Slumming it in the Slushpile

Ever get the feeling no one is paying any attention to you?  That the words you say are going unheard, unnoticed, unloved?  I get this all the time – I’m a parent!  But what I’m talking about right now is the good old slushpile – that mound of unsolicited manuscripts that gather in inboxes, or occasionally on desks, of the people we undiscovered writers desperately want to sit up and take notice of us.  Agents, publishers – they all say the slushpile is an untapped source of potentially dynamite material.  But how much of the slushpile actually gets read?  Does it even make it to the person its been sent to, or is it read by an assistant who’s job it is to wade through the pile and pick out the good from the bad?

Unfortunately, a lot of the time it’s true your work might not even make it to the person it was intended for.  Lets be honest – an awful lot of the slushpile is utter rubbish.  And how do I know this, you ask?  I know, because I am guilty myself of sending work which was far from ready. In fact, it was pretty much crap.  But, the eager, egotistic writer I used to be, honestly believed what I’d written was great.  Now I hope I know better of course, and cringe at the memory of what I sent, (although I take comfort in knowing they probably never read past my awful cover letter!).

A friend of mine recently attended a writers event in London where she got to speak to some of the other hopefuls there.  There was the heavily pregnant lady, who thought  she’d try turning stories she wrote as a child into picture books in order to make some money while she was at home with the baby.  There was the woman who’d written a book with her husband, and had only come to ‘pick’ her agent.  If only it were that simple!  These are the people who are sitting in that slushpile along with you.  Is it therefore unlikely your submission might somehow get overlooked? Perhaps not.

What can you do to stand out?  Get a clue!!!  Don’t be like these uniformed hopefuls who think all they need to do is ‘pick’ what agent they want to represent them. Sorry mate, its not often you get to ‘pick’ your agent –  you need to have written something totally outstanding to be in that position!  Know what you are doing.  Know  your audience.  Research other books on the market.  READ!  EDIT!  Make damn sure you have actually written something decent!

Be passionate!  Are you writing because it’s what your soul yearns to do?  Do you live and breathe your latest manuscript?  Is your head constantly thinking of plot twists, or potential rhyming couplets?  Yes, a lot of successful authors still have a ‘day job’ to pay their bills, but you can bet they’d write full time if they could.  They aren’t just doing it to ‘make a bit of money’ while they’re in-between jobs, or on maternity leave.  (Incidentally, I do know of a few authors that used their maternity leave as a chance to get really get started on their writing career.  But, lets be clear – it wasn’t just a fleeting hobby.  They had passion, and drive – and talent!)

Get your face and name out there!  Be active on social media.  Go to every agent one-to-one you can.  A publisher you like is doing an event?  Get there! An author  you admire is having a book launch?  Go! A recognisable face or name, is far more likely to get you noticed.  Not that its done me any good yet, but hey, there’s still time.

And consider that there are many reasons why someone might not pick you.  Yes, it might be that what you’ve written is rubbish, and you aren’t as good as you think you are.  Or – it could be that the agent in question already has a very full list.  Maybe they don’t think what you’ve written -although good- has current market potential.  Perhaps they don’t need another author of your genre.  Or it might be that its simply not to their personal taste.  The same goes for publishers – they’ve already published something similar, it may not be the ‘type’ of story they publish, perhaps the story’s theme has been overdone recently.  There are many, many reasons why the answer might be no.

What about the long response times – if any response at all?  Yes, it totally sucks when you don’t know if you should wait, or if you should just assume they aren’t going to reply.  But that slushpile – it must be humongous!  I can understand why they don’t always bother.  It can be particularly frustrating if you know your cover letter is most likely okay, and that the stories you are sending aren’t complete rubbish.  A short response seems the least they could do in this case.  But I’ve met agents face to face and had lovely conversations with them, even good feedback on my work, but yet still not had a response from them later on.  So I don’t know what to say about this really….

Lastly, remember agents, (and publishers!), don’t always get it right.  I was told a story I wrote about a spider wouldn’t be published because children are scared of spiders, (which was my reason for writing it!).  I saw recently a ‘celebrity’ author is having her PB about a spider published, and which happens to be a very similar theme as my own story.  Maybe its because she’s a ‘celebrity’… I dunno.  A Christmas story I wrote had interest from a publisher, which in turn meant an agent was also immediately interested. But the agent then suggested I make the story about a birthday instead, which to do so would have meant writing an entirely different story altogether, and, errr…. did she not understand the part about a publisher already being interested?!

So what is my point exactly?  Keep trying.  Don’t give up!  Be the best you can be, and if its not working for you, then find out why.  Look for a solution.  That’s what I’m planning on doing…


The Author-Illustrator question…

Lately I’m getting the distinct impression that agents only want to sign picture book authors who also illustrate.  Am I just being paranoid?  With current world politics the way they are, and my Twitter and Facebook feeds awash with conspiracies and real-life events so crazy they seem like a bad dream, maybe I’m just feeling a bit persecuted.  But I don’t know….

Yes, I’ve heard it said many times you don’t need to illustrate in order to write picture books.  I have been holding on hopefully to this fact for years now.  When friends say perhaps I should just give it a go, surely my drawings aren’t that bad, I like to reply with, ‘my stories deserve better’.  Let me break it down for you – a friend recently saw some drawings on my table and began praising my three year old son’s amazing artwork.  When I explained they were mine (drawn for him), there was a momentary silence. “Oh.  You suck!” my friend said.  And she wasn’t wrong.

The thing about picture book authors is that we are apparently poor cousins to all other authors.  I was genuinely surprised to learn this.  A really amazing agent told me a while back she was reluctant to take on anymore picture book authors because PB’s are actually quite hard to sell, and even the most experienced authors always need help with their texts.   And picture books obviously cost a lot more to print, so the profit margins are less.  Then split those profits with an illustrator, suddenly the return from an agent’s point of view isn’t looking all that attractive….

My near miss after the SCBWI Agents party was because the agent in question already had a full list.  I see that agent has since signed an author-illustrator.  Some agents and publishers even specify they are only interested in author-illustrators.  Okay, its business at the end of the day, and I get this.  Obviously the profit margins are higher if your client both writes and illustrates.  It probably makes things easier as well.  And like I’ve said before, most agents don’t actually need new clients so they can afford to be picky.

But I can’t help feeling frustrated.  If you can’t draw, you can’t draw.  Yes, I could enroll in a class, I could get myself one of those fancy artist’s tablets, I could ‘give it a go’.  But I personally think that with illustration, you either have it, or you don’t.  I know if I really tried, then I might possibly be able to draw something passible.  But could I draw those same characters doing different things, with different facial expressions?  No – I can’t do continuity  of character.  I know virtually nothing about aspect or viewpoint.  I doubt I could even come up with the right colour palette!  And my drawings are rubbish.

An illustrator has more hope of being able to write, than a writer has of being able to draw.  If they are already familiar with illustrating picture books, then they will know how to fit their story into spreads. An illustrator will automatically think visually, and they will likely tell part of their story through their illustrations.  We all know there are some absolutely amazing author-illustrators, who produce some wonderful books.  But I honestly think, were an author to present some of those stories as texts on their own – without the illustrations – they would be rejected on the grounds that they are too simple.

And yes, there is nothing wrong with a simple story.  Picture books, after all, need to work for their intended audience, and so can’t be too complicated.  But as someone who has worked with preschoolers for many years, I believe there are three types of picture books – for babies, for toddlers, and for three years and older.  Simple stories are great for babies and toddlers with short attention spans, but the three years plus group actually want longer stories! A story with only a few words on each page means shorter reading time, and quicker page turns.  This age group WANT to look closer at the illustrations!  They WANT that special reading time with their respective adult!  So why such a big thing about short, simple texts all the time?  I really don’t understand it – most parents I know think stories these days are too short.

This trend for author-illustrators, though I see the logic behind it, I also believe it means automatically by-passing  a huge mass of amazing stories simply for simplicity’s sake.  Imagine if Julia Donaldson had been passed over because she doesn’t illustrate!   We shouldn’t just assume preschoolers want short, simple stories – we still need picture book authors who write more complex, longer texts.  And lets not forget that some of the very best picture books have benefitted from having being a collaboration between an author and an illustrator.  Both an author and an illustrator can bring something to the table when it comes to creating a wonderful picture book.  It shouldn’t be an exclusive club just for those lucky people who can do both.

That’s what I think anyway.


I know I should be more active on here, the past month has been a whirlwind of end-of-school-and-nursery-events/Christmas parties/ Christmas/ a milestone birthday for myself (which involved a LEGENDARY party, if I do say so myself!), and relatives visiting from NZ and Hungary, etc.  And to be honest, I often think to myself, what DO I write about?  I’ve got no real pearls of wisdom to share with the wider world that haven’t already been said on some other writer’s blog, and so far all I’ve been doing lately is WAITING!

