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?

Pete’s success story

Followers of this blog (and particularly followers of the comments on the Children’s Publishers Accepting Unsolicited Manuscripts page) will be impatient to hear news of Pete, who has been keeping us updated with his publication story.  I caught up with Pete to ask him how it was all going and find out a bit more about what the process has been like.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your writing journey?  Have you been published before?

My name is Pete Shaw, I’m 27 years old and I live in God’s county of Lancashire, North West England. I have a beautiful daughter, Jessica, who will be three years old in March. For day job I am a supermarket manager, and up until eighteen months ago I had had absolutely no history of writing to any noteable level, never mind being a published author!

Midway through 2011 I decided to write a story, Little Ronnie and Magic the Horse. My only previous writing experience had been composing short stories at school, and writing small pieces whilst studying English Language at college. The story only took about 3-4 hours in total to write, and maybe an hour or so doing little bits of tweaking here and there, writing my synopsis, exploring various ‘submission help blogs’ 😉 etc. It’s roughly 750 words long, and is written in rhyme.

little ronnie and magic the horse

What was the inspiration for ‘Little Ronnie and Magic the Horse’?

There are three main inspirations for me wanting to write. The first one is my daughter, Jessica. One day I thought to myself, “Why am I buying stories to read to my daughter at bedtime, when I can have a crack at it myself and have the satisfaction that I have written the story that she loves to hear?” It was only once I had finished writing the story that I decided that it would possibly be good enough for some publishers to have a look at.

My second inspiration is Roald Dahl. His stories were my absolute favourites as a child, and if I possess the smallest of fractions of that man’s talent, then I’ll be successful and produce some wonderful things to read.

Thirdly, Julia Donaldson is a very recent inspiration for me personally, and is a firm favourite of my daughter’s. The Gruffalo is a brilliant read, and we have all her books at home. Again, if I even begin to emulate any of her work, then there is a lot to look forward to.

What do you think made your book stand out to the publishers?

I can only guess at what made my book stand out, as I haven’t received any specific feedback other than the fact that they loved it! Going off what my family fed back to me upon reading Little Ronnie, the rhyming aspect to the story is something that is a massive hit with children, and the fact that the story SOUNDS good to the child must be a massive factor.

How did the artwork process work?  Did you have any input?

I was asked if I’d like to recommend an artist or illustrator, but being a complete novice to the writing scene, I didn’t have any contacts. The publishers chose an illustrator for me, pairing me up with someone who they thought could best compliment my words with their illustrations. Coincidentally, I was looking through the children’s books at work one day and I stumbled across a book that was actually illustrated by Daniel Howarth, the illustrator for ‘Little Ronnie’!

I have since been sent the PDFs of all the pages of the book, and they are most impressive! It’s quite surreal to see words that were once in your head brought to life by someone who has put their own unique interpretation into them!

Were you asked to do any editing or redrafting?

I wasn’t asked to do any editing, although they have made a few tweaks themselves.

Have you been asked to get involved with marketing at all?

With Little Ronnie being due for release in Spring 2013, I have been told that marketing will be stepped up in the new year, and that they will contact me in due course to discuss how I can help. I have specifically asked to play as big a part in the marketing as they will allow me to play! I know the book was shown at the Frankfurt Book Fair earlier this year, and at time of writing, Little Ronnie will be available to buy in the UK, United States and Australia.

What are you working on now?

I’ve already written another story in the same style (completely unrelated storyline), which still needs a bit of tweaking. I also plan to write a sequel to Little Ronnie in the near future, but for the time being I am going to see how Little Ronnie performs in what is an incredibly competitive market. If the demand is there, I would be delighted to continue Ronnie’s adventures! I hope to write a full-length novel one day, but one step at a time I think!

What would you say to people who are still trying to get published?

Don’t let a a few rejections get you down. I received nine rejections followed by an email telling me that a publisher loved it! You just have to stick it out and explore all the different avenues available, and ultimately you may have to bite the bullet and accept that it’s not the right time for your story to be accepted. Double-check and even get someone else to proof-read your submission – even the covering email/letter should be checked for mistakes. I can only presume that when publishers are receiving literally thousands of submissions, a spelling mistake in the first sentence would render the rest of your submission pretty pointless!

And finally… Did the list of publishers on my blog help?!

A resounding YES! I would literally not be writing this email, nor would I be having a book published next year if it wasn’t for Lou’s blog. An amazing help, and I can’t thank her enough!

Little Ronnie and Magic the Horse is due to be released in Spring 2013, by Top That! Publishing.  You can follow Pete on Twitter at @pdshaw09.

The big, huge, probing interview with Scott Pack

Scott PackIt is with pride that I bring to you my very first celebrity interview with the lovely Scott Pack from Harper Collins.  Not only is Scott Pack publisher of The Friday Project which sources online talent and channels it into books, but he is also responsible for leading Harper Collins into the digital age.  As we teeter on the brink of a digital revolution which could turn publishing on its head, what better person to talk to, to grill thoroughly and mine for information in an in-depth, revealing interview that lays bare the man behind the electrons?

I had exactly three minutes to do just that.*

So, in the one question I had time for, I asked this:

“Scott, is this the golden age of blogging?  And if so, is it a passing fad or the beginning of bigger and better things?”

To my surprise, Scott said he believed any ‘golden age’ of blogging was just over.  Blogging has reached its peak because we are now accessing online content in so many different ways.  Instead of sitting down at our computers and visiting a website or blog, we are using iPads and phones, and we often read parts of blogs through other people’s posts and pages as well as through Facebook and Twitter rather than actually visiting.  He believes that people are becoming less inclined to comment, too, although I’m not sure that’s true.  I think blog readers are more likely to comment as they become at ease with the idea of themselves as an online personality; in other words they are prepared to have a public face online rather than ‘lurking’.  (I’m sure the thousands of comments that appear below this post shortly will prove me right…)

And here the interview ended, but luckily I later attended Scott’s workshop (with Ian Skillicorn and Raymond Tallis) on innovation and I was able to gather some information on Scott’s views on epublishing.  A separate post to come on that, but for now I come to the end of my celebrity interview.  I hope you enjoyed my tough, probing questioning and I put to you the proposition that, in this twitter-centric world, the One Question Interview could well be the perfect size.  One is the new ten, brevity fans!

* Not because of my short attention span but because I was taking part in a three minute pitch session at Get Writing 2011.