think there aren’t more books for teens written by teens?

I think there are plenty, actually! I’m currently reading ‘Falling Into Place’ by Amy Zhang, which was written when she was a teen; next up is Alice Oseman’s ‘Solitaire’. Beth Reekles is also terribly young… and then there are American writers like Hannah Moskowitz and Kody Keplinger who are now in their 20s but were first published as teenagers. Not to mention S.E. Hinton of ‘The Outsiders’ fame (1967) who wrote that as a teen. And Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, the American YA horror writer… and Christopher Paolini… and Catherine Webb…

There are definitely teen writers out there but, as with older writers, there are more people submitting manuscripts than getting published. Teens are also, by virtue of their age, more towards the start of their careers, and your chances increase the more you write and the longer you’ve been at it.

When you were in the age group for which you now write, who were your favourite authors (apart from yourself!)?

Oh so many, many of whom are still my favourites – Sarah Dessen, Laurie Halse Anderson, Judy Blume, Paula Danziger, J.K. Rowling, Ann M Martin, Madeleine L’Engle, Jacqueline Wilson.

As a writer, how do you recognise which ideas to ditch and which to run with?

I write down all the ideas so that they’re always there – because sometimes even if they don’t work on their own, or now, they’ll work in the future if combined with something else.

Novels require a whole bunch of different, linked ideas, not just one thing, so I tend to wait until I feel like I have enough ‘stuff’, enough material, to sustain an entire book. That’s usually several pages of notes and scribblings, to be added to as I start writing and more ideas come to me. Once I’m at that stage the challenge isn’t so much ideas as it is the motivation and discipline that comes with any long-term project.

You can keep up with Claire at www.clairehennessy.com and follow her on Twitter at @clairehennessy

 

Send me your questions for Claire Hennessy, children’s editor at Penguin Ireland

I’m delighted to say I will be interviewing the children’s editor at Penguin Ireland, Claire Hennessy, in the next couple of weeks.   As some of you may have read on my Twitter feed, Penguin Ireland are accepting unsolicited children’s and YA manuscripts.  With that in mind I thought it would be nice to get some questions together from all of us rather than just me, so if you’d like to send a question, please put it in the comments section below, or if you prefer to be all mysterious and anonymous (perfectly all right if you do), you can email me your question at lou.treleaven@sky.com.

Claire is also the author of ten young adult novels and a historical children’s novel, plus she teaches creative writing, so I’m sure she won’t mind if questions veer on to general writing advice as well as Penguin.

Claire’s website is at www.clairehennessy.com and the submission guidelines for Penguin Ireland children’s books are here.

An interview with Martyn Beardsley

Following my visit to author Martyn Beardsley’s blog, he has kindly agreed to answer some of my own questions.  Martyn is an interesting character, having achieved success in several genres and age groups.  He is probably best known for his series of humorous children’s books about the useless knight Sir Gadabout, which was also turned into a CITV television programme.  Yes, he has lived the dream!

Sir Gadabout Does His Best by Martyn BeardsleyTell us about your first success – Sir Gadabout.  How did the idea come about?  What was your publication journey?

I had recently read and been captivated by Thomas Mallory’s Mort D’Arthur, and had attempted an adult novel about one of the lesser-known Round Table knights. That didn’t get anywhere and I was at a bit of a loose end when the idea of a silly story for children about King Arthur’s knights popped into my head. The publication journey was quite long! It was turned down by around eleven publishers before I was lucky enough to get picked up by Orion, who were prepared to work with me on what was a rambling, over-long manuscript.

You went on to have a really varied writing career which goes against the advice often given to stick to one area!  Did you have any pressure to stay in a certain genre/age group?

No, no pressure to stick to one thing. I wrote a children’s timeslip book (also unsuccessful!) but became interested in the real-life captain of a nineteenth century Arctic expedition I’d incorporated into the story (Sir John Franklin). When I found there was no recent biography of him, I decided to write my own! That led on to other historical writing and more confidence in branching out. I also realised that if I wanted to make even a modest part-time living from writing I would need to be an opportunist, and try my hand at anything I thought there was an opening for.

