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Hox by Annemarie Allan

Featuring the accompanying post:

How Entering Novel Writing Competitions Can Lead to Publishing Success

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Introduction, by Chris Fielden

'Hox' is a novel written for children by Annemarie Allan. It was published by Floris Books after winning the Kelpies Prize in 2007.

Floris Books

This post features a chapter from 'Hox'. To accompany the chapter, Annemarie has written about her experiences of writing children's novels and explains how, after submitting to multiple publishers, entering a novel writing competition eventually lead to 3 of her books being published.

This is the first time I've featured a novel success story. I hope you enjoy it. It really does show that you should never give up and keep on submitting, no matter how many times you experience rejection.

If you'd like to write for my blog, please check out my submission guidelines.

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Hox by Annemarie Allan

Hox - Chapter 2

by Annemarie Allan

Robbie crossed the grass and pressed the entry buzzer. After a few moments, he saw a bearded face at the tiny window, jaws busily working. Robbie had never seen Joe without a piece of gum in his mouth.

“Hi there, stranger!” Joe’s voice held a strong hint of a midwestern drawl but Robbie had known him all his life. And he knew that the closest Joe had ever been to cowboy country was a weekend trip to New York.

Joe stood and chewed, eyeing Robbie thoughtfully until he finally made up his mind. “OK,” he said. “You don’t look very dangerous to me. Come on in.”

“Hi.” Robbie stepped gratefully inside, knowing Joe was bending, if not breaking, the rules. Only members of the research staff were allowed in the animal house. He smiled and reached up a hand to wipe his sweaty forehead, wondering why he felt so wobbly all of a sudden.

“Thought you were going away this weekend,” said Joe, leading the way across the reception area towards an inner door.

“We were supposed to go to the cottage.” Robbie made no effort to keep the resentment out of his voice. “But Dad said he had to work today.”

“That’s a pity.” Joe slid a swipe card out of his shirt pocket and unlocked the door. “Don’t think I’d fancy it myself, though. Must get pretty cold up there at this time of year.”

“It does,” said Robbie, just to be polite. He didn’t care how cold it was. He loved going to the cottage. Last winter, they had arrived to find that the snow plough had only cleared the main roads. His dad had refused to risk the car on the potholed track up to the cottage and had tried to persuade Robbie that they might as well give up. But Robbie had eventually convinced him that they could walk the rest of the way and carry what they needed on their backs.

Robbie treasured the memory of the long trudge through the woods with nothing to break the stillness of the air except the creak of snow-laden branches, the crunch of their footsteps and the sound of their own laboured breathing. And most satisfying of all, that warm sense of coming home, when they finally emerged from the dim green tunnel to see the paint-blistered front door and the deep-set windows of the little house.

Joe tucked the swipe card into his shirt pocket. “I was sure your dad would sell that place when your grandmother died.”

Joe was right. His father often talked about selling it. But he could do nothing until Robbie was old enough to agree. And Robbie knew he would never do that. He loved the place too much.

“He can’t,” said Robbie. “Grannie left it to me. It’s mine!”

Joe chewed his gum a little harder and Robbie bit his lip, knowing he sounded like a spoiled brat. But his first sight of the huge room beyond the two locked doors drove the momentary embarrassment out of his head.

He had expected a bustling, crowded space filled with people. But the building was silent and empty. No one occupied the row of labs stretching all the way down one side of the building and, as far as he could see, there were no animals at all in the pens and cages that filled the open area in the middle.

“Where is everyone?” Robbie’s voice sounded small and insignificant in the vast, echoing space.

“Get real, Robbie. You don’t think I’d have let you in if there was anybody else around, do you?”

Robbie coughed. The stale, musty odour at the back of his throat was a strong reminder that this place had been home to a whole range of different creatures. He gestured at the empty cages. “But where are all the animals?”

Joe looked around, chewing fast again. “Used to be a lot busier than this,” he agreed. “Especially when your mother was here. We made a good team, the three of us. But things got slower and slower after Jane died.” He caught himself and looked down at Robbie with embarrassed sympathy. “Sorry.”

