I met Daniel at a School Skills Sharing Workshop for writers who visit schools run by NAWE, we exchanged emails and later I met up with him when he was one of the headlining authors at the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival. He agreed to be one of the Paws Judges this year — although as a rule his tastes are not usually children’s animal stories … in fact at Hay I was plunged into the world of Sci fi and Dr Who.
So over to Daniel to tell us what it’s like to be a ‘real’ author with an agent and a deal from a big publishing house!
Hello! I’m Daniel Blythe, sometimes writing as Dan Roberts, and you may know me from such books as my Number One In The Tesco Charts bestseller, Doctor Who: Autonomy, my new book for older children and teenagers, Shadow Runners (aka Shadow Breakers) and my novels for adults, The Cut, Losing Faith and This is the Day. I also write non-fiction books – my best-known are Dadlands, which sold in 6 countries (I think! I sort of lost count) and The Encyclopaedia of Classic 80s Pop. My new one is Famous Robots and Cyborgs, which is a Dan Roberts book published by Pen & Sword.
Have you always wanted to be a published writer? Tell us something about your path to having your first book/story published.
I can’t remember not wanting to be a writer. It’s something I wanted ever since I could read, practically! I was a fairly normal boy – not at all sporty, but I played outside, I rode my bike, played French Cricket in the garden with my dad, built dens on farmland with friends, climbed trees, and, later, played computer games. But I was always, always reading – went to the library every week, either in Maidstone or Tenterden, and got four books out (that was all we were allowed back then) and got into the Jennings and Just William series, the Three Investigators and the Willard Price adventures, and Enid Blyton and Alan Garner… as well as finding books of all the Doctor Who stories which had been on TV before I was born. (I tell kids in my talks about this, explaining how we didn’t have videos or iPlayer back then, and that there were few repeats!) And I sat on the swing in my garden and thought up stories. I had friends, but preferred my own company a lot of the time – I’m still a bit like that. (I have a much older brother and sister, and they were both working and left home while I was in primary school, so they weren’t in the way much!)… I wrote my own stories in exercise books – often comic strips, sometimes text with very short chapters.
(Want to see the famous swing in the garden says Debz … here it is …)
Later I borrowed my dad’s typewriter, and I started sending stuff off to publishers and to magazines in my teens. It came back, sometimes with comments, but more often with a curt ‘No thanks’. I learned to recognise the heart-sinking thump on the mat heralding the return of my manuscript. I had a couple of things, eventually, in small-press magazines – no payment, but a free copy was always given! That seemed such a special and precious thing to achieve back then.
And in 1992, I had the mad idea that I could write for Doctor Who’s New Adventures series. These were books published by Virgin Books, who had the official rights to continue the series with books ‘too deep and too broad for the small screen’. I dusted off an old idea I’d once had for the TV show – one which I wrote when I was about 16! That became, with a lot of rewriting, The Dimension Riders, which was accepted by Peter Darvill-Evans at Virgin and became my first published book. I then did another for them, Infinite Requiem, under Peter’s successor, Rebecca Levene. These Virgin books sold really well. Some diehard fans didn’t like them, because they didn’t fit in with their personal concept of what Doctor Who should be, but that didn’t harm the range at all! At this time I didn’t have an agent or anything like that. I knew very little about publishing and how it worked. I was just delighted to be published at long last. (I wrote that first book on a creaky old Amstrad and printed it on a dot-matrix printer – and the pages had to be scanned for the proofs, resulting in line after line of typos! The proofing for that book drove me insane. I did it in the shared house in Canterbury where I was living, over three days, fuelled by coffee and red wine – I felt as if my eyes were bleeding by the end.)
So tell us something about ‘getting an agent’ …
After the Who books, I tried other publishers with my own stuff but nobody was biting. I got, if I’m honest, some very patronising responses from people – London literary types – who obviously didn’t take writing for a popular series like the New Adventures that seriously. So I thought I’d better get an agent before going any further. I did this by the tried and tested method of randomly mailing ten names from the Writers’ Handbook. Five of them responded, three fairly positively, and Caroline Montgomery at Rupert Crew Ltd. was the most positive of all. She invited me to London for a meeting. At that stage, I didn’t have anything I could offer to them to send out – Caroline had seen some of my early attempts at fiction, including a completed novel, and while she didn’t feel she could offer to represent me with that novel, she saw the potential in me. By the time we met, I was able to show her half of the new book I was working on, called The Cut – and she felt strongly enough about it to take me on and to try and sell it for me. She got me a deal with Penguin after a few months, and the book was published as a Paperback Original. It got really good bookshop exposure and some reviews in major newspapers – I didn’t realise at the time how lucky I was to get this. I thought this was just what happened with a fairly well-promoted first novel. My review in the Times was about a quarter of a page! I can’t imagine that happening now…
It’s important to say that you’re only as good as your latest book – it may have looked as if the Who books got me an ‘in’, a foot in the door, but in retrospect that doesn’t feel like the case. I think I’d have got The Cut published in my 20s even without them. Perhaps having them published gave me the confidence to approach agents and be taken seriously, though.
