Monday 4 July 2011

That'll be the Debut - second of a series

By Addy Farmer

Featuring Janet Foxley, Caroline Green and Helen Peters

On Notes from the Slushpile, we chronicle the slings and arrows of trying to make a dream come true so we get embarrassingly excited about debut authors. Last week, we launched our new series That’ll Be The Debut, where we meet debut authors and get the lowdown on what life is like beyond the Slushpile. Here is the second of the series in which our debutantes talk about their own learning curves and working with real live editors.

Helen Peters
Helen Peters grew up on an old-fashioned farm in Sussex, surrounded by family, animals and mud. She spent most of her childhood reading stories and putting on plays in a tumbledown shed that she and her friends turned into a theatre. She can still hardly believe that she now gets to call herself a writer but she is and her book, The Secret Henhouse Theatre is out with Nosy Crow in April 2012. It won an honorary mention as The Secret Chickenhouse Theatre in Undiscovered Voices 2010. Notes from the Slushpile featured Kate Wilson, Nosy Crow's energetic publisher, a few weeks ago.  Photo by Zoe Norfolk

Caroline Green
Caroline Green is an experienced freelance journalist with a weirdly good sense of smell which she now uses to sniff out a good story. She vividly remembers a family walk when she was ten years old when she was so preoccupied with thoughts of her new ‘series’ that she almost walked into a tree. She survived to grow up, stick at writing and get published! Caroline is the author of Dark Ride published by Piccadilly.

Janet Foxley
Janet Foxley used to tell herself stories even before she was old enough to write them down. A little later she went on to sell some ‘how to make’ articles to ‘Brownie’ magazine but soon turned to children’s novels. Janet won the Times/Chicken House competition in 2010 with Muncle Trogg at the magnificent age of 65. (Muncle Trogg was also on the honour's list of UV 2008)

Addy Farmer Ok - maybe we can kick off with, did you have a clear idea of of your reader when you wrote your story?

Janet Not at all. I've always just written the story the way it came to me, and then wondered who it was for when it was finished. Can't do that any more now I'm writing for an editor, though, as I have to be aware of the age group I'm writing for and have to think more closely about my vocabulary and sentence construction.

Muncle Trogg is the smallest giant on Mount Grumble.
Fed up with being laughed at,  he decides to take a look
at the Smallings and discovers something very surprising!

Addy Helen - I know that Nosy Crow is VERY focused on the reader - was it the same for you?

Helen I think I always imagined that I was writing for me aged about 10, and yes, I did picture 10 year-old me curled up reading it, and tried to write the sort of story that I would have liked at that age.

My first book was like a pregnancy - I couldn't possibly think about another until I had delivered this one safely! Helen Peters

Caroline Green Well my default reader is my 12-year-old son ... my youngest is eight and just a bit young for the stuff I write but I very strongly have Joe, eldest in my mind when I'm working on a story. When he is enthusiastic, it feels so great! I mainly write YA but would love to write for younger children too. Have one I did especially for my youngest but haven't managed to get that one published.

Caroline and family: My default reader is my
12-year-old son

Addy Do you mind which age you write for?

Helen The book I'm working on is another 8+ novel, which I'm really enjoying, but I would really like to try my hand at YA too, some day.

Janet Well, Chicken House regard Muncle Trogg as 7+, and we edited the language down quite a lot from how I had it. I have written older, and also played with picture book ideas. But once you're published for a particular age they like to keep you there, particularly if, as in my case, there's a gap in the market.

Caroline I would so love to write a funny book for six to eight year olds ...

Janet Do it, Caroline - that's where the gap is! I'd ideally write for a bit older than 7+ - there are a lot of constraints on language and content at that age.

Addy Janet mentioned the way her editor helps her to focus on her reader - can we talk about working with real live editors for a bit?

Caroline My editor is the old fashioned kind who offers masses of hand holding and guidance. I know what she likes and doesn't like now ...

Bel follows Luka into the abandoned fairground
and her life takes an unexpected turn. 

Helen One of the reasons I was so pleased to be working with Nosy Crow is that so many of Kate and Kirsty's revision suggestions were about aspects of the book that I'd already had doubts about but had pushed to the back of my mind.

There was one particular plot point which had been bothering me for a while, and I'd tried various solutions, none of which quite solved the problem. But as soon as we started discussing it in that first meeting, I had an idea for how to solve it. The magic of editors!

Nosy Crow asked me about other ideas I had when they bought my first book and they particularly liked one of them, which is what I'm writing now. But my editor hasn't seen it yet (I'm 55,000 words into the first draft)

Janet Did you start out by agreeing a plot plan? My editor loved my first draft - but it still required a lot of rewriting!

