SCBWI SUCCESS STORY Pitching during a Pandemic

SCBWI Member Michael Mann tells us how SCBWI, the Agents' Party and Undiscovered Voices helped him bag an agent and a two-book deal.

My first writing success was a poem about potatoes in a competition run by a Yorkshire school catering company. As a ‘reward’, I had to shake hands with a giant potato mascot in front of my school. It would be many years before I dared write again.

Fortunately, when I eventually did, it was under the guidance of some very encouraging tutors at CityLit and City University. I started with short stories, but eventually took the plunge, and went four days a week so I could write ‘the novel’.
The first draft of Ghostcloud was TERRIBLE. It had some lovely description, but when even my mum failed to finish it, I knew I had a problem. Alas, soon after, I began retraining as a teacher AND found out we were expecting a baby. It’s safe to say the novel was abandoned.
Then a miracle happened: my baby began sleeping. She kindly timed it just before my six months of parental leave began, with three hours after lunch and all through the night. Do not ask me how – if I knew, I’d write a book on it. What I did know, however, is it meant I had a chance – perhaps my last – to actually finish my book.
Ghostcloud is magical adventure about a boy who escapes his workhouse with help from a ghost, set in the furnaces and skies of a steampunk London. It proved the perfect escape from a life knee-deep in nappies. I wrote during naps and late into the night (I was used to limited sleep by that point) and joined an invaluable Curtis Brown course online. Though it was hectic, I really felt the writing recharged me, and I enjoyed the time with my daughter more as a result (except the poo-namis, which were never fun).
My first encounter with SCBWI was around then. Desperate for non-baby-based social interaction, I reached out, and Tania Tay, in all her loveliness, won me round. Weeks later I found myself at a British Library SCWBI brunch, with a 9-month old baby, on my birthday. Tania had not overpromised: it was the perfect birthday. She and Candy Gourlay took turns cuddling my baby, like some guest of honour, leaving me to have priceless baby-free conversations about books, writing and publishing with lovely SCBWI members.
It was there I learned about Undiscovered Voices and the Agents’ Party. The former was a few months away, and a longshot, but the entry deadline became my final draft target. (I made it, just…). The Agents’ Party came a few months after, by which time I was sick of my book, convinced it wouldn’t make UV2020, and considering just sending it off to agents. I’m glad I waited. I learned so much and left so encouraged (even by the agent who thought my book was called ‘Ghostcow’), but most of all, I realised that agents could only read your book fresh once. It had to be ready. And I knew mine wasn’t.
I returned to editing, focusing on the sloppy second half of the book. I saw so many issues. In a moment of angst, I even emailed the UV2020 committee asking to submit a revised version. They politely said no, but a few weeks later, they emailed me to say I was a winner! I had recently won a London Writers Award (an amazing programme – the deadline this year is 30th September), and with Undiscovered Voices, I began to wonder if I might actually have a chance.
UV2020 was crucial. It motivated me through the final push of editing and helped hugely with getting agent interest. In the end, I had several offers, and the UV training, mentoring and launch event proved invaluable in helping choose the right one.
At the UV launch party, between canapés, I remember vaguely worrying about this thing called coronavirus. Two weeks later, I was agented (the brilliant Stephanie Thwaites and Izzy Gahan at Curtis Brown), but the world was apparently ending. I’m a primary teacher, and asthmatic, and teaching that week was horribly stressful. When lockdown started, it was a relief, and to escape the madness, I threw myself into Steph’s suggested edits. Before I knew it, we’d submitted.
The lockdown Zoom pitches were surreal. People forgot to unmute, commented on home décor and (of course) got cut off after 40 minutes (even publishers, it seems, use the free version.) Hachette, however, went the extra mile. My (amazing) editor Anne had got the CEO and whole senior team on board. They were so experienced, full of ideas and excited about the book. They’d even changed their Zoom background to a cloudscape to fit my novel.
When they gave their final offer, I couldn’t quite believe it. I’d barely left the house for weeks, and suddenly, invisibly, everything had changed. I ran downstairs and jumped around in the garden with my partner, toddler and a bottle of bubbly.    
Obviously, there’s plenty more work to do. I’ve edits for Ghostcloud, a sequel to write, a Twitter phobia to overcome, and I’ll still be teaching (though thankfully, part-time now), but despite everything going on at the moment, I’m feeling hopeful.


Michael is a teacher by day, dad by night, and mostly writes when he should be sleeping. He owes the idea for his middle grade novel,
Ghostcloud, to his coal-mining grandad and a lifelong love of cloud-spotting. He’s half-Indian and passionate about diversity in children’s literature. Michael was an Undiscovered Voices 2020 finalist, London Writers Awardee, and his debut novel Ghostcloud will publish with Hachette in October 2021. He lives in London with his (very patient) partner Joe and their (less patient) toddler, and can be found playing board games when he’s not busy losing his wallet.

Twitter handle: @mikebmann


A. M. Dassu is a children’s author and deputy editor of Words & Pictures. You can contact her by emailing

1 comment:

  1. Well done. Michael. I can't wait to read the whole book, Sharon x


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