Monday, 16 March 2009

Interview with an Author: Barry Hutchison

Hi Barry, please could you tell us a bit about yourself?

Okay, well my name’s Barry Hutchison, I’m thirty-one and I live in the Highlands of Scotland. I just got engaged to my long-term partner, and together we have a six-year-old son and a second child on the way.

I have huge feet, a phobia of clowns and far too many action figures for a self-respecting man of my age.

Before you became a published author ghost-writing for the Beastly! Book series, I understand you had other writing experience. Would you like to tell us a bit about that?

Before BEASTLY! my writing career was kind of a mixed bag. I'd had two screenplays optioned when I was seventeen (neither one produced), I was a games reviewer and columnist for WH Smith's website, and I worked as UK Contributing Editor on a US poker magazine, despite the fact I'd never played poker in my life before I got the job. I'd also written for a few of my own websites, won a sitcom-writing competition with the BBC, and generally been a pen-for-hire to anyone who would pay me.

How long have you been pursuing your writing ambitions and what have you done along the way to improve your writing?

In all honesty I can not remember a day when I didn’t want to be a writer. Back in primary school the other boys thought I was weird because I’d stay in class writing stories while they were out playing football. I was never any good at football anyway, so the team didn’t suffer much from my lack of involvement. If anything the combined skill level was actually higher for my absence.

So yeah, I’ve had the ambitions since I first knew what end of a pencil did what. All I’ve really done to improve my writing is to write. Lots. Whenever something jumps into my head I’ll write it down – be it a character monologue, a description of an interesting scene, a few lines of dialogue, whatever. The more you write, the better you get, so I’ve been writing a LOT in the hope I’ll eventually see some improvement. Hasn’t happened yet, but maybe one day…

I also read lots, although not as much now as I used to. Strict deadlines keep getting in the way of my reading time.

I think it’s also important just to put yourself out there – let your friends and family know that you’re writing. A lot of wannabe writers I’ve met have acted as if their writing was some shameful secret that needs to be hidden away from the world. You should shout about your writing and believe it needs to be read, otherwise what’s the point?

How did you become involved with the Beastly! Series and was it your first attempt at writing for children?

It was really a case of knowing someone who knew someone, to be honest. A friend of mine, Tommy Donbavand (author of the brilliantly funny SCREAM STREET), had written a few books in Egmont's TOO GHOUL FOR SCHOOL series, and when they were looking around for new writers he suggested me. I wrote them a sample chapter, it got approved, and I started working on two books (Tiger Terror and Spider Swat) in the BEASTLY! series pretty soon after.

Those two books were my first attempts at writing for children, so I was quite nervous that my first efforts were going to be criticised by professional editors. I was pleasantly surprised at how positive the comments on the first drafts were, though, and I took a lot of encouragement from that.

In fact, I had such a good time writing the books I decided to try developing an idea of my own – INVISIBLE FIENDS – which worked out pretty well.

Writing for the Beastly! Series led to work on the Ben10 series. A very successful franchise based on the Cartoon Network cartoon of the same name. Would you like to tell us about how that came about and what approach is used for writing a series like this?

Basically Cartoon Network approached Egmont and asked them to produce novels based on the Ben 10 series.
Because I'd worked with Egmont on BEASTLY! they got in touch asking me if I’d ever heard of the cartoon series. My son is probably the world’s biggest Ben 10 fan, so by that point I’d seen every episode about seventeen times. I got back in touch with Egmont confirming I knew a thing or two about it, and that’s how I landed the job.
Writing books like these are a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand all the hard work has been done for you – the characters are all developed, the plots are all worked out, all I was essentially doing was adapting existing episodes into novel format. So it should be nice and easy.

On the other hand, you’re obviously limited to writing what is already there. While you can elaborate the odd bit, you can’t just decide the story would work better with four killer bounty hunters instead of two. You’re stuck with what the episode writers have decided already. That can be quite frustrating sometimes.

