GABRIELLE KENT is the author of ALFIE BLOOM: THE SECRETS OF HEXBRIDGE CASTLE, the first in a series of children’s fantasy novels published by Scholastic. In addition to her writing, Gabrielle has worked in and around the games industry since 1997 and is a senior lecturer and Deputy Head of the computer games department at Teesside University.
You’ve been longlisted by Mslexia, Shortlisted for Northern Writers and won Friday Night Live at York Writers’ Festival. Was your success in competitions help you to find representation?
The slushpile is a vast mountain of hopefuls that agents have to sift through in order to find gold. Listing competition successes in your cover letter is a great way to make yours stand out. It is proof that your book has already impressed people in the publishing industry and has something special.
For Friday Night Live, you pitched your novel to a panel of agents and audience of writers. Was that as nerve-wracking as it sounds?
I work full time as a university lecturer and deliver weekly lectures to over 200 students, but reading my work in front of hundreds of other writers did my make my stomach flip. I threw everything into the reading and the applause I was rewarded with was utterly amazing. I had been feeling quite frustrated with my rejection slips and was starting to doubt my future as a writer, but this approval from my peers gave me the energy I needed to keep on going and land a deal.
Alfie Bloom is a magical realism novel for middle grade. The story follows a young boy who inherits a castle full of wonders that has been sealed for centuries, but deep below the castle lies a dark secret. With the help of his cousins Madeleine and Robin, a shapeshifting solicitor and a flying bearskin rug, Alfie must make sure that the secrets of Hexbridge Castle stay secret, forever!
How did you research the right agents to approach?
The Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook was my starting point, but you still need to put the effort in to stalk each of the agencies to find out more. I later discovered Lou Treleaven’s excellent blog in which she lists agents for children’s books with details of what they are currently looking for and links directly to their sites. I found it incredibly useful in landing representation.
How did you handle the inevitable rejections?
Not very well! At first I was optimistic and kept thinking of all the famous authors who had dozens of rejections, but as the rejections crept into double figures I started to worry that I would never get my big break. My husband was very supportive, but I found it so frustrating reading standard rejections and not knowing exactly why the work was rejected. Entering competitions made me feel much better about my work and kept me going. It also helps if you put all of the rejections in a box ready to put on display at an exhibition celebrating your 25th bestselling novel.
How long did you submit to agents before accepting representation with Ben Illis at BIA?
I think I was querying for around 18 months and approached around 20 agents in total. At first I played by the rules and only submitted to one agency at a time, then I sat down and worked out that each agent took six weeks to three months to reply, so if I was to keep approaching them one at a time I’d be querying my entire life! It’s unfair of agencies to make that request as it is only in their interest, not yours. Once you have been asked to submit your full manuscript then you should reveal which other agencies are also looking at it.
Ben was in my first multiple batch of submissions, I submitted to about eight at once. Ben got back to me after two weeks for the full manuscript. He read it very quickly and immediately called up to arrange a meeting in London. I signed with him within a month of submitting. Interestingly, several more agents from that batch got in touch asking for the manuscript up to three months after I had signed with Ben.
How much editing did you do with Ben before the book went out to publishers?
A little. I improved the pacing a bit. Ben sent it out to around four publishers, all of whom were very interested but just not quite enough to sign me. This forced me to go back and look hard at clarifying and streamlining the plot. As soon as this was done, the book was immediately snapped up by Scholastic. Never put off trimming the fat!
You’ve worked in and around the videogames industry since the late nineties. How has your love for gaming shaped your fiction storytelling techniques?
It would have been hard for me not to think about how my work would work as a game while I write. I imagined how the castle would work as a game level, and was even figuring out how the special effects would be done for some of the scenes. Obviously a book is much more linear than a game, but I did find myself exploring all of the possible outcomes for decisions Alfie made, some of these ended up changing my initial plans for the story.
Any digital plans for Alfie Bloom?
Several of my students chose to develop a game based loosely on the book. It should soon be up on the Alfie Bloom page on Scholastic’s website. I hope that this will be the first of a long line of interactive experiences. When I finally get some free time I’d love to create a website with lots of interactive features for fans of the books.
Any tips for writers entering a writing competition?
Hooking your reader immediately is extremely important, but so is keeping them hooked! In order to pique the interest of agents and judges I focussed all of my attention onto making the first three chapters as gripping as possible, unfortunately folks seemed to lose interest once the full manuscript was sent. This was because I let the pacing drop too much in chapter four as I had filled it with all of the exploration and exposition I had held back. Cutting that chapter down to a single paragraph had a huge impact, and I feel that I might have made it past the shortlists if I had done that sooner.