Lighthouse Success Story: Michael Mann

Michael Mann, author of Ghostcloud (published by Hachette Children’s in October 2021!) tells us all about his journey to publication … and gives us some excellent tips on writing for children.

Hi Michael! Can you tell us a little about your book, and how you came to write it?

Ghostcloud is a magical middle grade adventure, about a boy called Luke Smith-Sharma, who shovels coal in a power station in a reimagined London. Luke meets a mysterious ghost-girl, who offers him a way out of the station, and draws him into a whirlwind adventure through the skies and furnaces of the city.

It took me four years to finish the book, but the original idea goes back much further. I’m an avid cloudspotter and as a kid, I always wondered: what if the clouds were watching us back? The book is my answer. The ghosts in my story refuse to rise on to heaven, and instead ride through the night sky, fire lightning, change shape, and more. It’s a secret world right over our heads.

I’m also half-Indian, and have always wanted to write an adventure with a mixed-race protagonist. I didn’t see myself represented in books when I was young. Ghostcloud explores the idea of being between worlds, not quite fitting the categories, which most kids can relate to in some way or another.

What brought you to the Lighthouse, and how did the Lighthouse experience help you?

The first draft I wrote was completely wrong for the kids’ market! My main character got run over in the first chapter (!) and it had lovely poetic passages but little drama. In my defence, I wrote it before I became a teacher, and was out of touch with kids’ literature, but the Lighthouse were brilliant at shepherding me in the right direction.

Sarah could have pointed out the million things wrong with it, but instead she identified what was working (the ghost), where I needed to hone my craft (point of view!), and where my writing came alive (the power station).

Ultimately, it needed a complete rewrite, which was so hard to hear, but completely right. After a few weeks grieving, I joined a children’s writing course, started a rewrite, opening the book in the power station like Sarah said, and the words just kept flowing!

I even got to repurpose lots of my original lovely descriptions, albeit with more excitement around them.

What’s been the biggest surprise in your journey to publication?

After slaving away for years by myself on the manuscript, it’s been so wonderful to suddenly have a team of people by my side who believe in me. My agent and editor are brilliant, wise, and absolutely want to make my book the best it can be. That’s such a privilege.

What did you do to celebrate when you got your agent and deal?

I got my deal early in lockdown one. I’d barely left the house for weeks, and suddenly, invisibly, everything had changed. I ran downstairs to my partner Joe and opened a bottle of bubbly, and then we jumped up and down in our tiny garden. I think our toddler joined in. It was one of those gorgeous lockdown sunny afternoons.

I’m hoping when the book’s finally out in October I might get to do something bigger in a pub with friends, but in many ways, writing is a such a solitary thing: a small celebration felt right.

Getting an agent and a deal was surreal, as it was all done with the backdrop of the pandemic. My school closed the week I got my edits from Steph, and I finished them in a couple of weeks (I was basically writing with slight fear for my life!), then within a couple more weeks we had zoom pitches. The Hachette pitch was brilliant, they had so much passion, they brought the whole team, and even had a cloudscape as their zoom background!

Can you give us three top tips for someone who is just starting out as an author?

  1. I’ve learned loads from writing courses (children and adult ones), so always recommend them … but I always say you should reserve the right to ignore feedback (quietly!); it’s your book ultimately. It can’t please everyone.
  2. Write for the joy of it, and treat getting published as a bonus – a sort of worthy challenge but not the end goal. That really helped me. Also remembering that lots of people only get published after several rejected books.
  3. And then a practical one … I get my computer to read back my work to me (the Mac shortcut is Alt+Esc !). It does it in this unflattering, flat robotic voice but it’s so useful for stepping back, spotting errors, and hearing the rhythm of the piece.

The Lighthouse is here to help you

Whether you have a brand new idea, or have been fiddling with a text for years … we’re here to help.

About Sarah Stewart

Sarah Stewart is a Director at Lighthouse Literary. She was previously Fiction Editor at Scholastic Children's Books and a Senior Editor at Floris Books, and she writes the Elspeth Hart series, published by Stripes.