Crawlers - By Sam Enthoven

Questions and Answers

What follows below are questions from young people who have contacted me through my websites – and my best efforts to answer them! If you have a question for me, go ahead and ask it via any of the places on my homepage.

I just wanted to ask how you became quite famous. Has anyone inspired you???
Why did you want to write?
When someone buys one of your books, does all the money go to you?
What kind of research do u do when u are writing ur books?
When you read aloud passages of your books does it feel weird to read something that you have produced and made for yourself?
I am trying to write a story and I can't write anything good. It is very annoying. Any tips?
I just took a look at my story and thought "What a load of rubbish." Could you give me some advice?
If one of your books is turned into a film, could I be in it?
How do you find a publisher [or agent first?] to read your manuscripts?
How many books do u plan to write?

Derek asked:

I just wanted to ask how you became quite famous. Has anyone inspired you???

"Quite famous"? Hee hee hee! I wouldn't even go that far! I'm not famous. Most authors aren't. But I am published: my books are available in shops and libraries and online, and people can read them if they want. For ten years that was my biggest ambition, and now it's happened. How? No easy answer I'm afraid: I worked for it. I wrote stories. I sent them off to publishers and agents and anywhere else I could think of. I built up a pile of one hundred and thirty-four letters saying 'no'. But I kept working on my stories, writing new ones, pushing myself to get better at this job of writing. I kept sending my stuff out. And eventually, one day, someone said 'yes'.

Who inspired me? Lots of people. In particular, there were two terrific authors who came to visit my school when I was young: a comics writer called Alan Grant, and a poet called Ted Hughes. Both of them absolutely amazed me: they made this ambition of mine seem possible enough for me to decide to give it a serious go. It's my hope that by visiting schools now and speaking to young people like yourself I just might – might – pass that sort of inspiration on to a new generation. Or, heh, that's what I'm aiming for, anyway.

Katherine asked:

Why did you want to write?

The reason I wanted to write is the same reason I'm still writing, the reason that being a published author is my dream and I'm pedalling to keep up with it as fast as I can: I write because I love it. I love imagining things – making up fantastical situations, characters, stories and, heh, monsters! I love the way that there's always something new to learn about writing – new skills and techniques to develop and, one day (I hope, if I'm lucky and work hard enough), to master. Best of all, I love the effect that good books have on me – and the tantalizing prospect of one of my stories having that effect on someone else. Writing suits me. It gives me things that seem worth hanging big chunks of my life on. For anyone reading this, I hope you find something that does the same for you.

Gemma asked:

When someone buys one of your books, does all the money go to you?

The answer, unfortunately for me I guess, is No. I get a percentage, sure, but it's not massive – it varies, but a guideline figure would be around ten percent of cover price. That means that for each copy of the UK paperback of Crawlers, for example – current UK cover price five pounds ninety-nine – I theoretically get something like sixty pence. Factor in stuff like paying my agents, my taxes and other costs, and it's less – maybe 40p a copy.

Seems unfair? Actually it's nothing like as bad as it sounds. Don't forget, books cost money to make, as well as write. From the proceeds of each copy sold the publishers also have to pay – to name just a few – editors, proofreaders, designers, artists, printers, the marketing team, the sales force, booksellers (in the form of discounts) and many more other costs besides. A huge amount of work and commitment and effort goes into every single book, from lots of people besides the writer. But, yeah: if you're thinking that you would have to sell a lot of books to get really stinking rich at this author caper, you'd be absolutely right. So: I would never recommend writing as a sensible career choice for anyone. On the contrary, as a kindly author once told me when I was starting out, Don't do it unless you can possibly avoid it! Big names like Rowling, Patterson or Meyer might make headlines for their fortunes, but they are exceptional. If you want to make money there are much easier ways to do it than writing books.

