Writing is a very solitary experience isn't it? You might have an idea, discuss it with your partner or friends, chuck ideas around and so on – but when it comes to getting it down, you're on your own. Obviously, you have to be on your own, you have to zone out the 'noise'. And then, of course, when it's done (however many drafts later), you have to take a big, deep breath and let it loose on the world. If you really want to be published, you have to send it off, and steel that piece of work to take whatever comes at it right on the chin.
Part of the reason for this post is some of the lovely comments I have received on previous ones, from people who are also writing – finding time between hectic lives, focusing, and taking those deep breaths. It's amazing to be told that what happened with Squishy is inspiring other people to write (and to enter the Greenhouse Funny Prize
– three months left people!).
Towards the end of last year, something happened which made my own writing experience a bit less solitary. Yes, the work is still done alone, but now I – and a few others – have a litmus test to use between drafts. We set up an online writing group.
On the very day that I finished the extended version of Squishy McFluff, The Invisible Cat
(that's it, right there on my laptop) I had a message on Twitter from Lech Mintowt-Czyz. His rhyming story My Favourite Toy is Bogey
had been shortlisted in the Funny Prize, and having reworked it, he asked if I would cast an eye over it and let him know what I thought, particularly of the scansion.
Now, believe me, all that had happened with Squishy did not make me feel like an expert on anyone else's work, far from it. But I was pleased to look at it and fascinated to read a story from someone who'd done so well in the competition. I gave my two penneth, with the proviso that he should ignore anything he didn't agree with.
After that, Lech and I continued chatting on email and when he realised we lived fairly close, he made the suggestion that we could set up a group in the local area, and meet other people who were writing.
That's what made me realise I sort of had a group already – it just hadn't been stitched together. Even before winning the Funny Prize, I had been sharing Squishy McFluff
with some other friends who were writing for children, and they in turn had asked me to look at what they had done. But it was just me, emailing them separately. All I had to do was e-introduce them to each other.
So that's what I did. And it's ace.
There are five of us, which I think is just about perfect. Too many voices and opinions could be confusing – but having more than one person's opinion can open your eyes to things you have never considered.
We all of us write in rhyme – in quite different ways I think. But that's invaluable, because one of the hardest things to nail when you write in verse is perfect scansion. How you read a line in your head might not be how someone else reads it in theirs and having comments from people you know are capable of excellent scansion themselves helps massively in ironing out the bumps.
So we chuck in our ideas for new stories, we read each other's completed work (and redrafts), and we say what we think, with honesty.
There is one rule: no-one else's opinion is more important than our own.
Because we are only
offering opinions – we're not experts, we're not agents or publishers and nothing any of us say about someone else's work is right or wrong. I know there were people who thought Squishy McFluff
wouldn't ever be published – but I stuck to my guns with it, because I passionately believed in that little character (and in the rhyme).
There would be no point in us doing this if we became downtrodden when someone thought parts of a story (or even an idea) weren't working. If we did how would we ever be brave enough to send it out to the important people? We either take the comments on board and rework, or we disagree and leave it alone.
It's a buffer zone, a forum, and it's inspiring. On an average working Tuesday, there's no sight more cheery than one of my fellow writers' names in my inbox, especially when they have something new to show.
I know there are forums out there which offer everyone the chance to share their work and ideas – do you use them? I think what has worked well for the five of us is that we are all doing similar things. It's a closed group, we all like what the others have written, and so that makes everyone's thoughts valid and worth considering (even if we ignore them in the end). It's also a group we can have faith in – unlike showing what you've written to your mum, or your partner, whose response you might expect to be tinged with bias, we have no reason to be anything other than honest (gently honest, naturally!).
While I'm the one in the very fortunate position of having an agent (I love Julia, read a Q&A with her below) who I can chat to about ideas and ask for advice, I value the opportunity to try things out first on my buddies (Squishy ideas and texts included).
It can be scary taking the deep breath and sending your work out to be judged. I really hope that, for everyone, having a practice run with people who count – but don't count THAT much – makes hitting the 'send' button for real a bit less daunting.
Now, it's ever so early to be writing blog posts, so I am off for a coffee. But do tell me how you share your work and test it out, I'd love to know.
'Til next time…
Julia Churchill, Children's Agent, A.M. Heath
I met my agent Julia Churchill in August 2012 after winning the Greenhouse Funny Prize.
Since then, I've learned lots about what she does and how it all works. I've marvelled at how amazingly popular she is at writing conferences (!), I've seen her ploughing her way through piles and piles of manuscripts and I can assure you that she does read everything. "I'm a bit of a faithless rag" she tweeted in February, "but I do have faith in the slushpile"!
I thought I'd needle her a bit about whether she takes bribes, why she only needs to read five pages of a manuscript to know if she's found a gem, and what she thinks about self publishing…What makes the best kind of query?
