The Chicken House

Writers’ Guide

Created by CJS for Chicken House, February 2012.

While Chicken House no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts, we are aware how frustrating it can be for an author to hear this. Making your voice heard in an increasingly competitive industry can be very difficult, so we have put together some little ‘chick-bits’ of advice for authors on the best routes they can take towards realising their publishing dreams ...

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Q.        What does ‘no unsolicited submissions’ actually mean?

A.        When an agent or publisher says they don’t accept unsolicited material, what this means is that they only look at manuscripts that have come via a literary agent or on recommendation from someone in the industry. This can be annoying for new authors to hear, but the stark reality of the situation is that it simply isn’t possible for a publisher to sift through the vast number of unsolicited submissions they receive each week. Our company policy at Chicken House is that we currently don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts or synopses, nor can we enter into correspondence about them. We do, however, run the annual Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition, in partnership with The Times newspaper. Each year, we invite unpublished authors with a completed novel to enter it into the competition. We then select one winner who will go on to have their manuscript published by Chicken House. Past winners include Sophia Bennett (author of the Threads trilogy and The Look), Janet Foxley (author of Muncle Trogg and Muncle Trogg & the Flying Donkey) and Kieran Larwood (author of Freaks, published April 2012). We guarantee that, provided it meets all entry requirements, your manuscript will get read.

For further details on how to enter please see our website:

www.doublecluck.com/submissions

Q.        I’m new to publishing but I want to send my work out. What is the best advice you can give me?

A.        We advise all new authors who have written a novel, or are just about to start writing one, to get hold of a brilliant book called The Children’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. The book contains comprehensive listings of all credible literary agents and publishers in the UK and overseas, plus details of the kinds of stories they are looking for. It will also tell you which agents/publishers are currently accepting unsolicited manuscripts.

If you find a company who accepts the kind of story you have written, and you want them to take you seriously, you should present your work to a highly professional standard (e.g. typed, double-spaced and page-numbered) and ensure that you have edited the text to the best of your ability. Find out how much material they require (usually a covering letter, the first three chapters and a brief synopsis) and submit an S.A.E if you would like a response. It can take anything up to three months for a company to respond to you so try to be patient.

Q.        If I find a publisher/literary agent that accepts unsolicited manuscripts, how can I make my work stand out before I send it off?

A.        The best advice we can give you is to ensure that your work is in tip-top condition when you send it. By this we mean that you have redrafted it several times, and have proofread it thoroughly, so that it is as tight as it can be. The better your pitch, the more a publisher will prick up their ears: Learn how to write a pithy, engaging synopsis and a brief, polite and noteworthy covering letter. What are you offering that hasn’t been seen before? What makes your book stand out from the crowd? You may only get once chance to submit, so don’t rush something out unless it is as good as it can possibly be.

Q.        I’m not ready to send my children’s book to a publisher. How can I develop my craft?

A.        The best way of developing your craft is to READ, READ, READ and WRITE, WRITE, WRITE. Devour novels from the genre in which you are writing. See how other authors handle the subject. Look for creative writing texts which contain useful exercises and advice in all aspects of writing fiction for children. Here are some of our favourites:

How to Write for Children and get Published by Louise Jordan

The Novelist’s Notebook by Laurie Henry

The 3 A.M. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises That Transform Your Fiction by Brian Kiteley

The Five-minute Writer: Exercise and Inspiration in Creative Writing in Five Minutes a Day by Margret Geraghty

Writing a Children's Book: How to Write for Children and Get Published (How to) by Pamela Cleaver

If you want to take your skills up a notch, visit your local library or community college and check the bulletin board for details of local writersgroups you could join. Getting feedback and criticism of your work will help you deal with criticism constructively and could improve your work enormously. It will certainly prepare you for the rigorous editorial process you will go through if your work were to be accepted by a publisher!

Literary agent Curtis Brown now runs creative writing courses to help novice writers improve their craft: http://www.curtisbrowncreative.co.uk/courses/ and The Arvon Foundation have been running writers’ retreats for years, with visits by some amazing guest authors: http://www.arvonfoundation.org/

 

If you’re one of those children’s authors who has been submitting to agents and publishers for years and you’re still not quite cracking the case, there are some brilliant university courses in creative writing and writing for children, at Degree and MA level. Here’s a run down of some of the courses on offer:

Bath Spa University:

Bath Spa University offers a BA in Creative Writing, as well an MA in Creative Writing and an MA in Writing for Young People. Taught by experienced lecturers who are all published writers for children, the courses offer weekly workshop sessions, have excellent links with authors, agents, publishers and literary festivals, and a programme of visiting speakers. There is also an annual prize for the 'most promising writing for young people' awarded by a leading literary agent.