What are your tips tips for writing for children?

Study the market! Working as a freelance for writers’ advisory services I get lots of manuscripts from people who have clearly decided ‘Oh, I’ll have a go at a story for kinds – that must be easier than an adult one.’ In my opinion, it’s actually harder to get a children’s book published (unless you’re a celebrity!) I see many manuscripts that simply don’t fit any publisher’s lists because they’re the wrong length for the age group or whatever, and the writers clearly haven’t given it any thought (just like me when I started!) And remember that the story is the thing. I also get plenty of manuscripts where the writer has concentrated on a situation, a character or an issue etc., and overlooked the basic structure of story-telling – which I would sum up in a nutshell as a problem established very early on that the hero needs to solve by the end.

How do you test out the humour in your books?  Do you read them to anyone or do you write what makes you laugh yourself?

I’ve never tested my humour out on anyone, and my rule of thumb is simply that if it appeals to my child-like sense of humour it will hopefully appeal to children! Most of what I consider to be the funniest bits of my books just came out of nowhere, as if someone had told me what joke to put in next – to the extent that (and I probably shouldn’t say this!) it often makes me laugh out loud. I think with my kind of humour you have to work with a mischievous frame of mind, and always be looking to see how you can extract the most silliness out of a situation.

Do you work on one project at a time or many things?  How do you cope with floods of ideas and sifting through what might work and what might not?

I work on several things at a time, which is a bad habit and not something I would recommend! I just have a restless mind and I’m always looking out for the next Big Idea. But it’s partly necessity if you are trying to write for a living – if an opportunity arises you just have to go for it even if you’re in the middle of something else. But you also need to be a good planner and realistic about deadlines, and I’m proud to say I’ve never missed one. I think you can make most decent ideas, ones that interest you, work – especially with fiction. Non-fiction is a bit trickier nowadays. When I started out it used to be said that any good idea would eventually find a publisher – but now times are much harder and they all use the phrase ‘not commercial enough’ a lot.

Do you have an agent?

Not really. Andrew Lownie took me on for an adult project that never got off the ground. I have had two children’s agents in the past. One I got on really well with but it just didn’t work out, and another I felt very badly let down by and severed my relationship with. The best thing I found about having a children’s agent was that they pass briefs on to you from publishers who, say, are looking for authors for a particular series. Those are the kinds of openings you simply don’t find out about otherwise. And as you know only too well, it’s now quite difficult to get publishers to look at your work unless it’s through an agent.

What are you working on now and what are your future plans?

I’m working on a book about the Battle of Waterloo for the adult historical market, having just finished a spooky children’s novel that is currently doing the rounds. I’d really like to write a thriller, and in fact started one a while back but ran into a brick wall with it. I might go back to it, but I’d also like to write a follow-up to Murder in Montague Place my Victorian detective novel featuring Inspector Bucket from Bleak House – which I really enjoyed writing.

What encouragement can you give to writers submitting manuscripts?

Sadly, this is a very difficult time to get published.  Study your craft – publishable-standard writing very rarely comes naturally. Don’t be in a rush to submit – put your manuscript away for a bit and then come back to it and polish it. Listen to criticism, especially if the same themes keep cropping up from people reading your stuff. But don’t be put off by rejections – it’s well known that many best sellers were initially rejected numerous times. It all boils down to people’s opinions, and as William Goldman said, ultimately: “Nobody knows anything”.

Thank you, Martyn!

Trudi Granger’s success story

I am delighted to share the success story of Trudi Granger, a reader of this blog, who is due to have her picture book ‘Always There Bear’ published next month by Top That! Publishing.

Always There Bear by Trudi Granger

What is your background and how long have you been writing for?

Ahh my background….. banking law!  For quite a few years I was a senior associate in Australia.  So, in a sense I have been ‘writing’ for years, in the form of loan agreements and other finance documents, as well as legal articles.  However it was not until 3 years ago when I returned to the UK with my husband and children that I started to think about writing for children.

