Trick or Treat, trick or treat, a movie is groovy but books are neat.

One of my favourite books when I was younger was the Point Horror title, TRICK OR TREAT. I can still remember the picture on the cover and the sinister tagline;

trick or treat

Trick or treat, trick or treat, candy is dandy but murder is sweet.

Which just goes to show that all you need is a catchy, (albeit slightly nonsensical), rhyme, a spooky house and some orange foil and you can haunt a reader for more than 20 years. Since then Halloween has always held a special place in my heart. The year I was 16 at a friend’s Halloween party I changed from my original outfit into a clown’s costume complete with mask part way through the night scaring the life out of the other guests. I then threw a party in my late teens which involved a Scream outfit worn by several different people, the final one wielding a real knife in order to terrify people. It’s amazing I had any friends left after that but they were clearly frightened to drop me, just in case…

So, you can imagine my delight years later to come across a writer who shared my love of Point Horror, Stephen King and all things creepy.  I started working with Carla Spradbery in 2010 after she attended a Marie Claire ‘How to Get published’ event and while we didn’t manage to place her first manuscript with a publisher I knew that her writing and ideas were so strong that it was only a matter of time before we would be seeing a book from her on the shelves. Carla has always been hardworking and good at taking on board feedback – hugely important qualities for an aspiring writer to have. Four years later and THE 100 SOCIETY, her debut dark thriller for teenagers has just been published by Hodder.  Reviews have been fantastic and Carla is putting the finishing touches on her next book, which will be  published next year and she is still spreading fear, not just with her novels but with her top 10 horror moments too.

As publishers look for the right moment to launch new books it seems that Halloween as a season is becoming more and more important. The Bookseller reported a few days ago that even by mid October sales of Halloween themed children’s books had increased by 65% so we’re not the only ones getting into the spirit!

This year, with a new baby, my Halloween plans are less elaborate than usual – carving a pumpkin and dressing my daughter up as a skeleton is about as exciting as it gets. I’m sure she would consent if only she knew – after all it is in the genes. It will be a while before we’ll be trick or treating but that gives me plenty of time to start planning her parties and hunting for new books to feature on her Halloween reading list.

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Little does my daughter know – she actually dressed up for Halloween last year too.

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ATTENTION SEEKING? BEGIN YOUR BOOK WITH A BANG. (Undiscovered Voices Blog Tour)

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I realise I am becoming increasingly impatient. This isn’t a sign of ageing, (I hope), but thanks to working in children’s publishing and while it’s easy to understand how the slow process and occasionally sleepy editors may be trying to one’s tolerance levels, actually that’s not to blame in this instance.  Instead it’s to do with my shrinking attention span and growing appetite for a story to start instantly with no beating around the bush, free from gentle description or lengthy scene setting. In short, I have a zero tolerance policy for rambling openings.

As I have mentioned before, we receive hundreds of submissions every month and after the covering letter the next test is the opening. Unless it’s engaging and punchy it’s unlikely I’ll continue reading for very long. So what makes a good opening?  I think there are three key components and I’ll describe them in a moment but first here’s an exemplary beginning from Joe Craig. When I read the first chapter of KILLER, the first Jimmy Coates title, I knew I wanted to work with Joe.

Jimmy knew what was coming, but he was too late to dodge out of the way. Georgie pounced on him and they both landed with a thump on the bed. She moved quickly, and easily locked her arm round Jimmy’s neck.  Then she dug her knuckles into the top of his head, kneeling over him. Not again, Jimmy thought. All these years he had never been able to escape his sister’s hold.

What works so well about this is that the reader is propelled straight into the action – we’re there with Jimmy as he fails to dodge and we want to know what exactly he is dodging and then what the outcome of the fight will be. We get a sense of what Jimmy is like and of his relationship with his sister and all of this in just a few lines – plus if you read on it gets even better, but I’m not giving any more away!

So key concept number one is an active character. We need to meet the protagonist and for children’s books this should be a child or child substitute.  We ought to see their personality emerge and this is unlikely to be evoked through a physical description.  For instance if a character has brown hair we don’t learn much about what they’re like or their state of mind, if they’re kicking the kerb we do.  So the character needs to appear quickly and they should be doing something.

