In November 2016, Justin Davies took part in, and won, The Hook at the SCBWI Conference in Winchester. In May 2019, his debut middle grade novel Help! I Smell a Monster – the one he pitched live on stage – was published. But what happened in between?

It’s astonishing what we’re capable of when we haven’t slept. I know, not just because I’m long haul cabin crew, but also because I didn’t sleep at all the night before The Hook back in November 2016. The rubbish pillows provided by a hotel chain that should know better were partly to blame; but it was more the anticipation/nerves/terror caused by what was to come.

Egged on by adrenaline and my posse of SCBWI Scotland cheerleaders, I came out on top; but winning The Hook was just the first milestone of many en route to publication.

I reached milestone two in January the following year when I travelled to London to claim my prize: a one-to-one feedback session with Thérèse Coen, the Hook judge and agent I had chosen from the panel. Knowing that I live in Scotland, Thérèse had offered me a Skype or phone call, but I was keen to make the most of this opportunity. Making that effort turned out to be the right choice, because after two hours of detailed feedback on my manuscript and lots of great chat, Thérèse asked me the magic question: would I like her to represent me? Having done my homework, and having notched up a fair few rejections, I said yes! I then skipped out into a snowy Soho, elated and excited.

A week or so later, arriving home jet-lagged and exhausted from work, I had the fabulous task of signing my agency contract, which of course I documented on social media and celebrated appropriately – as I have with every milestone.

Thérèse immediately set me the task of doing one edit of the book, but no more. Her reasoning being that my editor would want to work on the manuscript anyway. Not that I had one at this point, but Thérèse never doubted that my book would find a home. Having an agent who demonstrates this level of confidence in your words is a true bonus to an author prone to imposter syndrome. I still suffer from bouts of this, but I know Thérèse is always ready with reassuring words, should I need them.

With the edit finished, my book was out on submission, and then…another milestone. I received a message from Thérèse while I was in New York to say an editor at Orchard Books was keen to meet me and asking when was I likely to be in London. I immediately replied with “tomorrow”, followed by another message saying “I’ll be jetlagged and won’t have slept much”, (I’ve got used to turning my mind to author-related tasks in this all-too-familiar, semi-stupefied, sleep-deprived state – especially around deadlines!)

I can’t tell you how exciting it was to walk into the lobby at Hachette HQ in London. With Thérèse by my side, I met with Sarah Leonard, then commissioning editor with Orchard Books at Hachette Children’s. I may have been up all night, and part of my brain may have still been somewhere over the Atlantic, but once again, the effort was worth it, because not long afterwards, Orchard made an offer for two books. Cue: much champagne and a first vow of silence.

The thing they don’t tell you at writing school is that the publication process consists of several red letter days of pure joy, punctuated by long, long periods of radio silence. One such being the gap between offer of publication and signing the contract. I’ve no idea how authors negotiate a publishing deal without an agent; I only hope they make use of the Society of Authors before signing on the line, because the contracts might as well be written in a foreign language. I speak a few of them but they’d have been no use at all in deciphering the legalese, percentages and royalties.

By July 2017 we had a signed deal! Another milestone! And another trip to London to visit the whole publishing team. I’m not often seen with a glass of fizz at 10.30am – but I didn’t want to upset anyone! I think it was after a couple of sips that I made my second vow of silence. I was not to announce the deal until they did.

Which was nineteen months later.

Of course, news like this has a habit of leaking out; the leak threatened to become a torrent at SCBWI conference last year. But I kept the news off social media. This was not easy.

I had plenty to keep me diverted during these long months: revisions, character assassinations, plot tightening, multiple changes of title, and some serious word culling. Somewhere in the word ether are over 20K of mine. Help yourself if you see them floating past; I was rather proud of several of them. I’ve also had a change of editor triggered by Sarah going on maternity leave, with Anne Marie Ryan taking me under her wing. I’ve learned so much from both editors, which I think has been one of the most rewarding aspects of the entire process. During this period, I also saw the first set of illustrations, including the cover art for the book. Kim Geyer – another SCBWI member – has worked wonders with my characters.

Since the announcement of my deal in February, the milestones have begun to whizz past as the process has picked up speed. I’ve met with the sales team, my publicist, the book’s designer and a ton of other people. I received my first copy – that was a busy day on Twitter! I’ve had a book launch. I’ve signed copies in bookshops and done my first school visits. I’ve appeared at my first book festival. I’ve even had time to write the next book in the series.

Throughout the entire process, I’ve never forgotten that if I hadn’t entered the Hook back in 2016, I might not be where I am today. Yes, it was terrifying and felt like a step into the unknown; my first author school visit and book festival felt the same! But I’ve always believed in grabbing opportunities when they present themselves and there are so many on offer to SCBWI members. So… take a deep breath and go for it! There’s nothing to lose and who knows what you might gain.

Like Superman, Justin Davies leads a double life: in one, he flies around the world as cabin crew; in the other, he writes middle grade fiction with the aim to make kids laugh. Sometimes the two lives converge; then it gets entertaining. Justin lives with his husband in the shadow of the Forth Bridge in Fife. Being half Welsh, and married to a Scot, Justin feels quite at home in a land of Celts. When not flying, writing or eating cake, Justin volunteers as co-network organiser for SCBWI Scotland. His debut children’s novel, Help! I Smell a Monster, is out now, published by Orchard Books. You can find Justin here: https://justindaviesauthor.com

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