I’ve known children’s author, Jackie Marchant, for several years and we’ve been in two critique groups. Not only is she an incredibly active and insightful critique partner, when it comes to her writing, Jackie is one of the most self-motivated people I’ve met.
Jackie has been writing since she made a Millennium New Year’s resolution in front of family and friends to write a novel. She wrote four and a quarter novels for adults before switching to writing for children. She landed an agent with her first children’s novel Dougal Trump, which will be published by Macmillan Children’s books in July this year.
I’m delighted that she has agreed to this interview.
Hi Jackie and welcome to Absolute Vanilla!
Thanks very much for having me – I’m really excited about becoming one of those new authors being interviewed for your blog!
You first started writing in 2000. Did you ever imagine when you started writing that it would take this long to get a publishing contract?
When I started out my ambition was to have an agent ask to see the rest of my manuscript. When that happened I was thrilled. Even though it went no further, it was one of my best moments and I remember it well. It was my second attempt at a novel for adults and is now amongst a big pile of stuff that didn’t make it.
What made you switch to writing for children?
A writing competition that I entered on a whim for the Annual Writers’ Conference at Winchester (something I can highly recommend). I thought I may as well test my idea, as all entries get feedback. So, I entered my 500 words and a synopsis, forgot all about it, and was quite surprised when it came second. I was disappointed that my winning adult entry didn’t get anywhere, but then I was approached in the bar by the editor who judged the children’s writing competition. We had a conversation that went a bit like this:
Editor: How much writing for children have you done?
Me: I’ve written 500 words and a synopsis.
Editor: Oh, I thought your entry was really funny.
Me: Funny? Oh, I don’t write humour. And I don’t write for children.
Editor: Oh yes you do . . .
So I bought her a drink, finished writing Dougal Trump and haven’t looked back since. I had no idea I was a children’s writer then, but making the switch has been the best thing I have ever done. I absolutely love writing for children.
How did you feel when you landed an agent?
Finding an agent is a tough old business and I was very lucky to be taken off the slush-pile. I’m quite proud of that and glad to say I’m living proof that the slush-pile really does work. And I was taken on just before Christmas, so that was a lovely Christmas present.
Did you have to wait long for a deal?
I think I once made a joke that having an agent just meant you got your rejections second hand! But, when you get a deal, you forget about the wait. And those quick deals you hear about, when the author gets a phone call as soon as the Ms has landed on an agent’s desk and then two weeks later they have a mega trans-atlantic deal with film rights sold? That is very rare. The fact is that the wheels of publishing turn very slowly and these things can take time.
How did you keep yourself motivated and positive while waiting? Were there ever times when you thought you should chuck it all in? If so, how did you get past that?
In a word – writing. Even when I had those ‘why oh why did I ever think I could write?’ moments, I still found writing helped. In fact, I have now coined a phrase – comfort writing. Escaping from the world by writing – very soothing.
How supportive were your friends and family and did you ever have moments when they’d ask if you were published yet?
My wonderful, fantastic, brilliant writing friends (too many to mention but you all know who you are!) have been a life-line. I don’t know what I would do without email and social networking, which is how we keep in touch most of the time – and meeting up is lovely. Yes, fellow writing friends are the best!
My family have been great. They have accepted that I’m not really there at mealtimes and may take time to answer their questions, more often than not answering something completely different. My husband, who reads about one book a year and only if it’s by John Grisham, has been wonderful. He has never insisted that I go and get a paying job, instead saying that if writing makes me happy, then I should do it. I often wonder whether he knows just how happy writing makes me (probably because it also makes me moan a lot, writing’s like that).
As for my other friends, well, I suppose they are learning that it’s not a good idea to mention J K Rowling and my name in the same sentence! As for the term proper job . . .
But they were thrilled when I got my deal and will be invited to my launch.
As well as actual writing, you’ve also been incredibly active in the SCBWI-British Isles. How important was it for you to keep active within the children’s writing fraternity? What has it given you?
It’s been great. I spent two years putting together a programme of speakers for bi-monthly SCBWI meetings in London and I thoroughly enjoyed doing it. That has been one of the bonuses of writing. SCBWI is a great writing community and I’ve made a lot of good friends there.
You have long been part of critique groups. How have you found that this has helped you to develop as a writer and how important do you believe a critique group is to writers who want to be published?
