Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Getting it right is for later

Ever looked at a book and thought it was perfect and not really believed it was ever anything but perfect even though you're a writer and you know better? Happened to me again this week when we took the two youngest offspring to a Julia Donaldson exhibit called A Squash and a Squeeze at a museum in Birmingham.

Youngest with The Gruffalo.

And the mouse.

Tiddler by Julia Donaldson - firm favourite in my house.
One of Julia Donaldson's notebooks for Tiddler.



A rather cool reminder during this NaNoWriMo that it doesn't have to be right first time. It won't be. It shouldn't be. That's for later.

And if you don't own Tiddler, but you do own small people, you should get them Tiddler. If you don't own small people, get it for yourself.

Small person I own dressed as a Gruffalo (not mine).


Monday, 2 September 2013

So I haven't done this in AGES and probably none of you have read any books this summer as a result because how would you know what to read I DON'T KNOW. Or: book recommendations.

Ok, here are the top 5 from my summer reading (not including the excellent adult books that I read - BROKEN HARBOUR by Tana French, GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn, CLOUD ATLAS by David Mitchell and THE LOVELY BONES by Alice Sebold. See how I'm cheating already? Yeah, that's likely to continue).

Ketchup CloudsKetchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher

I also read Annabel Pitcher's first book - MY SISTER LIVES ON THE MANTELPIECE which is equally powerful and excellent. If you're a writer who's asked 'but what is voice?' then read these books and you'll know. This one's about a young girl who's done something terrible, gotten away with it and is writing to a death-sentence inmate in a Texas prison. You can't go wrong. (Also, I got in a two for one there, yes?)




Infinite SkyInfinite Sky by C.J. Flood

This one starts with a girl at a funeral - there are two possibilities for who's in the box, either best friend/first boyfriend or brother. Either way you know you're crying. I cried my face off. It was nasty. But the book is brilliant and the cover made me buy the hardback and I'm Scrooge McDuck and never spring for hardbacks. Her next book will be on my must-have-right-now list.



How I Live NowHow I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

The first Meg Rosoff book I've read. I loved it. And while we're on the war theme, MAGGOT MOON by Sally Gardner is incredible and I just read ONCE by Morris Gleitzman and I'm counting IN DARKNESS by Nick Lake too because it's still war (and completely different and fascinating). Too far? No. You need them all.  




Graceling (Graceling Realm, #1)Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Can we talk about Kristin Cashore? I'll pick up pretty much any genre, but I'm not usually drawn to a huge amount of fantasy. Graceling was recommended to me (I think it was probably by Michelle) and I enjoyed it immensely. I've been thinking about a lot of the books I've read this year in terms of 'do I want my daughter reading this?'. It's a resounding yes to this one. Brilliant characterisation and great world-building. I read FIRE almost straight away and got my sister to buy me BITTERBLUE for my birthday because I need to own them all.

Last but not in a million years least:

GatedGated by Amy Christine Parker

Fascinating subject matter (cults), fast-paced yet thought-provoking. There's a sequel, but this book still has a satisfying ending and feels like a complete story. I'll definitely be reading the next one!You should get it now.




And I didn't even mention books by Veronica Rossi, or WONDER by RJ Palacio, or THE CHAOS WALKING trilogy by Patrick Ness, or Cat Clarke, CAT CLARKE! or THE RAVEN BOYS by Maggie Stiefvater (who I just love anyway) because this post is only about 5 books you need to read.

I might need to not leave it so long before I recommend a book again. Maybe.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Christmas in July: The First Success Story!



Yep, it's time for the first official success story from this year's Christmas in July pitch contest! Which means a guest post from the lovely Natalie Knaub, whose entry DUPLICITY caught some serious agent eye last month. Over to you, Natalie!

"The Whole Agent Story"

Almost three years ago, I decided to write a book. Just like that. Just one afternoon, I thought to myself that the one thing I consistently loved to do was write, so I should get serious about it. I had an idea floating around in my head that had been there forever (really), and I'd seen the trash reality shows on TV. How hard could it be?