Strength of query is all about strength of concept. If you don’t have a good idea, and some strong architecture, your query won’t stand up. Squishy McFluff is an example of that. It’s impossible not to love the sound of an imaginary friend – who is a cat.What's the strangest way an aspiring author has ever tried to get your attention?
When I worked at an agency where we had hard copy submissions, I used to get the odd attention-grabbing approach. Champagne. Pimms. Sweets. Money. If the person didn’t send an SAE for return, I’d give them away.
I understand the desire to be noticed, but the only thing I’m looking for is talent, and that’s about the words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters. Agents focus on words on the page. Can I sell this? If I can’t sell this now, can I develop so it becomes saleable?
Okay, so if the best way to get your attention is NOT a Jaffa Cake in an envelope, then what is it?
Voice, concept, story and character. I want to see intent, focus, clarity. As for Jaffa Cakes, only if they’re in sealed wrapping.I wrote a blog post [which can be read below, if you scroll down] about breaking the so-called rules in writing for children. But are there any rules really, or does it just come down to the idea and quality of writing?
If you break a rule, and you do it brilliantly, then you’ve probably created something exciting. I tend not to think in terms of rules, but sometimes if I read a submission and it’s not working, it’s because rules have been broken.
"If you break a rule and you do it brilliantly, then you've probably created something exciting…"
Not writing for the right age-group or not syncing concept/story/tone and age, head-hopping, too many points of view, too much telling (rather than showing), using clichés, entering a scene too early and leaving too late, having too many characters, too many sub-plots, having a nasty main character or not understanding their motivations.
Wowsers, there are lots of ways to go wrong! When it comes to novels, how is it you can make a judgement on just the first five pages?
The truth is you can make a decision on much less than five pages. It goes back to voice, concept, story and character and they should all be at work from the first breath the writer takes.
How many new authors do you take on during an average year?
It varies, depending on how lucky I am, but maybe five or six.
What's your favourite book you've ever sold? You don't have to say it's mine.
Aw, shucks. Ha ha!
But seriously, books are like family and friends – you love them all for different reasons.
So what's the deal with self-publishing? Is it a good route for debut authors to take, or should they keep pushing to get in the traditional way?
When I started in publishing there was really only one way to do things: get an agent, get a publisher. Now there are loads of ways to do things, loads of new models and routes to market. That’s exciting.
"I mostly operate within the traditional publishing model. I believe in the talent of experts and the power of a team…"
Having said that I’m an agent, and I mostly operate within that traditional model. I believe in the talent of experts, and the power of a team, and an international career involves a lot of experts and a lot of teams.
Being seen is hard. I want my writers to have as many people, with as much clout and creativity, fighting as hard as they can, to get great books into the hands of readers.
What about e-books. Do you love or loathe the idea of books going digital?
I have to be pragmatic to best serve my clients, and need to engage with the world as it is. I’m not concerned about digital books, but I’m concerned about the pricing of digital books. Writers need to make a living.I personally think children should always have real books, with pages, even if they have the digital equivalent as well. You?
I agree, but let’s keep that a secret.Thanks Julia!
It really was very nice of Julia to answer those as she's pretty busy at the moment – she's just started her new job as Children's Agent at A.M. Heath
, one of the UK's leading literary agencies. And she's taking submissions
Of course, that does mean Julia won't be judging The Greenhouse Funny Prize
, but it's still running! The UK entries will be judged by Sarah Davies at Greenhouse, along with guest judge Leah Thaxton, Children's Publisher at Faber and Faber. Do enter, you still have lots of time and it's the whole reason why I'm here, writing a blog about the road to publication.
If you don't already (and you probably do), be sure to follow @JuliaChurchill on Twitter and look out for regular #askagent sessions, during which you can tweet specific questions for immediate responses.
Thanks for reading, and ciao for now!
All children are insane
I've not yet considered writing anything as grand as a novel. I'd love to one day (in fact, let's say I will one day), but for now I simply can't imagine delving into my brain and finding 80,000 or so words in there. Not ones that would come out coherently anyway (I was woken up at 2.17am today, this sort of thing contributes).
That said, I reckon at least some of the processes involved in what I am doing and what novelists are doing are similar. The main one, surely, is getting to know my main character(s).
I remember reading an interesting blog post some time ago, which included exercises for delving into the very heart of your main character's being. It suggested considering their background (even if it never appeared in the book), the events that made them who they are, what their motives are and what they might do in any given situation (again, even if those situations never actually arose in the story). Those things would give a complete picture of how a person came to be, and how whatever did happen in the book might cause them to evolve.
I never completed any such exercises of course, and when I wrote the first Squishy McFluff story, I had no idea I was going to write a series of them. But it did happen for me… organically.
Certainly by the time I was half way through Squishy McFluff Meets Mad Nana Dot, I realised knew the characters inside out. They'd sort of become real, taken on a life of their own.
Part of this must surely be down to the constant source of inspiration I have right here under my own roof (and all children are insane, as illustrated by the photograph of my daughter wearing part of a buggy. She wore it for the best part of half an hour).
