Our chat with Jenni…
I have always loved writing – my mum has kept all my old stories from when I was little. I tried my hand at other things but whatever jobs I’ve had, I have always been writing on the side; squeezing in a quick half an hour during naptime when my children were small or scribbling in my notebook during my lunchbreaks at work. I went to Art College after my A-Levels and one of tutors took me aside and asked if I’d considered being a writer rather than an artist – not exactly what you want to hear when you’re studying art, but he had a point; my essays were a darn sight better than my artworks!
I started writing books in my twenties but didn’t actually get anything published until I was forty-six! I am a classic case of if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again! The first books I actually finished were a series of children’s books called George and Bernie Stories. George and Bernie were my cats. My sister – who unlike me is a very talented artist – did the illustrations. They were never published, they live somewhere in a very deep drawer filled with old forgotten manuscripts.
Well, it’s quite a round-the-houses tale! For some years I had been sending work to various literary agencies to no avail. I had sent manuscripts to The Madeleine Milburn Literary Agency – who now represent me - before too but I always seemed to be just missing the mark. Eventually when I was 39years old I decided I needed to do something to hone my writing skills if I was ever going to stand a chance at getting published. I got a place at Canterbury Christ Church University where I studied – part-time to fit around my job as a baker – for a degree in Creative and Professional Writing.
During my studies I had a neck injury and was forced to leave my baking job. Whilst being unemployed and recovering from surgery, I wrote a book called The Twelve Dates of Christmas. In the meantime, I was also working on my dissertation for my degree and had decided to focus my study on children’s literature and for my final piece, I wrote a children’s book, called Malice in Underland.
When I had finished writing The Twelve Dates of Christmas I sent the manuscript to Hayley Steed at Madeleine Milburn. I had done my research and felt that Hayley would be the right agent for my type of book. To my astonishment, she emailed me back straight away, saying she was very interested and had some editorial notes that she’d like me to act upon before she would sign me. Well, you can imagine, I spent that summer working and working on the manuscript and taking all of Hayley’s editorial notes into account. Thankfully, I’d done enough, and Hayley agreed to represent me.
The year that Twelve Dates was due to be published I mentioned to Hayley that I had also written a children’s book and she suggested that I send it to another agent within Madeleine Milburn, who dealt with children’s and Young Adult books. So, I sent Malice in Underland to Chloe Seager, and she too offered me representation. And that is how I found an agent for my adult work and another for my children’s and YA books – told you it was a round-the-houses tale!
My first two books were published during lockdown, so school visits were out of the question. Instead, like everyone else, I did my school events through Zoom. The first event I ever did was hosted by a book shop and schools could tune in. Obviously doing events this way was new to everyone. One of the year 8 groups were isolating at their homes due to a covid breakout in class and rather than have them miss out, their teacher gave them each an individual link to sign into the event. What nobody, including the host, realised was that the pupils had been given not only a link to attend but access to the PowerPoints and mics etc. They completely took over and boy did they make good use of the ‘paint’ function! There were whole pages of the power point scribbled over, faces of the characters coloured in, weird drawings, scrawled words and rude shapes over everything! The poor teacher had absolutely no control because she wasn’t with them. They shouted over the things that I and the host at the book shop said, held whole conversations with each other and asked me questions like ‘what’s your favourite pudding’ over and over again. It was a complete free for all but in a way, it was the best thing that could have happened – a baptism of fire – because now I knew that whatever went wrong in events in the future, it was unlikely to be as chaotic as that! Hee-hee.
When I was a child, I had two absolute favourites; The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy and It’s Too Frightening For Me! by Shirley Hughes. I read them over and over again. Even when I had far outgrown them, they were still my go-to comfort books if I was ill or sad. I’ve still got them, dogeared and browning pages, and I could never part with them.
As for favourites now I’m an adult, that’s a tricky one. There are so many books that I love that I probably have a favourite for each genre! But I suppose if I think about the books I keep coming back to when I need comforting, then it would be Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, The Hound of The Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle, A Christmas Party by Georgette Heyer and The All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness…so that’s romance, murder and witchcraft, which pretty much sums up my favourite genres!
My advice to un-agented author would be to do your research before sending out your manuscripts. Look through the literary agencies and narrow it down to agencies which take on the kind of books you write. Then narrow the field further by looking at the bios of the individual agents within those agencies and the authors they represent. These will tell you the kinds of books that a specific agent is looking for and what kinds of genres they already have on their list. A little time spent doing research early on will save you a lot of time later; instead of sending your manuscript off to fifty agents on the off chance that they’ll pick you up, you can whittle it down to maybe ten, who seem like a really good fit for your book.
When you approach the agent, try coming up with a catchy one line that encapsulates your book and have this at the top of the email. Agents get a lot of submissions, so you need to catch their eye. In the body of the email, tell the agent a little about yourself and your writing experience but focus mainly on your book. Suggest where on a shelf in a bookshop your book might sit; what other authors have books out in the same genre i.e. if your book is for Young Adults and is about murder, perhaps it would sit comfortably beside books by Holly Jackson or Cynthia Murphy?
To any un-published author, I would say, don’t give up! If writing is what you want to do, then keep doing it. I didn’t get my first book published until I was 46 and believe me, it wasn’t for the want of trying! Don’t get disheartened by rejections from agents. I had loads! I had so many rejections over the years that I categorised them by positive and negative rejections; a positive rejection was when the agent had said nice things, but my book wasn’t for them, and a negative rejection was a generic response.
There are a lot of books on the market that can help you improve your writing skills. I would recommend Stephen King, On Writing and Strunk and White, The Elements of Style. They were my go-to books when I was studying for my degree, and I still dip into them every now and again. As a writer you never stop learning!