Monday, 30 November 2020

In Praise of Writers' Resilience

by Em Lynas

Part 1. Pre-Published

Rejection Requires Resilience

Writers for children, like any writers, encounter rejection at every stage of their career. They need resilience to keep going but what is resilience for a writer? What are the moments in each writer’s journey that require it the most? What does it even mean and – how does a writer get it and keep it?

Resilience:

The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.

The ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.

So, what sort of difficulties is a childrens’ writer likely to encounter? How can you develop resilience? How can you spring back from rejection? Is it possible to spring back?

A host of Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, British Isles members, have allowed me to share their inspirational stories from our facebook group to show that writers are tough and can bounce back from every knock back into who they truly are – writers who need to write.

Kathryn Evans: When we start this journey we often have no idea how long it can take, we look for quick fixes and are frustrated when they seem to come to nothing, but it all adds up, eventually it adds up. 15 years of seriously trying, 5 of those with my agent. I gave up for 6 months and it made me miserable. I needed to remember that I don’t write to get published, I write because I need to and I want to. I started again, writing a weird book that was totally me and mine . It was More of Me.

Rejection can come from many sources:

  • From family and friends
  • From critique groups
  • From agents
  • From editors
  • From publishers
  • From booksellers and bloggers
  • From Award awarders
  • From buyers and readers

In this post I’ll deal with the pre-published rejections and suggestions for how to deal with them. The next post will be all about post publication rejections and ideas on how to deal with those.

Rejection from family and friends

Not all family and friends will understand your compulsion to write. Their rejection of your dream of one day being published may be subtle, passive aggressive, or just downright rude. And hurtful.

They may say:

Isn’t that book finished yet? On repeat.

Are you still writing your book? On repeat.

Don’t you think it’s time to give up? On repeat.

When are you going to give up? On repeat.

Why don’t you write a book about – insert inappropriate suggestion that has nothing to do with children’s books.

So and so (insert name) has just had a book published. She only started writing last year.

I see David Walliams has another book out.

It can’t be that hard to write a story for children, there’s hardly any words.

This is often accompanied by looking at you oddly, as if you’re a different species.

Disclaimer: The above is not representative of my immediate family and closest friends. Most often it was acquaintances.

You can’t do anything about acquaintance’s rejections of your publishing aspirations but you can educate those who are closest to you to be more sensitive and understanding.

How?

Gather information that it TAKES A LONG TIME! All they hear on the news is about the super deals done with young debut novelists. This is not representative!

·        Research how long your favourite authors took. How big is their slushpile of rejected works, unfinished ideas? My favourite – it took David Almond twenty years before his first book, Skellig, was published. And he’s brilliant!

·       Show them this post if they need convincing.

I found that there was a tipping point, about five years into my writing journey. A sense that rather than thinking I was nuts to keep on flogging a dead horse, family and friends were proud of my determination and resilience in the face of many rejections. They were proud that I continued to learn and grow as a writer and overjoyed when my first book came out.

Sally Poynton: When I started this journey my youngest was a baby, he’s now coming up 15. And I’m still not published. I think it can be so difficult with all the rejection and the fact that success is binary. You are either published or not. The thing that gets me through is support from friends and family and the key thing is CELEBRATING THE SMALL THINGS. Making sure that every small competition long/listing or good feedback is marked, or you’d go mad.

Rejection from critique groups

I am in a SCBWI_BI critique group and I would highly recommend joining SCBWI to meet other children’s authors and gather feedback. Writing for children is a very specific skill, different for each age band, and you need feedback that reflects that.

Most critique groups recommend the Feedback Sandwich (a polite term for the more colloquial Sh*t Sandwich which is often a far more accurate term)

Top slice - Highlight a positive.

Filling - Add in some constructive criticism, preferably not subjective.

Bottom slice: Highlight a positive.

This sounds great, a really kind way of giving feedback, but in reality we’re all dismissing the bread and waiting for the sh*t. We need it. If we’re ever to progress as writers we need to accept it and take it on the chin (sorry, yuck). But even the most constructive criticism, kindly delivered, can be felt as rejection and a knock to your confidence resulting in bad thoughts.

