Hi Sam, please tell us a bit about yourself.
Hi! My name is Sam Enthoven. I'm thirty-five years old and I write fantastical action thrillers aimed at eleven to fifteen year olds. When I'm not writing I sometimes play guitar in a band called Sour Mash Daddy and His Sixty Wives.
How long have you been pursuing your writing ambitions and what have you done along the way to improve your writing?
I've been in print since September 2006, when my book The Black Tattoo was published by Random House Children's Books. It took me about ten years to get to that point – and one hundred and thirty-four rejection letters before I got the one saying 'yes'!
Creative writing workshops formed part of my degree (English Language and Literature, at Manchester University) and that's why I decided to pursue this, but since I graduated (1996) I've taken no courses or consultancy. I just read as much as possible and keep writing, doing my best to learn as I go.
What made you think ‘I want to write for children?’ Is it a genre you enjoy reading?
When I was about to go part-time at my job to give me more time to write (I was a bookseller) I sent a short story out to around fifty agents, hoping for advice. One wrote back suggesting I try writing for young people. It was something I'd never considered, but after some thought I realised this was one of the best pieces of advice I've ever received.
I love the challenge of writing for an audience who aren't even sure whether books are for them. The stakes are high. If, at the age I write for, someone hasn't come across the right book – the one that shows them, personally, what the big deal is about reading – then it's possible that they may never read a book again. Equally, it's the books I read when I was young that made me the gleefully omnivorous reader I am today. If one of my stories could be the one that has that effect on someone now – the one that first introduces someone to books and what they can do? Wow. That's something to aspire to, it seems to me.
Have you ever tried writing for adults? Is it a market you’d like to write for in the future?
I was writing for adults before I started writing for young people. But now I don't see myself ever going back. I mean: what for? ;)
Have you got an agent, would you recommend having one and, if so, why?
Yes. Definitely. In one way, it's a simple business decision: a good agent will bring you much more than what you'll pay them in commission. Publishing deals are an agent's daily bread and butter: they know the very latest going rates for what (and where) you're writing, what's normal in a contract and what you should expect – and they know all this to a level that would take an individual author an enormous amount of time and research to discover for themselves. Agents also know publishers in other countries (including the USA) who might be interested in your work: international rights deals are a valuable potential source of extra revenue (and readers!) that, even with the benefit of the internet, I would hardly have known where to begin finding out about.
Agents are specialist negotiators: in a clear-sighted, businesslike way they will fight your corner, and make sure that you get your due. They'll also find even more opportunities and avenues for you and your work outside of straight publishing: they know film scouts, tv producers, games companies and so on – contacts that an author working alone would have to be very lucky to possess.
Example: my book Tim, Defender of the Earth has been optioned by Universal [SQUEE! Ahem: 'scuse me.]
Without my agent – Penny Holroyde, of the Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency – I don't believe that would have been possible. Penny negotiated the deal (the contract was sixty pages long!); she's made sure we get paid on time; she talked me through the whole process and, perhaps most importantly, she knew to whom to give the manuscript so Universal got interested in the first place.
And of course, agents are brilliant in all sorts of other ways, too. I recently had a meeting with Penny to discuss the next stage of what I (modestly) call my Sinister Masterplan to Conquer the Universe. The meeting was in a pub and took all afternoon, involving deep (and loud!) discussion of the global state of publishing for young people and what we could try to do with it, plus a splendid lunch, numerous (ahem!) refreshments, and a lot of laughter and fun. In short? Agents are AWESOME.
Did achieving a book deal change 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?
Working with editors (as opposed to getting advice from my mates!) was definitely different. Promotion – website work, organising visits to schools, etc – that's a part of my working day that wasn't there before the book deal, too. But as to productivity, the daily discipline of the job? No. For me it hasn't changed at all. For most of the ten years before I got my first book deal I was working evenings and weekends at a bookshop, Blackwell's, on London's Charing Cross Road. Money was tight: mostly I lived off instant noodles. But it did mean that I could spend the day writing, and though I've left the shop (and currently eat noodles only when I choose to!) that's exactly what I still do now.
