What made you want to get involved in the WriteMentor Spark programme?
My SCBWI critique group was no longer meeting to review work regularly, but one of the members had become a Write Mentor. Through her, and other SCBWI members, I heard a lot of good things about WM. After 3 self-published books, 2 shortlisting in major competitions and my current book on the long list for Mslexia, I was still unable to find an agent interested in me. In order to reach my aim of becoming a hybrid Children’s Author, I knew I needed to sign with an agent. SPARK was just what I was looking for – affordable, regular and professional help with my agent submissions.
What was your experience like?
From the off I knew Emma was exactly the right mentor for me. For starters, she loved my writing and believed in me and my work. Having someone in my corner made a huge difference to my moral. Each month Emma helped me, first, with the opening to my novel, then my synopsis and lastly my agent letter. She was supportive, encouraging, and gave lots of practical support and advice. I’m very grateful to her and SPARK.
Tell us about your writing journey from the start until now?
Like most aspiring authors I have always written and enjoyed story creation. I tried for many years to be traditionally published. I now believe that the phrase, ‘aim to be talented, not famous,’ is a good one to adhere to. When I work hard at my craft, that’s when I find things start to slot into place.
After completing an OU Diploma in Creative Writing and Literacy, I was no longer trying to be published in isolation and the literary world began to open up. I joined local and online writing groups and then found SCBWI. After many (necessary) failures, I wrote a decent MG book, called Jarred Dreams which was shortlisted by the National Literacy Trust New Author Competition in 2015. Had it won, the book would’ve been published by Bloomsbury, but it didn’t (a cat book did – not bitter – honest!) and I went on to self-publish it instead.
I continued to try and find an agent and take the traditional route with my next two books, EATS (shortlisted in the Winchester Festival Children’s Funny Fiction Competition 2017) and Thirteenth Wish, but self-published those too, when neither book gained agent interest.
It was with my fourth book, Darna’s Sky, which was shortlisted in the Mslexia Children’s Novel Award 2019 and with the help of my SPARK mentor, Emma, that I finally signed with Laura West at David Higham.
It has been a life-long journey, and I know that there’s still a long way to go. Self-publishing has taught me how difficult it is to promote and sell books. Even though I have a book out on submission, I’m fully aware it may not be that book, or even the next one that will sell. My eyes are wide open.
Can you tell us a little more about the book you worked on and signed with?
Darna’s Sky is ‘Room’ for middle grade. Only five people know Darna exists; she was born in secret into the underground world of the prestigious Tembusu Tree Hotel in Singapore. When eleven-year-old Skye, the daughter of a world-famous actress, spots Darna, both their worlds change forever. A secret friendship forms with both wonderful and terrible consequences. Written in dual narrative, this is ultimately a story of friendship, with an eleven-year-old outlook on an unfair, adult world.
Darna’s Sky was inspired during one of my many visits to see family in Singapore, during a tour into the staff quarters of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel. It’s a fascinating place to visit.
This book made the Mslexia shortlist, but didn’t win. Part of the prize is an author showcase, where you get to meet publishers and agents. Before the event, I did have a SPARK agent interested in the book, but when I met Laura, I knew immediately that she was the right agent for me. It was very natural talking to her, whereas with other agents I had always felt slightly uneasy. Two other offers came in after Laura’s and I went from nobody interested at all, to having a choice – it was like being on The Voice!
Laura didn’t want to make any changes and Darna’s Sky went straight out on submission in late July 2019. It’s on its third round now and we’re still waiting to hear from some of the July publishers. It takes forever. I’m working on a fifth novel, about a boy with Selective Mutism, set in Luton during a heatwave, which keeps my mind off Darna’s Sky. I’m also dabbling with non-fiction picture books and because I’m self-published I visit schools and do lots of other author-related work too. The key for me is to keep busy.
What is your best piece of writing advice that you learned on the programme?
It only takes one agent to believe in you. You only need one publisher to say yes (this is what I am hanging onto at the moment!).
If I could pass on any advice from my own experience it would be to keep going. By this I don’t mean sticking to one book. It is important to move onto new ideas and writing to help you improve.
I have a necklace I wear that says Persist. This is the only thing you need to do. Persist at improving your craft. Persist at believing in yourself and your work. If it feels like it’s taking forever then that’s completely normal – you have to be in for the long haul if you’re serious about your writing career.
Camilla Chester mostly writes quirky adventure stories for 8-12s. She has three published books, Jarred Dreams (creepy), EATS (ridiculous) and Thirteenth Wish (puzzle-solving). Camilla has been shortlisted three times in various different literary competitions, has recently been part of the BBC Sounds Storytelling Project, works with the Discover Centre on their Catching Words Project, writes stories for Serial Mash and has a short story about to be published in the Punch Anthology. You can find out more about Camilla and her books by visiting her website: camillachester.com
More information on our Spark mentoring programme is here: