Francesca Simon: Things I Wish I'd Known

By Candy Gourlay

Francesca Simon spoke at the New Visions Conference on 5 September 2015. You can also read my report on the conference What is the Future of Children's Books? Tweets about the conference were storified by the SOA here.

One of my favourite books to read aloud when my children were babies was Papa Forgot, written by a pre-Horrid Henry Francisca Simon. I must have read that book hundreds of times. 

Another family favourite was Spider School - featuring a gorilla taking over a classroom. Local rumour has it that Simon based the book on true events at my children's primary school.

And yet Horrid Henry, with its enormous success, easily obscures the fact that the series constitutes less than half of Simon's body of work over more than two decades.

"Mistakes or Things I Wish I'd Known" was the title Simon chose for her keynote before the New Visions Conference. With an audience of grizzled and not-so-grizzled veterans of children's publishing, the bar was high in the department of regret and self reproach.

Simon used a list of things she wished she'd known about being an author as the framework for telling the story of her authorial journey. Thing Number One was "I wish I'd known that Edward Ardizzone died in 1979" - telling the story of her naivete at an early editorial meeting when, invited by her editor to suggest an artist, she named the late illustrator.

Things Two and Three ("You don't have to listen to your American editor" and "Your publisher / agent are not always right.") involved regrets about succumbing to unwanted edits.

Thing Number Four was about not thinking long term. Simon said she never dreamed that Horrid Henry would be more than a one-off story. Her first attempt had been to write it as an early reader. Her editor suggested she turn it into a book for newly-confident readers - which meant writing several more stories. Twenty-four years later, Horrid Henry continues to follow the format.

Thing Number Five has to be my favourite: "If a publisher wants you to rewrite the beginning, the middle and the end of the book ... they want a different book." She said: "There's a big difference between rewriting and improving a text ... you might as well write the one you want to write!"

If a publisher wants you to rewrite the beginning, middle and end - they want a different book

Things Six, Seven and Eight all involved time management and self promotion.

"You are not a bad person if you say no," she was quoting Philip Pullman (who happened to be in the audience). We all nodded. We were all familiar with the polite terror of refusing an invitation to appear at a local festival for free or saying no to a cousin clutching the first draft of a manuscript. 

"It's not all about marketing," she warned -- as in: remember that your real job is not the Tweeting and the Facebooking. We must always think hard whenever someone invites us to speak to their book club of four members in the name of promotion. "It is easy for writing time to dwindle away."

She cited some good advice from Julia Eccleshare, the children's editor at the Guardian: "Julia asks herself if she would say yes if the event she was being invited to was happening tomorrow." Nice.

"Life is short," she said. "All you can do is enjoy the process of having a book accepted for publication, when everything is golden and glorious ... which might in fact be the only good time (in the process)" Cue hollow laughter.

Of all the things she wished she'd known, Number Nine was her most specific -- and painful: "Subsidiary rights are valuable. Don't give them away."

What she revealed next was chilling. Despite the Horrid Henry TV series being broadcast to dozens of countries and over a million DVDs of the movie sold, she said, "I have not received a penny in royalties (from the company that bought the rights)".

The rights had been sold quite early on by her publisher. "Not understanding their proper value was the worst mistake I ever made."

Not understanding the proper value of subsidiary rights was the worst mistake I ever made

Before the now worried audience could rush out the door to check their contracts, she declared Thing Number Ten: "Not joining the Society of Authors." Had she been a member of the Society of Authors at the time the rights were sold, the mistake would have been spotted. 

The SOA is pledged to "help members with any query, however trivial or obscure, relating to the business of writing" - this is not me promoting the SOA but underlining its indispensability. So dear reader if you are a published author in the UK, I urge you to join the SOA now. 

There was a Thing Number Eleven - "Don't allow yourself to be pigeon-holed." 

This September, Francesca Simon will be publishing the final book of her middle grade trilogy which is deliciously pitched as  "Norse Gods meet the X-Factor".  

A nice way to remind Horrid Henry that he's not an only child.

Additional note:
Over on Facebook, I've had some interesting discussions about the vexed sale of rights by clueless writers. I thought readers of this piece might be interested in more cautionary tales:

I also blog on Notes from the Slushpile. Do check out my most recent post: What We Authors Can Learn From Jackie Chan

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