Here I have the real Ava (who brought Swishy M'Flulf – she can't say it – to the supermarket the other day, on a lead). She was just two-and-a-half when she conjured up her imaginary Cat, but now she's older and much closer in age to the Ava in the books. When I see my Ava so desperately wanting to do something she shouldn't, I know that Ava and Squishy, oh, they'd SO do it.
But the fictional Ava is not made only from the real Ava – she's also made from my other daughter Ruby (who yesterday pinched two yogurts from the fridge, ate them under a blanket without a spoon, and then denied EVER having eaten a yogurt, despite the fact that she was sticky and pink from her nose to her ears).
The fictional Ava is in part my children, and in part my friends' children. In fact she's also, in no small part, me.
McFluff, well, he's an extension of Ava and also the embodiment of two things that all children have in spades: curiosity and a penchant for mischief. He's that aspect of a child's personality – he's the brains, he's the ideas, and he's adorably troublesome.
The more I wrote about what Ava and McFluff were doing, the more it all came together for me, who they were and why – and everything clicked.
Now I DO know exactly how Ava and Squishy McFluff will react in any given situation, I know what they'll be thinking. I can picture the expressions on their sweet little faces. I also know they never do anything with evil intent, and their motives always lie in their thirst for adventure, or fun, or discovery.
It's quite odd now, thinking back to writing that first story, about those two characters who were strangers; it's a bit like remembering when you met a now-close friend for the very first time – you know you didn't know them then, but it's hard to remember what that was like.
I think I've realised how very important it was that I got to know Ava and Squishy so well. Whether you're writing a novel or a children's series, understanding the essence of the character(s) is what gives them legs as it were (whether two or four).
What's more, knowing Ava and Squishy inside out is what has made, and does make, writing the books such supreme fun for me – and I don't half love them for it.
Can you see him? Look! He's sitting on that chest right there.
This photo makes me smile. It was taken about two years ago and I was asked to take it, by Ava. Her kitten, called 'Cat', was sitting in the window and obviously she wanted to capture the moment.
Tamsin Kelly, the editor of Parentdish
(a parenting website I write for as part of my day job) will attest to this. They were running a little competition at the time for people to send in images of their pets. Tamsin (who I'm pleased to say lilts towards the happy side of bonkers) said I should enter the picture, but it was vetoed in the end, on the grounds that Cat's cuteness could not really be judged what with him being invisible to everyone bar Ava. Boo hiss.
Anyway, as a general rule, what you're looking at is my view when I sit down on my sofa with my laptop to write. Yes, I know I should probably be at a desk, but being on a sofa means you can lie down instantly if you come to a point where rhyme is threatening brain implosion.
When I am in McFluff zone, I often gaze at the chest and, you know, 'look' at him (assuming he's there, who bloody knows where he is, frankly). When we took this picture, Cat – in my own imagination – was a real kitten. He was tiny, fluffy, grey and white – just as Ava described him to me.
Now when I look at that chest for inspiration, I see not Cat, but Squishy McFluff, a kitten who has been drawn. He's as sweet looking as ever, but he's a cartoonish cat – and he has some human qualities, too. He's capable of looking surprised, happy, sad and (naturally) mischievous.
Well, hopefully really soon, I'm going to see what Squishy McFluff might actually look like because the people at Faber have turned their attention to finding the right illustrator. The Squishy McFluffs won't be picture books, but they will be (a new phrase on me, as introduced by Agent Julia) highly illustrated, a bridge between picture books and early readers.
A great deal will still depend on the pictures, which is something I've always known (hence my illustration notes to heighten some of the gags!). But as an author, rather than an author illustrator, the big decision when it comes to the illustrations lies with the publisher. As a debut author, you don't get to say: "Thanks for buying my books – I want Quentin Blake / my mate Dave to illustrate them".
It makes sense, the publisher has to market the product, the team at Faber are the experts. That said, I know that they would want me to be happy with the final decision – and we talked some time back, when I met the whole team, about the feel and the look. Squishy McFluff is, of course, brand new, but even I think it has a sort of familiar and classic feel to it. So the pictures that swim in my mind have always been fresh, but also maybe a little retro. They're sweet but not sickly cute. They probably embody Ava and McFluff's personalities: clever, but oh so cheeky.
It's a hard thing to verbalise though, which is why I'm so pleased with what Faber showed me – it really does fit with the burgeoning visions in my head. It's a big deal – it's hard to say how big a deal it is. It's a bit like asking someone to do a portrait of your baby, and you hope it'll look all cherubic like a Da Vinci, but you aren't sure whether it'll actually end up being all Picasso – you know, with a massive eye or something.
In a way, someone will be drawing my actual baby (Ava!) but I don't mean it like that. I mean the stories have become my 'baby', something I've done alone and have been very close to for a long time – I know them and the characters inside out. Now someone else, who's completely new to it, will be interpreting all that in their own way.