Because I knew so much about the show I was able to get the books written pretty quickly. Just as well, really, because when it came to writing books 3 and 4 in the series I had three weeks to get them both done. There was a lot of coffee consumed over those twenty-one days, but I got them done. In fact, I seem to remember I got them done slightly ahead of schedule, although I hardly saw my family for over a fortnight.

Do you think t
here is much difference between writing a novel of your own making or writing for a series such as Beastly! or Ben10? Do you approach them in much the same way or are your methods and style strictly dictated by other factors when it comes to writing for a series? If several authors are involved, do you all have to conform to an in-house style?

The two couldn’t be more different, really. With BEASTLY! and Ben 10 I was given a very tight framework to work from. My job as writer was essentially to find creative and exciting ways to join the dots from plot point A to B to C and so on.

I was very lucky in that I was the style-setter for the series’ I worked on. This meant I wrote book one and any other authors writing further books in the series had to try to emulate my style. I’m not sure how well I’d cope trying to mimic someone else’s writing, so I’m glad I got to go first!

When it comes to my own series, every little detail has come from somewhere inside my head. I’m no longer just filling in the blanks in a story someone else conceived, I’m developing characters, shaping plots, and generally trying my best to develop a living, breathing world. Actually, two living breathing worlds, now I think about it…

Before finding your agent, Kathryn Ross, of Fraser Ross Associates, had you approached any other agents? Have you had to deal with rejection along the way?

I’d exchanged a couple of emails with my friend, Tommy Donbavand’s agent, but I hadn’t really made any real effort to secure an agent of my own until I approached Fraser Ross Associates in Edinburgh. Even then, I only got in touch with them because they had been holding an event on writing for children within travelling distance of my home and I’d missed it.

I sent them an early draft of INVISIBLE FIENDS, Kathryn got in touch a couple of weeks later to say she liked it, and that (aside from an afternoon of coffee and biscuits in a restaurant in Glasgow) was pretty much that.

Before getting into writing for children I tried my hand at a couple of adult novels. I sent both out to a random publisher, they were rejected, and I never sent them anywhere else again. It’s not that I’m overly sensitive or anything, I just read both books and realised they were utterly terrible.

Generally I take rejection pretty well. I think it has to be expected in this business. While I was reworking INVISIBLE FIENDS I wrote another children’s novel. Kathryn sent it out and it was roundly rejected by everyone who read it. It happens, and it happens a lot. If you can’t use the rejection as a motivational tool you don’t stand a chance.

Would you recommend having an agent and, if so, why?

I was never in a rush to get an agent, but since I’ve got one my career has completely turned around. I don’t think INVISIBLE FIENDS would have gone anywhere without Kathryn championing it and advising me on what bits worked and what didn’t.

It really depends on the type of person you are, though. I love writing, but I’m terrible when it comes to actually sending anything anywhere. I have folder after folder on my computer full of stuff I’ve never shown to anyone outside my friends and family. Some of it is probably publishable, but before I get round to shopping it around another idea hits me and I’m back writing again. I need someone to handle the whole getting the manuscript to publishers bit. People who are capable enough to handle that bit themselves might decide they don’t need an agent, but I think they’ll find it more difficult to be taken seriously, regardless of how good their writing is.

In your experience, do you think agents/publishers are more approachable when it comes to writing for children?

I’m not sure. Post-Potter the children’s market has grown massively, but it has also attracted a lot of people who assume writing for kids is easier than writing for adults. It isn’t.

Yes, the word counts are shorter, but that just means you have to be more picky with the words you do use. It’s a fine line between engaging a young reader and patronising them, and just because a book was successful when you were young, doesn’t mean writing something similar now is going to entertain this generation of young readers.

As to whether agents and publishers are more approachable when it comes to writing for children, I don’t think they treat it much differently to adult writing, really. If a book isn’t good they won’t give it the benefit of the doubt just because it’s for younger readers.

What can you tell us about Invisible Fiends?

