Polly Ho-Yen is the award-winning author of Boy in the Tower, Where Monsters Lie and Fly Me Home. She is our partnering author for Middle Grade writers during our #DACBaccess open month. Here’s why Polly is supporting the open month, and her top tips on putting together a submission:
‘There was a winding line of children waiting to have their book signed at the school I visited last week. We’d been doodling ideas for stories. Each student, as they approached me, was gripping on tightly to their piece of paper as though their idea might take flight and disappear if they didn’t. I talk to school groups about the value and the richness of their everyday experience – how no one else in the world is quite like them and so whatever they choose to make will be completely original because they made it. I tell them about my family. I show them a picture of my dad when he’s about four, with a little rounded sticking out pot belly. I tell them about small things that I’ve experienced that become big things when I write them down. We talk about soggy broccoli (possibly too much.)
I love visiting schools because it’s as though you can see a switch has been flicked; I can almost see them thinking, ‘well, if she can do it, then …’ Possibilities swarm the room, with excitement following as its tail.
The next boy stepped in front of me. “I’m like you,” he told me, grinning so widely that his cheeks expanded out. Two inflating balloons. “I’m half Chinese too. Only it’s my mum who’s Chinese. My dad’s English,” he went on. He told me the story of how they met, finishing with, “There’s no one else like me in the school” before launching into his idea for his book, without pausing for breath.
Next month I’ll be reading submissions made to Darley Anderson as part of their open submission month for BAME writers. #DACBaccess is a simple idea – over the month of November BAME authors can submit their work to a dedicated inbox to be read by agents over December and a shortlist will be given detailed feedback from both an agent and an author. I’ll be looking at the middle grade stories. I’m doing this for a very simple reason: we need more diverse writers and we have to do more to find them. Of course, submissions are open to all, all of the time but #DACBaccess has been created to make little more space for BAME writers to send in their submissions.
Like the standard submission, #DACBaccess asks for a covering letter, a synopsis and the first three chapters. It has to be a piece of work that you have finished (and that you feel that you’ve finished – it needs to be as polished and edited as you can possibly make it.) You might be reading this and decide here and now that you’re simply not at this stage in time for this open access month. I would urge you not to give up and wait until you truly feel that you have the whole book finished and that you’re as happy with it as possible, before you submit, open submission month or not. You need to be at the point where when you whisper softly to your book, “Are you the best you can be?” and it solemnly nods its head back at you, before you think about submitting. If you’re at this stage, then approach the covering letter and the synopsis like they are writing exercises. I’ve got to say I hated writing my covering letter because I felt a bit like a fraud and that I definitely was not good enough and I HATE talking about myself and I’m not even sure that my writing is any good in the first place. So if you’re feeling like that’s you, take a deep breath and remember these things when writing your covering letter:
– Try to keep it short and succinct. Don’t give the agent a sinking feeling that they have to trawl through reams of writing to try and work out who you are and what your book is – make it nice and easy and clear for them.
– Start with a basic introductory sentence that tells them the title of what you are submitting. (There’s no point reinventing the wheel here.)
– Followed by (roughly) a one or two paragraph summary/introduction to your book which will tell them why it will interest them. This is the tricky bit of the letter – it needs to be direct, clear and communicate the plot, tone and style of what you have written. Think of that one line hook that captures what your book is. For ‘Boy in the Tower’ I wanted to communicate that it was a kind of ‘The Day of the Triffids’ for kids in a modern urban setting that I knew.
In fact, this is exactly what I wrote:
I would like to submit BOY IN THE TOWER for your consideration.
I started writing this book after I couldn’t get a picture out of my head: A lone tower block standing, amidst a lush, jungle-like landscape. I work in a South London Primary School, which is surrounded by tower blocks, estates and a network of busy roads, and so perhaps it was a reaction to the inner city that brought me to BOY IN THE TOWER.
It tells the story of a nine-year-old boy called Ade who is a survivor of the attack and invasion of the Bluchers, a type of plant or fungus which feed upon the buildings of the city, dissolving them down into nothing. Ade finds himself trapped in his tower block as the world around him changes beyond all recognition. I am a fan of post-apocalyptic literature and film and I wanted to create a modern day story for children on this theme, with a nod to Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids.
I can’t say it better than Patrick Ness who in his tips for writing at Booktrust (which are brilliant – maybe don’t read this anymore and check them out: https://www.booktrust.org.uk/books-and-reading/tips-and-advice/writing-tips/writing-tips-from-authors/patrick-nesss-guide-to-writing) to remember that the covering letter “is an advertisement for yourself and for the book, so make it as good as possible. It must serve the same function as your fiction: it must be good enough to make them turn the page.”
I also hate writing synopses and so I’m sorry that we’re asking you to have to write and send that in too but the agent needs to see quickly what happens in your book. They want to get the sense that the plot is strong and will hold up. Be as short and clear as you can, but include all the plot twists and turns – it needs to tell the complete, full story.
Then those first three chapters. That should be the easy part, as you have already written those and read them to yourself a million times and have had anyone you’re living with asking you why you’re talking to yourself because you’ve been reading them aloud when you think no one else is in.
Then press send to firstname.lastname@example.org and think about something else for a while. Maybe eat a brownie.
I hope that you will think about submitting and that this is just the start of things for you. I wish you all the luck for the beginning of your book journey and beyond, and hey, I can’t wait to get reading!’