Monday, 7 March 2011

Interview with the 2010 Times Chicken House Winner: JANET FOXLEY

* Hi Janet and welcome to tall tales & short stories. Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?

Stories have always been part of my life. As a very small child I used to put myself into a sort of trance and tell myself stories out loud. My parents thought I was weird, but what really annoyed them was the fact that I'd lock myself in the toilet for hours at a time to tell my stories, because it was the only place where a child got any privacy in the 1950s – no playing in your bedroom in those days. Fortunately we had an indoor toilet in every house we moved to. If I'd had to go outside to a cold, dark, spider-infested lean-to I might never have grown up to be a writer!

I was good at humorous writing at school, cringing when it was read to the class by the teacher, but this was followed by a long drought when creative writing gave way to essays of lit crit in the sixth form and at university, where I read a lot of German books, a few French books and the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears in Norwegian.

I started writing seriously when I was at home with small children in the 1970s, publishing a few women’s magazine stories and ‘how-to-make’ articles for children. But my heart was never in those and I quickly moved on to children’s books, which I have now been writing, on and off, for over thirty-five year


Giants live on top of Mount Grumble, hidden from humans below. 
But not all of them are big.
Muncle Trogg is so small that he's laughed at by the others for being human-sized. 
Fed up, he decides to take a look at the 'Smallings' that he's meant to look like. 
But what he discovers is very surprising indeed...


* What inspired you to write Muncle Trogg?

I had just finished a book that an editor at Real Writers critique service loved, once I’d rewritten it in line with her advice, but said I would never get published because it was too long.  I subsequently self-published it as Midsummer Legend.  (Janet's 2009 tall tales & short stories Self-publishing a Children's Book post)
Although I’d written several books before Midsummer Legend, it was the first one I’d sought help with and I was still very much at the learning stage. I decided to make sure my next book was the right length and for some reason I felt very drawn to the fairy-tale world. The Harry Potter series was about halfway through at the time, so I was particularly keen to avoid any form of magic or witchcraft, and what I came up with was giants.

I always knew I was going to tell the story from the point of view of the giants, rather than the humans they encounter, because what I enjoy most in writing is creating imaginary societies with their own particular culture and way of life. Luckily for me, it was this particular ‘inside-out’ take on the fairy-tale world that made the story appealing to Chicken House.

Once I’d decided my protagonist was going to be a giant boy, his problem that was going to drive the plot fell into place at once – what could be worse for a giant than being small?

* How long did it take you from initial inspiration to finally achieving the publication deal?

It’s so long since I started writing Muncle that I can’t remember exactly when I began. It must have been at least 8 years from first draft to publication deal, possibly as many as 10.

* You’ve been on quite a journey with Muncle Trogg. Could you tell us about it?

Real Writers no longer had a children’s specialist, and there were now more critique services around to choose from. I had two reviews from Cornerstones and some years and several re-workings later entered it in their Wow Factor Competition. It was short-listed, which won me a further review.

At that point I heard about SCBWI for the first time, when Helen Corner recommended all her short-listed authors to enter the first Undiscovered Voices competition. I joined SCBWI-BI, entered the competition and Muncle got an Honorary Mention.

Encouraged that I was getting closer, I started sending the book out to agents, but something was still wrong with the ending. I couldn’t put my finger on it until Belinda Hollyer, who was reading the slushpile at David Higham, came up with a one-sentence comment that was all I needed to turn the ending round. Although it still didn’t get me an agent, that draft, the tenth, was the one that won the Times/Chicken House competition in 2010

* Rewrites and Revisions: How much did you have to do throughout the writing of Muncle Trogg?

This is mostly covered in the previous question but there were ten drafts before it was accepted for publication, and four afterwards. Some of these were major plot changes, others were more about tinkering with detail.

* Did winning the Times Chicken House competition change the way you approach your writing? And do you plan your stories in advance, or do they happen on the page?

Before the competition my stories always happened on the page. Once I’d got my starting point – a character in a setting – I just sat down at the computer and waited to see what happened. This meant I wandered off up many blind alleys and it took ages to produce a first draft.

