Bath Children’s Novel Runner Up Sarah House signs with Polly Nolan at The Greenhouse Literary Agency

SARAH HOUSE, Children’s Novel Award runner up with The Magpie Garden (MG, realistic with a magical twist) lives in the Cotswolds with her husband and teenage sons. When ill-health forced her to leave her IT job, she set about making her dream of becoming a writer a reality. Five years, three manuscripts and lots of rejections later, she briefly considered giving up but instead applied for Bath Spa University’s MA in Writing for Young People, wrote The Magpie Garden and has recently accepted representation with Polly Nolan at The Greenhouse Literary Agency.

Congratulations on accepting representation with Polly Nolan at Greenhouse Literary Agency.

Thank you! I already had a very positive view of Greenhouse because of past submissions, and Polly’s editorial background appealed to me too. Polly ended up reading the full manuscript on the way to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, and sent me a wonderful email saying she’d just got off the plane and had to let me know right away how much she’d loved it. That was such a happy moment for me – her email really buzzed with excitement about my writing. We met up a week or so later for a chat, and afterwards Polly put me in touch with some of the other writers she represents. They all had great things to say about working with her, which made me even more confident I was making the right choice. 

With several offers on the table, how hard was it to choose between agents?

It was a bit overwhelming to be honest, and very strange, after all those years of rejections, to be the one doing the choosing. All the agents were lovely, so I hated the idea of having to turn people down. But it was interesting to hear different editorial suggestions, and to weigh up which ones felt most in tune with my own intentions.  One scene which had really stuck in Polly’s mind had been a real turning-point for me in terms of developing the story, so it was great that she’d responded to that.     

We supported you during the querying process, was there anything that proved especially helpful from your perspective?

Calmness, kindness and contacts! It was so great to have you there to make suggestions and answer questions, and to calm me down when I started to panic. I also really appreciated you approaching some agents on my behalf – a service I didn’t know the Bath Children’s Novel Award offered until I made the shortlist.
You originally planned to wait until your  MA anthology had been launched in May, but being placed runner up brought things forward a bit…

Yes – every year the Bath Spa MA Writing for Young People graduates produce an anthology to showcase our work. I hadn’t intended to submit to agents in advance of the launch – I knew you published shortlisted extracts on the Bath Novel Award website, but it hadn’t occurred to me that this might have an impact on my plans. I was shocked when a US agent messaged me and asked to see the full manuscript, and this made me question whether waiting another three months before submitting was really the best thing to do. When I met Julia Churchill to receive my runner-up prize, she encouraged me to go out on submission straight away, and I decided to take her advice.    

How did the launch go and what was it like being unavailable at the literary equivalent of a speed dating night?

The launch was a great success, with masses of interest from agents and editors. I know some fellow graduates have already signed, and I’m sure lots more are very close to doing so. I guess it was a bit like literary speed dating! Even though I wasn’t there to pitch to agents, it was great to chat about my story with the editors who came. Everyone I met was really friendly and encouraging – it was a very happy evening, and a lovely way to round off the MA. 

Like all writers, you’ve experienced your share of rejections along the way. How have you handled that / any tips for others in the querying trenches?

Yes I have, and rejection is always tough. But if you’ve chosen to write, there’s always going to be rejection of some kind – from agents, from publishers, even from readers for the people lucky enough to get that far. I think rejections hurt less when you’re not facing them alone. Finding a fantastic group of writing friends really changed things for me. Other writers understand. They’ll inspire and encourage,  celebrate and commiserate – and make the journey so much more fun. 

This is your fourth manuscript. Did you ever think maybe it wouldn’t happen for you?

Absolutely! By the end of 2013 I ‘d spent five years writing three unsuccessful manuscripts, and doubt was definitely taking hold. Then, miraculously, it looked as if I was finally going to get a publishing deal. When that fell through I hit a really low point, and came my closest to giving up. Fortunately, my stubbornness kicked in, and instead I signed up to do an on-line writing course, which then gave me confidence to apply for Bath Spa’s MA. That’s when things really started to look up. It was so inspiring to work with such a talented group of writers – and wonderful to become part of a really supportive writing community. I felt a little lost after the course finished, so the timing of the Bath Children’s Novel Award competition was brilliant – it gave me something else to work towards, exactly when I needed it.   

