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.

Friday 8 March 2019

World Book Day week - how can children find books they really love?

by Paula Harrison

Cupcakes with book covers - a perfect combination! Pic taken at a SCBWI party.

The week of World Book Day (and often the week before and after it) see many authors scurrying around the country armed with notes and power points and a myriad of props, ready to entertain and inspire lots of children during school visits. I've been doing a bit of scurrying myself and enjoying the chance to meet readers which is always brilliant at any time of year. Seeing so many children in such a short space of time, gives me lots of opportunities to find out what they're reading, what they think of books and generally reflect on who I'm writing for.

So I wanted to blog about all this and I have a few thoughts in no particular order...

Firstly, I think access to books and access to a wide range of books is a problem and probably one which is worsening. When asked what they like best to read, many children will list the same books on the bestseller lists - well there's a reason that they're bestsellers! Dig a little deeper and I've found that the children referencing these books often own few books or own none at all. They know the book through borrowing it from the school library or being read to in their class. They're not always getting the opportunity to try out a broader range of books on different topics and genres. This also has implications for diversity in books which we know is already a problem that many publishers are trying to address.

It feels to me as if the range of books being presented to many children is narrowing. I think this is a problem for young readers and could disadvantage them in the future. Not everyone likes the same kind of thing. Yet if children are being offered the same small range over a number of years they may never develop the same love of reading as they would have if they'd been offered the chance to try a wide mix. They may never find that particular kind of book that they love so much it turns them into a reader. Children should choose from all kinds of family stories, nature stories, stories with fantastical kingdoms or fairy tale characters, and more! Where are these alternative books? They're already out there, actually. There's a huge range of different children's fiction and non-fiction being published that's fantastic quality. Publishers are continuing to try new ideas and new voices in the hope of a book breaking through. But I worry that in the current climate they will eventually narrow their lists and the range will narrow for good.

So who are our readers and what do they want? Going round schools, many of whom also have book fairs during WBD week I also noticed that I'm not just writing for the children. I'm writing for the parents and grandparents who buy the books and influence their children's decision. Some may prefer a name they know or a celebrity name which gives them a sense of safety. They feel they know what they're getting when they part with their money. So is there a way that we can help parents and grandparents feel more reassured when they take a chance on a book their child wants even though they don't recognise the name? I think booksellers and librarians have an important role here, making recommendations and writing those little notes on the book shop shelves - something that I have seen working in my local Waterstones book shop and something I know many indie book shops do so well.

So we as authors are not just writing for children, but for parents and for the gatekeepers - the publishers, booksellers, librarians and teachers that may champion our story. I've heard writers talking many times about how they worry their book may not be picked up because it's "too quiet". In other words, it doesn't have that big commercial hook. I would argue, that certainly in the middle grade book (aged 9 +) category it's the "quiet" books where a debut author may find a space for themselves. Those writers who have carved a living by writing the "big commercial hook" type stories - often humorous stories in the vein of Roald Dahl - are having the tougher time. That space has been taken mainly by celebrity authors who lend their name to books that are often ghost written.

This is a book shelf at a well known supermarket, picture taken by a fellow writer. All one kind of book. All celebrity authors.
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So where do we go from here? How do we continue to offer children a wide range of books so that they can learn to love reading with all the benefits that brings? I don't have all the answers to this but I believe libraries must play a crucial role in solving the problem. Lots of us have been trying to fight for libraries for a long time but we must keep going - this issue is too important for us to give up.

Friday 1 March 2019

Inheritance Books - the books we cherish by Addy Farmer

International Book Giving Day has happened every year since 2012. It's a wonderful initiative, dreamed up by Emma Perry from My Book Corner as a response to the startling statistic that 1 in 8 disadvantaged children in the UK don't own a single book.
The positive impact of book ownership on children’s literacy engagement and its association with high mental wellbeing further contributes to the evidence base for promoting book ownership for all children and young people, particularly those with most to benefit, including boys and children and young people from lower-income homes. National Literacy Trust, Book Ownership Report 2018
Bravo to Emma's team for all the good work getting books into the hands of these children! My excellent SCBWI Central North ninja-ed away getting, Littlest Magpie, by Gill Hutchison and Carol Daniel into small hands.

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The irreplaceable Gill Hutchison - a SCBWI star

Maybe you have your own stories of book donations. It would be wonderful to see more support for the work of International Book Giving in 2020. We can all be book ninjas!

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join Emma and be a book ninja but maybe without the sword
IBG day got me thinking. There's a great programme on Radio 4 on Saturday mornings called, 'Saturday Live'. It's fun chat and a bit rambly, (I really like the part where listeners phone into tell their stories of the kindness of strangers) and there's also a section called Inheritance Tracks. Here, various celebs talk about the musical track they cherished and the music they would pass on. Why not Inheritance books? Our house is weighted down with books. We've run out of bookshelves and now they have spilled out  onto the floor at the top of the stairs and they line the hallway. I'm not moaning - I'm very comfortable with this level of bookage BUT I would struggle to think of just ONE favourite book from my past and one to pass on.