It's a six-book horror series for readers aged 9+ and tells the story of what happens when 12-year-old Kyle's childhood imaginary friend, Mr Mumbles, comes back. This time, though, Mr Mumbles doesn't want to play nice - he wants to kill Kyle for forgetting about him, and Kyle must do everything he can to try to survive.

Book one opens with a sneak peek at a hellish, post-apocalyptic city that has been overrun by thousands of hideous creatures. From there we jump back to one month earlier, and the rest of the series builds up to the scene at the beginning of the first book.

Long before the series was picked up, when I was still working on the second draft of the first book, I gave it to a colleague at work who said she would read it with her then nine-year-old daughter.

A few days later my colleague told me her daughter could no longer get to sleep without one of her parents being in the room. Even now I think she needs to leave the bedroom light on all night long. So it’s scary. You have been warned.

A six-book series is a fantastic deal. Has it changed the way you approach your writing? 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?

It has made me much more productive for one thing. When we pitched the series to HarperCollins they saw book one and a one sentence summary of the next five books. Now that book one has been signed off I have six months to take book two from a single sentence to over forty-thousand words. That’s six months from concept to final draft.

Book one took five drafts to get right. Assuming book two is the same, and factoring in time for my editor to read and comment, I’m looking at one complete draft of a book every month between now and mid-2011. I should be finished the final book in the series then, at which point I’ll go and have a nice cup of tea and a lie down.

So basically I write as often as I can. Normally I’ll drop my son at school, write for six or so hours until it’s time to pick him up, then I’ll do a bit more when he goes to bed. At weekends I’ll try to take at least one day off, although as deadlines loom it’s not always going to be possible.

I tell everyone it’s hard work, but really I’m being paid to sit around and make stuff up, so I can’t really complain.

What would your advice be for anyone writing sequels without having achieved a deal for book one?

Don’t. It’s an absolute waste of time. If no-one picks up book one you’re left with two books no-one will ever read. Write one book, submit, move on to another one, submit. I would never recommend writing a sequel to a book you weren’t being paid to write.

In the case of, Invisible Fiends, how long has it taken you from initial inspiration to finally achieving the publication deal?

It feels like ages, but in publishing terms it has all happened pretty quickly. I came up with the idea in June or July 2007 and finished the first draft in October the same year. Fraser Ross Associates signed me in February 2008, and HarperCollins expressed their interest in May or June. The deal was eventually signed in November, and book one is out in February 2010, so what’s that? Two and a half years from spark to publication? Around that, anyway.

Is Invisible Fiends your first attempt at writing your own novel or do you have other manuscripts hiding away?

As I mentioned, I’d tried writing adult novels before. Both were pretty awful, although one was better than the other one. I quite liked THE LAST P.I. which was about a private detective investigating the murder of a mutant in a post WWIII nuclear wasteland Earth. The other one – CURSE OF THE BOG WOMEN – was based on the first screenplay I had optioned. It was embarrassingly unfunny though.

I’ve got a couple of other children’s novels tucked away here, which may or may not eventually see the light of day. I actually wrote another one quite recently. It’s a comedy horror for 7-9 year olds and it took me under 24 hours to write. Kathryn is confident of it being published, but we’re waiting until after INVISIBLE FIENDS is finished. One series I can handle. Two? That might be harder.

Where do you get your inspiration from and what inspired you to write Invisible Fiends?

The inspiration for INVISIBLE FIENDS actually came from my Mum. She was telling me a few years back about how my older sister had an imaginary friend that lived inside a heating vent in our house. She used to talk to her every day, but by the time I came along she had stopped.

My Mum then said “I remember one day when you were about four, you went over to the vent…” and I instantly thought she was going to say I’d gone over and started talking to the invisible girl in the heating system. I remember feeling myself start to shake at the very idea of it.

In fact she didn’t say that at all. She told me a completely unrelated story about me jamming a knife into the power socket next to the heating vent and electrocuting myself, but by that point it didn’t matter. The idea of imaginary friends coming back to life was in my head by that point, and the series idea eventually sprung from there.

