Brought up a Muslim and married to a church minister’s daughter, Sarwat was raised on stories, viewed from both sides, of Saladin, Richard the Lion-Heart and the Crusades. He started out writing role-playing games and was a chartered engineer in a past life. Now writing full time, he lives in London with his family.
Fifteen-year-old Billi hates that her father, the Grandmaster, forced her into the modern-day remnant of the Knights Templar – the first-ever girl to join the Order. Billi would much rather be a regular high-school student than a secret warrior out to defeat the Unholy. When she meets thrilling, seductive Mike, Billi is dazzled. But Michael is not just a heart-breaker, he’s an archangel with a terrifying agenda…
Devil’s Kiss is your début novel. Is it your first attempt at writing a novel or do you have other manuscripts hiding away?
Oh yes, the first book was called Templar and I still have a copy of it sitting on the shelf . It’s terrible! The others don’t count because, out of the couple I started, Templar was the one I finished. Got a Robin Hood story that’s gathering dust that, one day, I’d like to revisit.
How long have you been pursuing your writing ambitions and what have you done along the way to improve your writing?
I’ve been writing role-playing adventures for years and years, which have turned out to be great practise for developing storytelling technique, especially wrt plotting and pacing. You could do worse than set up a role-playing group, to be honest.
In 2005 I took a course in scriptwriting because I was really hating my day-job and thought ‘why not just try something different?’ But scriptwriting wasn’t for me, though the course itself did concern itself with plotting, which was very useful.
Then I moved swiftly onto writing a novel, and Billi SanGreal was born. Spent a year on that, got involved with Cornerstones and went on their two day course on self-publishing, spent another year on that too. A few odd one day classes too. So on, until eventually I had something half-decent.
But I also read A LOT of those ‘how to’ books. Ones I thought were really helpful were - ‘Story’ by Robert McKee; ‘The Writers’ Journey’ by Volger; ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King. Also ‘How to write a Million’ published by Robinson. It’s actually three of their books (Plot, Characters and Viewpoint, Dialogue) combined into one. I was so embarrassed by the title I covered it up. But it’s really good!
Critique groups work for some, but not for others. They don’t suit me because I’m terribly lazy and I know I wouldn’t really read through others’ work very thoroughly.
But no course is useful unless you’re constantly writing, taking those lessons in and under your skin. The problem is how to learn the ’formula’ then know when to ignore it. I never do detailed biographies of my characters because I want them to surprise me when I chuck them into some terrible danger. This means they have inconsistencies, but so do real people. The challenge is making them believable in the context of your story.
What was it that made you think ‘I want to write for children?’ Is it a genre you enjoy reading?
‘Northern Lights’ made me want to write for children. This was back in 2001 and until then I had no real interest in children’s books. I’d seen adults reading Harry Potter on the trains and thought the entire thing was rather sad. But Phillip Pullman completely blew me away. If that was what children were reading nowadays, I had to find out more. Jonathan Stroud, Philip Reeve were the other two children’s writers that made me want to get into the industry.
I think this division is a bit artificial. The key decider seems to be if the protagonist is under sixteen, it’s a kids’ book. Most ‘adult’ adventure stories are kid’s books too. Bernard Cornwell, Clive Cussler, Andy McNab, Wilber Smith and all those action men story tellers are just ‘boys own adventures’, aren’t they? I think what’s called ‘literary fiction’ is probably true ‘adult fiction’, because no kid could be bothered to read it.
Have you changed genre since you first started writing? If so, do you feel your writing suits a specific genre and do you enjoy writing this genre more than any other?
Gothic thrillers really suit me. I’m pondering Historical fiction since that’s another genre I read a lot of.
Have you ever tried writing for adults? Is it a market you’d like to write for in the future?
As I’ve mentioned, I think the age divisions are somewhat artificial. I don’t think writing an ‘adult’ thriller would be much different than writing a children’s one. Just add sex and swearing.
In your experience, do you think agents/publishers are more approachable when it comes to writing for children?
Getting into the children’s market is a complete nightmare! That’s because everyone thinks they can write a children’s book. Blame Harry Potter. It’s a bandwagon and everyone (including myself, truth be told) has jumped on it. What I struggle with is I read other writers’ work and think, ‘Bloody hell, they’re much better than me,” but they don’t get a publishing contract. The mind of a publisher is a strange and mysterious thing.