When I'm working on a first draft, I have a quota: a thousand words a day. I like a wordcount as a measure of a day's writing. If things go well, I get it done quickly (three hours maybe) and then I can do something else. If things go… heh, more normally, that quota will take me five or six hours, sometimes more. Redrafting involves a similar system: I divide the number of pages by the number of days I've got before the deadline and that gives me a rough idea of how I'm doing, how fast I should be going. In terms of daily hours, my working day usually comes out quite similar to most non-writers': something like eight or nine hours a day total, not including breaks.
Muses are a lovely idea. But even if they were real I wouldn't want to depend on them. Like Harry Crews once said: 'The secret to writing? Put your ass on the chair.'
Do you plan your stories in advance, or do they happen on the page?
I plan as much as I can. I like filling a story with things I'm excited about, things I'm looking forward to writing. I also like knowing that a story is going to come to an end! But no matter how much you plan, there's always a point where you realise you won't know any more until you're writing it. Then you have to close your eyes, hold your nose, and jump.
Do you use your own children or any others as a ‘sounding board’ for your novels?
I don't have kids of my own, and don't presently intend to. But I do believe in taking my stuff out on the road and testing it on its audience, so I do as many author visits to schools as I possibly can. At my events I usually do a reading or two, but they're essentially Q&A based: I talk about whatever I'm asked, trying to be a straightforward and unpretentious as possible. However: while I hope the audience get something out of listening to me, I know that I get at least as much out of listening to them! Hearing what young people are interested in, what they have to say, is a great privilege. It's enormously inspiring and it has a direct effect on my work. More on this later.
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?
I loved fantasy, SF and action thrillers. Two authors in particular combined all three for me: John Christopher with his Tripods trilogy and Douglas Hill with The Last Legionary Quartet. Those may have dated a little now but they were brilliant: I remember being so excited by Douglas Hill's books that I could hardly sit still enough to read them! However, apart from those I also remember having a lot of trouble trying to find stories back then that gave me the same kick.
Thanks to Anthony Horowitz, Eoin Colfer, Darren Shan, Robert Muchamore and others, things are much better now. Writers like Dean Vincent Carter, Barry Hutchison and Alexander Gordon Smith are producing wonderful new work – which is as it should be.
If we're seriously going to try to attract to books and reading people who normally get their story buzz from films and (particularly) games, then I believe that contemporary thrilling writing for young people is more important now than ever before.
What do you think children of today want to read?
It's unwise to generalise: different people want different things from stories – age makes no difference to that. But I do have one theory I've been working on. I've been doing events at schools, talking directly to the audience I write for, for about three years now. Over that time, in about two sessions out of every three, I've had a conversation that goes something like this:
Young Person: …OK, your books sound pretty good. Maybe I'll give them a go.
Me (absurdly pleased): Great! Fantastic!
YP: One thing, though. How long are they?
Me: Well, The Black Tattoo is sort of an epic, around five hundred pages. Tim, Defender of the Earth is shorter, though – just a cheeky three hundred or so.
YP: Woah, that'll take me six months! I think I'll wait for the movie.
…I believe that, bluntly, there should be more short books for the eleven-plus age range. I don't know if it's to do with Harry Potter, Eragon, Twilight or what, but it sometimes seems like publishers' prevailing wisdom these last few years has been that tomes the size of tombstones are all that will sell to this age group. I've obviously got no problem with long books per se: if you're a keen reader already, great. But if you're a young person at that point I've discussed, when you're not sure if reading is something you could ever actually do for pleasure (and as a result, perhaps your literacy skills aren't all they could be) then the massive time commitment that a long book represents will be a factor that might put you off – potentially permanently.
Don't get me wrong. This isn't about underestimating the audience. Just the opposite: just because someone's not a keen reader it doesn't mean they don't expect a brilliant story. My aim is to write that story in a form that tempts young people to pick it up… and be grabbed by it!
So: for the last two years I've been working on a book that packs everything I've learned from Black Tat and Tim into just a hundred and fifty pages – a comparable length, incidentally, with the works of H G Wells, John Wyndham, John Buchan and many other classic storytellers whose work I adore and admire. Keeping to that length without skimping on the story wasn't easy: in fact I think it was harder than a longer book might have been. But the result, a standalone horror novel called CRAWLERS (exclusive announcement!!), should, I hope, be coming out in Spring 2010.
Is it what a lot of young people want to read? I can only hope so. I know I'm excited, so tentacles crossed!
Regarding artwork for the book covers. As the author did you have any input into the choices made or is the decision left entirely to others?
