Chat with David Owen

David Owen’s fourth book was released this month, and he generously agreed to answer some of my questions about his books, reading, and writing 😊 If you don’t already, go follow him on Twitter, he is an irreverent voice in the sometimes slightly too serious world of publishing…

Tell me about your latest book

It’s called Grief Angels, and it’s kind of a double-edged sword. On one side it’s a contemporary YA narrative focusing on a new friendship between two misfit boys – Duncan and Owen. On the other side it is a fantasy narrative, as Owen is periodically pulled through to a mysterious forest realm where he must contend with lost spirits, shapeshifting monsters, and newfound powers. Think along the lines of A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness or Eren by Simon P. Clark.

Grief Angels is about grief… shockingly! In its most obvious definition (Owen is dealing with complex feelings around the death of his father), but also in a broader sense; how grief can be tied into growing up, losing friendships, and nostalgia. Basically, I find it impossible to come up with a brief elevator pitch for it!

Thankfully, the frankly jaw dropping artwork by Leo Nickolls, on both the front cover and some chapter illustrations throughout, sell it better than my attempt to blurb it!

Tell me about your writing week

My writing has to fit around my full-time job, so I don’t have a particularly glamorous schedule. I’ll get home from work around 6pm and aim to be at my desk by 6.45pm. Then I’ll write until 9-9.30pm. I also usually try and write for three to four hours on one weekend day, and then have the other off, but if I’m deep in edits or close to the end of a draft I sometimes just keep going for it.

It can be a frustrating way to write because there isn’t time for multiple projects and some evenings I’m just too tired to manage anything, BUT having limited time does motivate me to actually use it productively.

Tell me about your agent

I’m represented by Ella Kahn at Diamond Kahn and Woods. Everybody always spells her surname incorrectly.

I submitted to Ella when she was an assistant at a larger agency. She read my submission and passed it up the ladder, but unfortunately it didn’t get any further. However, Ella was planning to launch her own agency so she tucked my submission away for later. Several months down the line she got in touch to ask if I was still seeking representation.

That’s why she felt like the right person – because she was passionate enough about my writing to keep me in her mind and ultimately make me her first client.

Tell me about the kinds of books you like to read

I generally like to read books that are a little bit dark and have a unique central idea. That might be really high concept sci fi or fantasy, or a theme or voice I haven’t read before. If a book isn’t striving to do something original, I need it to be doing what it’s doing really well.

One of the best novels I’ve read so far this year is Nothing Ever Happens Here by Sarah Hagger-Holt. This is a super-sweet story about a child dealing with her father coming out as trans. Another of my recent favourites was Bearmouth by Liz Hyder. It’s a totally unique young adult novel written in colloquial voice – it really filled me with hope! And one more is Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah, which is like nothing I’ve ever read before. It’s like a kaleidoscope of video game NPC side-quests collapsing into each other.

I’ve also got into graphic novels recently. It feels like a different kind of reading that gives me a new perspective on writing and storytelling. That’s proved really refreshing. One I’ve been raving about is Rusty Brown by Chris Ware. It’s a simultaneously sprawling and intimate look at mundane lives in a rural US town, which is insanely ambitious. Usually a bit sad and full of disappointment – a bit like reality!

Any advice for aspiring authors?

My only advice is pretty well worn.

Reading widely will help with your craft, keep you inspired, and improve your market awareness. However, don’t worry too much about the latest trends. Unless you get really lucky, you’re only going to end up chasing them and will always be behind. Write what you feel strongly about and worry about where it fits on the shelves later.

Just keep writing. Even when it feels like you’re only producing rubbish, even when you hit a brick wall, even when you reach the middle of a project and realise it’s not working. Sooner or later something will click and you’ll be glad you persevered.

Buy Greif Angels from all good bookshops (or take it out at your local library), and keep up to date with David’s news (and important pictures of his cats) on Twitter or by visiting his website 😊

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February Reads

Although I read slightly fewer books in February, I am still on my way to reading 120 books this year 😊 All my faves have a little heart next to them.

Heartstopper Vol 3 carries on one of the cutest and most relatable love stories being told at the moment. I highly recommend to any fans of graphic novels! I, Cosmo is a masterclass in voice. The story is told from the point of view of an incredibly believable Golden Retriever. It’s a great one for any dog lovers out there! I’m not normally a fan of historical novels but We Must Be Brave is phenomenal. Set during World War Two and spanning over 50 years, it follows one woman’s journey through destitution, finding family, the struggles of the war, and tells the story of the heart-grabbing love between a mother and a daughter. The Silent Patient blew me away. I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to ruin it… so just read it, okay?

In fact, read them all and then we can be friends 😊

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No

I wrote my first book in blissful ignorance of what awaited me. It took me about two years of drafting and editing, and when it was finished I entered a competition to win a 15 minute chat with legendary literary agent Caroline Sheldon. She was really kind about my first chapter and advised that I try querying for a year, then send out my submissions in batches of ten each month.