Waiting for what, you say?  Well, to be discovered of course!  And yes, I’m doing all the things a pre-published writer should be doing.  There is this blog of course, (which I shall endeavor to spend more time on), I’m active on Twitter, I’m a member of two writer’s critique groups, I’m a member of SCBWI, I’m an active reader of what’s current in my genre, I attend writer’s events whenever I can, I network with other writers, I’m submitting to both agents and publishers, and most of all I AM WRITING!  I’m writing new, I’m editing old, I’m brainstorming new ideas (Storystorm anyone?).  And I’m still waiting for that one response that will take me to the next level.  And this waiting thing is taking forever!

I know I must be patient.  Both agents and publishers receive thousands of submissions every year, it probably takes an eternity to sift through these to pluck out the good from the bad.  And of course, looking through the slushpile is not the only thing  agents and publishers have to do.  In fact, I’d imagine wading through the slushpile is the least important job on their list.  So the undiscovered author such as myself, can only wait.

What about chasing up that submission that’s been awaiting a response for several months?  Well, firstly it depends on what the individual agent/publisher’s webpage says – I’ve seen everything from four weeks to six months response time.  Usually this ends up being longer.  I recently chased up a submission I made over six months ago, and had a lovely email conversation with the agent in question who promised a response by Christmas.  Didn’t happen.

I discussed chasing things up with my SCBWI critique group recently, and we came to the conclusion that doing this almost always ends in a ‘no thanks’.  Perhaps for the agent already inundated with hundreds of other submissions,being pressured for a reply simply makes the writer look like they might be a pain in the nether-region, so therefore ‘no’ is the best response.  I also had a conversation just this week, with an about to be published author who told me her first PB has taken THREE YEARS in the making!  And this is not the writing of it we are talking about, this is THREE YEARS since the offer of publication!  So maybe, chasing up a submission after only a few months is an indication to the powers that be that you are not patient enough for this industry.  Who knows?  But I, for one, am wary of chasing things up now.  And what is the other option?  Wait.



How many submissions should you have out there at any one time?  Hmmm, this is a hard one.  With such long response times (if any!), it would be crazy to submit only one at a time.  But yet you don’t want to submit to every agent/publisher in town either.  I have been working on having a few submissions out at any one time, and every month or so, sending out another.  I strategized it this way so I could therefore expect to be getting responses regularly, but my plan has never lived up to expectations.  I also worry about getting a positive response from someone lower down on my list of preferred agents, because what if the top of my list comes in afterwards with a yes?  Again, this has yet to happen, and is probably highly unlikely to.  Sigh!

And which story to submit?  Research your agent and publisher well beforehand, and you might get an inkling of which of your stories they’d like best – but the fact is, you will never really know.  There is no way of telling what is going to rock someone’s boat.  And if one particular story doesn’t, wait a while, then try again with something else.  I think persistence is the key here.  If you really believe you have what it takes, if you really have the passion and dedication for your craft, then just keep at it.  We’ve all heard how JK Rowling was rejected multiple times before she was signed.  She’s far from the only successful author to have been in the same position.  Perseverance and passion is key.

And in the meantime, I’ll be waiting.


The near miss….

I’ve had a result since my last blog – the SCBWI Agents Party.  The agent I didn’t think I’d made much of an impression on that night, replied quite quickly to my submission.  Her response was that she very much liked the stories I’d sent her, and that she and her assistant spent quite a long time considering them.  But in the end it came down to the size of her already considerable list, and she therefore decided not to offer representation.

Gahhhgh!  Knife through the heart!  But yet, the first thing I noticed about this agent when I preparing for the agents party, was that she already had a very big list of clients.  So why bother going if you don’t actually have room for more?  I think this is the case with the majority of agents – they don’t actually need more clients, but they keep themselves open just in case they happen to come across the next JK Rowling.  Which, for most of us, is not a very hopeful outlook….

Yet I had to see the positive side of this – and it is a very big positive.  This is a big deal agent from an amazing agency, who represents many of my most favourite authors.  And she just told me I was a close call!  That’s amazing!  I must be doing something right!

This is not the first near miss I’ve had.  The first one was almost exactly a year ago, with an agent who has been top of my list from the very beginning.  Last November I saw she was now working for herself, and so thought I might as well try submitting to her again.  To my surprise she came back almost straight away with detailed feedback on the stories I had sent – which she didn’t think were quite there yet – and a comment that it had been a near miss, and I should submit again.  Unfortunately I resubmitted straight away – with texts that in retrospect weren’t up to scratch, and that I have since edited heavily!  I blew it!  But again, I can see the positive in this -now two agents, both from the top of my wish-list, have replied to me with personal feedback and a comment that it was a near miss.  And I know that’s a big deal!

