Interview with WriteMentor Novel Award winner Sean Dooley
How did you feel when you watched the winner announcement?
Very, very shocked! The other extracts were so good that I was waiting to hear which of the other shortlistees would have won. But as Lauren Gardner began to describe something that sounded like it could have been my story, I began to feel very anxious indeed. Then I was just really happy and a bit overwhelmed.
How did you celebrate?
I started by apologising to the people that I really should have thanked in my acceptance speech but completely didn’t (wife, son, loyal friends who have read my work, writing group…). Having not dared to hope that I would win, I really hadn’t considered anything sensible to say which I was a bit embarrassed about. Then I had a glass of prosecco and got on with the school night routine! Now that restrictions are easing, I might see if I can go for a meal with my wife and son to celebrate.
Tell us a bit about your writing journey to date.
I’ve enjoyed writing for as long as I can remember. From forcing parents to read newspapers I made as a child, through to a creative writing module at university which was really fun. I’m now part of the Cambridge branch of the National Writing Project and we meet every few months to talk about writing, share ideas and take part in creative writing sessions. I’ve written a couple of plays which are occasionally performed by amateur theatre companies and I enjoy creating murder mystery parties for friends and family but my real passion is for writing fiction novels for children and young adults. I have a few completed projects which sit on my desk and get infrequently tinkered with and I have an increasingly not-so-secret ambition that one day something I’ve written might get published!
Tell us more about the winning book, ‘1666’.
I’ve really loved this project. It’s about Flick Cutler who’s a street-wise, quick-thinking, no-nonsense 14-year-old illusionist at a time when girls weren’t really encouraged to be any of these things. The story begins on the night that the Great Fire of London starts. Flick is woken in the middle of the night by the King’s soldiers who are looking for her father. Before they can enter her house, they are distracted by shouts of ‘fire’. That’s when Flick discovers there’s a dead body in her cellar. Helped by her friend Fairfax, Flick finds herself following a trail of clues through the city in a race against the fire. It is a mission that is hampered by Skit and Muscle – a pair of trained assassins who seem to be able to pre-empt their every move.
What inspired the idea for ‘1666’?
When my son was in Year 2, he started studying The Great Fire of London in his history lessons. He was really enjoying it so my wife and I took him to the Pepys Library in Cambridge to read some of Pepys’ original diaries. That felt like a really cool thing to do! We then had a day in London when we climbed the Monument and visited the modern site of Pudding Lane. We also visited the Museum of London where they have some excellent exhibits from the fire and amongst all of this, I started to imagine what it would have been like to be a young person at the time. The exhibits in the museum make you realise how real and devastating an event it was and as we learnt about it, Flick Cutler began to come to life in my mind. Once that had happened, I got quite excited about creating her story and writing it was really fun.
What was the WriteMentor Novel Award experience like for you, as an entrant?
Fantastic! The motivation of a deadline is a powerful thing and with a full manuscript there is always something that can be edited and changed and polished and improved. Having a competition to enter is a great way to force some editing (and writing, and finishing!) and when you’ve entered, there’s a great sense of having achieved something. Getting an email to say I’d been longlisted was really exciting and then even more so when the shortlisting announcement came through. It has been very humbling. I have also now discovered the supportive power of the WriteMentor community which has been brilliant.
What do you plan to do with the prize money?
I have no idea yet! I’ve put it aside for now so that I don’t waste it. I have recently been handed a lovely reading chair which came through the family from my grandmother. It’s in need of re-upholstering and since it’s a chair that will always be connected with books, it seems like that might be a nice thing to do with it.
What advice would you give other writers when entering writing awards in the future?
It’s strange to be in the position of being asked for advice as I’m usually the one to need it! But as you’ve asked, I would say it’s useful to read everything you can about the competition. Some competitions come with top tips for how to pitch your work, or what to do in a good synopsis. Actually – the synopsis is something I’ve always struggled with – I feel like it took ages to write the full manuscript, and then you have to do it all over again, but without the use of all the words! (The answer to the synopsis question in the WriteMentor FAQs was really helpful.) I suppose my main advice would be – just enter! Research the competition, write out the key dates on a piece of paper, stick it to the wall, then enter. Of course, that’s easier said than done and it can be expensive to enter multiple competitions – but increasingly I’ve noticed that some competitions offer support for writers who need it so if that’s a barrier, then it’s always worth investigating whether an entry can be sponsored.
Any general writing advice for writers of children’s fiction, particularly Picture Books?
I think the old phrase “Don’t get it right, get it written” is always appropriate. I know that I can spend ages skirting around the edges of a project, worrying that I’m going to get it “wrong” and then nothing gets written. So sometimes it’s good to set out to write the worst possible page of prose it’s possible to do and then from that, something might work out – or at the very least help me to get started. I can thoroughly recommend Stephen King’s book “On Writing” which contains some excellent insights into the craft of a writer.
What’s next for your writing? Any new projects on the horizon?
I’ve recently finished a first draft of 1667 which takes place six months after 1666 and follows Flick on an adventure to discover the lost treasure of King John. I’m looking forward to editing that. I’ve tried to develop the illusionist side of Flick and so there are more magic tricks in this one as that’s something I really enjoyed developing about Flick’s character. I am also still actively seeking agent representation so I will continue querying to agents and editing the manuscripts.