Debut author M.G. Leonard discusses how her inability to answer one simple question about creepy-crawlies led to the creation of her brilliant novel Beetle Boy.
I wanted to be a writer for years but came to the conclusion I was no good at it after ten years of half-heartedly scribbling bits of stories and nothing amounted to anything good enough to finish.
But then, I had a light-bulb moment, caused by the panic of not being able to answer a seemingly simple question. That question was, ‘What is a creepy-crawly?’ I got tangled, thinking that they were insects, and then realizing that spiders, whilst creepy-crawlies, weren't insects, and then I couldn't work out what a woodlouse was and panic set in. I turned to Wikipedia and typed ‘beetle’ into the search box. The page told me that all beetles have two pairs of wings, a hard outer pair called elytra and a soft hidden pair that they use to fly. FLY? I didn’t know beetles flew! I read on and fell down a rabbit hole into the alien and beautiful wonderland of invertebrates. I was shocked by how ignorant I was, and had to admit to myself that my fear of insects had stopped me from seeing how amazing and important they are. My light bulb fizzed on at the moment I realized that if I didn't know anything about beetles, then most people probably didn't. I searched, but couldn't find any fiction that embraced coleoptera, and so I began to write.
I had a full time job and a young child, it wasn't easy finding time to write. I got up early and did a little every day. Once I had a manuscript I sent out to a few agents at a time, I got my rejections and some were helpful, telling me how I could shape a more compelling story. I had several requests for the full, which was heartening because it meant the idea was interesting and I could write, but I kept being told I had structural issues in the middle of the book. I didn't know what that meant, so I turned to The Golden Egg Academy (GEA) and on their advice I rewrote the ending. Imogen Cooper, from the GEA asked if she could send the book to ‘Barry’. I agreed, not knowing who he was. A week later Barry was offering to publish the book and I discovered he was the Barry Cunningham who’d famously discovered J. K. Rowling. Everything moved so quickly. I didn't have an agent, but within twenty-four hours I had signed to David Godwin Associates and was represented by Kirsty McLachlan, one of my top three dream agents. The publishing deal was struck in under a week, and it wasn’t long before I was going to my agent’s office in Covent Garden to sign a contract.
My debut book Beetle Boy was published by Chicken House on March the 3rd 2016. Waterstones decided to make it their book of the month for February, as an exclusive, and this rocketed the book into the consciousness of many people and taught me a powerful lesson about the importance and passion of booksellers. The truth is, that even if you have a great idea and are a good writer, it is a tough market place out there, and so here are my top tips for new writers.
1) A published author writes stories for other people to read. You need to know who will want to read your story, and why?
2) A book costs money to produce and purchase, therefore the most important thing to keep in your mind is the reader’s experience of your story, you are asking them to pay to read it. You must know what you intend to do to a reader with every sentence you write; are you thrilling them, misleading them, or making them fall in love? Each occasion you unwittingly neglect or abandon your reader, is a reason for a publisher not to publish your book, because first, before they are your publisher, they are a reader.
3) I've read that it takes two years to learn how to do a thing well. Usually after being in a job for two years you can do it well enough to want to progress your career. It’s no different with writing. Be prepared for it to take you two years of time (forty hours a week, fifty two weeks a year) to perfect the craft of writing a good book.
4) There are many voices that will tell you how to write and how to negotiate the publishing industry. Read everything, discard anything that doesn't help you progress. Ignore anything that tries to convince you it’s impossible.
5) Think of each stage of the publishing ladder as a promotion, each with more responsibility, work and greater rewards. Once you have an agent, they will expect things of you (editing your manuscript, having other projects ready to go). Once you have a publishing deal you will be expected to rework the manuscript again and again, contribute to artwork discussions, promote the book, generate events, have a social media presence. When you are promoted it takes a while to understand what’s required of you and how to do it. Don’t expect answers to be provided. You’ll be rewarded for showing initiative and doing your research.
6) There is no stronger advocate for your art than you. Believe in yourself.
M.G. Leonard has a first-class honours degree in English Literature and an MA in Shakespeare Studies from Kings College London. She works in London as the Senior Digital Media Producer for the National Theatre, and previously worked at the Royal Opera House and Shakespeare’s Globe. Leonard spent her early career in the music industry running Setanta Records, an independent record label, and managing bands, most notably The Divine Comedy. After leaving the music industry, she trained as an actor, dabbling in directing and producing as well as performing, before deciding to write her stories down. Leonard lives in Brighton with her partner and two sons. Beetle Boy is her debut novel and has sold over 50,000 copies with translation rights in over 25 countries across the world. Follow her on Twitter.