 Slowly, little picture book ideas formed in my mind and I started to note them down.  However, it was not until about 18 months ago that I started to formulate my first picture book story.  After so many years of legal writing – where you write with absolute precision so that there is no ambiguity – it was quite liberating to write something for children, where the language could be simpler, more lyrical and encourage imagination, particularly once the so very important illustrations were added.

What made you write Always There Bear?

 I wanted to draft something that was reassuring and heart-warming for young children.  I wanted to create a story that could be read at bedtime and put the listener in a ‘good place’ when the lights went out.  (Clearly I also had the interests of the parents in mind as well!).  My thoughts focussed on teddy bears and the fact that many children have a special cuddly toy which they take around with them to share the good times and make the not-so-good times better.  How many times have parents managed to stop a child being upset or scared by handing their child their special teddy bear?  And how many times do little children decide to take a cuddly toy with them on a special outing or to nursery?  So many of them have an ‘always there bear’ who almost becomes one of the family.  And so that is what I tried to embrace in the picture book.  Coincidentally, just as I was at the stage of submitting the draft I read an article by historian David Cannadine about the enduring appeal of teddy bears.  Following his article, readers wrote in to tell their stories about the importance of their childhood teddy bears.  This made me wonder (and hope) that perhaps parents/carers/grandparents reading this book to children might also have an appreciation of the very simple message the story was intended to convey.

Tell us about the publication journey – did you submit to many places?  How did you feel when you got an offer?

Being a complete novice I had been a bit hit and miss sending off other submissions in the first couple of months until …. I came across your blog and the list you had created of publishers accepting unsolicited submissions!  It was by studying that extremely useful list that I got a more comprehensive understanding of children’s publishers and what they wanted.  Having taken a rather scattergun approach with earlier submissions (which is a real no no), this time, with ‘Always There Bear’, I was more measured, took time to look at the types of books the various publishers were currently advertising, and probably submitted the draft to only 5 or 6 publishers, including Top That! Publishing, who accepted my submission.

Unsurprisingly, I had been the recipient of my fair share of rejection letters (and worse still, deafening silence) in relation to other submissions, so the submissions for ‘Always There Bear’ were sent off with some realism as to what the response would be.  However, as with lottery tickets, we know the odds, but we still live in hope that fortune might favour us.

As regards how I felt when I received the offer via email – delighted, but slightly disbelieving!  I clicked on the email several times on the day it arrived and read it very thoroughly each time to make sure it did indeed say what it did.  (It was rather like that feeling you get when you leave the house and wonder whether you have indeed switched the oven off.  You know you have, but you still have to go back in the house to double check!)

I felt very green when I first found the courage to email Top That! Publishing, and explain to them that this was my first foray into writing and would they please explain to me what would happen once contracts had been signed.  They explained that the book, once the illustrations had been completed and the format signed off, would be showcased at the Frankfurt book fair, and would be due for publication in mid 2014 (now February 2014).  Top That! Publishing selected an illustrator, Gareth Llewhellin, and I have to say I was delighted when I first saw samples of his drawings for the book.  The illustrations complement the book completely.

Has being published changed your writing ambitions at all?

That’s an interesting question.  I am sure that many people, before they have anything published, have that feeling that they must keep going as they want to achieve the success of publication.

However, now that I have had my ‘fix’ of publication success there is indeed that feeling of wanting to go further.  Ideally I would love to be able to write a story for 7-9 year olds.  I have an idea, but I am very new to this craft and the standard is so very high.  So, I am realistic.  I shall carry on writing and will submit when I think something might be suitable.  However, if writing remains just a hobby for now, I shall be happy simply to have had the experience of having a book published and to have been introduced to an industry that I would otherwise never have known nothing about.  It’s been an enlightening journey!

What’s your advice to other writers hoping to be published, particularly in the picture book field?

