Writing Kids' Books

Children's author Kate Wiseman joins us to talk about her writing journey

Kate Wiseman's debut novel Gangster School was published on 2nd October with German publisher Piper Verlag. Kate talks to us about her writing journey and path to publication.

Kate lives in Saffron Walden with her husband, her son (when he’s home from university) and three neurotic cats. One of her cats, Maisie, is actually a ghost cat now, but Kate still talks to her every day.

Writing kids' books: Can you tell us how old you were you when you first started writing?

I started writing in primary school and I used to love thinking up creepy stories. I remember one where a girl got possessed by a spirit in a graveyard (where else) and strangled herself. I was devastated when my teacher told me that she’d have fainted before she died! By the time I got to secondary school I’d more or less given up writing fiction, although I wrote masses of essays and stuff. Then I spent a long time wishing I had the courage to write fiction again, but it took me a long time to get back to it.

Writing kids' books: What does your typical writing day look like?

Get up about 6am, make tea, take tea back to bed, drink tea. Read. Make more tea. Think I should be writing. Chat to friends on social media. Feel guilty that I’m not writing. Make breakfast. Eat breakfast. Make sure I’m up and dressed and have completed boring chores by about 9. Then it’s into my office or flop on the bed (surrounded by cats) and start to write. Stop frequently for more tea and to give my brain a rest. 

I’m a morning person so I write much better then. I suppose an average word count for a day would be about 1,000 words. On a good day, 2,000. I once did 5,000 and my brain was frazzled for days. 

I find that writing is mentally quite tiring, so I normally stop around lunch. Then (guilty secret) I watch one of those true crime programmes on Sky for an hour – I love Lieutenant Joe Kenda! Usually I’ll doze off. Then there’ll be time to read over what I’ve written before I go out to work. 

I keep a notebook by my bed because I often wake up around 3am with a brilliant idea for the next bit of my story. 

Writing kids' books: You began studying English and Creative Writing at university when you were 38, then went on to take a Masters in English Literature. Can you explain how university helped you on your journey to becoming a published author? 

The degree in English and Creative Writing made me realise that there was so much more to writing than I’d realised and helped me learn the basics of producing fiction – show don’t tell, character journeys, stuff like that. It also polished up my long-neglected writing skills and taught me the importance of sticking to deadlines, etc. Above all, it gave me confidence that I could write, especially when I started getting good marks. It also made me realise that I’d never be happy until I’d at least tried to write a novel. 

The Masters gave me more confidence and reaffirmed my love of literature. It also made me all too aware of my own limitations as a writer but that wasn’t a bad thing, because it made me try harder. Writing dissertations gave me confidence that I could produce longer work. That was essential for me. 

Writing kids' books: When did you first have the idea for Gangster School? Can you tell us what the book’s about and where it’s available?

Ha, my son (aged 22) will kill me for this. When he was small and someone asked him what he wanted when he grew up, he’d say that he wanted to be an evil genius. I’ve always worked with children and in schools and the idea for Blaggard’s School for Tomorrow’s Tyrants sort of blossomed out of those elements. 

Gangster School is about Milly Dillane and Charlie Partridge, two Dependables (non criminals) from dedicated felonious families, who have no choice but to attend the world’s best school for trainee criminals. They’re joined by Charlie’s smelly dog, Gruffles, who ends up masquerading as a ghost dog because animals are banned at Blaggard’s. They get up to all sorts of stuff that I won’t go into now. 

At the moment it’s only available in German, both as an ebook and a hardback, from Amazon or direct from the Piper Verlag, the publisher. Or from all good German bookshops. I’m hoping to have a British edition next year. Watch this space.

Writing kids' books: Did Gangster School have any input from an editor before you sent it out on submission? Would you recommend working with an editor before trying to find an agent?

I had a quite a lot, and Golden Egg and SCBWI were both brilliant. What really worked for me was getting a mentor, in my case Tamsyn Murray, the author, whose input helped me get from lots of agent interest but no offers of representation, to getting an agent and a book deal. So yes, I’d recommend it. No matter how much you think you know, a good editor will always be able to offer valuable input and insights. 

Writing kids' books: Gangster School was short listed for not just one but three national prizes (Children’s Funny Fiction award at the Winchester Writers’ Festival in 2016, the Greenhouse Funny Prize and the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize.)

Do you think being shortlisted helped when you were looking for an agent? Would you encourage other writers to enter competitions? Were they positive experiences?

Hmm. Yes I think that anything that helps your submission stand out in the slush pile is helpful, but you need to remember that it’s a subjective business and if you don’t get picked, it’s no reflection on your work. Don’t get too hung up on competitions but if you’re one of the lucky ones, use it to your advantage.

Writing kids' books: How long after signing with your agent did it take to get the publishing deal with Piper Verlag? Did you edit your manuscript with your agent before it went out on submission?

I did very little editing of my ms before it went out – just a few minor changes, but it had gone through countless permutations before that! I signed with my agent in September last year. By the end of October I had the deal with Piper and the first book has just been released (one year later.)

Writing kids' books: I believe you have a three book deal with Piper Verlag. What was the process after signing with them? 

Gangster School - The Brotherhood of Brimstone Book CoverCover for the second Gangster School book, The Brotherhood of Brimstone

Yes, I’m very lucky to have a three book deal. After signing with Piper, things went amazingly smoothly.

My editor there arranged for a translator and asked my permission to change a few minor things, mainly spellings of names to make them easier for German readers.

I had no involvement with the artwork but I absolutely love it and wouldn’t want to change it if I was given the opportunity. The artwork for the second book is great too (see  right.)

Writing kids' books: What’s the best bit of becoming a published author and what are you most looking forward to? 

The absolute best bit of becoming a published author is getting the advance copies through. Holding a book with your name on the cover is fantastic. I think I slept with mine next to me for at least a week. My husband was less than impressed. 

I’m most looking forward to signing a copy of my book. As my audience is in Germany I haven’t been called on to do this yet. I’m practising my signature just in case!

Writing kids' books: I believe you’ve already completed the follow up book to Gangster School,  Brotherhood of Brimstone, which will be published in Spring 2018. What are you currently working on? 

Yes, you’re right re the Brotherhood of Brimstone. I had great fun with that. I’ve just finished No Man’s Land, a YA novel about gender issues in the first world war and a girl who decides to become a soldier in order to fight in her brother’s place.

I’m now writing the third Blaggard’s novel. It’s called The School for Scumbags and it’s set at Crumley’s School for Career Criminals. Crumley’s are Blaggard’s bitter rivals and are much nastier. Milly and Charlie get sent there to attend Crimicon, THE annual conference for budding criminals. They’re in a very perilous situation at the moment. I hope I can get them out of it. 

Writing kids' books: Our website is called WritingNV.com In the spirit of all things green can you tell us if there are any writers you envy?

Crikey, lots of them! In no particular order : Frances Hardinge, M G Leonard, Roald Dahl, Tana French, Emily St John Mandel, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman (who I sat next to in a theatre earlier this year), Philip Ardagh, Hilary Mantel, Wilfred Owen, oh, that Shakespeare bloke…

Thank you so much to Kate Wiseman for taking the time to drop in at WritingNV.com You can find out more about Kate on her website www.katewiseman.uk and follow her on Twitter @KateWiseman

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