The Debut Author Series - James Nicol

James Nicol
The Apprentice Witch

The Learning Curve - Insights from Debut Authors 

Nicky Schmidt 

For many the road to publication is long and fraught. For others, a publishing deal comes relatively easily. Those who are still trudging the path may find it hard to imagine what it’s like to be a debut author, and authors with a few books to their name may only dimly recall the original experience. 

So what is it like? Does life change? Do dreams become reality and with a deal to your name does it all become plain sailing? And what is the process from slushpile to contract to published novel actually like? I asked debut author, James Nicol, about his journey to publication. 

From the time you first started writing, how long did it take to get a publishing deal? 

I’ve been writing on and off for years but had a long gap where all the writing was really only going on in my head and day to day life was getting in the way. I started again in 2010 but it was in 2012 that I made a conscious effort to rekindle something creative just for myself so I started a short creative writing for children course. By the end of 2012 I had started to write what would become The Apprentice Witch. My offer from Chicken House came in spring 2015 so it was about 3/4 years which I know is not very long at all! 

It is said that writers have to be persevering and have a tough skin – did you find you grew in endurance and perseverance? Did you ever think about giving up? What made you keep going? 

Well I don’t know what expectations I had when I set off on my path, I think having small goals to achieve probably helped - get a first draft written, get some honest feedback, do the first edit etc. It’s definitely a marathon rather than a sprint but I guess not knowing for sure how long it might take or exactly what the end result is going to be was helpful in a way – ignorance is bliss as they say! 

I never thought of giving up, I think I’m a fairly determined person anyway. Encouragement from friends and family, my creative writing tutor and later the Golden Egg Academy team is what kept me going most. 

How did you feel when you first landed your deal? Did it feel like the world had changed? How long did the excitement last? 

Oh my goodness, I am still excited and it’s been over a year! To begin with I was in shock as it really was a massive surprise. The book had been sent to Chicken House for a potential scholarship via The Golden Egg Academy so I was only expecting news about that really. Then I was asked to have a conference call with Barry Cunningham and Rachel Leyshon at Chicken House and Rachel broke the news. I didn’t know what to say. I was at home on my own with nobody to share the news with except for the dog so we went for a celebratory walk! It definitely felt as though something had changed, it made all the hard work feel very worthwhile. 

If you think about the amount of work you did on your story pre-deal, how much more work did you have to do once you’d landed your deal – did you realise the real work had only just begun and how surprised where you by that? 

I was lucky being accepted into the Golden Egg Academy and I think that gave me a good understanding of the work that would be expected of me as and when there was an offer from a publisher. All the editors and mentors are editors and publishing professionals so it’s a bit like training or an apprenticeship for children’s writers. I’d had a couple of meetings with Barry Cunningham to discuss the scholarship so I already had some feedback from him as to changes Chicken House would like to see to the book so I’d gone away and was working on that when the offer came. The transition was fairly seamless for me, I think the last bits of editing, copy edits and page proofs was harder because of the time frame and working full time and writing meant the last couple of months have been quite crammed! 

As the creator of your story, having always been in control of your characters and your plot, how did you find taking on board someone else’s comments and suggestions – was it like losing control and did you ever argue with your editor? 

I think that has been the most surprising thing of all, I remember having my first 1:1 with Bella Pearson at Golden Egg and I really thought it would be like getting homework back, all crossings out and red pen. But I’ve found the editing process to be much more a conversation, much more my editors encouraging or challenging me to think of things in a different way. I have thoroughly enjoyed the editing process (not something I was expecting at all!) and I’m sure that's largely down to my amazing editors Rachel and Kesia. It still feels entirely like my book but I’ve had many helping hands nudging me in the right direction and other people investing themselves in the story which is an incredible honour. 

Assuming you took the majority of suggestions on board, how do you feel it impacted on your story? 

I think the main suggestion which came from Barry very early on was to scale back the ‘epicness’ of the fantasy and to focus on the domestic detail of the story – which seems incredibly obvious to me now, as that’s what I wanted from the book, but I’d got a little carried away in the early drafts! I feel the story is much stronger for that advice and much more the story I imagined. 

How have you found working with illustrators and cover designers? How much involvement have you had with the graphic content of your book (covers or illustrations)? 

I was quite anxious about the cover especially as I was warned from the get go that most authors don’t like their cover the first time they see it! But I had never had a clear idea in my head as to what the cover might look like so I think that probably helped. I was able to share the Pinterest board I had put together with images that inspired locations, characters and creatures in the book and this was shared with the cover designer and later with the chosen illustrator – the amazing Daniella Terazzinni. I was sent samples of Daniela’s work so I knew the type of illustration that might be coming and then had an anxious wait for the initial sketch. Thankfully I loved it from the very start. The inside details were a total surprise (except for the glyphs which are from my original drawings!) I love the little broomsticks throughout! 

Do you think that having had your first book published, your writing life will be easier and your career will be on track? Do you think it will all be easier the second time round? 

It’s certainly given me confidence and that’s such an important thing to drive you on when you are writing. I’m not sure I know if my career is on track or not, I’ve not thought that through properly yet! I think given that the 2nd book is part of the series it will be easier as I already know the core of characters and the world so well, but I am sure even a series comes with its own challenges! 

Aside from the editing, what other aspects of being an author have you had to come to terms with? 

I think the promotion of the book is going to be the next learning curve, events etc all seem rather thrilling to me but I know its going to be hard work as well. I’m looking forward to meeting readers but think I also need to let the book go a little bit now that my work on it is over, it’s in the hands and imaginations of the readers now! 

What have been your biggest lessons since landing a deal? 

Learning to wait! I think writers are naturally impatient people and there is always a lot of waiting involved in the various stages. Having something to distract you from the waiting is a good idea, another writing project or a hobby etc. I’ve considered taking up knitting once or twice! 

What one key piece of advice would you offer unpublished writers when working with an editor for the first time?

I think trust is the key, you need to be reassured that you can trust your editor and that they are invested in your story as much as you are. That doesn’t mean you will agree on every aspect – you also need to trust that they have the best interests of the book at heart as well. 

Now that your first book is out – what next? 

I’m currently writing a second adventure for Arianwyn and her chums which will be published in 2017. I’ll be visiting schools bookshops and libraries throughout the summer and I am also a writing buddy for new Golden Egg Academy members. 

You can connect with and find out more about James Nicol in the following places: 
Buy: Hive    Waterstones  Blackwell   Foyles  

SCBWI-BI “member abroad”, Nicky Schmidt is an ex scriptwriter, copywriter, and marketing, brand and communications director who "retired" early to follow a dream. Although she still occasionally consults on marketing, communications and brand strategies, mostly she writes YA fiction (some of which leans towards New Adult) in the magical realism and supernatural genres. When not off in some other world, Nicky also writes freelance articles - mostly lifestyle and travel - for which she does her own photography. Her work has been published in several South African magazines and newspapers. As well as being a regular feature writer for Words & Pictures, Nicky also runs the SCBWI-BI YA e-critique group. Nicky lives in Cape Town with her husband and two rescue Golden Retrievers.


  1. Thanks for that great interview Nicky and James! It's always great to hear success stories but also the realities of the writing life both pre- and post-publication!

  2. Informative and interesting interview. Thanks for sharing your experience James.

  3. You have said it right dreams are the one that make us live, it is scientific truth that even if you try hard you can never remember how your dream started. This shows that what are dreams all about, and how to take serious about it.


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