Writers’ Road Trip – Talliston House

IMG_7791

This summer, some writer friends and I had the chance to go and have a look around Talliston House in Essex, which is owned by a fellow writer. When I was told the name of the house, I imagined a sprawling stately home set in acres of parkland, probably with a large lake, a sweeping drive and several servants to bow us in through the grand entrance. I googled it to find out more, and was surprised to learn that it is, in fact, a three bedroomed, semi-detached ex-council house – but further googling taught me that this was no ordinary ex-council house… The owner, John Trevellian, had spent the last twenty five years transforming his home into a wonderland, where all the rooms are furnished and decorated as if from different periods of history and different locations around the world. It sounded really intriguing!

On the morning of the visit I said goodbye to the dog, who settled down for a nice sleep, and set off nice and early, collecting my fellow travellers en route and arriving in plenty of time. As we walked up the path to the front door, shading our eyes against the late-summer sunshine, there was little hint of what lay inside – although I did notice some intriguing brass bees set into the paving stones under my feet. The door creaked open and we walked in, and, wow – what a difference – this was certainly no ordinary house!

From the clock-filled, marble-tiled front hall, we went into the living room – or what at some point, must have been the living room. Now it was the hall of a Dark Age, Welsh watch tower, panelled from floor to ceiling in dark wood and filled with rich fabrics, paintings and hangings. A huge, granite mask of the god, Pan, hung over the fireplace. It seemed incredible to think that this room could be no bigger than my own living room at home – where in another world the dog was, no doubt, still sleeping the sleep of the just. By some unknown sorcery, Talliston’s living room seemed three or four times bigger, at least!

IMG_7555

Walking through the door at the end of the room, I had to stop and blink a few times. It seemed difficult for me to get my head around the change, as I walked from a room in a dark, mediaeval tower, into the bright and airy kitchen of a Louisiana 1950’s home. It seemed almost too much for my brain to take in. Rhythm and blues music played quietly in the background as I looked around at the baskets hanging from the cream-coloured walls, the floral china and the gingham-print fabrics.

Peeping into the bathroom of a Norwegian boat-house as I passed by, I went out of the back door, and into the garden; the courtyard garden of an Irish cottage, filled with wonderful plants, dramatic planters and the biggest and most fruit-encrusted grapevine I’d ever seen in the UK. From there we stepped across to what had possibly once been the site of a garage, but was now a Canadian lakeside lodge; clearly out in the wilderness and rough-hewn, but filled with worn yet solid chairs and all the comforts you could need – and of course a woodstove; essential in that harsh climate.

IMG_7562

After walking down the side of the house, past a standard vine (also covered in fruit – I didn’t even know they came in a standard variety!), we went back inside to an exquisite Japanese vivarium. This was no ordinary room, either, being set in the future and designed to be used as a way-point – a passageway – to a near-space laboratory.

Back to the hall next, and then up the stairs and into the black-panelled bedchamber of a Scottish tower house, haunted by the ghost of a child who had died there, in the scarlet-curtained bed…

IMG_7582

Walking into the other large bedroom, I was plunged once more from dark to light. Now I was in a bright guestroom inside the Moorish Alhambra Palace, in Spain. With pale wood, mosquito nets and white-painted walls, this was a room from which you felt you could stare out over the distant, sun-drenched mountains.

The boxroom was a cooler place, set in Twentieth century New York, and clearly the office of a private investigator – someone who investigated not only worldly mysteries, but those with a more occult twist as well.

Some of my friends ventured up the steep ladder from the landing to see the final room; a Cambodian, bamboo spirit house – but the sight of the ladder put me off, and thinking more down-to-earth thoughts about broken ankles and trips to A and E, I went back downstairs to collect a cup of tea from 1950’s Louisiana, which I took outside to drink in the Irish garden.

On the way home, I thought about what an experience it had been, to see this house! For me, one of the most striking things was the sense of shock, on being plunged without warning, from one time and place to another. When I got home, I told the dog it felt a bit like going straight from a steaming hot bath to a cold shower. He cocked an eyebrow at me and backed away apprehensively – he hates being immersed in water of any temperature. But he did seem interested in the little brass bee I’d bought while I was there. Hmm – I need to find somewhere for it in the garden, and then I can have my own, mini version of Talliston, right on my own patio. I’m sure the dog won’t mind – not as long as he can still get into his own favourite sunny spot, anyway!