In the case of, Devil’s Kiss, how long as it taken you from initial inspiration to finally achieving the publication deal?
Summer 2006 I started my first version of Devil’s Kiss and the first deal was Feb 2008. Eighteen months.
Before finding your current agent, Sarah Davies of The Greenhouse, and achieving publication, had you approached any other agents and publishers? Have you had to deal with rejection along the way?
Oh, I have to tell you about this one, but can’t mention any names. About the same time as I’d won the SCBWI competition the ms (then called God’s Killer) was doing the rounds with a few agents. There was high hope that I’d be signed up imminently. Then one (VERY WELL KNOWN AGENT) replied saying the book was poisonous. No teacher, librarian, bookseller would touch it and it’ll upset the religious. There was a bit more negative feedback but they did concede I wrote with some ’style’. They rejected it so quickly that I can‘t believe they read any further than Chapter 1. Despite all the revisions I‘ve made, Chapter 1 remains untouched from the version they found so poisonous. And no, I won‘t tell you who it was.
Do you think there has been any other deciding factor in your success, other than simply writing a good novel? For example, a competition win that has given you exposure; working with a literary consultancy that recommended you to an agent?
The SCBWI competition really helped. In fact, I’d recommend this more than contacting agents, but I’m biased because that’s what worked for me. Writing is a highly competitive market, so it seems obvious that anyone wanting to be successful must engage in competitions. Just make sure you’re not on the slush pile. By any means necessary.
Would you recommend entering competitions?
Oh God yes! Have a look at who the judges are, and if they’re players, enter!
If several agents were interested in working with you, how did you decide which one to choose and did you meet them face-to-face to help you decide?
It was always going to be Sarah Davies. The idea of being with a brand new agency was too cool to pass up and through the grapevine I’d heard she was a formidable character. So much so, after first meeting her, I went home and cried, thinking she hated me. Never play poker with this woman.
Would you recommend having an agent and, if so, why?
It worked for me because Sarah’s very editorial. I don’t have much real writing experience so needed someone who could really tear into the structure of the book so I could understand better how to build one of my own. I came with no real ego on that front. But I understand how more accomplished writers might find that intrusive.
You achieved a six-figure, two book deal, a fantastic achievement for a first-time author, and it‘s given you the opportunity to give up work and concentrate on writing full-time. Was that an easy decision to make? Do you find you are more productive as a result or do you still write the same amount a day? Have you adopted a specific way of writing, structured hours or you do you write as the muse strikes?
Giving up the day job was a no-brainer. Come on, how insane would that be? Stick with the crowded early morning commute and nine-to five? Have builders arguing all day about how they didn’t know the tower was going there and they’re going to sue me, and the Client didn’t want that they wanted this, and they wanted it like, last month - for free.
Listen, I’ve had too many nights broken because I’d wake up at 3am filled with dread and I’ve missed too many holidays and birthdays and school plays because I was at the office, hating every minute. Getting home when the kids have already gone to bed. Insane. Really. No-brainer.
Compare that to being paid to craft the wildest, most exciting tales you can imagine. To have the world, the universe and all of history and the future as your playground. Doing exactly what you want to do, until the editor disagrees of course. Bloody hell, I feel dizzy with the sheer magnitude of it all! It’s bloody amazing. No two ways about it.
I am more productive, but the bar’s been raised. Last year I was a talented/lucky amateur and now I’m a professional so expectations are much higher. Deadlines are important because while you might be sitting by the pool with the laptop and cocktail beside you, some poor editor is fighting your corner with marketing, publicity, production, retailers and who knows who else to get your book out. Give them a break and deliver when you promised. I’m trying to view it with a day job mentality. Get up. Write. Eat. Write, etc. I’ve set myself very specific deadlines and am clear about hitting them. The muse knows where I live so she can come find me.
But, because I love it, There are times I can’t help myself. I have to write or I get irritable. There’s so much buzzing away the discipline’s in focusing. There’s a fear factor with coming to the keyboard every morning. But I think that’s standard in any creative endeavour.