Concept number two – the action starts off the page.  It’s the leaping onto a moving vehicle idea – the journey has started before the first page and the reader is late to the party but desperate to play catch up.  Take Eva Ibbotson’s opening to THE OGRE OF OGLEFORT, where the Hag of the Dribble has just started her day and the reader jumps into join her.  The Hag isn’t actually the main character of the story, but Eva’s allowed to break the rules. Besides, as you’ll see, it works wonderfully well:

Most people are happy when their feet are dry. They do not care to hear squelchy noises in their shoes of feel water seeping between their toes – but the Hag of the Dribble was different. Having wet feet made her feel better: it reminded her of the Dribble where she was born and had lived for the first seventy-eight years of her life, and now she dipped her socks into the washbasin and made sure they were thoroughly soaked before she put them on her feet and went downstairs to make porridge for herself and her lodgers.

            The Hag did not care for porridge – being fond of porridge is quite difficult – but she was glad to be busy; it helped her to cope with the terrible homesickness which attacked her each morning when she woke and saw the sooty brick wall of the house opposite instead of the wide sky and scuddling clouds of the place where she had lived so long.

Here the reader is able to form a vivid picture of the Hag without any hint of a physical description.  We’re there on the Hag’s shoulder dipping her socks in the washbasin with her. This is something Tony Bradman talks about in our CBC Writing for Children Course and he uses the following example from beginning of Philip Pullman’s NORTHEN LIGHTS:

Pantalaimaon fluttered ahead and through the slightly open door of the Retiring Room at the other end of the dais.  After a moment he appeared again.

“There’s no one there,” he whispered. “But we must be quick”.

Crouching behind the high table Lyra, darted along and through the door into the Retiring Room, where she stood up and looked around. The only light in here came from the fire-place, where a bright blaze of logs settled slightly as she looked, sending a fountain of sparks up into the chimney.  She had lived most of her life in the College, but had never seen the Retiring Room before: only Scholars and their guests were allowed in here, and never females. 

Again we’re introduced to the main characters and they’re doing something interesting, something forbidden. Which leads us on to the third component; there needs to be a question in there; something the reader wants to know the answer to.

Will Jimmy gain the upper hand?

What is threatening the Hag’s everyday life?

Why are Lyra and Pantalaimon sneaking into the Retiring Room and what will they discover in there?

So it’s simple! Character + Action + Question =  The perfect opening!

If you’re an unpublished author and you are writing for children Undiscovered Voices is the competition for you and in fact it’s all about beginnings. For many it’s the start of their engagement with the children’s publishing world as the winners all have an extract of their work published in an anthology which is sent out to children’s agents and publishers. More details can be found on the Undiscovered Voices website.

Of course it’s the opening extract which is featured in the anthology and there’s still time to add the finishing touches to your work and apply the magic formula, (see the earlier equation!), as they are accepting applications from 1st July – 15th August. I’m looking forward to seeing some thrilling first chapters in the anthology when it is published and hopefully it will be the start of something exciting for many new writers.

Writers, not bakers. What a literary agent really wants.

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It’s about time I wrote something about submissions and since I have read more than eighty this week, and thousands over the last ten years, it’s a subject about which I know a little and can talk a lot, (for evidence of this see my earlier post on searching for new writers).

In September last year Curtis Brown launched a brand spanking new online submissions site finally replacing the postal submissions system which was old fashioned, inefficient and, at times, pretty creepy.  We used to meet in the boardroom once a week and wade through piles and piles of submissions – negotiating our way through all sorts of strange folders, perfumed paper, “gifts” (bribes), in the form of mugs, teddy bears, sweets, photographs, dollar bills (a personal favourite), and even a visit from the police (don’t ask…).  Before my time Vivienne Schuster was even sent a dead rat by a disgruntled, (and undoubtedly disturbed), aspiring author. So now we have moved to online submissions, we’re paper and rodent free but I’ve noticed that new writers are still making some of the same mistakes.  Here are some examples:

1. Covering letters not addressed to a specific agent.

Our new site makes it easy to identify the right agent to approach. It even gives you the option to select from a drop down menu so there’s no excuse for sending letters without addressing them to an actual person or marking them for the attention of Mr. Curtis Brown. While part of me likes the sound of “Lady Thwaites”, I’m not convinced that this belongs in a covering letter.

