Friday, 10 May 2019

Tips for being a jobbing children's author

You are a writer.

There. Feel good? It made me feel good when I heard it; actually not just good but floating-on-air good. Beverley Birch told me that I was a writer at a writing workshop and I don't care if she told everyone else because the lovely, brilliant writer, Beverley Birch read my pre-published work and she told ME. It fuelled me for the slog ahead.
me, looking writerly
Post BB; I am published - yay! But mostly, I write in the hope that an editor or agent will say, 'yes'. Rejection is completely normal. I finished a novel recently and approached everybody in a systematic fashion. It led to four full reads but no takers. I think it was my stage 3 friend, Nick Cross, who said that receiving a rejection now causes a mere blip in his day. I mostly feel the same way and that is because taking rejection to heart, Can Cause Madness. I continue to hope and to write because a life of not-writing is unthinkable. I am a writer after all.

But hope isn't quite boundless and it doesn't pay the bills and I sometimes feel the need for a validation top up. So, what's to do? You could do what I do and embrace the creative life. I try and enjoy the ride and find my writing hits in as many tangential ways as possible.

Writing in a different genre

I love poetry. I love children's poetry. It can say a great deal or it can say nothing. It can be serious or sad, funny or rude or any other thing and you can write it in any way that appeals. I wrote a blog on giving poetry a go here.

children's TV
Anyone go to Kate Scott's excellent Winchester masterclass on writing in for children's TV? I loved this idea of using my writing talent to write for a visual medium. I started my post uni career off by having a crack at film production and had huge fun with a bunch of other young hopefuls (two of whom now live in LA and are Something Big in film).

Norsey Woods in Essex, filming, 'Sword'. Clue - I'm the only girl
Kate's workshop fired me up so much, I decided to give it a proper old go. Naturally the first thing I did was to invite the generous and immensely inspiring Kate up North to give a talk to SCBWI Central North. From there, I came up with ideas to develop. I found that writing dialogue with only the barest context can be a joy! It's another skill but it's allied to what I already do as a writer. Not forgetting that many stories already written can be adpated for this medium.

If you choose to follow this path, I can't recommend the BBC Writers' Room highly enough. It has writing opportunity windows three times a year - the comedy writing slot has just passed (wish me luck). These windows include writing for children in radio or tv or film. What I like about the opportunity is that the BBC will take writers to develop. They want to see the best writing you can offer (no change there) but they will choose the writer and not necessarily the story. Okay, the odds are still STACKED but that's nothing new so why not?

It's also worth checking out the other opportunities that the BBC Writers' Room highlights. These include many theatre companies actively looking for plays including plays written for children which brings me to ...

children's theatre

Seeing your story text brought to life through the work of an illustrator is truly wonderful.
Louise Gardner's Pirate from Mars. from A Place Called Home
But I have also been blown away by how my stories have been adapted for storytelling and stage performance.

Addy Farmer's Pirate from Mars, Baths Hall, Scunthorpe

This came about as a result of writing, A Bagful of Stars with my birthday twin, Bridget Strevens. The Rotary Club were looking to commission Julia Donaldson to write it but obviously I offered first - hem-hem. From there, the awesome Kirsty Mead, artistic director of Rhubarb Theatre in Lincoln adpated my stories for storytelling and for the stage. Not to go crazy but I can't wait for Hollywood to ring. Sometimes, it's good to just do it.

Finding work in unexpected places

I am on Linkedin which I always thought would be a waste of time but actually it's worth joining for the occasional useful contact. I'm sure, there are those of you out there who would be able to use it to its fullest potential. From Linkedin, I was approached by a start up company and paid to write a story world for their product. I was also asked by a Chinese animation company to write a pilot for new series and through a series of contacts I ended up booked to do a spell making workshop at Grimm and Co.

Image result for grimm and co
Grimm and Co. Rotherham - think Diagon Alley

Workshops - the bread and butter stuff

You can of course join Authors Aloud or other organisation which will find you work. Or, you can go your own way.

Running workshops is a crowded market and there is not a great deal of money around ... so you have to do your research, make contacts and find a way in which works for you.

