23 July, 2012

Jack of All Trades

Does being a Jack of all trades, really mean you can be a Master of none? I ask because I have this silly hang-up about writing. Like most young writers, I am determined to be published one day. But one thing worries me - if I get published in one genre, will I be stuck writing in that genre forever?

Agents don't like to represent one-book wonders. If someone writes a children's book, they want them to produce another, even better, within a year to get some momentum going. But what if you want to write a children's book, an adult novel, a collection of poems and a biography? Can you swap genres, mid (or even early) career?

I asked the author Martyn Beardsley - a Master of several trades already - to tell me a little bit about how he ended up writing for both adults and children, fiction and non-fiction.

Martyn is best known for his children's books about a bumbling knight, Sir Gadabout. The books were illustrated by Tony Ross and made into a popular television series.

Since then, Martyn has written other children's books, biographies and a history of the last fatal duel on English soil - among other things. You can find out more about him on his blog.  (One of his first blog posts I read was about how he'd spent the royalties for his last book on a newspaper and chocolate bar. It was a great introduction into the reality of writing and I knew at once I was going to like him. But don't tell him that or I'll never hear the last of it!)

“Well first of all I'd like to say how flattered I am to be described as a 'master' of several genres. I certainly don't see myself that way – definitely more of a dabbler!

I know children's writing better because that's where I started and have had most books published. My track record for adults is more indifferent. Non-fiction writing tends to take much longer because of the research, but it doesn't pay any better – unless you are one of the lucky ones! But if I were forced to make a choice, history/biography would be very hard to give up.

There will always be stories I want to tell in fiction form - the ideas pop into my head constantly - but I find fiction hard work. Conversely, history is my passion and I find it hard to stop once I get started. I'm the sort of person who loves ferreting out facts, consulting old records, reconstructing the lives of people who lived long ago. I become so immersed in it and get so close to my characters that I look upon people like Sir John Franklin, whose biography I wrote, Eleanor Porden his wife (a poet and a Mary Shelley-type character who fascinated me and who died tragically young), and Henry Hawkey who fought the last duel, almost as relatives from my own family tree.

I also love the way it can take me to places I would never normally go. When I was researching Deadly Winter, the Franklin book, I spent many hours in the Scott Polar Research Institute. For A Matter of Honour, I had a trip to Portsmouth and Gosport, which included locating the shoreline spot where the duel must have taken place. 

So I really enjoy it, but it's expensive and time consuming. A Sir Gadabout children's book of around 8000 words might take me a few weeks to write from scratch, yet I got paid more for each of those than I did for Deadly Winter which was 80,000 words, took me several years to complete and cost me money in travel and accommodation etc.

I didn't set out to jump from one type of writing to another. At first it just sort of happened, and then as I gave up full-time work to rely on the small amount I made from writing, it became important to become an opportunist! I always intended to be a novelist, and Sir Gadabout, my first published book, was a way of relaxing and writing for fun when my early attempts at adult fiction failed. When that series was established I set out to write a children's timeslip story about a ship's boy exhumed from the ice and brought back to life by an unscrupulous scientist. (It was inspired by a documentary I'd seen where bodies from a nineteenth century expedition to find the North West Passage actually were exhumed from the permafrost.)

The timeslip story never got published but when I was doing background research for it I discovered that no one had written about Sir John Franklin, the leader of that expedition, in recent times - so I decided to do it myself! I'm quietly proud of that book for two reasons. One is that I had naively strayed into academic territory (as I realised when I turned up at Scott Polar, part of Cambridge University, with my Sainsbury's bag of full notebooks and pencils), yet still got decent reviews from the academic journals. The other is that Franklin had previously been portrayed as a soft, bumbling idiot. I had no pre-conceived notions, so that was what I expected to find myself. But I didn't. The real Franklin was a tough, highly intelligent Trafalgar veteran and a devout and compassionate Christian, who achieved more than most of us would in several lifetimes. Most of his critics were North Americans bearing a grudge about British imperialism, most of whom had apparently attended the Mel Gibson school of English history. So I'm a little bit proud that I've gone some small way towards redressing the balance.

I've reached the point where don't think I could ever stick to one type of writing. I think like a writer, and if I get a new idea I just want to get it down on paper, whether it's an idea for a picture book text for tiny tots (two published so far), another biography (in the pipeline) or a Victorian detective novel (Murder in Montague Place, out in December!) In fact I'd like to expand even more. I'd love to try my hand a film or TV script, for example. I have this dream (and even a sketchy outline) for a film about the Bronte family – so much human interest and tragedy. Any BBC or Hollywood producers reading this, just drop me a line!”

Thanks, Martyn. I feel inspired! I'm going to write a wishlist of all the types of books I want to write... 

Do you have a particular genre you're desperate to crack? Or would you like to try many different genres? What would be on your "to-write" list?


  1. As an independent and completely dispassionate observer, I can only say I find Chloe's assessment of Mr Beardsley to be full of wisdom and discernment of the highest order.

    1. I try, I try. I mean, he's getting on a bit now but that's no reason not to be polite about him.

  2. Billy - that's the kind of objective review I'll be seeking for my novels in due course.

    An interesting interview, Chloe and Martyn, especially the idea that a line of research or even a book can take you in different directions and to unexpected places. Given that there are no guarantees about writing, one could argue that it liberates us to just try whatever we fancy. Of course, making any of it pay is a separate issue, but I think the commitment and passion for writing has to be the starting point.

    1. I often find that I think of one line or a title for a short story first and then spend months trying to let it grow into an actual plot without it being forced.

      I agree - it's important to think of pay as a separate issue to passion. At least until you're about to be evicted because you gave up the day-job and then got "writer's block"! (Not that I believe in writer's block...)

  3. I haven't branched out much. Contemporary YA is mostly my thing, although the first stories I wrote were (adult) contemporary. (Not a big switch.) I am going to try with the YA thing before going back to adult though.

    I would love to write a thriller or a horror, but no idea has come yet. Christopher Pike was my favorite writer as a teen, so I'd love to do something like his. Or and Dean Koontz or John Saul. We'll see what happens.

    1. I'd love to write cosy crime but, a) I just know I'd be terrible at it and b) there isn't much market for it now (not that that's the be-all-and-end-all). Most people seem to want gritty crime or police procedural stuff, not country house poisonings. I'd also like to write a really good ghost story one day, but I feel like it's probably all been done before.

      Good luck with the "YA thing".

  4. Given how much publishing has changed over the past few years, being a multi-genre author is very possible.

    Writers write and we write anything we want. It's what we do.

  5. Thanks for this interview, Chloe and Martyn, I found it very inspiring. So far I've done YA and fantasy, but I'm considering trying my hand at children's stories.

    Nari X

    1. Might as well try everything once! You never know what you'll be talented at :)


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