Monday, 30 November 2009

Interview with a Debut Author: STEVE HARTLEY

Steve Hartley was one of the winners of the inaugural SCBWI-BI’s 2008 ‘Undiscovered Voices’ competition. Winning entries were compiled into an anthology and sent to publishers and agents.

After his SCBWI win, Steve successfully achieved agent representation with Sarah Manson and went on to sign a four book publishing deal.

Steve’s winning entry, DANNY BAKER RECORD BREAKER, is published on the 1st January 2010.

Hi Steve and welcome. Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?

I’m originally from Manchester, but now live in Lancashire with my wife and teenage daughter.
I work for a pharmaceutical company, and know more about sputum than I ever wanted to.

Danny Baker is a boy with a mission: to be the best in the world like his goalkeeper dad, and he doesn’t care how stinky, sticky, itchy, slimy, noisy, or grubby he gets on his way to becoming a Record Breaker!

Danny, his family, and best friend Matthew, live in a world where lethal bogies, worm-bathing, and Holy Budgerigars are just a normal part of life.

DANNY BAKER is your debut novel. Is it your first attempt at writing a novel or do you have other manuscripts hiding away?

I’ve never thought of the Danny Baker Record Breaker books as novels. There are four books, each with two tightly-plotted stories of around 6,000 – 7,000 words. They have sub-plots, character development, and an arc across the eight stories, and deal with themes such as friendship, family, jealousy and striving. They also have spotty bottoms, stinky feet, and wobbly jelly! Does that qualify them to be novels?

I do have manuscripts that would be considered “novels” in the more conventional sense, but I also have some picture book texts, and “early reader” type stories too. I’ve been writing for donkey’s years, trying to find my voice and my strengths, so there’s a large back-catalogue!

What inspired you to write DANNY BAKER and how long did it take you from initial inspiration to finally achieving the publication deal?

When she was younger, my daughter Connie loved the Guinness Book of Records. She was extremely jealous that I had got two certificates from them for taking part in a Mass Yodel, and Mass Yo-yo, and wanted one too. The seed was planted.

It germinated one warm summer afternoon about six years ago. We sat on an old tartan rug under the ornamental cherry tree in the garden, and wrote down the silliest world records we could think of.

That first story (now entitled “The Toxic Toes”) was one of the easiest I’ve ever written. The idea was almost fully formed in my mind, and it just flowed onto the computer screen!

Following a standard rejection from a publisher, I foolishly did nothing with it until I rediscovered it for the Undiscovered Voices competition. The deal with Macmillan last summer came about five years after that day beneath the cherry tree. Eighteen months further on, and the first books will be hitting the bookshops.

DANNY BAKER was longlisted for the 2010 Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. How did you feel being nominated for such a prestigious prize?

As Danny would say, it makes me feel “Ace!” It’s nice to know other people, other than my immediate family, agent, and editor, think it’s good.

DANNY BAKER contains very funny, gross-out humour which I’m sure young children will love (It made me laugh out loud). Do you find humour easy to write? Do you think it’s something a writer needs to have a natural gift for?

Yes, I do. My humour comes from the way I see the world. I try not to take life too seriously and love all things silly.

I’m wary about analysing what I do, but I will say this: the humour in Danny Baker Record Breaker is often gross, but it’s the language and context that actually make you laugh. A bogey, per se, isn’t funny, but a museum-grade bogey – now that’s another matter! The devilment really is in the detail: it’s intelligent silliness.

Were your publishers open to all your ideas or did you have to censor yourself because of your target audience?

I really fell on my feet with my editor at Macmillan, Emma Young. She “got it” immediately, and threw herself into Danny’s wacky world with great gusto!

However, we live in a litigious, Health and Safety-obsessed society, and she had to pull me up on a couple of occasions: Danny sticking cotton wool up his nose was frowned upon; I was asked to have him put a peg on his nose instead. Kids doing handstands in the shallow end of a swimming pool was a Big No-No. As it happens, the scene I replaced it with was funnier!

It doesn’t happen now, because I self-censor as I write. There’s one aspect of the books I will never change: Danny and his best friend Matthew “play out,” and are often un-supervised. I do keep them safe: Danny never attempts dangerous records - anything stupidly gastronomic, or potentially fatal - but they do fling cowpats, and make pongy potions.

I’ve also had to watch the tone of the humour occasionally – you have to be careful when writing about ladies with humungous spotty bottoms, or you’re quickly in deep water! And there’s a kiss in one story that caused a lot of discussion: “too Mills and Boon,” was one comment!

As an adult, how difficult, or easy, did you find it to get inside the head of a young boy? Did you use memories of how you were at that age? 

