It all started one morning as I looked out of the kitchen window at a bird pecking away at the bread I'd left out. It got me thinking "What if...?". "What if the bird wanted more?", "What if it wasn't satisfied?", "What if it was satisfied but then told all of its friends?". Oh, hello story! Stories can quite often be inspired when you least expect them and by an action, event, or occurrence that you've experienced many times before, but then something just 'clicks'. Everything falls into place, ideas align and the cogs start to turn. Batten down the hatches, there's a story brewing!
And as such, Revenge is Tweet was hatched (bird puns, anyone?). Revenge is Tweet? I thought we were talking about As Nice as Pie? Oh indeed we are. When it was originally pitched the story had a different title. And as the name suggests, a very different ending. A lot darker ending. One that didn't end too well for the birds! Or me for that matter, but more to come on that in due course.
I felt like this was my strongest manuscript yet. Having written many stories over many years, and having been given lots of constructive feedback along the way, I felt confident in my craft. The start, the middle, the end? Tick. The strong character. Tick. The challenge. Tick. The resolution. Tick. Ready to submit. Tick.
With a sense of optimism, tempered slightly by years of rejections, I submitted the story to literary agents and publishers alike. I sat and I waited. And I waited. The inbox anxiety set in. But then, one by one, the replies returned like digital homing pigeons, each carrying news...bad news. "Sorry, it shows promise but...", "Although it stood out from the rest..." etc etc - the replies weren't good. The feint praise was welcome, but not satisfying.
But then, a few days later, an email was received from Maverick, an up and coming boutique publisher with a reputation for publishing books with a difference, and an advocacy for rhyming texts. Another rejection, I thought. Oh well, best take a look anyway. "Is the manuscript still available?", asked Ellie Brough, the then Assistant Editor. "Is it ever!" I probably said out loud! Although years of knock-backs had left me somewhat cynical, Ellie's question could only be a good thing.
Smoke billowed from the keyboard as a swift reply was sent, and with a resounding "YES!". When a further reply was received it was a mix of good and bad news. Not even bad news, really, more, 'slightly less good' news! Maverick liked the book. They saw potential in the book. But that ending in the book, nope! They felt a more reasoned and reasonable outcome would be more suitable for tots at bedtime. Deep down I knew this might be an issue. I still maintain that kids are resilient and would have found an element of humour from the original ending, after all, there are plenty of less than happy conclusions in famous children's stories. Still, revising the ending was a small price to pay for the chance to see the story, my story, in print, and in the hands of kids up and down the country.
The revised draft with an alternative and more, erm, 'diplomatic' ending was submitted relatively quickly (it's amazing how fast you can work knowing what awaits you!). There were a few more rounds of revisions after that, more superficial than fundamental, until everyone was happy with the text. And I must stress, this was everyone. It wasn't the publishers just sitting there telling me what to do. No, we were working through it together. A collective re-write. Of course, it was me physically tapping away at the keys, but the suggestions were a group effort. And so, after what was a relatively painless couple of weeks of revisions, As Nice as Pie as we now know it was ready!
And then came the fun bit...finding an illustrator. From my own point of view, it was the most enjoyable part. I love writing, but knowing it's written and ready to go is a great relief and I really wanted to see how an illustrator would bring the words to life. The brief suggested by Maverick was both timely and timeless. They felt that something with a slightly 'vintage' feel to it that tapped into the success of the Great British Bake Off would be appropriate. After all, Mavis 'loved nothing more than cooking and sharing'. Indeed, Mavis is As Nice as Pie's very own Mary Berry.
Sample spreads were requested from a couple of fantastic illustrators who fitted the bill, each with very different styles, and very different interpretations of the story. Unfortunately it was decided that they didn't quite match our collective vision for the book. They looked beautiful, but there was an ingredient (cue cooking puns!) missing from the samples...humour. I like to think that my stories have a level of wit running through them, whether that's overweight birds, or knowing references to other books, so it was important that element was reflected in the illustrations.
An illustrator whose work has that in abundance is Tim Budgen, someone I already knew and admired through Twitter, and he was asked to put together his own sample spreads. Given he's the one credited on the published front cover, we know how this story pans out! Tim was the perfect guy for the job; he literally flew (bored of the bird puns yet?!) through the spreads.
The tiny details, like quirky little snails, and napkins that doubled as blindfolds, were all brilliant touches and filled the booked with such personality. And although the initial Mavis needed a slight makeover, it didn't take long until the 'kindly and caring' protagonist of the story was agreed upon.
And that was that. The book had gone to print. Too late to fine-tune Mavis's apron. No time to tweak that last line. But then came the wait. If the illustration process was the most enjoyable part, this was the most frustrating. It was soooo close I could almost taste it! But then the day came...
As Nice as Pie was freshly served up in November 2016 and it was everything I'd ever hoped. I knew that all of my hard work and perseverance over the years had been worth the wait as I read through the 32 pages. The vibrancy of the colours. The eye-catching design. It was as if it was the the first time I'd ever seen the illustrations; that I didn't know every word off by heart already! I read it cover to cover. And then again. And again. I wasn't only turning the pages on a picture book, I was turning the pages onto another chapter in my life - a life as a published author.
The response to the book has been incredible. Better than I could have imagined. In reality, the old adage "if you haven't got anything nice to say, don't say it all", is probably a little true, but when it's already been described by respected bloggers as a 'timeless classic" and an "instant hit", it's certainly satisfying. However, it's more overwhelming to hear so many parents tell me that it's 'Little Timmy's' new favourite book or that 'Little Tammy' won't go to sleep without hearing it ten times! After all, you can receive as much praise as you like from adults, but ultimately it's the kids that count.
I can honestly say that, for my first published book, I couldn't have asked for a better and more understanding publisher than Maverick, or a better and more personable illustrator than Tim. As Nice as Pie? They certainly were.
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Gary Sheppard · Gary Sheppard
I love writing – always have, always will. I’m particularly fond of writing kids books, mainly in rhyming form, and my first book – As Nice as Pie – is being published after many years of trying in November 2016 on Maverick Arts! When I’m not working full-time as a copywriter, much of my spare time is spent researching picture books or developing my own ideas. My work is greatly influenced by authors such as Julia Donaldson, Roald Dahl, Dr Seuss and Jeanne Willis, but I’d like to think that it expresses its own humour and personality.
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Great to hear your story Gary. So glad you never gave up trying to get published!