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!
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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!

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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…

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