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.