Review: Dave Rudden’s MG fantasy Knights of the Borrowed Dark

Knights of the Borrowed Dark

I first heard of Dave Rudden following his intriguing think piece in the Guardian about how society raises boys, and about his own quiet suffering the face of bullying (Why teenage boys are told not to feel, and why that’s so wrong). So when I spotted KNIGHTS OF THE BORROWED DARK on NetGalley, I was extra-interested to read this middle-grade debut, which promised chosen-one adventure and power to the powerless.

It delivers. Denizen Hardwick recently celebrated his uneventful 13th birthday in the glum west-of-Ireland orphanage that’s been his home since he can remember. But when the orphanage director suddenly announces the existence of Denizen’s previously unknown aunt and seems unusually keen to get rid of the boy, Denizen suspects something is awry; his curiosity to learn about his parents outshines his caution, however, and he quietly accompanies the driver his aunt has sent on a late-night cross-country trek to Dublin.

It’s only when their car is nearly crushed by a breach in reality that brings down a tunnel — and lets lose a horrific demon — that Denizen gets a hint of the secrets that have been hidden from him.

The fun really begins when he learns that his 13th birthday wasn’t months ago: it’s now, tonight, and it marks the beginning of Denizen’s own demon-fighting powers.

I loved Rudden’s writing, the contemporary Irish setting and the way he plays with expectations (“…every time someone came to visit [the orphanage], hopeful children began packing their bags, ready for their new life as wizard, warrior or prophesied king”). I was left wishing that the clockwork demons bent on eradicating Denizen and his family had a more convincing motivation for doing so, but maybe that’s clockwork demons for you.

Best of all was Rudden’s world-building: the battle-worn league of knights sworn to fight the demons, their library of spells to do so, and most intriguingly the Cost (with a capital C) that the knights suffer from using their magic. I’m glad this is the first in a series, because I could almost feel the world of the knights rising up huge and cathedral-like behind this story, with so much more to discover than could be expressed in this first book.

Denizen’s hunger to know the truth about his parents, at any cost, is painfully real, and I loved the aunt character, a hardened hero whose company is cold comfort to Denizen after spending so many years alone. What makes the story so satisfying, and raises it above a standard chosen-one tale, is that the ultimate battle isn’t against what you might think: it’s not against the murderous creatures, but against secrets, and whether we can and want to forgive the people who hurt us.

Rick Riordan fans will find a lot to enjoy in Knights of the Borrowed Dark; I lent it to one of my son’s friends for a sleepover at our house this week, and the boy had gobbled up nearly half the book after a few hours.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars
Knights of the Borrowed Dark; Cover illus by Owen Freeman; Cover and logo based on a design by Nick Stearn
Published in UK: April 2016
More info at Puffin

Unlocking a tough scene with a clean-slate rewrite

Pen and Paper by GuudmorningLast week’s revisions were the hardest I’ve faced in a while on my work in progress, a middle grade novel that’s my first full-length fantasy. The scene where the very real world meets the magical just wasn’t working, but thanks to some great reading recommendations from twitter (I especially loved Anne Ursu’s BREADCRUMBS), plus some back-to-the-drawing-board scene brainstorming, I’ve got past my roadblock in chapter 7.

I don’t know how I’d forgotten this golden rule of revising: when I am struggling to rewrite a scene, I cannot bring over any old material from the previous draft, and by that I mean not a sentence, not a phrase, not a word. I absolutely need to reimagine everything about the characters’ mindset, assumptions and fears in order to generate realistic interactions, and the realistic dialogue that flows from that.

This meant doing some improv acting, devising a new scene (and, yes, talking to myself out loud in my writing room while I did it), exploring what the characters would say to each other on first meeting.

If I forget, please remind me in future – no! copying! and pasting! I have to start with a completely clean slate, especially when a scene is tricky.

If you’ve had any epiphanies during your writing or revising process, I’d love to hear them in the comments below.

 

 

Paper and pen image by Guudmorning on Flickr

Snapchat vlog on manuscript revisions – Week 3

This week! I’m grappling with rewrites on the first five chapters of my new book. I’m hating how hard it is to write exposition, and loving the ‘inside flowers’ website I found that showed a super-helpful (to me) cross-section of a hyacinth blossom.

