Written by Colleen Jones, SCBWI Ireland Regional Advisor
Our featured SCBWI Ireland member for summer 2017 is Mallow-based writer Kieran Crowley. Kieran recently joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) but has participated in some of our Cork social events in previous years and was a guest speaker in 2013.
Kieran is a children’s book writer and screenwriter. He is registered with Poetry Ireland’s Writers in Schools program. His target audience for his children’s books tends to be 9 to 12 year olds (middle grade).
Kieran’s first two books, Colm and the Lazarus Key (2009) and Colm and The Ghost's Revenge (2012) were both published by Mercier Press. These stories are full of action and adventure, with a bit of humour, and a supernatural element. I particularly enjoyed the prickly relationship between Colm and his cousin The Brute. Colm and the Lazarus Key was shortlisted for the 2010 Bisto Children's Book of the Year Award.
The Mighty Dynamo (2016) published by Macmillan (UK) and by Feiwel & Friends (US) has sports as the background, but it’s an entertaining story of a group of very different kids who end up on a football team together. It has a plenty of humour and moves at a fast pace. The Mighty Dynamo was shortlisted for the 2017 Hull Children’s Book Award.
The Misfits Club has just been published by Macmillan (UK) and by Feiwel & Friends (US) this month (June 2017). I haven’t read my copy yet, but I’m betting it has Kieran’s trademark humour and great characters.
I asked Kieran a few questions to find out more about his experiences and writing process.
SCBWI: How long have you been writing and what or who was the inspiration for taking this career path? What made you decide on children’s literature?
Kieran: I used to write a lot as a child, but apart from finishing an unsubmitted children’s book in my twenties, I didn’t write as an adult until about 2004 or so. I started off with screenplays as I was a huge film-goer at the time, but nothing really worked out. My wife and my niece both suggested that I should write a book: my wife because she thought that it would be nice to have something anyone could read even if it didn’t get published (most people don’t read unproduced screenplays); and my niece, who was 11 at the time, wanted me to write something she could read herself. I wrote what turned out to be Colm & the Lazarus Key in a few months, around the summer of 2008, and it was published the following year.
SCBWI: How many manuscripts are sitting unpublished in a drawer? How many drafts do you do on average between first draft and submission to an edit? How long does the editing process usually take once you submit to the publisher?
Kieran: I’ve written six books altogether and, of those, two haven’t been published, one which I really liked and was very disappointed when it was rejected, the other just wasn’t good enough. I still believe the idea for the ‘bad’ one is exciting, I think I just executed it badly, so I’m looking at rewriting it. How many drafts? I make changes until the very end of the process, but I’m not sure what percentage of changes constitutes a complete draft. Sometimes I’ll add a chapter, other times maybe a paragraph. I tend not to keep track of it. As long as I’m improving the story each time, I’m happy with that. Then it’s off to my editor (for The Misfits Club it was the brilliant Lucy Pearse). There’s no average time for edits since there’s a lot of back and forth, but roughly a couple of months altogether.
SCBWI: Do you have an agent, and if so, how did you connect?
Kieran: I’m represented by Marianne Gunn O’Connor. She’s an amazing agent, always supportive and enthusiastic. When I started writing, I didn’t know anyone in the industry, so I sent the Colm manuscript to Mercier Press after looking up their submission policy online. Eoin Purcell, now with the publishing arm of Amazon, was the commissioning editor, and he loved the story and really got behind it. Mercier published my first two books, but didn’t think the next one I wrote was quite right for them, so I sent it to a few different agencies and it got picked from the slush pile. It was a lucky break. Although Marianne liked the book I submitted, she didn’t think publishers would go for it and she encouraged me to write something else, something I felt passionate about. That’s how I ended up writing The Mighty Dynamo.
SCBWI: How do you juggle your time between writing and work, travel, and daily life? How much time do you actually have for writing/editing/research?
Kieran: I write in my free time. I used to complain that there wasn’t enough time to write, but as I mentioned to you before, I somehow managed to find time to watch the entire series of Breaking Bad, Deadwood, and programmes like that, so I was fooling myself. I find now that even if I only have a spare half an hour I can get a lot of work done in that short space of time.
