Advice from the best

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Everyone knows that there are more writers wanting to publish their stories, than there are authors willing to publish them. You could argue that this is a good thing – if every book got published, there wouldn’t be nearly enough people interested in reading each one, and you would have to sift through toppling piles of novels before you found the true gems. At the same time, if you’re an aspiring author it’s difficult not to get disheartened when you have enough rejection letters to paper your whole bedroom with.

If, like me, you belong to this group of people, you might find some use and comfort from the following words of wisdom. They all come from authors who made it onto the other side of the teetering slushpile wall. If anyone has any others, feel free to post!

Ben Dolnick – “Get a kitchen timer. Writers are ingenious at redefining what qualifies as doing work (‘If I just spend this morning cleaning my desk…’). A kitchen timer tolerates no such nonsense. Set yourself a daily writing quota (as little as a half hour is fine at first), set the clock and get to work.”

Cathy Cassidy“Write about what you love, write every day, and remember that overnight success can take decades!”

Neil Gaiman“Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that – but you are the only you.”

John Green – “Whenever I’m asked what advice I have for young writers, I always say that the first thing is to read, and to read a lot. The second thing is to write. And the third thing, which I think is absolutely vital, is to tell stories and listen closely to the stories you’re being told.”

Francesca Simon – “My ideas come from everywhere – newspapers, things people say, films I’ve seen, dreams – you just need to work on listening out for them and writing them down in your ideas notebook which you should ALWAYS have with you.”

Zadie Smith – “Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.”

Terry Pratchett – “Let grammar, punctuation, and spelling into your life! Even the most energetic and wonderful mess has to be turned into sentences.”

Ernest Hemingway – “The first draft of everything is shit.”

Agents – to have or not to have?

This is a confusing question for me, as I’ve received conflicting information. At the Nosy Crow conference earlier this year, Hilary Delamere spoke about the value of a good agent in not only finding you a good publisher, but managing the author – publisher relationship ongoingly. I came away thinking that you couldn’t really do without one. At the same conference, there was a panel discussion involving three authors who had been plucked from Nosy Crow’s slushpile and ended up getting published without at agent.

Once you have an agent, the task of getting a publisher inevitably becomes much easier, because they do the legwork for you. But have agents’ slushpiles now grown to the same heights as those of publishers, therefore making it more sensible to apply to publishers directly?

In case you’re considering this route, here is a selection of UK publishers accepting unsolicited submissions, courtesy of Lou Treleaven (http://loutreleaven.wordpress.com)

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on agent/non agent routes to publishing!

Andersen Press Ltd

Anderson Press publish picture books of approximately 500 words (1K max), juvenile fiction of 3-5K and older fiction of up to 75K. They require a synopsis and 3 sample chapters, hard copy only, and aim to reply within 2 months. They use a standard rejection slip and reply promptly.

Buster Books

An imprint of Michael O’Mara Books, Buster Books publish children’s non-fiction and activity books as well as a small range of fiction. Submission details are sparse so try the usual three chapters plus synopsis and covering letter/email. You can submit by post or by email and they ask you to include an envelope if you would like your paper manuscript returned, but they can’t guarantee a response. Again, probably best to assume the usual procedure and submit elsewhere after three months if you haven’t heard back.

Curious Fox

A new publisher who will be releasing their first titles in Spring 2013, Curious Fox are looking for “bold, fun and imaginative” fiction for age 8 upwards, by email submission. They are also intererested in incorporating innovative approaches such as reader-generated plot turns and delivering content through websites. Send a synopsis, the first chapter and a covering letter by email only. They aim to respond within 2 months (I heard back after 10 weeks which is pretty close!).

Hogs Back Books

This small publisher specialises in picture books for up to age 10, but also accepts young adult (and non fiction). Send your manuscript by post or email – full text for picture books, first three chapters and synopsis for young adult. Paper submissions will not be returned so just include an SAE or email address for a reply. View the catalogue on the site to get an idea of what they publish.