2. Silliness. There’s a time and place for this and I suggest that it is within text itself.

Forget gimmicks – letters stand out if they are professional, well-researched and well-presented. Ideally the letter should briefly explain why you are approaching that agent, include a short description of the book and the intended age range, (marks deducted for saying ‘adults and children alike’, don’t be lazy!). Mention any relevant writing experience, (but this isn’t crucial), and a line or two of biographical information.  Simple! If you can liken your book to relevant similar titles then do, but avoid comparing it to  Twilight/ Harry Potter/ The Hunger Games – it suggests you have only read one book for young people in the last decade. Of course aim high but comparisons like this feel meaningless.

3. Pages and pages of material before the sample text starts.

Keep your synopsis brief, delete long lists of chapters and think very carefully before including a prologue. Make it easy for the reader to find the beginning of the text quickly – after all that is the most important part of the submission.

4. The endless synopsis.

Again, keep your synopsis brief. Often agents won’t read a synopsis unless they like the sample material and want a sense of where it’s going. It’s just a tool providing more information and should be a short summary, not a detailed chapter breakdown. My preference is for just one or two paragraphs. Did I mention I like a short synopsis?

5. Lack of research.

TEXT please! I ask for text only, not illustrations, not embroidery manuals, or dancing spiders, (actually I kind of like that idea). Nowhere do I say anything about embroidery manuals on my client list, on my profile page with its ‘what I’m looking for’ section, which you’d think would be the obvious place to start, on twitter, blogs or any interviews. There’s a reason for that… It sounds obvious but I’m still astounded by the number of people who don’t put the research in. To give yourself the best chance of hitting the right agent with the right project you have to start by figuring out who the right person might be. If you’re not sick of me banging on about this you can read my answers to questions on submitting on Lou Treleaven’s site.

6. Nutters & lunatics

If you’re a little unconventional that’s fine, many authors are, but it’s probably best to tone it down in the covering letter.  Quirky is ok but full blown fruitcakes can be tricky to work with – best to disguise that initially.  Talking of cake – hand delivered baked goods may be a lovely gesture for friends, neighbours and people you know but together with a submission, before a professional relationship has even started, it feels a bit like presenting an engagement ring on a first date.   Besides it won’t affect on our decision about a manuscript and nor should it – we’re looking for writers, not bakers.

7. Unrealistic expectations.

We read and respond to all submissions and do so within a reasonable time frame.  Not all agencies accept ‘unsolicited material’ and some don’t respond unless they are interested. We welcome new submissions and reply to everything we receive but we draw the line at feedback – we just couldn’t possibly offer this to the thousands of people who submit their work to us every year.  There are companies who provide detailed reports and critiques and charge a tidy sum for it but they are not literary agencies.  While we are enthusiastic about new submissions we do make it clear that reading and responding is as far as we will take it for many of them. Irate phone messages or pleas for feedback just reinforce our view that we’ve made the right decision to decline. While it’s understandable to feel disappointed, and do disagree by all means, but aggressive and demanding reactions demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding about what agents actually do. We would be neglecting our responsibility to our existing clients, plus it would be deeply misleading, if we spent time giving personal responses to writers we don’t intend to work with. For some sensible words on why agents can’t give feedback and why new writers don’t really want it, see Rachelle Gardner’s blog.

So mistakes, directions and complaints aside, the good news is that agents do actually want to find new authors. In fact I am working with at least half a dozen authors I’ve connected with via our online submissions site since we launched five months ago.  We are constantly monitoring the site and looking for new authors writing books for children and teenagers. I would love to find something in the vein of Game of Thrones, a contemporary romance for teens, an emotional middle grade story, irresistible characters and ideas that are instantly intriguing.  For a superb elevator pitch read Jamie Mason’s 140-Character Story Pitch in her interview on Chuck Wendig’s blog.

