I can't calculate how many rejections I have had in the last nine years, but it must be nearly 300. It was in 1991, when my son, Freddie, was nearly one, that I decided to concentrate (what a heart-sink verb that is) on writing for children. But I did concentrate, I really did. In 1993 I won a small competition and had my entry read on BBC Radio 5. Yes, yes! I thought. I'm on the pig's back! But, as it turned out, it was a case of yes and no. More no, really...
The rejections kept coming. And coming. Often, though - encouragingly often - publishers sent rejection letters rather than rejection slips. I still feel gratitude to those editors who took the trouble to send unknown author E Smith any sort of advice. Some of the comments, of course, were unwelcome. I remember my horror when one editor described my writing as (I can hardly bring myself to type this) "old-fashioned". What? My writing - my pared-down, crowd-pleasing prose - old-fashioned? There it was in black and white.
At first I kept all the rejection notes, and had this notion of making them into a collage to put in the loo (on the wall, that is). After a few years, however, it became clear that the loo was completely out of the question. Any collage would have had to go all the way down the hall, and up the stairs.
But I still went on. Obsessive, really. Or bloody-minded. Take your pick. When I was very low (a general depression, not just about my writing) my friend Annette wondered - wasn't I aiming a bit high? Wouldn't it be better to have a more achievable aim? Excellent advice. I took absolutely no notice. As I said to my husband, "Well, I may not have any talent, but you can't fault me for sheer bloody-mindedness." His response to this, I seem to remember, was a sort of choking noise. The children were more outspoken. If I dared to criticise a children's book, my daughter would say, "Shut up mum, you're jealous." (Too right.)
It was the near misses that hurt most. In fact I had so many near-misses with so many publishers, I began to think I must be some sort of statistical miracle. One editor summoned me to her office, and, during our 20-minute chat, I got the distinct impression she was taking me on. Delirious, I tottered home, then started (as we had agreed) to cut four of my books to make one four-chapter book for a particular series. I was rather pleased with the results, but several weeks later this, and two other manuscripts, were rejected outright. Heigh-ho.
For several terms I attended a children's writing workshop. Now that was useful. It is an education to have your work read aloud by one member of the class, and then commented on (quite robustly) by the remainder. I recommend it. Particularly if (as we were) you are in the hands of a gifted teacher.
As the rejections flood in, it is interesting to see what is being published. By and large, the most successful children's authors - the ones who are well-known and sell lots of books and make money - are indeed the best ones. Maybe in other fields you can cut it by being a celebrity or being pretty. But in this little corner of human endeavour it's still - for now - the talent that counts. And isn't that what it's all about? Isn't that what our young readers deserve?
In 1996 Collins Educational published a story I'd written about a mother who gets fed up with her children's bad manners (where do I get my ideas?). The teachers' panel weren't having anything too disgusting, though. My hero originally tried to bribe his little brother to spit in his mum's tea. This was changed to sneezing in his mum's tea. I decided not to scream "artistic integrity".
By now several publishers would at least pretend to consider my submissions seriously. And I felt I had learnt my craft. I knew about structuring and language and not using too many adjectives. I had got the point about grabbing the child's attention at the off. And I even knew about taboos and things-that-get-up-editors'-noses. But I now had one last hurdle to clear. I needed The Big Idea, the one that would really launch me as an author.
Then along came Astrid, the au pair from outer space.
Freddie, the baby, is now a strapping lad of nine.
And Astrid is on the shelves.
"Astrid, the Au Pair from Outer Space" (Transworld, pounds 3.50) won a Silver Medal in this year's Smarties Book Prize in the Younger Novel category (age 6-8).Reuse content