“It’s OK.” Robbie knew all about his mother’s trip to a conference in Bulgaria, when his unexpected early arrival was followed by an infection the doctors could not control.

When he was younger, he used to believe he could remember a soft touch on his face, a whisper in his ear, even though he knew she died only a few days after he was born. Sometimes, he wished she was still here, but then at other times, he wasn’t so sure. He already lived with one scientist. Perhaps two would have been twice as bad. He couldn’t say that to Joe, though.

“Dad doesn’t like to talk about Mum much.”

Joe smiled at him. “I wish you could have known her, Robbie. Jane was a gifted scientist. She really loved her work.” He was chewing fast again. Science was his favourite topic.

Robbie swallowed. It was hard to concentrate on what Joe was saying. His head was buzzing again and he looked around, hoping to find someplace where he could sit down. Joe didn’t notice. He was in full flow.

“It’s such an amazing feeling, to know you’re reshaping the basic building blocks of life, making things that sometimes never existed before. And working with your mother was a real privilege. She was like an artist. Especially with the Hox genes. It took me years to duplicate her work...”

He broke off and looked at Robbie curiously. “Are you OK? You look really pale.”

“I’m fine.” But Robbie wasn’t fine at all. The insistent pull that had drawn him all the way from the car park to the animal house was fierce now, dragging him forward almost against his will. With a mingled sense of dread and expectation, he pointed to the far end of the building.

“What’s down there?”

“Not much.” Joe led the way. “We were involved in a project to reintroduce native species into the wild, natural predators, to keep the deer under control. But the focus has changed – now we’re concentrating on specifics.”

Robbie could tell Joe was quoting someone. From the buzzwords he had heard at home lately when his father was talking on the phone, it was almost certainly Gavin Moir.

In defiance of his growing nausea, he made a determined effort to look interested as he followed Joe down the central walkway towards the rear of the building. They stopped in front of a large cage set against the back wall.

“Robbie, meet Frey.”

Robbie peered through the wire, watching the animal inside pace restlessly from one side of the small space to the other. It was a cat, but it was much bigger than a wildcat, the only native Scottish cat he had ever heard of. He stared at its dark brown fur, dotted with lines of darker spots. “Is she a leopard?”

Joe’s eyes shifted between Robbie and the cat. A puzzled frown creased his forehead. “How did you know she’s female?”

Robbie frowned. He had been asking himself the same question. “Just a wild guess?”

“Well, you’re right.” Joe tapped gently on the roof of the cage. “Hello Freya,” he said softly.

The cat stopped pacing and moved closer to the mesh. Her whiskers twitched and Robbie saw the ruff of pale fur round her face fluff out like a hood. She was interested in the outdoor smell from his rain-dampened jacket. He looked at the tufted ears, the solid, muscular body and the oddly clubbed tail.

“Not a leopard.” Joe confirmed what Robbie had already realised. “Although a lot of people think that, because of the spots. She’s a lynx. From Norway. But cats like this used to live all over Europe, including Scotland.”

“Why did you bring her here?” Robbie stared at the cat. The cat stared back. There was nothing there, nothing to explain the pressure that was now building up to the point where his head felt as though it might explode.

Joe bristled, feeling accused of something. “We didn’t kidnap her, if that’s what you mean. Freya got hit by a car. Her hip’s pretty much healed now, though. Soon she’ll be going back where she came from. We took her because we were looking for another cat to keep this one company.”

With a theatrical flourish, Joe waved an arm at a neighbouring cage. “Our very own Baldur, born two years ago, right here at the Institute.” There was both pride and ownership in his voice.

Hardly able to think, let alone move, Robbie forced himself to turn and look. Shadows shifted at the back of the cage, unfolding into a creature of gold and black. The lynx stretched and yawned, then padded forward, looking up at him intently.

Robbie stared into those ancient, knowing eyes and felt a sudden jolt of recognition, even though he knew he had never seen this animal before. The tugging sensation intensified into a dizzying dislocation, as though his head had come adrift from the rest of his body.