Keep writing!  Always have a pen (or in my case, propelling pencil) and paper to hand to jot down your ideas as they come into your head.  Read other people’s writing blogs.  Go in for writing competitions.  But whatever it is, make sure it feels right for you.  And, most of all, I wish you all the very best of luck!

Thanks so much for your time, Trudi, and congratulations on your success!

‘Always There Bear’ will be available in bookshops and on Amazon from February.

I’ve been interviewed!

How exciting – I’ve been interviewed over on the blog of Martyn Beardsley, prolific writer for children and adults and author of the Sir Gadabout Books.

If you’ve popped over from Martyn’s blog then unfortunately you will now be caught in an endless loop for all time as I’m about to direct you back to the interview at Rambles of a Writer.  Sorry about that.

Shirley Harber’s success story

I love a success story and so I was delighted to hear that Shirley Harber, a member of the writing forum I belong to and long-term supporter of this blog, has just had her children’s novel Krystal Bull Rain Dancer published by Little Devil Books in the USA.  I asked Shirley to share with us her route to publication.Krystal Bull Rain Dancer

Tell us about your book’s journey.  When did you start writing it and why?  How has it changed along the way?

I started writing Krystal Bull Rain Dancer five years ago. Back then it had a different title: Krystal Bull Psy-Chick.  I remember putting the opening chapter on the web site Youwriteon.com and it got some really great feedback and was quite high up in the ratings.

I sent it off to a few publishers but the rejections soon came back, with in most cases the same letter, ‘not suitable for our list’. I then entered the book into a competition,the ‘Are you ready to submit? comp with Cornerstones Literary Agency.  It made the final short list of ten out of 1,000. The prize was for it to be sent out to a few publishers but despite some great feedback it was not taken on. I then put it aside and started work on another book, an adventure set in Ancient Egypt.

It was time for the Winchester Writers’ Conference again and I had three one-to-ones booked with agents.  This is a chance to send opening chapters and synopsis to agents and publishers and then meet with each for fifteen minutes to discuss your work. I decided to send Krystal Bull Psy-Chick to an agent from Nurnberg Agency. During the one-to-one she told me she thought it was a great story but suggested changing one of the characters and also the title. When I got home I gave this some thought and decided what she said made sense so I set about making alterations.

How did you hear about Little Devil Books?

A few months later I was reading Writers’ News and saw that the American publisher ‘Little Devil Books’ was looking for submissions and emailed them the synopsis and opening chapters of my book, now named Krystal Bull Rain Dancer. A few weeks later Amy the editor emailed back to say she was interested and to send the whole MS. A week later I was offered a contract!  I had to pinch myself several times!

Tell us about the editing process.

Amy said she would like to change a few words and phrases so that it also fitted in with the American market, but essentially she wanted to keep the British feel of the book – it is set in London. We worked very closely together, emails going back and forth.  She listened carefully to my input and nothing was changed if I was not happy.  I had never worked with an editor before and wonder if they are all as easy to work with as Amy. More importantly she loved Krystal and understood her humour.

You’ve had a lot of success with your poetry.  How does being a poet affect the way you write your prose?

 Yes, I also write poetry and have won a few poetry competitions and had work published.  I write poetry for adults mainly and for me that is separate to my writing for children.  One week I might wear my poetry hat another my writing for children hat!

What are your plans now?  Is there a follow-up to Krystal?

 At the moment I am writing a sequel to Krystal Bull Rain Dancer with some new spirit guide characters, both good and evil, and Krystal will no doubt be performing her rain dance again.

What advice would you give to writers who are starting out on their journey to publication?