Happy pitching! I look forward to receiving your perfect, polished, submission. No pressure though…

Life isn’t like a box of chocolates but searching for new writers can be.

In the last few weeks Quality Street chocolates have been alarmingly abundant in the Curtis Brown offices, their shiny wrappers gleaming suggestively, promising that Christmas and its deluge of cheap and colourful chocolate is just around the corner.

I confess I haven’t resisted but I’ve learnt an important lesson and surprisingly it’s about new submissions.
I use the chocolate guide – you may be pleased to hear that I’m not so familiar with the flavours that I can select without assistance and I’m certainly not daring enough to do so.  Once I’ve chosen a chocolate, there’s that moment just before unwrapping it when the world is full of promise. There’s something potentially delicious and it’s just within my reach.  Then there’s the moment just after consumption where I feel let down – it wasn’t worth the calories, it fell short of expectations, I was misled.

However a little later on I might return to the tin. Ok last time wasn’t satisfying but I should really persist – perhaps a different shape or colour could be just what I’m looking for. Then the cycle of hope and disappointment begins again but I’ll persevere – maybe the next one will be satisfying…

I’ve been reading a lot of new submissions this week and the experience has been similar. I approach each new one with optimism. I’m an agent, I want to discover new talent and I have hundreds of new writers sending their work in every month so plenty of potential books to explore.  I can tell quickly if it’s not going to be for me and this is usually clear from the covering letter.  Some sound exciting with a clear, well crafted letter, an intriguing synopsis and an original idea – they stand out even before I’ve started reading any text.  Admittedly there can be a large gap between the idea and the writing itself but the submissions which grab my attention and fill me with a Quality Street-like hope are those with an alluring wrapper – a strong covering letter.  Presentation isn’t everything but unlike the writing itself, it’s something very easy to get right.
Here are a few pointers on how to write your covering letter to Agents:

  • Address your submission to an individual, not a company and explain why you are approaching them and why you think your work might be of interest.
  • Don’t suggest the age range is 0-100 – this just shows you have no sense of the children’s market.
  • Do some research before you submit. Read other children’s books, not just those you remember from your own childhood but recently published titles too. Get a sense of where your material fits in.
  • Don’t describe your book as the next Harry Potter – there’s aiming high and there’s aiming too high…
  • Do talk about your influences and how your book may be in the vein of X or Y.
  • Avoid gimmicks and bribes, they’re not effective. A carefully thought out, professional letter is more likely to make your submission stand out than sweets or toys.
  • Include any relevant writing experience in your letter but avoid mentioning the school newsletter you worked on twenty years ago, it looks desperate.
  • Your spouse or children may enjoy the book – they’re obliged to and there’s no need to mention this, it won’t persuade an agent that they will feel the same way.
  • “Do not be insane. Or at least, don’t let it show” – For this and other insightful tips check out Isabel Thomas’ blog on how not to get published
  • When enclosing a synopsis keep this short. I prefer just a paragraph or two.
  • Include paragraph breaks – I love our new submissions website but it displays text exactly as it is submitted and without paragraph breaks it can be an exhausting reading experience.
  • Dystopian is a dirty word. Despite the enormous success of The Hunger Games, other dystopian titles haven’t really taken off and publishers have bought enough in this area to keep them going until at least 2020. Trends come and go but sadly this one is on the wane.

I think for now I’ve had my fill of Quality streets – I’m after something that looks appealing and suits my taste too in terms of chocolate and new writing and preferably both! Any suggestions?

Nerves are the norm with Discovery Day on the horizon

Tomorrow, around 250 new writers will be turning up at Foyles Bookshop on Charing Cross Road to pitch their idea to agents from Curtis Brown and hear feedback on their first pages. I know for probably 248 people this is a terrifying prospect.

