Monday 27 January 2020

What matters more - the destination or the journey?

by Paula Harrison

One of the oddest things about how I ended up as a published writer was being picked up from a publisher's slushpile. Most writers go through an extended "nearly there" phase. They are shortlisted in writing competitions. They get full manuscript requests from agents. Then they get signed by an agent and go on submission but their story doesn't manage to sell. These are normal stages. Writers' successes usually come in tiny increments. Whereas I spent years and years writing with little sign that I was getting anywhere at all. Then suddenly - bam! Nosy Crow wanted to offer me a contract for a series.

But I think we can get too fixated on our destination as writers. We forget that any creative endeavour is a journey. We focus on getting an agent and getting a publisher. Of course these are important, but looking back they seem less important than they did at the time.

I think we can get too fixated on our destination as writers. We forget that any creative endeavour is a journey.

I started writing around age six when I invented a world of talking bookworms. I drew a map of their country in an empty exercise book and started writing down their adventures. I can't remember why I chose to write about talking bookworms. I suspect someone had told me that I was a bookworm and my brain had run away with the idea. Somehow in late childhood I lost the belief that I was able to write and, aside from some teenage poetry, I didn't return to writing until I was in my late 20's and by then a qualified primary school teacher.

A focus on readers has been a key part of my writer's journey. I spent years noticing how the children I taught reacted to stories. I noticed which books they picked from the library. I saw how they would return to a series or an author they loved over and over again. Then I became a parent and I got an even deeper insight into how children love stories and how they grow into readers.

Like all of us here on Notes from the Slushpile, finding SCBWI (the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) absolutely transformed my journey. Not only did I find a wealth of expertise and information through their events, but I also met lots of lovely writers and illustrators. Nobody can work and improve in a vacuum, and suddenly I had a huge source of inspiration and commiseration for every stage I went through. Whether I was at the peak of a wave or down in a trough there was always someone there with me.

Suddenly I had a huge source of inspiration and commiseration for every stage I went through.

Around 2009, I was just coming to the end of submitting what seemed like my millionth middle-grade book to an slew of uninterested agents and publishers, when my children started enjoying young series fiction. Tired and fed up of endlessly writing and submitting fiction for 9+, I started writing my own younger stories. It would be a break from longer books, I told myself, and I could finish the books faster and get rejected faster too!

I was spending every bedtime reading all sorts of stories to a five and a seven year old. Somehow, without realising it, I internalised the story structure and pacing for young fiction. Suddenly I had a contract for my first series - The Rescue Princesses. Writing younger books gained me my first publishing contract and several more since. But I have found that more than anything, I love the journey. Success is wonderful. But publishers and readers often want more of the same. Writers like to try something new! So how do we balance the needs of our readers and the market with our need to move on as writers?

Publishers and readers often want more of the same. Writers like to try something new!
I am still working out the answer to this one. I have been lucky enough to publish several middle grade novels as well as the younger fiction that gained me my first contract. Writing is my living so I am always balancing creative and commercial impulses. I always have readers in the back of my mind and I am always up for trying something new!

Paula Harrison has published over 30 books including The Rescue Princesses, the Red Moon Rising trilogy and the Secret Rescuers series. Her next book Kitty and the Sky Garden Adventure publishes Feb 2020.

Friday 10 January 2020

Well, how did I get here? Luck & making your own luck

I honestly think most of the things that set us down one path or another and change our lives forever are random chance.

Take my start at university. My air force dad was transferred to Edmonton, Alberta, to take effect the summer after I finished high school at the other end of Canada, in Nova Scotia. I sent off for the engineering prospectus at the University of Alberta; they accidentally sent me medicine. I read it and found a thing called medical lab science – and hey, presto: I applied and did the first year! It didn’t last, though: as soon as I found out if I kept on the course I’d have to spend the third year in a hospital taking blood, I was out of there. I have an absolute phobia of needles, and swiftly switched to science in my favourite subject that year, microbiology. 

It’s startling - and a little embarrassing! - how many of my other major decisions weren't planned or even imagined before the moment.

Was pursuing writing and getting published any different – was it inevitable or more a combination of unexpected twists of fate?

Yes and no to both.

I loved reading and making things up as long as I can remember. When I was 17 I decided I wanted to be a writer, so the intention was there from quite a young age – but the belief wasn’t. I’d never met an author or heard one speak; nobody I knew wrote. It felt kind of like saying I wanted to win lottery: it’d be great if it happened, but how likely was it, really? I was also desperate for independence and set out to get it – studying and working at various things in Canada and then Australia: science, law, optometry. I still wrote; poetry, mostly. But it was something I did on the side, didn’t talk about much and definitely never let anybody read.

What changed? In one of those twists of fate I found myself moving from Australia to England to get married, and needed to either retrain as an optometrist - my profession at the time - or have yet another career change. What was I going to do this time? And I remembered being that 17 year old who wanted to write but never really took it seriously. At that point I decided I didn’t want to wake up one day decades later and never have tried.

