Paths to Publishing

Here’s the text of my talk at the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference:

I always worked as a writer in various fields, first in England and then in California. And I always intended to write a book when I had time.

I tried out a few plots for detective stories and children’s mysteries but nothing really came to life until about 12 years ago when I had a dream. I can’t remember the details, except that it somehow confused computer mice with the real thing and that idea pitched me into a parallel universe that I’ve been happily living in ever since.

It’s a universe where mice have evolved, thanks to computers. I’ll just read the short account of how it happened.

“It happened in Silicon Valley, California, where hundreds of computer companies were just starting up. And these companies were different. The people who worked there were young guys who wore jeans instead of suits, and often ate food at their desks. Some of them didn’t mind the fact that their leftover food attracted mice. Some of them even let the mice watch them work, day after day, week after week, month after month.

And that’s all it took. After months of watching, the mouse minds sprang to life, recognizing first one word on a screen, then another, then more, until in time these first mice learned to read and write well enough to use computers themselves. They taught their friends, who taught their friends, and soon mice throughout the world had their own version of the Internet, carefully protected by passwords from prying human eyes. Now mice could e-mail each other, and write their opinions in mouse blogs, and post news about themselves on MouseBook, and check facts in Whiskerpedia, and take on-line courses on nutrition and safety and human behavior and world events.

But there was a problem.

Using human computers was a pain, and if there was a cat in the house, forget about it. There was no way mice could take their rightful place as the second most important species on the planet unless they had computers the right size – computers they could use in privacy behind the walls.”

And that was the basis of my plot.

To help the mice out, I provided a ten year old girl called Megan who’s just helped her uncle invent the Thumbtop, the world’s smallest computer, one that’s obviously meant for mice. Paws yes fingers no, as one mouse puts it. The Big Cheese, leader of the Mouse Nation naturally wants to get a Thumbtop in every mousehole. So he sends off one of his rare talking mice to make friends with Megan, and through her to get to the uncle.

I finished the first version in about a year and a half. Spell-checked it. Printed it up in the approved manner, all polished and double-spaced–and got ready to unleash it.

And that’s when my problems began.

At that time, at least, word on the internet was that very few publishers accepted children’s manuscripts submitted directly by authors – by far the best chance was with an agent. So I researched agents, in this excellent book (Children’s and Illustrators Market, which comes out with a new edition every year.)

I followed its directions for writing a drop-dead query letter, with a lead sentence that’s essentially the elevator pitch – the one line zinger to get the reader’s attention. Then one paragraph to give them the flavor of the book and another about me. .

I chose six top agents who specialized in children’s books and sent off my queries with stamped addressed envelopes. Next day I calculated exactly when the agents might be opening my letter in different time zones, and sat by the phone in case they’d get so excited that they’d call me–I’d read some anecdotes where that happened. Not this time. No calls. Five envelopes came whizzing back with rejections, and incidentally over the next few years I was to appreciate the wide variety that rejections came in –I guess the bleakest was my own letter just stuffed back in the self-addressed envelope with no comment. But some other form letters came close.

One agent– Steve Malk from Writers House – did ask for the first 50 pages. And on the strength of that sample, he asked for the complete manuscript which I sent off without a stamped envelope because hey, the book was as good as sold. Right? I actually started looking at new cars, because I assumed I was about to get rich – didn’t know at that time that few children’s authors make a lot of money.

And anyway, I heard nothing for weeks. Months.

I didn’t dare e-mail Steve to ask what he’d thought of the book because he might tell me, which could be very discouraging.  But I did try to guess what had been in his head. Maybe he didn’t like such and such a character? No problem. That character was history. Maybe he wanted more adventure? So have some more adventure! I shoveled it in, sending Megan on an alarming visit to the Headquarters of the Mouse Nation.

That was just the first round of changes. Year by year, the story evolved with new characters, new relationships, new plot twists.