http://www.bathspa.ac.uk/courses/postgraduate/writing-for-young-people.asp

University of Central Lancashire:

The University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) runs an MA in Writing for Children and has a great publishing department with strong links to some of the key figures and publishing houses in the children’s publishing industry.

http://www.uclan.ac.uk/schools/journalism_media_communication/literature_culture/writing_for_children/index.php 

Winchester University:

Winchester University also offer an MA in Writing for Children, and are also well connected with the wider publishing world. The Winchester Writers’ Conference (run by the university) takes place each year and is a great place for watching key figures in the industry talk about writing and publishing. Very often, leading publishers and editors will make themselves available for one-to-one surgeries on pre-submitted work.

http://www.winchester.ac.uk/studyhere/Pages/MA%20Writing%20for%20Children.aspx

Q.        Where can I find support if I can’t afford to do a degree or don’t want to return to formal education? 

A.        The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCWBI) is a non-profit organization working to help writers and illustrators of children’s books, magazines, film, television, and multimedia. The SCBWI creates a network for the exchange of knowledge between writers, illustrators, editors, publishers, agents, librarians, educators, booksellers and others involved with fiction for young people. There are currently more than 22,000 members worldwide, making it the largest children's writing organization in the world.

SCBWI British Isles Website: http://britishscbwi.jimdo.com/

Cornerstones is a leading UK literary consultancy, passionate about writing, editing and launching new authors. They also scout for literary agents. All Cornerstones editors have been chosen for their agenting, publishing or writing experience. They use their editorial expertise to help show you what is and isn't working in your novel and how to fix it, with an eye on marketability and what agents and publishers are looking for. They charge fees per 1,000 words for their reports which vary depending on how in-depth a report you require.

Website: http://www.cornerstones.co.uk/

The Society of Authors

The Society of Authors is a writers resource relating to the business aspects of writing. Services include the confidential, individual vetting of contracts and help with professional disputes. An annual membership fee is charged, but lots of authors without agents (or who find the whole business of literary agent intervention daunting) swear by the honest advice the Society offers. Great if you have received an offer from a publisher and want to know what to do next.

Website: http://www.societyofauthors.net/ 

Booktrust
Booktrust is an independent reading and writing charity that
has a nationwide impact on individuals, families and communities, and culture in the UK. Their work supports anyone who would benefit from the positive impact that books, reading and writing can have on their lives. Provides listings, factsheets on publishing and getting published, plus book news
Website: http://www.booktrust.org.uk

The Writers' Advice Centre for Children's Books

Founded in 1994, The Writers' Advice Centre for Children's Book is the only manuscript agency in the United Kingdom specialising in children's publishing. They charge fees for the advice services they provide.

Website: http://www.writersadvice.co.uk/

Q.        Can I make my living through writing books for children?

A.        If you’re very lucky, and if your story really has the potential to be something big (like Twilight or Harry Potter), then it is feasible that you could live off the profits of your books, especially if your film rights are optioned or sold. But thousands upon thousands of children’s writers are never this lucky, so we would recommend that you hedge your bets and try and write alongside another career. Most authors have day jobs and cannot afford to give them up, though they often manage to combine their writing with something else related to books and creative writing. Many authors supplement their income by offering author visits to schools, libraries and festivals. Just as most children like to escape their lives and dive into a good book once in a while, lots of authors like to escape the day job to write them!

Q.        My sister/children/best friend/teacher/neighbour/cat loves my work but publishers keep rejecting it. Why?

A.        Okay, here’s the stark truth of the matter: your family/friends are often not the best judges of your work. While it might stand to reason that children, by nature, are the best judges of quality children’s fiction, many simply enjoy being read to by someone they know and love. Although feedback is important, you shouldn’t hang all your hopes on how a single classroom of children have responded to your work. There is often a big difference between what some people like to read and what is commercially publishable. Publishers have to take into account many things when they are considering buying a book. For example, they will consider (among other things), current trends, how the book stands out within the genre, the quality of the prose, how different it is compared to other titles on their list, how easy it will be to sell the book to foreign markets. Don’t take it to heart if a publisher says your book is not what they’re looking for. It doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it means!

