How Ten Words Won Author Ally Sherrick a Book Contract

allysherrickTake a place at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference, an entry in the Ten Word Novel Pitching competition and a well-known children’s publisher as the judge. Mix them all together and what have you got? A small but important chance for your story – the one you have slaved at for months in your writer’s garret and in which you believe so passionately – to reach the audience of bright-eyed and enthusiastic young readers you’ve written it for.

black-powder-aw-2-195x3001When I entered my ten word summary of Black Powder in the competition, I had no inkling at all that I might actually win. I had already collected a number of rejections from agents who had told me that unfortunately my story ‘wasn’t for them.’ In fact I was very close to consigning it to the ‘Bottom Drawer of Not-Likely-To-Be-Published Doom’. So I was over the moon when I discovered that Barry Cunningham, Publisher and Managing Director of Chicken House Publishing Ltd, had picked it from the pile of entries.

The prize was a review by Barry of 2,000 words of my story – an historical middle grade adventure about a boy who gets mixed up in the Gunpowder Plot. I was delighted that I was going to receive comments and perhaps some advice back from him; but I was thrilled when he contacted me after reading it and said he’d like to read the whole thing.

chickenhouselogoAfter some last minute further polishing, I sent my manuscript off to Barry in late November 2014 and spent a nail-biting few weeks waiting to hear. Imagine my delight when he contacted me to say he had really enjoyed reading it and that he’d like to take it to the next Chicken House acquisitions meeting. He warned me that they may yet decide not to take it on, but that, at any event, they would like me to come down to meet them at the Chicken House coop in Frome, Somerset. A date was duly fixed for a meeting in early March – although I was still none the wiser as to where things might be going!

But all that changed when, after an initial chat round a ginormous old table in a room which looked suspiciously like Dumbledore’s study, Barry told me they’d like to publish my story. If I’d been over the moon before, I was now heading on warp drive into another galaxy entirely – especially when the offer came through from Barry the next day for a two book deal!

18 months later and though my book is now published and sitting proudly on the bookshelves of bookshops up and down the land, I still haven’t quite beamed back down to earth.

But, two things from my travels through space I do know to be true:

  1. We writers must always keep the faith. If you love your story, never give up on it, no matter what.

And …

  1. Seize every opportunity that comes your way. Entering that SCBWI competition nearly two years ago gave me the chance to realize my dream of becoming a published author and of sharing my stories with a whole world of readers.

And the lucky ten words? ‘Boy must join Gunpowder Plot to save father from hanging.’

Black Powder is available from Waterstones, Foyle’s, WH Smith and all good bookshops, and online from Amazon.

For more information about Ally visit her website: www.allysherrick.com or follow her on Twitter: @ally_sherrick

Q&A with Barry Cunningham, MD of Chicken House Ltd, Publisher, Agent and Discoverer of Harry Potter

barrycunninghamQ. In your talk at the September meeting of the Hampshire Writers’ Society, you told us that a writer’s voice is important to an Agent/Publisher. To save a writer many painful rejections from targeting the wrong agents – how would they know if their voice is that of a children’s writer? Is there a checklist of things that the writing must or mustn’t have?

A. I THINK THIS IS ALL TO DO WITH BEING ABLE TO ‘ACCESS’ YOUR SUBJECT. IF YOU SET OUT TO WRITE FOR CHILDREN THEN TRY AND FIND THE VOICE APPROPRIATE TO THE AGE GROUP YOU ARE AIMING AT – IF IT COMES EASILY – GREAT – IF IT DOESN’T THEN YOU’LL KNOW THAT CHILDREN’S BOOKS ARE NOT FOR YOU!chickenhouselogoQ. Similarly, as an Agent how would you know if what has been submitted is a teen or a YA? Do you think that there are any taboos? Or ‘must haves’?