I now offer mostly outdoor workshops. I actually like working outdoors and don't mind about the weather (I always have a back up plan!). I joined up with a local mental health charity called Natural Choice to deliver poetry and story for families, in outdoor settings. It's fun! In October, I'm running a Halloween witchy session IN THE WOODS! I love woods, I really do.

Here's a little video I made doing a poetry walk (paid!) on Crowle Moors.

From this, I went and had a chat with our Landscape Partnership people in the council and offered workshops to discover the stories and deliver creative responses to the landscape round here. So far, I've run medieval stories from a castel mound, been fairy-in-chief on a fairy poetry walk (in the woods!). I'm going to be painting poetry onto bog oak later in the month and then ... becoming a Neolithic priest-type person as I lead children onto a replica Neolithic trackway ... oh yeah. Try finding a costume for that on e-bay.

Sometimes it's good to team up with like-minded people. I teamed up with my pal, Juliet Clare Bell and we offer, 'I am a work-in-progress', workshops to build a positive mindset and resilience in primary schools. 


It is worth thinking about funding work with a grant. Two of my picture books have been commissioned and Arts Council funded but this is not for the faint hearted and it demands a great deal of thinking about why you are doing this and what you are aiming to achieve.  Should you, like me, want to develop your own creative practice by attempting a different medium, you should think about applying for the Arts Council DYCP grant which is a relatively easy form to fill in with a six week turnaround.
Image result for quill pen

Right now, I am in the middle of a fairly painful Arts Council project grant application to put on a children's theatre production. But you'll be overjoyed to hear that I am reprising my role as the Pirate from Mars from A Place Called Home, with Rhubarb Theatre in October at The Gainsborough Arts Centre.

Look around for local grant funding as well; e.g. we have loads of windfarms in North Lincolnshire with a lot of pots of money for local projects.

Mine your own interests for creative opportunities

I am interested in how bereavement affects families and through my lovely friend, Clare Bell, I have found a charity to work with in order to create a story which will hopefully make a difference.

Entering any and all competitions

To date, I've entered:
WriteMentor  - result, an unexpected offer of a beta-reader for my wip, Moth-Eaten
New Writing North, Hachette Debut Novel Award - result, embargoed until June
Times/Chicken House - result, no idea
BBC Writers Room - result, longlist in June
Other writing competitions

Image result for moomin papa writing
Moomin Papa - I had to get a moomin in somewhere

Other ways to be in the writing life

- Join the SCBWI - simply the best way to make like-minded friends, to hone your craft and to be part of a writing life. You could even volunteer - there's so much to be gained! I'm just going to mention that the lovely, GREENAWAY SHORTLISTED, Chitra Soundar, will be joining the equally lovely SCBWI Central North for an event at the Newark Book Festival on July 13th. Did I say she was GREENAWAY SHORTLISTED?
- Accept opportunities you think may be beneficial. I was offered the role of Chair of North Lincolnshire Children's Literacy Trust. While, this is a volunteer role, it also helps if I want to approach schools for workshops and is good for some grant applications.
- Festivals - find your local book festival and offer a workshop! This coming July, I'll be at the Newark Book Festival where I'll be offering one-to-ones for picture book and mid-grade work.
- Use your hard-won skills to the max. I am very happy to be a picture book editor and mentor for Manuscript Feedback

So, follow the creative life, enjoy the ride and find your writing hits wherever you can. Being published is WONDERFUL but it's not the whole story.

You are a writer. How brilliant is that?

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Confessions of a Goal Orientated Writer

by Paula Harrison

Cover art of my first published book by a very talented fan

I've been wondering for a while what makes me happy as a writer.

It's clear to me that my approach to work satisfaction has changed quite a bit over the past seven years since I was first published. I know - I know - if you're reading this as a pre-published writer you are probably yelling at the screen: WHAT WOULD MAKE ME HAPPY IS TO BE PUBLISHED, SO STOP TALKING RIGHT NOW! And you'd be right of course, but whether you're published yet or not, there are decisions we all make about what to write, how much time to spend writing, how much to listen to professional and peer opinions about our work and how much attention we pay to what publishers and agents are looking for right now, and I'm here to tell you that those decisions and compromises don't alter once you become published. They become even more multi-layered.


