Friday, 15 January 2010

How I Got Published (Part II): Nicola Morgan

Last week Nicola Morgan told us a little about the writerly struggles she faced in the days before she was published. This week she reveals how she found herself an excellent agent, moved from not-really-published to very-well-published-indeed, and discovered her heartsong.

Ok, so there I am ridiculously pleased with my boring government documents but horribly desperate to be published “properly”. What happened next?

The school where I’d taught had lots of kids with dyslexia, and I’d learnt quickly about specific learning difficulties. I’d become fascinated. So I did a diploma in teaching pupils with dyslexia. That sparked an interest in the brain (which is a huge strand of my writing and speaking now) and a chance to be a recognised “expert” in dyslexia. As well as this work, I started another entrepreneurial idea: Magic Readers, which in 1999 became a website, The Child Literacy Centre (I actually only closed this down a few weeks ago after deciding that I no longer had enough time). Magic Readers was fabulous fun and very rewarding — groups of 4-year-olds in my house, having brilliant fun with books, games and activities to develop their pre-reading skills, but answering many, many emails from parents needing free advice and support was just too much for me on top of everything else I now do.

Although this had nothing to do with me becoming a novelist, it led to my first book contracts. See, (and here comes another secret, because I always forget that this is how I started) I self-published (badly) the Magic Readers books. I sold the first print run of 1,000, but sent some to the educational wing of Egmont. By chance, they were about to commission a major home-learning series. They asked me to write the whole series, for a glorious fee and my first experience of a nightmare deadline: twelve books in three weeks… (that series is called I Can Learn and there were many spin-offs which I also wrote. They are still market leaders, twelve years later — and I’ve had more dosh each time they reprint [I've shown the covers for two editions of just one book to emphasise this—Jane]. Recently Egmont paid me to allow them to put some material on their website. No royalties but no complaints).

Suddenly, I could call myself an author. I was published. I was earning. I was valued. My books were in shops. I was well.

But I wasn’t A Novelist. My second novel was still coming back. I’d had near-misses: a fabulous letter from Collins; a story being short-listed for the Ian St James Awards; several times when the novel got as far as acquisitions meetings. But nearly being published is still failing.

I started a third novel. I was full of hope. Sent the first part to an agent, got a lovely reply asking for the rest. (More rules broken — don’t send a novel out before it’s finished…). Went back to it, but didn’t finish it because...

… I read a new children’s novel. I’d been writing for adults and had never thought of writing for kids. Why would I? I wanted to break boundaries with language, not be held back by simplicity. Oh how wrong I was! The book I read was Skellig, by David Almond, a beautiful writer with an extraordinary voice. He expresses deep ideas in language which is only simple because it is perfect, not because it’s trying to avoid complexity. He is unselfconscious and his words are crystalline and generous where mine were convoluted and self-indulgent.

This was what I wanted to do. I’d been so tangled in prose that I’d forgotten about story, about plot. And now I could do both.

So I began to write Mondays Are Red. When I’d written about a third of it I became impatient and broke that rule again: I sent it to an agent and two publishers. The agent and one publisher wanted to see the rest. I explained to the agent that I hadn’t finished but would do so NOW, and to the publisher that I had interest from an agent and would be in touch soon. I then wrote furiously and sent it off to the agent. The agent said a) she loved it but b) she was ill and had decided she couldn’t take anyone on. Gah! I told the publisher that and sent them the rest of the book. Meanwhile, the second publisher, Hodder, said no. (Hold that thought.)

The first editor was very excited but wanted changes. She also suggested that I got an agent. I contacted two agents that day, one by letter because she had no email address and one by email. I included in my covering letters some glowing quotes from the editor.

The agent whom I’d contacted by snail mail phoned the next day and said she wanted to take me on. Just like that.

When I opened my emails, I found a reply from the agent I’d emailed, apologising for not contacting me immediately. She was interested. Yikes!

I contacted first agent, explained and said I needed to know if we were definitely going to be working together. Yes, she said. I got to turn an agent down!

To cut a long story short, my new agent and I worked on Mondays are Red, got it to the state we wanted it; but the editor wanted one change too many and my agent advised that we go elsewhere.

Which publisher took Mondays are Red? Hodder, who had turned it down when I’d sent it on my own… Useful things, agents.

Anyway, I did four novels with Hodder but when my editor left and went to Walker Books, I followed. I’ve written four teenage novels for Walker (including Wasted, publishing in 2010), a younger novel (Chicken Friend), and three teenage non-fiction books: The Leaving Home Survival Guide, Know Your Brain, and Blame My Brain. And around 80 home learning books for Egmont, including Thomas the Tank Engine books. Do I earn a living from all that? No. It’s the public speaking that provides the bread and butter. It’s amazingly hard to earn a living as a children’s writer, especially if you write mainly fairly literary stand-alone teenage novels as I do. It’s not how to earn a living but it’s how I feed my soul.

Do I wish I hadn’t had those years of failure? No. They stop me taking anything for granted or thinking too highly of myself. They are crucial to who I am now; they are also why I understand what gets published and why some perfectly wonderful writing does not.

Now, I am wholly well. I put that down to having repaired my bruised soul. In the dark days, a clever medical person told me we need heartsong in our lives and that the key to health was finding my heartsong. When he said that, I knew what he meant and where I needed to find it. That’s why I spend time blogging for talented, hard-working, non-delusional writers: because if you have that same need for heartsong, I understand.


Catherine Hughes said...

Oh blimey - heartsong. That's what it's called.

"Suddenly, I could call myself an author. I was published. I was earning. I was valued. My books were in shops. I was well."