Inspiration this week came from WOLF WILDER, the glorious wolfish adventure by Katherine Rundell, and from JACK REACHER author Lee Child. And! And! My seedlings started to grow.

My agent Jennifer Laughran has my manuscript out on submission to publishers, which isn’t obsessing me quite as much as I’d expected, probably because these revisions are so all-consuming.

I’m shooting this vlog (badly…but I’m learning) on Snapchat, where you can add me if you like at sheilamaverbuch.

You can also subscribe to this blog here in the right-hand column, or follow on Twitter at @sheilamaverbuch

Plot, structure, death, death and more death

Edinburgh Central Library SCBWI workshop

I’m fixated on plot and structure at the moment – you may be, too, if you’re a writer tackling revisions on a work in progress or a NaNoWriMo draft from last year.

This year, for the first time, I’m editing a manuscript that I’ve left for a long, long rest. I wrote it more than a year ago. I haven’t let a first draft sit for so long before, but I’ve been tied up with revisions on my middle grade sci-fi which is on submission (gulp, choke) with publishers. I completely credit plot and structure thinkers like Darcy Pattison and James Scott Bell with helping me get that manuscript this far – it was their advice that helped me turn my earlier draft of the sci-fi story into something stronger.

If you haven’t read NOVEL METAMORPHOSIS (which was the one craft book that all four tutors at the BookBoundUK Retreat I attended in 2014 unanimously recommended) definitely get a hold of it. I’m also slightly addicted currently to James Scott Bell’s WRITE YOUR NOVEL FROM THE MIDDLE.

Here in Edinburgh our SCBWI Southeast Scotland network hosted a workshop by Scottish YA author Christina Banach earlier this month, giving a quick tour of Bell’s plot and structure techniques. Places were limited and sold out quickly for that intensive, but I did a write up of the plot workshop here for Words and Pictures, the SCBWI British Isles magazine, if you want to read up.

What struck me most about the day was the renewed focus it gave me on plot stakes and character “death” – be that physical, emotional (“dying inside”) or professional death – as James Scott Bell discusses in his various structure books.

In fact, on reading THE LIE TREE recently by Frances Hardinge – it’s just won the overall Costa award here in the UK, deservedly so – it struck me that all three kinds of death are grappled with, both within the main character and within her father who she so admires. In fact the whole story could be described as “death by Victorianism;” wow, that era knew how to make folk suffer.

Reflect and snap

I’ve been trying to reflect more on my writing, as my SCBWI buddy Louise Kelly recommended; Snapchat has been useful for this, as it lets me scrapbook images and video clips that capture what I’m thinking about the revising process.

If you don’t know Snapchat, you’re probably not aged 18 to 24; neither am I. But it may be worth investigating, because it does make keeping a video diary quite easy. Although it first began as a straight messaging app, similar to Skype, Snapchat now lets anyone post pictures and videos to their “story,” a.k.a. public timeline, visible to anyone.

Snapchat poses huge challenges, though, for those of us trying to get a handle on it – and not just because all content vanishes after 24 hours. There are also no hashtags, no lists as on Twitter, and no way to search public timelines, although the user directory can be searched by user name. It’s like a treasure hunt, finding publishing peeps to follow, but some cool folks I’m following on Snapchat include mega-agent Suzie Townsend, plus Chronicle Books and Quirk Books (sztownsend81, ChronicleBooks and QuirkBooks).

I’m cobbling together my snaps in YouTube, but there’s not much there at the moment – could be useful, however, if you’re an author curious about how others are using Snapchat. I’M NO EXPERT, but I am rather enjoying what it’s doing for my vow to be more reflective.

Whatever you’re working on, I hope your writing’s going well. You can find me on Twitter here or add me on Snapchat at sheilamaverbuch.

 

 

How I got my agent and what nearly stopped me

alone on stage by Kian McKellar on Flickr

I’ve vacillated about whether to record this journey, as it may be the most personal thing I’ve written yet, but all things considered, I think it’s best to capture the story of how I signed with a literary agent, and the fear that almost stopped me.