Mantra Lingua

Mantra Lingua is a very specialised publisher providing multilingual and multicultural resources. They accept picture books for up to age 12 that can be translated into a number of languages – this means the concept and theme needs to be universal too. Read the submissions guidelines carefully and look at the current titles before proceeding. Submit by email only. As the maximum length is 1400 I should think the full text will be acceptable.

Mogzilla

Mogzilla are an emerging independent publishing company with educational links, specialising in pre-teen and teenage fiction from 45-75K long. They ask for proposals to be emailed and they will then request the manuscript if they are interested, either by post or in pdf form. They do not return paper manuscripts. You should also avoid sending them a historical cat series (see website)!

Nosy Crow

Nosy Crow are a young publisher keen to embrace the latest technologies who accept ms for readers up to age 14 (think family-orientated rather than edgy). They ask for a short synopsis and the first chapter plus a covering letter about you and your work. They accept by email (preferred) or post and aim to reply within 6 weeks, although this can vary.

O’Brien Press

This Irish publisher accepts picture books of less than 1K words, and fiction for 6+, 8+, 10+ and 13+. They ask for a synopsis and 2 or 3 sample chapters – full text for picture books – by post only. Although they state they do not return unsuccessful submissions, they did return mine recently. Also note that if you do send an SAE don’t use English stamps!

Pants on Fire Press

This US publisher is a small independent keen to expand and explore new areas of technology as well as traditional printing. They accept submissions from the UK and recently signed Welsh author Craig Jones to a four book deal. They are currently accepting unsolicited manuscripts for picture, middle grade (equivalent to the 8-12 age readership in the UK) and young adult books. Send an email with the first three chapters in the body of the email, plus the information they ask for on the submissions page. Also check out the specific details for middle grade and young adult.

Phoenix Yard Books

This young publisher accepts submissions for readers up to age 12, although they are particularly seeking stories for 7-9 year olds, and comic book style or graphic novels. (They also take ideas for apps.) Send a covering letter, synopsis and the first 3 chapters by post or email with an SAE to Emma Langley. If you do not hear back within 12 weeks you should assume you have been unsuccessful.

Piccadilly Press

Piccadilly Press specialise in contemporary fiction for 6+, 8-12 and 11-15 year olds. They also publish picture books of between 500 and 1K words (32 pages). They no longer accept email submissions – send by post your brief covering letter, synopsis and 2 chapters. They reply promptly, within 6 weeks.

Ransom Publishing Ltd

Ransom publish books for reluctant readers, specialising in low reading age/high content age books. They will consider unsolicited manuscripts and ask you to email in the first instance rather than submit straight away.

Scholastic Children’s Books

Scholastic publish a wide range of fiction for 5-9, 8-12 and older readers as well as picture books. They ask for postal submissions of 3 chapters and a covering letter, and say to expect to wait up to 6 months for a response, though I have always found they reply very promptly. However they did address me as Mr Archambrault on one rejection letter!

Strident

Strident are looking for books for the 7-9, 9-12 and YA age groups. Do not send the usual submissions package but email with information about your book as outlined on the submissions page on the website. This should include a blurb you have written yourself (imagine the back of a book – how would the book be described which would make you want to read it?). They will then contact you in 2 to 3 months if they wish to take your submission further.

Stripes

Stripes are owned by the same company as Little Tiger Press and they publish books for readers aged 6-12. They accept postal submissions only which should consist of a covering letter, a detailed synopsis and the first 3 chapters. They aim to reply within 3 months but usually take longer due to their backlog. I recently received a lovely detailed rejection letter from them apologising for the long delay with some really useful feedback and encouragement.

Tamarind

Part of Random House, Tamarind was set up to redress the balance of ethnicity in children’s literature by promoting books with black, Asian or mixed heritage characters. They prefer to be approached via an agent but will consider ‘exceptional’ unagented manuscripts; read their submissions guidelines which also suggestions word count and possible subjects You can submit by post or email and should send them a covering letter/email, a synopsis and the first three chapters. Picture books can be sent in their entirety without illustrations and you should avoid using animal characters but keep to the ethos in the guidelines.

Tango Books Ltd

Tango publish novelty books for age 1-8 with an international element. They accept manuscripts by post or email and you should include the full text up to 1000 words and a brief author biography. You should hear back from them within a month.