He squeezed his eyes shut, opened them again, and blinked, unable to make sense of what he saw. A series of squares floated in front of his eyes. It was mesh. Wire mesh. Beyond the wire he saw a face. There was someone looking down at him - a boy with brown eyes, floppy dark hair and an expression of fixed disbelief. It was the face he saw every morning when he looked in the bathroom mirror.


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Annemarie Allan 's Biography

Annemarie Allan

Annemarie Allan was born in Edinburgh, lived briefly in California and then for much longer in London, before returning to Scotland, where she decided it was time to take her writing seriously.

Her first published novel, ‘Hox’, won the 2007 Kelpies Prize and was shortlisted for both the Scottish Children’s Book of the Year and the Heart of Hawick book awards. Her third novel, 'Ushig', a fantasy based on Scottish myths and legends, was shortlisted for the 2011 Essex Children's Book Award.

She has authored several booklets on the history of East Lothian, where she now lives, and was a contributor to the historical review of East Lothian 1945–2000, edited by Sonia Baker, which was awarded first prize in the Alan Ball Local History Award 2010.

More recently, her story, ‘Entrapment’, won the flash fiction section of the 2015 Federation of Writers (Scotland) annual competition.

If you would like to know more about Annemarie and her writing, check out her website or find her on Twitter and Facebook.

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How Entering Novel Writing Competitions Can Lead to Publishing Success

The Backstory

Some years ago, an unpublished novel of mine made it into the shortlist for the HarperCollins/Saga Magazine new children’s author competition. The news came as a delightful surprise - up till that point, I had been following the recommended process of submitting the standard three chapters to one publisher after another, with very few responses - almost always a form letter with my name handwritten at the top.

Stack of Books

The Prologue

If you check online, you can find many options for submitting children’s fiction, but when you consider the various subdivisions within the genre, plus the huge number of vanity publishers out there (no reputable publisher should ask you to contribute to the cost of publishing your manuscript) the list narrows considerably. Over a period of about six years, the most positive results I received were one pencil scrawl at the bottom of a letter telling me that the story was great, but not what they were looking for, and a leaflet tucked into a returned manuscript directing me towards the Cornerstones Literary Agency. In fact, that leaflet turned out to be very useful indeed...

The Action

After my success with the HarperCollins shortlisting, I felt confident enough to submit my manuscript to Cornerstones, who turned out to be knowledgeable, practical and generally very helpful. Cornerstones provided me with book reports on two of my manuscripts, one of which was subsequently published. I also decided I would have a go at the Kelpies Prize, which is for a children’s novel set in contemporary Scotland, run by Floris Books.

By this time I had several manuscripts under my belt, but none of them had the topical feel that I thought the judges were looking for. At that point, Scotland’s biggest celebrity was Dolly the sheep, the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell. Since my own writing preference is a combination of science fiction and fantasy, it seemed to me that a story involving genetic engineering would give it the necessary contemporary feel. I linked that idea to another hotly debated topic: the reintroduction of extinct carnivores into Scotland.

The Climax

I wrote ‘Hox’ in a great rush, with one eye on the constantly dwindling gap between the current date and the deadline and finally delivered it (by hand!) on the very last day. ‘Hox’ tells the story of a genetically modified boy who shares an inexplicable mental link with Baldur, a captive Eurasian lynx.

The Denouement

After all those years of languishing on the slush pile, it was a wonderful moment when ‘Hox’ won the Kelpies Prize and was published by Floris in 2007. It went on to be shortlisted for the Scottish Children’s Book of the Year in 2008 and the Heart of Hawick Book Award.


The Epilogue

Floris subsequently published two more of my stories for young readers: ‘Breaker’, an environmental thriller with a bit of science fiction thrown into the mix, and ‘Ushig’, a fantasy set in the present day, which draws on Scottish myths and legends. ‘Ushig’ was shortlisted for the Essex Children’s Book Award in 2010, alongside several authors I deeply admire.

