Thursday, 27 August 2015

Rhino v’s Kitten – Reacting to Criticism

When I first began writing, and joined a critique group as I believed that to make it as a writer you needed to be like a rhino; that you needed thick skin. However, my experiences with both giving and receiving feedback in critique groups, and having feedback from industry professionals, and more recently having done extensive edits on my manuscript under the guidance of agent Shelley Instone, my stance has changed. 

Me and my rhino skin  -  painting by Me!

I always thought that tough skin was a perquisite of being a writer, being able to withstand the hurt of criticism. Maybe it is, but a Rhino analogy isn’t a good one. After all, Rhinos are stubborn creatures that are aggressive and have a tendency to drop their heads down and charge blindly in one direction. Unless you are a creative genius with the wind of fortune at your back it is unlikely that you will charge directly into a publishing contract. After all it takes more than one person to write a book, and it is rather like nurturing children; it’s not just the parents who shape a child, they need support from family friends, nursery staff, teachers, health visitors, doctors, the list goes on. And that it is the combined efforts of people working together, and the parents listening to people with more experience / knowledge and implementing their advice which gives the child the best possible start in life. Much like children where the parents get all the credit for how well they turn out, a book is written and shaped by many more people than just the author who has their name on the cover. 

When I recently met up with Shelley and her assistant Olivia, they asked me how I kept so positive when they sent me edits, especially when it came to number 11! As, when they were expecting me to go into writer break down, I remained cheery and upbeat. It was then when I confessed that actually sometimes [most of the time] receiving the edits back was difficult, and that I resorted to getting my husband to read them through first and give me the highlights. That way I got what the main points were without getting blinded in editorial headlights! This approach kept me calm, and allowed me to free my mind, looking for ways and solutions to any issues before I read the editorial report for myself. Crucially, I was calm and over any initial emotional reaction to edits and I could respond in a positive and constructive way. 

It is more of a kitten approach, instead of being a Rhino, and not letting the feedback affect me and continuing on my own path, I took time to lick my wounds, (and grieve for cut characters) and then shook myself off, got up and carried on, taking on board the suggestions and advice and implementing it. The’ Kitten’ reaction has made for an infinitely improved manuscript and a good creative working relationship with my agent too. Although I’m not a great fan of cats in general, I am proud to be a kitten. 

Thursday, 20 August 2015

My Scrumdiddlyumptious New Job at the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre!

When I was a child, I LOVED Roald Dahl books, from the first time that the rest of classmates and I sat down on the crowded manky carpet and listened to our teacher read ‘The Witches.’ It was like nothing I’d ever heard before, and when the teacher showed us the Quenton Blake illustrations of a witch and a non-witch and asked us which we thought was the actual witch, we were all amazed that we got it wrong!

I begged my mother to buy a copy of the book so I could read it myself, and know what happens before the rest of my class mates, and of course, grateful I was showing an interest in reading my mum obliged; only to find out everybody else had had the same idea and the whole class was racing to finish the book first.

Despite my difficulties reading due to severe dyslexia, I read my way through every Roald Dahl book I could find, including the auto-biographies ‘Boy’ and ‘Solo’. I loved the dark humour, the word play and the creepy characters, and I knew that the effort of reading would be paid off with a rip-roaring good yarn. My childhood is saturated by memories of Roald Dahl. A firm family favourite film was Danny the Champion of the world with Jeremy Irons and then amazement when at Christmas the animated version of The BFG came out, made even funnier as my Dad at the time looked identical to the BFG!

Even into my adulthood Roald Dahl shaped my endeavours, when studying Fine Art at university we were paired up and told to give our partner a copy of our favourite book, and that we should use the books to produce some artworks. I gave my partner ‘Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH’ [sorry Oz!] but my partner gave me ‘Revolting Rhymes.’ The book lead me down a path that reignited my love for fairy tales, and my art work became fairy tale themed and this eventually resulted in me picking up a pen and beginning to write what would become Through Mortal Eyes.

So when I first visited The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre, when my daughter was attending a Puffin Post event for their child guest editors for the ‘Pufflings Magazine’ in 2011 I was utterly amazed that I hadn’t discovered it before , and got very excited about sitting in his chair! I can remembering thinking how great I would be to work there and what a pity it was that it’s wasn’t within commutable distance.

Then luck changed, as we moved over to Buckinghamshire and settled I a house within sniffing distance of the museum , I started stalking the web-site hoping that a suitable job roll may come up that I could apply for. To my joy, in early summer they advertised for Front of House Staff, so I applied. This was terrifying as it’s been a very long time since I last applied for a job, and I had to write up all my eclectic work experience up on to a coherent and appealing CV. 

Photo from The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre, thank you!

I was relieved when I was offered an opportunity to audition for the job. Yes, you read that right, AUDITION! So after a spot of cram re-reading of Roald Dahl classics, and a minor outfit catastrophe, I turned up for the audition. I was surprised by the amount of people who were attending, there were a least a dozen and half applicants; from students and teachers, to creative-writing graduates and illustrators. We weren’t the only audition session either, so one thing was clear it was a desirable job with lots of competition.