  • Don’t be disheartened by rejections. All writers get them. Think carefully about any advice given on letters of rejection (or from agents etc) but go with what you feel is right.
  • Try and go to Winchester Conference and meet agents personally to discuss your books.  I wish I had done that when I first started writing.  The advice I have had there has been invaluable, not just for this book but for others I have written and also for my poetry.
  • Try and find some writing buddies. Join an online forum such as Writing Magazine’s Talkback.  Writing buddies can give you advice and support you through the lows and highs of this writing business.
  • Enter as many competitions as you can.  If you get a placed it is a real confidence boost to your writing and they help hone your writing skills.
  • Try and attend a writing school where you can attend writing workshops to improve your skills and meet like-minded people. I have attended The Swanwick Writing School in Derbyshire twice and made some great writing friends there. Winchester Writers’ Conference as mentioned is another.
  • If you believe in your story then keep sending it out to agents and publishers. One day you will find someone else who also believes in it as I did with Krystal Bull Rain Dancer.

Some really useful advice there from Shirley and a good example of how a book can change and grow and even pass through a number of people’s hands before it finds a home – in other words, persistence is definitely the key to success!

Krystal Bull Rain Dancer is available on Amazon in paperback and as an ebook.  You can find out more about Shirley Harber and her writing at www.shirleyharber.com.

An interview with Stephanie Thwaites, children’s agent at Curtis Brown

Thank you to everyone who suggested a question to put to Curtis Brown‘s Children’s Literary Agent, Stephanie Thwaites.  Here are her responses.  I’ve tried to keep the questions general so they’ll be useful to everyone, and where questions were similar I put them together into one query.  I think you’ll agree there’s some great tips here from Stephanie.

1. What puts you off the most when reading a query letter?

There are a few things! Letters not addressed to anyone in particular or Dear Sir/ Mr. Curtis Brown. This tells me the person submitting hasn’t taken any time to research who would be the best person to represent them and this suggests that they are not serious about writing or treating writing in a professional way. It’s important when approaching an agent to identify who the most appropriate person is within an agency, it’s easy to google and find out, and this will also give new writers the best chance of finding the right match. I find long letters off-putting. The letter should give a taster and make the reader want to move on to the important part –the material itself. For this reason I also prefer a short synopsis rather than a detailed chapter breakdown and a little biographical information but not a full CV or a description of how much the writer’s children love the manuscript. I do like a well structured, carefully considered letter. If a writer can’t express him or herself well in the covering letter then it doesn’t bode well for the book itself.

2. What should you include when pitching a series?

It might depend on the kind of series but the focus should be on the first book initially. While it’s fine to mention ideas for future books it’s important to have a manageable number of titles and to have realistic expectations about how many books a publisher will acquire at once anyway. Multi-book deals for new authors are quite unusual and unless a publisher is commissioning for a series they have initiated, they just wouldn’t buy twelve, or even six, titles all in one go. Often a series will build when the first couple of titles take off – which can be tricky for the author if the plan was just for two books but on the other hand it can be a nice problem to have! I would avoid the word ‘trilogy’ even if you’re writing a trilogy and stick to pitching the first book first – if the idea or character is obvious series material then that will be picked up upon by an agent and editor so you don’t need to pitch it too hard.

3. If a writer has interest from both an editor and an agent, should she give it to the agent first or is it acceptable to send to both at the same time?

It’s usually best to send to the agent first as they may want to submit to several publishers at once and it can confuse matters if one has a head start. An agent might also want to work with an author on a manuscript before submitting to editors. If you have sent your work to an editor and agent simultaneously it doesn’t matter too much but where possible I would suggest agents go first!

4. Several readers have asked if they can send you children’s manuscripts – rather than individually mentioning them I presume anyone is welcome to submit through the new submissions page? Is there anything particularly you’re NOT looking for?

Absolutely and yes please do submit via our site, http://curtisbrowncreative.co.uk/. We’re not taking on new illustrators but otherwise we are open to everything. Do bear in mind that we receive 100 new manuscripts every week so unfortunately we can’t send a personal response to everyone.

5. Is it ok to send more than one story at a time?

I can’t answer for all agents but we prefer to look at one idea at a time and for full length fiction we start with the first three chapters with a synopsis. So it’s best to select your strongest work for submission and if we like the writing but not that particular idea we will sometimes express an interest in seeing other material from that writer.

6. If a writer is already published, would they be better off having an agent or continue to deal with the publisher themselves?