And try I did. My first novel I finished in the summer of 2006. Titled Life Lists, it followed three lifelong friends and how their lives changed from what they'd been so sure of as teens, written on lists and opened when one of them died years later. It was for adult readers and In hindsight it wasn’t great – though at the time I seem to remember feeling so immensely proud at finally having finished something that surely someone would congratulate me and publish it! Alas, no. But I did get some personal comments from submissions. 

I carried on writing – short stories, novels – but somehow felt something wasn’t quite right. Without really understanding why, I started to fall out of love with the process.

Then, chance intervened. I got a job at Calibre audio library – a charity that does audio books for the visually impaired and dyslexics – to develop the children’s side of things. For the interview I had to convince them I knew a lot about children’s books: I didn’t. I did a crash course in libraries and bookshops and somehow got the job. And then I thought I better read some of the authors I'd been telling him I knew all about: children’s books. Something I hadn’t done in years. And I fell back in love with words, reading, writing. This was where I was meant to be. 

I started my first children’s novel on an overnight flight back from Canada. My dad there was very ill and it was an emotionally fraught time to say the least. Soon after I read about the Winchester Writer’s Conference in a writing magazine, and I think I was desperate for an escape, to do something that was just for me. Away I went! I entered that first children’s story I’d started on the overnight flight into a competition … and it won. I'd tell you what it was about but it's still in my might-rewrite-it-one-day file. 

I finished it and then started subbing it to agents and publishers using the handy Children’s Writers and Artists Yearbook, and somewhere in that book a children’s writing organisation was mentioned: the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I looked into it. And went off to their conference that November, in 2008.

And there I found my home. I met Candy Gourlay and loads of other children’s writers at that first conference. Other than one year when I wasn’t well I’ve been every year since, as well as to countless other events. I got a reality check or two along the way – apparently just finishing a novel that wins a prize isn’t enough to guarantee fame and fortune? And I learned and wrote and shared the good news and bad along the way.

There were all the slings and arrows of writing more novels, getting rejected, getting encouraged, getting rejected some more … and some more … and yes, you guessed it: some more. Finally, my novel Slated – the ninth I’d written and submitted – found a home with agent Caroline Sheldon and publisher Orchard books back in 2011; it was published in 2012.
So. How much of getting there was written in the stars, and how much was total luck? I like to think a bit of both.

Teri Terry is the author of best-selling award-winning thrillers for teens, including Fated, the Slated trilogy, Mind GamesBook of Lies and the Dark Matter trilogy. She has lived around the world but now calls a village in Buckinghamshire home. Teri loves all animals but especially Scooby, the world’s cutest puppy.

Thursday 2 January 2020

What kind of author do you want to be?

By Candy Gourlay

The first time I met my agent, Hilary Delamere, she asked me a question that I have pondered time and again. 'What kind of author would you like to be?'

I really had no idea what she was getting at.

I mean, wasn't it obvious?

What kind of author did I want to be? I wanted to be the kind of author who had a published book. That is all.

It was the truth but of course I didn't say it aloud. I don't remember what I said on the day, something witty (hopefully), something that distracted her from pushing for an actual answer, something that didn't make her wonder if she'd made a mistake, signing me up.

But as I grew into my new identity, as I learned about the way the publishing industry worked, as I experienced the doubt, the fear, the feeling of being an impostor that seems to be the lot of the questing writer, it continued to  haunt me.

What kind of author did I want to be?

I am writing this in January 2020 – ten years after copies of my first book squeezed through my letterbox in a large jiffy bag. That book was Animal Tricksters, a sweet, three-story anthology for the Oxford Learning Tree reading series.

It had my photo on the inside page, under the title 'Letter from the Author'. I remember wrinkling my nose. Letter from the Author? The temerity!

I felt oddly reluctant to accept my new title of 'Author' minus the 'Aspiring'. The truth was, I had become very good indeed at being an Aspiring Author. It was my safe space. In fact, all my friends were Aspiring Authors.

I decided to become an Aspiring Author in 2001. I made time for writing. I attended talks and conferences and visited libraries and bookstores. I researched the market. I stalked agents. I treated being an Aspiring Author as a job, and it upset me when people referred to my writing as a hobby.

Though I did have a hobby. Having worked as a journalist before becoming a housewife and mother of three, I was fascinated by magazine and newspaper design. When the internet began its rise in the 1990s, I was excited by its creative possibilities – all  you needed was a screechy modem and a willingness to learn HTML.

I coded a website from scratch called Mum at Work – so called because I seemed to be surrounded by people who thought motherhood was recreation. I made comics about pregnancy and being a mum, I reviewed children's books and books about parenting, and wrote essays humorously extolling the virtues of creativity in domesticity with titles like 'Why we should all be more like Elizabeth Hurley' when the actress appeared with a flat tummy and 10 inch stilletos soon after giving birth. Mum at Work's motto: 'Let's do it all. We're already tired anyway.'

Upon discovering what I was up to, a friend told me, 'You are writing a weblog!' It was the first time I'd heard of a blog (as it came to be known) ... and when, in 2004, newly nascent Google introduced its blogging platform Blogger, I signed up.

By then I was deep in the submission/rejection cycle and searching the internet for clues on how to rise to the top of that infamous thing called the Slushpile.

