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  • John Hearne

My Publication Journey

Here’s the story of how ‘The Very Dangerous Sisters of Indigo McCloud’ went from being the germ of an idea to becoming a real book, with real words on real pages, capable of sitting on a real shelf beside other real books, and of being read by real people. Really.

One of the many things you learn if you spend time trying to become better at writing books, is that you must have a viable elevator pitch. It must be possible to capture the story in as few words as possible. Shark terrorises small tourist town, orphan discovers he’s a wizard, and so on.

I was talking about ideas with a friend who also writes. I mentioned that I’d had an idea for a children’s book: ‘My sisters are trying to kill me’, and he thought it was great. That’s what made me run with it.

At this stage in my career I’d written three full length novels. The first one, I’m thankful now that it only ever existed in flammable formats, and that there’s no digital version lurking anywhere. Because it was bad – so bad that even thinking about it now feels like biting into a lemon.

I wrote another adult novel in my thirties. This too was awful, but not completely awful. One or two of the rejections used a word I would come to despise: ‘promising’.

I switched tack and tried a young-adult novel. The problem was that I wrote it, just like the other two, in a kind of arrogant isolation. I figured that I didn’t need to read up on my craft, or know what was going on in the genre, or get feedback. I figured that my natural genius would somehow shine through. I now realise of course that this arrogance was actually concealing a fear that I’d show someone my work and they’d tell me to cop myself on and take up golf or something.

That novel got sent to everyone, and that awful word ‘promising’ surfaced several times in the rejections.

By now I was in my 40s. Older and maybe a little less stupid. So when Brian – my writer friend – said that he thought the evil sisters idea worth pursuing, I decided, ok, that’s it. I’m going to get this one right. So I bought books about plotting and character development, I read articles and did courses and joined a writer’s group. I read extensively in the genre in which I was writing. Crucially, I got feedback.

Getting feedback from the people who knew what they were talking about turned out to be liberating. Because good feedback locks onto things you actually know on some level. So when someone tells you that the middle section drags a little, or that your villain’s actions aren’t consistent here, you slap your forehead and say ‘Yes, of course! That’s the problem!’

I decided I’d make this new book funny, and wild. I was determined to enjoy writing it rather than having written it. It would be a middle grade novel – for 8 to 12 year olds. I realised that actually, you can’t have kids attempting to kill other kids in a book like this. Much too dark. So I worked up a plan and began developing a set of characters.

Indigo McCloud, the downtrodden brother, whose secret skill is that he can cross the roofscape of the town unseen by his evil sisters. Peaches McCloud is the criminal mastermind. Blonde tresses, super-sweet to adults, but in reality, every child in town is terrified of her. Three other sisters, each with a distinct character and skill.

I began writing it back in 2013, and ‘The Very Dangerous Sisters of Indigo McCloud’ was finally accepted by Little Island in 2019. I wasn’t writing and re-writing throughout that time of course. I worked at it and got feedback and put it aside for a while so that I could return to it with fresh eyes until finally, I decided ‘Right! I can’t make this any better.’ And out it went. And in came the rejections. Another rule I’ve discovered: Being good is not enough. The various publishers and agents are looking for particular kinds of things at particular times. If your manuscript doesn’t meet these needs, it won’t be considered.

Eventually, Siobhan Parkinson, of publisher Little Island said yes. What she actually said was ‘Welcome ashore’. Boy was that nice.

The book finally came out last July. What a strange and wonderful moment it is to finally hold your own book in your hands. And since then, there have been other wonderful moments – some delightful reviews, and some fascinating conversations with kids who’d read it, and for whom the world of the book was, for a while at least, a very real place for them.

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