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Monday, February 11, 2013

The Greenhouse Funny Prize 2013

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We’ve just opened the doors on the Funny Prize for 2013. Last year was so much fun, and we found such a star in Pip Jones and her young series SQUISHY McFLUFF (pictured celebrating her deal with Julia), that this year we’re running it again, and opening it up to the US and Canada.

It’s going to be even bigger, with a winner in both the UK and North America.

The prize is representation by the Greenhouse, and in the UK you’ll also get a ticket to the fabulous Festival of Writing in York.

The winner may be a picture book like SQUISHY McFLUFF or THIS IS NOT MY HAT, or a young series à la HORRID HENRY, or for 8-12 year olds like M.T. Anderson’s WHALES ON STILTS. It could even be for teen readers like ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL or THE PRINCESS DIARIES.

The Greenhouse is looking for funny, and we’re wide open to all ages. Tell your friends, spread the word, the Greenhouse Funny Prize is open, and you can find all you need to know here.

We thought an interview with Pip Jones would be a great way to open this year’s prize, and pull the curtains back on what the last six months has held.

Pip, tell us about you and your writing. Is SQUISHY McFLUFF the first book you’ve written?
I write for a living now. I used to edit magazines, but writing was all I ever really wanted to do, and I remembered that when I left my job having had two babies in the space of 13 months. It seemed like a good time to try to be what I always wanted to be.

SQUISHY McFLUFF, THE INVISIBLE CAT was the first book I’d written since MaxBurger, which was a children’s book I wrote for my communication studies A-Level. I never did anything with that. But I got an A, actually, maybe I should dig it out!

How did SQUISHY come about? Did you know it was good?!
‘They’ do say you should write about what you know, so when I started feature writing, I concentrated on parenting. I had an endless source of material with two very little girls. SQUISHY McFLUFF actually started off as a story just called The Invisible Cat, and it was a re-jig of a column I’d written about my daughter Ava’s imaginary kitten. So Squishy was, erm, ‘real’ in that sense. I loved it when I’d done it, but I definitely didn’t know if it was good enough. I wanted to find out though. I actually enjoyed writing it so much, that I pushed on and wrote two more stories before anyone even looked at the first one.

How did you find out about the Funny Prize?
I was feeling a bit frustrated about how I could the right person to look at my texts, and the right person to like them. So I was browsing the web, looking for a forum where I could chat with other writers, and also for somewhere I could get the stories professionally appraised. I was on The Writers’ Workshop website when I noticed the advert for the Greenhouse Funny Prize, so I clicked on it. I think there were only about 10 days ‘til the deadline, but by then I had six Squishy McFluff stories done and ready to roll, and I thought, sod it, I’ll send all of ‘em!

What were your expectations entering?
I spent a morning formatting the stories correctly and pinging them over one-by-one – I was really keen to enter. But then after I’d sent them, I decided that a) it looked completely desperate sending in all six and b) I had no chance because the co-judge Leah Thaxton had discovered Andy Stanton’s MR GUM – and he is soooo funny.

Did you have the dates in your diary?
No. I think it was only a month or so until the shortlist was due to be announced, but I’d talked myself down off the cloud where I might get anywhere in the competition and had forgotten about it.

Was it a surprise to hear you’d been shortlisted?
Er, yeah! Actually, what happened was I got back from dropping Ava and Ruby off at nursery, made a coffee, looked at my emails, thought about starting work, then decided to faff about on Twitter for an hour, as you do. And I saw that Julia Churchill had followed me. It didn’t click for a second. Then ‘Greenhouse’ jumped out and I thought: ‘Noooo...?!’ Julia called me 25 minutes later to say I’d been shortlisted.

How did you celebrate when you won?
I think I cried a bit when Julia telephoned me, which was a little embarrassing, but she pretended not to notice. Then I demanded my partner Dan come back from the hospital where he was having his hand fixed (I felt a bit bad about that after, but he did have time to get it strapped up), then I called my mum, then I ditched work for the day and Dan and I went for a big lunch and sat in the sun with a bottle of wine.

Your prize was representation by the Greenhouse, and also a ticket to The Festival of Writing in York. How was that?
Fab, I met loads of interesting people, and attended many talks and workshops. I learned a lot that weekend. I came back feeling really invigorated about what else I could do. People who go get a lot from it, I think it fires their passion and determination, and it’s a great opportunity for them to get advice direct from people in the industry.