For 20 years I’ve earned a living from writing, first as a journalist and then as a copywriter, so getting words onto the page and seeing my name in print wasn’t the difficulty or the dream. Like a lot of writers, my true and secret ambition was to write for children, crafting stories that the 11-year-old me would have read without stopping, forgetting meals, bedtime, and even homework to read just a little more.

It was hard having a goal that I wanted so badly, I hated discussing it, in case friends delivered no encouragement, or the wrong kind of encouragement, or urged me to self-publish. The goal of becoming a children’s writer was so precious and so huge, like a gigantic and slightly embarrassing imaginary friend, that it wasn’t until I was 33 that I looked that dream in the eye and made the first inquiries about how one goes about that kind of thing.

I approached a published children’s writer in Dublin, back in August 2003. How could I start writing for kids? Everything I’d read as a child was still in my head, but did kids still like that Enid-Blyton, C.S.-Lewis kind of thing?

No, it turns out – not when it’s written in a voice that so blatantly wasn’t mine, but was an unknowing mash-up of Blyton-Lewis-Montgomery. So we can skip the first nine years of my journey: the science fiction caper I quickly wrote in 2003 that was just as quickly rejected by a London agent. That sole rejection was enough to skewer my confidence, and the dream went back to sleep for years.

A manuscript in the attic (seriously)

It was only during a clear-out of my mother’s attic in 2012, when my kids were five and seven, that I came across that rejected science fiction manuscript. By then I’d read a new generation of children’s books and could see that my story wasn’t bad. On the advice of author illustrator Debi Gliori, I joined SCBWI, and it was the smartest thing I could have done.

SCBWI helped me stop spinning my wheels and turned me in the right direction, helping me learn about the market, introducing me to industry professionals like agents and editors, and letting me meet like-minded writers who shared the same, gigantic, imaginary-friend dream.

The first heartbreak: not-bad isn’t good enough

The first useful thing SCBWI taught me, thanks to a 1-to-1 at the 2012 conference with then-editor Non Pratt, was that my revised, not-bad manuscript wasn’t good enough to submit to agents. I’m not going to lie: that feedback was a bitter pill. And by bitter I mean cue the eczema flare-up, the wretched self-blame. Who was I, anyway, to think my ridiculous imaginary friend and I could ever get anywhere?

Fortunately I’d begun to write something else, and in the writing had discovered something about story craft. This story was, I imagined, going to be Book Two in a series, and already I could feel it was stronger than Book One: the story faster, the characters more real. So I threw myself into the writing.

Another heartbreak: Book Two had no ‘voice’

I submitted Book Two to an agent in November 2013 – right around the time that an editor I met advised aspiring authors not to write a series until the first book had sold. When Book Two was rejected by an agent, it was as awful (if not moreso) as when not-bad Book One fell flat. The agent said my story didn’t have a strong enough voice for her to successfully represent me, although my way with words was promising.

I needed more feedback than that if I was to progress, and fortunately, at that same SCBWI conference I’d won a raffle prize of a full manuscript read from a top agent. (For me, SCBWI conference raffle prizes have been gold. They’ve garnered me feedback from agents and editors who are otherwise too busy to guide early-stage writers.)

On the clue train: what do I do well? What needs work?

The 2013 feedback I received from that top agent was the first of many clues I began to hoard about my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. This path toward publication was beginning to feel like a videogame: I dashed from wise gatekeeper to wise gatekeeper, most of whom spoke only in riddles that it was up to me to decode. What was this “voice” they spoke of? What did they mean when they said, “where on the shelf would your book sit?”

I began to read like crazy, getting through more than 100 books for middle grade and young adult readers; I noted what worked, discovered authors I loved, and kept track of it all with Goodreads. Reading widely wasn’t enough, though: I had to write as much as possible, too, and in 2013 I tried NaNoWriMo, which challenges participants to get 50,000 words onto the page during the month of November.

In my 20s I’d had some success as a professional actor, and I started to feel how similar writing was to acting. If I wrote “in-character,” the way I’d acted, would that give my story this elusive voice?

