A while back I was asked to help judge a contest for a YA website. They sent me 10 pitches + the first 250 words of each entry. The first several entries were good, but nothing really jumped off the page. Then I came across an entry that made me laugh so hard, I think I shot coffee out my nose. The pitch was amazing, but the first lines really grabbed me. I read the entry several times and then posted the highest marks I could. I wasn’t surprised to find out weeks later that the entry, BRIMSTONE FOR BREAKFAST, had won the competition.
Today, I am thrilled to share the writing journey of the author of BRIMSTONE FOR BREAKFAST, Tatum Flynn…
Amy: How long have you been writing Middle Grade?
Tatum: I started my first novel, a steampunkish MG set in Victorian London, towards the end of 2010. Although I did make a comic about a girl detective when I was seven years old, so I guess you could say I’ve been writing MG way back since, er, Date I Will Not Divulge But Record Players Might Still Have Been A Thing.
Amy: You’ve had so many cool jobs: croupier, travel writer, poker player. How did these varied experiences help your writing?
Tatum: *briefly feels cool* *remembers is currently mostly employed as Cat Furniture* *haz a sad* Honestly, I think all experiences help with your writing, whether you’re shooting rapids in the Grand Canyon or trying to figure out if someone is bluffing across a poker table in Vegas or just chasing the cat round the house trying to stuff her into a travel cage. (The last is easily the most dangerous, as any cat will tell you.) It’s my interpretation of Write What You Know: you don’t need firsthand knowledge of the situations you portray – which is a big relief when you’re writing about being chased through Hell by carnivorous carousel horses – but it helps if you’ve felt similar emotions you can tap into, like being scared and excited at once, or the aha moment of suddenly realising someone is lying.
All those jobs also involved travel, and I think travel is a brilliant thing for writers to do if possible, because when you go to places you’ve never been before, you get that sense of seeing everything with fresh eyes and feeling like everything is new, and I think the best writers have a fresh and different way of looking at the world.
Amy: How long did it take you to write BRIMSTONE FOR BREAKFAST? Did you fast draft or was there a long period of writing, edits and revisions?
Tatum: BRIMSTONE has a fragmented origin story – it was actually the first novel I began, back in 2010. In fact, the very first sentence I ever wrote – ‘Lucifer was sulking’ – is still in the book. But then I got a shiny new idea for an MG historical and went off and wrote that instead. *smacks Past Tatum on the head* Afterwards, I had a few false starts with new stories, but I couldn’t get this funny/scary tale – about Lucifer’s youngest son who’s hopeless at being evil – out of my head. So I came back to BRIMSTONE at the end of 2012, rewrote the rough opening chapters I already had and finished the rest pretty quickly. In total it probably took about three or four months to draft, with another month or two of smallish revisions and polishing.
Amy: Did you have critique partners or beta readers that helped you polish BRIMSTONE FOR BREAKFAST? If so, what did they add to the process?
Tatum: I have two fantastic critique partners, Danica Schloss and NK Traver, who helped me fix several plot holes and inconsistencies, and also bolstered my confidence by telling me all the parts that made them laugh. Since it was the first time I’d written a book which was supposed to be funny and I was terrified no one would get my weird sense of humour, having at least two people in the world saying ‘this bit with the grumpy were-rhino cracked me up’ helped a lot. My parents and best friend also beta read and gave some helpful suggestions.
Amy: Are you one of those people who has an easy time writing a query or does it take several tries before you land on the one you want to send?
Tatum: I actually always write a query before I even start a book. It’s like I’m trying to sell the story to myself, to decide if I should spend several months writing it rather than one of my other ideas. So, yes, queries are one of the things that are easier for me, because I do them automatically.
Amy: How many agents did you query for BRIMSTONE FOR BREAKFAST? Did you receive instantaneous responses or did you have to wait for requests/rejections?
Tatum: I sent – wait for it – 108 queries. Seriously, over a hundred just on this one book. But I knew before I started that a children’s book set in Hell would not be for everyone, lol. It took me five months to land an offer, which sounds quite short when I write it down, but whoa it did not feel short at the time. There was a lot of wine and whining. But I was getting the odd request here and there – one agent was so keen she read the book overnight and then we met in person, although that ended up not working out – plus some complimentary personalised rejections, and all that kept me going, thinking I was close and just had to find the right agent.
Now that I think about it, two agents who ended up offering had my full for three months, so I guess I’m the poster child for very non-instantaneous responses as well as sending out a mountain of queries.
Amy: What can you tell us about “your call” with your agent, Zoe King? How did you know she was the right fit for you?
Tatum: We never actually had “The Call.” I’d already spoken to two other agents on the phone (when I got my first offer I was so stunned I didn’t say a word, I think the agent on the end of the line probably thought I was either very calm or a bit rude, but I was just so happy and relieved I was speechless!), and then Zoe emailed to ask if we could meet. It was an important decision, and I wanted to be as informed as possible, so I decided to go to London and meet all three offering agents in person. They were all incredibly nice, so it was a hard choice, but in the end Zoe impressed me the most with her plans for my book and career. Plus it was very tempting as a kidlit author to be represented by JK Rowling’s agency!
Amy: As most writers know, publishing is a very difficult business. What was the one thing you think you did to garner agent interest?
Tatum: Well, I kind of did things backwards 🙂 I had interest from a publisher before I had interest from any agents. I’d gone on a SCBWI retreat and met an editor from Orchard Books who loved the first chapter of BRIMSTONE. She asked me to send her the full, then a few months later she asked me to go in to meet the editorial team, and they told me that they’d be taking the book to acquisitions. So, yeah, having publisher interest is one way to garner agent interest! Of course the agents had to love my book anyway, but I’m sure it didn’t hurt.
In truth, the best thing you can do to garner agent interest is to write a good query and an even better book, then set up a little shrine to the writing gods (they like bourbon and cupcakes) and pray for luck.
Amy: What one piece of advice can you impart to aspiring writers to encourage them to keep working towards their dream?
Tatum: Just look at my stats! If they don’t encourage other writers I don’t know what will 🙂 I believed in my book, so I tried to leave no stone unturned before moving onto the next one. I was actually on the verge of giving up on it when things started happening for me. So, it’s an old saw, but truly, don’t give up! Even if it hadn’t worked out for me with BRIMSTONE, I would’ve gone onto the next novel. Oh and also, writer friends totally keep you sane. Find some. Bribe them if necessary. They’re beyond worth it.
Tatum Flynn is the author of devilish MG fantasy Brimstone for Breakfast, out Summer 2015 from Orchard Books/ Hachette UK, and a sequel which she’s supposed to be writing right this minute. You can find her on Twitter @Tatum_Flynn and on her website at www.tatumflynn.net She lives by the sea in England with a cat called Friday and too many hats.