I decided to call my blog Notes from the Slushpile. I was attending so many How to Get Published events that I had a LOT of material and I decided to use my journalistic skills to write reports on what I learned.

Looking back at those early years of blog posts, I realise now that I was asking myself that question all along. What kind of author did I want to be?

My debut post in 2004 explored race and children's books, reporting on a speech by Farrukh Dondy, who concluded that his first book East End at Your Feet was published in 1976 under a "deviant impulse":
We are still writing books that are basically written for a white audience, published by publishers because they are liberal enough to want to publish it.
Re-reading my piece, I can see my naivete. Although I reported Farrukh's speech accurately, I myself didn't fully understand systemic racism the way I do now. I, like the liberal publishers he was talking about, assumed and unquestioningly accepted that books should be written for a white audience.

When my first novel, Tall Story, was published in 2010, 'multicultural books' had been rebranded 'diverse' books after the government decided multiculturalism as a policy was a mistake. And my unique selling point became – guess! – being a Diverse Author.

I was learning though. In a 2015 blog post titled The Many Faces of Diversity, you could tell that I'd been doing more research on diversity and inclusion. Enough to offer this advice to anyone trying to write diverse stories:

1. Your character's Otherness doesn't have to be The Story.

2. You can't go wrong if your characters are fully imagined.

3. The best story, the one that will captivate readers, should be built on truth and not on agenda.

In my early years as an Unknown Author, diversity panels were how I got invited to festivals and conferences, panels that told (largely white) audiences about the lack of it.

... but what kind of an author did I ACTUALLY want to be?

Did I want to be a spokesperson for diversity? Nah. I was grateful to those diversity panels for relieving me of anonymity. But yeah, I did secretly wish that someday someone would invite me to speak about my writerly enthusiasms ... like Story Structure! I love talking about Story Structure!

Becoming a published author with actual books on actual bookshop shelves forced a shift in my identity. Suddenly, I was no longer the Aspiring Author, pandering to other aspiring authors by writing about masterclasses, agent parties and too much craft not enough story.

Overnight my audience turned into parents, teachers and librarians and I realised, after all the years of blogging about writing and craft and trying to get published, that my new audience wanted to hear about other things: literacy, reading for pleasure, libraries.

I decided to blog about these things on my author website. I recommended books, I blogged about my ridiculous author schedule, I blogged about books I loved that turned out to be racist. The invitations to talk about diversity grew fewer and far between as the book world became more woke to the issues. The years of blogging were good practice for listening and learning about this brave new world that was all about reading rather than writing.

But what about Notes from the Slushpile? I had built a readership of thousands but with the publication of my novel, I no longer had the time to blog consistently and vociferously as I once did. The solution, as all you dear Slushy readers know, was to wheedle my friends into blogging on Notes from the Slushpile. Which I duly accomplished, recruiting Teri Terry, Addy Farmer, Kathryn Evans, Jo Wyton, Nick Cross, Em Lynas and Paula Harrison.

Rather impertinently, several of them promptly got published and it turned out everyone was just as busy as I was. (We were all learning that the Slushpile reaches beyond getting an agent and beyond publication. But that's a blog post for another time).

I can't believe it's 2020 and I've been an Actual Author for a DECADE. And still that question nags me. What kind of author do I want to be?

Looking back, there doesn't seem to be a clear pattern of the sort of Author I've become. My stories are diverse in theme and genre-less. From writing a light-hearted, family-oriented middle grade book Tall Story in 2010, I've gone on to write a darker, older, middle grade about ghosts and family secrets in 2013's Shine, and thence to 2018, with Bone Talk, a novel set in a forgotten historical moment within a cultural context that the gentle, modern reader might find challenging. I've also written a picture book Is It a Mermaid about a sea cow that believes she is  a mermaid, in addition to some books for young readers that have not yet been published (although lookee, Waterstones has already announced that my Ferdinand Magellan book lavishly and hilariously illustrated by Tom Knight will be out in April 2020!)

Shameless self promotion: Filipino peeps will be pleased to know I have written this book. It was Ferdinand Magellan who "discovered" the Philippines. Heh heh I leapt at the chance to retell this story. Four months to publication day!

Looking through my posts on Notes from the Slushpile, I feel like I'm literally watching myself evolve and learn and change as the book world around me also evolves and continues to evolve. I guess the answer has always been there, in my fevered scribblings.

What kind of author do I want to be?

• I'd like to be a Diverse Author...not just because of the colour of my skin but because of the worlds that can be discovered in my stories.  

• I'd like to be an author surrounded by people who love story as much as I do.

• I'd like to be an author who is always learning to be an author.

What kind of author do YOU want to be?

Candy Gourlay was born in the Philippines, grew up under a dictatorship and met her husband during a revolution. Her novel Bone Talk was recently shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal and the Costa Prize. Her picture book, Is It a Mermaid, lushly illustrated by Francesca Chessa, was nominated for the Kate Greenaway Medal. Her novels have also been listed for the Waterstones, the Blue Peter and the Guardian Children’s Book Prize. She lives in London with her family, where she wages war on the snails in her garden.

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