Monday, 2 March 2009

Interview with a Début Author: ELEN CALDECOTT

Hi Elen, please tell us a bit about yourself.

I am a writer for children and young people. I am originally from North Wales but I have ridiculously itchy feet so I’ve moved around a lot. I currently live in Bristol, writing most days and working part-time in an independent cinema. I’ve also lived in Paris, where I learned to rollerblade, and Melbourne, where I developed a love for street art and graffiti. Not that I go out with a spray can, oh no, I just like photographing it.

photograph © Kirsty Whiten 2008


A warm, funny and moving novel about family relationships, dealing with bereavement, green beans and marrows.

Kirsty loves spending time with her grandfather on his allotment and she is devastated when he becomes very ill. The last thing he asks her to do is to take care of the allotment after he dies, which she whole-heartedly agrees to do. Unfortunately Mr Thomas from the council isn’t interested in Kirsty or her promise. There is a list of people waiting for the allotment and Kirsty isn’t on it. So begins an elaborate plot instigated by Kirsty, with the assistance of her half-brother and sister, to persuade Mr Thomas that he must hand the allotment over to them. Meanwhile, Kirsty’s dad is not dealing with the death of his father well at all. He doesn’t want to get out of bed and behaves as though his children don’t exist. It’s down to Kirsty, Ben and Dawn to put everything right.

This enchanting debut novel skilfully deals with the issue of bereavement without making it the focus of the story. The book looks at the broader effects of a death in the family rather than purely the immediate effect on the child. Through the eyes of Kirsty, the reader experiences her sense of loss for her grandfather, but even more so for her own father who becomes completely detached. Both moving and uplifting, this is an accessible book that children who have lost a loved one will find reassuring and those who haven’t will enjoy as a wonderful adventure story. The character of Kirsty has been created with the perfect balance of naivety, cheekiness and fearlessness.

It must be very exciting to have been shortlisted for the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize 2009. How did it make you feel having this happen with your first book? Do you think having this kind of recognition helps boost sales and publicity for you as a writer that might not be possible otherwise?

It was exciting and it definitely helps to raise your profile. After all, there are 120,000 books published in the UK every year (apparently!) so getting one book noticed in amongst all the others is very tough. The Waterstone’s prize is particularly positive because it brings you to the attention of booksellers who can really make or break a debut author. If you don’t have a massive marketing budget, then good word of mouth is crucial.

How did it feel seeing your book on bookshelves and online?

It was great!
Although, on the day Kirsty came out, when I went to my local bookshop and looked at the shelves, there was ‘Meg Cabot’ and ‘Cathy Cassidy’ and nothing in between. No Caldecott! I was really despondent and went up to the counter with my head hanging and said, ‘do you happen to know, whether there might be any plans at all, to stock my book?’
And the bookseller said, ‘Oh yes, we had five copies this morning, but someone called up and reserved them.’
I asked who and it turned out my mum had got there before me! She’d reserved all the copies for her friends! So I had to go to another bookshop to actually visit the book on a shelf.

HOW KIRSTY JENKINS STOLE THE ELEPHANT is your début novel. Is it your first attempt at writing a novel or do you have other manuscripts hiding away?

Oh yes. Like every writer I’ve spoken to about it, I have one early novel in a plastic folder under the bed that will never see the light of day again. Plus lots of faltering first chapters.

How long have you been pursuing your writing ambitions and what have you done along the way to improve your writing?

I have always been a secretive, squirrely kind of writer. I ‘came out’ about eight years ago. I started seriously pursuing it as a career in 2005. I wrote my first novel and sent it to three publishers. And was promptly rejected by three publishers. I thought that meant I was no good. I know I will be laughed at for this, but you have to realise that I had not read Miss Snark at this point and had no idea about rejection! One of the rejectors wrote a lovely critique and said they’d like to see more of my work. I decided that my next novel had to be the absolute best it could possibly be, so I enrolled on an MA in Writing for Young People from Bath Spa University. It was perhaps a bit of an over-reaction to three rejections, but it was the best move for me. I needed to gain confidence in myself.

What was it that made you think ‘I want to write for children?’ Is it a genre you enjoy reading?

I never stopped reading children’s books, although, of course I added adult books to the mix as I got older. I don’t think there was anything that made me write for children, it was something I gravitated to naturally.

Have you changed genre since you first started writing? If so, do you feel your writing suits a specific genre and do you enjoy writing this genre more than any other?

I think that the brilliant thing about writing for children is that you don’t have the same problems with genres as ‘adult’ writers do. Adults get known for one genre and then have to take drastic measures like changing their names to enable them to write in another and then they have to do all the brand-building work again. In the children’s section of the bookshop, you are on the 5-7 shelf, and/or the 9-12 and/or the teen shelf and no one is bothered by that. Look at Eoin Colfer; he writers comic fantasy, contemporary beginning readers and urban mysteries, in fact, whatever he fancies. Flexibility as a writer is a real strength of writing for children.

Have you ever tried writing for adults? Is it a market you’d like to write for in the future?