So I set about writing this book. First a few hours a week, then a few hours a day. Soon I had 40,000 words. Then 50k. Then 60! Around 75k I'd told the whole story, and voila, I had a book.
Once I learned a sliver about how the publishing world worked, I obviously had to send my ms off to agents as quickly as possible. Someone could steal my idea and then what would I do? But I'd read agents don't like first drafts, so I had my mother read it, my mother-in-law read it, and another close friend. After a few changes, I started querying.

Yes. It was a disaster.

Note that the following unconventional storytelling items are not popular amongst agents (or readers, for that matter): 1) Switching POV between paragraphs, for only 5 paragraphs every few random chapters; 2) Describing every single rule of your fantasy world in the second chapter like a textbook; 3) Not including the MC in the climax. I did much worse than that too. After all, I hadn't read a novel for four years.

Four YEARS.

To say the least, I had a lot of learning to do. After my query and sample pages failed to catch the eye of any of the sixty agents I queried - and it hit me that I wasn't a writing prodigy - I signed up for both local and online writing classes. I registered for a writer's conference. I found a wonderful community at AgentQueryConnect to help me with my query letter. I bought books on craft and plot and hired a freelance editor to help me. I also made silly vows to myself like, if I didn't get an agent in the next six months (because, c'mon, that is a REALLY LONG TIME), then I'd take the hint and stop.

Three months passed. Six. Eight. I went to the writer's conference and met some really cool local writers, reset my expectations of how fast the publishing world works, and read as many interesting YA books as I could get my hands on (The most consistent piece of advice published authors give aspiring ones? Read, read, read). I revised my novel a billion times. My editor taught me a LOT about characterization, point of view, and a million other things you never think about when you're reading, but must consider when you're writing. Ten months passed, then eleven.

At exactly twelve months from when I'd finished my first book, I had a brand-new, editor-polished version of the novel to re-query. It had been a year, and I had a fresh pitch letter and much stronger sample pages to wow agents with. I was sure my time had come. So sure that while querying, I drafted a sequel. And I did get a few requests ... but not an overwhelming amount. Maybe one or two partials from fifteen letters sent. Overall I was thrilled to get anything besides a "no thanks," but as the rejections piled up, I felt like I was still missing something. So I broke another of those silly vows I'd made to myself, and shelved the project.

I'd started another manuscript during this process, something totally off-the-wall and unrelated to my first series. Something I was just playing around with, not even intending to query, really. But I'd had so much fun writing it, I went back and finished it. Polished it up, made sure it made sense, and sent it off to my critique partners (sorry, Mom - by this time I'd accumulated some fellow writer friends, so they were my first sets of eyes).

Bless my CPs; they are godsends. One of them emailed me at 3 AM because she hadn't put it down since I'd sent it to her. Another told me I should definitely send it to her agent because it would be right up his alley. The third said I should start entering it in writing contests like NOW.

At this point I was a bit skeptical of contests, since I'd never had much success with them (though, to be fair, writing contests are how I met my fabulous CPs). Their confidence in my work led me to enter Xmas In July, and I bit my nails the whole week while Ruth and Michelle combed through entries, over-analyzing Tweets and bracing myself for the day they'd announce the winners. I was sure I would not be on that list. When Michelle tweeted that the winners were up, I clicked into her blog, heart a-pounding, saying oh please oh please oh please as I browsed the entries and ... did not see my name. "Okay," I thought. "There were a lot of entries. Chances were slim. It's okay, you can try again next time." But I still hadn't clicked the link to Ruth's blog, so I did, expecting more of the same.

Except OMG, it was NOT more of the same, because a few lines down on Ruth's list, right there, right THERE, was the name of my manuscript. My name and my manuscript. I couldn't believe it. I cheered in Forever 21 whilst buying shirts and gushed my life story to the poor cashier, who I'm hoping I paid for said shirts. When the entries went live, I braced myself again that I may not get requests, but it would be okay. I made it into the contest and that was a huge step, so it would be okay.

I got seven requests. In the 100+ queries I sent out for my first book, I never had that many. And I still received a few rejections off the bat, but the rejections were different this time. Personalized. One agent loved my writing but didn't click with my main character. Another said she liked the voice and concept, but wasn't sure about the pacing. And then one said she hadn't finished reading yet, but could she call me this weekend?

Yes. Yes please call me!

After an amazing week of phone calls and emails, I somehow wrangled in three offers. And on August 12th, three weeks after the contest (there are a lot of threes in this story...), I signed with Brianne Johnson of Writers House.

