By Jasmine Stephens, Family Editor
The 30th March marks the start of the 7th annual National Young Writers’ awards. The competition encourages children between the ages of five and 14 to explore their imaginations and submit a 500 word story on this year’s theme of ‘Strange Events and Peculiar Happenings’ to try and win a holiday to Disneyland Paris and £500 worth of books for their school. Entry is free and stories can be submitted online at www.explorelearning.co.uk/youngwriters
To celebrate the launch, I spoke to Rachel Lyon, author of children’s books ‘The Cautionary Tale of the Childe of Hale’ and ‘I wish I’d been born a Unicorn’ about her career and to pick her brain for some tips for budding writers.
Hello Rachel! The National Young Writers’ awards aims to get children interested in writing from a young age. Did you know early on that you wanted to be an author?
Yes. I got my first typewriter when I was about 9 and used to rush home from school and write poems. When I was ten a family friend asked if he could take a bundle of them to his wife. He came back a couple of weeks later with a cardboard box full of little grey books called ‘No Thorns on this Berry’ (my name then was Rachel Berry). He said he thought the poems were so good they were worth printing in a book. I cringe when I read those poems now, they seem silly, but when I visit schools I always show it to the children to prove that the dreams you have in Primary school – if you work hard – can come true. When I had my first book published many years later, I couldn’t wait to take a copy to Noel. I wrote a message in the cover thanking him for his encouragement.
Everybody knows it can be very difficult to get published. How did you get your first big break?
As I got older, I started to think that being an author was something ‘other’ people did. In careers lessons, I’d never say that I wanted to be an author, it seemed unrealistic. I ended up working in Marketing and PR – writing for businesses – but I just wanted to be writing stories. At 26, I decided to become a Freelance Copywriter, so I could work from home and have more time to write creatively. Money was tight because I didn’t have a guaranteed wage, but I was happier. I sent one attempt at a children’s story to publishers, but didn’t get anywhere, so I began to think it would never happen. Then one day I heard about The Childe of Hale – a real life giant who lived near Liverpool in the 16th century and who King James 1st had taken to London to wrestle his champion. He was so tall he used to sleep with his feet dangling through the windows of his cottage. I thought children would love him as a character, so I started writing the story about his life, and although I didn’t plan it, I ended up writing it in rhyme. I hadn’t even thought of doing Julia Donaldson style rhyming picture books, but by the end of the next day I had a finished rhyming story called ‘The Cautionary Tale of The Childe of Hale’. It was as if everything had just clicked. I knew it was the best thing I’d ever written. I spent a day researching publishers to come up with a short-list (major publishers won’t let authors send stories direct – you have to have an agent, so I could only submit to publishers would accept un-agented work). One morning I got a phone call from the MD of Maverick, saying they liked the story and wanted me to go for a meeting with them. I think I danced around the house for the rest of the day.
Is a career as an author everything it’s cracked up to be?!
I love everything about being a writer. I love getting to play around with ideas and the complete freedom to write what I like when I like. I love getting positive reactions from people who’ve enjoyed the stories, and I love seeing children’s faces when they’re hearing the stories and are completely lost in them. I can’t imagine anything better. Rejection is the hardest thing to deal with; when publishers turn down your story. But it happens all the time – Harry Potter was turned down by lots of publishers at first. It goes with the territory.
Any tips for contestants to get their story to stand out above the rest?
The most important rule is to write a story that you would enjoy reading. Title is also really important; an interesting or surprising title will interest people from the start. I think the success of my second book is due in part to its title – it’s called ‘I Wish I’d Been Born A Unicorn’.
What’s next in the pipeline for you Rachel?
My third book comes out next year – the working title is The Tidiest Bunny but it will change before it goes to print. I’m editing it at the moment!