For myself, money is, naturally, great when it comes. But the only way I can sanely proceed with my own sinister masterplan to conquer the universe is with insane ambition (of course!) but without any actual expectations other than the continuing chase after my own passion for, and belief in, what I'm doing. Anything else – including excellent questions like this (thanks, Gemma!) – I tend to see as a bonus.

Mykell asked:

What kind of research do u do when u are writing ur books?

If you're talking about facts and figures, details of setting and time and place and action… it depends. I think details are important, especially in a fantasy story: they give the reader something to hang onto; they make things seem real. For instance, I got the fight scenes in The Black Tattoo checked out by genuine martial artists. While I was writing the book, I met a lady at a party who turned out to be the ranking Number 3 North European Women's Sabre Champion! She was wonderfully sporting about reading Black Tat's swordfights for me: I got these excellent emails from her saying, 'Well, ok: if I was fighting a thirty-foot-long hedgehog centipede beast, I suppose I'd start off on the back foot, with this sort of a grip…' and off she went. I hope those kinds of details give some realistic weight and crunch to Black Tat's fights. And if a story needs other kinds of information, I'll find out everything I can.

But here's the thing: that stuff should only ever be in service to the story. The story comes first. Because no amount of detail is going to make the readers care if they're not involved in the scene, feeling for the characters, wondering what's going to happen next. The story is the hard bit – the main thing to focus on – it seems to me.

Oliver asked:

When you read aloud passages of your books does it feel weird to read something that you have produced and made for yourself?

Reading your own stuff out to people is one of those things that definitely seems like it would be weird before you do it, but once you've done it a few times it actually gets less weird quite quickly. I remember watching authors and thinking, 'Wow, what would that be like?' Now I've been doing events for a couple of years I'm pretty much used to it.

It helps that I did a lot of reading aloud at school, performing in plays and whatnot: through doing that I learned to be a confident speaker, which has turned out to be very, very useful! Another thing that helps make it feel less weird is that I sometimes read my stuff out to myself while I'm writing or editing it. That, incidentally, is an excellent way of checking that one's sentences are as clear and concise as they can be (eg, running out of breath? time to cut that sentence in half!) And of course, before performing anything I've written, I try to make sure I've had plenty of practice. But yes, the first time I try out new material on an audience… that is kind of freaky and nervous-making, I have to admit!

Take a bow Beth, who said:

i am a little annoyed with you at the moment
i am trying to write a short story (but it is turning into a long one)
anyway you write good books and they are really cool and i can't write anything good. the plot either goes too fast or too slow. when i try to leave a bit of mystery in my characters it ends up that we don't know enough. it is very annoying.
on second thoughts it's not your fault it is just a bit annoying!
p.s. Any tips??

Beth, I know exactly what you mean: writing is incredibly frustrating sometimes. If it's any consolation, I don't really feel any different! I'm working on a new book right now, I've got lots of ideas for it, I'm very excited about it, but when it comes to /writing/ the thing it often feels as though all I'm turning out is sludge! The difference between what you want to do and how a thing comes out first time is just infuriating. I'm sorry to tell you there's no easy way around it. It's always like this!

But at the same time, You Will Get Through It – if you're determined enough; if you learn to ignore (or trick) the critic in your head that tells you that everything you do is rubbish; if you keep going.

You learn how to write by doing it. You can only get better by failing first. Once you finish a story, get to the end somehow, then you can go back over it and change it and polish it to make it better. But you can't polish something that doesn't exist. In short, Keep Writing!

thank you i will keep trying!
tell me do you always know were the plot is going in your stories?? do you have to have an ending set out?? beth

A planned-out plot can really help keep you going. If you know what's going to happen it's much easier to work towards it. You can also fill a story with things you're looking forward to writing (eg destroying the Houses of Parliament in Tim, Defender of the Earth!) And it helps give your story a structure, a satisfying shape, rather than just hoping that it's somehow going to come together as you go. I plan my stories as carefully as I can, working out as much as possible before I start writing.

However: there's always a point where you realise that a lot of the answers in a story just aren't going to come until you're in the thick of it. Speaking of which I'd best get back to it. I wish you luck.