Recently a friend who has been in correspondence with an agent for the past six months, editing texts to her suggestions and then resubmitting, was finally turned down.  Obviously this was a very disappointing response after such a long time, but yet this agent must have seen something in her work that she thought was worth pursuing enough to spend time in correspondence going back and forth with her.  And that is a really positive sign that she’s on the right track.

So in conclusion, there are two ways you can look at having a near miss –

  1. The negative way – arrggggh, so close but yet so far!  Why wasn’t I good enough?  What else do I need to do?  Why do they say they are looking for new clients if they really aren’t?  It’s not fair! etc etc
  2. The positive way – most people only ever get the standard rejection email, with no personal feedback whatsoever.  Any personal feedback, any encouragement to submit again – these things MUST be taken as an extremely positive sign!  So chin up and keep going!

SCBWI Agents Party 2016 – Agents really are nice people!

So, last Friday night I put on my uncomfortable-but-smart shoes, and headed into London for the SCBWI annual Agents Party with the hope of successfully pitching myself and bagging a fabulous agent!  The pool of agents willing to represent picture book authors who don’t illustrate was very small, but still worth a shot.  I’d heard recently that it is much more likely to hook an agent if you’ve had the opportunity to meet them in person first, so living as close to London as I do, it seemed foolish not to go along.  Plus my original critique partner – whom I’d never actually met in person – was going to be there, which was all the more reason to go!

And yes it is actually true – agents are lovely people!  There they were, giving up their Friday night to make small talk and give helpful advice, all the while completely besieged by hopeful authors firing pitches at them from all directions.  It was quite a different picture from the one so many of us unpublished authors have – that of the aloof agent, sitting sternly and superiorly behind their desk, sending out rejection after rejection.  I hadn’t been sure what to expect – it sounded like there were a lot of people going for such a small group of agents, but it looked as though everyone got their chance to pitch to the agents of their choice.

I managed to be one of the first to speak with one of the two agents I wanted to speak with.  I’m not sure that it was an advantage however, I don’t think either of us were fully warmed up at that point, and while she was lovely and we had a nice chat, I doubt very much that I made a lasting impression on her.  This particular agent had a long queue of people waiting to see her the entire evening, so its now down to my submission to make an impression.

My second encounter felt more successful however. The agent was also really lovely, and very warm and approachable.  Again, it will come down to the quality of my work, but perhaps in this case, I might have been more memorable in person.

I was expecting to be more nervous than I was, but like I said – agents are lovely people!  There were still cases of nerves – people botching their carefully rehearsed pitches, another person forgetting their trump card of already having an offer of publication (not once but three times!), and in one unfortunate case, not being able to remember the name of their book when the agent asked!  But on the whole, I think it really was a mostly very positive experience for all involved.

Critique Groups – should you join one?

It can be very tough for new, unpublished writers, receiving rejection after rejection – or worse, no reply at all – and not knowing why this is.  This is where belonging to a critique group could prove to be invaluable.  Although most groups are highly unlikely to be made up of ideal members such as experienced editors, literary agents or published authors, this is no reason to bag the idea of joining one!  Other writers as inexperienced as yourself can still give incredibly helpful advice.

I found my way into a critique group completely by luck.  In the very early days of writing seriously, I had two rhyming picture book texts which I thought were fantastic.  I had tested them out on a couple of friends, who seemed to easily ‘get’ my rhythm, and who had assured me the stories really were great.  I submitted them confidently to the first publisher on my list – my number one preference of course, why aim low?  Several rejections later I began to wonder why no one was seeing what I saw.

One agent had suggested a manuscript assessment  – this wasn’t a personal reply by the way, just the bog-standard rejection letter.  I contacted one of the places they recommended, and in due course, received my assessment.  I remember being very surprised at the comments made – what did they mean my rhythm needed work?  And that those words didn’t actually rhyme?  Even more bewildering, was the one text the assessor liked and seemed to think had potential, was the one I considered to be the least strong!  Of course, in retrospect, everything this manuscript assessment said was completely true.  But I simply couldn’t see it!

The assessor suggested I join a writing critique group, which in turn led me to the now defunct online site, Authonomy.  Run by Harper Collins, it was a place where writers of all genres could post their work to be reviewed by other writers.  Any books you thought were worthy of publishing, you could put on your ‘bookshelf,’ and if your work made it to enough bookshelves, Harper Collins would read and assess it for you.

Although picture book writers were a minority on the site, I created a profile and began to review other authors work.  In return, people began to review my own stories.  Some people loved them!  Others pointed out that certain lines didn’t work rhythm wise, and that some of my words didn’t actually rhyme.  Hmmm….

