INTERVIEW: Tracy Darnton, whose debut YA manuscript has been acquired from literary agent Jo Williamson for publication by Stripes, an imprint of Little Tiger Press. Having first met Tracy at Bath’s Literature Festival, when she helped us with the running of agent / writer event Pitchfest, we asked to catch up over coffee to hear the story behind her exciting book deal and agent news.
The story begins with a short story. In May 2016, Darnton’s The Letter won a YA short story competition run by Stripes in association with The Bookseller YA Prize. As part of the prize, The Letter was published in a Stripes anthology alongside works by established YA authors such as Melvin Burgess, Juno Dawson, Julie Mayhew and Non Pratt.
“It was fantastic, because as well as publication there were lots of other lovely opportunities which felt like author work experience. Firstly I got to work with an editor which meant lots of useful feedback, although goodness knows how many notes there will be on my novel manuscript because I had plenty on my 2,000 words. Then there was the chance to see the physical book come to fruition. Stripes involved me from start to finish, so I got to see the book proofs and took part in all kinds of marketing activities, from appearing at the Young Adult Literature Convention (YALC) to being on a panel at a festive YA salon at Waterstones Gower Street. It was all really useful, a brilliant insight into being a published author.”
Darnton was a lawyer before taking a break to raise her family and cites volunteering at her children’s school library as the experience which steered her into the realisation that she wanted to write again. “I did eight years as a volunteer school librarian so I became really aware of the kind of thing kids like to read. Within that role, I was able to do things like book displays and help out during book week. I got to see authors who came in to do events at the school and see how they presented to kids which was all helpful.”
Meanwhile, Darnton did a local beginners’ writing class at the Bath Central Library. “It included prompts which got me writing again. Then I went to a flash fiction evening with Tania Herschman who encouraged me to enter the piece that I wrote that session into the Words with Jam competition. It got third place. It was only 90 words, written in ten minutes, although I did get a £50 prize and I’ll never earn that kind of hourly rate again. But what was really important about that was meeting Zoe Fairbairns the writer who judged the prize. She was so encouraging about my little piece. She won’t even remember now, but it came along at just the right time and her words gave me the confidence to apply for the MA.”
Darnton chose Bath Spa University’s MA in Writing for Young People and graduated with distinction in 2016. “I did a part-time course over two years which worked well for me and I probably ended up writing more than if I’d done the more intensive course.” Particular highlights included novelist and tutor Steve Voake in her first term: “He was really good about the importance of finishing and how, in your head you can be a really good writer, but if you never actually finish something off you’re still nowhere. That’s why I value competitions – for deadlines to work to and the chance to see how your writing stacks up. For me it was a way of checking I was right to write, to be able to think okay, I’m really not deluded.”
For Darnton, going the MA route was not just about committing to completion, but also a way to signal to her friends and family that she was not after a writing hobby but a serious career: “The MA gave me permission to have time to write, polish and finesse a book to a definite timescale. And that was important not just for me but for everyone around me. Everyone knew that I had deadlines and work which needed to be handed in and marked. And then once I started getting decent marks it was a validation for everybody.”
Another MA highlight for Darnton was being taught by Bath Children’s Literature Festival Creative Director John McLay. “He not only taught us the publishing process, but took a real interest in us as writers and has already emailed me to say well done on the book deal. He gave really good advice about thinking long-term about your career and how that when you finish one project you need to start another straight away. He also talked us through the economics and logistics of publication and book distribution. Just very straight, realistic talk about what it’s actually like. So your eyes are completely wide open as to how hard it is to make it as an author, how hard you’ll need to work.”
It was during one of Julia Green’s workshops on the MA that Darnton began the YA manuscript just acquired by Stripes. The List is a thriller, about a girl who remembers everything and forgives nothing. It was temporarily parked while Darnton focused instead on her ideas for two middle grade books: “You’re meant to experiment and try things out across the age range, because you might go in thinking you’re a picture book or middle grade writer then it turns out, like it did for me, that you’ve got a darker side and a YA voice.”
Darnton’s middle grade novels are wacky, humorous, slapstick, ‘real world’ books: “They’re Milo and the Golden Apple of Doom, about a boy’s disastrous mission to win a trophy, and Milo and Operation Stepdad which was shortlisted for the 2016 Times Chicken House competition and follows Milo’s funny and heart-warming quest to find a partner for his single mum.” Darnton says getting on the Chicken House shortlist was a surprise: “I didn’t expect it. I used their closing date as a deadline to get my book finished ready for the MA anthology and to get some feedback. I find competitions fun. I’d definitely have entered the Bath Children’s Novel too, if I hadn’t been signed by then.”
By the time the Chicken House shortlist came out, Darnton was polishing Milo and Operation Stepdad for the launch of the official MA anthology that May. Why did she choose to write humour? “It’s hard to write funny books, I really admire writers who can do it. My favourite funny kids book would be Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce. It’s very funny and has exactly what I like, loads of layers with plot threads all tied up beautifully. It’s a book which might appear to be about space but it’s actually about boys and their dads. I must have given that book to every child I know.”
This was all happening around the same time as Darnton heard she’d won the Stripes YA prize, so May 2016 was a hectic month: “For the anthology launch we took a floor at Waterstones Piccadilly and invited loads of literary agents. I had lots of interest in my extract and met various agents on the night, or spoke on the phone, but I really clicked with Jo [Williamson of Anthony Harwood Literary Agentcy]. I had a lot in common with her, and I felt that she’d not only read Milo thoroughly until I was ready to send her everything and luckily she liked the MG and YA.”
Meanwhile, Darnton had returned to her YA thriller and, having got to know her well during the YA short story anthology process, Stripes were keen to see her YA novel manuscript: “They were under no obligation, but they liked my YA voice and decided to take on The List, which is a thriller on the edgy side. As it’s about a girl who remembers everything, I’ve been able to explore memory: how we remember things and how memory makes us who we are. It’s set on Dartmoor, which I’m very familiar with. The working title is The List, which works nicely with my short story, The Letter so I like the link, but we’ll see. It’s going to be published in 2018. I’ve got a lot to do on it still, it’s quite a complex book.”
Darnton’s two middle grade books are also out on submission, an experience she’s sanguine about: “I just expect bad things to happen. Creatively you’ve got to put yourself out there and rejections are just part of it. I went to the last SCWBI conference and they showed a hilarious video of members’ rejection quotes. The way I look at it, if you’re not getting rejected, you’re not getting close to finding your book a home.”
Tracy Darnton lives in Bath with her husband and two sons. She graduated in 2016 with Distinction from the Bath Spa MA Writing for Young People but originally studied law at Cambridge, and has worked as a solicitor and law lecturer. Having children was the perfect excuse to rekindle her love of children’s books and get writing and Tracy won the Stripes YA Short Story Prize in 2016, run in partnership with The Bookseller’s YA Book Prize.
This year Stripes will be spotlighting new BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) talent, with submissions of short stories or poems invited for publication in an anthology entitled A Change Is Gonna Come alongside established writers such as: Tanya Byrne, Catherine Johnson, Ayisha Malik and Nikesh Shukla. The closing date for receipt of submissions is 28th February 2017 with full details on the Stripes website