Want to know how to get your first novel published without an agent? Debut children’s writer Leona Forde, author of Milly McCarthy is a Complete Catastrophe, talks to us about securing a three-book deal with Irish publisher Gill Books
Thank you so much for joining us on myfirstbookdeal.com, Leona. Did you always want to be a writer, or did you come to writing later in life?
Being a writer was not something I had planned, although I have always loved books and writing. After school I studied English and History in University College Cork and then became a post primary teacher. So I have spent years analysing books and teaching students how to write. It’s only in the last few years that I started writing regularly.
I like to write poetry, short stories and fiction for kids. In 2020 I did an online “Writing for Children” course with the amazing Galway author Patricia Forde and that really inspired me and fuelled my passion for writing.
What led you to write your debut novel Millie McCarthy is a Complete Catastrophe? Could you tell us a little bit about how a conversation with your daughter Asha provided inspiration?
I wrote my debut novel because my daughter Asha wanted a book about an Irish kid like herself. She had read lots of series like Wimpy Kid, Big Nate, Tom Gates and pointed out to me that they all had male lead characters and were set in American middle schools. She wanted a story set in Ireland, with a character that she as an Irish girl, attending a Gaelscoil [Irish-speaking school], could relate to.
So I began telling her little stories about this girl from Cork called Milly McCarthy, who because of her rebel blood finds herself in heaps of funny mischief.
Asha also loves to draw and would draw out scenes from the stories. When the book was being illustrated, we were thrilled when Karen Harte, the amazingly talented illustrator used some of Asha’s original drawings as inspiration for some of the characters. Karen is brilliant and really captures the fun and energy of all the characters, her illustrations add another level of fun to the series.
You work as an English teacher and have four children. How do you find the time or energy to write?
I think you will always find time for something you love. Writing doesn’t feel like work. It’s something I really enjoy. I try to put aside a few hours one evening a week where I write. Then it’s a matter of using those moments in the car, waiting to collect one of the kids from piano or soccer practice.
I also count the time I spend reading as productive to my writing. If you want to write well you need to read widely. So when I don’t have much energy I curl up with a book, which is never wasted time.
Did you ever doubt yourself as a writer and is there anything in particular that helped you to stay motivated?
I think all writers have doubts and are our own biggest critics. Personally what helps me to stay motivated is people telling me their child really liked the book and are looking forward to the next one.
The sense of achievement when you finish a section and knowing that you are part of a team, that there is the illustrator, the editor, the publicist and for it to work you all need to work as hard as you can.
Can you tell us how your three-book deal with Gill Books came about?
After I had completed the writing for children course with Patricia Forde, she encouraged us to submit our work to publishers in Ireland who accepted submissions. I was unsure at first but decided to submit a picture book to Gill.
About three months later I got an email from Venetia Gosling, (associate publisher for children’s at Gill), saying that they had liked the book and could we arrange a Zoom meeting. On the Zoom, we discussed the picture book and Venetia asked if I had written anything else. I told her about other books I was working on including a series for middle grade about a character from Cork called Milly McCarthy.
After explaining the reason I wrote it and some plot ideas I had worked on, Venetia said that she would be interested in reading a few chapters of the series, so I sent them in.
A few weeks later Venetia rang offering a three-book deal for the Milly McCarthy series, which was just beyond amazing and it all started from there.
Can you remember how it felt when you found out you were going to be published? What did your children think of your achievement?
It felt totally surreal. Following the phone call I sat there for at least ten minutes wondering if I had imagined it. After I told my husband, the second person I rang was Patricia Forde, who was so lovely and wisely instructed me to have champagne for tea! My kids were totally excited about the stories becoming actual books.
I felt really proud too, because I had taken a chance and I was looking forward to seeing how others would react to this calamitous Cork girl who was always getting into herself into mischief. It’s been so great how people have reacted to her as a character, and how supportive all my family and friends and other Irish authors have been.
What would you say has been the highlight of your writing career so far?
For me, it was on the morning the book was published. I handed my kids their copy with a special note written inside to each one. Their reactions were brilliant. The same day was World Book Day and a few kids who had gotten early copies actually decided to dress up as Milly McCarthy for school and posted photos online. That was amazing to see. My editor dressed up as Milly too that day which was hilarious and really made me laugh.
There have been lots of little moments as well. Seeing it on a shelf, or a window display in a bookshop for the first time. Reading a review where it was dubbed Ireland’s answer to Diary of a Wimpy Kid and meeting one reader at an event who had highlighted her favourite passages. Every one of these experiences has just been amazing.
Have you any advice for aspiring authors?
Read as much as you can and don’t be afraid of the blank page. Your first efforts will be bad, that’s why I always call it the sloppy copy. Getting out that first draft is the hardest part, once that’s done the fun can begin, with polishing up the plot, tweaking the characters, finding the right words. Self-doubt is the only thing that can really stop any of us.
Milly McCarthy is a Complete Catastrophe is available for purchase here