But I will. 

Meanwhile, I asked the excellent SCBWI community about their Inheritance books. THANKYOU ONE AND ALL!

Fiona Barker Am I allowed 2? Yes, Fiona, you are allowed two.

I would gift That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown by Cressida Cowell and Neal Layton because it is wonderful to read aloud and do all the voices. I think it’s the quintessential picture book.

And second I would gift The Church Mice and the Moon by Graham Oakley because it represents a genre of books that doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Painterly, detailed, very funny, rich illustrations and an equally detailed, funny and rich text with a high word count but no chapters. An absolute joy! I return to it time and time again and it always delivers something new 🤩 
Ah! I must look these up!

Teresa Taylor I would have to return to The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery Illustrated by Michael Foreman because I feel it has so many profound lessons about life and it has wonderful illustrations.

Rita Lazaro Little Prince! Always!

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Timeless classic 
Kathryn Evans What a lovely idea! Erm...I think mine would be Dr Xargles Book of Earth Tiggers because it’s hilarious and joyful and true . Both my children loved it and if I’m lucky enough to have grandchildren I know they will to.
I love this as well!

Sarah Ziman The Outsiders, The Hobbit, Rebecca, Cold Comfort Farm 
Angst, fantasy, mystery and hilarity, you've chosen it all, Sarah

Vicki Spreadbury The Owl Service, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Snow Spider.
Alan Garner was my favourite when I was about 10. The Owl Service was such an incredible and yet troubling book!

Sheila Corbishley Little Women, Greengates, All The Light You Cannot See

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What a brilliant title!
Alison Lingley Watership Down. Just finished listening to it again as an audiobook and remembering the first time I read it aged about 8 or 9. I couldn’t put it down and had my paperback copy for years until it wore out. 
Oh, gosh. Books you wear out like teddy bears. Ours was Neil Gaiman's The Wolves in the Walls, our youngest was OBSESSED with it

Sally Poyton Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh by Robert C O’Brian.
I loved the 1980’s animated film (The Scret of Nimh) then read the book as a kid. I read it to my children a few years ago, and that’s what they wanted to dress up as for WBD. (Plus due to this I ended up being called a smug parent on a national newspaper website - oh joy! 

What it's all about

Gillian Bowes Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton. Fired my imagination...
Isn't that the best? When you find out that you're a story teller as well?

Gill Vickery Anne of Green Gables - my father’s favourite book as a child and then mine. I read it every year.
That's lovely, Gill! I always have an urge to read A Box of Delights come Christmas

Heather Kilgour The Barbapapa books.
Ah! You made me remember Barbarpapa! Thankyou! I used to love those books as well, Heather

Jane Clarke Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame made me laugh and cry - and never question that animals can talk
Of course, Jane!

Nicola Thompson Squares Ender’s Game - love sci-fi, and this is the classic.

Gill Vickery Nicola Thompson Squares fantastic book! I think Speaker for the Dead is even better.

Ann Brady - Author I have the Dorothy Dunnett Lymond series of books which I may take with me to my grave so I can reread them in the after-life???
Great idea, Ann! Books as grave goods! 

Marie-Claire Imam-Gutierrez Enders Game, The Knife of Never Letting Go, Harry Potter, Narnia x

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What a fantastic selection! 

Rhian Howells The Caravan Family by Enid Blyton. My mum used to read it to me and my sister at bedtime. When we bought our own caravan we always talked about it xx
Living the story - love it

Jenny Moss Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie. My dad read it to me soon after it came out. My daughter now loves it too.
I absolutely love these.

Helen Jones Tom's Midnight Garden and The Box of Delights
Me too, Helen. Christmas isn't Christmas without The Box of Delights 

Misha Herwin The House of the Paladin by Violet Needham.
Another treasure for me to find!

Paula Harrison The Dark is Rising and Little Women.
There it is - I really loved The Dark is Rising

Helen Jones Ooh, I loved the Dark is Rising
Me too! It was probably the book I most wanted to be inside when I was young 

Linda Nicklin Heather a book about a horse.. more gritty than black beauty, sadly out of print, she nearly died in a bog... her friend did... I'm still sad. Anne of Green Gables... a girl with spirit who didn't fit in.
Books about animals are my bete noire - hem-hem

Alan Gidney The Gauntlet, by Ronald Welch, read it in 1961 and kick started a love of historical fiction. Anything by Philip Pullman today, including his shorter stories e.g. The Firework Maker's Daughter.
Excellent, Alan!

And for me? It has to be 

Image result for The Dark is Rising
Scary, fantastic and I was the hero
and to pass on

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Love, family and small BIG things of life

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