It's SO exciting. The next stage is that Faber will commission some character sketches, which will be drawn from seeing the completed text and a brief. I'm not quite sure yet when I will see those, but I know who's going to be doing them, and I'm full of anticipation! I'll write more about that when I can.
In the meantime, you can read a mini excerpt of Squishy McFluff, The Invisible Cat
(to learn a little about what he looks like) over on The Greenhouse blog
. The Greenhouse Funny Prize
has re-opened for 2013 and so I chatted to the guys there about what's happened to me in the last six months, hopefully to get even more people fired up to write funny and enter the competition this year.
Do enter. Do it! It could make your dream a reality. You've got loads of time. The deadline isn't until the end of July.
[Think Abba tune]: "Funny, funny, funny… Must be funny…"
Sorry, that's going to be in your head all day now isn't it?
Now that the text for Squishy McFluff the Invisible Cat
is done, I have lots and lots of time to think about the second book, Squishy McFluff and The Supermarket Sweep
It also needs extending quite a bit and I've started adding to it here and there. Going back to it has made me think about the different ways I've been writing the Squishy McFluff stories. It's also made me wonder whether other people have a standard (and sensible) way of pulling their ideas together.
When I wrote the first story, it was almost a re-write of my column, on Parentdish, about Ava's imaginary cat. It's changed a lot now (see my last post), but when I began, I essentially had the plot already – it just needed to be written differently, with a sparkle that would make children's hearts' pop.
When I came to write Supermarket Sweep
, it was a bit different. The idea for Ava and Squishy McFluff going shopping did actually also come from a column
I'd written, so that was the seed of the idea, but I didn't intend to just transform it, the way I had with Invisible Cat
Instead, I sat down and started writing, without knowing what was going to happen in the story. The plot just came as I wrote: I started at the beginning and finished at the end.
I did go back and forth, of course, when it was done. Some ideas that had come initially were dumped and replaced with ideas that worked better, or seemed funnier, when I'd given them more thought.
But there was no real planning, no forethought. What would Miss Holland have to say about that I wonder?! She was my English teacher when I was about 13 – I remember her drawing a strange spider diagram on the blackboard, illustrating how good creative story writing came about with logical planning: beginning, middle, end; intersperse with characters A, B, C…
The third book, Squishy McFluff Meets Mad Nana Dot
happened differently again. With this one, I began not at the beginning, but the end ("what madness is this?!"), when the last two lines popped into my head at some ungodly hour.
The lines were about Ava's little sister, Baby Roo, being born – and I realised they were the basis for a whole new story (Mad Nana Dot would be required for a little spot of cat sitting, you see). So I got up and, with my eyes pretty much closed, I typed them on to a Word document, before shutting the laptop and going back to bed. In the morning, I looked at the lines I'd written in the dead of night.
Tgey wrre vry garlbled ad fll of tyops, but I'd managed to get them down just well enough so I could read/understand them!
From there, from the last two lines, I worked backwards a bit, perhaps a third of the way, then I started writing from the front, and joined it all up somewhere in the middle.
Book four, Squishy McFluff and the Seaside Rescue
was perhaps more standard in its creation. I wanted to send Ava and McFluff on holiday – and by this point I knew that the text would need to be much longer than the others.
So (get ME!), I plotted it. I typed out in prose what was going to happen and in what order. The most important part was thinking up the gags, the funny parts. And with those done, I created a new document and began writing in verse. The jokes went in the right places and, as I went, I filled in everything between.
Now that I'm on to tinkering with Squishy McFluff and The Supermarket Sweep
, I'm finding myself employing other methods. On occasions, if I have a craving to write McFluff rather than anything sensible (for my day job), I just sit and hammer out funny words that rhyme.
I have lists of them, on a Stickie on my desktop:
Wobble squabble gobble hobble bobble nobble / flipping snipping tripping ripping skipping zipping
… I'm sort of building a Squishy McFluff rhyme-a-saurus. Sometimes just pairing up silly words will be enough to give me a new idea for what's going to happen.
So do you write? How do you do it? Are you as haphazard as I am? I often see Tweets from other writers about how an idea has come to them in the middle of the night, or at 4 o'clock in the morning. I think it's common for creativity to invade your space just at the time when your body is trying to wind down and relax.
But what about the plotting thing? Is that going to stay with me? It worked last time, but then so did writing with no plan at all. I'd love to hear how you do it. In the meantime, I guess I'll go with the flow, as all cool cats do.
I have some exciting news! Okay, it's not news really, but it's very exciting for me. The text for the first Squishy McFluff book is finished, or as my publisher Leah said: "Baked and ready for icing"!
You can probably tell I've been a bit behind on this blog, but here's how I got to this point.
Since winning the Greenhouse Funny Prize
, I had been quietly beavering away at another story and in fact, by the time the offer from Faber came, for four books, I had completed that one too, I was all fired up and on a roll.