No, I shouldn’t think so. Although you can never say never, it isn’t something I have a lot of interest in at the moment. It’s an odd question; it comes with the subtext ‘when will you write a proper book?’ I love writing for children and don’t see it as lesser, though I realise a lot of adults do.

In your experience, do you think agents/publishers are more approachable when it comes to writing for children?

As opposed to writing for adults? I don’t know for sure, but I doubt it. There are simply fewer publishers and agents to choose from. And the competition is fierce; it is easier (at least in terms of word count) to write a picture book than an 80,000 word novel, so lots of people have a bash. Actually, I believe it’s harder to sell a picture book than a novel, but that doesn’t stop lots and lots of people attempting it.

In the case of, HOW KIRSTY JENKINS STOLE THE ELEPHANT , how long has it taken you from initial inspiration to finally achieving the publication deal?

It took eight months or so to write a half decent draft. Then, my agent agreed to represent me. We had to wait for a few months before she could submit it as she was leaving her agency to start a new one. I was happy to agree to that delay. When she did send it out, Bloomsbury got back to her ridiculously quickly – two days later. So, from start to finish, a year.

Before finding your agent, Rosemary Canter of United Agents, and achieving publication, had you approached any other agents and publishers? Have you had to deal with rejection along the way?

As mentioned earlier, I had three rejections which sent me scurrying for the hills. I was so thin-skinned I made clingfilm look robust. So, I did the MA, where I met Rosemary and had my work read by her. She took me on the basis of the work I’d produced on the course. I didn’t approach any other agents.

If several agents were interested in working with you, how did you decide which one to choose and did you meet them face-to-face to help you decide?

No, no one was fighting over me! I went for lunch with Rosemary after she judged the prize on my MA and it went from there.

Would you recommend having an agent and, if so, why?

Oh yes! Publishing is a business. It isn’t the same thing as writing. I am a writer and I want to stay that way. My agent looks for new markets and opportunities – audio book rights, translation rights, anthologies that need contributors etc. so I can concentrate on the writing.

Do you think there has been any other deciding factor in your success other than simply writing a good novel? For example, a competition win that has given you exposure; working with a literary consultancy that recommended you to an agent?

The MA was really important. Both in terms of the work I produce and the contacts I made. It definitely, definitely isn’t who you know (I did not grow up in a Bohemian home in London with Will Self as my god-father!).
But you do have to put yourself in the right place at the right time. By that I mean, stay informed, read agents blogs/news. Is there a new agency opening? Has an assistant been promoted and started building a new list? Has an agent changed what they represent to include your genre? There is a huge amount of luck involved in getting published, but to a certain extent you can make your own luck. Do you attend conferences? Do you volunteer at literary festivals? Do you send thank you emails to anyone who helps you out along the way? You can get yourself noticed.
I haven’t used a literary consultancy so I couldn’t comment, but joining a critique group, either in ‘real’ life or online is usually a good idea.

Would you recommend entering competitions?

My agent read my work as she was the judge of ‘most promising writer for children’ prize on my MA. (At the end of the course, Elen was highly commended in the PFD Prize for Most Promising Writer for Young People.)
So, yes, enter competitions if you know the prize is worth it (either in terms of financial reward or notice from judges you admire). I am less sure of those competitions which have a steep entry fee and the promise of publication by an imprint you’ve never heard of.

Has achieving publication changed the way you approach your writing? Do you find you are more productive as a result or do you still write the same amount a day? Have you adopted a specific way of writing, structured hours or you do you write as the muse strikes?

It actually made very little difference day-to-day. I still have my day job (which I love and I’d probably do even if I had one of those fabled seven-figure-advances!). I write every day whether I feel like it or not. I fit it in around my other commitments. I approach it as if it were a job – which it is. One thing I’ve realised since selling Kirsty is that one book a year is only enough if it is really successful. So I am aiming to write two this year... I’ll let you know how that goes.

Which authors/stories did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager? How do you think they compare to the children’s/YA novels available today? What do you think children of today want to read?

I loved Enid Blyton when I was young – I would get to the end of a series and turn straight back to the beginning of book one and start again. I think children still do that (the jackets are a lot sassier though!). One big change is that I don’t think YA was really established when I was young. There was Judy Blume and Sweet Valley High, but, really, I went straight from Frances Hodgson Burnett to Jane Austin at about twelve years old. Now, there is a huge range of books, so if you want literary you can read David Almond and Phillip Pullman, if you want exploding snot then you’re well catered for too. Children are people too! Sometimes, they like to be challenged and other times they just want escapism.

Where do you get your inspiration from and what inspired you to write HOW KIRSTY JENKINS STOLE THE ELEPHANT ?

For me, inspiration is a bit over-rated. I have to make myself sit still at my computer until I’ve written the requisite number of words. My favourite part of writing is the editing and revision and I can’t do that until I’ve put 40,000 words down. Often, I won’t decide what a story is about until after I’ve written the first draft.
I do, however, have certain ideas that I try to incorporate into a story. For me, these are often very visual – a midnight theft of an elephant, for example; or the view of the sea from the top of a tower block (in the book I’m working on now). So I go to galleries, I look at photos and I’m always clocking images that I think might be useful later.

