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.)
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?
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.