I think everywhere you look and every conversation you have hold the beginnings of a potential story. The important thing is just to ask questions about what you see and hear, and let ideas develop from there. “Why is that girl crying?”. “Who is that woman talking to on the phone?”. “Why is that man shouting and running after me with an axe?”. That sort of thing. You’ll be amazed at how many ideas get thrown up.

Rewrites and Revisions: How much have you had to do throughout the writing of Invisible Fiends?

The final draft of book one is a million miles from the first draft. It has a different villain, a different ending and a different sidekick for the hero. The first draft was also only 19,000 words, whereas the final draft is about 45,000 or so. Draft one is a vague concept spewed onto paper, draft five is a tightly plotted horror-fest.

Most of the rewrites were actually done long before HarperCollins were involved. I think they saw draft three, which was reasonably close to the final finished product.

Prior to IF I hardly ever did rewrites. I always have new ideas popping into my head, so I never stuck with one project long enough to do any rewriting. Now that I have to do rewrites I’m finding I really enjoy it.

Knowing there will be multiple rewrites gives you an enormous freedom to get things wrong. Previously I’d stress about trying to get things as close to perfect as possible in draft one, and more often than not the pressure meant I never finished the draft.

Having that freedom to get it wrong is massively liberating. Now all I have to worry about with a first draft is getting it written. The job of beating it into something that’s even reasonably good comes in draft two.

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?

Before INVISIBLE FIENDS I always wrote comedy. I wrote comedy screenplays, ran four humour websites, developed the sitcom with the BBC – if it wasn’t funny, I didn’t bother with it.

IF was my first attempt at doing something that wasn’t supposed to make people laugh. I decided to try straight horror, and lo and behold it was picked up. I was surprised, though, to find the series described by my editor as “darkly funny”. In fact, in the press release about the series they really played up the humour in it.

Typical, I write comedy and nobody notices, I play it straight and everyone kills themselves laughing. I can’t win.

Do you plan your stories in advance, or do they happen on the page?

I kind of have a vague idea of where I’d like them to go, and I sometimes get as far as writing that vague idea down on a piece of paper. Once I start writing, though, then I tend to just sit back and see where my imagination takes me.

When it comes to draft two, though, I try to break down the story into plot points and figure out what needs to be added, what needs to be removed, and how best to arrange whatever I’m left with. I used to show everyone draft one of anything I wrote, but now no-one gets to read the full manuscript until at least the second draft, because the first one is usually so hideous and deformed.

Titles: How many titles did you work with until settling on Invisible Fiends? Aspiring writers are often told how important a title is - do you have any advice on what a good title is?

There has been quite a saga on the titles front with this series. I was convinced my original title was a stroke of utter brilliance the likes of which the world had never seen, but almost everyone else hated it.

My title was IMAGINARY FRIENDS REUNITED, which struck me as fantastically clever, until my agent pointed out that the average twelve-year-old won’t have the first clue what Friends Reunited is, and so the joke would be completely lost on them. Now if I could have worked in a pun about Facebook or Bebo I might have been onto something, but Friends Reunited isn’t in any way aimed at kids.

It then became OUT OF YOUR MIND, followed by UNREALITY RISING (I don’t know what I was thinking that day) and then THE DARKEST CORNERS before we finally settled on INVISIBLE FIENDS, which is itself a pun on “invisible friends”.

I’ve always found titles difficult, but I don’t think it matters all that much. If you can find something that is striking, memorable and fits well with your story then great, but don’t lose sleep over it if you can’t. Publishers buy stories, they don’t buy titles. If your title doesn’t work the sales and marketing team will be more than happy to suggest one that does.

You’ve mentioned what prompted you to start writing for children. Is it a genre you enjoy reading? Which authors/stories did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager?

It wasn’t until I’d been picked to do BEASTLY! that I thought I’d better have a look and see what children’s books were like these days. I was amazed at the quality of some of the books out there. I picked up the first Artemis Fowl book and was blown away by it.

