Wednesday 12 October 2011

Surviving the Slushpile a dyslexic

by Sally Poyton
Guest Blogger

Notes from the Slushpile attempts to make some sense out of the mad scramble for a publishing deal. As the newest slushpile guinea pig, I'm going to attempt to take you all with me... This is the second in new series Surviving the Slushpile, where we'll highlight some of the highs and lows of the slushpile journey.

Sally Poyton is knee-deep in the slushpile just like the rest of us - and you think you've got it hard!

I’m dyslexic, and just like Winnie-the-Pooh, my spelling wobbles, unfortunately sometimes with embarrassing results. This can be problematic, especially as I’m trying to write a novel. As if breaking in to the world of literature isn’t difficult enough with dropping book sales, slushpiles and all manner of other obstacles to avoid. How about adding this to your list: having to translate your manuscript from your own version of English, to one that other people can read.
So here are a few words about my daily battles with, well, words.
Case One: Napoleons Ice Cream
It’s an easy mistake to make, and I made it. As a kid, I read the top of the ice-cream pot as ‘Napoleons Ice Cream’ as opposed to ‘Neapolitan Ice Cream’. So, yes, I really thought it was named after the little French man with the big chip on his shoulder. I thought he couldn’t decide which flavour of ice cream was his favourite, and therefore got them all put together in one pot (dictators can do this can’t they?).
Advice : Don’t trust anyone! Because until recently, nobody corrected me…

Napoleon and his favourite ice-cream
Case Two: Fooling the spell checker
This must be the bane of any dyslexic writer’s life – spelling one word wrong, but inadvertently spelling another word correctly in its place. This is BAD! Spell checker doesn’t pick it up, and as it has no red squiggly line underneath it, neither do I.
If you thought Napoleons ice cream was bad, think again. Imagine working for an educational computer company, and selling, say, Brothel printers instead of Brother Printers. Thankfully, I had a boss with a sense of humour. That’s not my only work place mistake, but I’ll spare you the details of the castrated chips.
Advice: Ignore the advice in Case One. Always get someone you trust to proofread your work.

Case Three: Google is for life, not just for searching for websites
Spell checker, that’ll fix everything, right? Well let me tell you – this is a myth. Spell checker most of the time has no idea what word I’m trying to write. Usually I end up spending precious minutes retyping the word in as many different ways as I can think of to try and get it to recognise my intended word, and advise me of the correct spelling, but with no luck.

Should've gone to Google...!

In fact my spell checker seems to have developed an attitude recently. If it was actor, it would have stormed off to its trailer long ago. Yesterday, it point blank refused to check my spelling saying that there were too many mistakes in the manuscript.

Oh dear. Word rebels at last.

Advice: When Word spell checker fails, copy your misspelt word and paste it into the search bar in Google. This will then bring up websites featuring the word you meant, just like magic. How can this be possible? Information. Google saves and remembers all of the searches done worldwide. This includes all of the people who search for something but spelt it incorrectly. It also then remembers what sites they went to. So far has it has never got it wrong for me. It’s a great tool, and it’s also reassuring to know there are other people who are not only really bad at spelling, but spell the same way as you.

Case 4: The Unreadable Manuscript
After ten months of researching, plotting and writing, I completed my first ever manuscript. Feeling an enormous sense of achievement, I printed it off and asked a friend, who happens to be an editor of children’s books, to read it. After two weeks came an awkward conversation. It turned out that my draft novel was unreadable. Why? Well it was one paragraph with a mere 115000 word count. Plus the only grammar used was full stops and the occasional comma.
Advice: Don’t let this deter you. Grammar can be learnt. Writing is a craft, and grammar is one of the tools which you will learn on the journey. (Unlike spelling, which eludes me completely). Get some kids workbooks on grammar, and learn. It’ll take a while, but it can be done.
Alternatively, get help. If you’re serious about writing, budget in some money to get your work proofread, or copyedited, to pick up any errors that you miss. But most important of all: don’t give up.
Case 5: An Ode to Dyslexics Everywhere
Some of the all-time greatest author were dyslexic – Roald Dahl, A.A. Milne , William Butler Yeats and Hans Christian Anderson to name a few. Having dyslexia can be an obstacle, but it is also a gift. Being dyslexic, your head is wired differently, using more of the right side of the brain, the creative half.

At least there's one word you always know how to spell in Scrabble! It's worth 21 points, too.

This means that you think differently, which can be very useful for a writer. Being dyslexic you see and experience the world differently, and then process that information through the creative part of your brain, meaning one thing – ideas. What’s a story without ideas? A story with the absence of creative ideas would be a barren narrative.

So, yes, we may have trouble with words, but that can be fixed. What’s important is having the ideas, and being able to tell a story.

So if you’re dyslexic and you want to write, then write. It won’t be easy, but that not why we do it. There is one thing that unites all writers, dyslexic, and non-dyslexic: we all write because we love to write.

Sally Poyton has done everything from admin to hand-rearing parrots. She studied Art at university and produced works based on fairy tales. With a desire to write, Sally eventually overcame her fear that her dyslexia would prohibit her, and started writing. Now, many hours and manuscript re-writes later, she thinks of herself as a writer. An unpublished and un-agented writer, but still a writer! She enjoys all forms of narrative, from graphic novels to films, but her passion is fairy tales, and the darkness within them.

Monday 10 October 2011

Oxfordshire Book Awards - or 300: The Remake

by Jo Wyton

Last Thursday was the day of the Oxfordshire Book Awards, held at Abingdon School. I attended as part of a team of volunteers/well-bribed peoples (Sally Poyton and Gabby Aquilina) to help the brilliant Mostly Books independent bookshop sell books to the children / teachers / librarians in attendance.

The Oxfordshire Book Awards have been running for a few years now - the books are voted for by the students of local schools - both primary and secondary - in three categories:

Primary picture book
Primary book
Secondary book

Check it out - a cake of Axel Sheffler's winning book, Zog!

The day started off well - I arrived in time for lunch, which is always good, then helped load the books into a car to go to the school. I won't try to estimate how many boxes of how many books we carried, but I can tell you that my spine changed trajectory between starting and finishing. We also had a fun game of Dodge the Car Whilst Not Dropping Box or Being Able to See Your Feet.

Whilst the ceremony was going on in the Amey Theatre, we set about constructing our makeshift bookshop. Cue lifting of tables that realistically women of 5 foot 2 shouldn't have been lifting and then the shuffling of those tables into something resembling practical. It turns out that this is an effective way to realign your spine after all that box carrying.

There were several authors in attendance, including two of the winners - Malorie Blackman (Boys Don't Cry - secondary book, which incidentally I've just read and it's flipping brilliant) and Axel Scheffler (Zog, with Julia Donaldson - primary picture book). Sally Nicholls, Jo Cotterill and S.L. Powell were also there. (Michael Morpurgo was the other winner for his book Shadow, but was unfortunately unable to attend, although he was there last year.) All were doing book signings after the ceremony.

So, picture this, if you will...

A school canteen. (Still smelling suspiciously like canteens did in the 1980s. You know - bleach and custard.) Four long (and heavy) tables lined up, and covered with cloths (because nobody likes a dirty book) (jokes on a postcard). Three tables set at jaunty angles for author signings. Books set out on various stands, in order of target age range, separate stands for the winners and authors in attendance, series fiction in order (harder than you'd think).


Peace and quiet reigns. Just calm old us and the books.

Wait a minute... Oh my God, they're all heading straight for us! Man your stations!

300 children, all with pocket money stashed away in folded-up envelopes and stuffed in their pockets. All wanting the same books. Mayhem! Soon there were pound coins flying everywhere, kids whose pocket money fell fifty pence short of the book they really wanted, a plastic bag shortage and a penny piece catastrophe.

And SO much fun.

It's so great as a (wannabe) writer to see 300 children running at you, looking for nothing more than the latest, bestest book. How on earth those lovely authors coped with sitting there with mere canteen tables standing between them and so many excited kids, I will never know, but they all looked incredibly relaxed and calm!

Malorie Blackman hard at work!

Axel Scheffler equally hard at work!

The calm after the (signing) storm.

I love getting involved in stuff like this - it's great for reaffirming your belief in kids' love of books (if you're not left hiding under the tables first). There will be more on volunteering at events like this on Notes from the Slushpile in a couple of weeks, from Mostly Books' Nicki Thornton, but until then I'll just say that it's a great thing to do for anyone, but especially if you're trying to become a writer.

Wednesday 5 October 2011

Surviving the Slushpile ... for the very first time

Notes from the Slushpile attempts to make some sense out of the mad scramble for a publishing deal. As the newest slushpile guinea pig, I'm going to attempt to take you all with me... This is the first in new series Surviving the Slushpile, where we'll highlight some of the highs and lows of the slushpile journey.

First up, it's the start of the slushpile adventure - the first submission.

Ah, the sigh of relief. One of life’s pleasures. And one that you shouldn’t look forward to any time soon if you’re about to take your first adventure onto the dreaded slushpile…
By the time you post your first submission, you’ve been at work for months. You’ve been out and bought a copy of the Writers and Artists Yearbook, and scrambled around online to find out who is still accepting unsolicited manuscripts. You’ve had a little cry at how few people are on your list. Double checking which agents deal with books like yours wiped you out, and means you’ve had to cross out at least two-thirds of your potential agents, ensuring you’ve had a little cry at how few people are left on your list now. You’ve attended workshops and masterclasses, talks and conferences. You’ve had business cards made up and made sure there are always three in your wallet, just in case. You’ve prepared your elevator pitch, and now avoid using elevators at all costs, just in case you have to use it.