And each time I finished a new version, I sent it off to a new round of agents. I became quite creative in my approach to them, straining to find any tiny personal note that would at least get their attention. For example a writer friend had been at a book conference with an agent called Ginger. She didn’t know which Ginger. So I picked the most likely Ginger from an on-line directory and wrote in my query letter that my friend had recommended I contact her. At least that got me a request for the first three chapters before the inevitable rejection letter.  I still have no idea if it was the right Ginger. There seem to be a lot of them in the agent business.

I only came close once. According to all the tips I’d read on agent-hunting, you’re not meant to approach the same one twice, but Steve Malk of Writers House agreed to take another look. I sent off my latest revision–again with no stamped envelope– and again heard nothing for about four months. Then in 2004 I got a call from a junior agent in his office asking if the book was still available. Was it ever! She sent me her own comments–the mice were fine but my humans weren’t sufficiently differentiated. No problem! I spent a couple of months differentiating humans and off went the manuscript again.

And this time at least there was a real rejection letter, which said my humans still “didn’t ring true.”

This letter should perhaps have been the signal to give up. If I, as a human, couldn’t create humans, was there any real hope? But I kept on going with more rounds of changes, and approaches to more agents, even though by now I’d exhausted the list of those who specialize in children’s books and was now writing to people who worked mostly with books for adults.

All this time, with revision after revision, I was working in a ridiculous state of isolation. I hadn’t joined a critique group because I thought criticism could squash the fragile flower of my creativity. I wasn’t reading current children’s books because I was afraid that I might inadvertently plagiarize them, or I’d be too intimidated by their brilliance. I didn’t even dare try out the book on the ten-year-old next door, because what if she didn’t like it?

Socially, these years had their awkward moments when I had to admit to people that yes, I was still working on that mouse book. And they would look at me with pity, and I’m sure were thinking that a mouse book must be beyond me. Just a nice hobby that kept me off the streets in retirement.

But I really was determined to get this story out, to give my characters life. I even wondered whether perhaps a publisher might buy the story and appoint someone else to write it… And yes, I thought about self-publishing but at that stage, around 2006-7, self-publishing was much less mainstream than it has become since.

Seven years after I’d started the book, my husband and I were passing through Amsterdam, and had dinner with an ex-student of his. Like most people who are not agents she was fascinated by the outline of my story, and asked a simple question:  once mice all got computers, how could they best make use of all that power to help the planet?

Until then, I’d left it that mice would help humans in an unspecified way–maybe spying on dictators or eavesdropping on terrorists as the need arose. But this was 2007, soon after An Inconvenient Truth had swept the country. I was, and am, deeply concerned about climate change – so the best use of mouse power suddenly seemed obvious. My mice should tackle climate change.

Once I had that environmental thread to weave gently through Mousenet, a crisper plot clicked into place. And there was something else. Either I’d spent enough time with the human characters to get to know them inside and out, or I’d finally taught myself to write, or both. My humans came alive.

Six months after Amsterdam I had a new version under the sprightly new title of Megan Saves the Planet. I e-mailed Steve Malk and asked if he could bear to see it, one more time? Sure, he wrote. Send it along. I e-mailed the manuscript. Again heard nothing for a couple of months.

Then came the phone call on a Thursday evening with my husband away at an academic meeting in Brazil and only the dog to freak out with me as the agent said, “What happened? Your book’s great! We don’t want to change a word, except for that terrible title, which has to go.”

After that, it didn’t take long to sell, even though there was a bit of a mouse log-jam in publishing–at least four mouse books came out more or less at the same time as Mousenet, all by well-known authors.  That meant that at least two of the publishers who liked Mousenet turned it down because they already had their mouse books for the season, thank you very much. )

Luckily Hyperion didn’t have a mousebook, and bought mine,

The book emerged, last November. Not a best-seller, but a respectable seller–at least good enough to encourage Hyperion to buy the sequel, Mousemobile, which is due out in the fall or early winter next year. And I’m just polishing up a third–Mousemission, though there’s no guarantee Hyperion will take it