I’m still waiting to grow up, so it wasn’t a problem at all! I’ve written the stories I wanted to write, and in a way that made me laugh. There are a few specific memories in the stories (like the gorgeous smells from a biscuit factory!) but if I’ve been influenced in any way by my own childhood, it’s in the general feel of the stories. Danny and Matthew are old-fashioned lads: they get out and do stuff. After all, you’ll never be a record breaker sitting around in your bedroom playing computer games. And don’t get me started on health and safety again!

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

My daughter’s seventeen now, so she’s too cool to find jelly inherently amusing, but I have a fantastic ten year old “tester” called Kristian, who tells me what’s funny, and gives me marks out of ten! He even tells me when my chapters are too short! Feedback from your target audience is worth its weight in gold.

You achieved a four book deal, with two separate stories in each book, a fantastic achievement for a first-time author. Did achieving a book deal change the way you approach your writing?

I had to become more professional; by that I mean more organised and disciplined about my writing. There is a massive difference when you are unpublished: you write for fun, in your own time, and to please nobody but yourself. As soon as it becomes “serious” that changes somewhat. The main change has been in the care that I’ve learned to take when putting the stories together. I’m getting better at self-editing, and I’m more self-critical than I was, so my writing is stronger now than before I got the deal. I wish I’d leant that lesson years ago; I might have been published a lot sooner.

Was DANNY BAKER RECORD BREAKER always intended as a series and therefore did you have further ideas in mind, or did you have to think about the sequels from scratch?

Rather naively, I wrote it as a one-off story, and didn’t think about a series at all. That’s the other thing I wish I’d learned years ago: the need to be commercially-minded as an unpublished author. Even if an editor likes your MS, if the sales dept don’t think they can sell it, you’re dead in the water. You have to give publishers something they can sell and make money from, and a single, short story about a boy who breaks a record wasn’t it. Luckily, my agent Sarah realised this, and made me write three more stories to prove the concept had the legs, before approaching publishers with a series proposal.

When Macmillan asked for eight, I said, “Yes of course,” then spent a week lying down in a dark room wondering what I’d done.

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

As I said, I wrote four before going out with them, but that was partly because an editor at a big publishing house who saw the first one doubted the idea would stretch to a series, so we felt the need to prove that it would. Write one story and a detailed series proposal is the obvious way forward, but I really wouldn’t like to advise one way or another.

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

I work to a rough plan. I always know where I want to go, and approximately how I’m going to get there, but I usually end up taking a different route, and still sometimes end up somewhere else! The characters set off in directions I didn’t expect, or a minor character pops up and grows in importance, or the plot implodes. It’s what makes writing such fun (that and spending time wondering how many nits you could get on an eight year-old’s head!)

Rewrites and Revision: How much have you had to do throughout the writing of DANNY BAKER?

I realise now that I always had potential, but I didn’t work at it hard enough. I was too easily pleased with what I’d written. There is always room for improvement.

The process is roughly as follows:
I make lots of hand-written notes, brainstorming ideas, and plot-lines.

I write a first draft. It follows the maxim, “Don’t get it right, get it written”. It’s rubbish, but gets the basic elements down.

I print off a copy (editing on a paper is far better for spotting repetitions, etc). I get the red pen out, taking out what doesn’t work, or what holds the action up, moving scenes around, etc.

I then re-write, and hand the second draft to my wife, who’s a brutal critic. She spots what I haven’t seen, tells me what’s funny, and what isn’t, and makes suggestions.

I sulk.

I stop sulking, re-write, and hand it to my wife again.

I sulk some more, then repeat the process, again, and again, each time tightening up, adding layers, and making the jokes better.

Agent Sarah then puts her two penny-worth in. I re-write again.

I send it to my editor at Macmillan, who makes suggestions. I re-write again.

Finally, the copy-editor picks up any inconsistencies, and I re-write again.


It is really hard work. Who am I kidding? Mining coal is really hard work. Re-writing is challenging, exacting, tiring, annoying, frustrating, exciting, frightening, fun and not fun. I love it. Seeing an idea come to life and grow, the “eureka” moments when a brick wall in the plot crumbles, the hilarious one-liners that leap onto the screen and make me laugh so much I have to stop writing.

One difficulty once you have a publishing deal is that so many other people begin to have influence over your baby. One person won’t like the way you’ve got his hair; another loves the hair but hates the clothes he’s wearing. I’ve learnt not to be precious about it. The trick is to keep your own vision in mind, but sort out the suggestions that will improve the story.

What made you think ‘I want to write for children?’ Is it a genre you enjoy reading?

Generally speaking, I find children’s fiction far more interesting than adult fiction. Kids are more open and flexible in their thinking, more prepared to accept the outrageous and absurd, so as an author, you can take more risks, be more imaginative and have more fun.

And I love picture books: a beautiful picture book is a joy.

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?

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I wasn’t an avid reader as a child, or teenager. I remember being a fan of Winnie the Pooh, and Paddington Bear when I was very young, but from the age of nine onwards, I read comics like Victor and Hotspur. It was their heyday, with fantastic, character-driven yarns like, “Alf Tupper – The Tough of the Track” about an ordinary bloke who would finish a long day welding, eat a bag of chips, borrow a pair of running spikes then break the world record for the hundred yards. Irresistible stuff! (I’ve just realised where Danny Baker Record Breaker came from!)