Xiaoyao, a young writer from Australia, asked:

There is a recent dilemma about my story. I just woke up one day, took a look at the word document and thought: "What a load of rubbish." It just looked so bad, and I saw all my years of writing with disgust. I think that it was because the original idea started when I was really young, and the plot elements seem so childish now. It could also be because I haven't done anything with the story for a term due to homework. The main thing is, I just don't like it anymore. I think that it is too shallow. I'm wondering what I should do. Should I just scrap it and start a new book with a deeper meaning, or should I continue until it's finished, /then /start a new book? I'm not very sure; could you give me some advice?
Thnx, Xiaoyao

If any writer tells you they've never felt this way about their work, they're lying. Here's what I wrote back:

Hi Xiaoyao,
I'm sorry to hear about your current project, and your feelings about it. I'm not going to tell you whether to give up on it and start again or not. I think the only person who can decide that is you. I can make a couple of observations though.

First: books are long. They're big projects and they take a long time, as you know. But I would also say that the attention they demand is constant. If – during a draft, especially the first – you take a break from them for more than (I'd say) about two or three weeks, then you run a real risk of losing momentum in just the way you describe. [I know that kind of constant commitment is very difficult when you're at school, or doing a full-time job. More on this later.]

Books, too, are an enormous leap of faith. In any book, there will always be points where you have doubts. You will wonder why you're doing it. You will think that what you're doing is rubbish. That just goes with the territory, I'm afraid. The trick is to find ways to get past it.

One trick that works is planning: if you know that your book is full of things that you're excited about, that you're going to enjoy writing, then that helps keep you going. Another, as I say, is momentum: keep writing, keep coming back to it, keep moving forward. Another important one, is accepting that whatever you write, it will not come out perfect first time. Until you complete a first draft – until you've got the whole thing down and have written 'The End' – your focus should simply be on making forward progress. You must accept that some – even most – of what you will write is probably not that great, but IT DOESN'T MATTER, because once you've got to the end you can go back and fix it!

This, for me, means that when I'm writing the first draft of a story, I don't allow myself to look back. If I look back, I will see only the lousy bits. I will start to lose hope. And that will only make the job of finishing the first draft even harder.

This is especially true for the first time you write a book. Because you're not sure if you can do it – right? Each time you look back, there's a weight of expectation: you're hoping that something in what you see in your work is going to "prove" that you're a proper writer. Human nature being what it is, all you're going to see (as I say) are the lousy bits – things that make it seem like you should give up because you're never going to get there. Ironically, you're probably underestimating the most important part of your work and what it shows: YOU GOT THIS FAR. That is impressive. That shows you're serious.

I believe that what makes a writer isn't, in fact, things like a love of stories, a gift with words, a wild imagination – though those certainly help. I think what makes a real writer is the ability to keep going – the ability to carry on making progress, even though the destination is uncertain and sometimes you can't remember what you're doing it for.

Here's something I love by Miyamoto Musashi, from The Book of Five Rings (as translated by Stephen Kaufman). Musashi was the most famous swordsman Japan has ever known. He's talking here about teaching himself swordfighting, but it's just as true for writing:

"This is a very difficult road to travel and not many are made for it. It is frustrating, confusing, very lonely, certainly frightening, and it will sometimes make you think you do not have much sanity left to deal with the everyday surroundings of your world. Also, there is no guarantee that you will attain [your goal]. It must all come from inside you, without any preconceived notions on your part."

Xiaoyao, you're in full time education! Finding the time and the energy to write when you're at school, or you've got another job, is very hard! I have enormous respect for the fact that you're even attempting to write a book at this point in your life. So the first thing to do is to cut yourself some slack. What you've done already is extremely impressive. So don't feel too down on yourself. As to what to do about this particular story… as I say, that's up to you. Can you remember why you wanted to write it? If the doubts about where the story is going are too strong, then you may be better off abandoning this one. There's no shame in that. The first time I tried to write a book I had to give up after thirty thousand words. I felt crazy. I got so scared that this first failure meant I wasn't a proper writer that I couldn't sleep! But once I'd recovered, once I'd picked myself up, the next time I tried to write a book I was armed with the lessons I learned from that first experiment. I had a better idea of what to expect.

