Friday, 5 February 2010

How I Got Published (Part II): Tommy Donbavand

Last week we heard all about Tommy Donbavand's metal balls and how they helped him get four non-fiction books published in the competitive how-to market. This week he tells us how he sold his first novel, turned it into a series, persuaded his publisher to double the length of his contract and picked up a few sundry books deals along the way. I am in awe.


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 said 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: Terror in Cubicle Four, Silent But Deadly, School Spooks Day, Attack of the Zombie Nits! and A Fete Worse Than Death. 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 twelve 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 Penny Holroyde at Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency. I sent her my latest manuscript — a comedy space adventure for kids — and waited for her response.

Penny 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 of my own and she liked it. I signed with the agency and settled down to write what would become Fang of the Vampire, 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. Penny'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 Emma, I got stuck in to writing the series while doing as many school events as I could. Book two was called Blood of the Witch. Part way into book three, Heart of the Mummy, I had an idea for a 'second' Scream Street series and, whipping out the metal orbs again, I pitched it to Walker at their annual sales conference. The six book series was now doubled to twelve instalments (later upped again to thirteen so I could drop a longer 'hinge' book between the two sets of adventures). Eight books have either been published so far, or are available for preorder from Amazon: Flesh of the Zombie, Skull of the Skeleton, Claw of the Werewolf, Invasion of the Normals, and Attack of the Trolls.

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!

Scream Street began to sell to other countries around the world, including Australia, Italy, Sweden and Japan. In August 2008, the series was launched in the US, published by Candlewick Press.

In January last year, I contacted seven other UK children's authors with the plan of setting up a joint website called Trapped by Monsters through which we could promote books and 'share' readers. The premise is that we were on our way to write the ultimate anthology of monster stories — when the monsters got to us first! Now held captive in dark, damp caves, we're made to blog about great kids books in return for food and toilet paper!

So, that's where I am today. I'm busy putting the final touches to the 10th book in the Scream Street series, and have added events at literary festivals to those I still run in schools. I've written two novels for Barrington Stoke, a publisher specialising in books for dyslexic and reluctant readers, and have just been asked for a third. I've even been invited to the Houses of Parliament at the end of this month to discuss getting kids excited about reading.

I'm not sitting on my laurels, however. I work hard at promoting my books online through websites, guest blog posts and Twitter — and the old steel balls are always polished and ready to use, should the need ever arise...


The Scream Street books have their own websites: you can find the UK one here, and the American one here.

One of the things I like about Tommy (apart, of course, from his books) is how he makes this all sound so easy. It's not, of course: he writes a lot, he writes very well, he always has a few new ideas up his sleeve, and he delivers his manuscripts on time and in good order. If you can do that too, then you might get published just as "easily" as he has!

9 comments:

ihath said...

thank you for sharing your story.

Sally Zigmond said...

Thank you. Jane, for that.

I am now totally exhausted just from reading that--not to mention boggling at the mental picture of his 'whipping out his steel balls.'

I wish my boys were twenty years younger. They would have adored Tommy's books.

Jane Smith said...

Sally, my two not-so-old boys have both been exposed to Mr Donbavand's fiction (thanks, Tommy!) and have found much to admire. Son the younger ended up speechless, he was laughing so much. And that usually only happens when someone makes a rude noise, so Tommy did good.

Tommy Donbavand said...

Thanks so much for posting my story, Jane - and thanks to everyone who's taken time to comment on the posts.

Of course, in simplifying the story into an article, I missed out the months of fruitless submissions, the filing cabinet drawers filled with rejection letters (including some from my current publisher), and the days of sheer frustration when I wasn't getting anywhere.

As a result, it may sound like the journey was easier than you might expect - but it did have its failures as well as successes. However, I knew that the only way to get there was to sit down, write, submit, be rejected - then improve my work and do it all over again. Determination and perseverance were the answers.

If I can do it, so can anyone else. You just need to want it so badly that you'll never give up - and a shiny pair of metallic orbs! ;o)

DanielB said...

Very much in admiration, Tommy. Hope your series continue to go well!

Barry Hutchison said...

Having known Tommy for well over a decade I was already up to speed on his career-to-date, but this article still makes for great reading. Would-be authors can learn a lot from Tommy and the regular nuggets of wisdom he posts on his websites. He was certainly an enormous help in getting my own career off the ground.

Marisa Birns said...

Sit down, write, submit, be rejected and do it as many times as necessary.

Thank you, Mr. Donbavand for the only words that a writer can truly use as inspiration.

And I do like shiny things!

Tommy Donbavand said...

Thanks to Barry for his comments. Be sure to check out his terrifying new book, Mr Mumbles - the first title in the Invisible Fiends series.

Marisa - it's the only path a writer can follow that is guaranteed to work. Spherical items optional!

Jane Smith said...

Naughty Jacob leaving messy comment-spam in my nice tidy blog. BAD Jacob. Don't do it again.