Caroline Helen, I feel your pain. It's scary when you don't know how they will react to the second book, isn't it?

Helen If my editor doesn't like it I'm in for a LOT of rewriting

Caroline I've recently had REAMS - forests, I tell you - of notes from my editor on the second draft. It was a bit of a low moment. Wine was drunk that night ...

Janet Sometimes reams can help. A lot of what I get at first draft stage are suggestions that don't work too well when properly thought through but they do work in a more indirect way, because they spark off new ideas in me.

When you're asked for a sequel you're obviously firmly on the same ground as book one but you're inevitably afraid of the second not being as good as the first. I've no idea what will happen once Muncle has run his course. It feels like I'm in a magic bubble at the moment which will inevitably burst one day.

Caroline I read a bit of Muncle Trogg online earlier Janet and LOVED it!

Helen I found the scariest thing about having an editor was having a deadline! It took YEARS to get my first book to a state where it was ready to send out!

Janet Yes, deadlines are really scary. Muncle 1 took me eight to ten years before it ever got to Chicken House, Muncle 2 has to be done from start to publication in one year

Caroline I'm better with deadlines, personally... can feel a bit amorphous otherwise.

Addy Talking of years to get a book together perhaps we could talk a litttle about the learning curve for your stories?

Helen My first book was a massive learning curve. The first draft was extremely autobiographical, which was a huge hindrance as I kept thinking, 'But I can't write that because it didn't happen'. Joining SCBWI and having work critiqued was so helpful in enabling me to look at it more objectively and have the courage to say, 'That's not working - it needs to change.'

Janet For Muncle 2, I had to write a plot plan - I'd always been the start writing and wait and see what happens sort of writer until then. The plot plan was brain-achingly hard but after that the first draft was much easier to write. The edit's a bit of a panic, though, they've given me a month for the first rewrite and I'm juggling loads of plot elements and trying to re-arrange them

Helen Also reading great books on writing and hearing agents and editors talk about what they wanted, which forced me to think in a more professional way

Caroline I learned a lot when working on Dark Ride, especially once my editor was involved. She would point out why something did or didn't work and I'd be able to see why instantly, almost every time. I think I also learned a lot from writing my unpublished novels - one adult and one for kids.

Critiquing is invaluable - the mistakes leap out at you and then you think: gosh, I do that too, don't I? Janet Foxley

Janet Most of my learning has been done through reviews from Cornerstones and the like. I didn't discover SCBWI until Helen Corner suggested I went in for the first Undiscovered voices and living in the sticks I don't get to all the lovely agents parties and things. I think it's easier to learn now. When I started in the early 1970s agencies like Cornerstones didn't exist; I feel sorry for people who can't afford professional crits, because without them I wouldn't have got published

Caroline My first one was really just a learning exercise. The kids' one was different because I really believed something would happen...won a prize and so on but I reached a point where I knew I just had to let it go ...

I'm also a fan of Cornerstones - they do brilliant courses.

Helen based The Secret Henhouse Theatre on her own
childhood performing home-made plays in a chicken
shed on the farm where she grew up. Here she is (in pink)
performing with one of her sisters.

Helen Peters I so admire people who write another book before they get a publisher or an agent for the first one. I rewrote my first one over and over until it was as good as I could make it, and then sent it out. And while it was on submission I couldn't write a thing. I redecorated my whole flat instead! Thank goodness Nosy Crow liked it or I'd probably have taken up crochet by now.

Addy Decorating a flat sounds fab way of dulling the waiting pain!

Helen It was! And it kept me away from checking my e-mails. I felt like my first book was a bit like a pregnancy - I couldn't possibly think about another until I had delivered this one safely! I didn't get any professional crits but I found a fabulous critique group through SCBWI.

Caroline I don't think anything dulls the waiting pain ... is most corrosive, unpleasant feeling! I hated it. Still hate it, in fact ...

Caroline launching Dark Ride at the Owl Bookshop. At far left is
her publisher Brenda Gardner. Photo: Christian Colussi

Janet The waiting pain isn't as bad as the pain when it lands back on the mat.

Caroline Oh yes ...

Helen At least that's an answer though! I still haven't heard from one agent I submitted to a year ago

Janet Seems odd, now I'm doing everything by email, that so much depended on that self-addressed envelope. That is a very naughty agent, Helen.

Janet with her publisher, Barry Cunningham of Chickenhouse

Caroline I came to hate my own handwriting at a certain point! I waited a year too at the very beginning ... a year on a full manuscript. That was a lesson learned as they say.