For NaNoWriMo 2013 I experimented with a new idea – not a caper set on a space station, but a story set in my Massachusetts hometown, about a girl who wakes up every day in a different version of home, and who’s trying to get back where she belongs.

The rough draft I produced had voice, I was sure of it. But it needed revising. Through SCBWI I made inquiries about editors I might work with; I sensed that an experienced editor could give me the macro oversight I needed in order to revise properly.

The editor did indeed read the manuscript, pointing out again my strengths and weaknesses. And at the risk of sounding like a breathless and mentally fragile Victorian shut-in, I again withered at her feedback. I’d poured my heart and soul into this draft. And I’d got what I asked for: an honest critique. So why was I going to pieces?

Heartbreak the third: even a deeply-felt draft needs revision

I was seeing a pattern in myself and in the creative process, and I didn’t like it: submitting my work for professional assessment felt like the worst kind of vulnerability: more humiliating than strolling naked down Main Street, more terrifying than a parachute jump.

It was the true fear of the child urged to stand in front of the whole school and sing a solo: bare and immediate and alone. Those three exhilarating years in my 20s as a professional actor had ended in part because I wanted to train as a journalist, but if I’m honest, a big reason I left acting was because the rejection was intolerable. Each part I didn’t secure was a failure. Rejection of my creative writing felt like an unpleasant déjà vu.

If not for my SCBWI friends, and more peers and professionals I met at the wonderful BookBound retreat in May 2014, I would surely have stopped. BookBound in particular delivered an epiphany: revision isn’t the mark of failure, it’s the mark of a professional. Even a deeply-felt first draft is unlikely to be the most eloquent expression of the story concept.

This epiphany was a tremendous liberation. After BookBound I threw myself into the world of revision, discovering craft books by experts like Darcy Pattison, Renni Browne and Dave King, James Scott Bell, Noah Lukeman. These experts were the toolmakers, offering me proven techniques to turn a promising manuscript into a ripping story.

Revision tools work, but none is a magic bullet

Their tools worked. During summer 2014 I revised the Massachusetts book hard. Showing it to BookBound and SCBWI friends, I discovered which aspects of the story readers found most intriguing. By autumn 2014 I began submitting to agents, and this time I wouldn’t let one query and one rejection stop me: I queried widely. When I quickly received full manuscript requests, friends told me I should be elated. And I was, cautiously so. In fact I was quietly confident.

Make that prematurely confident.

Twenty-nine submissions and rejections later, I was bereft. Heartbreak number four was here, and it just about finished me off. I had used the tools correctly, hadn’t I? So why didn’t agents love the story is much as I did?

The answer again came via SCBWI. At an autumn 2014 conference raffle, I’d won a full-manuscript review from Rebecca Lewis-Oakes, an editor then with Faber and Faber. Her five-page editor’s letter arrived on Christmas Day 2014. Rebecca’s letter, along with the detailed feedback that agents had kindly provided, sat on my desk for two months while I put the Massachusetts book away.

The story had broken my heart and I resented giving it any more time. Instead, I took out the revising tools and began to chip away at the first draft of another book, set in Scotland, that I had written during NaNoWriMo 2014.

The Scotland book was interesting – my first fantasy story – but I could already see it needed a vast amount of revision. All that deep, methodical revision I’d already done on the Massachusetts book would be wasted if I didn’t make one last push to use the professional feedback, and try to find an agent.

The final stretch: into the breach with the Massachusetts book

In March 2015 I began heartfelt revisions on the Massachusetts book, taking the advice several experts had given, to introduce a new character. I also tried to clarify something I’d thought was the heart of the story, but that readers weren’t reacting to: the connection between the main character and her older sister.

By this stage I knew how precious industry interaction was, and I enthusiastically attended a live Writer’s Digest webinar in May 2015 by Jennifer Laughran, a senior agent with Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Webinar participants also got a critique from Jennifer, and her encouraging comments on my revised opening pages gave me hope.

I burnished my pages throughout summer 2015 – I devoted July just to adjective and adverb work, scrutinizing each descriptor in the 50,000 word manuscript. I also workshopped the revised manuscript and query letter with SCBWI friends.