When Chicken House said they wanted to publish a sequel (and I had never even considered a sequel!) a year after the first book, I had to turn myself into a planner. With Book 2 I had a month to come up with a plot outline and about five months to produce the first draft. That plot outline was really hard work and I felt quite stressed till it was done, but it has made the writing so much easier. I can now sit down to it knowing I’m not going to get seriously stuck.

* During the editing process for Muncle Trogg, what would you say are the most important things you’ve learned and that all aspiring writers should aim for?

The editing process wasn’t much different from what I was used to with Real Writers and Cornerstones reviews. The main difference was that I knew it wasn’t just general, random advice but was finally taking the book in the direction the publisher wanted.

I would always advise an aspiring writer to get their work critiqued (professionally if they can afford it), to get used to being told harsh truths and to be prepared to start again from scratch if necessary. And to get their plots critiqued, not just their prose style. The most beautiful prose is useless without a good plot to hang it on.

* Muncle Trogg is aimed at the 7+ age group. What advice would you give writers trying to write for this age group?

When I started writing Muncle I was thinking in terms of 9/10-year-old readers, and Muncle was 12. Barry Cunningham was the one who saw the potential for this to go younger, so a lot of the editing was about making it accessible to younger, but still independent, readers. Muncle is now 10 (though 9/10 year olds are still enjoying it) and unfortunately some of the ‘harder’ words have gone. And ideas that I’d introduced subtly had to be made more explicit.

Combining what I was already doing with what I learnt during the editing, I would say:
  • stick to a single point-of-view; 
  • keep up a fast pace; 
  • don’t have anything too explicitly scary (I had to modify my description of a kidnap scene);
  • if you use ‘hard’ words put them in a context that helps the child to grasp the meaning;
  • give characters a physical feature or mannerism that helps to bring them to life visually;
  • be wary of anything that could be seen as not politically correct (I had to change the word ‘midget’, not for the publisher, but for Scholastic Book Fairs, who wanted to place a large order);
  • and sprinkle with as much HUMOUR as possible.

* Was Muncle Trogg your first attempt at writing a novel or did you have other manuscripts hiding away?

As I mentioned above, I had written Midsummer Legend before Muncle Trogg, and several others before that. But they aren’t hiding away. Produced on a typewriter and an Amstrad Wordprocessor, they are lost to posterity. They were written in the days before organisations such as Real Writers and Cornerstones existed, and once I’d learned how to do it half-way properly I could see that they were beyond rescue.

* What made you think ‘I want to write for kids?’ Is it a genre you enjoy reading?

It’s never occurred to me to write for anyone but children. I enjoy reading both adult and children’s fiction, but I’ve never had an idea that would make a grown-up book.

* 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?

The books I can remember devouring and reading over and over again are Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books. Before that there was Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven series. I didn’t discover E Nesbit or Tolkien until I was grown up, although they must have been around when I was a child in the fifties.

There was no teen or YA fiction in those days. Most of the children’s books I love and remember particularly well are the ones I read to my children in the 1970s and 1980s: anything by Jan Mark, Helen Cresswell, Philippa Pearce, and Mary Norton’s wonderful Borrowers.

It would be wonderful to know what today’s children really want to read. They get what the publishers give them. My eleven-year-old great-nephew complains that there is very little for boys who don’t like horror or thrillers. And I overheard a girl of about 10 complaining to her grandmother in a bookshop that the books that claimed to be for her age wouldn’t last her an afternoon. I think real readers would love the longer, meatier books that they are denied because of the myth that children have a short attention span.

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

I started my first novel, the one that became Midsummer Legend, when I was at home with young children in the mid 1970s. I did a couple of fairly useless correspondence courses, but didn’t start to improve until I took early retirement, by which time agencies like Cornerstones, with its critique service and self-editing workshops ,were starting to spring up. For me, writing the novel I wanted to write and then having it professionally critiqued was the best way to learn.

* Would you recommend aspiring authors enter writing competitions?

Yes! It guarantees that your work will at least get looked at. But first get your writing as good as you can by using critique services. About 2000 people enter the Times/Chicken House competition each year, and of those only about 100 show any sort of promise. Make sure that yours is going to be in that 100, otherwise entering is a waste of time.

* Before winning the Times Chicken House competition and achieving publication, did you approach many agents and publishers? Have you had to deal with rejection along the way?