Addy Okay - so if you debs were to give advice to struggling writers - what would it be?

Janet Get crits from people who really know what they're talking about. Read masses and masses of stuff written for the age group you're aiming at.

And don't give up. If you're a real writer you won't give up, even if you're still unpublished, because writing is something you simply need to do even if it's painful.

The time came when I realised the one I was writing was rubbish. I've just found several old manuscripts in the loft that I didn't even remember writing. I must have written about four rubbish books before I wrote something decent, and though it was getting good professional crits that one was deemed too long to be published as a debut. So I rashly self-published and sat down to write something more commercial - that was when Muncle was born.

Helen Join SCBWI! Without all that support and advice I wouldn't have found a publisher, or had a book good enough to send to one. And join a critique group - gaining objectivity on your work and learning how to critique others' work is incredibly valuable. I was shaking the first time I submitted a chapter, but it was the best thing I ever did in my writing life.

Helen at a recent SCBWI retreat. She was one of the focused ones ...
unlike some. Photo: Candy Gourlay

Caroline I used to hate it when people told me I was 'almost there'. But now I'm on the other side of that mountain, I would say to people who keep being told the same thing - believe it. Keep going. Be tenacious. If agents say no, sub directly to publishers.

Janet Yes, critiquing other people's work is invaluable - the mistakes leap out at you and then you think, gosh, I do that too, don't I?

Addy Yeah - that tenacity is at the core i think and reading everything you can get your mitts on

Helen Absolutely! Yes, totally agree with subbing directly to publishers too - it worked for me! Critique groups are great at recommending books too - have discovered so many great authors because someone in the group said,'You have to read this.' I love (and loved as a child) everything by Noel Streatfeild, and Curtain Up most of all. And, as a child, any school stories I could get my hands on, especially Enid Blyton and Anthony Buckeridge. And my mum gave me her copies of Little Women and its sequels, which are all wonderful. Recently, I've been reading the Mr Gum books to my children and they are completely brilliant.

Caroline I'm very shocked if writers say they haven't got time to read. It's absolutely essential. I love Cosmic by Frank Cotrell Boyce in absurd amounts. Ditto The Hunger Games Trilogy. And for all round perfection - The BFG

Janet I don't have a favourite anything, there are too many to choose from. Love The Borrowers, anything by Philippa Pearce, Arthur Ransome. Not so keen on all these questing good v. evil fantasies we've seen so much of recently.

One Harry Potter was great. Never felt the need to go back for any more. Never went back for the rest of the Hunger Games, either. Oh, did I mention Jan Mark - her earlier stuff was great, later stuff a bit weird, though the dystopian trilogy she left unfinished was good!

Caroline ... must check that out. Love a bit of dystopia!

Janet And back to advice ... enter every competition you're eligible for - that way at least you'll get read. That enabled me to bypass the agent stage - still haven't got one, though I shall need one of course when Chicken House drop me!!

Screenshot from the Times of the announcement
of Janet's winning the Times /Chicken House
Children's Fiction Prize. View competition details here

Addy Janet!

Caroline Yes, Janet! Stop being so naughty. You'll go to the back of the room..

Addy What are you all writing now?

Caroline I'm about to plough into the daunting task of the third draft of my second book for Piccadilly.

Janet Muncle Trogg and the Flying Donkey, Draft 2. Wondering what to write after that, because I won't know for some time whether Chicken House will want a 3rd Muncle book. It may well depend on how well foreign sales do ...

Helen It's a time-slip book about a girl who goes to live in a National Trust house when her mum gets a job there, and finds she can go back to the same house 200 years ago and meet the children who lived there. Totally different from The Secret Henhouse Theatre.

I would say to people who keep being told the same thing - believe it. Keep going. Be tenacious.
Caroline Green

Janet ... and whether anything comes of the film rights

Helen Ooh, film rights! That is so glamorous, Janet!

Caroline Ooh, LOVE the sound of that Helen! And Janet...did you just say FILM RIGHTS??? Sorry, I appear to have become shouty

Janet Sony Animation have taken out an 18 month option on Muncle, which could be renewed for a further 18 months, so in effect they have three years to decide whether to go ahead and pay lots more money for the rights. No, I'm keeping quite calm and not spending the dollars, because I know the odds are against it happening!

Addy So many thanks to you all for taking time out to chat and I'm sure our readers will be RUNNING to the bookshop to get copies of your books. It's so good to hear how you made it to publication. There's pain, yes and time spent waiting, lots of it but you've all shown that nothing is wasted. As Janet says, writing is something you need to do. Let's keep at it.