A Way Forward

It will have become obvious by now that my own personal route to finding a publisher (and an agent) depended pretty much exclusively on the opportunities offered by competitions. Bearing that in mind, I’ve put together a few thoughts on the process that I hope will be helpful.

Whether you are thinking of competitions or publishers, remember that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Given the variety of deadlines, guidelines, themes etc, you can easily find yourself with no clear idea of what to choose as a starting point. Listings like the ones Chris Fielden provides on his website are a hugely valuable resource. So thank you, Chris!


If you are submitting to publishers, you have to recognise that rejection does not necessarily mean your writing is poor. Publishers have to deal with a huge number of unsolicited manuscripts and if you tie that in with the fact that your story, no matter how dynamic, or gripping, or well-written, needs to match what they are looking for at that point in time, you get a good idea of the odds you are facing. Identify those you think might be appropriate. You can use print sources, like The Writers and Artists Year Book which is updated annually, or online listings such as Duotrope’s Digest which I have used in the past. The Burry Man is another very useful site - and it’s free!

Once you have identified the publishers you think may be interested in your writing, keep an eye on their websites for ‘open’ dates when they accept submissions and focus on publishers whose interests coincide with your own. And bear in mind that the internet nowadays is a creaking behemoth. Information is very often out of date. Always make sure to limit your searches to the past year or possibly less.


The alternative option, submitting through competitions, offers two huge advantages: not only will your work be read on its merits, but since competitions have a specific deadline for results, you are not left hanging on indefinitely waiting for a response. Over the last few years, I have been concentrating mainly on creating what I hope are well-crafted stories that reflect the interests of competition judges. I have had some longlistings and a few shortlistings and last year my story, ‘Entrapment’, won the flash fiction section of the 2015 Federation of Writers (Scotland) competition. It will be included in their forthcoming anthology, 'Soundwaves'.

Before you submit, find out as much as possible about what kind of story the judges are looking for. Most writers have an extensive back catalogue and, if you’re lucky, you might discover that you already have something that seems to fit with what they want. Again, though, make sure your information is up to date. There is nothing more frustrating than producing a story which seems to be exactly what the judges want, only to discover that the deadline is past!

And Finally...

Do your best to find a community of like-minded writers. Writing is a solitary activity and the help and encouragement that comes from sharing your work in a supportive environment makes a huge difference, not only to how you feel about your work, but also to its quality. Writers experience a lot of rejection and it’s no bad thing to have people on your side.

My first experience of a writers’ group came through Cornerstones, who put together a number of writers and invited them on a weekend course where they could share their experiences. As a group, we were all pretty much at the same level, although some had been published before. Subsequently, most of that group came together in an online forum for support and discussion, which gave all of us excellent feedback and the enthusiasm to get our work out there.

Nowadays, I have more informal arrangements with other writers but I still miss my original group and recently attended a meeting of a local writers’ group which I hope will fill the gap!

How to find a writers’ group:

I can’t really recommend website listings since I haven’t gone down that route myself and I can’t be sure that the listings are up-to-date, but if you are looking for a place to start, the best place is probably your local library, where the staff should be able to point you in the right direction for local groups.

And just in case you are wondering, that shortlisted novel for the Saga competition has not yet made it into print...

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Big Thanks To Annemarie

I'd like to say a big 'thank you' to Annemarie for writing such an informative post. It's nice to be able to feature a success story about writing novels, alongside the usual posts about award winning short stories.

If you have experienced publishing success and would like to share your story on my blog, please check out my submission guidelines and get in touch.

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Your comments:

Ann S
A very informative article. I had started to wonder if my style of writing was unpublishable. So thank you to Annemarie for the confidence boost. I will not shelve the manuscripts just yet.

Chris Fielden
Thanks, Ann. Good luck with your manuscript :-)

Annemarie A
I'm delighted you found the article useful, Ann. If you want to ask anything, you can contact me via the form on my website. I'm happy to answer questions from people who are looking for a way into the publishing world.