IMG_7777

Party Time!

IMG_7941

Last Friday afternoon, I said goodbye to the dog and travelled down to London feeling slightly nervous – I was setting off for an event held every year by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) – the annual agent party. It was the second year I’d been, so I already knew a little bit about what to expect; the first half would be an opportunity to hear lots of different literary agents discussing what they’d like to see in a submission from a children’s writer, and the second half – the scary bit – would be a chance for me, and all the other writers attending, to pitch our new books to the agents. Who knew – if we were lucky, some of them might be impressed and ask us to submit our new manuscripts to them when they were ready!

This year’s party was at a new venue – the lovely, chandelier-encrusted Bush Hall in West London’s Shepherd’s Bush. Soon after I arrived and sat down, the evening’s host, Sarah Grant, introduced the first panel members; Amber Caraveo (Skylark Literary), Alice Williams (Alice Williams Literary), Nancy Miles (Miles Stott Agency) and Gemma Cooper (The Bent Agency). Sarah kicked things off by asking the agents what information they would like to see included in a submission package. Gemma said that she wanted to be told which other books the submission was similar to (‘X meets Y’), and also liked to see ‘a character that jumped out of the page’. Nancy was looking for a succinct elevator pitch, and ‘a strong voice that says something in an original way’. Alice thought a professional approach was crucial, and for picture book writers, two or three texts. Amber said that she wanted to know a bit about the writer, while also pointing out that really – it’s all about the writing! For illustrators, a spread of pdfs was important, giving a good range of ideas.

Sarah also wanted to know if the agents had a wish list – or indeed a hate list! Amber was pretty clear that she didn’t want to see any animal stories. However, all was not lost for the animal story writers amongst us, as Alice said that she loved pony books. Nancy wanted to see books in any genre that were fun to read, and Gemma said that her dream book would be something similar to ‘Wimpy Kid’.

Next, Sarah introduced the second panel of agents – Lydia Silver (Darley Anderson), Lauren Gardner (Bell Lomax Moreton), Becky Bagnell (Lindsay Literary Agency), Therese Cohen (Hardman and Swainson Literary Agency) and Max Edwards (MMB Creative). When asked what they liked best in a pitch, the second panel thought that ‘X meets Y’ was useful, but Sylvia also thought that knowing what made a particular story ‘a bit different’ was important. Becky said that the key to successful pitching, was practice, Max wanted to see what the overall theme and motivation in the story was, and Lauren advised us to ‘keep three things in your minds, that you want me to take away’.

Sarah then asked what the agents looked at first, when they read submissions. For Lauren, the cover letter was the first thing to look at, while Becky went straight to the manuscript. Max said that we should keep it professional and be sure to get the spelling and punctuation right, as he would be looking for ‘reasons to reject’, and would stop reading if we hadn’t followed the guidelines. Becky, however, gave some hope to the mistake-prone amongst us, saying, ‘I don’t care if you get it wrong, so long as the writing is good’!

When asked what they looked for in a client, Therese thought that it was important that she could ‘get on with, and be honest with’ a client, and Becky was hoping for ‘someone who was open to editing’.

As Sarah kept the questions coming, we learnt that it’s important to think ahead to the next book, and that agents work with international colleagues to sell foreign rights. The agents also thought that there were a lot of benefits to taking a client who had previously self-published, as this helps understanding of marketing and promotion.

When the second panel had finished, we all stood up while the chairs were cleared away and then we gathered around the agents’ tables, queuing up for the opportunity to pitch our books. I got some good feedback from several agents, and, from more than one, heard the wonderful words, ‘yes, send it to me’!

Travelling home later that evening, I kept coming back to what the agents had said at the end of their panel discussion; ‘keep writing’, ‘keep reading’, and, most importantly – ‘have fun’! Certainly the dog knows all about that – he’s always first in the queue for any party!