Read the rest of our That'll be the Debut series:

Addy Farmer is the author of Grandad's Bench (Walker) and Siddharth and Rinki (Tamarind). Her picture book Worlds Apart will be published by Frances Lincoln in 2012


  1. Wonderful interview - I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Thanks!

  2. Gosh ... a propos nothing at all, that made me feel like redecorating my living room. Congrats, you guys - so proud of what you've achieved. And thumbs up on the advice about critique - all those years without a critique group now seems like time wasted to me.

  3. Ooooh, working with an editor: I'm looking forward to that. Interesting to get glimpses behind the scenes.

    And Candy: whatever did you mean when noting Helen was one of the focused ones at the retreat... 'unlike some'?!?

  4. Really enjoyed this blog, always encouraging to hear how long it takes everyone to write their first book! My kids are nagging me Janet, to know when the next Muncle trogg is out? We have bought eight copies so far as my son keeps wanting to give them as birthday pressies to his friends at school.

  5. hmmm, my kitchen's looking a bit dodgy ...

  6. @Teri your reaction just reeks of guilt.

  7. I'm really enjoying this series - can't wait for part three! Candy, ever thought of a job designing book covers?

  8. heh heh if i had a lot of time, i would redesign the book covers of my favourite books! fan art! mind you, i'm sure there's loads of mysterious commercial reasons why that cover would be wrong.

  9. Well, we had to take my fan art down for various complicated reasons but you can still view it here. Just remember it's not the real thing.

  10. I'm loving the facebook interviews. My daughter got very excited at school the other day when she spotted a big advert for Muncle on the front of a book club flyer. She told anyone and everyone who would listen - 'I know her, I know the author!'
    Then she had to get back to teaching.

  11. Another fascinating interview and proof that if you keep writing (and reading) and believing, one day the dream will come true.

    I was at the launch for Dark Ride and started reading my copy on the train home. I got so engrossed I nearly missed my stop.

    I've now added Muncle Trogg and The Secret Henhouse Theatre to my book wish list. I think I may need to go on some longer train journeys though …

  12. Cor, thanks Dave! Will be right at the front of that queue when yours is out, that's for sure....

  13. Good to hear from Helen about how useful my critique group was to her current success. I remember very well inviting you to join Helen after a SCWBI Retreat. And my group was also praised by Candy's editor at the SCWBI Conference last year. Bella Pearson said how ready Tall Story was for publication because of the level of critique it had already received. Heady days.

  14. Yes, absolutely everyone can benefit from a critique group, and the great thing is that the help and advice is mutual. I used ms advice serves instead, and while they were really helpful, I think I missed the give-and-take of a peer critique group where one can offer advice as well as get it. I've heard great things about the SCBWI crit groups where the help goes all ways, and no one person is giving or taking too much. I'd recommend it to anyone just by reputation.

  15. It all sounds wonderful - and clearly very productive! Like Gillian, I haven't experienced a SCBWI-type support group myself, but I can imagine that having advice passed from peer to peer, so to speak, rather than being handed down from above, must be particularly helpful.

  16. Sounds like a good group, Miriam! And it's clear how mutually supportive it must be; I know you've said how much your own work has benefited from it too. But then, I'd actually say the same for SCWBI as a whole. Most of the members I've met are SO professional and supportive of each other, as children's writers all on the same path. And personally, I love it when my former SCWBI and Cornerstones students go on to get published themselves. I take full credit, of course - it's all down to me and my wonderful teaching! ;) Just kidding, obviously. As we all know, no critique or teaching can do anything at all without a lot of talent and very hard work on the author's part. Fortunately, SCWBI members seem to have this in spades!

  17. Just realised I got that dratted acronym wrong. Fortunately, you all know exactly what I meant anyway. Phew!

  18. I sometimes think for the 'craft of writing' one should read the 'graft of writing'. As our debs and just about every other writer and illustrator I've met has shown, there's no substitute for hard work and stickability.
    There's also nothing like the enveloping hug that is the productive support of fellow grafters.
    Thanks for all your comments, so good to hear that support as well!

  19. Thanks for the interviews -I really enjoyed reading them. I'd second what you guys all said about SCBWI critique groups. It's the main reason I joined SCBWI in the first place, six or seven years ago, and it's been amazing. I know that everything I write is improved by feedback from my critique groups. Really good luck to you all -and Noel Streatfeild's When The Siren Wailed was my favourite book for years when I was younger...


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