Just some of the handy market guides you can bury yourself in come submissions time

This process has left you sitting at your desk, staring blankly at a list of agents in front of you. (Your copy of the Writers and Artists Yearbook is being eaten by the dog in the corner.)
Next you write your cover letter, painfully aware of how little writing experience you have to add into the ‘biography’ paragraph. You desperately try to remember the name of that competition you won when you were eleven years old before realising that writing that into your biography is worse than useless – it’ll be in the bin before the agent has stopped laughing long enough to breathe. Hmm, you think, I wonder if I should include that letter I had published in the Gazette last year, complaining about the state of the roads?

Desk whilst writing novel...

You then set about composing a synopsis. This keeps you awake for weeks on end, and is rewritten and restructured more times than all of the novels on the slushpile put together. How do I tell them that Arthur dies without introducing him? But then if I introduce Arthur, I need to tell them about his obsession with Mary. Oh, but if I tell them about Mary then surely I need to tell them about the extra toe on her left foot and the way her cheek dimples when she laughs? And how do I make it clear that halfway through the story everyone gets turned into sheep?* You draw a sketch to try and make sense of it, figure out your plot doesn’t work and try to ignore the niggling feeling that you should really rewrite your novel again before sending it off to the top agent in the country.
*Just to make it clear: this is not the plot of my novel. I hate sheep.

By this point, your brains are smattered all over the walls and you’re wondering what on earth made you think you could write a novel in the first place.

Eventually, after months of distress, a stomach ulcer and two children suffering from abandonment issues, you seal the big brown envelope containing your submission. (You quickly tear it open again to check you remembered to include everything, realise you did, and end up running around in search of a new envelope.)
Now it’s time for the big moment: the walk to the post-box. Never, since children first emerged from behind the sofa after hearing the word ‘Exterminate’, have steps been so warily taken. Palms sweating, legs jittering, stomach wobbling from all of the junk food you’ve been forced to eat whilst preparing your submission.

Desk after writing submission...

But then, you’re there. The darkness of the post-box awaits. You edge the envelope closer and closer, not quite wanting to let go, until that friend you’ve been irritating with your slow-motion posting grabs it and shoves it in.

Oh, dear. It’s gone.

Two weeks later, and you’re anxiously hovering by the front door, crouched down, hands held out like you’re playing backstop for the Yankees.
Even though all the talks you’ve been to have explicitly told you that any agent who wants your manuscript will phone you at the first opportunity, you wait for the post anyway, because you never know.

The phone lines might be down, or the agency might be suffering an unexpected power cut. They might write to request your manuscript instead of calling. Right?
A month later, and your thighs are the size of Linford Christie’s from crouching in front of the letterbox every morning. Still nothing. Maybe they never received it? Maybe it’s fallen down the back of a filing cabinet, or been eaten by the office iguana? Maybe the agent is still laughing about that competition you won when you were eleven. Perhaps you shouldn’t have included that after all...
And so it goes on, until, most likely, you receive your first rejection.

Don’t worry. Nobody gets accepted the first time they try. Those first few attempts are for learning, in the same way that your first few attempts at writing your novel were for learning. The chances of writing the right novel at the right time and putting it in the hands of the right person are slim, but possible. The chances of all of that happening on your first attempt?...

But that’s OK, because you’ll get there in the end. Network as much as you can – make sure that when you write that cover letter, you can tell the agent where you met them. Practise pitching. Drink lots of tea. Eat plenty of chocolate.
Hide some wine under your desk for when that first rejection comes through. Then put the rejection in the bin, or in a draw, or pretend you’re Stephen King and stick it on a spike on the wall.

And while you’re doing all of that, don’t forget the most important thing:
Start writing something else.

The more I’m surrounded by writers who have successfully put their foot on the rocky first rung of the publishing ladder, the more I believe that voice is the thing that will have an agent on the phone, asking to see the rest of your manuscript.

Plot can be altered and grammar can be checked, but if your novel doesn’t have a strong voice, all you’ve got is a well-written cover letter and a synopsis for a book that could be brilliant if only the writing was better.

It’s easy to forget that the best way to get published is to write a truly great story – one that’s different from the hundred other submissions burying it at the bottom of the slushpile. If you can get that right, then all you need is just a little bit of luck.
When I finished my first novel (albeit for the seventh time), I packaged it up and sent it out. Of course, rejection was inevitable. I recently found my first one under the bed. It was still in the envelope, paper-clipped to my submission. I read it. Lord above. My sister rescued me some hours later from my hiding place under the desk, where I was curled up in a small ball, shaking with embarrassment. OK, OK, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but it was definitely an excruciating experience to read it again. I’d forgotten to check the most important thing – the novel wasn’t good enough. I’d gotten caught up in my eagerness to send it out, instead of putting it away in a drawer like I should have done, and starting work on something better.