In September 2015 I renewed my subscription to Publishers Marketplace to research agents; I wanted a US-based agent, since the Massachusetts book was very American. I started to build a target list of agents who represented not just middle grade, but also picture books, which I aspire to write. If an agent was on my A list, I refused to submit to them until I’d read at least one title they’d sold.

And then I panicked. In November I texted my SCBWI friend Louise, confessing that I couldn’t face submitting and being rejected again. She advised I take a breather and forbade me to do anything for a week. When KidPit, a Twitter pitching contest, came around (I’d enjoyed and found a great mentor and a beta reader through the previous year’s Nightmare on Query Street Twitter contest), I jumped in, risking a one-line tweet pitching the Massachusetts book. To my shock a reputable New York agency immediately requested my opening chapters.

Polishing the pitch, not just the pages

Simultaneously I’d been working on my live pitch for The Hook, a SCBWI 2015 conference event to let writers pitch their stories live on stage to agents. When I was chosen for The Hook, the terror of that was all-consuming, and I practiced my pitch ad nauseam, until I could do it in my sleep (see more on The Hook in my blog post here).

Whether for a one-line pitch or a two-minute speech, I could now tell my story easily, because I’d come to know it so deeply, including the all-important heart: that connection between the sisters. The KidPit manuscript request had given me confidence, so I quietly submitted to three agents on 13 November.

Within a month, I had four offers of representation, a long-listing for Undiscovered Voices, and a shortlisting for another Scottish award, plus I’d won two pitching competitions, including The Hook. Those four weeks were hectic, including a trip to the Big Sur Children’s Writing Workshop in California, and a chance to meet a whole clutch of agents and high-profile editors, in person.

The stupendously stressful business of choosing among different, equally strong offers of representation is not something I wish to repeat. Every agent was a luminary – all were on my A list. In the end, after speaking with writers each agent represented, I contacted Jennifer Laughran to accept her offer of representation in mid-December.signed contract abla

I am beyond thrilled to be represented by Jennifer; I hardly let myself believe this was happening, until the signed contract arrived last week, just before Christmas. When I ran to my diary to record this astounding turn of events, I saw it was exactly a year since my “heartbreak four” entry, when I nearly abandoned the Massachusetts book altogether.

I’m glad I didn’t. When I opened the envelope from Jennifer, I may or may not have placed the signed contract under the Christmas tree and taken a picture of it. The journey’s not over, of course, but I’m ready for what’s next, whatever revisions may come. It’s all part of the process.

 

What I learned about finding a literary agent

Still reading? Really? Ok, then maybe you’ll be interested the seven things I learned during this process of finding a literary agent.

  1. The story is the thing. As Jennifer has said on her fabulous Tumblr where she answers questions from writers, she really just wants to know about your story in your query. Stylish writing is awesome, but I didn’t get anywhere near to my goal until I had a gripping story to tell, because I’d written it from the heart. And thanks to revision tools, I’d finally managed to tell that story in a way that was compelling enough to interest agents.
  2. Friends who critique and who care are vital. It may only be during the beta-reader process that you discover the most intriguing elements of your story. Friends and family are acceptable beta readers, but writers – even those on an earlier stage of their journey – have a storyteller’s sense and can highlight weaknesses and strengths in your manuscript. These writer friends are also your oxygen when the heartbreak comes, which brings me to my next point.
  3. This is going to hurt. Submitting, and being rejected, are agony, but don’t let that stop you. Getting onto that bare stage, all alone except for the song you’re going to sing, becomes tolerable when you know other writers are doing the same thing, on their own empty stages, in front of their own audiences. When the rejection comes – ideally with constructive feedback – you don’t have to act on it right away. But using that feedback (especially from industry professionals) can help you rebuild and fortify your story. Of course one rejection, or even 10, doesn’t mean your story won’t win the heart of an agent somewhere. For me, it was important to know when to stop submitting and go back to revise further. And it was equally important to let the sting subside before I began that revision.
  4. I learned about myself and how I write. Turns out that I write fast, but I need to revise slowly and deeply. Over the past three years I’ve always had two different manuscripts on the go, and for me that works: being able to throw myself into a completely different story was a great distraction while I was on submission.
  5. Get closer to agents and editors, whatever it takes. Go to writing retreats, go to conferences, join SCBWI, take up any opportunity for professional feedback of your opening chapters. If there is no SCBWI network in your area, start one, as I did in southeast Scotland with my friend Louise. Industry organizations like SCBWI get you closer to (and defuse your fear of) the professionals who’ll help you improve.
  6. Seek feedback on your query, not just your manuscript. Pitching competitions like The Hook and the 10-word pitch competition at the SCBWI annual conference are brilliant. For new projects I’m crafting a story pitch at the rough-draft stage, and that pitch helps keep me focused. Your writing friends will spot holes in your pitch and query letter: let them do so before an agent does.
  7. Be professional, prompt and polite. When you’re ready to submit to agents, a very specific etiquette is expected, one that’s easy to research online. Especially if you begin to receive one or more offers of representation, keep everyone you’ve submitted to informed, and appreciate that they’ve cleared crowded desks to read your story quickly. Listen to their ideas. Take notes on your conversations. Let “the professional you” handle this part of your journey. Keep your wild imaginings, fears and anxiety on simmer for when you’re writing. For the query phase, pretend you’re at the bank or applying for a job, and be that cool-as-a-cucumber you.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear if there are any tips you’d give to writers who are looking for a literary agent. What worked for you?