I already had an idea by that point that the stories might need to be much longer rather than much shorter, so this time, rather than holding back and self editing to save words, I really let myself go with it.
I didn't have a plan for word count, I just wrote and wrote until all the ideas were out. The end result was that the fourth Squishy McFluff book was almost twice as long as the first one.
Well, towards the end of November, my contract with Faber drawn up and signed, I had my first editorial meeting with Leah Thaxton. and I knew that this disparity was going to be the major thing to fix with book one. Squishy McFluff, The Invisible Cat
would need to be extended a great deal – and this felt very daunting. Obviously, not as daunting as writing a novel, and then someone telling you to add 50% of the word count, but nevertheless, I had spent a long time thinking this story was finished.
It was far from finished. The first draft of the text was 21 stanzas long. Leah estimated that I'd need to get it to 36 stanzas – and the story was to be split into thee sections of 12 stanzas each.
Talking through it with Leah was immensely helpful and inspiring. She had some ideas for me, where I might add material – could McFluff be a bit naughtier here? Could we have a bit more dialogue from Ava there?
It was refreshing too. I write as a day job, for magazines and websites. I like to think I write to brief pretty well, I don't tend to have great swathes of copy cut or changed. But as for the little things, if an editor thinks something isn't quite right, they'll just tell you to change it, or change it themselves.
It wasn't quite like that with the book. Where Leah had ideas that I didn't really agree with, or I wasn't sure I could make work, I said so and Leah was fine with it. She gave me a huge amount of input, but then it was left to me to figure out the solutions, in the manner I felt would work.
We went through the first three texts that afternoon, but book one, the biggest job, was priority. I had agreed to get that text delivered before the New Year, and it felt like there was a lot to do.
Naturally, I couldn't wait to get started. The next day, with a large coffee, I sat down and began. At first, I started working methodically through Leah's suggestions for adding stanzas here and there. And as I went, I realised that the story needed not only more words, but more substance.
The first draft was a re-write of a column
I had written, with some McFluff style mischief inserted, of course. It starred Ava and McFluff, and co-starred Mummy with a brief appearance from Daddy. But now it needed someone else, and I knew exactly who it would be.
Enter Great Grandad Bill.
Great Grandad Bill is real person, so I knew just how to write him. Among all the hullaballoo surrounding me receiving my offer from Faber, my stepmum had reminded me that the publication of the first book – in February 2014 – would coincide with the month my Grandad (Ava's Great Grandad) celebrates his 100th birthday.
My Grandad is sweet and funny and of course, at the age of almost 99 now, he knows a thing or two. He's as wise and as lovely as anyone gets. He's also a writer (it wasn't his trade, but it's in his blood) and so he's rather interested in all this.
Bringing Great Grandad Bill into the equation gave me lots of new material. But I also needed to up the high jinks, and this is where I really had some fun.
How naughty can an invisible cat be? And what exactly would an invisible cat want to do to pass the time? The ideas suddenly came flooding.
I finished the second draft after two solid days of writing. And I do mean solid – I mean I was writing around he clock. Are you a writer? Can you let it go when you're in the zone? I didn't really sleep for two nights. I felt like I was dozing, and as I dozed I wrote and re-wrote lines in my head, over and over again.
I'm probably a bit difficult to live with during these processes. I'll be in the middle of doing something, and then a line with perfect scansion will pop into my head, and I'll drop whatever I am doing and bolt to my laptop to get it down before it's gone again.
I even left Ruby hanging on for dear life on the loo once.
When it was done, I was pleased with it. I'd taken the story from 21 stanzas to 41 (I'd checked that it'd be okay if I wrote more than the additional 15). But I wanted to live with it for a few days before letting Leah see it. I read and re-read. I tinkered and switched things. And then, finally, I hit 'send'.
Leah loved it. The relief was so immense, I'm not sure what I'd have done if, after all those additions, I'd had to start over.
Since then, I've been through two more rounds of editing – we talked through the text over the phone. I had to up some tension and reconsider a few words which weren't quite right for my age group. After the major re-write, none of it felt at all difficult. I just had to give myself time to work the problems out, like making pieces of a jigsaw fit.
The final amend was cleared last week – it was one line that was tripping Leah up. I spent Christmas with that line rolling around in my head and came up with four different ideas for how to change it.
And now it's done. As I said: Whoopee!
Next? Probably the best bit of all – Faber will be looking for illustrators to pitch their interpretations of Ava and Squishy McFluff and so some time, in the not too distant future, I'm going to see what they actually look like.
I can't wait…
ps. By the way, sorry this blog lacks meaningful pictures. It's one of the downsides of talking about invisible cats. That's an illustrator sort of a problem!
I spent the latter part of 2012 reeling – in the best
way. After signing up with Julia at The Greenhouse
, she told me her plan was to give Leah Thaxton, who had just stepped into her new role as Publisher (Children's) at Faber and Faber
, one month to look at three Squishy McFluff texts. If she made an offer by the end of the that time, well, fabulous! If not, Squishy McFluff would go prowling around all the other children's publishers looking for a home.