I still can’t get it right. I haven’t done this. I haven’t done that. I’ve failed. They’ve rejected my story. I obviously can’t write. I’ll give up.

It’s important that you distance yourself from the work. This is not a criticism (or shouldn’t be) of YOU, this is all about whether the story works in the way you want it to work, (or should be).

Reality check:

What are you expecting from the critique?

·       Do you want an – I love this, thanks for sharing critique?

·       Do you want an analysis of whether your story is working or not?

I do think initially everyone wants the first and it’s part of your growth as a writer when you accept and appreciate the second.

·       Check that your critique group is right for you – are you getting the best feedback as a children’s writer if your group mainly consists of poets, creative writers, or real crime writers?

This is a ‘Find Your Tribe’ moment. You need a gang of writers who have your back because they will help you bounce back and build the resilience you will need for the next stage. My recommendation is – join SCBWI.

Susan Brownrigg: It took me 20 years to get published and I still don't have an agent. Barbara Henderson was my inspiration for trying a different way, and for approaching an independent publisher - Uclan - who are amazing. My advice would be ... enjoy other people's successes ... think of the books that didn't get picked up as a back catalogue for returning to one day ... and take a break if it all gets too much - if you love writing, a story will eventually whisper in your ear when you are ready and your hurt has healed. Try to accept that you may not get published but you will always be a writer.

 

Rejection from agents

Steel yourself: There are three types of rejection from agents.

Agent Rejection One:

The agent rejects your submission and does not take you on as a client.

I shall hold my hands up at this point and admit that I sent out my stories far too early and received many, many, many rejections. Looking back, they were right to reject me, I hadn’t learned enough about my craft and they were clumsy stories, but it hurt all the same. You would be a very unusual author if an agent had never rejected a submission and acceptance that rejection is part of the journey helps enormously.

Agent Rejection Two:

The agent takes you on and is unable to place your book. They don’t think it’s worth re-working it. They want to move on to something else. What have you got?

This happens more than you think.

Keep learning and writing while you are waiting. So that when/if rejection comes you’ve got something else that you love, ready to go.

Agent Rejection Three:

The agent takes you on as a client and then rejects you.

Having been through the third I can tell you this was the worst rejection of all rejections and stopped me writing for almost a year. My tip for surviving? Acceptance of the natural behavioural pattern. I only discovered this a few years later. Maybe I had to go through it in order to understand it?

Event: A rejection drops into your inbox.

·       Reactions:

o   Physical reaction: Stomping, stamping, shouting, throwing, walking, running, scowling, slumping, Netflix bingeing etc etc etc

o   Emotional reaction: disappointment, despair, anger, misery, despondency, hopelessness, depression, gloom, crying, sobbing, confusion, self-doubt, retreating etc etc etc This reaction can go on for a long time (months, years) depending on the number of rejections accumulated previously, your personality and the nature (severity) of the rejection. Be kind to yourself!

·       Reflection: Eventually the emotional brain has had its reaction and the logical brain takes over. Evidence is gathered to support continuing to write. Or. Evidence is gathered to support giving up.

·       Decision: A decision is made. You either stop, continue, or take a break.

·      Action: Depending on the decision you either write or you don’t. You start something new or go back through your slushpile.

Understanding your behavioural pattern and the length of time you personally need to spend in each phase can help make the reaction more bearable. You know you have to go through it, there’s no escaping emotion but perhaps you don’t have to experience it quite as intensely and you can move on faster using distraction techniques.

I stopped writing and turned to learning more about writing. I read all the How To books I could get hold of and read blogs on writing. I blogged about writing on Notes From the Slushpile. I began the poetry blog the funeverse with a group of SCBWI_BI authors. This helped to keep me focused on children’s literature but relieved me of the pressure of Must Get Another Agent. I also began knitting so that I could be successful at something and when I’d finished a few jumpers I returned to writing. Sheila Averbuch took up different hobbies.

Sheila M. Averbuch: If you can’t write – as I couldn’t, for months – try at least to protect your writing time and do something else satisfying in it, something creative or mentally stimulating (I practiced my old acting monologues, and tried new recipes, and learned Japanese). That way, if and when you feel you can work with words again, your writing time is ready and waiting for you, and it hasn’t been swamped by life. Even if the world hasn’t yet given you a signal that it needs your writing, you need your writing.