If you're in the query trenches: Keep going. Every day you're a step closer. Find fellow writers to support you, do things you're afraid to do, shelve a project that's not working. Writing is not an easy journey, but oh my gosh it's worth it.
 
 

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

#XmasinJuly round up




And so Christmas in July is over (probably) for this year. A big thank you to all the agents that took part - invited and lurking - and thank you to everyone who entered this year.

For those of you who like stats, here is maths done by me! I don't think I've made a pie chart since 1986, but I was told it was important then (unbeliever that I was) and whadya know, it might just be.

So here's a pie shaped representation of the type of entries we received this year. And ok, I didn't really do maths as such, I just googled 'free pie chart maker' and typed some numbers in. 



Here is last year's round up post so you can compare.

If you didn't see my tweets about the success of the competition then, well, you aren't on twitter, but for anyone who doesn't know, Christmas in July ended with 81 agent requests for our winners (! um, !!!). We're thrilled with that and we hope to be sharing success stories with you soon!

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Xmas in July 2 officially begins!



It’s happening!

Below are fifteen of the thirty winning entries for the second annual Xmas in July Pitch Contest! (The other fifteen winners can be found over at Michelle Krys' blog ).

Agents will be dropping by to make requests over the next two days (July 18th and 19th). We respectfully ask that no one else comment on the entries during this time.

Agents, there is no limit to the number of requests each manuscript can receive. So if you see that an entry already has a request for a full, please feel free to make a similar request of your own. Really, we won’t mind. Requests can be made directly in the comment box for that entry.

We’ll be tweeting about the contest using the hashtag #XmasinJuly if you want to follow our progress or join in on the fun.

As a reminder, the participating agents are:

Adriann Ranta of Wolf Literary Services

Tracey and Josh Adams of Adams Literary

Becky Vinter of Fine Print Literary Management

Diana Fox of Fox Literary

Molly Jaffa of Folio Literary Management

Lucy Carson of Friedrich Literary Agency

Lara Perkins of Andrea Brown Literary Agency, Inc.

Logan Garrison of The Gernert Company

Sarah LaPolla of Bradford Literary Agency

Tamar Rydzinski of Laura Dail Literary Agency

Monika Verma of Levine Greenberg Literary Agency, Inc.

Brianne Johnson of Writers House

Carly Watters of P.S. Literary Agency

Stefanie Lieberman of Janklow & Nesbit

Jessica Sinsheimer of Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency

Katie Shea of Donald Maass Literary Agency


And so it begins!


#1 ONE MISSED SUMMER (MG mystery)



Twelve-year-old Ellie Jane Wilkins thinks she’ll spend the summer of 1955 swimming down at the creek and running away from her makeup-loving mama. Nothing ever changes in Plainsworth. However, things get a whole lot more interesting when the local beauty queen goes missing. Then there’s that suspicious fire on up at Shanty Town. The law wants to sweep it under the rug, and everybody’s acting stranger than usual. Even Ellie Jane’s best friend, T.J., is keeping secrets from her. You can bet your biscuits that makes her spitting mad.

So Ellie Jane decides to do a little investigating of her own. Trouble is, Plainsworth ain’t just any small town, and somebody wants to keep her from revealing one of its darkest secrets. Now Ellie Jane isn’t just fighting to figure out what happened to Miss Muncie, she’s fighting to save her own life.

ONE MISSED SUMMER is a 46,000-word middle grade mystery combining a Southern Nancy Drew with the darkness of Agatha Christie, and it will appeal to fans of Sheila Turnage.




Chapter One


Mama stands with the rest of the women jawin’ about Miss Muncie and how she’s run off again. But I guess it’s a bigger deal now since they all thought she was staying this time.

Their gloved hands flap around their heads like white doves. If Mama jumps around anymore, she’s liable to tip into the old gazebo built way on back in 1910. That thing’s so rickety it’ll fall flat in a second. Then the town square will be one big blank piece of dirt and grass.

I bet they’re madder about the missing tiara for the Plainsworth Princess Pageant than Miss Muncie’s being gone. I giggle. I saw the Mayor’s hound, Old Gus, take off with the tiara a while ago. By now, I bet it’s completely covered in dog drool. Good. I couldn’t care less about some dumb old pageant. Give me fishing down by the creek or a game of war any old day.

