Attended a talk by my agent Sarah yesterday where she was telling a group of aspiring writers the do's and don't of writing children's fiction. Most of her key points are on her website http://www.greenhouseliterary.com/ so I won't go over them here. But also do read her blog, especially the past ones.
Firstly, it made me aware of some painful statistics, which YOU MUST IGNORE but put things in perspective.
Sarah gets 300 submissions a week. Only 3 does she typically find engaging enough to read to the end. That's 1%.
Of the 3,000 odd submissions she's received since she set up (this is all on her blog, that's why you should be uptodate at ALL TIMES) she's only taken on 3-4. That's 0.1%.
Sarah's strike rate is very high. Everyone she's submitted has sold, so far. This proves she's very good at picking winners, or at least the front pack.
How to get into this front pack?
I certainly don't profess to having any secret clue, but do read Stephen King's ON WRITING. It's utterly essential.
Study. Read everyone else who you'll be sharing shelf space (i.e your competition) with and work out how and why they work. Attend courses and learn the craft. Swordfights and battles for example, MEAN NOTHING in fiction. It looks all very glamourous on film, but that's because film is visual. The greatest strength of writing is the INTERNAL WORLD of the protagonist. What's going in on his/her mind? Read any of the Sharpe novels and much is made of the night before the battle. The anxiety, the fear, the tension is all there. The event itself is splendid, but that's because we've had the night before to build emotion into it. Action does not move plot, RESOLUTION of the action (did they win or lose) moves the plot.
Lord of the Rings is another case. The defeat of Sauroman is OFF PAGE. It doesn't actually matter to any of the main characters, doesn't move the plot along and frankly, it's consequences are not significant to the Ring bearer's quest. Frodo's journey is predominantly internal. What's at stake is his heart, his friendship to Sam, his steadfastness against the allure of the ring, with Gollum as his shadow self, the Frodo that Failed. This is playing to the strength of the form, this is what novels do best. We love him because he's small and big hearted, he's scared but heroic. That's why Strider is second fiddle. He has no real emotional journey to make. He's a hero at the beginning, he's one at the end. His rise to kingship is mainly external, done by deeds rather than internal growth.
Also, enter competitions. This is how Harriet and I got Sarah's attention, not through the slush pile. The Yearbook has a long chapter on these. They are in a way MORE important than the list of agencies. Enter them and when you've got a couple of wins under your belt (even one) THEN contact the agent. It proves you're better than the rest. Which is what you have to be.
DON'T RUSH. If any of you from last night's talk are reading this, be warned. Wait until your ready to blow Sarah's socks off, then send it to her. She gave you a lot of very useful info last night and there is NO WAY you've incorporated even half of it into your writing. To make sure you've done all she asks is half a year's work, at least. I know because it took me half a year with her sitting at my shoulder to do it. So, if your finger is hovering over the SEND button, please reconsider. Can you honestly say you've already done everything she's told you?