Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had the rib-tickling delight of judging entries for the Greenhouse Funny Prize. This is the second year that we’ve held the Prize and once again we were lucky enough to have Leah Thaxton, Publisher at Faber Children’s as a co-judge.
We had over 200 entries and, to be honest, it was quite a task to whittle them down. Well, to a certain extent it was. Lots of people sent entries that were spot on, but more than a few sent work that puzzled me. Some people sent manuscripts for adults. The odd (no pun intended) individual sent stories of such bleakness that they came closer to making me cry than smile. Some people disregarded the submission guidelines entirely and sent almost the opposite of what they were asked to send. The thing is, when a reader is trying to come up with a shortlist from a vast number of entries in a very short space of time, people who submit sloppily don’t do themselves any favours. With the best will in the world, a busy agent (or commissioning editor or publisher) is not going to have the time – or patience! – to read through lots of extraneous material when so many other people are submitting with care and thought.
So, one thing I’ve learnt from the enterprise is that, were I ever submitting to something like this myself, I would take it as seriously as applying for a job or attending an interview. I would try to give myself the very best start by doing what the entry guidelines asked. If they ask for funny children’s writing, I wouldn’t send an adult novel about a granny murderer. If they ask for a brief synopsis, the synopsis I’d send would not be longer than the extract from my manuscript. [Info on how to write a synopsis here, or here – ed] If it asked for a short author note, I’d keep it short and not send half my autobiography. If asked to send three chapters, I wouldn’t send five. The person to whom I’m sending my work will ask if they want to see more of it. Once I’d done all of that, I’d do simple things like make sure I was submitting to the right person, run a spell check on before pressing ‘send’ and being certain that my grammar and punctuation were correct.
I’ve learnt two other things as well though. The first is that there are some very talented people out there whose imaginations are exploding with great ideas, whimsy, humour, surrealism and fun. Reading through the submissions, Leah and I were taken from Hell to Heaven, from England to countries all over the world. We hunted for missing cats, put up with awful siblings, spent time with aliens, travelled backwards (and forwards) in time, were inside the head of an ordinary girl, several extra-terrestrials, a boy trapped in a man’s body and more than one animal. We met evil school teachers, malevolent bullies, ineffectual adults, some brilliant best friends, a lot of harassed mothers and well-meaning but drippy fathers. We took part in adventures, investigations, chases, dreams, nightmares, impossible feats of strength and bravery – and we enjoyed every single moment of it. Practically every entry made me smile.
And that brings me to the other thing I’ve learnt. That humour is very hard to do. Farce and silliness are relatively easy. Gags about breaking wind, picking noses, burping, vomiting and underpants burst from the brains of people writing for children. But genuine humour is much harder to discover. Books that make you feel warm with a glee that grows to a smile and then erupts into laughter are a rarity, the people who can write them are talented – and lucky. Lots and lots of the stories that I had the privilege of reading were full of life and energy but only a handful made me burst out laughing. And the one that won – Murray the Horse by Gavin Puckett – made me carry on laughing every time I thought of it for days afterwards. A story like that is a treasure. The children who read it are in for a treat. And Mr Puckett himself is in for the biggest treat of all – a weekend at the Writers’ Workshop Festival of Writing in York. I’ll be there too, and looking forward to meeting him and everybody else taking part.
Greenhouse Literary Agency