 

Main image by Kian McKellar on Flickr 

Big Sur Children’s Writing Workshop means a big leap forward

redwoods by zachary jean paradis on Flickr taken by ErikHaving re-discovered the astounding wonder of a full night’s sleep, I’m determined to catch a few insights from the Big Sur Children’s Writing Workshop I just attended in California, while they’re still fresh. But if you read no further, read this: it’s a workshop you will love if you’re serious about a career in children’s writing.

The redwood forest surrounding the Big Sur lodge is enough to make anyone feel like a kid again: the trees are so fat and tall, many with crooked, skinny arms, you’d swear it was a LORD OF THE RINGS remake, and you were on the verge of being scooped up by the Ents. Or maybe that was just me, and my ridiculous level of sleeplessness, after flying 5,099 miles from Scotland to Monterey for what I’d been reliably informed is the single retreat a children’s writer must experience.

I wasn’t disappointed, thank goodness! The workshop is organized by the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, and despite a solid dread as I listened to the ABLA organizers clarify the rules of the weekend (no pitching at the Friday cocktails; no being late for your crit groups; no being mean in your feedback; and definitely no crying when you get constructive feedback), I told myself all would be fine, as long as I could stay awake and focus. Like a lot of attendees, I was drawn to Big Sur for the chance to meet not just seven ABLA agents (only two of their agents couldn’t come), but also great authors, and amazing editors from Chronicle, Viking and HarperCollins, who’ve produced exactly the kind of books I’d love to create one day.

Meals and mixers — and the steep walk from the cabins, down through the gigantic trees to the restaurant — gave plenty of time for chats and networking. There were also agents’ and editors’ panels, and a query letter workshop, where Andrea Brown memorably stated the ideal length of a query: “It’s like a skirt: it should be long enough to cover everything but short enough to be interesting.”

Sheila Averbuch and redwoods at Big Sur Children's Writing Workshop

But the critique groups are the five-star attraction of this retreat, and the best opportunity to give your writing a big push forward. Andrea (who began the agency 35 years ago) told me she wanted to do something different with the retreat, and her crits are definitely different: you experience the same crit group twice, over two days, and in between you’re encouraged to edit your pages using the group’s feedback.

Two crit groups become four. That’s right!

And that’s not all. You have TWO crit groups — led by two different industry professionals — so that gives you the chance to workshop more than one project. I brought two books: my middle-grade science fiction manuscript that’s on submission right now, which I’ve been working on for two years; and my first draft of a middle-grade fantasy. (Interestingly — perhaps? — I drafted both manuscripts for NaNoWriMo, in 2013 and 2014. Edinburgh is one of the most active cities in the world for NaNo…lots and LOTS of words being generated up north here every November).