One of these days, I will be able to echo that statement!

Thanks for telling the story of how you got published, Nicola, and thanks for all your efforts on behalf of those of us who aren't (yet!).


Sophie Playle said...

Great stuff. Hopefully I'll be able to tell a similar tale about myself at some point in the future...!

Kristin Pedroja said...

Thanks, Nicola, for sharing this with us. More learning points indeed.

May we all feel joy from writing - and even more joy once we see our books on shelves. :)

BucksWriter said...

Wonderful story and very generous of you to share it.

It's timely for me as I'm just going back to basics to find my own heartsong after a time of much frustration.

Thank you.

Old Kitty said...


A lovely inspirational read. It's great to see that amazing determination, the willingness to learn and obvious talent and taking chances wins through in the end.

I hope every writer finds their own little heartsong too.

Take care

Dolly said...

And I thought "On Writing" by Stephen King was inspirational. Thank you so much, Nicola, for sharing your journey.

Heartsong, I love that. Never heard it expressed like that before.

Sally Zigmond said...

Great post--and yes, inspirational. However, what I gleaned from reading between the lines--and I'm sure, Jane will agree with me--were two things. Firstly, the total lack of self-pity or the slagging off the industry--and the huge amount of work Nicola was prepared to put into writing and publishing the books she really wanted to and find her heartsong. (I wouldn't fancy writing Thomas the Tank Engine books. It was bad enough reading them to my boys!)

Nicola deserves every second of her success. Long may her heart sing.

Anonymous said...

Nicola, you have heart. How marvelous for you and how lovely for your readers that you persevered.

DT said...

Thanks so much for sharing your experience. It's easy to forget sometimes that every novelist has their own stuff to go through and their individual journey. If it can work for them, it can work for the rest of us. Congrats on your success so far. said...

Brilliant. Thanks so much for this, Nicola. You may have just shed your crabbit reputation with that one!

Donna Gambale said...

"In the dark days, a clever medical person told me we need heartsong in our lives and that the key to health was finding my heartsong." -- What a beautiful way to put it. Writing is my heartsong, too.

Amy said...

Heartsong is exactly what it should be called. There's one inside every's the getting someone to hear it that's the trouble. :)

Thank you so much for sharing your experiences, Nicola. They give me hope someday my heartsong will be heard.

Nicola Morgan said...

Thank you all, so much, for your lovely comments, espcailly when I know that some of you are also sometimes in a bad place, searching for heartsong in deep shadows. Knowing where it is is half the battle but being able to live properly while you're looking for it is also a very important thing to fight for. Good luck to all of you. (And by the way, getting published is one thing: it's not at all easy to stay published and I am very much not taking anything for granted!)

Karen said...

What an inspiring post. My son has read and enjoyed your novels, and I'm going to read them myself :o)

Ebony McKenna. said...

What a beautiful and inspiring story. Thank you so much.

Nicola Morgan said...

You will notice also that I have developed a talent for inventing new words: "espcailly" indeed! My eyes are tired and my fingers wobbly.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Thank you for taking the time to share this personal story. It's chocked full of useful information and great tips.

Once this novel is finished, I need to get an agent! No more just thinking about it.

Sherrie Petersen said...

It's interesting that self-publishing helped you get to where you are now. Great story!

Anonymous said...

Hi Nicola

Imagine this. You read Skellig. You think it's the best contemporary children's novel you've ever read. Years later, you write a children's book (for girls) and enter it into a competition. David Almond is one of the judges and he personally tells you how good he thought it was.

THAT is heartsong. I can't tell you how well I am!


Nicola Morgan said...

Solvang Sherrie - to be honest, it was entirely incidental and only by coincidence did it help. My name was actually passed to the publisher by someone who'd been corresponding with me, and that was the opening into the educational book world. And none of that made any difference to my being taken on later by a fiction publisher. I know it seems connected, but it wasn't. When self-publishing "leads" to a publishing contract, it's usually only indirectly and the publishing contract would have happened without it. This was a very specialised market which required an expert in a particular firled, which i was lucky enough to be, as well as being a writer.

Sophia - congratulations! You sound very excited - long may that continue. You catch me at a rather jaded and cynical moment, I'm afraid, and a bit of despondency about the state of our industry. But I am certainly well. (Except that today I was diagnosed with high blood pressure!)

Rebecca Knight said...

Oh dear--I hope your high blood pressure goes down soon and that you are Extra Well!

Thank you again for sharing this with us :). It's very encouraging to see someone succeed after struggling and overcoming. Congrats on following your passion!

Nicola Morgan said...

Rebecca - many thanks. There are some very good reasons for having high bp just now, some of which include a double house move coming up, and some specific work pressures (some good, some bad), so it's a lifestyle thing rather than a medical prob. But I have to make sure it doesn't become a medical prob so I regard this as GOOD news because it gives me permission to say no sometimes and to think of myself a bit. And to eat lots of dark chocolate!!!

Christine Coleman said...

Dear Nicola
I’m not normally given to effusive praise, (especially for Crabbit Old Bats) but I have to tell you that the more I read about you, the more I admire you. I’ve worked for nearly thirty years in Adult Literacy, and it’s not surprising that un-recognized dyslexia is the root of the problems of many of these students. I’ve often had to put a check on my anger when I’ve heard how they’ve been treated by school teachers who have no understanding of this invisible disability. It was heart-warming to read of what you’ve done to help so many children, who will have had a better chance of never having to attend adult literacy classes!

Your own success in finding your own ‘heartsong’ is well deserved!!