As runner up, you won £500 in editorial services with Cornerstones Literary Consultancy, who you have used in the past – how did that work for you and any thoughts on how you’ll spend your prize?

Cornerstones Logo
Cornerstones were fantastic. Their encouragement way back at the beginning was so important to me. I didn’t study English beyond GCSE, so always felt I wasn’t ‘qualified’ to write. Having such a positive response to my early work almost felt like permission to keep going. As I’d worked on The Magpie Garden throughout my MA, I decided not to use my prize on further edits. Cornerstones have kindly said I can use it for a future project, so I’m sure I’ll make good use of it soon!

Describe The Magpie Garden…

At its heart it’s a story about friendship and hope. The main character has a very unsettled home life, and is desperate to find somewhere she belongs. When she’s sent miles away to stay with her horrible grandma, she’s determined to hate everything about the run-down seaside town. But then she discovers the mysterious Magpie Garden, and nothing is ever quite the same again … 
Sadly the garden only exists in my head, but the setting is based on a real place in south Devon. It’s somewhere I went every year on holiday as a child, and somewhere I’ve continued to visit with my own family. I’ve never been able to put my finger on what it is, but something about the place keeps drawing me back. Without fail, I feel better for being there, and the idea of the mysterious ‘power’ of the garden grew out of that feeling. One of the many great things about writing the story was that it gave me a brilliant excuse for lots of extra visits! I’d only ever been there in the summer before, so I needed to go inthe depths of stormy winter to get the setting right.   

Our shortlist is entirely voted for by Junior Judges aged seven to seventeen who are also asked which book they loved the most. How important was that for you?

For me, this is what makes the Bath Children’s Novel Award a stand-out competition. It’s such a brilliant idea, and so inspiring for the shortlisted authors to know kids loved and voted for their stories. It must be so empowering for the Junior Judges too – a fantastic opportunity for them to have their opinions heard. The @bathnovelaward twitter account ‘teaser tweets’ (which gave extracts from the Junior Judges’ comments) were wonderful to read – really honest and straightforward opinions.  
Sarah with winner Gareth Osborne and two of our Junior Judges at AM Heath Literary Agency

At our winner’s presentation you got to meet the eight year old junior judge who backed your book. What was it like meeting your first young superfan?

It was wonderful! I was so proud when she presented me with my flowers. The day went by in a bit of a blur, so I’m glad I’ve got such lovely pictures to remember it by.

We went into your Junior Judge’s Year Four classroom for National Storytelling Week and read the first three chapters of your book. Were you surprised that the boys loved it every bit as much as the girls?

I was thrilled the boys loved it too. I think we do children a great disservice by marketing books as ‘girls’ books and ‘boys’ books. Stories should be enjoyed by whoever wants to read them.
Tell us about the book themed gift you gave your Junior Judge…

The main character in my story has a collection of shells and stones and other treasures she keeps in a decorated box. I wanted to thank my Junior Judge for all the time and effort she’d put into reading and reporting on my book, so I made a mini-version, complete with some shells from the beach that inspired the story. I had great fun making it – it was exactly the sort of thing I loved to do as I child – and it was brilliant to hear her plans to visit the beach and add some shells of her own. 

What’s happening next for you and The Magpie Garden?

At the moment I’m having a little break from it until Polly returns my first edits. From what she’s said, I’m hoping it won’t be long before The Magpie Garden is out on submission to publishers. I’ve already started planning my next story, so I’ll be straight into that to take my mind off the waiting… 

Any advice for anyone thinking of entering this year’s Bath Children’s Novel Award?

Without hesitation I’d say do it! It’s been an absolutely brilliant experience from start to finish. I can’t recommend it enough!

Q&A with Caroline Ambrose, Bath Novel Award Founder

The Bath Children’s Novel Award 2017 is currently OPEN with entries invited until 19th November 2017 |£2,000 main prize| Full details here

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