I am a writer of children’s fiction and as such I crave rejection. I’m lucky in this respect because rejection, and its boon companions: “futile endeavour” and “time not spent in the pub” are the natural and super- abundant reward for the unpublished children’s author.
A novel can take years to write, can frustrate, torture and embarrass. The sending of a novel out into the world is not unlike sending a child off to school for the very first time. The book is nurtured and shaped according to your values and aesthetics; polished and neatened for its first interaction with the outside world and then sent blithely off, in squeaky new shoes and without a backward glance, while you bawl inconsolably at the school gates. This is where the metaphor breaks down however, as unless something has gone disastrously wrong, you should have your child back that same evening, more or less in one piece and none too traumatised by the event.
With your manuscript (solicited or otherwise) you can wait up to six months for any kind of a response. (Though most publishers and agents pride themselves on a three month turnaround) And when that response arrives it will be two or three lines of blandly discouraging guff on letter-headed paper with a looping signature in blue biro.
It may sound tired and jaded, and indeed it is, but my advice to any aspiring writer is: know someone. A friend of the family, a college mate; a de-frocked priest who owes you – anyone who can help you stick your head above the paper parapet. You may not rise to the top of somebody’s teetering slush pile but you will leap like a ticklish salmon over those manuscripts that come without a recommendation.
And there are going to be a lot of manuscripts in a children’s publisher’s slush-pile. This is because everybody thinks they can write a children’s book. Children are idiots, they can barely read! They’ll settle for any old rubbish: a bee with non-stick legs,* a giraffe with whip-lash; a bulimic cow. Stick it in a moralist framework with loads of faux- naïve illustrations and you can herniate your postman with massive royalty cheques.
It’s at this point at I become sickeningly idealistic, so readers of a cynical disposition may wish to look away now. I believe that the best books are children’s books. The best children’s books are full of uncertainties and subversion; little upsets and tiny revolutions. They should be about assessing preconceived values and puncturing facile assumptions. Good children’s fiction is about ideas in a way that almost all adult fiction isn’t. Most adult books are about women shopping and men blowing things up. No books are more beloved, more stark and strange than those you read as a child. None are as closely scrutinised, as learnt, as those you read in your teens. As an adult you don’t have the time and you don’t have the focus – you’re too busy worrying about weight-gain, downsizing and the accumulation of tattoos. A child is a perfect reading machine and to be a children’s author is a privilege, not a right or a fore-gone conclusion. Unless you’re Geri Halliwell.
But unless you get out of that in-tray and not into the recycling it’s never going to happen. Now I’m not saying that publishers are going to throw your manuscript into the recycling. They won’t. And that’s not because publishers are massive eco-squanderers (though they DO get through a lot of trees!) It’s because most publishers won’t accept unsolicited submissions at all. The first defence of the publishing industry, and most people’s only point of contact, is the Literary Agent.
These are the men and women with the address books; literary hustlers who know what sells and who to sell it to. They also have a lot of advice, much of it contradictory and all of it involving a lot of rewriting.
My own book “The Improving Parents”, an everyday story parental oppression and childish revenge, caught the eye of several agencies when I sent out the standard submissions package (three chapters, a letter of introduction, a synopsis and an embarrassingly brief description of my publishing history) and they each asked to see the complete manuscript. None of them have subsequently seen “The Improving Parents” as the 100% solid kid-nip it clearly is or offered me piles of cash. But a few were interested enough to give me notes, advice and actual constructive criticism. The criticism would have me construct the narrative in completely different ways: if one liked the “knowingness” of the dialogue, another asked me to tone it down. If one thought the chapters were rambling and unfocussed another thought them gnomic and tight-lipped. If one was a fan of Eric the protagonist another would prefer his friend Freya. It was all wildly inconsistent and I was wildly grateful!
These people don’t have to do this; I’ve had enough tersely polite notes describing “a lack of enthusiasm” (this is publishing speak for “it stinks like ripe brie in the toe of a work boot”) for my work to really appreciate time spent actually discussing it. They aren’t paid for it; they don’t necessarily stand to gain by it: it really is because they see something in the work. And any advice is good advice; if you have a clear-eyed notion of the value of your work and there is a good idea at the centre of it, then you can bend and stretch it in all sorts of directions. One passing remark from an agent allowed me to re-imagine the entire story, adding narrative twists, layers of meaning, new characters and literally doubling the length of the book! This extra work has made the story a much more viable commercial proposition and made me more confident about sending it out into the world.
So in conclusion: it’s a shitty business, don’t even try and don’t queer my pitch!
*Actually this one’s pretty good – I’m using it.