As a child, Alice Hemming loved the idea of writing a book and, at the age of seven, she completed her first manuscript about a robin that couldn’t sing. When she grew up, she worked as a librarian and a website editor. It was only when she had children of her own that she was able to pursue her childhood dream. Alice’s first picture book was published in 2013 and now she works as a full-time writer in a shed at the top of the garden. She has had over forty books published in the UK and internationally, including picture books and chapter books. She has also written for websites, reading schemes and even a talking bear! Her latest books, The Leaf Thief (illustrated by Nicola Slater) and The Cursed Unicorn (part of the Dark Unicorns series) both came out in September with Scholastic.
Alice lives in Hertford with her husband, two children and a rabbit called Shishi, who all provide lots of inspiration.
Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions, Alice! First off, could you tell our readers a little bit about how you became a published author?
Thank you for having me – I’m happy to share what I can.
My publishing journey began properly back in 2008, just after my daughter was born. I had always been interested in writing for children and had been on lots of evening classes/courses. Maternity leave seemed the perfect time to finish some of the projects I’d started, so while she was napping, rather than doing the hoovering, I wrote picture books.
In 2010, I submitted one of my picture books for the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) Margaret Carey Scholarship. My book was chosen, and I was awarded a place at their conference, with accommodation and a publisher’s critique. It was AMAZING and put me in touch with real-life authors, illustrators and publishers. Shortly afterwards, Maverick Publishing picked up two of my picture book texts for publication. I did go back to my desk job for six months, but then my son came along, and by then I’d decided that writing was the career for me. With the support of my husband, I juggled children and writing projects. It took a few years and a few false starts to get to the stage where I could happily say that writing was my actual job, but then things really came together for me.
I know so many authors who’ve found the SCBWI enormously helpful (and for anyone interested, you can find out more about their scholarships here) So, what does an average writing day look like for you?
Hahaha! The idea of me having an average day went out of the window in March, as it did for most of us. Over lockdown I was writing at some very odd times and catching moments when I could. But with both children now back at school, I have a chance at going back to my usual schedule, which looks something like this:
As soon as the children are out of the door, I head to my writing shed at the top of the garden and work on my longer WIP, which currently is the fourth Dark Unicorn book for Scholastic. To keep me on track, I use the focus booster app to work in short, highly focused bursts (the pomodoro method). I use Write Track to help me organise word targets for each day and to keep track of how I’m doing. I try to meet my target in the morning, then in the afternoons I’m free to catch up on other writing projects, email, critique, website and everything else. This is the plan but of course, other things always crop up, like (virtual) meetings, (virtual) school visits and (actual) sick children, so the plan is flexible!
I am seriously inspired by your organisation here! I know so many authors who like to break down their word count like this so that they can work on their book in more manageable chunks. You’ve written across age groups, from picture books to teen. Does one come more easily than the others, or do you prefer one style of writing over the others?
I genuinely like writing for all age groups. People who haven’t tried writing picture books often assume that they are easiest, but I find that they can be the most challenging. This is partly because there is nowhere to hide with so few words, and partly because you are writing half a book—the illustrator will bring along their half later in the process. But this collaboration can bring exciting results and they are a joy when you get them right. I do love sharing my picture books with small children.
Reading scheme books are different again because of the word lists and parameters you work within. But I enjoy this and find these sorts of restrictions can help the creative process.
Chapter books and young fiction can be great fun and I often find little anecdotes and stories from my children creeping in.
Longer, novel-length books are, of course, a much bigger commitment but I do love immersing myself in a big project. I can bring more of myself to these and enjoy researching the funny little things that crop up along the way (medieval carpentry! Phases of the moon! Tidal islands!)
I think for me, variety is one of the best parts of my job, and I really do enjoy all the different books I write.
What are some of the most useful things you’ve learned as an author?
A writing shed is a wonderful thing
The bum-on-seat method really does work and all the self-promotion in the world is of no use if you haven’t actually written anything
Good news comes quickly or completely out of the blue. Bad news takes longer!
A polite, well-worded rejection is worth celebrating. It means that the editor/agent in question thinks your submission is a good one. Still, they probably don’t want you to resubmit with changes. If they did, they would say
When writing picture books, I remind myself that, if successful, I could be sharing that book with actual children hundreds of times, so I had better be happy with every word!
The Hemingway App http://www.hemingwayapp.com/ can be very handy, especially for graded readers
If I get a good idea on the go, I write it down instantly, otherwise it is forgotten for all time
I keep learning as I go
There are some great learnings in your list! And your note about resubmitting with changes is, on the most part, very true, in my opinion. What would you say to anyone looking to become an author?
Write something! So many people talk about writing without actually doing anything about it
Find good critique partners
Enter competitions. They are an excellent way to get your work in front of someone from the publishing industry and, more importantly, they provide a deadline to work towards
Try not to get too hung up on one piece of work. If it’s not working, or it’s received loads of rejections then shelve it for a while and move on
Diversify and don’t be afraid to repurpose work in different ways
Keep a spreadsheet of submissions, and rejections. Celebrate the rejections: you are getting closer
Take opportunities. You never know where they will lead.
Being nice sounds like a relatively small thing, but it’s definitely a good piece of advice, and you decided not to have an agent so you know more than some people how important it is to build positive working relationships with people in the publishing industry. So many authors and illustrators have an agent – can you tell us a bit about why you felt able to make the decision not to?
Right now, I’m happy working without an agent but it was less of a decision and more just the way it worked out. I found myself without an agent but with a number of steady writing projects. There seemed no need to look for a new agent when I had such supportive publishers.
A good agent can be that all-important person to support and advise you through the sometimes-confusing publication process. But having an agent isn’t the only way, and since I’ve been working without one I’ve been surprised at how many other authors/illustrators go it alone. I wouldn’t rule out ever having an agent again, but it would have to be the right person for me.
What are the up-sides and challenges of being unagented?
The up-sides are that I feel in complete control of my own destiny and have freedom to approach and work with whoever I choose. I work directly with the editors, building close relationships, and hear feedback directly, without having to wait. I also keep 100 percent of the advance/royalties.
The challenge is that I have no one to hide behind for those “difficult” conversations, but luckily there aren’t too many of those.
Is there any particular advice you would give to other creatives who feel like the unagented route might be for them?
It might feel that doors are closed to unagented authors, but there are publishers who will accept submissions. Lou Treleavan has a fantastic website with many resources including this list of publishers accepting unsolicited manuscripts: https://loutreleaven.com/2010/07/21/childrens-publishers-accepting-unsolicited-manuscripts/
Contracts are daunting, but there are people out there who will give advice. I highly recommend the Society of Authors and their contract vetting service. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of your publisher/editor if there are things you don’t understand or feel comfortable with. If they are a reputable publisher, then they will never mind you asking. Likewise, don’t be afraid to negotiate your advance. They can always say no, and so can you.
With all of the above, I can only talk about my own journey. Each writer’s career path will be different, and you have to do what feels right for you.
Thank you so much, Alice – there is so much useful info here, we really appreciate your time.
Thank you for having me on People of Publishing!
Alice Hemming on Twitter.
Alice Hemming's website.