My agent Caroline is fabulous and I don’t always appreciate everything she does. She is especially good at generally confidence-boosting – I think she has talked me out of giving up at least twice! – at making sure a book is right before it goes out. She is also great at putting feelers out for projects I’d be interested in, keeping me updated about who wants what, etc. This kind of thing is invaluable for writers outside London – having a London-based agent who is right there in the thick of it all is exactly what we need. And she is also very adept at making sure my books sell in different territories, and at generally fighting my corner with difficult or obstinate publishers. Recently I was commissioned for, and wrote for, a TV-tie-in book series, which fell through for various complex reasons. I’m not sure I’m even allowed to say what it was, but it was a popular children’s series on the BBC (not Doctor Who) and, despite the collapse of the whole thing for reasons outside our control, my agent made sure I got paid for the work I’d done (writing one book and plotting the second).
Do or did you ever belong to a writing group? Crit group? Did you ever have someone professionally critique your work before first submitting? Or do you have friends or anyone else who sees it before you send it off? Has that changed since you became a ‘successful author’?
I’m not fond of writing groups, to be honest. If they work for others, that’s great, but I’ve been to one or two and just cringed my way through them. I didn’t have any professional critiques because I didn’t know one could do such a thing. (Again, my youth and naivety!) There are one or two trusted people who always see the finished draft of a book and comment on it, though.
Who did you first tell when you heard your first book had been accepted?
Rachel, who was my fiancée at the time. (Now my wife, and mother or our two children!) We were living together in a suburb of Sheffield, called Crookes – I told her as soon as she came home from work. I think I told her on the doorstep as she was getting out of the car! Then I phoned my parents. I think I gradually told friends and other family members on the phone – hardly anybody had email at home, even though it existed! Seems like another world! It was only just over a decade ago!
What happened next? Can you tell us something about working with an editor? How important is that to you now – is there a lot of discussion and does the editor make a real difference to your work?
Well, I have had varying degrees of input from different editors, to be honest. I won’t mention them all, but the team at BBC Books were very constructive and presented all their feedback in a very user-friendly way. They had endless suggestions in footnotes but they were all valid and helpful. My Chicken House editors were different again – equally effective, but I had to get used to a different style of working. They worked me very hard, rewriting and redrafting at a structural level, then at line level, and it really made me focus on what worked in the book and what did not. So yes, a good editor makes a very real difference to your work. I’m always amazed when people want to put their stuff straight on to Kindle without anyone else’s input – that unpolished, unfinished book will be worse than no book at all
Tell us something about your writing day, routine.
I wish I had a routine! I don’t know how to get one. I used to bracket the day by taking my children to school and collecting them, but these days they are old enough to get themselves there and back so I am almost redundant. I’ve been writing at home now as a freelancer for eight years, but combining it with teaching and going into schools. I’ve taught adult learners for the WEA and Sheffield Hallam University. I’m out doing other things 1 or 2 days a week, and the other 3 or 4 I am at home writing, but it is very easy to get distracted… My one piece of comforting routine is my morning coffee-break accompanied by Ken Bruce’s Popmaster on Radio 2. This probably makes me sound very sad, but I am getting quite good at it – my family keep saying I ought to go on.
What or who inspires you most, people, authors, books?
I’m inspired by all kinds of writers. With children’s books it tends to be those I grew up reading – Terrance Dicks, Anthony Buckeridge, Richmal Crompton, Tolkien, the Three Investigators series, etc. – but I try to keep up with what’s happening now as well. I remember the moment I got back into reading children’s fiction as an adult was when I read Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights – I must have been in my 20s when that came out, and I was still hoping for my big break into publishing. I wanted to write something that big and epic and compelling! I still do. I’ll always check out the new Iain Banks when it comes out – although I worry he’s been re-treading old ground recently. Too many other writers to list, really, but it’s still exciting to find a great new novel by someone I’ve never heard of. And then I find out they are only 22, and I grind my teeth in envy – but usually reassure myself that their enormous talent will disappear without trace in five years’ time because their publishers drop them, after their book fails to sell more than 3000 copies. Of course, it would help if their publisher put more than 3000 copies in the shops to begin with and actually promoted it at all.You can see how writing helps you to develop a healthy cynicism…
Why do you write? (Now that’s the question!) What do you want your stories to do?
I share stories. I give stories out to the world. That was what I wanted to do all those years ago when making them up on my swing, and I used to dream of being able to do that for a living. To have my name on the cover of a book and be The Author. I also used to make stories up because I lived in a small, really quite dull village without much going on. I mean, it was beautiful, but it was the kind of place which used to appear in Doctor Who in the 1970s — only without the added excitement of an alien invasion. So that’s what I still do, really – I make up stories to enliven my life. And to bring adventure and excitement into other people’s lives.
How much marketing have you had to do, even with a big publisher? How comfortable are you with self-promotion?