I took all comments with a grain of salt, including the ones with high praise, as seeing other stories they’d given the thumbs up to sometimes made it clear they weren’t necessarily good judges of literary excellence!  And eventually one day I had a light-bulb moment – the reason these people were saying my rhythm didn’t work was because certain lines could be read in two different ways!  I began to understand the concept of stressed and unstressed syllables, I could now see that certain words could be read with 2 or 3 syllables depending on the reader and so on, and so on.  And my writing began to improve immensely…

When Authonomy was shut down, I struggled to find another place like it – there are many online writers sites but nothing I liked nearly as much, or that gave the same level of feedback. Luckily for me, a wonderful picture book author I’d befriended on Authonomy added me to her SCBWI originated online group.   Being a part of this group has enabled me to continue to improve my writing – my group members are there to double check my scansion and rhyming, they help fine tune my grammar, often point out plot holes that I would have missed otherwise, and have given lots of great suggestions that have ultimately improved my stories.  This group continues to be not only a wonderful help writing wise, but also a place of support and encouragement, and where I’ve made some amazing friends.  And I like to think that I help them out sometimes too….

Its never easy opening yourself up to criticism – I’ve seen many cases of people who were not ready to receive negative feedback, and who took it very badly.  Lets face it – we all want to be told our work is fabulous and doesn’t need a single word changing!  But that’s not the reality – even the best published authors have editors to help them improve their work.  And if you want to be published, you need a thick skin.

So join a group!  If you can’t find one, start one yourself!  Join SCBWI if you write for children and haven’t already – this is a great place to find other authors.  And try to remember these tips –

  1. When receiving critique it is important to remember this is only one person’s opinion, and they are not always going to be right.  But at the same time, keep in mind you probably aren’t perfect and there is always room to improve!
  2. When giving critique yourself, don’t forget to include the positive things – make sure you tell the author everything you did like, as well as where you think they can improve.  These positive comments can go an awfully long way for someone’s confidence!
  3. If you can, try to join a group of authors who write similar things.  I learned from my time on Authonomy that people who write science fiction or murder mysteries can’t always give helpful insights on things like rhythm and rhyme!  Plus, if you write short picture book texts and they are writing full length novels, it will take much longer for you to review their work than it will for them to review yours!



Am I doing this right?

Am I doing this right? Who knows!  And will anyone read it?  Probably not!  But bear with me, I’m bound to get the hang of this sooner or later, and hopefully I will eventually have something interesting or amusing to say.

I’m starting this blog simply because it is my burning ambition to become a successful picture book author.  I always saw myself as a writer, I even wrote a novel in my early twenties (which was pretty rubbish), and it was around then that I discovered my passion for picture books.  I was working as a nanny, which meant reading picture books on an almost daily basis, and I remember reading ‘Room on the Broom’ and being absolutely blown away by what a masterpiece it was. It had everything -the story was sweet and funny, the illustrations delightful, the rhyming so clever and a joy to read.  I soon found myself deliberately searching the library book bins for other rhyming stories, and becoming incredibly picky over which books I was taking out.  I even felt unreasonably disappointed when a rhyming story lacked correct scansion!

But it’s been a process of trial and error get to the point with my writing that I’m at today.  My earlier stories, which I was convinced were fabulous, were anything but fabulous!  I had to teach myself about scansion and rhythm – things I could easily pick up as being not quite right in other people’s stories were so much harder to see in my own work.  When reading something to yourself over and over, it’s easy to get into the habit of reading lines in a certain way, placing stresses where it’s not then a natural way of saying the word. I even had lots of ‘rhymes’ that didn’t actually rhyme!  It was through allowing other writers to read and critique my work that I was able to start seeing where I was going wrong.

I feel like I’m now at a point where what I’m writing is good enough, it’s just a matter of finding the right agent or publisher.  It’s not so much a question of skill anymore, but a case of fitting into the market – and this is something I’m still trying to make happen!

Monday is usually my dedicated writing day  – it’s the one day of the week when both my children are away, and I try to keep it absolutely free so that I can focus solely on my writing.  The past seven weeks however, have been school holidays, so not ideal conditions for concentrating on my craft!  In saying that, I still managed to write a new rhyming text, fixed up some older, shoddier texts, and started work on another new story – so it was more productive than I had anticipated!  When inspiration strikes I have no choice but to run with it…

I will end this first blog by sharing with you a little poem I whipped up the other night. (note – this is a more recent version of the original post).  People were posting back to school poems on Facebook, inspired by that all time classic, ‘Twas the night before Christmas’.  I was bothered by the lack of scansion in these (!), and felt compelled to write one of my own.  This one isn’t for my usual target audience, but for all those parents who felt the holidays were a little too long…

night before school poem