Written by Colleen Jones, Regional Advisor
Our featured SCBWI member for summer 2015 is writer and illustrator Kieran Fanning.
Kieran is a long-time member of the SCBWI Ireland Scribblers, an online critique group of writers submitting sections of their work for feedback and in return providing honest critiques to their peers. For the past year, Kieran has also been the administrator of one of our two groups. He is also involved in another critique group outside SCBWI. Kieran fits in all this writing and critiquing alongside a full-time teaching job and a family.
Kieran has published some educational texts along with some interactive puzzle books for younger readers. His first middle grade novel for age 10+ is being published in August. We’re delighted for Kieran. It is a well-deserved success after years of dedicated and hard work!
I asked Kieran a few questions to find out more about his experiences and writing process.
SCBWI: How many school textbooks have you written and what were they about? Did you write the whole thing or provide specific chapters or sections?
Kieran: I’ve written a primary school English textbook (Call of the Sea – Reading Zone 5, published by Folens), which consists of fiction and non-fiction passages accompanied by comprehension activities. Most of the passages were sourced externally, though I did write a few. The writing of the activities was my responsibility.
Small World is an SESE programme for primary school History, Geography, and Science. I and three others wrote four Geography/Science textbooks and workbooks. We each wrote chapters and activities for the four books, as well as sourcing online resources.
SCBWI: Tell us about the adventure series of interactive puzzle books. They have pretty exciting covers. Did you do the artwork?
Kieran: In my Code Crackers series of books, the child reader gets to play detective by helping Sam and Lisa solve puzzles. The answer to each puzzle directs the reader to the next page, so the book is not read in chronological order, but the reader is constantly skipping backwards and forwards through the book. I did the internal illustrations, but the covers were all done by Jon Berkeley.
SCBWI: How did you come up with the ideas? How did you develop the puzzles?
Kieran: Every page ends in a puzzle, so I had to be conscious of this as I wrote the story. I read a lot of game books and played a lot of video games when I was a kid so that certainly helped. I was also very influenced and inspired by Usborne’s Puzzle Adventures, which made reading interactive. I’m interested in new ways of reading, and the interactivity of these books certainly appealed to kids with a short attention span!
SCBWI: How long have you been writing and what or who was the inspiration for taking this career path? In what ways has getting an MA helped you as a writer?
Kieran: I’ve been writing stories since I was a kid. I wrote my first book at age 10 and another at age 12. I still have them – they’re my most prized possessions. I was always interested in books, plays, movies, art, and video games. For a long time, I wasn’t sure which of these routes to pursue. But all these interests had one thing in common –STORY. When I realised this, I started writing seriously about 15 years ago.
I’m not sure my MA has helped me to write fiction but it has given me a solid foundation in the history of children’s literature. It also exposed me to authors I’d never heard of before. I wrote my thesis on Robert Cormier, and to this day, he is one of my favourite writers. And while I wouldn’t dare put myself in his category, he has influenced my writing. I think I got my love of simile from Mr. Cormier.
SCBWI: How do you juggle your time as a teacher, husband/father, and writer?
Kieran: With great difficulty! This juggling is the biggest challenge to my writing. I often only get time to write late at night, but as you all know, this is not the best time for creative work (for me, at least). However, being a teacher and a parent does help my writing too. It means I’m constantly in touch with kids and what they like and dislike. I get to see first-hand the social politics and dynamics among groups of kids and that can be very useful for a writer. Even being busy can be useful, too. If you only have a spare half an hour in the day to write, you damn well make sure to use it! You don’t have time for writer’s block!
SCBWI: How much of your time do you actually spend writing/editing/researching?
Kieran: Being a man, I can only do one thing at a time. So I’m usually writing OR editing OR researching, but seldom all three at the same time. Though that may change. I spent way too much time researching The Black Lotus when in the end much of the research didn’t make it into the story. Next time, I think I’ll research only what I need to.
I suppose if I was writing full time I would write new material in the morning and edit in the afternoon/evening, he says dreamily. But my windows are very narrow at the moment so I usually focus on one task.
SCBWI: Do you do any other writing-related work like library events or festival panels?