Publishers increasingly expect you to do a hell of a lot. If you think your job is done once you have written the book, think again. We are expected to fill in a form listing all out media contacts – I baulked at this the first time I was given one, as the idea of my having any media contacts was laughable! It’s still quite laughable today, actually… But you are expected to have a ‘platform’, to be online, to tweet, to have Facebook, to promote the book relentlessly. This can be a bit wearying at times, because you don’t want to risk annoying your friends in ‘normal’ jobs who don’t understand that you have to do this, and that nobody else will do it for you!
Not everyone is a natural self-promoter. I’m not, really. I suspect most writers aren’t. If we were, we’d be in marketing and be earning a hell of a lot more than we do as writers. Quite why we are expected to be good at it, I don’t know… Most writers end up gnawing their fingernails and wondering what on earth publishers’ marketing and publicity departments actually do. We are never really privy to this part of the process. It’s especially frustrating when they say, “Oh, I know, it’s the market, it’s so difficult, blah blah,’ as if they are on your side but, you know, what can you do? They tell you Waterstones didn’t go for it as if it something over which they have no control, like the weather. That sort of thing is the lowest point of being a published writer – the reality of sales, the comedown after the stellar promises all publishers will make at first.
One lovely writer who I met at a Chicken House event said that the way to overcome this despondency about whether your book is actually out there is to go to see it being printed, and marvel at the thousands of copies of your book coming out and being boxed up. Um… I hated to say it, but this would just depress me more, because I know just how many of those will end up in remainder stores or as ‘returns’!
Tell us about the latest published book …
Shadow Runners is the story of Firecroft Bay. The little town’s name comes from the Old English meaning ‘wickedness’, and when 12-year-old Miranda May moves there with her mum and her little brother, she thinks at first that it is just a quiet, windswept little end-of-the-world harbour town. But dark forces are stirring in Firecroft Bay, and Miranda’s new teacher, Miss Bellini, may have something to do with it all… She discovers that the Bay is a place where ancient stories come to life, where supernatural curses are very real, and where the dark shadows she sees at the edge of her vision are also creeping into her dreams. There are lots of questions asked of the reader. What is the mysterious Shape? Who is the girl in the burning forest who haunts her nightmares? And what does it all have to do with her strange new friends – a bunch of children and teenagers calling themselves the Shadows? They could be Miranda’s allies in a terrifying fight against the darkness – but she isn’t sure who she can trust.
It’s my first book for Chicken House, who have been great to work with at every stage. I wanted to write a book which both boys and girls will enjoy – Miranda is a feisty, witty, skateboarding heroine who tells the story in a sardonic first-person voice, taking you with her on every step of her new journey. It’s out in the UK, Canada, USA, New Zealand, Australia, Brazil and Germany, and there is an audiobook from AudioGo.
What next? Tell us about work in progress and aspirations. Where do you see yourself in ten years time?
If I could predict where I’d be in ten years’ time…! Still working as a writer, I hope. But I’ve no ideas beyond that. I’m working on a number of different projects right now, for teenagers and children, fiction and non-fiction. I can’t really say any more than that! I’m also going into schools – about 35-40 a year – and I’m always on the lookout for new schools to visit. Details of my school visits are on my website. I do a packed, interesting day suitable for Year 5 and 6 in primary and Years 7,8 and 9 in secondary, but I have worked with ages younger and older than that as well.
Any advice for writers who are trying to get their work published?
Well, people need to be reading a lot and knowing what is out there. They need to get hold of the Writers’ Handbook and the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, which are often more up-to-date than agents’ or publishers’ websites! Anyone writing seriously needs to have an agent, I think. You need to find the one who is right for you, who you click with. Expect to write a lot before you are published. Don’t expect to make a living out of it, at least not at first – very few do. If you have another job, keep it even after you become a published writer.
Tell us something random about you for the pure hell of it.
Well, I have very eclectic and unusual musical tastes which often amuse and surprise people…
And I once won a huge black-and-white telly in a raffle at a fete and then somehow had to transport it 3 miles home… and found I had to watch everything through a snowstorm anyway.
Oh, and I almost fell off a cliff in Switzerland once. . This was on the Schilthorn, a big snowy peak in the Bernese Oberland! It’s the one which featured in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It was just a mountain walk, supposedly hard but OK without equipment, and it turned into a bit of a climb as we had gone off the beaten track – could have been a fatal error! But luckily it was a fine day and there was a narrow path round the rock to get back to the path. I do recall inching my way round this icy rock-face, and then the piece of ice I was holding on to snapped off and I almost went plummeting into the abyss. Luckily, I lived to tell the tale. I don’t really know how. And we got to the top of the Schilthorn, and found that there were all these tourists up there who’d come up the quick way on the cable-car.
Finally: can we post an extract of your latest published book?
There is one here: http://doublecluck.com/book/Shadow+Runners
Many many thanks to Daniel for taking the time to tell about being a writer and I hope many of you will buy some of these books! Check out his website for more of his titles!
Next week I welcome to the spotlight another talented and successful writer Alan Gibbons