Templar Publishing

Best known for the wonderful ‘ology’ books, Templar also publish picture books and a range of children’s fiction. They ask for a synopsis and the first 3 chapters, by post only, and aim to reply within 3 months.

Top That! Publishing plc

Top That! specialise in children’s picture and activity book and internet-linked fiction. Their submission guidelines are brief and advise you to study their catalogue (on the website) before submitting as they are very specialised. They prefer postal submissions with a contact email address but will accept emails under 1MB.

Walker Books

A big name in the picture book publishing world, Walker don’t generally accept unsolicited work, but what they will accept is illustrated manuscripts – so if you are a writer/illustrator you have an opportunity to submit. Use the email address given to send the whole document as an attachment using Word for the text and jpegs or pdfs for the pictures. You can also submit by post but do not send original pictures, only copies.

Two sides to every story

I recently finished reading Candy Gourlay’s Tall Story – an incredible book about a boy from the Philippines who travels to the UK to join his family after many years waiting for a visa. Bernardo suffers from gigantism and all the burdens that the condition carries – painful joins, an inability to move at a normal pace, and fainting episodes (touchingly described as the earth falling on top of him).

The book has many marvellous qualities, but one thing that I thought Candy achieved particularly well was the interaction between the two narrators – Bernardo and Andi, his sister. Andi was brought up in the UK, has an English father, and in contrast to her brother, is very short.

In the chapters (written by interchanging narrators) we find out about both characters’ reaction to the same events, their thoughts on each other and their growing friendship. The narrative technique is exciting, as it leaves you desperate to find out what the other character thinks.

Rick Riordan also uses a  brother-sister pair to narrate his series, The Kane Chronicles which is centred on Egyptian mythology. Carter and Sadie sometimes have a difficult relationship and very different ideas of what is important, so their narrated chapters complement each other well. 

And Jacqueline Wilson, an ongoing favourite of mine, uses the dual narrative technique in Double Act, in which twins Ruby and Garnet take turns writing in a journal of their life. Although outwardly identical, they have entirely different personalities. Garnet is much quieter and shier than Ruby, which is highlighted visually through the much shorter length of her entries – she can only write these when given a chance by her bossy sister.

It’s tricky to do the dual narrative well, but inspired by these authors, I might just take on the challenge…

The usefulness of backstories

I’ve just read the latest edition of the SCBWI bulletin and there was an article which really resonated with me – Penelope Stowell’s comments about her love of creating backstories.

Amongst the top advice from agents and publishers, you’ll definitely find mention of backstories and the usefulness and importance of creating them.

What is a backstory?

A backstory is essentially everything that you use to help you write your book, but which you don’t actually put in it. The current MG book that I’m writing is about a 13-year old girl called Izzy. There’s a lot that happens in the story, but one of the plotlines involves Izzy’s interaction with her dad who’s an alcoholic. In order to get the relationship right, I felt that I needed to know everything about her dad’s history, even if none of it was mentioned in the story itself. Consequently I have reems and reems of writing on his relationship with Izzy’s mum, his job, even his early life. There are factors within each area of his life that together would have resulted in his addiction.  

I previously wrote a draft of a historical YA novel and did lots of background research on the lives of everyday people living in Poland during the Second World War. Again I’ve weaved this into my characters’ backstories – tricky as I had to think back to what their early childhood would have been like in the 1900s. A lot of it ended up being based on anecdotes from the lives of my grandma and her friends, all of which were amazing, but wouldn’t fit in with the narrative of the story.

How can you put a backstory to good use?

I was intrigued about what Penelope Stowell wrote about ‘recycling’ a backstory – i.e. actually using the reems of research that you’ve done for purposes other than strengthening your narrative. She is writing a series based around Iranigami – a society of children on a mission to preserve imaginary creatures – sounds amazing. What’s even more amazing is that she’s used all her backstories to create www.iranigami.com which is a fictional website referred to throughout her stories. She launched the site back in April and her web presence is rising with very little marketing.

It’s really made me think about the possibilities of what I could do with my backstories…