Well, yes. Clearly if you loathe and despise reading detective fiction you shouldn't go there as a writer either, but most children's authors have a range of age groups that they could write in and a number of different interests so you're still making a decision about where to start. This can be influenced by what you like reading, what your children (if you have them) like reading or just what you think might prove popular.


I've seen this advice on so many writing blogs and in so many writing books that I'm not even sure which source to credit. The reasoning is that if, by some chance, you notice that books about handsome vampires are very popular in teen fiction right now, then by the time you've written your own and submitted it and it's ready for publication, the trend will have moved on to something else. This can be true. Except that it's more complicated than that. I HAVE seen people make a success of writing in an area that is selling well by entering that genre or age group with their own unique idea.


You may be laughing at this point. So, do children's authors ever achieve good money and fame unless they are part of the tiny handful of household names? Well, maybe not fame. But it is possible to earn good money if you are lucky and your books sell well overseas, for example, but the authors who achieve this aren't necessarily the same ones getting great reviews in the Sunday Times. So would you rather earn well or have people praising your book? If you had to choose what would you do?
Interestingly, I recently began reading The Happy Brain by Dean Burnett, in which he talks about how important it is to us to have the approval of other human beings. I'm paraphrasing here, but he talks of peer approval having a similar effect on the brain as earning money. So we see approval as a very real gain. I think that's relevant to us as writers. Part of the reason we want to be published, to have the big book launch, the great reviews, the praise on twitter, is because we're wired to want it. We all do it. But is that what writing's really about?


Here's the crux of my change in attitudes over the last seven years as a published writer. Writing became my bread and butter, and with that came the realisation of what is actually possible. As a goal orientated person I probably started off with ALL the possible goals: money, reviews and recognition. Yes, please - that would be great!! But being an author can be a difficult and uncertain business and that reality sets in quite quickly for most people.


Don't worry - I haven't lost it! I often write a book that I'm passionate about in between something that will give me a more guaranteed chance at a contract and writing income. This way I can try to balance personal satisfaction with things that will enable me to buy groceries. Sometimes a safer, more commercial project will become the project of passion - taking a turn that brings fan letters from all around the world.
When this happens the readers become the goal. If we're helping children to learn to read, to discover the power of their imaginations, to see themselves in books, then isn't that the best goal of all?

Paula's new series KITTY, featuring a superhero-in-training with cat-like superpowers will be published by OUP in September and is illustrated by Jenny Lovelie.

Friday, 22 March 2019

The Thrill of the Chase - My Quest for the Perfect Agent

By Nick Cross

All photos of Banta the dog and his frisbee by Tom Ek

I’m only in the first sentence of this post, and already I’m not sure about the word “perfect” in that headline. In fact, I’m quite sure there is no such thing as the perfect agent - they are all human beings like us writers, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. But all I know is that my previous experience of having an agent was very unhappy, and I’m not keen to repeat that!

Of course, I may not get much choice in the matter. As I’ve discovered over the last ten years, you can be friends with any number of agents, but that doesn’t mean they'll want to represent you. In fact, what it mostly guarantees is that they’ll reject you promptly with a kind email and words of encouragement. All of which is much nicer than the alternative, but hardly the way to build a writing career...

So, what to do? It can be a bittersweet feeling to watch your friends achieving success, as most of the Slushpile team have. There have been multiple book deals, awards and all sorts of other good stuff since I first met these talented folks a decade ago. I’m proud of their success and proud to cheer them on. But I can’t escape the feeling that I’m still stuck on the starting blocks, the perennial “nearly there” author.

Enough feeling maudlin. Where is the “thrill” mentioned in the post title? Well, it’s something that’s surprised me about the submissions process for my illustrated YA novel RIOT BOYYY. Six books in, you’d think I’d be well and truly fed up of submitting by now, just going through the motions. But new thinking and new technology have made the process unexpectedly exciting this time around.

The source of my joy is those three little words. No, not those words, I'm talking about Manuscript Wish List. Using the hashtag #MSWL, agents regularly tweet about what kind of books they are looking for right now. Armed with that information, you can quickly craft a submission and get it in their inbox double quick, before someone else inevitably comes up with the same book you’ve already written. Even better than #MSWL is the accompanying website As well as linking to #MSWL tweets, this site hosts pages that agents can update with their preferences. It’s searchable by age group and genre, which removes almost all of the guesswork when selecting agents.