I kind of skipped out reading children’s books when I was younger and went straight into Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett type stuff. I was always a very confident reader even when I was in early primary school, so I suppose that drove me on to reading adult books at an early age. I’m really glad I’ve had this chance to go back and read the type of stuff I missed out on.

That said, I think children’s literature is going through a real golden period at the moment. Ignoring the behemoth that is Harry Potter, there are dozens – hundreds, probably – of brilliant authors out there writing utterly fantastic books for children and young adults.

There’s anything you can think of – from genetically engineered superhero monsters to kitchen-sink family dramas, and everything in between. So not only do I read a lot of children’s books, I actively encourage other adults to do the same. A book is a book, and if you enjoy the story, who cares what age it was supposedly written for?

What do you think children of today want to read?

Good books. I think it’s as simple as that. They want engaging stories they can relate to, and they want them to be well written. I think that’s what they’ve always wanted, and I don’t see it changing in the near future.

A lot of writers have a tendency to think of children as a different species. They spend a lot of time coming up with elaborate stories that try to tap into a dozen fashionable trends they hope this strange race of little people will find interesting.

But I think they’re making life difficult for themselves. When it comes to books, children want the same as adults. Good stories, well told. That’s it.

Although if you can make the cover glow-in-the-dark and throw in a free CD, so much the better.

Do you think there has been any other deciding factor in your success with Invisible Fiends other than simply writing a good novel? For example, did writing for Beastly! And Ben10 give you a foot in the door? Would you recommend aspiring writers to use this approach if given the opportunity?

I don’t think the books I wrote for Egmont had much to do with HarperCollins picking up the IF series, really, although it might have reassured them that I could deliver manuscripts on time.

From the point of view of my own development as a writer, though, the work I did on BEASTLY! and Ben 10 was a massive help. The editor I worked with – Rebecca Gerlings - and Helen Stables, the publisher, were really encouraging, and I learned a lot from both of them. They gave me a confidence in my writing I might not otherwise have had, and IF is undoubtedly better for me having worked with them both.

On the Bookseller site, I read about a new website you’ve set up with a group seven fellow authors called I understand its aims are to encourage kids to read. Can you tell us more about it?

Basically the concept of the site is that I and seven other children’s authors (namely Tommy Donbavand, Sam Enthoven, Joe Craig, Ali Sparkes, David Melling, Andy Briggs and Mark Robson) were on our way to write an anthology of monster stories when we were kidnapped by the very monsters we intended to write about.

Now we are held captive in a cave, forced to blog about children’s literature, the writing process and anything else related to the world of kids books, all under the beady gaze of some rather bizarre and hideous creatures.

Essentially it’s just an excuse for us to recommend books we think are worth reading, make up ridiculous short stories and rhymes, and generally have a laugh. We are all really keen to get more kids into reading (and not just our own books, either) and this seemed like a fun, unique way to do it.

Do you use your own children or any others as a ‘sounding board’ for your novels?

My son is a bit too young for me to inflict the horrors of INVISIBLE FIENDS on him, although he does share his name with the lead character.

When I was writing the Ben 10 novels, though, he made me read him a chapter a night for his bed time story. Every now and then as I was reading I’d hear him draw in a sharp breath and from the corner of my eye I’d see him shake his head. He’d then very patiently point out some glaring error or that he’d spotted – the colour of an alien’s eyes or something similar – and I’d scribble down a note in the margin.

He also made me change two chapter titles in the first Ben 10 book because he didn’t like them. When I got the commented manuscript back one of the new chapter headings had a red circle round it and “Great title!” next to it. I didn’t hear the end of that for weeks.

Regarding artwork for the book covers. As the author do you have any input into the choices made or is the decision left entirely to others?

That’s pretty much down to the sales and marketing team, although I have been consulted. Their job is to know what makes a book sell, and I have a terrible eye for design, so I’m thankful I don’t have to make the final decision.