SCBWI: What made you join the SCBWI? What other organizations do you belong to and why?
Kieran: There aren’t many children’s writers where I live and sometimes you feel isolated, so organisations like the SCBWI are great as they keep people in touch and also often provide answers to questions that only writers ask. For example, if you explain to a non-writer that one week you hate what you’ve written and think it’s the worst work anyone has ever produced and that the following week that you think it’s fantastic (the truth of course lying somewhere in the middle) they just can’t understand that. Fellow children’s writers get it, and the SCBWI lets you feel like you’re not going crazy when you think things like that. I’m also a member of Children’s Books Ireland (CBI), who do fantastic work and are hugely supportive of all children’s writers in the country.
SCBWI: Do you belong to any peer critique groups? What are the pros and cons of face-to-face versus online critiques? How does the feedback from a peer critique group compare to the feedback from a publishing editor?
Kieran: I don’t belong to any, Colleen, so I can’t really talk about the pros and cons. My wife is my first reader and I trust her feedback implicitly. I suppose if you’re working in groups, you have to be sure that the person giving you the critique understands what you’re trying to achieve with your work and gives you appropriate notes. There’s no point giving your masterpiece with its numerous references to breaking wind and cartoon violence to someone who critiques you as if you’re trying to be the next Elena Ferrante.
SCBWI: Are you comfortable with public speaking and performing for an audience? What did you do to learn those skills and overcome any nervousness?
Kieran: It’s not something that comes naturally to me. I love writing because I’m happy to sit alone in a room working on ideas, so having to get out there and perform is something I would have shied away from throughout my life. Now, I try to embrace it because it’s an essential part of the job for a children’s writer. In my experience, the best way to overcome nervousness is practise and preparation. When I do school events, they are usually about 45 minutes long, so I make sure I have over an hour’s worth of material prepared – just in case. I’m happy for the discussion to wander off into unexpected areas once I know I have that material to rely on if things go wrong. Often though, you just connect with a group, and that’s a wonderful and hugely enjoyable experience you wouldn’t have had if you’d sat at home instead.
SCBWI: You have done some screenwriting. What were the projects you worked on? What was that experience like compared to writing a novel?
Kieran: Unfortunately, nothing that I wrote was ever produced. There was a project called ‘Ellie & Bob’, a children’s feature that was due to be filmed in Australia, but due to a change in the UK tax laws the financing fell apart at the last minute. That was a bit frustrating (by a bit I mean hugely – there may have been tears). For me, screenwriting and novel writing have more similarities than differences – you’re still trying to tell an entertaining story. The biggest difference I found was instead of dealing with notes from just one person such as an editor, you had lots of input from other people – actors, directors, producers. It could get a bit confusing when their opinions contradicted each other.
SCBWI: How did you come up with the idea for the characters of Colm and The Brute in your first two books? Their relationship is hilarious at times and painful at others. Have you always had a strong interest in ghosts, horror, or other types of supernatural stories?
Kieran: The Brute is an amalgam of some people I went to school with. The Brute’s daily dig (punch) is something a couple of classmates and I had to suffer through. Just like character, the people I based him on weren’t actually bad guys. They all had heart and a smidgeon of kindness in them, it’s just that they preferred to express themselves through the medium of specifically targeted violence. As for the supernatural, I used to love it growing up but now, sadly, rationalism has taken over. I like the idea that there’s something else out there, I just don’t really believe in it. I used to love campfire ghost stories and psychological horrors – books and films like The Exorcist, The Omen, Don’t Look Now, some of the Tales of the Unexpected, and some Stephen King.
SCBWI: Did you play football and other sports growing up? What was the inspiration for The Mighty Dynamo and Noah’s obsession with becoming a professional player? How did you come up with the solution for the team to join the other school (no spoilers)?
Kieran: I played a lot of football and was really into long-distance running growing up. The inspiration for The Mighty Dynamo came from the personal experience of matches I played in – a college game where we had an unlikely, some might even say heroic, comeback in torrential rain, a game with my cousins on a green in Tallaght that ended up with what seemed like 50 players on each side, and some riotous games with neighbours when I was still in primary school. Many years ago, I got involved in organising a local Community Games football tournament, and I pushed for a girls’ tournament because a lot of my younger cousins were football fans, but never had the opportunity to play. They lobbied their teachers and ended up playing, so that’s where the idea for having a few strong-minded female characters in the story came from.