“Where do you think she’s gone?” T.J. asks me, his mouth full of peach cobbler. A few crumbs spray across the table.

His coonskin cap slips to one side, and he rights it. I wish I could wear one of those caps, but Mama says it ain’t proper. Anyway, The T is for Thomas and the J is for Joseph. He’s been my best friend since we moved here.

The race riots drove my family clear out of Alabama and into Georgia back when I was little. Old podunk Plainsworth. Where a body can die of boredom. No lie. I heard some boy named Alex Brass died in the 1800s because there was nothing for him to do here. Just keeled over in front of a butter churn.

“Why you asking Ellie Jane? She’s not into them pageants,” Lou Reed sniffs, wiping his nose on the cuff of his checkered shirt. Know-it-all. I shoot him a scowl, and he has the good sense to shut his trap. Just wait ‘till I get him to the creek, I’ll hold him down so long…It don’t matter if I’m wearing a skirt—I can still lick him good.

T.J. scratches his head. “I reckoned she might know. She is a girl.”

I wish I had the answer. Miss Muncie is kind of my hero. She lied and told Mama there weren't any more applications for the pageant because she knew I’d sooner cut off my arm than wear one of them lacy dresses. And seeing as how she’s the reigning beauty queen for the whole of Saskataw County, Mama believed her. But now Miss Muncie won’t be around to help me fight off Mama and her Ravishing Rose cheek paint. No one will. Mama’ll have me powdered and primped before the sun sets if she has her way.

A shiver of dread races down my back at the thought.

#2 STILL THEY COME TO HAUNT ME (YA psychological thriller)



At 11:15AM, sixteen-year-old Julia is carving her initials into her music stand. At 11:16, her twin brother bursts though the bandroom door. At 11:17, he pulls out a gun. Twenty-two minutes later, Julia is the only one who walks out alive. She remembers nothing that happened inside.

At least, that's what she tells the police.

One year later, Julia has a new house halfway across the country, an assumed name to shield her from the press, and a guest room where her brother's room should be. She's just starting to feel like the scab might someday peel away when she sees the impossible: her brother, staring at her across a crowded restaurant.

The cops don't believe her, and when she sees him again, her parents are ready to have her committed. Even she thinks she's finally cracked. That is, until men in black suits show up at her front door and threaten her to keep quiet.

But Julia won't give up, even if that means fighting her way to the center of what might be a government conspiracy. Not if there's a possibility her brother might be alive. Not if there's a possibility he could tell the world why he did it. And especially not if there's a possibility his return from the dead could expose the dark secrets she thought died with him on the bandroom floor.

STILL THEY COME TO HAUNT ME, a YA psychological thriller complete at 67,000 words, is Gillian Flynn meets Tana French for teens.


First 500 words:

Only one picture of my brother escaped the purges. I keep it tucked inside a split seam of my winter jacket, which the lovely California has assured me I'll never need again. I used to keep the picture, plus the others I'd managed to save from the first purge, in the back of my underwear drawer, confident my dad would stay away lest even the thought of his daughter's lace and satin unmentionables would make him shrivel into dust and ash. I was wrong. This photo only survived because it slipped behind the baseboard, and the only one who is dust and ash is my brother.

It's a good picture. The taker, long forgotten, had managed to catch us both mid-laugh, our dark, curly hair flying about our faces, our arms wrapped around each other. I can still feel the warmth of his cheek pressed against mine, the rough beginnings of stubble scraping my face.

This picture is the very last thing I have of his. My parents' first purge, right after his cremation, left me with more: his swimming varsity jacket, still damp with chlorine and sweat and Axe; some of his books, big fat fantasies with boobalicious warrior women on the covers and page corners so creased and worn they fluttered to the ground like frenzied moths when I flipped through; his deodorant, which I took to wearing until there was only the thinnest sliver of it left, after which I took to smelling it every night before I went to sleep. It made me dream of him, and since I wasn't allowed to talk about him, that was the best I could do.