When I was a teenager, I just wanted to play cricket and rugby, chase after my future wife, and… er… that’s about all, really. Books didn’t figure. Only when the hormones had settled down did I discover the joy of a good read. When I had kids of my own, I discovered the brilliant world of children’s books.

Who really knows what children today want to read? For a while it was wizards, then it was spies, now it’s vampires. What next? Hopefully record–breakers! As long as we give them good, well-written stories with characters they can relate to and care for, then hopefully they’ll keep reading. If Danny Baker encourages a kid to turn off the computer game and pick up a book, then my work here is done…

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 for about fifteen or sixteen years, and trying to get published for most of those. A few years ago, I did a Writing for Children course with Writers’ News, which was excellent. For the first time, I had feedback and critique of my work. I never used a critiquing agency, which now I think was a mistake. I’m convinced that the best way to improve your writing is to read critically, write constantly, and gather as much knowledgeable feedback as possible. Give your work to someone you trust, who will be honest and give it to you straight between the eyes.

One thing I’m still learning: good writing and good storytelling are two very different things.

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

Yes, absolutely, as long as they’re the right agent. Agents have contacts, and knowledge of the business. I would not have got where I am today without Sarah’s guidance and support. There’s no way on God’s earth I would have been able to negotiate the publishing contract – she spent hours on the phone talking to me v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y, explaining what was going on. Apparently, some agents only offer this service, which is invaluable on its own, but Sarah gives me really sound editorial guidance too. She shares my sense of humour, and we get on very well. She’s also very straight-talking, and can be a bit scary, which is probably a good thing in an agent! I’m a fan!

Before finding your current agent, Sarah Manson, and achieving publication, had you approached any other agents and publishers? Have you had to deal with rejection along the way? 

Oh yes, I spent years sending out unsolicited manuscripts, and receiving solicited rejections in return. Most were standard, none were offensive, but a few offered encouragement and advice, which kept me going. The Undiscovered Voices win really was my ticket off that depressing treadmill. I suddenly had agents and publishers contacting ME!!!

I would advise anyone to find any way to get off the slush-pile – competitions, anthologies, Cornerstones et al - anything that raises your work above the rest.

With your books being aimed at a younger audience, what kind of publicity and marketing will you be undertaking? Is it arranged for you or do you have to initiate your own ideas? Are there certain rules for marketing to younger age groups?

We are just putting the plans together, and I’m really excited about it. Some events will be arranged for me by Macmillan, but I plan to do others off my own bat. Macmillan is planning to hold events around the launch using the Chatterbooks network in libraries. We are going to have a lot of fun with the Danny Baker concept, and hopefully records will be broken!

I have a couple of teacher-friends helping me put lesson-plans together, so look out for me at a library/school near you!

Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?

Stop Twittering, and get writing.

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

Only this: If you find yourself pressing the following keys in the following sequence – V,A,M,P,I,R,E – delete immediately.

Agents comments: SARAH MANSON 
Why I chose to represent Steve:

The first time I met Steve Hartley proved very embarrassing and that’s exactly why I knew I wanted to help bring him to a wider public.

I was standing on the tube in the rush hour reading his Danny Baker Record Breaker extract which was published in the SCBWI Undiscovered Voices 2008 anthology. I kept laughing out loud so that people all around me began staring. Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, to see this happening all over the country with children reading on buses and laughing, reading in bed and laughing, reading at school (during lessons?) and laughing.

But Steve is more than just a funny author with a wonderful writer’s “voice”. He’s also a caring author. Behind all the silliness in the Danny Baker stories, there’s a lot of character development and real respect for children. I like that.

The World’s Biggest Bogey
The World’s Awesomest Airbarf


Published by: Macmillan Children’s Books, 1st January 2010.
Two more titles to be published in July 2010.

Why not visit the World’s Silliest Website:


Welshcake said...

Excellent interview. I'm already a fab of Steve's from reading his work on YWO, so I'll be investing in Danny Baker (and hoping to see Misericordia in print asap!)

Miriam Halahmy said...

Lovely and true words of wisdom from Steve Hartley to inspire all writers, from wannabees to those already published. Really looking forward to getting my hands on a copy. Good luck with it all Steve and happy holidays.

Candy Gourlay said...

great interview! steve, i wish you great success with danny baker record breaker!

Sue Eves said...

Thoroughly entertaining interview - thanks and respect to you Steve for sharing your struggle to record-breaking heights.

Oh and the answer to how many nits on an 8 year-old head?
29 - eek!(we counted them out and looked at them under a magnifying glass and learned how to keep them away forever!)

Can't wait to meet Danny Baker - good luck!

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