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?
My moment happened with a Google search for writing communities. Of all of those 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 my stories – now about an invisible kitten called Squishy McFluff – 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.