Rejection number one!

Now I’m two manuscripts further on, and I’ve been putting off submitting my most recent effort for some time. I’ve rewritten and re-plotted, dug myself into the ground with adjectives and been pulled out again kicking and screaming Hallelujah. (True story. Sort of.) Nobody can know that their novel is great (let’s face it – if you do, it probably isn’t), but I do know that if I re-read it in four years I won’t end up curled up on the floor in a ball of embarrassment.
So now, I’m left sitting at my desk, staring blankly at a list of agents in front of me...
Here goes nothing.

Saturday 1 October 2011

What agents want: the SCBWI Agents Party

By Addy Farmer, Candy Gourlay and Teri Terry

A video warm up for the party

Three of us came to the recent Agent's Party organized by SCBWI British Isles at the Theodore Bullfrog in Charing Cross. It's one of the key events of the SCBWI calendar and though two of us already had agents, we just couldn't bring outselves to sit out the buzz of what is always a consciousness raising evening (plus one gets a free glass of wine ... what more can one ask for?).

Jeannette Towey has posted a detailed report of last Thursday's steamy Agent's Party on her blog (and Julie Day blogged about it here) - this is just a photo caption report. And remember, all submission details are on the websites of the agents - and they find it "extremely annoying" when submissions are sent clearly without consulting the guidelines! You have been warned!

Our panel of literary agents included: Zoe King of the Blair Partnership, Julian Friedman of Blake Friedman,  Alice Williams of David Highams Associates, Vicki Willden-Lebrecht of The Bright Agency,  Gillie Russell of Aitken Alexander, Claire Wilson from Rogers Coleridge and White

Zoe: looking for sci-fi ... space ... dystopia ...historical fiction, Phillippa Gregory for young readers. She also expressed a liking for trolls! She said she is, 'open for business' and her ethos is to provide eidtorial guidance and 'brand development'. Zoe is keen to see all the submissions. She says that when she finds something outstanding, her work is easy. She will talk to the author and stresses that the relationship must be something they are both happy with, a positive experience for both. She further advised that a writer cannot underestimate an online presence!

Standing room crowd included one bestselling children's author and several soon-to-be debuts still shopping for representation plus some people who already had agents but had no other social life

Julian: If we have a choice between a good story and a good writer, we would go with the good writer. Write like an angel he says and any holes in the story can be sorted ... absolutely not interested in very young fiction ... especially interested in work with film potential and working with 'transmedia' . If you need to chase, it's a good idea to chase the assistant! He's unlikely to take on any unpublished writers. Has worked with adults for the past 40 years and is now the newbie children's agent. Julian advised that many people send their stories in too early, in an unpolished state. Check yourself and make it the best it can be. Save yourself some heartache by checking that you're submitting the right kind of stuff e.g. Julian says he already has one chinese chef and he doesn't need another! When it comes to a choice between writers, Julian says promotability' is important - the willingness to get out and sell your books on and off line is can give one writer an edge over another.

Alice: no sci-fi or retellings please ... burgeoning interest in graphic novels .... would love to see humour for mid-grade boys and something literary (!!!)Alice is keen to see stuff across the range from picture books to YA but not illustrators although she's happy to look at writer/illustrators

Busy bee Vicki's been all over the world setting up outposts of the Bright Agency ... agency style is 'strategic management', like matchmaking between authors and agents ... a former senior editor at Penguin. Like Zoe, Vicki likes to read everything herself and like Zoe, she finds the outstanding writers easy to find, it's the '50-50' writers she spends the most time over. Writers are relatively new to the Bright Agency and she's VERY interested in finding new talent. For Vicki, her work is all about 'relationships and faith', like falling in love. You start a wonderful relationship with a new author in the hope that it will be a positive experience for both. She spends a great deal of her time nuturing these relationships.

Gillie: former publishing director for children's fiction at Harper Collins  still at the beginning of a new career in agenting ... worked with Michael Morpurgo and would love to find a new Michael Morpurgo. Not fantasy! For Gillie, voice is all important and this quality was what everyone was keen to see. She brought along examples of great voice, Moira Young's 'Blood Red Road' and David Lowne's funny, 'Socks are not Enough' - humour for boys again!

Claire: Works alongside Pat White ... please don't patronise the reader. She's quite open as to subject she wants to see, fantasy, sci-fi, humour... Claire agrees that voice is all important! Claire showed us 'Moon Hare' as an example of a brilliant book for younger readers, full of humour.

What advice would you give an author who's been waiting nine months for a response from an agent? "Chase us! We get busy"

Thank you to Liz de Jager for organizing the thing, and to Benjamin Scott for being such an excellent moderator!

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