I lost all the things I'd saved to the second purge, right before my parents sold the house and I became Lucy Black. I'd gone out for a run, still Julia Flynn, and returned to find my things all in boxes, my clothes crammed into garbage bags that smelled like tar. I sank to my knees in my doorway, suddenly dizzy, wondering if I'd pulled a Rip Van Winkle and fallen into a trance, running for what felt like forty-five minutes but was actually forty-five days.

"Mom?" I said hesitantly. She stood from behind a stack of boxes. "What's going on?"

Sweat dripped down her forehead and turned into tears halfway down her cheeks. "There was a photographer in the bushes when I went to take out the trash," she said. "Everybody stares when I leave the house. I can't do it anymore. I just can't."

So that's how we disappeared from Massachusetts, leaving behind bags of trash, our old names crumpled on the floor like dirty tissues, and the eleven skull-sized bloodstains on the floor of my high school bandroom—my brother's goodbye.

#3 TREE ROPER (MG contemporary)




Born with one-eye, twelve-year-old Jimmy Parker would rather climb trees with his rope and harness than hang around with people – after all, trees don’t tease. Jimmy’s prosthetic eye looks good, but it’s smaller than his real eye and sits lower on his cheekbone, making for a lopsided face. Jimmy is determined to afford the surgery that he’s sure will fix his face – and change his life. But money is scarce and cosmetic surgery expensive, so Jimmy convinces his arborist father to let him help out in the tree business this summer – a job full of risk, but worth the cash.
Because of money problems, Jimmy’s family has to move across town, where he meets cute and candid Samantha Fulton while rescuing her grandma’s cat from a tree. Sam admires Jimmy’s climbing skills and welcomes him to the new neighborhood, even tagging along on local tree jobs. When he meets Sam’s uncle Aaron, a wounded army veteran with multiple prosthetics, Jimmy begins to think about his own life and motivations. Then one afternoon, as Jimmy helps his father on a routine limb removal, a climbing line breaks, sending his father crashing onto a roof below. While his father recovers in the hospital, Jimmy conceives a bold plan to save his father’s tree business. But for his plan to succeed, he will need help from Sam and Aaron, and the strength to change a belief he’s held for as long as he can remember.

First 500-
It was the third day of summer vacation, and I was hanging in a tree. My first client of the summer stopped pacing as I glanced down at her tired face and messy nest of white hair.
“Please don’t walk right under me, Mrs. Murphy. It’s not safe.”
“Oh, of course. Are you sure you’re okay up there? Maybe you should come back down and I’ll try again with the food.”
“I’m good. I’ve done this lots of times. Besides, I don’t think your cat’s that hungry yet.”
“Well, I just don’t want you to get hurt.”
“I won’t.”
I needed to show her I could do this. I still burned from the way she stared at my face three days ago when mom introduced us. Mrs. Murphy couldn’t have known then that my right eye was a fake, though. Mom probably told her later.
As I hung from the rope above her yard, my arms throbbed from the workout. I relaxed into Dad’s old canvas and leather climbing saddle and let my right hand slide down to the friction hitch which held my position on the rope. Bad move. My body shot down two feet of rope before I could let go and allow the hitch to do its job again. I glanced down to see if Mrs. Murphy noticed. But her head was down and she was folding and unfolding her hands. Maybe she was praying. I know I just said a quick one.
She rubbed her neck and called up to me, “Twenty dollars, remember? And don’t you fall!”
“Yes, ma’am.” The gut-wash sensation of falling settled a little and I focused on the money.
Twenty more for my surgery stash. I smiled down as she turned away. What if my prosthetic eye “accidentally” fell out and landed in her hair? It could be funny. But even though I was still mad at her for staring, I couldn’t do it. Besides, my eye might get lost in the grass if she freaked out, and I couldn’t risk losing another one. Dad’s head might pop.
I tightened the knot a little bit. A friction hitch has to be just right. Not too loose or you slide down fast and not so tight that you can’t push it up as you climb. Nothing about rope and saddle climbing is easy. But it’s easier than facing a bunch of kids at a new school in August. I shivered even though it was three hundred degrees out. Everything will work out fine…if Dad will let me get the surgery.
Mrs. Murphy began to shuffle toward the house. She had come outside about fifty times already to try and coax her cat down, wearing a path from porch to tree. I’d watched her from my new bedroom window as I unpacked my stuff. I’d seen the cat too—hiding in a large cavity where he could sprawl out unseen from directly below.