Congratulations wrapped in a big red bow go out to BWC member Colette Victor, who has recently joined the ranks of our published members! Her children’s book, The Zig and the Zag of Being Zeyneb, will be published by Chicken House in July 2014.
Colette, South African born but Belgium-based for 13 years, is a long-time member of the BWC, and read out chapters of her book at our meetings. We interviewed her about her new book, the long road to publication, and how she felt when she found out the good news. Of course she has some lovely things to say about our little Circle along the way, and she also has advice for those of you hoping to be published someday yourself.
Congratulations on your publication! Could you tell us, briefly, what the book is about?
The Zig and the Zag of Being Zeyneb is my first children’s novel and was shortlisted for the Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition 2012. It is a coming-of-age story about Zeyneb, a young Turkish girl growing up in an unspecified European city. She is faced with 2 dilemmas: will she wear the traditional hijab (headscarf) or not? What is she going to do about her feelings for Alex, a boy in her class who is not a Muslim? It’s aimed at girls between the ages of 12-15. (Although it really sounds like it, it’s not an issue-based book, but it’s hard to describe until you’ve read the book. My agent and my publisher agree with me about this one.)
How long did it take you to write the book?
I wrote this book over the summer of 2012. I’d done research beforehand on how to write for children and, it being my first children’s book, I followed the format diligently which seems to have paid off. I carried the idea of this story around in my head for a long time before that though. Having a job and a whole bunch of kids, I’ve been forced to become a fast writer. Then, when I heard I was one of the finalists for the competition, I spent about 2 months doing the editing – with the invaluable help of Sarah (van Hove) from the BWC – to have it ready on time.
You read your book out at BWC meetings along the way. Do you have anything to say about the feedback/encouragement you received?
Yes, I read out the first couple of chapters at the BWC meetings. The feedback and support were inestimable in helping me become a decent writer. I know, for a fact, I would never have reached this level without all those years of attending the BWC meetings.
Most of the comments you receive are genuine so I listened, I took everything on board, tried to improve what wasn’t working. After a while you already anticipate the comments you’ll get on a particular sentence or paragraph so you can work on this before you get to the meeting. I used to sit around on my little island, writing to and for myself, and all that resulted in was some pretty poor writing. Writing is not a solitary practice – or, at least, not for me. You need people, you need feedback, if you’re going to write anything halfway decent. Plus, which is probably the hardest part, you just have to keep on going long after you want to give up.
How did you go about getting your book published? Did you have an Agent, or did you approach publishing companies directly?
Well, can I give you the short, happy version or the truth?
The truth is that I’ve literally been looking for an agent on and off since 1998. The last 5 years very intensively. I tried approaching publishers directly but they’re simply not interested. No matter what they say on their websites, the truth is they only read manuscripts sent in by agents – and then only the agents whose judgment they trust. I have approached literally hundreds of agents. I had a few close calls, about 5, from agents who considered taking me on but didn’t in the end for some or other reason. Then, last year about this time, I approached yet another batch of agents (I’d long since given up on the advice of approaching agents whom you know represent your kind of work. I simply took the Writers and Artists Yearbook and worked my way through the list). I’d just made the shortlist for the Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition as well as the long list for the Dundee International Book Prize for an adult novel I’d written (which I also read out during BWC meetings). On the strength of this, my agent signed me up.
Her initial email – 1 December 2012 – to give me the good news, actually never arrived in my inbox. I sent a follow-up email in January because I hadn’t heard anything from her and she was shocked that I still hadn’t heard the news and baffled as to why I hadn’t replied to her! Of all emails that can go missing in bloody cyberspace, it had to be that one!
Anyway, she started sending off my manuscripts and managed to get me a fantastic deal from Chicken House, which I’m really excited about. This last weekend, on 25 October, I got an offer from Cargo Publishing to publish my adult novel. A long, long, long hard search is what it comes down to.
Any failed publication attempts, and lessons learned here?
Loads of failed publication attempts, like I said above. Query letters to an uncountable amount of agents, hopes raised, hopes dashed. I’ve actually written 6 novels to date. The first 3 were absolute crap, although obviously I didn’t think so at the time. They were all rejected with a laugh and a scoff. The last 2 I considered up to publishing standard and, thank God, I appear to have been right. I don’t believe anyone sends off their first manuscript and it’s snapped up for publications straight away, at least not from any of the authors’ stories I’ve read or heard.
How did you feel when you found out your book was going to be published?
Honestly, it was one of the happiest days of my life. I’ve been going after this since I was 9 years old. Maybe having my 2 babies beat this, and my wedding day. Nothing else.
I don’t have a very bookish family so they didn’t really know how to react. I don’t think they ever took me seriously until I got offered a publishing contract. I went out for supper with my husband and kids. There was more talk about the food than the book while I just wanted to go stand on the tallest building and shout out, “My book is being published!”
I still haven’t done the shouting bit, but I adore my unbookish bloody family, and I forgive them (though they don’t know there’s anything to be forgiven for.) Anyway, the internal sense of satisfaction is indescribable. It really is. I found out about the first book in July (2013) and I’m still high from that. It’s the most incredible feeling and it definitely makes up for all the years of being a wannabe writer.
Do you have any advice for any BWC members clamouring for publication?
I honestly think too many writers write for their own ego and imagine they’re doing something really deep and intellectual and that agents/publishers/readers simply don’t understand their genius. Once you get off this high horse and start writing for readers, plain, straight, honest good writing, then things start getting easier. All the basic advice – plot matters, strong characters matter, show-don’t-tell, make sure every single word you write advances the plot in some or other way (in other words: kill your darlings), scene is important, so is dialogue and making sure the whole thing isn’t too oblique – isn’t repeated in every writing book for no reason. These things really are essential to good writing. And so is sitting your arse down on your writing chair whenever possible. Or, at least, I should say, this has worked for me. Presumably everyone will have their own formula?