I would argue that an agent can always add value. We can negotiate the best possible terms with an awareness and knowledge of industry standards and norms. We have agreed terms with publishers across such a broad range of authors and have precedents in place which allow us to have more leverage than an individual author will have when negotiating. We have the resources to sell rights internationally, for film and TV, and audio, and with the support of contracts and accounts departments we make sure we protect the rights of authors and chase payments and royalties, check statements and deal with all the paperwork. We really fight on our clients’ behalf and work with them over the course of their career – not through just one book and with one publisher but for the long term. We can step in to advise or help when an author and editor don’t see eye to eye or if other sticky situations emerge. Editors move on, particularly in children’s publishing, but an agent is more of a constant presence in an author’s life, representing their best interests and sticking with them through thick and thin.

7. Is a picture book with a sing-along CD still ‘done’ these days, or have e-books and apps taken over the scene as far as interactive musical activities for children go?

Publishers sometimes produce an audio recording of a picture book text on a CD which is sold together with the book but I’m not aware of any new sing along CDs. It could be the case that they are being produced for bigger brands or, as with many novelty projects, developed in-house by publishers. I think it’s safe to say that it is unlikely that literary agents would be able to place a project if it relied heavily on a musical sing along element.

7. Is it still true that boys will not read YA SF & fantasy written by women, or have recent successes such as the Harry Potter Series, The Hunger Games Trilogy and others changed things?

I think it’s more about the gender of the protagonist than of the author now and while there are exceptions it is harder to encourage boys to read books with a female protagonist while girls are more open to reading about books with a male protagonist. I hope the female perspectives presented in adult fantasy like George R. R. Martin’s GAME OF THRONES, Charlaine Harris’ and Rachel Caine’s titles might mean there has been a shift and we’ll see more feisty heroines in YA fantasy too as in Sarah J Maas’ THRONE OF GLASS. I’m certainly keen to find something in that vein and I would prefer a female protagonist.

8. How important is it for agents and authors to have face to face meetings and how often are these?

I prefer to meet all new clients face to face where possible and I think this is important when you’re first getting to know one another. The number of face to face meetings varies from client to client and a lot can be done over the phone and email but I do think there’s no substitute for face to face contact even if it’s only once or twice a year.

9. Is representation for life?

I’ve touched on this a bit above and the answer is yes in an ideal world, although it doesn’t always work out that way. When I offer representation I am always taking on an author rather than a book and the aim is that it should absolutely be for life. Since I also represent a number of Estates it’s actually life and beyond!

10. For those who write across genres, is it accepted practice to take on representation by several different agents?

I think the nature of the agent/ author relationship means that it just doesn’t work to have more than one or two maximum. Sometimes writers will have different agents for children’s and adult books or for books and TV/ radio/plays but if you’re writing across genre which are not wildly different you should be able to find an agent who can handle both.

11. And finally – can a writer resubmit a manuscript if it has been substantially rewritten?

We usually indicate to authors in our response if we are interested in reading a new draft but unless we specifically mention it we prefer not to see the same material twice, albeit a revised version. This is due to the volume of material we receive and the limited number of hours in the day. If you want to read more about what a literary agent does, and why we can’t read material twice, there’s a great article by writer, Michael Bourne which I blogged about a little while ago that brilliantly sums up the challenges facing agents – and why we’re not terrible, heartless people! The blog post is here: http://childrensliteraryagent.co.uk/2012/08/16/literary-agents-the-devil-in-disguise/

Thank you very much to Stephanie Thwaites for her time and all her helpful advice!

Put your question to Curtis Brown’s children’s literary agent

UK literary agency Curtis Brown has a shiny new submissions portal and is embracing the e-slush pile with open arms!  I will be putting some questions to their children’s agent Stephanie Thwaites in the next week or two, so if you have a question you have always wanted to ask a literary agent, pass it on to me via the comments box below.  I’ll use as many as I can, but if there are too many I’ll select the ones I think will be of most interest to others.

So what would you like to ask Stephanie?