How ten words got a book contract

Take a place at the SCBWI conference 2014, an entry in the Ten Word Novel Pitching competition and a well-known children’s publisher as the judge. Mix them all together and what have you got?  A small but important chance for your story – the one you have slaved at for months in your writer’s garret and in which you believe so passionately – to reach the audience of bright-eyed and hopefully enthusiastic young readers you’ve written it for.

Of course there are no foregone conclusions in this unpredictable and sometimes unfathomable world you’ve chosen to work – especially since you are up against some stiff competition from entries by your fellow Scoobies. Also, your story has already had a whole bunch of rejections from agents, so that you are very close to consigning it to the Bottom Drawer of Not-Likely-To-Be-Published Doom. But, nothing ventured, as they say ...

And I’m so glad I did – venture to enter that is. Because since that moment, back in October last year, of sticking my ten words* up on the competition board, events have taken a completely unexpected but brilliant turn.

Your story has already had a whole bunch of rejections from agents, so that you are very close to consigning it to the Bottom Drawer of Not-Likely-To-Be-Published Doom....

They started with the news that Barry Cunningham, Publisher and Managing Director of Chicken House Publishing Ltd – and ‘the man who discovered JK Rowling’ – had picked my entry as the winner and would read 2,000 words of my story – an historical middle grade adventure – and give me feedback on it. 

After the conference, the fab folk at SCBWI ‘head office’ put me in touch with Barry and we agreed I would send him my favourite bit from the middle of my story. I also, rather cheekily, sent him a synopsis so he’d know how it all fitted together. I was delighted that I was going to receive some comments and perhaps some advice back from him; but I was over the moon when he contacted me after reading it and said he’d like to read the whole thing. 

After some last-minute polishing, I sent my manuscript off to him in late November and spent a nail-biting few weeks waiting to hear.

Waiting to hear about the manuscript
But the gnawing, grinding and chomping quickly became a dim, distant memory when, wonder of wonders, Barry said he had really enjoyed reading the other 68,000 words too and that he’d like to take it to the next Chicken House acquisitions meeting. He warned me that they might yet decide not to take it on, but that, at any event, they would like me to come down to meet them at the Chicken House coop in Frome, Somerset. I received some further very positive comments on my story from Rachel Leyshon, the Editorial Director, and a date was duly fixed for a meeting in early March – although I was still none the wiser as to where things might be going. 

We writers must always keep the faith. If you love your story, never give up on it, no matter what.

But that all changed when after an initial chat round a ginormous old table in a room which looked suspiciously like Dumbledore’s study, Barry told me they’d like to publish my story. If I’d been over the moon before, I was now heading on warp drive into another galaxy entirely – especially when the offer came through from Barry the next day for a two-book deal!
Four months later, one set of edits down and a meeting with the lovely ladies from the Chicken House publicity team completed, I still haven’t quite beamed back down to earth. 

Bonfire Night in Lewes, Sussex, commemorates the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot
But, two things from my travels through space I do know to be true:

1) We writers must always keep the faith. If you love your story, never give up on it, no matter what.

And ...

2) Embrace your inner Scooby! I have been a member of this great organisation ever since I started on the road to writing for children back in 2009. Through the fantastic events it organises and the resources it provides, and with the help of the many friends I have made since becoming a member, I have received a whole bunch of encouragement, support, advice – and, quite unexpectedly, and with a bit of help from Barry and the Chicken House crew, I have won my very own version of Charlie Bucket’s shiny golden ticket.

Thank you SCBWI and may you live long and prosper!

*And the lucky ten words were: ‘Boy must join Gunpowder Plot to save father from hanging.’

Alison Smith works as a freelance PR and communications professional for part of her week. For the rest of it she is to be found in the guise of her alter ego, Ally Sherrick, conjuring up and scribbling down ideas for middle grade and picture book stories. Black Powder, her debut historical novel for readers of 10+, will be published by Chicken House in August 2016.

Alison is also the joint volunteer organiser, with Cath Jones, of the SCBWI Masterclass Series.


  1. What a fantastic story! Huge congratulations. Clare.

  2. Congratulations, Alison. I think what's great about this story is that it demonstrates how subjective the whole process of getting discovered is. I remember looking through the ten word pitch board, and Alison's wasn't the most commercial or high-concept pitch on there. But, it was the one that spoke to Barry most directly, and that was what mattered. Query widely, people :-)

    1. What a wonderful fairy tale. I remember pinning my post card on the board and praying, so it's brilliant to hear your story. Good luck to anyone entering this year .

  3. You had my congrats on this a long time ago! But I'm sure you were writing for children before 2009. It must have been around 2003 that we were at Lumb Bank with Jan Mark and Mark Haddon.

    1. Hi

      Thanks so much for everyone's kind words and support - which is what makes SCBWI so great!

      And yes, you're right Janet, I did indeed dip a toe in the water of writing for children all those years ago when we were roomies at Lumb Bank on the Arvon course. But I was actually writing adult stories at that point (although not usually getting beyond chapter 3) and I didn't really get started on the children's fiction side of things until I took the MA at Winchester six years later. Talk about a long gestation! A : )

  4. Yay -- that's an inspiring tale ... it can be a long, sometimes dispiriting haul waiting for a story to find the right reader, but when they do -- it's chocks away! Well done Alison (Ally :-)) you kept faith in your book and now you're part of a fabulous stable and very much looking forward to the Black Powder launch next year! Tremendous achievement!

  5. What a brilliant story, Alison - can I ask if you'd like to be interviewed for the debut author series? If so, please contact me - either via FB or one of the W&P editorial team.

  6. Congratulations! I remember that pitch, it was awsome!

  7. Hey, I know that book! ;) I can't wait to see it in published form. Thanks for sharing your 10 words, Alison -- it's fun to see 68,000 words boiled down to its gooey essence.

  8. Congratulations Alison. It's a great story and I cant wait to get my hands on the actual book. I've enjoyed being able to read it as a WIP. It's a great story.

  9. Congratulations Alison. It totally remember them reading out your pitch at conference - it had all the elements of a great story in ten words! And sounded very intriguing. So exciting to hear Chicken house is publishing the book! :)

  10. That really is a very exciting route to publication - congratulations!

  11. Alison, What a great story. Congratulations!

  12. Replies
    1. Thank you so much for all your lovely comments which underline what I said in my article about how supportive Scoobies are! Looking forward to hopefully catching up with some of you at this year's conference - for which, after my experience last year, I was quick to book my place! Thanks again!

  13. Just fantastic - I love this story and am so thrilled for you!

  14. What a lovely post! Your story sounds great, too. Congratulations!

  15. Alison, I'm so glad! That's absolutely wonderful!


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