The vast majority of agents on Manuscript Wish List are American, but that’s fine because I’m targeting the US market for my book. Aside from the huge number of agents who accept YA fiction, submitting to US agents has other advantages. They are mostly working when I’m not, which means that if I avoid my email from mid-afternoon, I only have to worry about finding rejections in my inbox when I wake up in the morning. Of course, a rejection first thing is not the greatest start to the day! But is there any good time to receive one?

The buzz that comes from using Manuscript Wish List can be addictive. I was browsing Twitter one Friday lunchtime when I spotted an agent who was requesting exactly what I’d written. I sent the manuscript then and there, which took me a while because the agent had some unusually complex submission requirements. But once I pressed Send I didn’t care - this was so exciting!

My dreams of publishing glory crashed and burned the next day when the same agent rejected me. On a Saturday! Like some other responses I’ve received, this rejection praised the book’s concept, but was less enamoured of the way it was written. This sucks, but I guess it’s something I’ll have to live with. I’ve been writing for long enough (15 years!) to know I’m not suddenly going to develop a luminous, poetic writing style where every sentence sparkles like a rare gem. More than that, though, this is the right voice for the book I’ve written. And if you can’t see that, then I guess you’re not the right agent for me.

Submitting to agents (or “querying” as the Americans call it) can sometimes feel like a full-time job. Even with the help of Manuscript Wish List, you have to search for agents, check them out on Twitter, read their submission guidelines, tailor your covering letter, check everything twice and make sure you send only what they ask for. This takes me a minimum of thirty minutes per submission, and often longer (I estimate I’ve spent upwards of 30 hours on submissions of this book so far). The Twitter part is an essential stage BTW, because agents are constantly changing agencies or closing their submissions list. Plus, if their tweets look really crazy, you can swiftly walk away, whistling!

Another technological innovation I’ve encountered is the use of a system called QueryManager to manage submissions. Instead of sending an email, this requires you to submit via a web form, uploading attachments as necessary. This feels like a faff, but once you finish you get a URL back that you can use to check the status of your submission at any time. No more worrying about whether your email (or an agent’s enthusiastic reply) fell off the back of internet, or agonising over whether you spelt their name right in your covering letter.

The use of QueryManager opens up the possibility of asking for more information beyond the basic covering letter, sample and synopsis. Prompts such as “Describe the intended audience for your book” or even “Who is your favourite Harry Potter character?” At their best, such questions can make you think more deeply about the commercial appeal of your work. At their worst, they risk making the submissions process ever more time-consuming and labyrinthine, like some sadistic game.

Talking of sadistic games, I almost joined a mass Twitter pitch session earlier this month, but chickened out at the last minute (I guess I'm not ready for that kind of excitement!) There were tens of thousands of tweets, it all seemed so public, and I lost confidence in my carefully-crafted paragraph because it didn’t seem to follow the rules that everyone else had internalised. In fact, the more I researched the rules for Twitter pitching, the more I began to doubt the pitch I’d been using for months. Should I be including a rhetorical question in my pitch? Was that why agents kept sending me form rejections? Are you going to stop reading this blog post if I keep using them here?

I quickly found myself in a doubt spiral, which feels a bit silly in retrospect because this was the same pitch I’d delivered in front of 200 people, and it seemed to go down pretty well! In the end, I resolved to change nothing and resumed sending out individually to agents. If I’ve learnt anything about my process over the years, it’s that when those doubts strike I need to hold firm and meddle with my novel as little as possible. The devil makes work for anxious writers.

My quest for the perfect agent continues, and it’s hard to say if I’m getting any closer at this point. At least I’m having a bloody good try. My fellow Slushie Kathryn Evans, so long a “nearly there” author, used to have the following as her status:
Waiting, waiting, waiting. Hoping, hoping, hoping.
What she said.


Nick Cross is a children's writer/illustrator and Undiscovered Voices winner. He received a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.
Nick is also the Blog Network Editor for SCBWI Words & Pictures magazine. His Blog Break column appears fortnightly on W&P.

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