Triona Campbell worked closely with Blue Pencil Agency’s head editor and founder Sara Sarre on a YA novel, after which she successfully acquired an agent and a three-book deal with Scholastic UK. In this Author Q&A, Triona describes working as a film producer, the steep learning curve expected of the newly-signed author, and how the budding writer might handle the industry and land a publishing deal.
Could you give me a quick summary of your writing journey?
I have always been fascinated by story and how we use it to communicate. My older sister was born profoundly disabled and non-verbal. It made me think from an early age about how we use story, not just to communicate, but to make sense of the world around us. How it can be told, not just through words, but also visually and orally.
I knew I wanted to write early in my career, but I lacked confidence in my own voice. So, I spent a decade working first in theatre and then film and television as a producer for other people’s stories. I loved every second of it. It gave me the opportunity to travel, to meet people, to learn about story and structure from great writers, and be a part of some TV writers’ rooms. Eventually, however, I wanted to do more. I started by first doing short evening courses in writing for teens (run by the amazing author Sarah Webb). Then I joined a writer’s group run by Simone Schuemmelfeder at the Irish Writers Centre. From that came a manuscript for a book, which, once edited, I used to start to look for an agent.
Has your career as a film producer shaped your writing? How?
For me, books offer the opportunity to explore characters through their inner thoughts – something impossible to do in commercial film making. Film is about visual montages that can convey emotion. It entertains and transports – but it is a lean-back passive consumption of content that washes over you. Books give you the inner voice you rarely see, and there’s a partnership between the writer and the reader in terms of imagining the fictitious world in which the action takes place. It’s magic.
While they are very different mediums, there is also some overlap. What film taught me is the importance of structure and character: Three acts, beginning, middle and end (not necessarily in that order); and knowing a character’s wants and needs from the start of the story. Working in Television also taught me something I love and use a lot – cliff-hangers. In TV, it’s the hook to make the audience come back after the advert break. In the case of books – it’s keeping the reader reading just one more chapter till the early hours. I love them.
“What film taught me is the importance of structure and character: Three acts, beginning, middle and end (not necessarily in that order); and knowing a character’s wants and needs from the start of the story.”
How did the Blue Pencil Agency fit into that journey?
Sara Sarre (Blue Pencil Agency’s founder and head editor) is AMAZING. When I first met her, I had written a draft of a teen novel, and it was in awful shape. I knew if I wanted an agent, I needed to bring it to the next level, and I was all out of ideas on how to do that. Sara was the person who helped me make the manuscript into something readable that showed enough promise to get me an offer of representation from two incredible agents (one of which the Blue Pencil agency found for me). She is someone who helps you see the wood from the trees when you’re too close to the story. I adore her story instincts. I still go to her when looking at new concepts.
You recently completed an M.Phil. in creative writing at Trinity College, Dublin. How has that affected your writing journey? Would you recommend doing a course?
The M.Phil. was amazing. I went in with a clear idea of what I wanted to write, and I used the course to hone that work. It made me dedicate time every week to writing (and when you’re juggling a full-time job, small kids, and all the other things life throws at you – you need that). The Trinity M.Phil. had amazing tutors, including Eoin McNamee, Carlo Gebler, Claire Keegan, and Kevin Power. I came out of it with the first few chapters of what became my debut book. I also wrote a radio drama for middle-grade listeners, which is now in its third season with RTE Radio (Irish national broadcaster). It recently won silver at the international radio awards in New York.
From our very small class, I think three of us now have publishing deals, and most have been published in various literary journals. The course gave us not just tools but a support network and a sense of community. If you can find the right course with the right group – then a creative writing master’s can be amazing, but that’s not to say you need to do one to write. If you write, you’re a writer – everyone’s path to publication is different.
You are represented by Marianne Gunn O’Connor at the Marianne Gunn O’Connor Literary Agency. Why did you choose her as your agent? What made her the perfect fit?
Marianne was my dream agent when I first thought about writing. I had come across her before while in TV, and to be honest, as a producer, she is intimidating. She is a fair but tough negotiator. I instantly knew that was what I wanted if I was looking for someone to represent me. What I found through working with her is she just doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer; she really battles for her clients, and I have huge respect for her as a result.
“If you write, you’re a writer – everyone’s path to publication is different.”
Can you take us through the process of acquiring and working through a three-book deal? What has surprised you? What has proven a challenge?
Oh god – EVERYTHING. It’s been the steepest learning curve of my life. I am so grateful to my agent for guiding me through the process. The book received preempts and then went to auction with five amazing publishers before getting signed as a 3-book deal with Scholastic UK.
As a debut author, I spent a lot of time after that, not being really sure of the process. How many drafts, what are Advance Reader Copies, blurbs, how to handle marketing and press, what should I be doing to support the sales process. Then balancing that with what you’re supposed to be doing – writing book two – and also working on things to do with the Film rights. I found it tough to achieve that balance – to be honest I’m still figuring it out.