Muncle had been rejected by 8 agents by the time I entered the competition and Midsummer Legend went to 8 agents and 8 publishers before I decided that the length was an insuperable problem and published it myself. Then there are the slaps in the face every time a critique comes back. I am well used to rejection!

* Are there more Muncle Trogg adventures to look forward to?

I’m working on a second book, which should be out in Spring 2012. I have an idea about where life takes Muncle after that, but don’t yet know if there is a book in it. Chicken House only ever commission one book at a time

* What’s next for Janet Foxley?

Publicity gigs for Muncle and completing and editing Book 2. I hope to go on writing as long as I have my faculties, but whether I come up with any more ideas that Chicken House – or anyone else – will want remains to be seen.

* Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?

Be careful what you wish for. Being a professional writer is a big step up from hobby writing. Getting a first book published is unlikely to bring you more than some nice pocket money, so you need to be able to fit those deadlines into your already busy life.

Still want to do it? Then get advice from people who really know the business. Be prepared to take that advice. Grow a very thick skin. And never give up.

* I know an aspiring children’s writer who worries that his age could be an issue when approaching agents and publishers. What advice would you give anyone over retirement age hoping to be published?

You see comments in the press from time to time to the effect that you have to look like J K Rowling to get a publishing deal. I think there is often a sour grape element to this. Chicken House didn’t ask for a photograph before they took me on, and they knew I was retired. What matters is the book you’re trying to sell, and evidence that you have a professional attitude, i.e. that you can accept and respond to criticism and that this isn’t the only book you’re capable of writing. Several well-known writers were not published until they were 60+.

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

Thank you for having me on your blog, Tracy.

Muncle Trogg ~ a tall tales & short stories review

Muncle Trogg is silly and fun and full of messy little cartoons and ink splats.  There are giants and dragons and gross foodstuffs and volcanoes and smallings (humans) and in among all this is a message.  Bullies come in all shapes and sizes but just because you don't seem to fit in, just because you look different and get picked on, it doesn't mean you can't be something special. Because Muncle is special, he may be smaller than the average giant, he may not be very good at much, but Muncle comes up with a plan - a plan to save the world he knows. 

The giant world is a place where our society's values are turned on their head and beauty is an abundance of warts and grey skin; and slugs-on-toast and frogspawn crumble are delicacies; and acts of derring do involve dragons and mysterious smalling books. This is a perfect, easy to read book for boys and girls. There are plenty of inventive creations that help bring the world of the giants to life and will, I'm sure, make kids laugh out loud.



Jackie Marchant said...

Another great interview, Tracy! And so lovely to hear that it really does take a long time. Well done, Janet for sticking at it!

Nicky Schmidt (Absolute Vanilla) said...

Great interview! Thanks both Tracy and Janet! And, to echo Jackie, it's helpful to know that it can take a long time and one can still get there. Perseverance is key, as ever!

kathryn evans said...

I loved this interview - full of interesting thoughts and nicely reassuring about the length of time it takes to make it!

Claudia Myatt said...

excellent interview, thank you both. Common sense mixed with fun, just what we want to hear.

Daisy said...

What a wonderful imagination Janet Foxley has. Some really encouraging advice too.

ceka said...

Thank you Janet.
Yet another great interview, Tracy. You really have missed your vocation I'm sure you should be on the radio doing some kind of book programme!
Well done again.

MC Rogerson said...

Great interview both! I'm looking forward to reading the book.

M Louise Kelly said...

What a good interview. Great to hear the story of your journey in more detail and I think you're right about needing to grow thick skin! Being critiqued is the only way to learn i reckon.

Dwight said...

A really good and encouraging interview, Tracy. It's the 10 years of writing and 8 re-drafts (or is it 8 years and 10 re-drafts in my case) which ring true. Please thank Janet from me.

I couldn't agree more with her on the supreme value of using Cornerstones. I'm due to use them again - if we can afford it.

Nick Cross said...

Janet, I think it's extraordinary that you stuck by the same book for so long - especially as you were "nearly there" so many times, only to then discover that you still had a long way to go. Many, many writers (myself included) would have given up on that book and never known the satisfaction of seeing it published. Very well done - I hope you sell lots!

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