WriteNow is a mentoring programme for writers from marginalised or under-represented communities on the UK’s bookshelves, run by Penguin Random House. It gives 10 writers annually the opportunity to work one-on-one with an editor, through a year-long mentoring programme, who will help to shape their work and really bring out their voice.
Joe Marriott is a Commissioning Editor at Penguin Random House Children’s, Penguin Random House UK who is involved in the programme. He answered a few questions for me on WriteNow and what he’s looking for in a writer.
Can you tell me a little about your role and how you’re involved in the WriteNow programme?
I’m a commissioning editor for picture books, so I work with agents to identify new writing and illustrating talent and, along with my team which includes other editors and designers, recommend to my company which stories and art styles we should invest in. I then work with the authors and illustrators to help them make the best picture books possible. I’m passionate about finding new voices currently underrepresented in children’s picture books – and underrepresented in publishing more broadly – and so I jumped at the chance to work with our company-wide Inclusion team on initiatives to help make change. WriteNow is just one of these initiatives and it’s a very exciting way of finding new talent.
What do you look for in a writer?
I look for voices that draw me in and who make me want to discover more about the worlds of their characters. Also unexpected, surprising ideas – it’s the dream to read something that makes you think something you haven’t thought of before; or a fresh new way of looking at something familiar. For picture books I look for something I think will hold a young reader’s attention, lots of action, drama and emotion packed into a few 100 words – not as easy as it sounds! And if the story makes me laugh then that is a very big tick!
How can a writer make the most of working with a mentor?
Having a mentor or writing partner is such a valuable way of gaining another perspective on your writing. It’s also a great source of support when so much of the time writing is isolated. I would say be really open and honest with each other. Don’t be afraid to show your work in development – that feedback is how you learn. Equally be focused and try to be clear on the questions that you want to discuss when you meet so that you’re making the most of each other’s time. Remember that a mentor may not have all the answers, but it’s usually wise to listen to their reactions. Even if a solution that they suggest isn’t quite right in the end, it may well hint at something that isn’t quite working that could be better – and therefore worth exploring what that might be.
Can you recommend a book on writing, a blog or website where writers would find helpful advice on writing and publishing?
I’m sure some editors have books which they recommend to writers, but for me other than the Children’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook which has useful, practical information, there isn’t one book or website in particular that stands out. For picture books, perhaps more than for any other genre, my advice would be to immerse yourself in what’s out there in the market. Sit in bookshops and libraries, read books to your kids or your friends’ kids when you can, read and hear all the picture book voices currently published to help shape your own way of telling your story. It’s important to know what else is out there intimately so that you can make your own writing the best it can be – borrow ideas and make them your own: most picture books are a subtle twist, or new take, on what has gone before.
What advice would you give to a writer who is struggling to get published?
Do persist, but be prepared to try new approaches and listen to feedback. Some authors take many, many attempts to get published, but during that process there is usually quite a lot of change and development, whether that’s from external criticism or simply constantly refining, and looking at your own work from different perspectives. Most picture books take countless drafts to get perfect.
What’s the one mistake you see writers make most often when they’re trying to get published?
I think the comment I encounter most regularly is a writer saying ‘my children loved it’. It’s dangerous to judge your work by how your family and friends respond. They may well have great taste, but they also know you and have a shared history with you and will be responding to all sorts of things beyond just the work. You need to be able to write for people who have never met you – so be hard on yourself and ask will my story really be funny, interesting and fresh enough to interest a stranger. That’s not to say your children won’t love something great from you when they see it – it just means be careful and keep challenging yourself.
And finally, what’s the best book you’ve read so far this year?
My favourite book this year has been The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne – it’s very funny and very moving: a great combination.
You can follow Joe on Twitter @joermarriott.
If you’d like to learn more about WriteNow, read my interview with author and poet Katie Hale.