Crit groups are invaluable for several reasons. Firstly, it’s a chance to be brave and show other people your work. It enables you to talk about your writing without being shy, which is so important when you meet agents and editors.
Then it’s a chance to get used to working with other people on your book, taking on board suggestions and working on them. This is really important for when an agent or editor wants you to make changes. And it’s invaluable for when you finally get your first edits from an editor – you’ll be used to all that red on your precious work!
Plus, it’s lovely to talk to other writers about their work. And critiquing other work is very helpful in the revision process of your own.
And then there’s the huge support you get from your fellow critters. And those fantastic cheers when one of you gets some good news.
How important has it been for you to have an agent?
I know some writers do manage without an agent, especially with picture books, but that’s rare.
Without an agent, I would have said ‘Yes! Oh yes please, thank you, thank you, anything you want!’ the moment I got my offer. But my agent worked really hard, negotiating a contract that was best for me. I had absolutely no idea how much goes into a contract – that’s when I really appreciated my agent!
Apart from that, not counting the moments I thought Alice might wake up and realize she made a huge mistake, it does give you confidence that you may be able to write after all.
What did it feel like when you first had news that a publisher might want to offer you a contract? And how did it feel when the deal was actually signed making it finally “real”?
Having news that a publisher might want to offer you a contract is actually very nerve-wracking. When I privately mentioned that I might have an offer to a few close writing friends (your good self included) they were jumping about absolutely thrilled, while I sat there all quiet. I didn’t want to celebrate until I’d signed, but once my agent had agreed terms, she told me it was all right to get the champagne out. So I did.
The arrival of the contract was an excuse for another bottle. And the actual signing of it merited one as well. Then I had a celebration at home for my wonderful critique groupers. So, the drawn-out process does have its advantages.
Since landing your contract, how has your life changed and what have you learned?
My life hasn’t changed much – although I do get people congratulating me and stuff, which is really lovely. And I’m often heard muttering to myself – ‘I’m a writer and I’m going to be published, yippee!’
What have I learned? That getting a book on to the shelves is a team effort – a lot goes on behind the scenes. And everyone involved in it has to love it. Which is frustrating when you’re trying to get a deal, but lovely when it happens – because everyone loves it! (Which actually takes a bit of getting used to.)
What advice do you have for other writers fighting their way through the slushpile?
KEEP WRITING!!! In capital bold letters and lots of exclamation marks. If it’s in your blood, you can’t not do it. And, when you finally get a deal, you’ll have lots of other stuff to offer as well.
And now, for a view from Jackie's agent, Alice Williams of David Higham Associates.
Alice, could you tell me what it was that made you take Jackie’s manuscript from the slush-pile?
Initially it was the concept that got my attention: having Dougal’s Will as the framework for the story was quirky and original and had obvious scope for humour. And then it was quickly apparent that Jackie had the confidence and skill to develop a fantastically funny, distinctive voice for Dougal (actually I secretly think it might be her own inner voice!), and sustain a clever, fairly complex plot as well.
I would like to reiterate what Jackie says above – the slush pile does work, for agents as well as for authors. We take it very seriously, and although it takes time to work through, and we sadly have to decline so many submissions for a range of reasons, it’s very exciting when a novel or text really stands out, like Dougal Trump.
What advice do you have for writers, who are waiting for “the moment”?
Keep writing. Trust your own judgement, but listen to feedback and be clearheaded and bold when considering whether to persevere with a given project, rewrite it, or start a new one with the benefit of what you’ve learnt along the way…
And read. It’s so important for writers of books for young people to know what is being published and read today. There’s no better way to learn the craft of storytelling, and an understanding of the market.
Many thanks to Jackie Marchant, and her agent, Alice Williams, for this interview. I wish them both every success with Jackie’s writing career!
For more about Jackie Marchant and her work, please see her website www.jackiemarchant.com, which contains some practical advice about getting published, including how to get an agent and what a perfect submission package looks like.
You can also follow Jackie on Twitter.
I’m Dougal Trump – and it’s NOT my fault! will be published my Macmillan Children’s Books, July 5th, paperback £5.99 – "Bart Simpson meet Just William!"
‘A hilarious new character for havoc-raising boys’ The Bookseller.