By this point, after lots of chats with Julia, I'd begun to realise that McFluff was perhaps not destined to be in picture books as I had once thought (or rather, hoped).
This was great news to me in one major way – of the three texts that had gone to Leah, the shortest was the first story, Squishy McFluff, the Invisible Cat
, which was about 750 words.
The other two were around 850 words and 900 words respectively – all of them massively too long to fit into a picture book format. Debut authors writing picture books, I'd learned since doing all that writing, should produce a text of no more than 500 words. English, you see, is the most succinct of languages – after being translated for European markets, a book could gain as much as a third of its length. All those extra words simply wouldn't fit.
But Julia's thought, from the outset, was that McFluff could be something else – a format that bridges the gap between picture book and early reader. It's something Alex T Smith has successfully done with his Claude
books, and perhaps something Dr Seuss did a long time ago with his brilliantly ridiculous rhyming stories.
Well, a week or so after receiving the manuscripts, Leah invited Julia and I in to have a chat about where Squishy McFluff might go, what might be done with him. Julia steeled me for a casual meeting. Dashed hopes are horribly painful. While almost wetting my pants, I probably falsely assured her I'd be taking neither eggs nor baskets.
As it was, the meeting blew me away. It wasn't at all what I'd expected. Rebecca Lee (editor) had made a tin of invisible cat cupcakes, complete with chocolate mice. In the corner of the room was a cat basket with a label on it bearing Squishy's name. They'd stopped short of a litter tray. Unless there was an invisible one and I didn't see it.
These lovely people at Faber (FABER!) were genuinely excited about Squishy McFluff. They totally got
him; they understood who he was, and why he was so curious and naughty. We talked (and laughed) about the complexities of illustrating a cat who was invisible. They loved him as much as I did. Wow.
I left the meeting a little numb, walking on air, full of hope. Julia and I went and used a voucher I had (I LOVE a voucher, don't you?) for a free bottle of cava and we drank it outside in the cold.
Early in October, Julia called me to say Leah had made an offer, and it was a good offer. No, a GREAT offer. Now, I've never had an offer from a publisher before, and of course it's really key to have trust in your agent, to know that they'll find not just a deal for you, but the best deal they can. Julia had again steeled me for nothing coming through, but I don't know, I think she was quietly confident – and, when it came, she was delighted.
Although I hadn't a clue about this process, even I could see that Leah's offer was amazing. I'm not just talking about being offered actual money for something I'd written, I'm talking about the passion and the excitement behind it, the plans Leah had for Squishy's future.
The pitch she sent, for four books, was written almost entirely in verse, which made me both laugh and cry. It had quotes from people working in every corner of Faber. Shall I insert a cat pun in here? Shall I? Oh okaaaay: it was purrrfect. They really wanted to give Squishy McFluff a home.
Obviously, all of this was fantastic, exhilarating, incredible – but does it sound strange to say it also felt a bit odd?! I can feel myself building up to some kind of unrequited love metaphor. You know? Hankering after someone so much, and for so long, wishing they'd turn around and say: 'Yes I like you too, actually.' And then they do, and you go: '… … Er… gosh… um… really…? ………… REALLY?!'
Yes. It felt a bit like that. The tables switched. ODD! After thinking for ages: 'Please read it, someone. Please like it. Please take it on. Please want to publish it', now I had a pitch from Faber asking ME to take Squishy McFluff to them. I know I keep saying it, but FABER!
Anyway. My response?
'Oh, go on then.'
Ha ha! I wonder if Leah sensed me mentally biting her hand off?
So, there it was, Squishy's future starting to unfold. There was one little part of it that felt a bit daunting. The format meant that rather than cutting the stories to picture book length (which, in all honesty, I would have hated), I would be extending them. And I wasn't sure by how much…
Well that was last year and now, in 2013 the work on the first book is underway! I've been beavering away at extending the first text with the advice and support of my publisher (!), and I'll write about that here soon.
In the meantime, if you like verse (and I REALLY hope you do) have you seen Elli Woollard's Taking Words For a Stroll
? It always makes me grin :D
Don't you love it when, with hindsight, you realise that a tiny, and seemingly insignificant, moment in time actually proved to be a pivotal point, a point when everything changed?
That moment for me was in July last year. I was feeling stuck in a rut as far as the children's stories were concerned. You see, I'd had what had seemed to be an amazing opportunity – but it had slipped away.
Some time ago, when I was trying to see if my Terrible Twos columns could be worked into a book, I'd had an introduction via a friend of a friend to a wonderful lady. As a part time literary agent, she had agreed to represent me. When I wrote The Invisible Cat
(as it was called then) she sent it to the Editorial Director at Puffin.
The email that eventually came back said she liked the story very much, but really they were looking for ideas with series potential. Nevertheless she agreed to meet me.