The remarkable, remarkable idea of Big Sur is these critiques: and because the retreat is an application-only process, you’re (virtually) guaranteed to get insightful comments from crit group participants. My two groups were led by super-agent Kelly Sonnack (yes, THIS Kelly Sonnack) and author Mitali Perkins (whose RICKSHAW GIRL was named one of New York Public Library’s 100 best children’s books in 100 years).

How did I love these crits? Let me count the ways!
  1. Kelly has x-ray vision for stories. With just a few pages, even if they’re from the middle of the book, she could diagnose strengths, give a view on character, and highlight places where the reader may get a wrong impression — one the writer hadn’t intended. And Kelly kept the discussion on track: the chat wasn’t allowed to digress or drift, which kept a focus that benefited everyone.
  2. Mitali had the sandwich down pat. The sandwich is a crit style that ensures constructive feedback is always bracketed with strong, true statements about the manuscript’s strengths. Mitali left us all having a better sense of where we show natural ability, and that’s priceless as an author enters the confidence-testing business of revision.
  3. Participants rock. I met no one who wasn’t committed to the crit process, and to the important, wider business of supporting each other as writers. There was no snark, grumbling or bad-mouthing, just constructive positivity, and real enthusiasm for re-working their own pages. It’s hard to explain how inspiring my crit groups were. People were revising! Overnight! One author-illustrator team brilliantly rewrote all copy and hand-edited the pictures in all six copies, making their story so much stronger.
  4. MG, PB and YA, oh my! I don’t (although I aspire to) write picture books, so it was invaluable to watch this revising process unfold for that author-illustrator team, and to hear the agent’s guidance on narrative arc. And while I had no YA in my crit groups, I had brilliant chats over meals with two writers who are also counsellors working with teens, which was an eye-opener.

Next up: Big Sur East, May 13-15 in Cape Cod 

Let us not calculate how many fewer miles I’d have had to fly if I’d just waited six months, but hooray! Big Sur is coming to the East Coast! Andrea announced this Big Sur retreat on Cape Cod in May 2016, and I know one or two zillion MG writers who will probably stampede to apply to this. Go check it before it fills up. There’s also a smaller workshop, for advanced writers, at Big Sur in California in March.

Yes, it turns out the planet is rather large, and traversing it for a three-day workshop borders on lunacy, but I have no regrets. Like The Hook at the SCBWI conference in November, Big Sur in December came at precisely the right time in my writer’s journey. And what a journey it was zzz-zzz-zzz [loss of signal]

Big Sur on Cape Cod – details here! Go see! 

 

Redwoods photo by zachary jean paradis on Flickr taken by Erik

Pitching a story is a life skill for writers

Winning The Hook at scbwicon15So here’s something I had no clue how to do a year ago: briefly tell someone about the story I’d written in a way that makes the listener want to read it. But last weekend I won a SCBWI pitching contest where I had to stand up live on stage and pitch my story to a panel of top literary agents, in front of a capacity auditorium. It’s been interesting getting from A to B, and I’ll try to explain a bit of that journey here.

The pitching contest was the brainchild of SCBWI annual conference cochair Jan Carr, who saw something similar at the London Book Fair and wanted to bring this live pitch action to the UK SCBWI annual conference for children’s writers and illustrators. I had the same first reaction as everyone who heard about the contest – which they called “The Hook” – namely, “not on your life.” It’s hard enough putting a full-length book into just a few words, never mind doing it in a competitive setting, trying to be the pitcher who the panel of agents chooses as winner.

It’s a world gone mad

But then, as I mentioned in my July blog, I was getting ready to submit, and I realised I could use the query letter I’d been preparing for agents. Many literary agents in the United States accept only the query letter itself, which is just a brief pitch, with a bit of biographical detail about yourself. Some agents allow you to send a page or two, some want no pages at all. They’re curious to know, from your query letter alone, whether you can distill your story in a come-hither way.

So I went in for The Hook (which also let us submit the first 600 words, so the agents could read our story starts in advance). I’m positively thrilled to have won, which meant I was asked to select from the panel (in the vein of TV talent shows like The Voice) the agent I’d like a one-to-one meeting with.

