Following my visit to author Martyn Beardsley’s blog, he has kindly agreed to answer some of my own questions. Martyn is an interesting character, having achieved success in several genres and age groups. He is probably best known for his series of humorous children’s books about the useless knight Sir Gadabout, which was also turned into a CITV television programme. Yes, he has lived the dream!
I had recently read and been captivated by Thomas Mallory’s Mort D’Arthur, and had attempted an adult novel about one of the lesser-known Round Table knights. That didn’t get anywhere and I was at a bit of a loose end when the idea of a silly story for children about King Arthur’s knights popped into my head. The publication journey was quite long! It was turned down by around eleven publishers before I was lucky enough to get picked up by Orion, who were prepared to work with me on what was a rambling, over-long manuscript.
You went on to have a really varied writing career which goes against the advice often given to stick to one area! Did you have any pressure to stay in a certain genre/age group?
No, no pressure to stick to one thing. I wrote a children’s timeslip book (also unsuccessful!) but became interested in the real-life captain of a nineteenth century Arctic expedition I’d incorporated into the story (Sir John Franklin). When I found there was no recent biography of him, I decided to write my own! That led on to other historical writing and more confidence in branching out. I also realised that if I wanted to make even a modest part-time living from writing I would need to be an opportunist, and try my hand at anything I thought there was an opening for.
What are your tips tips for writing for children?
Study the market! Working as a freelance for writers’ advisory services I get lots of manuscripts from people who have clearly decided ‘Oh, I’ll have a go at a story for kinds – that must be easier than an adult one.’ In my opinion, it’s actually harder to get a children’s book published (unless you’re a celebrity!) I see many manuscripts that simply don’t fit any publisher’s lists because they’re the wrong length for the age group or whatever, and the writers clearly haven’t given it any thought (just like me when I started!) And remember that the story is the thing. I also get plenty of manuscripts where the writer has concentrated on a situation, a character or an issue etc., and overlooked the basic structure of story-telling – which I would sum up in a nutshell as a problem established very early on that the hero needs to solve by the end.
How do you test out the humour in your books? Do you read them to anyone or do you write what makes you laugh yourself?
I’ve never tested my humour out on anyone, and my rule of thumb is simply that if it appeals to my child-like sense of humour it will hopefully appeal to children! Most of what I consider to be the funniest bits of my books just came out of nowhere, as if someone had told me what joke to put in next – to the extent that (and I probably shouldn’t say this!) it often makes me laugh out loud. I think with my kind of humour you have to work with a mischievous frame of mind, and always be looking to see how you can extract the most silliness out of a situation.
Do you work on one project at a time or many things? How do you cope with floods of ideas and sifting through what might work and what might not?
I work on several things at a time, which is a bad habit and not something I would recommend! I just have a restless mind and I’m always looking out for the next Big Idea. But it’s partly necessity if you are trying to write for a living – if an opportunity arises you just have to go for it even if you’re in the middle of something else. But you also need to be a good planner and realistic about deadlines, and I’m proud to say I’ve never missed one. I think you can make most decent ideas, ones that interest you, work – especially with fiction. Non-fiction is a bit trickier nowadays. When I started out it used to be said that any good idea would eventually find a publisher – but now times are much harder and they all use the phrase ‘not commercial enough’ a lot.
Do you have an agent?
Not really. Andrew Lownie took me on for an adult project that never got off the ground. I have had two children’s agents in the past. One I got on really well with but it just didn’t work out, and another I felt very badly let down by and severed my relationship with. The best thing I found about having a children’s agent was that they pass briefs on to you from publishers who, say, are looking for authors for a particular series. Those are the kinds of openings you simply don’t find out about otherwise. And as you know only too well, it’s now quite difficult to get publishers to look at your work unless it’s through an agent.
What are you working on now and what are your future plans?
I’m working on a book about the Battle of Waterloo for the adult historical market, having just finished a spooky children’s novel that is currently doing the rounds. I’d really like to write a thriller, and in fact started one a while back but ran into a brick wall with it. I might go back to it, but I’d also like to write a follow-up to Murder in Montague Place my Victorian detective novel featuring Inspector Bucket from Bleak House – which I really enjoyed writing.
What encouragement can you give to writers submitting manuscripts?
Sadly, this is a very difficult time to get published. Study your craft – publishable-standard writing very rarely comes naturally. Don’t be in a rush to submit – put your manuscript away for a bit and then come back to it and polish it. Listen to criticism, especially if the same themes keep cropping up from people reading your stuff. But don’t be put off by rejections – it’s well known that many best sellers were initially rejected numerous times. It all boils down to people’s opinions, and as William Goldman said, ultimately: “Nobody knows anything”.
Thank you, Martyn!