My Route To Publication
One of the questions I’m asked most often is how I got published.
What’s more interesting than the question itself, however, is the belief and/or hope that there is some sort of magic formula or shortcut that I have found and can give the questioner to stop them having to do all the hard work.
Guess what? There is no magic formula. You have to do it the traditional, hard work way by writing and submitting to agents and publishers. It is hard work – but remember, with the launch of my forthcoming website – Step by Step Writer – I’m here to help you, every step of the way!
Trust me! If I can do it – so can you!
I read a lot when I was a child – everything from Roald Dahl to The Three Investigators to my favourite weekly comic – The Beano. I also devoured the fantastic Doctor Who novels published by Target Books – many of which were written by my personal writing hero, Terrance Dicks.
I was also heavily into amateur dramatics…
All this reading prompted me to try writing my own tales – which I first attempted at around the age of 12. Before long, I gave up hanging around street corners like other teenagers, preferring instead to stay at home and practice my art. Thankfully, I hit the library (no Internet back then…) and knew enough about how books were made not to submit my first ever attempts (although I did send some sketches out to Spitting Image, Stephen Fry and Ben Elton, getting very kind ‘keep it up’ letters in return).
After college I made the obvious career move – and became a clown called Wobblebottom (no, really!). I worked first at holiday centres around the UK and later on cruise liners, entertaining children.
A few years later I joined the cast of a musical in London’s West End – Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story – and even that was down to one-part perseverance and two-parts metal balls. I went to see the show with my parents, spotted a part I thought I’d be good at and wrote to the producer that night, claiming I would be a much better choice than the current guy. That landed me the audition – but, when I got there, they asked me to read for a different role. I knew I would only have this chance once in my life and so I stopped halfway through and told them they should let me audition for the character I wanted. They did, I got the part, and stayed with the show for the next eight years.
While in Buddy, I continued writing and continued being rejected. Neither agents nor publishers were interested in the fiction I had to offer. So, I turned to the old phrase ‘write what you know’ and put together all the games and activities I’d created and developed during my work as a children’s entertainer. I pitched the book far and wide and, soon after, Quick Fixes For Bored Kids was published by How To Books in the UK.
See – I was thin, once!
Three other books – More Quick Fixes For Bored Kids, Quick Fixes For Kids’ Parties and Boredom Busters – followed. Before long I was running events in book shops and being interviewed on both local and national radio as an expert in keeping kids entertained. It wasn’t what I wanted to write, but it was a foot in the door, nonetheless.
Then the door closed over my foot.
Buddy ended, I left London, and the events dried up. The books weren’t selling very well at all – partly because parents who buy books telling them how to keep their kids from being bored don’t generally have the type of kids that get bored – and partly because the publisher insisted on classifying the books as ‘parenting’ titles, instead of ‘activities’. I would often go into book shops and find my work far away from the children’s section, sandwiched instead between toilet training guides and books of baby names.
I worked for a few months on a computer tech support line, then auditioned for a role in a small-scale children’s show visiting schools over Christmas. I did the tour, and stayed with the production company afterwards in order to write their next shows – for next to no money at all. But hey, at least I was writing again. I often found myself playing a part in show ‘A’ while writing show ‘B’. It was exhausting.
I was still writing fiction in what little spare time I had, sending off my work to publishers and agents, and amassing an impressive collection of rejection letters in return. Apparently, my four previous books (now rapidly dropping out of print) counted for nothing. I was back on the outside, forcing my work into the bottom of the slush pile.
I began to teach writing to adults in the evenings and set up a web forum to enable people in the classes to stay in touch. Before long, an established writer posted on the board saying that Egmont Press was looking for writers-for-hire for a new children’s horror series, but that only writers with published fiction to their name need apply. It was steel balls time again…
I called the editor and convinced her to let me write a sample chapter. I was successful and soon chosen as the first author for the Too Ghoul For School series, eventually writing five titles for the range. I was paid a one-off fee for each book, and no royalties – and it wasn’t even my name on the cover – but it was published fiction, and a step in the right direction.
My school events continued apace and I soon spotted an ad looking for a new writer-in-residence at Seven Stories, the UK’s centre for children’s books, based in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. I applied and got the gig, ready to spend the next 12 months running workshops and writing exclusive material for visitors.
It was time to take a leap of faith so, in September 2006, on the day my son was born – I quit my job at the theatre company and became a full-time writer. I started writing to agents again, pretty much to deaf ears until one of them suggested I contact the person who eventually became my agent. I sent her my latest manuscript – a comedy space adventure for kids – and waited for her response.
She asked me to come to London for a meeting and explained that the book wasn’t what she was looking for, but asked if I was working on anything else. I pitched an idea I had for a comedy horror series and she liked it. I signed with the agency and settled down to write what would become the first title in my Scream Street series.
I worked for almost six months on refining the manuscript and redrafting until it was in good enough shape to submit. My agent’s notes were invaluable and, eventually, the series was picked up by Walker Books for publication in the UK from October 2008 onwards.
Now the hard work really began and, with my new editor , I got stuck in to writing the series while doing as many school events as I could. Part way into book three, I had an idea for a second Scream Street series and, whipping out the metal orbs again, I pitched it to Walker Books at their annual sales conference. The six book series was now doubled to 12 adventures (later upped again to 13 so I could drop a longer ‘hinge’ book between the two sets of adventures).
My regular school visits paid off when I was approached by Reading Is Fundamental (part of the UK’s National Literacy Trust) and asked to become the first RIF Ambassador, attached to a primary school in Middlesbrough and charged with the task of getting the pupils into reading and writing. It was a great experience – and the school even initiated the Tommy Donbavand Writing Hero award!
Since then, Scream Street has been published in 13 different languages around the world, and is currently in production as an animated TV series, set to launch in 2016.
I continued to pitch to various publishers and, for the first time, some of began to get in touch to commission me. In the past few years, I’ve written a shelf-load of books especially for reluctant and struggling readers, including Zombie!, Wolf, Uniform and Virus for Barrington Stoke; Home, Kidnap, Ward 13, Dead Scared, Just Bite and Copy Cat for Badger Learning; and a nine book series for Rising Stars called Space Hoppers.
My involvement with the National Literacy Trust continued when I was invited – along with many other fantastic children’s authors and illustrators – to entertain children on board a traveling London Bus and have tea at Clarence House with the Duchess of Cornwall to celebrate her patronage of the National Young Reader Programme. I also helped out with the organisation’s Premier League Reading Scheme.
Walker Books took another series from me – six books this time, about Fangs: Vampire Spy…
Then, in 2012, my persistent pitching to BBC Books finally paid off when I was commissioned to write a Doctor Who novel to help celebrate the show’s 50th anniversary the following year. Doctor Who: Shroud of Sorrow was published in April 2013. As a result of this book, I was invited to the London Sci-Fi Festival to talk about writing for the Doctor alongside three fantastic fellow Who authors – Jenny Colgan, Paul Cornell, and my childhood hero, Terrance Dicks!
At the time of writing, I have written almost 70 books which either have been or will be published. You can find out more about them here: www.tommydonbavand.com/books
But, the writing didn’t stop there. I rattled the metal round things once again last year and began pitching ideas to my favourite childhood comic, The Beano. Before long, I was writing the occasional strip – and now, I provide the weekly adventures for my those lovable ruffians, The Bash Street Kids! You could say I’ve almost come full circle!
So, here we are in 2015 as I set up the Step by Step Writer website in order to provide ebooks, courses, personal critiques and more to help YOU do what I’ve done – minus all the mistakes I made along the way!
Remember – if I can do it, then so can you!
30th January, 2015