Sean Dooley, Our Newest Signed Author
We are excited to announce that Sean Dooley has joined us at CWLA. Sean has a career in teaching English and Drama in Cambridge. He has successfully published two plays and has won and been shortlisted for several awards. Sean is a proud member of the Cambridge Branch of the National Writing Project. We’re very excited to be working with Sean on his brilliant book ideas! See our interview with Sean below, where he reflects on his experience and shares the tips and knowledge that he has acquired over the years.
1. Do any of the books you write come from your own childhood?
I was lucky to have been brought up in a house full of books and so from an early age, my parents had instilled in me a respect for reading great literature. My mum always used to make up stories for me at bedtime, each night building on the previous night’s adventure – she’s very creative and her stories could last weeks! I think that it’s this sense of creative possibility that’s stuck with me into adulthood.
2. What are your top tips for writing a children’s book?
I think the main thing is to enjoy the writing process. I find myself writing because an idea has popped into my head that won’t leave me alone until I’ve put it into words somewhere. I really enjoy the process of playing with language and editing sentences until the thing that’s in my head makes sense to someone else. It also helps to be quite organised, I think. I have a wall of note-cards that spell out the structure of a story before I write it and that (sometimes) helps me to avoid falling into a muddle.
3. Where do you draw your inspiration from? How do you reflect this in your writing?
I like to carry a notebook with me and when I see something different, unusual or interesting I might jot something down about it. Old buildings for example are particularly evocative of weird and wonderful possibilities. I enjoy a long train journey for thinking about things as you watch the world zoom by.
4. Which people or books have had the greatest impact on your growth as an author? Why?
Stephen King’s “On Writing” is a really valuable resource for writers. It isn’t a guide to writing as such, but a valuable insight into the working reality of a successful writer. I am lucky to be part of the Cambridge branch of the National Writing Group which is a group of ‘teachers as writers’. We try to meet regularly throughout the year and it’s great to be able to talk unselfconsciously about our writing. There have been four other key people who have helped me along the way so far: my friend and author Julian Sedgwick has provided invaluable inspiration and editorial feedback; Caroline Ambrose who runs the Bath Novel Award was really supportive when I was shortlisted for the children’s award and Stuart White, founder of WriteMentor curates a wonderfully supportive and informative community there. Finally, I suppose I ought to credit my wife who once hoovered up page 167 of an early draft.
5. What are 3 things which anyone starting in your industry should know?
It’s really difficult! It’s very easy for me to say that I take an organised approach to writing and all that because this is an interview and I’m trying to come across as someone who knows what they are talking about, but the reality is that writing a story is difficult. There are so many things that can get in the way of reaching the end – both inside, and outside the world of the thing you are writing!
Rejection is tough. The ratio of writers : people-who-can-help-you-be-a-published-writer is not stacked in favour of the writer! The subjective nature of writing means that looking for someone to champion your writing can often feel like searching for a needle in a haystack. Being part of a supportive group of empathetic peers can really help with this.
If you enjoy it, keep going! Again, such an easy thing to say and yet difficult to put into practice. But I do think it’s important to do the thing you love doing and if that’s writing, then do it!
6. What are some challenges you face in your field of work and how do you overcome them?
An obvious answer to that question is just how competitive the world of writing is. As I’ve said, the odds aren’t necessarily stacked in the writer’s favour – but it’s important to see that as a challenge that can be overcome and not an obstacle that prevents you from moving forward. Another challenge I face is finding both the time and the creative energy to write something. I often have one or other of those things, but matching the two together can be tricky.
7. Do children around you strongly influence how you write your own stories? How do they influence or inspire you?
My son is a big influence on what I write. In fact, my MG novel ‘1666’ was inspired by a topic he was studying in his primary school and our subsequent adventures around various museums and London landmarks. My son is an avid reader of children’s fiction so it’s also really valuable to hear about what sorts of things he finds interesting and exciting to read about. As a secondary school English teacher, I am also in a privileged position of seeing what interests young people on a daily basis.
8. How do you help children relate to your stories?
I try to channel what would interest me and work from there. If I find that I’m writing something that is boring me, then I stop immediately and re-plan. As a teacher, I have a lot of experience of trying to explore and explain often quite complex ideas to younger people, so I think that this has also really helped with the narrative voices that I have tried to create.
9. What advice would you give those just starting on their writing career regarding courses and competitions?
This is something that really does need an organised approach, I think. It can be really helpful to find a publication, or a website that has a good list of competitions available to writers. I then write out a list of the ones that would be appropriate to enter in chronological order according to deadlines. I’ve been really annoyed in the past to find a perfect competition, only to see that I missed the deadline by a week or a month. It’s also important to consider your budget. Although most competitions charge a modest entry fee, entering multiple competitions can get quite costly. I’ve noticed recently that more and more competitions offer sponsored places for eligible writers so that is also a consideration. Then, once you’ve entered a competition, it’s best not to think too much about it! (Again, easy to say, but as someone used to refreshing emails every two minutes, I can’t say that I practice what I preach!) At the awards ceremony for the Write Mentor Children’s Novel Award last year, Stuart White advised the shortlistees to assume we hadn’t won so we could just enjoy the ceremony. It was really good advice!
10. Are there any exciting new projects you are working on?
I have a few different ideas that I’ve been working on although my main focus recently has been on ‘1666’. I have a first draft of ‘1667’ which takes place six months after the fire and follows Flick and her friends on a race to find the lost treasure of King John. One day I’d like to write a third in the series – although that only exists as a plan in a notebook at the moment!