A. NO – BUT MAINLY SEXUAL CONTENT AND SWEARING IS FOR YA – IT SHOULD ALWAYS BE HANDLED CAREFULLY

Q. The lines between children’s, teen and YA are very blurred – can you outline them for us?

A. THE SAFEST AREA FOR MOST GENERAL APPEAL IS ‘CLEAN TEEN’ WITHOUT EXPLICIT MATERIAL – THE OLDER EDGES OF YA MERGE WITH ADULT AND SHOULD BE HANDLED POSITIVELY AND WITH CARE

Q. How should a children’s author writing a trilogy or series go about submitting?

A. SAMPLE MATERIAL AND A SYNOPSIS OF HOW ALL BOOKS IN SERIES/TRILOGY ARE GOING TO WORK WITH A CLEAR OVERALL PLOT LINE

Q. And what about their commitment – should they finish book one and sell it before starting book two?inkheartA. NO – ACTUALLY BEST TO HAVE BOOK 2 IN PROGRESS – BE CONFIDENT!

Q. Advice is to ‘write what you love’. Simon Trewin of WME said ‘don’t even think of publishing until your book is finished.’ The Writers and Artists Yearbook advises us that when you come to submitting, first decide on a genre. Shouldn’t we decide on a genre first, saving ourselves a lot of heart ache and work? And that brings me back to question one!

A. NO – GENRE IS NOT SPECIFIC – YOU SHOULD WAIT UNTIL THE BOOK IS WELL UNDERWAY – THE GENRE BOUNDARIES SLIP ALL THE TIME AND ARE LARGELY WHAT THE MARKET/PUBLISHER WANTS THEM TO BEblack-powder-aw-2-195x3001

Barry Cunningham, Managing Director of Chicken House Publishers and discoverer of Harry Potter.

barrycunningham‘Children’s publishing is going through a second Golden Age.’ BARRY CUNNINGHAM announced.

The children’s writers of the past, Roald Dahl and Spike Milligan to name two of Barry’s conquests, knew how to get inside a child’s head, but also when to accept that the adult knew best.

These days children as readers are much more respected. 36% of all book sales are children’s books. Over half of Young Adult books are bought by adults. 78% of these for their own reading satisfaction. What does that tell you about adult’s books? Publishers and writers both need to listen and respond to the requirements of their target market.

‘Publishing a book is very different from saying whether it is well written.’ he says. Barry stated that his job as a publisher is to find readers for his writers’ books. And if he isn’t able to find those readers, he won’t take on that book.

Ally Sherrick, one of Chicken House’s debut authors, entered the SCBWI 10 word pitch competition and answered correctly. Further reading of Ally’s draft gave Barry the idea of Ally’s ‘voice’. This is what captures the publisher/agent’s attention.black-powder-aw-2-195x3001

‘Access the child in you,’ he advises, ‘Go back and feel how you felt then.’ Play tricks with narrative.

Villains, whether that be the villainous situation or as an actual person is the most important character. Heroes come and go. ‘Harry is not as important as Voldemort.’

Dialogue is also important. Use it rather than description to show key moments.

For Barry, planning is precious. He has one writer who has killed off the same character twice! ‘Even so, she’s very successful’, he said. Perhaps chose to plan by listing your characters. You will have lots of information that may not go into the book, but it is important stuff to write down as reference that the writer needs to know.

Read your work aloud – this shows you where the weaknesses are.

When you submit your work, take a look at the writers already represented by your chosen agent. And compliment them! Do as you’re told.

Barry is exasperated that there are still some writers who don’t send 3 chapters, a synopsis and covering letter. Make the synopsis short – one side of A4 will do. Agents read hundreds of synopses. Tell the agent something about yourself ‘Perhaps not that you’re a motorcycling vicar.’ he says, but ‘what you have planned for your character’.

Everyone wants to know about book 2. Barry didn’t suggest that there might not be one.

Use the Publisher/Agents website. Here you’ll find details of competitions and open days.chickenhouselogo

The children’s market is fiercely competitive. But it is still an industry that does dreams. Chicken House relishes finding new voices and ‘if it is good enough, children will follow you through the back of the wardrobe’.

Ally Sherrick Debut Children’s Author of Black Powder

black-powder-aw-2-195x3001ALLY SHERRICK, debut author of Black Powder, a tale of gunpowder, treason and plot, a twelve year old boy and his mouse best friend was our speaker with Barry Cunningham, Publisher and Managing Director of Chicken House Publishing in Somerset., .

‘I hope you’re enjoying your MA course in Creative Writing as much as I did.’ Ally said to those Winchester MA Writing for Children students present at the inaugural meeting of the Hampshire Writers’ Society Sixth Season.

