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.
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.
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.
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 now…
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!