Emma Styles: I started in 2008 & not published yet. I had an agent for just over three years, that book didn’t sell & I found myself back on the slushpile. That all happened very early on & was a bit of a rollercoaster. But I learned a lot & like others have said, writing has just become what I do, how I make sense of things, and I can’t really stop. I have tried a couple of times. I remember telling a writer friend, ‘I could have quite a nice life if I wasn’t writing.’ Which was ridiculous & I knew it! I think I had an idea I’d have all this spare time, but to do what? And yes, it’s the friends that have kept me going, plus that mysterious something to do with ‘making stuff up.’ I would love some of that stuff to be appreciated by others which I guess keeps me going too.

So, let’s now assume you’ve taken the next step and you have an agent. Success has occurred not rejection! And now let’s assume your agent has deemed your work ready to be submitted to their favourite publishers.

Now you’re ready for the next post.

In Praise of Writers’ Resilience.

Part Two – Published

Coming soon

This is where I look at the types of rejection you may experience post book deal. I shall leave you with this inspirational story of writerly resilience from Janet Foxley.

Janet Foxley: I started writing a story for my daughter when she was one and finished it when she was 31. I had no support in the form of a crit group, editorial agency or anything like SCBWI until year 29, when my daughter, by then interested in writing herself, drew my attention to an editorial agency she’d spotted advertising in a magazine. The structural report they gave on it showed that I wrote well but had no idea how to build a novel. I turned it round and the editor loved it but pointed out that a 116,000 word saga by a new writer would never find a publisher. I self-published it (through Matador) before self-publishing was respectable and cheaply available, and threw away most of the unsold copies last year when we moved to a smaller house.

With that knowledge I set about writing something the right length, but it still took 8 years, two edits from an agency (one of which sent it in the wrong direction) a comment from a publisher’s reader that put it back on track, a prize short-listing and several rejections before it won the Times/Chicken House prize and a publishing contract.

During the 35-odd years from starting writing to publication I did several of the courses advertised in writing magazines and finished several books that were nowhere near fit to submit. For me, the only way of making progress was to pay for structural edits from people who not only knew how to structure a novel but also knew the market. So my advice would be, listen to knowledgeable critics, be prepared to rewrite and rewrite, but also be prepared to scrap an unviable project, or one that has become too stale to love any more, and start on something fresh. I wish there had been something like SCBWI when I started - I’m sure I’d have progressed much faster.

What made me keep going? Quite simply the need to write.

Em Lynas is a long time SCBWI member and author of the Witch School series with Nosy Crow. She is represented by Amber Caraveo of the Skylark Literary Agency. You can find out more about her and her books on her website emlynas




Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Chapter or Verse, a poet’s guide to getting published

By Dom Conlon 

So you’ve opted for the life of a writer.  Congratulations. The race to the depths of your soul begins now. But fear not, there are many wise people to guide your way and darkness shall never... oh, wait. What’s that? You’ve chosen to write poetry? For children? 

Oh, dear. 

You’re screwed. Plus, this is a post-pandemic world so… y’know… you’re doubly screwed for reasons which become clearer further down. There are several differences between getting published as a writer of fiction versus getting published as a writer of poetry. 

Neither is easy, but poetry is (perhaps fittingly) more peculiar.  
 
Fortunately ‘peculiar’ is my middle name so I’m going to offer a few tips and the occasional beard-stroking word of wisdom. 

You will probably not get an agent

The first issue to raise is that you will probably not get an agent. I mean sure, you’re amazing. It’s just that agents for poets are few and far between. 

I know only a handful of professional poets who have agents. And those tend to have agents because of their non-poetry publications. That poses a problem right away: namely that whole getting published thing. Which may or may not be why you write but probably is, given the title of this article. 

The good news is that submissions for poetry aren’t quite the same as they are for fiction. Sort of. 

There are specialist publishers of poetry who welcome direct contact from poets but... you’re going to have to stand out. But that’s ok, you’re amazing! 

You have to stand out

One way to stand out is to get yourself into anthologies. Easier said than done (of course) but not impossible. 

