I’m thrilled to be taking part in Barbara Henderson’s blog tour as she celebrates the launch of YA historical fiction Fir for Luck and spills the beans on her path to publication.
A teacher and mother of three, I was 38 when I realised that my dream of being a novelist was pretty unlikely to come true if I didn’t finish a novel at some point. Short story competition success aside, I had not proven (even to myself) that I could write something more substantial. Attending an event with children’s author Janis Mackay was an eye-opener: to the audience question of how she got published, she simply said: ‘I entered the Kelpies Prize and won, so I got published. That was it, really.’
I am a sucker for occasions, and New Year seemed as good a time as any to make my resolution. I was going to write a novel, win the Kelpies Prize and be published.
I threw myself into the first decent idea for a story. Months later, I had finished it, sent it to a handful of agents and received my first clutch of rejections.
One agent, however, got back to me and asked for the whole manuscript, and another told me this one wasn’t for her, but she’d like to see what I did next. I tweaked it and entered the Kelpies Prize. With no success. My three-step business plan had failed!
By that time, I had begun another book I was really excited about, so I put the first one aside and got cracking on a political thriller for Middle Grade readers. Done, I sent it off and collected a second round of rejections, but many of them were nice ones with a bit of feedback. Another agency enthusiastically asked for the whole manuscript and I sent it. A month afterwards I had heard nothing and followed up – the agent in question had left her job and no-one knew anything about it.
Undeterred, I sent it off for that year’s Kelpies Prize and got started on my third manuscript, an MG eco-thriller. One by one, the rejections trickled in, and I was full of self-doubt when two magical things happened all at once: I stumbled across the local history at Ceannabeinne on holiday in Sutherland – the story that would become Fir for Luck – AND I got an email, telling me I had made the Kelpies shortlist.
What followed were six weeks of promising possibility before the winner was announced: Not me, but the brilliant Alex McCall. That was 2013, and although I did not have the publishing deal I had longed for, I had gained something else: a bit of credibility, a bit of confidence – and a slightly thicker skin. I had made the Kelpies shortlist, a final list of three – and so I kept writing.
Floris, the Edinburgh-based publishers who run the Kelpies Prize, kept in touch, giving me feedback, and very nearly taking one of my picture book efforts.
It was the beginning of 2016, and ever hopeful, I set up a Twitter account so I could take part in a Twitter pitch initiative. A new company called Cranachan followed me and I clicked through to their website to have a look. Scottish, small, motivated, island-based. The perfect match?
A few days later I got a request for the whole manuscript. I was encouraged, but not beside myself with excitement: I had been here before and it had all come to nothing. Imagine my surprise when, soon after, they asked if they could come to Inverness to meet me in person. I agonised: how I could possibly persuade them to take a gamble on me? I ran through scenarios and my various pitches for Fir for Luck, brushed up on my knowledge of the current historical fiction market for children, smartened up my blog and increased my social media activity. In the end, we met and we clicked. I floated home from the meeting, still in a state of shock, to find that my husband had rushed out to get champagne and flowers while I was out, just in case it worked out.
Once the contract arrived, I got it checked by the Society of Authors which gave me the confidence that this was kosher, professional territory, and I signed on the dotted line...