I’ve been writing for more years than I care to remember, but it’s really only been the last three years that I’ve applied myself wholeheartedly with the aim of seeing my work published. I’m not sure how many works-in-progress I’ve got cluttering up my hard drive – books I started, then came to a crashing halt at some point and never managed to get going again. It was only in early 2012 that I decided that I had to start actually finishing books if I ever wanted to see them in print.
I bought Scrivener, the world’s greatest novel-writing software, and got to work on The Chimney Rabbit. Like with so many of my previous projects, at one point I stalled – badly – and was stuck with writer’s block for months. Fortunately, the story kept nagging at my mind, and it wouldn’t leave me alone. Eventually, I got back to writing, and from there I ploughed on until I’d completed the first draft. I’d done it! I’d actually completed a full-length book! Next step, publication!
I knew nothing.
Twenty-seven rejections later, I finally realised that maybe, just maybe, my first book wasn’t quite good enough. One agent, Anne Clark, liked it enough to ask for the whole manuscript, but after reading that, she didn’t feel like she could take it any further. One thing she did say was that my book was too long – at 71,000 words, it was probably about twice as long as it needed to be to attract an agent’s attention. But I’d done my homework! There were tons of books for 8-12-year-olds that long! What I didn’t know was that my research didn’t matter – yes, books of that length are published all the time, but making your book longer than the generally-accepted 30,000 to 40,000 just gives it one more unnecessary hurdle to surmount.
By this point I’d completed the sequel. Which was even longer.
But no words are ever wasted. By that point I had nearly 150,000 words under my belt, and two completed novels. I now knew what worked and what didn’t in terms of planning the book and scheduling writing time. I knew that I could actually finish full-length novels – if I stuck at it.
The next book was a lot better, but more importantly, it was a lot shorter. It went through two major revisions, where I changed the setting and title, and in total it had fourteen rejections. But perhaps most encouragingly, it got onto the longlist for the Bloomsbury/National Literacy Trust New Children’s Author Prize 2015.
By this point I’d been scaling back my submissions to agents, and had been concentrating on competitions. The great thing about competitions is that there’s a winner – that may sound silly, but sometimes you can submit to an agent along with a thousand other aspiring authors, but not one of you is taken any further. At least with a competition, there’s going to be someone who gets published.
I can’t remember exactly how I found out about the competition – it was probably on Twitter – but the Great War Dundee Children’s Book Prize Competition came to my attention. Unlike many competitions, this had a very specific brief – the book had to be related to Dundee and the First World War. Now, obviously, I didn’t have a book ready-made for that competition, and I wasn’t sure I’d have time – especially when it would require research, as, while I know Dundee reasonably well, I wasn’t around in the First World War…
It was already June, and the closing date was the end of August. But I got an idea and it wouldn’t let go of me. A week of research, a few days planning, a month of writing, and I had my first draft. I got a couple of copies printed, and my partner Sandra read it through, as she does with everything I write. At this point, I had no idea – no idea at all – if it was any good. I’d just been focused on getting the words down. I can’t even say I enjoyed writing it – many evenings, it seemed like an awful lot of hard work. Was it all worth it? Wouldn’t it just have been easier to give up and spend my evenings on the Xbox or watching telly?
The email Sandra sent me included (along with a list of typos) the following:
This is by far the best thing you’ve written.
Well, that was encouraging! I gave my second printed copy to my friend, colleague, and fellow aspiring writer Colin Jones, and he came back with some cracking notes (including little historical fact checks like the lipstick that Nancy’s sister is wearing – yes, lipstick had just been invented, but would a lass from Dundee in 1915 have any?). I pushed on with the second draft, put together the submission package, and sent it off.
The day Fiona Macpherson sent me an email saying that I’d made it onto the shortlist was amazing.
But not quite as amazing as the day, four and a half months later, when I went to Dundee for the prize ceremony.