That said, if I hated a design then I’m sure they’d take that on board, but I’m very happy with everything I’ve seen so far, so I have no cause for complaint.

For Invisible Fiends what sort of publicity and marketing do you think you will be undertaking? Will it be arranged for you, or do you have to initiate your own PR ideas?

Unlike with the books I’ve done for Egmont, I’m going to be very involved with the marketing of INVISIBLE FIENDS. It’s early days yet to be able to say exactly what HarperCollins are going to be doing on the publicity front, but I’m told they’re going to be putting a lot into promoting the book.

No doubt they will arrange some signings and events for me to show up to, but I’m firmly of the belief that marketing a book is at least an equal partnership, if not more the responsibility of the author.

I’m always amazed by how many authors think their job is solely to write the book. They shy away from the marketing side, as if it’s nothing to do with them. Personally I think author involvement in marketing can make or break a novel, and I intend doing a lot to promote the IF series.

But I’m not going to tell you what I’m going to be doing yet! You’ll just have to wait and see.

Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?

I would have said “nobody knows anything”, but since working with people in the industry who really do seem to know what they’re doing, I’ve had to modify my thinking on that a bit. How about “ALMOST nobody knows anything”? That’ll have to do.

I only say that because back in school four of my five English teachers told me I would never make it as a writer. They told me I should consider a real job – as an English teacher, perhaps. By and large they all agreed my writing was good, but they dismissed any and all talk of me doing it professionally as a silly dream I would do well to forget about.

And to think I almost listened to them.

Never let anyone tell you that you can’t make it. Maybe they’re jealous. Maybe they’re naturally pessimistic. Maybe they just can’t see the bigger picture. There are hundreds of reasons why someone might try to discourage you. Thank them for their honesty. Consider their comments. Then go out and prove them wrong.

Oh, also read lots of books and write as often as you can, but you knew that already, right?

Any other comments/observations/general mind-blowing information you‘d like to add?

Owls are the only bird that can see the colour blue.

Kathryn Ross' comments:
Why I chose Barry

To be honest, usually I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to horror, but Barry’s writing is so fresh, funny, thrilling and yes, commercial, that it won me over to the dark side… And Barry’s evident enjoyment of the whole business of writing combined with his thoroughly professional approach, completed my conversion.

Invisible Fiends: Mr Mumbles
Published by:
Harper Collins Feb 2010

Invisible Fiends: Book 2
July 2010

Barry's Website - here


Clare said...

Another EXCELLENT interview - thanks Tracy and Barry.
It really is helpful for novices like myself to read the experiences of authors currently active in the field and it is gratifying that they take the time out from their writing to share those experiences.(That goes for the agents' comments as well.)
You have the basis for a good series of magazine articles on this Blog, Tracy - hope you'll consider publishing?

Susie said...

Wonderful interview. I got so much from it. Dealing with rejection, as usual was valuable but also I was glad to see one of the early drafts started off short and grew, instead of the usual other way round - which is something I'm experiencing at the moment. I was also pleased that Barry had a vague idea that grew, my approach at the moment. I great read and one I'll come back to.
Thanks Susie

Jon M said...

Really interesting stuff! I loved the bit about putting yourself out there, couldn't agree more. Come out of the pencil case all would-be writers! :)

Barry Hutchison said...

Hey all,

Thanks for the comments (and thanks to Tracy for doing the interview). Glad you found some of my ramblings useful.



Col Bury said...

Excellent stuff, Tracy and Barry.
I particularly like the insight into the various drafts; especially the fact you mention the freedom to just get the first draft done instead of trying to make it perfect which definitely does restrict the chances of actually finishing it. This advice should help many writers to change their approach for the better.
Well done to you both.

Tommy Donbavand said...

Brilliant interview with a brilliant author! I'm lucky enough to have read the first Invisible Fiends book - and it is going to be HUGE!

Related Posts with Thumbnails

Popular Posts

The Bookseller