Wow. How many people does that happen to?! Because of her hectic schedule, there were about six weeks between receiving the email and actually going in. Right, I thought, that should be enough time to illustrate the potential for a series of books.
In the time I had, I wrote five more stories. The transition from one story to many necessitated the naming of the cat, of course, and when I sat down to consider what a good name for an invisible cat would be, it seemed obvious straight away.
The invisible cat was based on my daughter Ava's own imaginary cat, so the cat was essentially an extension of her (or rather, they were one and the same). My nickname for Ava (please don't ask me why, I honestly don't know) was Squishy McFluffy. And having pretty quickly ascertained that more things would rhyme with McFluff than with McFluffy, the cat was christened.
I went to the meeting with an arm full of stories and a heart full of hope. It was a good meeting, she told me about what she felt was really working in children's picture books, and she promised to read what I had taken.
And then… nothing.
Many months went by (and many emails were sent, by me). Everything came to a complete standstill. Obviously, Squishy McFluff had not hit the mark with Puffin. I felt gutted at having come so close. But no cigar.
Having accepted that it just wasn't meant to be (and having already researched self publishing), I decided to seek out some support and advice from an online forum.
And that's when my moment happened. I Googled, and of all the the writing communities that popped up, I clicked on The Word Cloud
, run by The Writers' Workshop
. It was while exploring the main site I noticed a little green advert for something called The Greenhouse Funny Prize
. I clicked the link, I read the rules, I noticed there were about 10 days before the competition deadline.
I pondered it for an evening and asked Dan if the stories were funny enough (he said they were, but I couldn't help feeling he may be a little biased). I read and re-read them and thought, well why not? They were all just sitting there, after all. I only had to format the synopses and write the blurbs. It took me an hour, I pinged them all over. And then instantly regretted it. Oh no! How desperate did that look?! Sending six! I should have just picked one. I cringed at myself.
Then having submitted them all I looked in more detail at The Greenhouse's website. It appeared, as a rule, they did not represent picture book authors. Neither did they represent poetry. And one of the judges, Leah Thaxton – who was Publishing Director at Egmont at the time – had discovered Andy Stanton's Mr Gum
. Oh, lordy.
I don't know if you have read any Mr Gum
books, but they are seriously
funny. I mean, there are bits of those books which have literally had me crying with laughter.
McFluff is completely different, of course, but I think I decided right then I shouldn't get my hopes up. I forgot all about the competition. Chalk that up, I thought.
But a few weeks later, I got one of the best calls of my life. I was told Squishy had been shortlisted, but then to discover he had won, well, I couldn't believe it.
The prize was a ticket to the Writers' Workshop Festival of Writing and, best of all, representation by Julia Churchill who would, within two months, secure me a four-book deal with Faber and Faber.
I am VERY lucky, I know how lucky I am. Squishy McFluff needed a little serendipity and although I didn't know it was happening at the time, there was one moment, one perfect moment, when I could have looked at a different website – but didn't.
What happened with Squishy McFluff shows that, whatever you write and however good it is, not everyone will love it. Certainly some people will say it's 'not quite for me'. But you only need one person to love it, the right person at the right time. It can, and does, happen.
The Greenhouse Funny Prize is back in 2013, by the way. Julia will be offering up details some time soon, and I'll share them here too. So if you write funny fiction for children, in whatever guise, consider entering. Hitting 'send' might be your perfect moment!
Next blog post, I'll tell you about how I received the offer from Faber and Faber, and then I can get right up to date and stop talking in the past tense. In the meantime, Happy New Year!
There's just time for a quick blog between Christmas wrapping!
I remember having a conversation with a lovely friend of mine, who had also written some children's stories and who had also written them in verse (I do hope she gets them published, they're gorgeous). She had been to some sort of writing workshop I think, and she had gleaned the following 'rules', which we both laughed about:
1) You should not write children's stories in rhyme if you want to get them published.
2) You should not write about your own children.
3) You should not write about your own pets.
My friend had broken two of those rules, and I had broken all three (sort of – the cat was a pet, albeit an invisible one).
I'm not entirely sure why the latter two exist. Maybe it is something to do with agents rolling their eyes when they read a cover letter from someone saying: 'I've written this story about my son/hamster because he is so amazing/funny…'
And at first I found it hard to understand the first rule. Why not write in rhyme? Everyone loves a rhyming children's book! And there are loads of them! And, well, The Gruffalo! THE BLOODY GRUFFALO!!
A story written in rhyme gives the adult reading it a structure within which to tell the story – a bit like giving an actor stage directions. It becomes sing-songy. I know my partner Dan would pick up a rhyming book over a prose one any day – he happily admits his voice goes quite monotone with the latter. But with rhyme guiding him, his story telling is livelier.
Children love rhyming stories too, of course – perhaps partly for the same reasons parents do, but also because they can begin to predict the words before they come. And it's SO much fun being right, isn't it?