If you /do/ decide to carry on with this book, then the best of luck to you. But I would advise you also to remember my two other points above. Don't leave the book for longer than two weeks. And don't look back until you've reached the end.

There's a third alternative. You could also accept that right now your schoolwork is keeping you too busy for you to attempt to write a book. That's fine, too: concentrate on building up your skills with short stories for a while, perhaps? Then once there's space in your life for you to commit yourself to the kind of long-term, regular schedule that a bigger project involves, then that's when you next take a shot at this.

I hope the above is helpful, Xiaoyao. Let me know what you decide.

[Xiaoyao wrote back to me to say he's carrying on.]

Daisy said:

Hi you came to my school today and you were talking to us in the library. I was really inspired and bought Tim, Defender of the Earth. You also then told us it might be turned into a FILM. If it is this might be a strange question but could i be in it cause i love acting and its my dream and you said to us follow our dreams so that's what i'm doing. I'd love to hear more.

Thanks, Daisy! OK. It's true that Tim has been optioned by a major Hollywood film studio. But while I'm delighted and honoured to hear that my talk inspired you, I'm afraid I've got to give you (and anyone else who asks me this) what might seem at first glance to be a bit of a discouraging answer.

If a film is ever made of one of my books [which, incidentally, is a big 'if': Neil Gaiman, who's had quite a few film deals now, says "I've learned never quite to believe that one of my stories is going to be turned into a film until I'm actually buying the popcorn"] …then even though I'm the author of the book I will have no control over who is in the movie.

I'm actually fine with that, by the way. Those kinds of decisions, I think, are generally much better left up to the people who are making the film. But to be blunt, I'm the wrong person to ask this question. Sorry!

If (if, if) a film of one of my books does get to the casting stage, and if (if, if) the producers decide to give a general casting call for auditions, I will of course do my best to announce it on my websites. That, however, is all I can tell you for now. But I wish you the very best of luck.

Linda asked:

How do you find a publisher [or agent first?] to read your manuscripts? I know I'm young but I really do plan on becoming an author. Although I'm actually procrastinating quite a bit. But I really wanted to know how to get one and do you have to pay them?

Actually, 'finding' a publisher or agent is easy. There are various books (depending on where in the world you live) which list details of where to send your stuff, and what to send. You should be able to find those in your local public library, or on the internet. Looking at who publishes (and represents) your favourite authors is a pretty good place to start, too. The hard bit, of course, is getting a publisher or agent to take you on.

First, concentrate on creating the absolute hands-down best book you can possibly write. This, really, is the most important step. Until you get past this stage – and have a complete, finished book that you are proud of and you think might stand up against other books – things like agents and publishers are very unlikely to follow. So to reiterate: first write your book.

If your book is good enough and you find a proper publisher who loves it, you won't need to pay them. Similarly your agent (if you have one – I think they're crucial, but not everybody agrees) will only be paid when he or she sells your work: this payment will be in the form of a commission percentage taken from whatever money the publishers pay /you/.

But really it's stage one that counts: write your book. [For some tips about procrastination, click here]. Make your book as good as you can possibly make it. With determination, and luck, everything else comes /afterwards/.

Robert and Adam from Newcastle asked:

How many books do u plan to write?

That's an easy one. I'm just starting out on this 'being published' caper and I have a whole slew of story ideas bubbling and fermenting in the depths of my slurry-like brain. I can't tell you them here, as I haven't written them yet! But they're all for young people, they're all pretty ****ing exciting (if I say so myself!) and I'm looking forward to having the chance to write each and every one of them. So the short answer about how many books I plan to write is… as many as I can get away with!