It was during her two year course that she re-discovered her creative seed which had been crushed by the professionalism of the past twenty years of ‘crust earning’.

At the end of her working day, ‘writing was the last thing I wanted to do.’ she said.

In early 2000 Mark Haddon, award winning writer of the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, suggested to Ally during an Arvon Course that the voice of the peice that she written for the course wasn’t written for children!

Ally didn’t despair. Instead she set about devouring books by other children’s writers, including Meg Rosoff, Plenary Speaker at this years Winchester Writers’ Festival.

When redundancy forced Ally to ask herself ‘What do I want to do with the next section of my life and with the backing of a supportive husband she embarked on the MA Writing for Children at Winchester University.

The MA opened up access to networks including SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators)

Her first novel, a sci-fi was finished. She submitted it and when it was rejected, she had the good grace to put it in her bottom drawer and move on. The story and the characters are the important ingredients’, she tells us, ‘it doesn’t matter where you set it.’ A SCBWI ten word pitch competition won her the attention of Barry Cunningham.allysherrick

Since then, she and the Chicken House team have worked, not always agreeing but stayed focussed. Together they brought Black Powder to publication.

‘Connect with your inner child’, Ally says, ‘My dial is stuck at age 11.’

Ally is now writing book two, a children’s book set in WW2.

Barry Cunningham – Tuesday 13th September

‘Take Risks with your Writing’ advised Barry Cunningham at the launch of Hampshire Writers’ Society.
Barry Cunningham OBE, famed as the ‘discoverer of JK Rowling’, launched the Hampshire Writers’ Society on Tuesday evening, September 13 at the University of Winchester, with his talk, What Makes a Good Children’s Book.

A packed room of more than 80 aspiring and published writers listened intently as he talked about meeting JK Rowling, who had the necessary passion to write the incredible Harry Potter story even if it were never to be published. He stressed the difference between writing for the excitement of creating a great story and writing only with the goal of publication.’ These are separate ambitions. The former is the goal of the true writer. Being published is a random act’.

He continued, ‘The key to writing a good children’s book is the ability to use your imagination to meet the imagination of the child. Have a good grasp of the characters and their dialogue. A hole in the plot is always fixable. Use humour. This is what made Harry acceptable to so many readers’

He commented that ‘the blend of English humour…laughing at adversity, builds tension, diffuses anxiety and deepens and extends the emotion that we have for the main characters’.

He spoke of the successes of Cornelia Funke and Roald Dahl, who were the secret friends of children, holding their hands through their books yet encouraging readers to stand up for themselves. He encouraged writers to include food in their stories. ‘Children love to know what’s for tea. It anchors the story’. And, he said,’ believe in valour’.

He confessed that he was in awe of people who finished a book. But his offer ‘to help you achieve your goal, won a standing ovation.

Dr Joy Carter, Vice Chancellor of the University of Winchester, commented ‘Hampshire is a county with huge resources of creativity and the launch of the Hampshire Writers’ Society will allow much of that creativity to flourish in a new and expressive way’.

The Hampshire Writers’ Society, a fledgling of the Winchester Writers’ Conference, which is held annually at the University of Winchester, has launched a hugely successful season of talks by professional authors, poets, playwrights, literary agents and commissioning editors. These include Jack Sheffield, author of seven books in the Teacher, Teacher series, published by Transworld; poets, Tom Master, Mark Rutter and Peter Dixon; crime fiction author, Lindsay Ashford; Beverley Birch, Senior Commissioning Editor, Hodder Children’s Books; Rebecca Shaw, author of the Turnham Malpas/Barleybridge Village series; Sophie King, both fiction and non-fiction author; Ali Sparkes, author; Professor Patricia Duncker, on the subject of Choosing English; and concluding next June with an Evening Party and tour of the Chawton House Study Centre followed by a talk on crime fiction.

Dynamic’, ‘welcoming’, ‘a definite asset to struggling writers’, ‘eager for the next meeting’, re-doubling my writing effort’ were the conclusions of attendees.

Barbara Large

PS. Follow the link to read HWS member, KM Lockwood’s recent post, ‘I’m just wild about Barry…’ on her website.