Kieran: Occasionally, but because I work full-time I’m restricted in what I can do. Later this year, I’m on a panel at the Bath Children’s Literature Festival and another for Children’s Books Ireland.
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: I’m not comfortable speaking to large groups of adults and I get very nervous. My voice is usually first to betray me, then my knocking knees, and then the fainting starts…Being a teacher, I’m much more comfortable in front of kids. Though large crowds of them do scare me.
SCBWI: What tips do you have for writers who want to improve their craft and get published?
Kieran: This may be cliché, but READ. It’s the best way to learn. And rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Learn to listen to (sensible) advice. People who reject you know what they’re talking about. Listen to what they say. And most importantly, persevere. Keep going and you’ll eventually get there. Learn to be a writer first, then worry about getting published. Too many people want the latter first.
SCBWI: How long did it take you to write The Black Lotus? I realize writing is not a linear activity. How long was the process from first draft to acceptance and then to publication?
Kieran: It didn’t take long to write, only SEVEN years! But that’s writing part-time. And some of that time was spent looking for an agent and publisher as well as editing. But it’s been seven years since I wrote that first sentence. Seven is my lucky number.
SCBWI: What happened after acceptance of your book by a publisher? How much editing did you have to do? What did you think of that process?
Kieran: I was surprised by the huge amount of editing I had to do. I thought editing might consist of changing a word here and there, dotting a few “eyes” and crossing a few “teas”. The reality was quite different. I basically re-wrote half my book! Initially, I was reluctant to make so many big changes but looking at the finished product, I now see how correct my editor was.
I also didn’t realise editing came in so many stages – structural edit, line edit, copy edit, etc. But one thing I’ve learned is the importance of a good editor. Editing is HUGE. But worthwhile, because each round of edits polished the story even further until it shone.
SCBWI: Do you have an agent? If so, how long did it take you to get one? If not, how did you submit your novel to the publisher?
Kieran: Yes, I have a very good agent called Sallyanne Sweeney who works with Mulcahy Associates. A very successful children’s author once advised me to get an agent, so that’s what I was determined to do. It wasn’t easy and took over a year. Eventually I got offers of representation from two agents. I went with Sallyanne and haven’t looked back.
SCBWI: What do you think of critique groups? What are the pros and cons of face-to-face versus online critiques? How did the feedback from the critique groups compare to the feedback from the editors on The Black Lotus?
Kieran: Critique groups are one of the best things I’ve discovered in this whole process. I’m a member to two online groups. I’ve never been a member of a face-to-face group so I can’t comment on that, but I imagine it’s easier to be honest with someone online. I imagine face-to-face groups become very intimate, and that’s when it’s difficult to be honest. And honesty is what you need most from a critique partner. Receiving critiques can be difficult, especially when they contradict each other, but when five people tell you the same thing, you know they’re correct.
Writing is done in a vacuum with you as the author and the audience. But you need an impartial audience to test your material on – I mean comedians write jokes they think are funny but they only really find out how funny they are when they go on stage. Critique groups are the writer’s stage, and it’s much better to be booed by a small group of fellow writers than agents and editors in the real world. When you can deal with the heckles of a critique group, you’re ready to submit.
There is no comparison to the feedback my editor gave me and the feedback I received from my critique partners. No disrespect to my crit buddies, but editors are experts in their field. Their instincts are superb and their ability to critique a whole novel cannot be compared to chapter critiques from a group. A good editor knows what he/she wants, knows what the market needs, knows what your book should look like. Editors play a massive role in the production of a book, and mine were brilliant.
That was incredibly informative. Thanks Kieran!
The Black Lotus is being published by Chicken House on August 6th, 2015. It has also been picked up by a major U.S. publisher. Congratulations!
By day, Kieran Fanning is a school teacher, who enjoys helping his pupils to write and publish their own books. By night, he writes his own stories, and has published school textbooks, and a series of interactive puzzle books for children. Kieran has an MA in Children’s Literature and lives with his wife and two children in County Meath, Ireland. The Black Lotus is his first novel. http://www.kieranfanning.com