Cheltenham Lit Fest

I may have mentioned that I have the best job in the world.

It’s a bit of a scary job to have at the moment. A huge shift is happening in the publishing world, with self-publishing and e-books taking off and mail-order books taking over from our lovely, friendly bookshops, and while it’s great for readers that books seem to be getting cheaper, it’s not so great for writers until somebody, somewhere, works out how we’re still supposed to make a living out of making up stories. I hope they do. Maybe that someone will be me. Who knows?

But meanwhile, I still do get to make up stories and that’s a wonderful thing. I also get to talk about those stories and the process of writing them, and I get to do that in fun places, like schools and the Cheltenham Festival of Literature. And that is FUN.

I was there on Saturday with Barry Cunningham, my publisher, who was happy to share his tales of discovering JK Rowling (yes, he did that), and talk about what he’s looking for in children’s books now. The panel also included the agent Zoe King, and Alex O’Connell, the Arts Editor of The Times. It’s not every day you have a selfie taken by the Arts Editor of The Times (I know that means it isn’t technically a selfie, but go with me), but here’s me checking out my head mic, courtesy of Alex. Thank you!

Head micBest of all was hearing that her daughter has read and enjoyed a couple of my books. I haven’t met her, but I love her already.

I hope we were helpful to the crowded tent of aspiring authors who came to listen, and ask questions. It was inspiring to meet some teenagers in the audience who’ve already written their first books. It was so impressive to know that they’ve finished their stories. So many people start, and so few make it through to the end, so that’s an achievement in itself. We warned them that they may not find success quickly. In fact, they probably won’t. They have to really want it, and to persevere to make it happen. But with Zoe’s help – and she was keen to help them – perhaps it might.

But even better than the panel, for me, was simply being there. Festivals are full of fascinating people. If you’re lucky enough to make it backstage, you might literally find yourself bumping into Andrew Lloyd Webber (I almost did).

On the way to the Writers’ Room I managed to fangirl madly to Camila Batmanghelidjh, the inspirational founder of The Kids’ Company and one of my absolute favourite style icons, on top of the fact that she’s one of the most important fighters for the rights of underprivileged and troubled children in the country. It was very special to be able to tell her how much I admire her.

I was eating a quick supper in the Writers’ Room (they do food; it’s delicious), when I looked up and saw Richard Curtis. I think there’s a sort of unwritten rule that one doesn’t fangirl in the room itself, unless you at least vaguely know the person, so I just admired him from afar. Lots of admiring. I wish I could have heard his talk, which was about what drives screenwriting and song writing, but without a ticket or time to stay on, I had to make do with thinking happy thoughts about Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Blackadder and Comic Relief.

I love a good rom-com, and stories that make me laugh. At the opposite end of the spectrum, I love being made to think, and given in-depth information and analysis about complex situations. Anthony Loyd is probably, right now, the journalist I most admire. He’s a war reporter who has bravely gone to Syria many times to report on the atrocities happening there, and now he’s telling the story about what happened when he was betrayed by one of his hosts, held hostage, beaten up and shot, and only just (by minutes) managed to escape being sold on to ISIS, where he might be facing beheading right now.

Anthony was there too, to give a talk related to the tale of his capture and escape in the Times Magazine. Again, I didn’t want to disturb him to say hello, so I just fangirled from afar. What he has seen, and what he has to say about it, is so important.

I absolutely love the fact that festivals like the Cheltenham one give audiences the chance to hear from people like Anthony, and Camila, and Richard, and even Barry and me.

And the chocolate tart in the Writers’ Room was excellent.

Did I mention? I have the best job in the world.

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How do I get my book published?

Today I received a very polite email from a visitor to my website called Jack, asking how he might get his book published. I could write an essay on the subject (and in fact I’ll be talking about exactly this at the Cheltenham Festival on Saturday, but in more detail and with special regard to children’s books, along with my publisher Barry Cunningham and a panel of publishing folk). I’d love to have replied to Jack in greater detail, but only had time to write briefly. However, I thought this might be worth sharing for the many people out there writing their own books.

I didn’t mention self-publishing, I realise. That’s another essay. And one of increasing relevance in today’s publishing market.

Nor did I mention getting editorial input from somewhere like the Golden Egg Academy, who work with authors whose books aren’t ready yet, to turn them into something an agent and publisher can get excited about. That’s another essay.

Here, though, are the basics. This is what I said.

Hi Jack

Thanks for your message. I have various suggestions for you, and I think most authors would agree.

First – congratulations! You finished your first draft. That’s such an achievement in itself. Second, if you haven’t done this already, put the book in a metaphorical drawer and don’t look at it for a few weeks. Then get it out again and revise it as much as you need to in order to polish it to the highest possible standard. It may take a few drafts, or many, to get it right. (It took me over 30 drafts until I was happy with my first published book.)

While you’re doing that, I strongly recommend you buy or borrow the latest edition of the Writers and Artists Yearbook, which is the bible for new writers. It lists all the publishers and agents, and what they’re looking for. Each agency has different requirements and is very specific. Please follow their guidelines, down to the line spacing. Once you’ve found a few that are looking for the kind of book you’ve written, you can send off to them. If they only want a few chapters, send them what they’ve asked for, not more. Do let them know that you’re applying to more than one at a time. They will understand, but they like to be informed. Craft your covering letter as carefully as your book, and make sure that without being overconfident, you sell yourself as a writer as much as you sell your story.

And then wait! If you get any feedback, think of it as a very positive thing and use it as much as you can. And start writing your next book. Because it might be your second, or third, or fourth that’s the one that makes it.

Good luck!

sophia