Before the publishing deal came in, my wife and I had an idea that the writing would be pin-money and basically planned to use it to cover the odd holiday. No-one expected it to go the way it did. I’m still getting my head round it.
Which authors/stories did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager? How do you think they compare to the children’s/YA novels available today? What do you think children of today want to read?
My reading habits probably haven’t evolved much from when I was a kid. I still love high adventure, so, while I read all the Conan books back in my early teens, now I read Cornwell and his Sharpe novels and historical fiction generally. Big battles, the fate of nations and sword swinging heroes are my bread and butter. I was really into the Greek myths and that was probably my first taste of the fantastic. Jason and the Argonauts was a particular favourite. Even now I’m constantly dipping into the Iliad, which I consider the ultimate standard. If you can understand that, you understand storytelling.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
As I mentioned, ‘The Iliad’ is a major influence and inspiration. But any form of storytelling gets me excited. I have a mental film running in my head when I read and when I write. There’s music which sets certain scenes (usually operatic for the big climaxes!) Books-wise, fairy tales have been a big influence and if my tastes have (slightly) matured it’s into this genre. But apart form Angela Carter and John Connolly I struggle to find writers who have the right balance between the ethereal beauty of the fae, and the terrifying dread of the otherworld.
Rewrites and Revision: How much have you had to do throughout the writing of Devil’s Kiss?
Oh God, where to begin? My first book was called ‘Templar’ and whilst they had many of the same characters as Devil’s Kiss and the same premise, it now bears not even the slightest resemblance to Devil’s Kiss. That was back in 2006. I was advised by an agent who’d half-liked it to try Cornerstones, a literary consultancy. They gave me a detailed report that pointed out all my amateur errors, and there were many. POV, Show not Tell, pacing, plot inconsistencies. The only thing I had going was passionate storytelling. So, I binned the entire plot and started from scratch.
Then in Nov 2006 I had a manuscript review at a writers festival in Norwich where I was absolutely TORN TO SHREDS!
Binned that and wrote another book, same characters, similar-ish plot, which takes me into 2007.
Got short-listed by Cornerstones in their WOWFactor competition and was one of the winners in SCBWI's Undiscovered Voices, which got me Sarah Davies. She suggested starting from scratch, again.
Binned what was then God’s Killer and wrote Devil’s Kiss back in late 2007 and early 2008 over about two months. What’s that, three binned and start again from scratch?
Then Puffin and Hyperion bought the book. I think I’ve done four to five rewrites for Puffin, which was getting quite desperate towards the end as deadlines loomed and presses began to turn without me. Then two more further rewrites for Hyperion.
Do you plan your stories in advance, or do they happen on the page?
I plan it roughly but the first draft is quite fluid. I usually have a few key scenes in mind, but not much that connects them. My weakness is trying to steamroll my characters into directions and actions that aren’t consistent. Still working on that but I think it’ll take a while to really get it right. Then at some point before I finish I try and step back. Is this working? If not, go back through it and may cut half and start that bit again. In the case of The Dark Goddess I’ve produced a very detailed outline, but that’s after six months of sporadic writing, since each time I settled down to write The dark Goddess I’d have another revision to do on Devil’s Kiss.
You achieved a two-book deal for Devil's Kiss, and a sequel, The dark Goddess. When you wrote Devil’s Kiss did you see it as a sequel and therefore have ideas in mind, or have you had to think about the sequel from scratch? What would your advice be for anyone writing sequels without having achieved a deal for book one?
Don’t. The book must be self-contained.
All stories have loose threads left unless you’ve destroyed the world at the end of your first book. Have other stories planned and get ready to sell them your vision if the publishers bite on the first. Make sure it’s a show-stopper, so give it a lot of thought. The seeds of The Dark Goddess were first planted back in 1993, it’s been a long time in coming, but the plot’s been very vague until the New Year just gone.
Titles: How many titles did you work with until settling on Devil's Kiss? Aspiring writers are often told how important a title is - do you have any advice on what a good title is?
Sarah and I politely argued over the title. There’s been no argument over The Dark Goddess. I think the title’s important, but how good a title is ‘The Northern Lights’? Or ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’? Don’t worry about the title. I used God’s Killer until near the very end and there was NO WAY that was going to work as a YA title. If the writing’s good someone will help out on the title. No one rejected good writing because of a crap title.