What happened after the prize was announced?
Soon after I went to meet Julia and just about managed to resist squealing and squeezing her ‘til she went purple. We had lunch, and Julia told me about her ideas for McFluff. Also, I suddenly found myself entering into a different author-y world, connecting with people on Twitter and so on. And Squishy McFluff was being talked about online, on people’s blogs. It was a bit surreal, like reading about someone else’s invisible cat.

How was it when you went in to the Faber and Faber offices to meet the team?
About a week after Leah had received the manuscripts, she invited Julia and I in for what she said would be a creative chat. I think I expected it to be a bit like an interview, for them to see if Squishy McFluff and I had legs, as it were. To say it wasn’t quite like that would be an understatement – I was floored, I felt wooed. There was a cat basket in the corner of the room, bearing Squishy McFluff’s name. Rebecca Lee (an editor at Faber Children’s) had made invisible cat cupcakes. And Leah had a table full of children’s books and was talking about illustration style, format, when Squishy McFluff might publish. And she said she intended to make an offer.

Tell us about Faber’s offer.
Faber’s offer was absolutely brilliant. I mean, any offer would be brilliant, but it was written almost entirely in rhyme, which was very funny (and it scanned very well!). It made me feel quite emotional, that Faber was pitching to me, asking me if they could have SQUISHY McFLUFF in their stable.

Squishy McFluff was entered into the prize as picture books, but they’re publishing as something slightly different. How did that come about?
Yes, they’re not quite what I thought they were! Actually, I sort of knew when I entered that the stories were too long to be standard picture books, but I didn’t know what else to call them. I didn’t know at the time there was a different format in which they could be published. So they’re going to bridge a gap between picture book and early reader, and each book will be split into three sections. They’re for 4-7 year olds, so at first children will have the stories read to them, and hopefully they’ll soon be reading them by themselves. I love that idea.

What’s the timeline?
One whole year from now the first book will be published! The text for SQUISHY McFLUFF, THE INVISIBLE CAT is done and with Faber (I had to extend it to fit the format, I had to double the length actually). The people at Faber are currently searching for the perfect illustrator, and it’ll be so exciting to see what Squishy McFluff and Ava look like. After that, it’ll all start being put together. I’m blogging about the whole process as it goes, and as I learn – I’m hoping this year’s Funny Prize entrants might enjoy reading about how it all happens. The second book (I’m working on the text now) will come out in August 2014, and there will be two more books, in February and August 2015.

What are you enjoying most about this process?
Well, I just love writing these stories. Few things make me happier actually, and I can sit down and do a solid eight-hour day on them without feeling jaded (although the rhyming in my head does send me a bit doolally). They make me laugh and they make me cry – the stories are funny, but I hope they also have quite a sweet take on the family dynamic. I don’t expect them to make other people cry though! I’m close to them because they’re based in truth, on my own children, my own family. The best thing of all is that I used to feel, when I was writing McFLUFF, that I was bunking off ‘real’ work, that I was indulging myself. Now when I write them, I am legitimately working, and doing something I love. How lucky am I?

What have been the biggest highlights or surprises?
Being shortlisted! Winning the prize! Getting the offer! Those are the highlights of course. Maybe the biggest surprise has been finding, and using in context, the perfect rhyme for ‘pigeon’.

Can you give us a burst of SQUISHY?
How about the beginning? I wrote the first two lines as one sentence, but I realised if I split the sentence in two, I had a rhyme. They were the whole reason that SQUISHY McFLUFF became a story told in verse:

As Ava played out in the garden one day
When the air was all foggy, the sky rather grey
Something appeared (or rather, did not)
From among the wet leaves in the vegetable plot

The marvellous creature was fluffy and tiny
As cute as a button, with eyes big and shiny
A tail that swished proudly, first this way, then that
A fabulous, friendly, invisible cat!

Thanks Pip, we love Squishy and Ava!

Pip is blogging about the process of getting published on her website, so do go and say hello.

If you’re writing funny, we’d love to see your work, from picture books right up to young adult fiction. All details for the Funny Prize are here.

What are you waiting for?! Show us the funny! 

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