But the 'rule', and the advice, is there nevertheless and one reason is translation issues. All publishers really need to be able to sell a book they have acquired all over the world. And translating rhyme? Whoa.
But of course, it is doable. The Gruffalo was published worldwide because it was good enough.
The key, I am told, to writing rhyme well is not to hobble meaning in order to achieve a rhyme. It can be tempting to do, but the story must take precedence and the rhyme has to fit around it. A seemingly random addition, inserted to get a rhyme in, would be even more random when translated.
Then there's scansion, of course. Badly scanning rhyme is harder to read than anything. If it trips you up, the magic is broken, you have to read the line all over again (slowly) and it feels icky and wrong.
Agents see a lot of bad rhyme, I think (publishers don't because it doesn't get past the agents) – and this is possibly another source of the advice not to write in verse. But for all the people who don't do it well, there are people who do.
And here is the good news – when publishers see a rhyming story that works on those levels, they love it. I heard this from the mouth of John Appleton, Editorial Director at Hodder Children's. So it must be true.
Publishers are not put off by rhyme, not if it's good. The story/character(s) have to be good too, of course. But translation can and will be done if the story isn't hobbled, and if it ticks the relevant boxes.
I honestly don't know why, when I sat down to turn my Terrible Twos column
into a children's story, it came out in rhyme. It just did. I wrote it quickly (I went back to it many, many times of course) and I let it flow out of me.
Having rule No 1 in my head almost from the outset, I did actually re-write my first draft as prose. But it lacked the warmth and I just didn't love it in the same way. In fact, neither did anyone I showed the two versions to.
I'm so pleased I didn't give up on the verse. It was worth all those days when the innards of my mind swam with meter. Really, I couldn't even think to myself about what I was going to cook for dinner without my head making those thoughts rhyme and scan. It drove me half mad.And so there you have it, the rhyme worked for me
I happily flouted Rules One, Two and Three
Cards on the table, I'll be quite outspoken
Sometimes the 'rules' are just there to be broken!
ps. I hope, on Monday, you'll take 10 minutes to read perhaps the greatest (certainly the most festive!) rhyming story of all time, 'Twas The Night Before Christmas. Merry Christmas one and all!
It's funny how you can plug and plug away at something for ages and then, all of a sudden, a cog clicks, something begins whirring, and the machinery revs up.
And then you start moving.
Perhaps my planets aligned or something, but this year has been an extraordinary one for me. This was the year I won a prize
, and this was the year I was offered a four-book publishing contract with pretty much my hero publisher Faber and Faber.
This was the year I found out that Squishy McFluff, a very curious and very invisible kitten, would live not only in our house, but in the houses of children all around the UK. I do hope he doesn't cause too much trouble.
I decided to start this blog to record how I got to this point. I'll do that over a few posts, and when I'm up to date, I'll share in real time what happens in terms of the publishing process. It'll be the story of McFluff's journey from being typed words on sheets of A4 on my living room shelf, to being printed words in a book, which hopefully, one day, will be on your living room shelf.
So I'll start at the beginning.
I guess perhaps the most challenging thing of all when it comes to writing (anything really, not just books) is coming up with that killer idea. You could be a truly amazing wordsmith, but without the original idea, what do you have?
Well, the truth is, the invisible cat was not entirely my idea – he was actually the product of my eldest daughter's very virile imagination.
Ava was two-and-a-half when she produced her invisible kitten. Suddenly, there he was(n't), in the palm of her little hand. She told me her cat's name was Cat, that he was sort of grey and silver, he was very fluffy and very, very tiny. He was also super cute – she went all gooey every time she looked at him.
Back then, I was writing a weekly column called Terrible Twos for Parentdish UK, so I wrote
about our invisible kitten. It was good to get it off my chest really, because I did feel slightly mental stroking thin air, feeding Cat from my hand and putting him to bed for naps and so on.
I didn't mind any of that too much at home, but we also took Cat out with us sometimes (yup, you can imagine the looks I got) and what's more, he was often in the wrong place. Dan and I kept sitting on him. Ava would look genuinely horrified and we'd have to roll aside so she could pull him out from under our bottoms.
The summer after Cat arrived in our house, I had the idea to package all the columns I'd written, and somehow turn them into a book. Amazingly, I had a sniff of interest from Penguin – but unfortunately, it never led anywhere, because, the publisher said, I'd need to have a higher profile to ever sell any.
It was disappointing, but just the whiff of a publishing house set my brain whirring. How else could I use this material?
The very first thought I had was to take some of the stories I had written about Ava's escapades and re-write them for children.The column about our invisible kitten leapt out as the one to try first.
So, one weekend, with the girls outside playing with their dad, I sat down with my laptop and a copy of the column I'd written, and I started typing.
Written in about a day-and-a-half, content wise, the first draft of The Invisible Cat
was an exact replica of the column. But now it was for children! It also broke what I'd heard SO many times was The Golden Rule when it comes to writing for kids.