What I would say to anyone going through that process is – don’t be afraid to ask questions. People are mostly lovely in terms of wanting to help, and there are some brilliant resources out there, such as the Society of Authors, or other writers, when you need a second opinion.
Do you have any advice to budding authors about acquiring an agent? And about everything that follows? What should they be prepared for?
Only submit when it’s as good as you think it can be. Spend time crafting your pitch and your bio. Be professional and always polite. Also – rejection. It’s going to happen when you’re pitching. Remember everything is subjective, you don’t always know who else the agent is repping or what those writers might be working on. Sometimes an agent isn’t looking to sign a potentially competing author no matter how much they love the work. Your job is to write the best work you can, then find the best agent you can to get it to publishers (if you want to pursue the traditional path). An excellent resource to read during this process is Stephen King’s book On Writing which examines how he handled rejection.
Do the research so you’re pitching to the right person. Then do multiple personalised submissions (sticking to the guidelines that each agent suggests). Create an Excel as you go and track the responses and any feedback you get. Set up alerts so if you haven’t heard from someone in 3 to 4 weeks. Ping yourself to send a gentle email reminder asking if they need more details or information.
Use whatever you can to ensure you stand out from the crowd. If you were lucky enough to work with a writing mentor who is already published – ask if they would mind doing a blurb you can add to the front page of the manuscript. Got a social media following or you’re an expert in a field related to your book – put it in your pitch. Explore writing competitions for unsigned writers and, especially, the ones that mean you can meet and pitch to agents.
And while you’re doing all of that – write something else. Apart from keeping you sane and distracted, you want an agent who sees you as more than just one book. When someone says, ‘this isn’t for me, what else do you have?’ have an answer ready.
“Only submit when it’s as good as you think it can be.”
Your first YA novel came out in February 2023. Can you tell us a little about it and what inspired you to write it?
I had just produced a video games series for kids (Gamer Mode for RTE TV in Ireland) and really wanted to write something set in the world of future technology and eSports.
I had also heard a story of a neighbour up the road who had come into an inheritance. The money was from someone she met while in the UK care system. Found family. They met as kids. He saw her as his sister; she saw him as a brother, and they supported each other their whole lives after they had aged out of the system. When he died, leaving behind a large sum of money, he left it all to her. However, as soon as this man was dead, his ‘blood’ family re-emerged. Seemingly, they always knew where this guy was but never made any effort to contact him during his life – until they realised he’d done well for himself and died. These relatives wanted and felt entitled to a share of his estate because they were his ‘blood’ family.
The story stuck with me. I started thinking more about found families. What if there were two sisters who grew up in care? What if one of them was murdered? How far would her sibling go to get to the truth? How would she be able to do that if the only thing she could rely on was herself? From there, I fleshed out a one-page outline and realised this was something I had to write.
When is your next novel due out, and what can you tell us about it?
Very little. The next book is out around March 2024, and apart from that, I can’t say a lot more. Except – there will be lots of twists (no one is safe in this book). Also – let’s be friends – if you follow me on Instagram, you can see the cover when it’s released: @Triona_Campbell
“Learn to deal with rejection and to delight in other people’s success.”
Triona’s Top tips for emerging writers:
- The first draft is just for you. Don’t self-sabotage by censoring or criticizing yourself as you go – wait till you have a full draft completed first.
- Find a time that works for you and make writing part of your routine and stick with it. When I started, I wrote 5am – 6am. Monday – Friday, as it was the only time I had before my kids woke and my day started. Writing is a craft – the more you do, the better you get.
- Find your tribe. A monthly or bimonthly writing group (if it’s well run and supportive) can be magic and great at keeping you on track.
- Writers are readers. If you’re interested in writing in a particular genre or for a certain age group – then you need to be well read in that area.
- Learn to deal with rejection and to delight in other people’s success. As my late mum would say: ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.’
- Review your work – I use the read aloud option on Microsoft word to ‘listen’ to my work before sending it.
If you want to know more, get a free book extract, (or some more writing tips) then sign up for my newsletter on www.trionacampbell.com. It will start in the new year. Happy writing!
A Game of Life and Death is available to order here.
Irish-born writer and producer Triona Campbell is a two-time Emmy-nominated producer of film and TV projects. She is the creator of Ireland’s first TV series on video games Gamer Mode (RTÉ) and a producer on the groundbreaking and iconic UK teen drama Sofia’s Diary (Channel 5 / Sony Pictures Television). Triona has a Master’s in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin, and is also the writer of the award-winning podcast series Adventures of a Young Pirate Queen. She is passionate about creating teen content (and finding time to play retro video games with her kids). If you want to know more, see: www. trionacampbell.com