I'm delighted my covers so far have looked as good as they do. I really have been amazingly lucky. Because the fact is that, as a new author, you don't have much influence over what your books look like.
Publishers will ask your opinion, sure. But you have to accept that at the same time they're also asking a lot of other people whose opinions are, bluntly, more important to them than yours. The sales team want to love and believe in what they're selling. What the chains and supermarkets think of a book's look will have a direct effect on how many copies they take, and how prominently (or if) your book is displayed in their shops. The book may be your baby, you want it to look nice, but that's not up to you. So unless the cover is utterly unsuitable [Justine Larbalestier's recent troubles with her US publisher putting a white girl on the jacket when the central character is black, for example – sigh] then when asked their opinion, an author should answer carefully. Throwing a tantrum about it, as authors are sometimes known to do, is counterproductive. Constructive suggestions, however, seem to be very welcome. When I suggested that RHCB add a flaming London skyline to the UK cover of Tim – and they did – I was delighted!
What sort of publicity and marketing have you undertaken? Was it arranged for you, or do you have to initiate your own ideas?
A bit of both. My publishers have great ideas about how to promote my books: they arrange events for me around launch time, they send my books to people who might review them and they come up with all sorts of other cunning plans, too! But these days no sensible up-and-coming author could or should leave publicity and marketing entirely up to their publishers. The best thing to do is to combine forces – use their powers and your own, together.
I arrange my own events at all times throughout the year – at schools, libraries, bookshops, festivals and anywhere else that invites me. I keep a page on the excellent website ContactAnAuthor, and get most of my gigs through that. But I keep an eye on book trade developments, and if I spot anything that might be useful I'll approach directly myself. A great recent example would be The Big Green Bookshop, a fantastic independent that opened last year in Wood Green, London, not far from where I live. I've done a bunch of events with them – they're brilliant!
Then there are my websites. I pay my friend Katie, who is a genius(!) to build and maintain a separate website for each one of my books. As well as interviews, bonus short stories, competitions etc, those websites have guestbooks where readers can reach me directly. That's in addition to the various social networking sites where I keep profiles so people can get in touch if they want. These things are part of my ongoing writing progress: as I've mentioned, I'd like young people's opinions to have a direct effect on the stories I write. Plus, it's fun!
I also have a blog that I update around once a week that syndicates to various places. I have a YouTube profile and every so often I make silly clips to post there. I have a Flickr page where I post pics from my events. I have a Twitter page where I post a new favourite word every day. I do other stuff, too, and I'm always on the lookout for new opportunities.
While some self-promotion is essential – publishers, rightly, expect you to make some effort to put yourself out there – I don't think everyone has to go crazy with it. It's up to the author to decide how far they want to take it. No single promotional activity will give you any guarantee of sales, fortune, fame, whatever – so be true to yourself. And… enjoy it! I get a big kick out of this stuff. I mean: having people contact you from all over the world about your work? That's AMAZING!
Aspiring writers are often told how important a title is - do you have any advice on what a good title is?
This question reminds me of a story I think I read in Story, by Robert McKee: '"Ugambo,"' (says the jaded Hollywood producer) 'is a lousy title. But "Ugambo, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall"? Now, that's a GREAT title!'
The obvious guiding principles are that you want something that catches the eye, and that says something about what sort of a story it is. I personally don't tend to go for titles that have the central character's name in them – particularly if it's the name and nothing else ('What? I'm supposed to be interested just because of the name the author gave this person??') But that's just my opinion, and I'm a curmudgeon sometimes. ;)
The fact is, if the publishers don't like a title they'll ask an author to change it. While of course I take care choosing mine, I've discovered that titles are a lot easier to change than some other things I've had to part with so far in my books(!) So it follows that I don't think titles are as important as all that, and they're certainly not something to get too hung up on.
You set up a website with seven fellow authors called Trapped By Monsters. I understand its aims are to encourage kids to read. Can you tell us more about it?
Trapped By Monsters is the mutant brainchild of Tommy Donbavand, author of the awesome comedy horror series for younger readers, SCREAM STREET. He noticed that joint author blogs in the UK (particularly those involving authors who write for kids) have so far tended to be rather serious, focusing as they do on writing, and what a terribly hard and grim and special and difficult job it supposedly is.