I’m quite a literal fellow. I did a bit more editing, but on 4th April 2017 I sent out my first submission ever. Plus the other nine Caroline had suggested. She’d said to go for it for a year so that was my goal; to query my weird book about a boy who woke up from a coma for a whole year.

The year wasn’t without joys, but what I heard the most that year was no.

I had three full manuscript requests and two of those agents requested a revise and resubmit. My story got much better because of their advice. Unfortunately, they both passed on it. I placed third in the Winchester Writer’s first chapter competition, which was thrilling. And all the while I kept sending out submissions.

I stumbled through to the end of the year, because that was what someone had told me to do and because I had decided that was my goal. In the end, I amassed a whopping 113 nos.

Ouch.

It was brutal. Receiving that amount of negative reaction does something to a person. The first few rejections hit hard. We all believe we are going to be THE ONE who sends out their story and every agent jumps at it. That dream was shattered very quickly. No became an answer I was hardened to receiving.

I took a break after submitting that first novel. I had to. I say I was hardened, but really I was rubbed raw. My story, the work from my heart, had gone out into the world and had been thrown right back at me. The advice from everywhere was not to take every no personally, but how could I not? I’d put so much into my story and no-one wanted it.

I started querying my second novel on 8th January 2019 and I didn’t last a year. It may have been because I didn’t have the same conviction behind this story as my first (which has proved right since I’m now totally revamping it!) but I think a lot of it was because I couldn’t face submitting for another year and being buried under another pile of nos. I stopped after 28.

I was still absolutely certain I wanted an agent. I wanted a champion for my work, someone who would love it like I did and who would fight in the tricky world of publishing to get me the best deal, but I knew now what a hard slog querying was. I couldn’t do that again unless I had 100% belief in my story.

So I wrote another one. This time I threw everything into the characters, made them as real and loveable as I could. I decided I would start querying in January 2020, since I had set myself the goal of querying for a year again and I like things to be neat. The previous nos weighed on me, but I knew I had to keep pushing through if I wanted this to happen.

And it did. It’s a tale for another time about how my story set at the end of the world about two boys and a cow got picked up by my wonderful agent, Rachel Mann. It has been months since Rachel first popped up on my Skype and told me that my story was making her feel “grabby”. It seemed too good to be true. I was so used to being told no, that a yes was unreal.

I think I will carry those nos with me for a long time. I’m still raw. I expect Rachel to ditch me. I read the email where she offered me representation A LOT to try and dispel this feeling, but I’m coming to realise that it’s going to take time. For years, all I heard was no, and that is hard and painful. I know I’m not the only one that feels this. I was feeling overly-emotional just after Jo Unwin announced Rachel had signed me, and sent this tweet:

This pain of being told no and no and no again is a shared one. Some people call it the querying trenches, and I think the thing to take away from that – apart from the shit and rats and bombs which can be metaphors for a whole host of things – is that soldiers were never in the trenches alone. Being told no can feel very isolating, but in the business of writing, rejection is unifying. We have ALL been told no. We all know how painful that is.

Some practical advice:

  1. Make nos manageable. If I could have a do-over, I would have had a separate email address to submit to agents from. I would not have checked that email unless I was sitting comfortably, one hand around a mug of coffee, one hand on the soft head of my dog. As it was, I was confronted by nos all over the place. I checked my email just before work, during parties, before I went to sleep. This was a stupid thing to do. Please try to be more disciplined than I was.
  2. Treat yourself. One friend of mine put £5 in a jar every time she got a no. After querying her first book, she went on holiday. Frankly, I couldn’t afford to do this. From my first novel alone, I would have put £565 in that jar. I did do nice things while querying though. Long walks with cake at the end. Pedicures. Nights out with many cocktails. Remind yourself that you are more than the nos you’re receiving by treating yourself well.
  3. Do something else. I wrote another book, but I know some people find that really hard. Find something else to focus on. Querying is a maddening thing that you have very little control over, so find something you can control. Cross-stitch, kayak, bake cakes. Do something to pull your gaze away from your inbox and onto the rest of your life.

I want to offer a little bit of encouragement if you feel like you are lost in the slush pile. Agents were recently tweeting about the amount of clients they’ve taken on from submissions. These are statistics that warm my soul.

And one final thing:

People are only going to keep saying no to you until one person says YES

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January Reads

This year I’ve set myself the challenge of reading 120 books, and I stormed it in January.

The books with hearts were my faves, and the rest are a jumble 🙂 The Black Flamingo is glorious. Read it if you love lyrical coming-of-age stories. Olive, again was a return to an old friend, and it is beauifully told. If you like character driven novels that aren’t afraid of exposing the realities of human nature and frality, then check out anything by Elizabeth Strout. Love is for Losers is coming out in May 2020, and is one to pre-order (or reserve at your local library) if you like hilarious young adult novels with strangely likeable main characters. For me, it echoed the Louise Rennison books I loved growing up, and I hope Wibke Brueggeman’s books will become beloved by young people just like those were for me 🙂

Read them all and then we can be friends, okay?

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