Rewrites and Revision: How much have you had to do throughout the writing of HOW KIRSTY JENKINS STOLE THE ELEPHANT ?

I have a great critique group. So, as I wrote, I gave them sections to read. I didn’t try to edit as I went along, but took all of their thoughts on board as I wrote the next scene. Once I’d finished the first draft, I went back through, working in corrections and revisions based on their comments. Then I gave the manuscript to a person whose opinion I trusted. They came back with some hefty rewrites. It meant changing a lot of the first half of the book. So, what’s that? Two or three drafts?
Rosemary’s suggestions were really minimal. She is not an editor kind of agent; she’s very much more about the business, which I like.
Then, it reached the hands of an editor. She asked for the addition of some extra scenes.
And then, copyediting. Now, by the number of times I’d been through it, with so many different people, you’d think it would be error-free, wouldn’t you? Ha! Riddled it was, riddled! It was embarrassing. The copyeditor was lovely and said every manuscript was like this, but it didn’t make me feel better. I have such admiration for copyeditors now; they have such an eye for detail. She would say things like ‘A character uses the word “sofa” on page 12, but “settee” on page 145.’ Amazing.

Do you plan your stories in advance, or do they happen on the page?

I’m quite an organic writer. I do have ‘signposts’ along the way, certain key scenes or images that I know I will need, but otherwise I’m happy to let the characters develop on the page. I know it will mean big rewrites afterwards, but I find I only know my characters properly after having spent a lot of time with them.

What kind of deal did you achieve for HOW KIRSTY JENKINS STOLE THE ELEPHANT?

It was a one-book deal. A modest one! But pretty standard for the world of children’s books! It was enough to pay back my student loans. So, at least I have no money, rather than negative money which I had before.
Kirsty is a stand-alone novel and I’m not planning a sequel. My next book is set on the same estate that Kirsty lives on, but has a different central character. I prefer stand-alone novels as a reader and so that’s what I go for as a writer. You have to write the kind of book you’d want to read.

Do you have advice for anyone writing sequels without having achieved a deal for book one?

It depends on why you’re writing. If you are so excited by the story that you can’t not, then don’t let anyone discourage you! Having said that, if your goal is publication, rather than storytelling, then you should know that you’re taking a risk. If book one doesn’t sell, then you will have spent, say, a year writing that plus a year writing the sequel. Will you still have the emotional strength to start something completely new in two years time if book one never sells?

Titles: How many titles did you work with until settling on HOW KIRSTY JENKINS STOLE THE ELEPHANT ? Aspiring writers are often told how important a title is - do you have any advice on what a good title is?

It had a different working title. My agent didn’t like it. So, I came up with a long list of alternatives, none of which were any better. She said ‘why don’t we call it How Kirsty Jenkins Stole the Elephant for now and an editor can change it if she wants.’ I agreed and kept waiting for someone to change the title, but it stuck! I have to conclude that I’m rubbish at titles.

Do you use your own children or any others as a ‘sounding board’ for your novels?

No. I don’t really know any children who could. Some of my friends have kids, but they’re still babies really.

Regarding artwork for the book covers. As the author do you have any input into the choices made or is the decision left entirely to others?

The publishers are pleased if you like it, but that’s about it. And, to be honest, I think that’s fair. As I’ve said earlier, publishers are businesses, they have been doing it for years and they are experts in their fields. You have to trust that the people you’re working with have the best interests of your book at heart.

What sort of publicity and marketing have you been undertaking? Was it arranged for you, or do you have to initiate your own PR ideas?

There have been lots of school and library visits that I’ve really enjoyed, some arranged by Bloomsbury, others by me. It’s a bit of a mixture really. I think you can expect your publisher to be heavily involved at the beginning, but once you’ve found out what you like doing, you have to arrange more things by yourself. What you need is momentum behind the title and a PR department can’t do that without your help.

Have you got any other books coming out?

I am working on a second and third book at the moment – they are at different stages of completion. Neither of them have so much as a title yet, so I can’t really tell you more about them.
I hope to be able to make announcements soon on my website

Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?

Read and read and read in your chosen genre. And not just the classics in that genre, read the prize winners that came out last year, read this year nominated books. This isn’t so you can follow fashion, but so that you can see what’s happening right now in your chosen profession.

Any other comments/observations/general mind-blowing information you‘d like to add?

You could do a lot worse than to read Miss Snark’s blog archive. It’s a tiny bit out of date (pre-email submissions) but it is a great resource for stopping you ‘shooting yourself in the font’ as she would say.

Published by:
Bloomsbury January 2009


harriet said...

Really enjoyed reading this - and also browsing your website Elen. I'm looking to set one up at the moment myself, so it was very helpful checking your one out. Sadly I have no imaginary dog to spice up my home page, only seriously unimaginary children...

Sandra Patterson said...

Another great interview, Tracy. Well done. I agree with Elen about only discovering the story once the first draft is done. I'm the same - can't stick to an outline to save my life! And editing is so much more satisfying.

Dwight said...

Well done again, Tracy. I must take on board what Elen was saying about making your own good luck: I'll have to put myself in the line of fire for meeting an agent.

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