I’m happy to welcome Russell Sanderson to the blog today. It’s always cool to hear about other writers’ processes, what books they like, and how they got their agents–pretty useful too. Russell is writing a middle grade fantasy series which you can find out more about on his website. His blog also chronicles his journey from beginning his book and signing with an agent and then what happened next. Anyone interested in writing should check it out here: http://www.pandorawolfe.co.uk/my-writing-blog.php
How long have you been writing?
About 25 years. I started in my early 20s doing short stories and humorous articles for a postal gaming fanzine, but then graduated to novel writing when I had my appendix out and found myself with 6 weeks off work. I’ve written another novel since then – (thankfully unpublished) until I recognised that Middle Grade was the age group I really liked writing for and decided to make a real effort to succeed in getting a book published.
Which one book, or one author, or both do you cite as being the most inspirational to your writing?
Oh God, where to start? I loved Stephen King and Terry Pratchett from the get go, but as I’ve gotten older, my genre tastes have gotten younger and my tastes have gotten wider so apart from reading different adult genres, I read a lot of Middle Grade and Young Adult books these days too, with Phillip Pullman, JK Rowling, Eoin Colfer and Derek Landy all being favourites of mine. I suppose if I had to pick a favourite, I’d pick JK Rowling because she showed that children’s books could succeed in the market and she created a wonderful world populated by fascinating characters that I’d happily live in (as a wizard, not a muggle, obviously.)
What was the last book you read and really enjoyed?
I loved “When Mr Dog Bites” by Brian Conaghan – the story follows Dylan Mint, who is one of my favourite ever protagonists, a teenager with Tourettes who attends a Scottish special school. I went through a whole range of emotions when reading the book and I absolutely rooted for the main character throughout. I’d recommend it to anyone (as long as you have a relaxed attitude to swearing.)
Do you write what you read, or do you change things up, write between genres?
A little of both – I have very eclectic tastes. I read lots of MG and YA – I’m lucky to know a few outstanding authors in these age brackets, including Ian Johnstone, Lu Hersey, Alan Early, Fletcher Moss, Stephan Mohammed and Claire McFall and I love anything they’ve put in front of me, but depending on mood, I also read non fiction, science fiction (I follow Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet series), Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books, I used to love Tom Clancy’s military/technical/espionage books, but I also read steampunk stuff (Cherie Priest is a favourite,) the occasional horror (I like my horror to be of the Lovecraftian type,) Terry Pratchett and anything at all by Neil Gaiman. I’m a bit of a magpie – I pick what I like the look of and whatever suits my state of mind – if I had to pick something I love in books regardless of genre, it’s that they take me out of the real world and into the reality of the story.
Do you have a process? Do you write for so many hours, or have a word count target per day?
I often start out with a long period of procrastination, where whatever I’m trying to do seems quite a large task, my natural laziness means I put off starting proper, but I use that time to make notes and write down ideas. Once I’ve plotted out the story (see below,) I set myself targets – a minimum of 1000 words, 5 days a week (or a weekly total of 5000) and I sit down at the desk until I’ve hit or exceeded the target. I take the same approach to editing. It’s the only way to make progress. If you wait for the muse to strike, you could be waiting a very long time – I tend to find she turns up after a while anyway once I’ve started working.
Are you a plotter or a panster?
Mostly a plotter – I like to have the skeleton of a story with notes on key chapters and events in chronological order before I start to write in earnest, but I often go off piste if something occurs while I’m writing. If that happens I take time out to revise the plan. Sometimes the story just goes where it wants to and as a writer, I just follow.
How long did it take you to finish the first draft of your first novel?
The first draft of my first novel probably took about 9 months – then it was edited etc for another year. At the time, I thought it was a work of genius (it was a Science Fiction thriller aimed at adults) – now, not so much (in that I will make sure it doesn’t see the light of day.) 20 years of experience have completely altered the way I work and what I think a good book looks like as a writer.
How did you land your agent? Did you do plenty of research beforehand? What was the process like?
I signed with my agent, Ben Illis, in March of 2014, after approximately 18 months of trying to find one. By the time I’d decided I needed an agent, I’d been taking a much more professional approach to everything writing related, so the first thing I did was to do some research. All of the serious advice pointed me to the Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook, which apart from giving first class advice on writing itself and all the issues connected with being a published author, also has a list of literary agents, including what their submission rules are and the genres/age groups they represent. I went through the list, picking out agents that looked like they wanted the type of thing I was writing and then did some internet research on them to get a little more on who the Children’s Agents were (in a multi agent firm) and what they were looking for. I then drew up a list of the first half a dozen that I liked the look of and sent off tailored letters to them – ensuring that I sent the submission
When I got a couple of rejections back, I sent off a couple more. I did get a reasonable hit rate, with a couple of agencies asking for the full MS and one passing it through a number of agents and associate agents to see if it suited them.
I then attended a really useful event organised by Bloomsbury (the publishers of the W&A Yearbook) where I got to spend half a day with 4 agents, who ran workshops on what made a successful submission and a guaranteed 10 minute pitch to one of them. It wasn’t cheap, but I did think it was worthwhile experience and I did get another full MS request from one of the agents there (not the agent I pitched to, but one I sat opposite at lunch – I had prepared submissions for both the children’s agents according to their guidelines before I came – the lesson being – come prepared and don’t be frightened to talk to agents if you get the opportunity. The advice they can give is gold.)
Anyway not long after I came back, I was contacted by Ben – he’d been passed my MS by one of the agencies I’d contacted, with whom his agency was associated. He loved the book, but had some editorial advice for me – it was far too long! I had already realised that when someone like an agent gives you advice – you take it, so I took his advice and slimmed the book down from 118k words to 72k and over the course of the next year, I stayed in touch with Ben throughout and at the end of the process, he signed me to the Ben Illis Agency – something I’m extremely happy about.
long! I had already realised that when someone like an agent gives you advice – you take it, so I took his advice and slimmed the book down from 118k words to 72k and over the course of the next year, I stayed in touch with Ben throughout and at the end of the process, he signed me to the Ben Illis Agency – something I’m extremely happy about.