Q.        What exactly does a literary agent do?

A.        A literary agent is the heavyweight champion you send into the ring to fight out a good publishing contract for you. An agent can also submit your manuscript to those elusive publishers who don’t accept unsolicited submissions. Once you sign up with a literary agent, they will then endeavour to place your novel with the most suitable publisher, based on their extensive knowledge of the industry. A good literary agent will sign you up for representation on the basis of your talent - they will not charge a fee for this. An agent will often advise you on how to improve your work. After all, they only start making money when you do, so it is in their best interests to send out the very best manuscript and to find you the best possible deal. As a rough guide, most agents will charge a 15% commission on any money they have helped you to make on your novel.

Agents can be vital in helping a first-time author deal with the complicated issue of contracts. A good agent will know which clauses in a publisher's contract will need checking and will negotiate agreeable terms before the author signs. Contracts can be deceivingly complicated and there are plenty of issues to watch out for, such as how much an author makes on their advance, the royalty rate (how much an author makes on each book sold after the book has earned out its advance), foreign rights, copyright, etc. Literary agents take care of all the business aspects of the writer-publisher relationship (e.g. handling contract disputes, getting payments from publishers, reviewing royalty statements etc) so that the author doesn’t have to.

We would recommend that if you do get interest from an agent, arrange to meet them so that you can gain more knowledge about them and their agency, and to find out, perhaps most importantly, whether you think you will get along. You must trust them above all else. Do some research about the agent's track record: Who do they also represent? Are their other clients similar authors to yourself? Do they inspire confidence in you? Get to know them and don’t be rushed into signing with an agent. Take some time to think. It’s a very important relationship, so get it right.

Q.        Say I get an agent and they find me a publisher, how long will it be between me delivering my manuscript and the book being published?

A.        Not many novice writers know this but it can take anything up to a year, maybe more. Depending on what your editor thinks needs to be done, a manuscript can undergo several editing processes before it is fit for the shelves. These processes can include a structural edit (where whole scenes are jumbled about to create a more satisfactory plotline), a line edit (a more concentrated line-by-line edit), a copy edit (a general checking of consistency of fact and formatting, and accuracy of style and text), and a proofread (this is usually done last of all when all the other edits have been completed and is a last minute check for errors).

Revisiting and redrafting text, having an editor make cuts and comments on the work and performing hundreds of checks over and over on a text can be really onerous for an author, but the best author/editor relationships develop when an author loves their characters and believes in their plot enough to trust that their work is in the best hands.

Q.        What is self-publishing and should I go down this route if all else fails?

A.        Self publishing these days is a lot more respectable than it used to be. In the old days, the self-published author would have had to fork out a fortune, tirelessly self-promote their printed books and, once in a blue moon, (as with the highly successful Tunnels series by Roderick Gordon & Brian Williams), a big publisher would hear about it and buy it for their own list. However, very few self-published authors are discovered in this way and most are left plugging their book around local bookshops or libraries, or giving copies away to friends and family - all at their own expense.

Nowadays, with the advent of the e-Book, authors are finding that self publishing straight to a Kindle, Nook or Kobo reader (amongst many others) is the quickest way of getting their work seen by the general public and, very often, all authors will need to pay for is the cost of their books ISBN (International Standard Book Number). An author also retains all rights, which means they make full profit on any foreign sales/movie deals etc. It is extremely rewarding for an author to see their work for sale knowing they have entirely self-funded and edited it.

That said, without the support services a publisher can provide, it’s highly unlikely your self-published work will reach your intended audience. Most novice writers won’t have editorial skills, contacts or market know-how - all the kinds of support a publisher can provide. The life of a writer can be a lonely one anyway, so the self-publishing route should not be taken by the faint of heart.

Q.        Why don’t publishers/literary agents accept manuscripts written by authors under the age of eighteen?

A.        People under the age of eighteen often have incredible imaginations and can produce incredibly sophisticated stories. But most agents and publishers will not contract writers under the age of eighteen for a variety of reasons. It could be because of the sheer amount of redrafting and editing a contracted author will be expected to do. Because the latter teen years are when most young people are going through exams and the university submissions process, a publishing house might feel that education should be the priority at this stage of a writer’s life. More and more often there is an expectation of authors to attend events and travel, and authors under 18 would need to be chaperoned and accompanied at all times.

Another reason could be that a publishing house/agent doesn’t think the young writer quite has the skills/life experience/maturity needed in order to carry off the particular subject they have written about.

Don’t give up though! A true writer writes because he or she is compelled to. If you are not yet 18, you have time to develop your craft - and carve out a complementary career in the meantime that will help support you through the leaner times.

Please note: Whilst we have endeavoured to make this document as factually correct as possible, it is designed purely as an informal guide for writers and, as such, Chicken House will take no legal responsibility for matters that arise in relation to the taking of any of the advice given here.