The main character in Devil’s Kiss is Billi, a fifteen year old girl. As an adult male, how difficult, or easy, did you find it to get inside the head of a teenage girl? Why did you choose to have a girl as your main character when I’m presuming it would feel more natural writing from a boy’s perspective?
Having two daughters was the deciding factor in writing a heroine. Plus, there are enough boy action heroes, there’s nothing new I could add. Still, not easy. Certain issues regarding identity are sexless, and the book deals a lot with that. But having female editors and agent did help me get a better perspective on writing a female lead.
It’s a useful trick if your stuck with a character: change their sex/race and see what happens. It’s guaranteed to shake things up because usually you’ve settled a character based on stereotypes. Harley Street surgeon? White, upper middle class male, grey haired with smart suit, right? Boring. Make him a Rastafarian woman and see how much more fun your story is!
You had to do further revision for the US publication of Devil’s Kiss. What kind of revision was involved and do you think a writer should be conscious of these things if trying to write for international appeal? Your list of publishers suggests your book has achieved such appeal, do you think there is a secret or vital ingredient to achieve this success?
Certain stories have ‘international appeal’, I think. Campbell refers to these as being ‘mono-myths’ and all religions use them. We call them ‘the hero’s journey’ and it’s the reason why The Devil Wears Prada is actually Star Wars for girls. It’s the same story, but with better fashion accessories. As luck would have it, these are the stories I love, but unless you’ve really got them deep in your bones, they come out formulaic. Be warned. That’s why the best training for a writer is READING. That’s how the storytelling gets into the bones.
Do you use your own children or any others as a ‘sounding board’ for your novels?
Nope, they’re too young. Maybe in a few years. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t based Billi on them. I have.
What sort of publicity and marketing will you be asked to undertake and what will it entail? Will it be arranged for you, or do you have to initiate your own PR ideas?
Bit of both. Puffin will get the ball rolling but thereafter I’m keen to take the role of promoting myself. Expect a school visit from me soon, whether you like it or not!
Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?
Yes, give up. I’ve enough trouble writing without looking over my shoulder.
Oh, if you must. Write, write, write! Understand why you’re writing what you’re writing. Tell people what you want to do, even if you‘re timid in nature don‘t be in your writing. Be bold. Write BIG!!! If you want to be a children’s writer especially, be warned you’re entering probably the most competitive market ever! Blame Harry Potter.
When I first tried writing, all I dreamt about was big deals, film adaptations and money, money, money. Then I got rejected, rejected and rejected. But I realised how much I loved doing the writing. Nothing fulfilled me more, I constantly feel a rush when doing it. I decided that was when I’d carry on and write, not for the money but because I COULD NOT DO ANYTHING ELSE. I’m really very boring when it comes to talking about structure, plot, character, archetypes. I am a geek for that sort of detail because I find it all so interesting. Stories are endlessly fascinating, for me anyway. Like those guys who know every single sprocket of their car’s engine or every player in their football team since 1900.
There are some established writers who I feel have very cynically gone into writing children’s books because that’s where the market’s at. Not celebrity authors, mind, but people who earn a bloody good living already writing but are now chasing an ‘easy buck’. You can tell who they are because there’s no love for what they do. They of all people should know better.
Children can tell better than anyone whether you love your story. If you don’t, they won’t either.
Any other comments/observations/general mind-blowing information you‘d like to add?
Don’t allow fear to win.
Never wait for the muse.
Write every day and she’ll turn up.
The line about loving your story is worth repeating!
Agents comments: SARAH DAVIES
Why I chose Sarwat:
I felt he wrote with so much flair and panache, and he was great at action scenes which is all too rare. He is completely undaunted by epic ideas and again, you don’t often find that kind of literary courage.
A common denominator with all my authors is that they are totally committed, very up for major revision, and they understand that this is a very tough business and success rarely comes easily.
UK/Commonwealth: Puffin Books (Spring 2009)
USA/Canada: Hyperion (Fall 2009)
Germany: Random House
France: Pocket Jeunesse
Brazil: Editora Rocco