Here’s her story of how she gave up on the dream of becoming a unicorn, and found her place in the world of children’s literature.
A lot of people ask me, ‘Did you always know you wanted to write a book?’ And the truth is: I didn’t, despite reading voraciously as a child and writing hundreds of stories. From the ages of 6-10 I wanted to be a unicorn and from the ages of 10-20 I wanted to be a Blue Peter presenter. So where did I end up? PR… Not a unicorn in sight sadly – and before long I realised I wasn’t cut out for promoting food and drink products to the über rich. And so after two years I bought a one-way ticket to Africa on a teaching contract. Out in Tanzania, I began thinking back to my childhood, of running wild over the Scottish moors and diving into freezing rivers. Away from the clamour of London, I realised I wanted to write a children’s book, one that might capture the classic feel of the adventure stories I had loved as a child: Philip Pullman’sNorthern Lights, C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and Mary Norton’s The Borrowers.
After four months I came back to the UK and went into secondary school teaching. My children’s book, at this stage, was hand-written into a leather-bound notepad. My mother looked at it and said: ‘There are the people who say “I’d like to write a book” and there are the people who say “I’m going to write a book.” You’re the kind of person who’s going to write a book. So see this through.’ In the next four years I wrote three books and each one was rejected by literary agents. But many of the agents said they saw ‘glimpses of brilliance’ and ‘raw talent’ in my work. So I kept writing. I attended literary festivals and writing workshops, I set up a children’s book blog and I got on twitter, and most importantly, I re-worked my writing until it was the very best that it could be.
Then I sent my book, Oracle Bones, to the editorial consultants, Cornerstones, who gave it straight to one of their editors, Hannah Sheppard. Luckily for me, Hannah was just starting to build her client list with the DHH Literary Agency. This is what she said:
‘I loved Oracle Bones and think it has real potential. I’m really looking forward to meeting you at our brainstorm.’ I might have cried after reading that email (a lot), and the following week I met up with Hannah to discuss her thoughts on the manuscript. She was effortlessly articulate about the edits she thought would enrich the book, while I sat there grinning and stuttering like some sort of hyperactive child. And then after the meeting I got another email from Hannah: ‘I just wanted to reiterate how excited I’d be to represent you and, assuming you’re keen, look forward to working with you to find Oracle Bones(and future books!) a publishing home.’
Within a few weeks we’d signed a contract and Hannah helped me make the book so much better. Without her, I’d have had the Animal Rights campaigners on my back and quite a few laborious character descriptions weighing the book down. She saw exactly what the book needed and before long, we were ready to submit it to publishers. I thought we’d just be emailing the book out but Hannah devised a fantastic Christmas postcard that landed on editors’ desks the day before we sent out the manuscript. It read: ‘What’s on your Christmas submission wish list? Keep an eye on your inbox. Oracle Bones is coming…’ And then we waited. I imagine Hannah waited in an effortlessly articulate manner; I, on the other hand, stalked editors on twitter and checked my inbox every five minutes.
And then, a few days before Christmas, Hannah and I got a two-book deal offer from Simon & Schuster! For the first time in my life, I was completely speechless. I remember standing in the middle of my sitting room in silence – in total shock. And then it sank in and I cartwheeled and star-jumped my way around the house… After Christmas Hannah and I went in to meet the Simon & Schuster team (and another major UK publisher who was keen). Simon & Schuster’s enthusiasm and passion was almost tangible and we signed our two-book deal.
I was out in South America doing research for my second book, Soul Splinter, last week and on the final day of the trip, in a moment of Peter Pan wonderfulness, I hang-glided over Rio de Janeiro. Afterwards I went back to the apartment and I saw an email from Hannah saying that my deal had been announced in The Bookseller. It was one of the best days of my life and even now I’m still cartwheeling and star-jumping around London with excitement. And the irony of it all is that in the week of my deal being announced, I also got a rejection letter from an agent for a book I sent off a year and a half ago. Ironic though it was, it was a sharp reminder to me of the grit and determination needed to make a book deal happen – from the decision to write the book in the first place and the endless rejections that often follow, to the excitement of seeing your deal announced. If I could give advice to anyone out there wanting to write a book, I’d tell them that there are a million excuses you can come up with to put off your plans but ultimately, if you want to write, you’ve got to get on and start writing – regardless of what’s happening around you. And you’ve got to be humble enough to take criticism from agents and publishers but determined enough to bounce back from it.
They say writing is a journey. If that’s the case then large chunks of the past five years have felt like wading through knee-high snow in Scotland. But right now, with my book deal announced and the thought of seeing Oracle Bones in bookshops soon? That’s a First Class flight straight into the Bahamas, that is…
You can visit Abi’s brilliant website at www.moontrug.com
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