Talking about your ideas and your writing can be deeply personal, and knowing you have a limited amount of time and the ear of an industry professional is bound to be daunting. But it’s worth remembering that the stakes are not as high as you might fear – it will be an audience of just one and it’s unlikely to be the only chance you’ll have for an agent to read your material, so it should be seen as a trial run rather than a one-off opportunity.  No one is expecting stand up comedy acts or X-Factor performances, (in fact, we might find that a bit alarming). Rather, we’re aiming to have just a brief, informal chat which we hope will be useful.  Sharing your work puts you in a vulnerable position but if you’re a writer who wants to be read, then at some point you’ll need to take the plunge and where better to start than on a day devoted to discovering new talent?

For writers, there can’t be more sympathetic crowd than a bunch of agents.  After all, we know how writers feel and hear their concerns on a daily basis. We’re familiar with the crippling anxiety that kicks in after pressing the send button and delivering a manuscript, and the torturous time spent awaiting a response. We’ve seen even the most experienced writers tackle nerves and beat back butterflies before speaking in public so we know that what we’re inviting new writers to do tomorrow won’t be easy. However we genuinely want to help – to give honest and realistic feedback and positive advice to new writers at the beginning of their journey.

Pitching face to face to an agent is unlikely to be the starting point for most new authors, but it is a useful exercise and whenever I talk to groups I always harp on about the importance of the covering letter, which is where a new writer first interacts with an agent.  A live pitch can be transferred into a covering letter and, as I’ve mentioned before, a strong idea, with the right title will really stand out if expressed in the right way.  We won’t be offering anyone representation on the spot – we couldn’t, based solely on the first page – but we hope the day will provide useful tips, encouragement and practical advice.

And there’s more to Discovery Day, too. Aside from the pitching stations there will be small “surgery” groups in the Foyles Café (a draw in itself), where new writers can ask general questions about publishing. And there will be a panel event in the afternoon with author Salley Vickers and debut novelist Tim Glencross. We hope it will be an opportunity to connect new writers with industry professionals and to celebrate books, debuts and independent bookshops.

If you can’t make it on the day then join us on Twitter and follow the day via our new site which we’re super proud of!  Not only do we now accept submissions online but we’ll be providing resources here for writers in our New Writing Room.

Discovery Day will just be the beginning …

Literary Agents – The Devil in Disguise?

Well it’s not much of a disguise. Literary agents are often cast as the scoundrels of the publishing scene with a reputation for being nasty, heartless and unapproachable – and that’s just on a good day.  Perhaps this has its advantages – after all the bad guy tends to be the most exciting and appealing character – particularly when there’s a transformative journey involved.

And today we’ve been born again or at least re-imagined thanks to Michael Bourne, or as I will now fondly refer to him, ‘my Milton’. Through Lucy Coats and The @Awfully Big Blog Daily I came across a sympathetic portrayal of the villain of almost every book – the agent. Like Lucifer in PARADISE LOST and Elphaba in WICKED we have been given a voice and, guess what, we’re not talking in tongues. Not only that but Bourne describes to a tee the experience, nay angst, of an agent on the hunt for new blood.

It may be hard to believe but we do care about books and we’re passionate about finding new talent, nurturing authors and helping to build lasting careers. In the last nine years there are few seats I’ve occupied, (unless I have company), for longer than a couple of minutes without whipping out  a manuscript – a train journey, bus journey, flight, waiting room, cafe, bar, picnic, sofa, bench, bed – you get the idea – nowhere is sacred, everywhere haunted by the ghosts of potential clients. Then there’s the crippling guilt; the price of reading a book for fun (gasp!), without an eye on possible representation, a guilt which may drive weaker souls to watch Teen Wolf on TV rather than indulge in the unholy act of reading a published author when so many authors await discovery. But that’s the nature of the beast and it’s a beast we love.

I’m certainly not asking for pity but if you’re an aspiring author looking for an agent then Bourne’s article is a must read as it gives a great insight into an agent’s world. It’s thoughtful and realistic and he is inspiringly determined.  I’m less convinced by the importance of knowing the right people, maybe that’s more relevant in the US and less so for children’s books in the UK. Of course connections and recommendations do help but a really impressive covering letter will stand out and perseverance will often pay off.  So keep typing and keep sending your manuscripts in, or your soul could be at stake – after it’s the devil who makes work for idle hands.