Friday, 29 January 2010

How I Got Published (Part I): Tommy Donbavand

I first came across Tommy Donbavand's books in the Barrington Stoke catalogues and, when I spotted him on Twitter, I pounced. I blagged a free book from him and then insisted he write something for my blog. I knew it would be good.

One of the questions I’m asked most often (aside from ‘what are you doing in my garden?’) 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 it the hard way.

Guess what? There is no magic formula. You have to do it the hard way.

I started writing while still at school, eschewing the teenage norm of hanging out on street corners to sit 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.

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.

You can read the second part of Tommy's story next week, so long as I manage to squeeze pictures of all his book covers onto one short post. Perhaps next time I should ask a less prolific writer to share his story!


Jill said...

It's true - there is no short cut. Getting published is hard work and it takes time, perseverence and a little luck.

My first novel was published in November and I have been getting asked the same question too. My answer is do your homework and keep trying.

Cheers, Jill

Clair Humphries said...

I'm hugely impressed by Tommy's courage to blag his way into a West End show - and get the part! The fact that, with all his obvious ingenuity and determination, he still struggled to get published is food for thought. Great piece though and I look forward to reading more.

Dave said...

Which part was it?

Dave Wrote This

Lindsay said...

I don' think you need to find a less prolific writer. I love what I've read so far!! & I'm looking forward to coming back for the next addition :) Thanks!!

DT said...

While it's true that people are often looking for some of the magic to rub off, there are also writers who are looking for common themes or patterns - plots, if you will, in how people became published. And I think sometimes they're looking for a good luck story to offer the prospect of hope. You're right of course, that the only way to do it is to DO IT but it's always possible to learn from others along the way. Thanks.

Jacqueline Christodoulou-Ward said...

Looking forward to the second part of this. Gives me a lot of hope. Great post.