The audition was fun and designed to get everyone interacting, with games, and then splitting us into teams and assigning us a project, that we were to collaborate on and then report back to the rest of the applicants and interviewers. I enjoyed the audition, and found that all the applicants were lovely people and we all got on easily. When the session was over and I drove home I had no idea how it had went, and prepared myself for the worst.

I was overjoyed to be called into interview, which despite being on an incredibly hot day, I enjoyed, and I thought went well. But I was completely ecstatic when I got offered the job, cue, dancing around the house like a heffalump!

So with much trepidation I ventured to Great Missenden for my first shadowing day, following an experienced Front of House member of staff around and learning the roll hands on. Thankfully, everyone who works at the museum is cherry and friendly, which quickly put me at ease. I adorned my purple shirt and plunged into the world of Dahl, as we worked at the ticket desk, and manned the galleries and exhibitions. I found that I could converse with the visitors with ease, and my days volunteering in a book shop had really been a good foundation for working in the shop. I’m really enjoying it so far, and I shall blog again about how it goes when I’ve settled into the roll.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Preparing for Submission with an Agent.

It’s coming up a year since I signed with my Agent, Shelley director of Shelley Instone Literary Agency. It’s been a manic but fantastic year, both personally and for my writing. The year has seen a house move, a new business venture sent up, a new job for me, my daughter’s last year at primary and now by son is readying up to take the dreaded 11+! Writing wise my manuscript has evolved from YA to MG, from 80,000 words down to 40,000, and then back up to 54,000, over no less than ten edits. Now, Shelley and I are both gearing up to submit it in the autumn.

I have submitted before, to both agents and publishers, and that took a lot of preparation; making sure the manuscript was as good as I could get it. Writing and re-writing my query letter. Polishing my hook and pitch. Writing the dreaded synopsis and then trying to crow bar it on to one page of A4 with tiny margins and hoping no one will notice the tiny font and crammed spacing! Then the actual submitting, researching agents and editors, trying to work out a personal way to open the query letter; consulting my spread sheet of professionals I’ve met, the when and where, or the review of their client list making sure I reference which author on the list I admire and why I think my book may appeal to them. This takes considerable time for each submission, not to mention researching what every person requires in their submission package and tailoring it appropriately.

Of course having an agent means that I’m not doing all the submission packages myself, but that doesn’t mean that I can sit back and drink coffee. No, preparing for submission is still a finely tuned operation, but this time it comes with a team!

The manuscript is presently being proofread to eliminate all my dyslexia associated mistakes, and behind the scenes, Shelley and her assistant, Olivia Payne, are working really hard doing all the amazing agenty things they do.

When Sally submitted to me I instantly liked her style of writing alongside her immense creative ability. It did not take me long (a few seconds!) to offer her representation. I immediately had a vision for her novel and knew how I wanted to shape and mould it. When you sign a writer you are investing in them and their narrative. In many respects it is a huge gamble, as you ask yourself lots of questions. Will the writer work hard enough and how much do they want this to happen, alongside a million other questions! It really has been a gruelling process but we eventually got where we wanted to be. Sally’s professionalism and fantastic attitude just shone through, as everyone at SILA worked their socks off. Now for the scary bit – fingers crossed’


Shelley Instone Literary Agency 
But I’m preparing too. Actually I started getting into submitting preparation mode in May. It started by meeting with Shelley, and whilst we were all still editing the manuscript we began sub-prep too. I was tasked with working on synopses for my other books, and a synopsis for a sequel to the book we are submitting. Now if you think writing a synopsis for a book you’ve written is hard try writing one for a book you haven’t started yet!

Shelley had an idea to make my submission stand out, by creating something special to go in (and on) the envelope, so I was tasked with getting the secret special thing designed and made.

Then it was the realisation that with the numerous edits and hectic personal life, my personal blog had been somewhat neglected and that it would be beneficial to start posting more ahead of submission. So with that in mind, I had a spring clean of the blog, changing its format and refreshing it to look more vibrant and loved. Plus crucially, getting every blog posted proofread first, to try and pick up some of my many dyslexia associated spelling mistakes.

The preparation is going someway to help me from getting anxious about submitting, but I can still feel those blasted butterflies with razor blade wings flitting about inside my tummy, whenever I stop and think about what’s to come. I’m excited, as the process has been hard work, enjoyable, but gruelling, and thinking that we’re almost at the point where that we’ve all been working towards is great. However I can’t stop my mind slipping to the dark side; the knowledge that with submitting comes rejection.

Hopefully, with the combined work that Shelley, her team and I have invested in the manuscript, it will find a home, but inevitably there will be some rejections along the way. Although at least this time, I’m part of a team, and we can support each other and keep morals high, which means hopefully I’ll be less likely to be crying on my author friends shoulders – well maybe.

In the meantime, it’s preparation, preparation, preparation, to make the manuscript and submission package as good as possible!