Our chat with Sinéad…
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was very young. I learned to read very early and I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t read stories to myself, and when I wasn’t surrounded by books. My first stories were responses to, or copies of, books and stories I loved to read – so I’d write my own Noddy stories, or tales of the Faraway Tree (because I loved Enid Blyton), and my first ‘book’ was a sequel to The Little Prince, which I first read when I was about seven. I even did my own drawings! I struggled with a lack of confidence in my own storytelling voice, and for many years I wrote in secret, never dreaming I’d be brave enough one day to put my writing out into the world, but eventually, I found the courage.
Polly (Nolan, of PaperCuts Literary Agency) and I found one another the old-fashioned way! When I finally decided I wanted to write for publication, I bought myself a copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, which lists contact details for all the literary agents in the UK and Ireland. I worked through the list, looking up each agent (if I wasn’t already familiar with their clients and the books the agent had sold) and checking out who they represented, and whether I thought they’d like my book. Polly was one of my top three dream agents. So, I prepared a query letter – basically, a letter which gives the agent some idea who you are, what you’ve written, and whether it would be a good fit for them – and my sample chapters, and I sent them off, five agents at a time, for several months. I got very few positive responses at first, but Polly contacted me to say that while she didn’t think I was quite ‘there’ yet with the book I’d written, she liked my style and if I ever wrote anything else, to let her know. So, for the next couple of books I wrote, I sent my query through to Polly, until finally she phoned me and offered to mentor me, and the next book I wrote turned out to be The Eye of the North – my first published novel. That was the book Polly had been waiting for me to write, and she signed me in 2014. It took a long time, but it was worth it.
The journey to becoming a published author is full of daunting moments. In fact, the life of an author sometimes seems like one daunting moment after another, interspersed with some very wonderful high points! Probably the most daunting moment I had was when The Eye of the North, which turned out to be my first published book, very nearly sold to a major publisher who was interested in acquiring world rights – so, they would publish it in North America, Europe, the UK and Ireland, and Australia. That would have been the ultimate dream! The book came within a whisker of that deal, but at the last moment it all fell through. It did eventually sell in North America, but it then took years to gain a deal in the UK. That was very challenging, but I carried on because I knew I had found the thing I most wanted to do, which was writing stories for children, and that it was worth all the challenges I might have to face.
My advice to un-agented and unpublished authors is: READ. Read everything you can, in as many genres/age groups and from as many cultural backgrounds as you can, as often as you can. Immerse yourself in stories, because every story you read teaches you something about how stories work, and when it comes to writing your own, you’ll draw on those lessons. Plus, reading is extremely fun! Also, I tell children at school visits that I have an ABC for helping me to write, and it is: Always Be Curious. Cultivate curiosity about everything – the world around you, the people you see and meet every day, the funny words you might see on signs or newspapers or billboards. Pick up these little interesting nuggets of life and put them away inside your imagination and let them settle there for a while. You’ll find they’ll turn into story seeds, which may eventually sprout into something completely unique and wonderful. It’s also important to allow yourself time and space to daydream and think, which helps your story-seeds to germinate – and, of course, never be without your notebook and pencil, to scribble down all your ideas before they vanish!
Writing is my main ‘job’ (even though it doesn’t pay very much!) so I’m lucky in that I don’t have to go out to work and then come home and find time to make books, but I do have a young daughter who’s at school – so, when she’s home from school, my time is taken up with being ‘Mammy’. While she’s at school I get time to work. During school holidays, I don’t get much time to work – I try to squeeze some writing time into the weekends, but mostly (and especially if I have a deadline to meet) I work at night, when my daughter is in bed. This can mean very long days, and a very tired me, but sometimes it’s the only way to get things done. My loved ones are also used to me zoning out during conversations, or running off to scribble something down before I forget it – sometimes, plot problems in a book I’m working on can resolve themselves in my head at the most inconvenient moments! Everyone who writes books, even if it’s their main job, can struggle to find the time and motivation to get the work done, so if you’re struggling with something you’re writing, don’t be hard on yourself. Put it aside for a while and do something else, and eventually the story will call you back.