Some editors put out public calls for entries, some don’t. The former tend to be rarer and if you are unknown then you won’t hear about the latter. 

Don’t worry. Don’t give up. 

You have to be visible.

My top tip for all your poetry writing is: BE VISIBLE. 

 Let’s face it, writing poetry differs from its fictional cousin in one big way: it’s shorter (usually). 

Which means you’ve probably not spent three years writing a poem. 

So write lots of poems. Write as many as you possibly can. Not all of them will be gems but you’ll get to know yourself better (and who you are as a poet) in the process. 

You have to share.

So share them. I view the sharing of my poetry as a way to say something nice (or interesting) about the world. Why wouldn’t I want to share that? 

Of course, sharing your poetry isn’t guaranteed to get you into anthologies. It might catch the eye of other poets who (generally) love nothing more than to celebrate great poetry. 


I will share other people’s poetry if it speaks to me. I don’t look at the person’s Poeticum Vitae in order to assess whether or not I should be sharing it. If I love it, I’ll want others to see it. But as inclusive and welcoming as the world of children’s poetry is, there is a deep pool of talent for editors and publishers to draw from. 

You have to try different things.

So in addition to being visible, you might want to try other things. Like entering competitions and submitting to magazines. There are not THAT many competitions but the ones which do exist are marvellous. Write for them. Try them out. Just don’t bet your entire future as a poet on the outcome. 

Magazine submissions, however, are a whole different kettle of haiku. We are in the golden age of magazines for children. Online and print magazines have sprung up to inform and delight children and they rely on great content. 

Buy them, read them, get to understand who they are for and what the editorial policy is, then submit something. 

I wish the same were true for open mic events. In the world of adult poetry, open mic is a rapidly expanding phenomenon. They provide a platform to air your poetry and develop a reputation. But kids don’t tend to hang out in bars or dark gin joints and so you are going to have to turn to festivals, libraries and street corners (I’m joking on the last one, don’t be weird). 

There are festivals where new acts are welcomed. Film yourself and try to get on the bill. Visibility is the goal here, something which isn’t always easy for attention-shy poets. 


You have to sell.

The other, often unsaid, tip for getting published comes down to sales. 

Can you demonstrate an ability to sell your work? Are you a regular visitor to schools? Do you have three million followers on Twitter? Will your extended family buy every last copy of your book and pass them around on street corners (don’t do this, don’t be weird)? 

Publishers are businesses and business rely on sales. At some point in your poetry publishing career, you will have to face this. Part of every publisher’s marketing plan (sometimes the only part) is YOU. Which, in this post-pandemic, socially-distanced world… is really tough. 

It’s something which probably needs to change but that’s a whole different article. All of which, in a roundabout-maybe-I-ought-to-have-mentioned-this-earlier kind of way, leads me to talk about self-publishing. 

There is less of a stigma about self-publishing these days. It’s a natural (albeit more costly) extension of sharing your work publicly and can act as a calling card to publishers. 

You have to be patient.

But here’s another tip: don’t be hasty. Putting a collection together (even a pamphlet) requires you to step back. The role of an editor isn’t always present in children’s poetry but that doesn’t mean you are the best judge of your own work. 

If you want to showcase your work then get some input on it. Someone who you trust to be honest. That said, if you are only using this as a calling card then it is an expensive method of attracting attention so think through your aims and motivations with care. 

 Finally, the most difficult part of being a poet lies in finding opportunities for your voice to shine through. It is, I find, also the most wonderful. 

Poetry can be small enough to slide beneath the door and loud enough to be sung. There may be times when you have to find your own way, but try to remember that there is always a way.



@Dom_Conlon is a poet and author whose unique blend of science and poetry can be seen in This Rock That Rock, a collection of fifty poems illustrated by Viviane Schwarz (@VivSchwarz), and Leap, Hare, Leap! the picture book about bio-diversity and environment illustrated by Anastasia Izlesou (@izlesou). Dom has no cats, three pens, and a fondness for cake. You can read more about him and invite him to tea via www.domconlon.com

Saturday, 15 August 2020

How Not to Get an Agent: Submission Pet Peeves plus a Passive Aggressive Ukulele Ode to an Agent

By Candy Gourlay 

 

Inspired by You'll Be Back, mad King George's song in the musical Hamilton by Lin Manuel Miranda, George Kirk scarily demonstrates how not to communicate with literary agents. If you haven't seen Hamilton, you can hear the original song below. We love it! 