Trapped By Monsters is for FUN. We have a very silly premise (for which I must admit I'm largely responsible, having provided the name) and from there we talk about… whatever we want. We occasionally offer writing advice, of a nuts and bolts kind. We talk about each other's books – so it's a good promotional opportunity, sure. But we also pass on recommendations for anything else we've discovered that we think is brilliant, together with competitions, illustrations, guest spots, stories, rants, etc, etc. It's about enthusiasm and delight about books for young people, as well as passion and commitment. And, obviously, monsters.
THE BLACK TATTOO
Jack's best mate, Charlie, has always been cool. When Charlie wakes up one day and finds a mysterious, moving black tattoo on his back, it's a clear sign he's even cooler than Jack thought. To top it off, Charlie is suddenly able to fight like a kung fu master, fly, and control the minds of others: yes, he's got superpowers. Or does he? Jack soon learns the terrifying truth: Charlie's incredible powers come from an age-old demon called the Scourge, who is using Charlie to bring about its evil masterplan. To stop the Scourge, Jack and Charlie join forces with Esme, a girl with superpowers of her own, trained from birth to fight the demon. But time is running out as Charlie falls deeper under the Scourge's dark spell. When the Scourge vanishes with Charlie, Jack and Esme must follow their friend from the streets of London into Hell itself, where they face horrors that may well cost them their lives. Can they survive to outwit the Scourge, save Charlie, and stop an even greater evil?
Was The Black Tattoo your first attempt at writing a novel or did you have other manuscripts hiding away?
Black Tat was my fourth finished book. But those previous manuscripts are going to stay where they are: buried at a crossroads with stakes through their hearts, for reasons I'll come to in a moment.
What inspired you to write The Black Tattoo?
One of my favourite authors, Lee Child, was asked for the best piece of advice he could give to anyone thinking of writing a book. 'Write the exact book that you yourself would be thrilled to read,' was his answer. When I read that it was like a door opened in my head. Before, I'd been trying to write something that I thought 'would sell' – doing my best to second-guess what the market seemed to suggest 'ought' to go in a book for young people. That had got me nothing but rejection letters and heartache. Instead, I started thinking about what I, personally, would love to find in a book. In Black Tat's case, it was… swordfights, monsters, flying kung fu, demonic possession, the end of the universe, a seven-way gladiatorial monster fight to the death set in Hell – things like that! Black Tat started as a wish list. Then, slowly, I worked out how to put it all together.
How long did it take you from initial inspiration to finally achieving the publication deal?
Five years. That's not including the year out I took to go write something else that may (possibly) turn out to be another book.
Rewrites and Revisions: How much did you have to do throughout the writing of The Black Tattoo?
Masses. The finished book is a chunk, but the first draft was more than twice as long: more was cut than actually ended up in the final version. I'm happy with those cuts. Every bit of redrafting made the book better. But yes: around half of those five years was spent rewriting and polishing, polishing, polishing. I learned an enormous amount.
Is The Black Tattoo a stand-alone novel or part of a planned series?
Like all my books right now, it's a standalone. That said, all my books currently take place in London, and at the same time. They're all aimed at young people. They're all fast and (I hope) thrilling, and they all (surprise!) have monsters in them of one kind or another, because that's what I do and what I love. So there's a continuity between them. But for now I have no intention of writing sequels to any of them.
At face value, the novel is a spectacular fantasy adventure with a kick-ass heroine, an every-boy hero, and some OTT demons, yet at its heart there seems to be some intriguing interpretations of some commonly-held beliefs. Hell, demons, heaven, God(frey). How much was intended and how much developed as you wrote the story?
Once I decided to set so much of the book in Hell, everything else came with it. The setting itself, however, came from thinking about the traditional conventions of fantasy for young readers – particularly the idea of the gateway to another world. I wanted to approach that from what I hoped would be an unusual angle: by including a world that the reader might think they knew about already, then playing with their expectations.
Are any of the ideas you’ve used in the book taken from existing mythology? (I particularly liked the vomiting bats.) Do you use myth and mythology as a basis for your books, if you do, how much research do you do for your books?
The ideas in my book are taken from a bubbling stew of every single thing I've read, watched, heard or played – mythology included. I don't attach any extra weight to any particular source based on how old it is: I just look for the tingle at the back of my neck, the sparks it sets off in my brain. That said, for Black Tat I did gather and research every version of Hell that I could lay my hands on. The research depends on the story: I do whatever it takes. Glad you liked the bats!
