'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Thursday 30 May 2024

Guest Post: Peter Millett on How To Go From ‘Not Quite Right’ to Published!

Most people who read this post would have heard the term ‘not quite right’ used to describe their efforts or attempts to do something difficult during their lifetime. 

Every author who reads this post would have been told that their story idea was ‘not quite right’ at least two times this week! J 

Most often, it’s a polite method for editors to tell their authors that it’s the end of the road for their project and it’s time to close the door forever. 

However, sometimes ‘not quite right’ does lead to a positive result in the highly unpredictable world of books. My picture book This is the Ship that Jack Built is one such example.

A few years ago, I was busy straining far too hard to create a fractured fairy tale by rebooting a Mother Goose rhyme in a way that I thought hadn’t been done before. 

But I got halfway through it and suddenly realised that I was fresh out of energy and inspiration. I persisted for a few weeks longer until I finally threw in the towel and gave up. 

This type of experience is what I like least about being an author. It feels like you’ve wasted two to three weeks of your life, and you could have spent that time doing something else far more productive. (Every author reading this line is nodding right now.)

However, rather than heading off to bed feeling like a failure I happened to notice a page lying open in another book that showed an illustration from the Mother Goose classic rhyme This is the House That Jack Built.  A lightbulb went off in my head. It wasn’t a rhyme I particularly enjoyed reading but I wondered about what if the rat stole gold from the sack in Jack’s house instead of malt, and what if Jack was on a pirate ship that he had built instead of a house? And what if Jack was a high-seas pirate?


Within five minutes I had the first three scenes written down. I guess that all of the welled-up frustration experienced during the previous laborious weeks had spilled over and jolted my brain into relaxing and wanting to have some carefree storytelling fun.

I had my unexpected new story completed within a week. Against all sensible advice, I immediately emailed it to an agent without even proofreading it or letting it simmer. J Within two minutes I got back an email saying  ‘I love this. What else have you written?’ I was gobsmacked. Abandoning a story that wasn’t working and switching to something completely unplanned had been my best writing decision ever.

But, true to our quirky publishing industry’s form, I never heard from that agent again! I didn’t even get a polite ‘not quite right’ farewell email.

Undeterred, I sent my story to an editor at a large publishing house whom I knew and greatly respected but had never published with before. She took a long time to mull the idea over and reluctantly responded with a ‘not quite right’ email. But she followed that up with an explanation that by ‘not quite right’ she meant that I had only missed out by millimetres and on a different day that it may have led to an offer.

Feeling buoyed by the overall general positivity about my manuscript, I emailed an editor I had worked with many years prior and who was now in charge of a picture book division at a new company. He responded as quickly as the agent had done so. Then a week later he emailed to advise me that it was going to be taken to an acquisition meeting. I was stunned once more.

I waited six weeks for the meeting to take place and then it got delayed by another three weeks. 

Then finally the decision came through. I opened my email with excitement, but my face dropped when I saw the dreaded ‘not quite right’ buried deep down near the third to last line. I was surprised. And again, against all sensible advice, I had the champagne bottle sitting next to the laptop and ready to be opened! 

Okay, what happened next has never happened to me before and will never happen again!

Four days later, I received an email from my editor saying that all the staff had gone back to the decision-makers and petitioned them strongly to find a way to make this book happen for them. My editor stressed that this was unheard of in the book world. I agreed with him.

And they did it! A month later I received a contract in my inbox. Amazing stuff. I will never forget how This is the Ship That Jack Built came to be published. It has been a highlight of my career. And it has helped me better appreciate all the possible nuances of the publishing term ‘not quite right’.

To celebrate the launch of Jack’s ship I locked myself away for two to three weeks trying to produce the most entertaining trailer I could think of. I’m glad and relieved that the time I spent doing this was highly productive! I think that’s because I had plenty of energy from the book’s unique publishing journey to help inspire me. Watch the trailer of This Is The Ship That Jack Built

This is the Ship That Jack Built will be published on 03 April in Australia and NZ. Artwork by Sam Caldwell. 

Peter Millett is a New Zealand children's author. His books include the Boy Zero Wannabe Hero series and TheAnzac Puppy picture book. His middle-grade series  Johnny Danger: DIY Spy, and The Invincibles  are his most well-known titles in Australia and NZ.

Visit Peter Millett's website and Facebook page for more information about his books and writing projects. You can find links to all of Peter's YouTube videos at the Danger Films YouTube Channel.