   

If you're a ukulele strummer, you can download the chords and lyrics here.

Always keen to be of service, we asked literary agents what their top subbing peeves were. 

LONG SUBMISSION LETTERS

If this has made you fear for George's chances of getting an agent, don't worry, she's already got one, Alice Williams of Alice Williams Literary

We asked Alice what her top subbing peeve was and it wasn't 'Passive aggressive ukulele lyrics' but interminable submission letters.  

Alice says: "Remember an agent will often sit down and sort through a big batch of submissions in one sitting. They are looking for the standout ideas and writing, and interesting creative people. An overly long covering email can slow the process down and be a bit offputting." 

CONTROL FREAK SUBMISSIONS

Author Nizrana Fahrook, author of the utterly brilliant The GirlWho Stole an Elephant, kindly asked her agent Joanna Moult what pet peeve gets up the collective noses of her agency Skylark Literary.

Joanna Moult
Joanna replied: "Amber (Caraveo) and I often talk about our most hilariously unappealing submission! It came in from a writer who said next to nothing about themselves in the covering email, other than to insist in VERY STRONG TERMS that they were only willing to communicate by email and that a publisher would not be allowed to change a single word of it. It all sounded so mysterious, so we were intrigued and opened it immediately. It turned out to be a disastrously badly written story. So that was a pretty easy ‘no’!"

PREJUDICE

Notes from the Slushpile denizen Nick Cross offers this from his agent, Heather Cashman of Storm Literary Agency (you can read a brilliant article on Nick and Heather's author agent relationship over on the SCBWI newsletter Words & Pictures and you might be interested in Heather's Manuscript Wishlist)

Heather Cashman
Heather says: "This is such a difficult question to answer, because it's hard to choose 'the worst' thing that people have done. I've been told (by aspiring authors that) they have book deals when they didn't, I've been DM'd or emailed incessantly by the same person, I've been propositioned ... but I think the worst would be showing blatant prejudice through the authorial voice. It really offends me."


FOLLOW THE GUIDELINES

New York Times bestselling author Mo O'Hara (whose graphic novel Agent Moose just came out ), has this from her agent Gemma Cooper of The Bent Agency.


"Sending a book out on submission is stressful, and lots of agencies have different requirements, so you are adding complicated systems to that stress! That is to say that for me, I understand if mistakes happen. Check the website and try your best to follow the guidelines."

Please don't gaze at the starkly worded instructions on agent websites and think you can do it better.

AUTHORS WHO PUT THEMSELVES DOWN

Gemma collected some comments from other agents at The Bent Agency and there was an astounding number of comments about the lack of self belief on display in submissions.

"I don’t like to see authors putting themselves down," said one agent, citing the number of times she's had to read lines like: “It’s probably not very good" and “I’m sorry for wasting your time”.

"If I’m open to submissions I want to hear from you, so my time is yours to take. You’ve written a whole book. That goal is on a lot of bucket lists, and you did it! Be proud of this and confident in your approach. Be professional. Don’t put doubt in my mind before I’ve read a single word."

QUERIES THAT ARE ABOUT EVERYTHING BUT THE BOOK

Molly Ker Hawn riffed on query letters that didn't actually query.

"Query letters that are all about the author and why they wrote the book, and don’t include a solid pitch for the book itself."


SCATTERGUN SUBMISSIONS

Zoe Plant
Zoƫ Plant adds: "Queries for books in areas or g
enres that I don’t represent."

So, guys, please don't submit a children's book to an agency that only represents adult non fiction, or a young adult novel to a picture book literary agent. It's a waste of everybody's time.




Candy, Mo and George are children's authors who love playing the ukulele together and rewriting the lyrics of songs. During the lockdown they made a video rewording the World War II anthem We'll Meet Again as We'll Write Again. They are pictured playing their ukuleles at the 2018 conference of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (left to right: Candy Gourlay, Mo O'Hara, George Kirk and Tania Tay)


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