The creation of extra strong swords using bird mess; true or false?
Hah! True, as far as I can tell. Like Raymond says, I've heard of chickens being used, and ostriches. Not pigeons, I admit, but a London story needs a London bird!
TIM, DEFENDER OF THE EARTH
He's big, he's moody, he has a tail that could crush the Houses of Parliament and he's all that stands between the Earth and total destruction. Tim – that's Tyrannosaur: Improved Model – is the product of a top secret military experiment. He lives in a comfy secret bunker buried deep beneath London's Trafalgar Square, but now the British government has decided he's too expensive to keep and Tim must make a break for it. He forms an unlikely alliance with fourteen-year-old Chris and his classmate, Anna, in order to save humanity from the greatest threat it has ever known: Anna's father, the brilliant Professor Mallahide and his growing swarm of all-consuming nanomachines.
The stage is set for a spectacular showdown the likes of which London has never seen. Who will prevail?
The terrifying Professor Mallahide, or TIM, DEFENDER OF THE EARTH?
What inspired you to write Tim?
Again: it's the exact story that I would be thrilled to read. In this case, it came from an obsession with giant monster films – particularly old-school Japanese kaiju flicks, with people in rubber suits stomping on stuff. I figured out why I loved them so much: it was because I was imagining being the monster. Now: admittedly, for a big, clumsy oaf like myself, who waves his arms about and sometimes destroys things by accident, that's perhaps not the conceptual leap for me that it might be for another person! But I've loved those films and stories ever since I was little (I read The Iron Man, by Ted Hughes, about ninety times). As soon as I started thinking how much fun could be had with a British monster who was the same age as the target audience, I got very excited. Then came the input from audience themselves. When I was touring schools and libraries and bookshops with Black Tat, I asked the young people I spoke to a particular question: Which famous London landmarks would you most like to see DESTROYED in a story?
As you might imagine, I got a lot of enthusiastic answers to that. And you know what? I managed to work pretty much all of them in. Hee hee hee!
How long did it take you from initial inspiration to finally achieving the publication deal?
The US and UK deals for Black Tat were for that plus another book: that second book was Tim. But I didn't get to take five years over it! Tim took about two.
Rewrites and Revisions: How much did you have to do throughout the writing of Tim?
Not too much that time, luckily. I wrote a solid first draft. The UK editors, the US editors and myself all managed to agree on what we wanted (mostly!) and by the third draft (not including copyedits) Tim was fully formed.
You have two main human characters – Chris, male, and Anna, female. Do you find it easy to write from a girl’s perspective?
It depends on the girl. Characterisation is hard, and some characters are much harder to write than others. But I would prefer to think that's down to individual cases, more than anything as general as gender.
The bad guy, Professor Mallahide is quite an ambiguous character. On one hand he wants to help people, there are several incidents which show his good, benevolent side then, on the other, he abuses his power. We see him as the good guy in opposition to the military and the uses they want to put the nanobots to. Was it intentional and crucial to your novel that you explore the many facets of good and evil? That there is no black and white answer for why people do the things they do. That power corrupts?
That's a very flattering question, and I'm thrilled and delighted you've asked it. But, as with your earlier one about religious beliefs, I'm going to leave the book to speak for itself and swerve around it a bit! I will say I love stories where you can understand the baddie's point of view. In fact in most stories I find it's the baddie I'm cheering for. (Does anyone else do that? Or, erm, is that just me? ;p)
Can you tell us anything about your next book?
If you like fast-paced storytelling, I'm hoping Crawlers will knock your socks off. There are plenty more where that, Black Tat and Tim came from, but if you don't mind I'll keep any more of my sinister masterplan under wraps for now: MOO HOO HA HA! Um, sorry.
Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?
Just the same ones again, for emphasis.
From Lee Child: 'Write the exact book that you yourself would be thrilled to read.' I tell you, it's a lot easier to get through the tough bits if you love and believe in what you're writing.
From Harry Crews: 'Put your ass on the chair.' It's not going to happen if you stop.
But… (and here's a bonus one) if you keep going, IT IS POSSIBLE. It happened to me. That proves can happen to you.
Anything else you’d like to mention?
Thank you, Tracy, for interviewing me! And my thanks and best wishes to anyone reading this.
Sam, 4th August 2009
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