SCBWI: There is a great deal of camaraderie in all your stories. Stevie is definitely one of my favourite characters. Nobody crosses the local tough guy in The Mighty Dynamo, and yet he ends up as part of the team and friends with Noah and the gang. Were those relationships always going to be the heart of the story or did you discover that during the editing process?
Kieran: The relationships were the key to the story for me. What I loved about football was the camaraderie. I was a shy child, but playing football freed me – you didn’t have to talk, you just had to play, and when you finished the game you had something to talk about. In the back garden/local green games I played, football had a place for everyone – big, small, clumsy, arrogant – everyone was welcome. I wanted the book to be about that, about how sport can bring people together, and I wanted to try and capture the joy, the pure exhilaration of being young and free and playing and dreaming big.
SCBWI: The Misfits Club involves another group of disparate kids, but this time you’re back in mystery-solving territory. Your stories tend to show strong friendships between kids whom we wouldn’t expect to get along. How did you decide on this particular plot and theme?
Kieran: Macmillan were looking for a standalone story for my second book with them, so I pitched a few ideas and this was the one we both agreed upon. I grew up reading the Famous Five and watching 80s films like The Goonies, and I wanted to create something like that, which I know was ambitious, but you’ve got to try. Again, a lot of it came from personal experience. The characters in The Misfits Club spend a lot of time cycling and exploring and being sarcastic to each other. That was what it was like for me growing up. Also, the club in the book is on the verge of breaking up and I wanted to write about that feeling of transitioning from one phase of life to the next, when your friends are changing and you’re changing, whether you like it or not.
SCBWI: All your books to date are for middle grade? Do you have plans to write in any other age group or genre? Will you do more screenwriting? Have you done any collaborations or have you considered it for a future project?
Kieran: Other than when I wrote The Misfits Club, I haven’t ever set out to write for a particular age group. I just write the story I’m interested in and see what happens. Having written a few books, I know how long it takes from first idea to getting the book on the shelf, so I make sure I only write stories I really care about. Unless I love it, I don’t want to spend a year or two of my life working on it. As for writing for other age groups, my first screenplay was for adults. I pitched it as ‘Reservoir Dogs meets Glenroe’, which I think explains both how long ago it was and why it never got made. I might be collaborating on a book over the summer, but I won’t know for another month or so if that project’s going ahead or not.
SCBWI: I noticed there are several Kieran Crowleys online, including an American writer. I have a similar problem with a curler and a technical writer sharing my name. Does that cause confusion for you?
Kieran: That’s right, there’s a few of us including a New Zealand World Cup winning rugby player, a New York Times bestselling writer (sadly now deceased), and an artist. I got a letter from a child asking me what it felt like to play in a World Cup final and then moving from New Zealand to the U.S. to Italy (as Rugby Kieran has done). Seeing how exciting a life my namesake had made me question what I’ve been doing with my time. Overall, it doesn’t cause a problem, but my first two books came out under the name Kieran Mark Crowley to avoid any confusion, and I really didn’t like it the triple name thing – it just wasn’t me.
SCBWI: What tips do you have for writers who want to improve their craft and get published?
Kieran: I have nothing very original to add to this subject, but that won’t stop me! My tips are: read a lot, write a lot, don’t take rejection or criticism personally (even when it is personal), read Stephen King’s On Writin’, and John Yorke’s Into the Woods, learn from your mistakes, write what you’re passionate about, and don’t submit a manuscript to a publisher or agent until it’s as close to perfect as you can make it.
Photo of Kieran’s book launch in Mallow by Deirdre Leahy
Thanks Kieran! Congratulations on your latest book. I am really looking forward to reading it now.
Kieran Crowley is from Cork, Ireland. He does school and library visits and other events. For more information about Kieran, visit: https://www.facebook.com/mightydynamo. You can find him on Twitter as @KMarkCrowley.