How to write a children’s book and get it published (aka don’t give up the day job)

12 Nov 2015 @ 2.39 pm
| Opinion

Miles Salter reflects on the slow process that led to the release of his new book for children, launched in York this week

Six years ago, I had a moment of inspiration. What if, the little mental bang inside my brain went, I could re-write Little Red Riding Hood for today’s audience, rather like Roald Dahl did when he wrote Revolting Rhymes in the 1980s?

Howl book launch

Waterstones, Coney Street, York

Thu Nov 12 @ 6.45pm

Miles’ website

My version would be a cracking story with adventure and humour and fun, eccentric characters. It could, I thought, be irresistible to kids.

After all, I knew what kids were reading in school: Horrid Henry, Diary of A Wimpy Kid, Mr Stink etc. When I asked kids why they liked a book, they’d often say “because it’s funny”.

If I could write a strong adventure for kids that also made them laugh, I’d be onto a winner. And if I threw in a frisson of danger, a la Roald Dahl, then it would be irresistible. At least, that’s what I thought.

I started writing the book, little knowing it would take six years to complete. The trouble was, it kept changing.

The title went from A Werewolf Ate My Granny to The Werewolf and Mrs Winters to the final version – Howl: A Small and Heavy Adventure.

The story changed, too. (Early on, I resolved to make the ‘Wolf’ in Little Red Riding Hood a Werewolf, and change the gender of the heroine.)

I actually wrote numerous versions of a scene where the Wolf ate one of the characters, before this scene was, eventually, binned. I also threw out one of the minor characters, a bungling policeman called Hibbert.

The ‘Granny’ character changed into a strange old woman called Mrs Winters.

Hacking away

One of our most successful children's authors, Roald Dahl. Photograph © Hans van Dijk on Wikipedia
One of our most successful children’s authors, Roald Dahl. Photograph © Hans van Dijk on Wikipedia

Although the final book isn’t much more than 30,000 words, I probably wrote at least twice that amount in the process of editing. “Writing is re-writing” is the old adage – and it’s boring but, oh my, it’s true.

You have to keep hacking away if you want to uncover the beautiful statue hidden in that lump of rock. If you stick with it, you get better. But it’s a slow, painful procedure. Writing well is a life’s work.

You can preorder Howl: A Small and Heavy Adventure from the Amazon website

In the summer of 2012 I bumped into Ros Beardshaw, an illustrator who lives in York. She told me about a new company called Nosy Crow.

I went home, looked up the company, and fired off an email. Would they like to see the story I was working on? Yes they did. Positive emails, then a meeting followed.

I needed to re-work it, feature more of one of the central characters, went the advice. So I did some more work.

Nosy Crow’s interest helped me to land an agent for my writing in February 2013, several years after the project started. This was a huge breakthrough.

I’d been trying to land an agent for four years, and was delighted to have somebody representing me.

Ready by Christmas?

More re-writes followed. My agent sent out the work in April 2014 and in October that year I found myself in a plush publisher’s office in the heart of literary London, talking to one of the editors.

They suggested some changes, and could I do it by Christmas? I worked on the manuscript some more, binning the best part of 10,000 words.

My agent was pleased with the result. It felt like a refined version of the story, and it skipped along better than before. I agreed. We should have sent this version out originally.

I waited to see what the outcome would be. My agent called in January this year. The publisher didn’t want to take the book on.

Numerous publishers, many of whom were complimentary about the story, had already rejected it. Frequent comments were “it’s not quite strong enough in today’s competitive market” or “we’ve just taken on something similar”.

A few bob ahead of most authors (and many countries, come to that)… Harry Potter author JK Rowling. Photograph © Daniel Ogren on Wikipedia
A few bob ahead of most authors (and many countries, come to that)… Harry Potter author JK Rowling. Photograph © Daniel Ogren on Wikipedia

I was gutted. I really thought the book had what it took to be a hit with kids. It ticked all the right boxes, as far as I could see.

It’s hard to go through this process without feeling a little jaded by modern publishing. If I’d started out 20 years ago, I would probably have made more headway.

These days, everything is about sales, market positioning, branding and celebrity. If you’re an unknown writer you’ve got to turn in a work of staggering brilliance to make it.

The alternative? Keep working. Keep hacking away. Meanwhile, there are bills to pay, and work to be done. So you earn the money where you can.

The writers who make a lot of cash are precious few: for every J K Rowling, Robert Harris or Kate Atkinson who’ve become wealthy through their bestsellers, there are thousands more who struggle.

Even if a publisher does take you on, it’s not a guarantee of success. A book can easily make it to the shelves of Waterstones before sinking without trace.

The buzz, and the slog

Most writers earn less than £5,000 a year from their sentences, a commonly quoted (and accurate) statistic that shows how hard it is to make a living from working with words.

To keep the economic wolf from the door, most of us have a foot in education, or PR, or some part time work.

Miles's book. Go buy it!
Miles’s book. Go buy it!
That’s not to say that writing is awful: far from it. Robert Harris said when he started writing his first thriller it was like behind the wheel of a powerful car.

The late Terry Pratchett said writing is the most fun you can have with your clothes on. Those things are true, but writers often feel the exasperation and frustration that goes hand in hand with developing a career.

For all the fun and buzz of creativity, the long, slow slog can be merciless and unrewarding.

Howl is finally coming out this week with Caboodle Books, the sister company of Authors Abroad, who organise writers days in schools.

I’ve known the boss, Trevor Wilson, for a few years and he was pleased to take the book on. Caboodle are small but energertic – I’m looking forward to promoting the book in schools, and I’m very pleased to see it finally emerge into the daylight.

But I’m under no illusions about the uphill battle ahead. The book could sell a few hundred copies before vanishing.

I’ll keep bashing away at the keyboard, hoping to score a hit one day. I just hope I’m not deluding myself.