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John Jenkins September 10


The September column from the former editor of Writers' Forum

John JenkinsAs a publisher and editor I have been answering queries from writers for something like 20 years and as a result I have recently published a book FAQs and the Answers for Ambitious Writers.


Move Over Harry Potter

By John Jenkins

Authors are either in love with or disenchanted with their agents but one author who has every reason to be pleased with his agent is Joe Delaney.
At the suggestion of Carolyn Whitaker he switched from adult fiction to writing for children and has seen his sales top the million mark.

Carolyn, whose agency is London Independent Books

Specialises in commercial, fantasy and teenage fiction, show business, travel. Full-length MSS (home 15%, overseas 20%).

Also specialises in teenage fiction (home 10-15%, overseas 20%). Handles fiction for 9-12 year-olds, teenage fiction and non-fiction. Also handles adult fiction, show business and travel; approx. one-third of list is for the children's market. Submit 2 chapters and a synopsis with return postage. No reading fee.

Will suggest revision of promising MSS.

Authors include Alex Bell, Joe Delaney, Keith Gray, Elizabeth Kay, Tim Mackintosh-Smith, Glenn Mitchell, Connie Monk, Richard Morgan, Steve Mosby, Chris Wooding. Founded 1971. Authors include Simon Chapman, Joe Delaney, Keith Gray, Elizabeth Kay, Elizabeth Richardson, Craig Simpson, Chris Wooding.

Founded 1971.

, had been Joe’s agent for ten years and knew he was a good writer of sci-fi and fantasy for adults. He was enjoying reasonable sales and developing a cult following without quite getting the recognition he deserved.

Then came the life changing moment when Carolyn suggested a move that most agents and publishers very seldom do: Why not change tack and write for children? Agents and publishers usually hate an author to switch genre. They fear the old readers will disappear before new are gained.
So it was a gamble, but a calculated one.

The first book took him a month to write and failed to arouse interest. The second hit the jackpot and the result was the Wardstone Chronicles series.
The Spook’s Apprentice spent seven weeks in the bestseller’s charts, was translated into 12 languages and landed a film deal with Warner Brothers.

Thomas Ward, the seventh son of a seventh son, becomes an apprentice to a Spook. He learns how to exorcise ghosts, witches and boggarts but is tricked into freeing the evil witch Mother Malkin. Fearless Tom joins Spook and his friend Alice to combat the growing threat of the witches.

Since the film deal became public knowledge Joe is in constant demand for tours, lectures and book signings, here, in the United States and in France.

He smiles: "People are constantly coming up to me asking if they can audition for a part and I have to keep telling them that I’m not in charge of casting." Privately he thinks Sean Bean would be an ideal actor to play the Spook. "Obviously he’s Yorkshire rather than Lancashire but he’s a blunt northerner who would look the part."

All Warner have asked him so far is what century the books are set in. He told them that as it was all mythical he couldn’t say. "I know it is going to be a film rather than animation, which I am pleased about." But in Hollywood changes can happen right up to and sometimes during, shooting.

He knows more about filming than he lets on, having established the media and film studies department at Blackpool Sixth Form College.

Joe has stuck close to his Lancastrian roots and just as Thomas Hardy fictionalised Dorset so Joe has used Lancashire. Priestown in the Spook’s Curse is actually Preston. Blackpool is Black Pool and Lancashire becomes Caster.
Priestown Cathedral is based on St. Walburge’s which is next to the school Joe attended.

It’s not only the locality which he turns to good use. He also draws on nightmares which he suffered as a child.

One recurrent one has him sitting on a carpet in the front room of his home while his mother was knitting. Then everything would become cold and a shadow thing would come up from the coal cellar, pick him up and carry him back towards the dark. His brother used to have the same dream.
Despite the fantasy, there is an element of reality.

Carolyn is modest about her role. "Joe was getting very near misses with long dark fantasies for adults. I thought it would take him less time to write children’s books and I was getting more into teenage fiction at the time.
Then followed huge interest in the United States. The book was submitted to five publishers simultaneously and it started a bidding war that went on for almost a week."

It was a startling breakthrough for a writer who left teaching six years ago at the age of 59 to write full time.

Joe, whose wife died three years ago. has three children and seven grandchildren. The older ones are not slow to offer an opinion on the stories.

He expects to write ten in the series and the latest one: The Spook’s Nightmare, was published in August.

Charlie Sheppard, editorial director for Bodley Head is enthusiastic about the stories. "The stories have enjoyed considerable success around the globe."

Just like Potter, the books are being published concurrently in Britain and the United States. They will be tailored to meet the expectations of particular countries. This could involve illustrations, covers, typefaces, layout and merchandising.

It looks like the start of a new phenomenom.

The reviewer in The Times can have the last word: 'Ideal for the reader who has outgrown Harry Potter…but be warned, these books are seriously scary.'

John Jenkins' August column dealt with the odds on Booker winners.


If you have a question you would like John to answer please email it to:

The latest book from John Jenkins is FAQs and the Answers for Ambitious Writers

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