Wait, what? Yes! The writer chose the agent, with all of the world-gone-mad connotations that implies, as Bill Murray said so well in GHOSTBUSTERS. Let’s hear it, Bill:

[iframe src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/O3ZOKDmorj0?rel=0″ frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen” width=”620″ height=”315″]

 

Writers-choosing-agents is absolutely not how the real world works when writers first query their work! I can imagine how weird and strange this felt for them, so my huge and humble thanks go to the agents Gemma Cooper, Amber Caravéo, Penny Holroyde, Julia Churchill and Felicity Trew who put themselves through this. You were so patient and helpful — I talked to so many writers afterwards who said how illuminating it was to hear your live critiques, articulating things about each story that we other listeners probably couldn’t have put into words. Yay and thank you! Please come again!

Here I am, with The Hook master of ceremonies Sara Grant, listening to the agents’ comments on why they’d chosen my manuscript, SEVEN PLACES LIKE HOME, as the overall winner. The agents are waiting to hear which of them I would choose. Like I say, world gone mad. But it was thrilling: my name got pulled from the envelope, and 5 min. later I had an agent’s business card in my hand and plans to set up our one-hour meeting.

the-hook-agent-panel

 

Just a few thoughts, then, on how I got from A (not being able to pitch) to B (Hook-mania):

  1. I joined SCBWI. If you’re not already a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, here’s a perfect example of why you should consider it: not only do you get opportunities like The Hook, but you also get a supportive community of writers around you who can help you figure out things like how to distill your manuscript, how to find master classes and writers retreats that let you develop life-skills you need as a writer, whether you’re a newbie (pitching, character development and revision) or an old hand (school visits, social media, handling trolls, PLR). Most of all, your fellow Scoobies help you survive this soul-searching, soul bearing, heartbreaking business of book-making that we’re all enthralled by. The SCBWI writers from our Southeast Scotland SCBWI network were out in force at the conference, right there behind me as I stood on stage, and that meant more to me than I can probably describe right now or ever. Thank-you, guys. I’ve been a member since 2012 and it’s been awesome all the way. More on SCBWI here.
  2. I attended BookBound UK. This residential retreat is an application-only writing weekend which had its inaugural outing in 2014 and is now taking applications for 2016. I recommend it, because for me it was an invaluable weekend of character development, revision guidance, and critically live pitching practice, helping me grasp not just the heart of my story, but also the “why me” message I’d never really thought about, explaining why I wrote this book and not another book. More on BookBound here.
  3. A writer pitched his story to me. I went to the Edinburgh Lit Salon, where YA writer Roy Gill answered the question beautifully when I asked him what his book was about. Magically, with just a spoken sentence or two, he made me imagine that I was the main character, a boy whose father had just died, and whose weird grandmother was offering to bring Dad back from the dead (this is about The Daemon Parallel…go read it!). I resolved to learn how to pitch like Roy!
  4. I snooped around Twitter pitching contests. Contests like NoQS and PitchWars pair writers with a mentor who helps work on the writer’s pitch and opening page. The polished, finished manuscript excerpts, posted online, make it clear how high the bar is, if you’re a writer on submission. They make inspiring reading…go see PitchWars or scroll down here to see NoQS. I didn’t succeed in finding an agent when I took part in NoQS, but I met a great mentor and a new beta reader who’ve helped me tons.
  5. I workshopped my query and pitch. This step almost didn’t occur to me: run my query letter (and my live pitch) past fellow writers. Thank you Miriam, Louise, Anita, Celia, Fiona (and others I’m sure I’m forgetting) for your help!

This process has been a big eye-opener for me. I realised that, in learning to pitch, I came to know the true heart of my story — and love it — in a way I hadn’t known it before. Jasmine Richards, speaking at the #scbwicon15 writer’s craft session I attended last weekend, said that a book is always being sold, whether that’s at the beginning of the process when it’s writer-pitching-agent, or right down the end of the chain to a parent trying to interest their kid in reading the story (rather than playing on the PlayStation). A short, single hook sentence and a longer, one-paragraph summary will always be useful to — and used by — anyone who wants to share your story onwards. You’ll even have one kid telling another kid about your book, if you’re really lucky.

May we all be that lucky!

Have you tried summing up your book in a line, or a paragraph? What techniques work for you? 

 

The Hook agent panel photo is by George Kirk