Whenever I talk to people about books – about writing, drawing and getting published – I talk about the key ingredients to success being perseverance and luck. My own story about getting published contains both, but not in that order.
After a BA in English and Irish in Galway, and then an MA there in English Lit and Publishing (free education abú) I took the well-travelled graduate path of various jobs unrelated to my degree followed by a stint in Australia. I landed in London in 2005 and worked in a pub for a couple of years before finding a job in publishing, where I’ve worked since, mostly as a book designer and now as an art director. It’s my dream job, and I love it. So why am I writing?
I’ve always been a reader, and I loved writing stories as a smallie. I remember the thrill of getting a good mark in an essay, two or three pages of an Aisling copybook in messy blue biro with 7/10 inked in red at the bottom. I remembered a sense of disappointment when I arrived in first year at secondary school and discovered that writing my own stories was not part of the curriculum. But a lot changes for us in first year, and I left the stories behind. By the time I’d got through university, my love for reading was spent – four years of critical practice and I couldn’t read a paragraph without dismantling it. I found no joy in reading then and apart from a handful of cartoons for Cúlchaint I didn’t write creatively at all between Italia ’90 and a bad breakup at the end of 2017.
And then, with time on my hands, I started writing again. Comrades, what I wrote was pure drivel – whinging, pretentious garbage. Truly awful stuff, but useful. I did some work recently with a writer at Koestler Arts who despite her talents has no great interest in getting published. For her it’s about catharsis, about understanding and dealing with the events of her life by getting them on the page. When she told me this, I realised that I’d been doing the same thing. But what I’d also been doing was writing again, and enjoying it.
At the same time, I was working as an art director in the young fiction department at Little Tiger Press and we were trying out a new (for us) way of finding stories. Instead of waiting for good work to come in from agents and then battling at auctions for the best of it, we were generating ideas in-house and then finding authors and illustrators to bring them to life. This is where the first bit of luck comes in – I think ten years of exposure to good books in my day job resulted in me having a bit of a knack for this process. Not all of my ideas were good, but the half-dozen or so that were became great books once they were handed over to their authors and illustrators.
And then I came up with Stick Boy. I realised that there was a bit of thread to the story ideas I’d been having, one that’s common to a lot of writing for adults as well as kids – that it’s okay to be yourself, no matter how unlike everyone else you are. And I started to scratch at this idea, trying to get at the essence of it. How much of what a person shares with others can you take away without losing the person? How literally different can you be? What does that look like, how does it manifest? I started drawing contrasting styles of characters to try to get at it, simplifying and taking away, and there I found Stick – in his own dimension. The idea of him struggling to hide his feelings followed quickly, and the question of what another would kid do if they encountered someone like Stick led to the opening chapter.
This is where the second bit of luck happens. While I was struggling to find someone to write and draw Stick’s story, one of the directors at Little Tiger, Lauren Ace, suggested that I have a crack at it. And I said yes. I wrote three chapters, and they were good enough for them to ask me to write the rest of it.
This is where the perseverance comes in. It took around a year and a half to write the book. I quickly realised that I knew nowhere near as much as I thought about the editorial side of making books. The first draft was a bloated and meandering 45,000 words – I tend to ramble when I speak, and I did the same thing on the page. The plot was too complex. I didn’t know what a cold open was, or a three act structure, or a bridge. I’m still not sure what a bridge is. There was too much episodic school-based scene setting. And I was sure that what I’d written was great, really brilliant. I was reluctant to let any of it go – what if what I wrote next wasn’t as good? On the good advice of Katy Jennings I read a book called On Writing by Stephen King. If you haven’t read it, do. One of the things he talks about is how good writers write but that the secret of better writers is that they re-write. That was good enough for me. I stopped whining and went back to work.
After this came the art. I draw in my day job but in a much looser way so I had a lot to learn. I loved creating the characters, but moving on to the composition and staging of the scenes as well as trying to decide which parts of the storytelling to hand over to the pictures, how to get it done on schedule, and then re-drawing for consistency made for a pretty intensive period of work.
That’s my story. The things I’ve learned so far are that not all ideas are good enough to become books, that re-writing is hard but worthwhile work, and that drawing takes time and takes practice. I love how the book has turned out, and I hope that readers do too.
(c) Paul Coomey
About Stick Boy:
It’s tough fitting in when you’re born to stick out!
From the moment Stick Boy and his family move to Little Town, there is way more to worry about than being the new kid. There’s a mysterious plot involving Baron Ben’s new Mega Mall, pop star Jonny Vidwire and the highly suspicious HomeBots that are infiltrating every home in town. Can Stick Boy and his friends uncover the evil plan behind it all before it’s too late?
An incredibly exciting and extremely funny new world for middle grade readers and fans of DIARY OF A WIMPY KID, TOM GATES and TIMMY FAILURE.
Order your copy online here.