Ep 272 Bren MacDibble, author of children’s book ‘The Dog Runner’.

In Episode 272 of So you want to be a writer: Allison and Valerie talk about the perils you might face when your book is translated into another language and chat with Bren MacDibble, author of ‘The Dog Runner’ about how she writes award-winning fiction under two names! You have the chance to win tickets to ‘Sometimes Always Never’ and much more!

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Show Notes

Writer in Residence

Bren MacDibble

Bren MacDibble was raised on farms all over New Zealand, so is an expert about being a kid on the land. She now lives in Melbourne with her family and a cheeky dog, works with gifted children, and teaches writing at TAFE.

She has a special interest in science fiction and loves to write to explore the future. Bren won the Ampersand Prize in 2015 for her first ever YA, In The Dark Spaces, writing as Cally Black, to separate her children’s books from an older readership. In The Dark Spaces is a dark and wild YA SF thriller.

Bren’s second trade book was accepted for publication hot on its heels and is a children’s novel with Allen & Unwin called How to Bee and is set in a post bee, post famine Australia, where children hand-pollinate fruit trees. Both books came out in the middle of 2017.

How to Bee has been shortlisted for a Queensland Literary Prize, a South Australian Festival Literary Prize, an Aurealis Award and a Ditmar Award. In the Dark Spaces has been Highly Commended in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, and shortlisted for an Aurealis Award and a Ditmar Award.

The Dog Runner is her latest book.

Follow Bren on Twitter

Follow Allen and Unwin on Twitter

(If you click through the links above and then purchase from Booktopia, we get a small commission from this purchase. This amount is donated to Doggie Rescue to support their valuable work with unwanted and abandoned dogs.)

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Interview Transcript

Allison

Bren MacDibble is an Australian author of children’s fiction. She also writes YA fiction under the name Cally Black. In 205, her first ever YA novel, In the Dark Spaces, won the Ampersand Prize and publication with Hardie Grant Egmont, and went on to win the New Zealand Prize for CYA, a Queensland literary award, an Aurealis award, and a host of other awards, including being a CBCA honour book for 2018. That same year, her middle grade novel, How to Bee, published by Allen and Unwin, won the CBCA Book of the Year for younger readers, and a string of other awards. Bren’s new middle grade novel, The Dog Runner, is out now with Allen and Unwin. Welcome to the podcast, Bren.

Bren

Thanks for having me Allison.

Allison

Now, you’ve had an amazing couple of years there. I’ve only just mentioned a few awards, but there are so many of them. So let’s look at how it all unfolded. Which of your novels did you start writing first?

Bren

In the Dark Spaces was the one that I started writing first. And it was actually a practice novel that I never intended to show anyone. So there you go. Just have fun and practice, apparently it works.

So it was actually an accident that I sent that along to the Ampersand Prize, because I had subsequently written How to Bee. And I got that out to send along to the Ampersand Prize because that’s a middle grade and young adults, and it was too short. It didn’t meet the criteria. So I was like, oh, well, I didn’t realise how short it was. So I thought, well, I’m not going to be daunted. I’ll send something else along. So I looked in my pile and I thought, oh, I really like this one. But it’s too weird, it’s too out there, but I’ll send it along anyway.

So I sent along In the Dark Spaces to Hardie Grant Egmont’s Ampersand Prize, which is a first novel prize. And then I turned around and took How to Bee and I put it in Allen and Unwin’s Friday pitch.

Allison

So on the same day, basically?

Bren

On the same day, basically, I sent them both off.

Allison

On the same day! Okay. And were they the only two that you had written at that stage? When did you start writing In the Dark Spaces? Was that the first novel you’d ever written?

Bren

No. No. That’s probably about my sixth or seventh novel. I’m a very slow learner, Allison. It takes me a while to get around….

Allison

So you had done six practice novels to the point of writing In the Dark Spaces? Okay. That’s interesting.

Bren

Yes. I’ve got this massive practice novel that I wrote. And it’s something, it’s almost 200,000 words for young adults. It could be four novels, I think.

Allison

Wow.

Bren

So I did a lot of practice.

Allison

Are those practice novels something that you would ever drag out and have another look at? Now that you’re out there?

Bren

Yeah. The plots of them I think are quite good. But I’ve learned so much about voice and pacing and just writing with a bit more heart and honesty. And not being didactic. That kind of thing that, you know, new writers often stumble over.

I’ve learned so much about that. And I would really like to rewrite them maybe at some stage, using those plots. So I’ve got a lot of fodder to drag out and have a look at if I wanted to go back that way.

Allison

So practice novels are never wasted, is what you’re saying?

Bren

They’re never wasted. I mean, you’ve got to learn to write on something, don’t you?

Allison

That’s exactly right.

Bren

And I had fun writing those novels. I had fun telling myself the story and thinking up twists and turns. So as long as it’s fun, how can it be wasted?

Allison

How can it be wasted?

So are they all YA novels? Or are they middle grade? I guess my question is you’ve brought out these two books into two different markets at the same time. Did you know How to Bee was middle grade? And did you know In the Dark Spaces was definitely YA? Did you have that sense that you were writing for two different groups of kids? Or is that just how those stories have… You had the idea for the story and that’s how those stories have come out?

Bren

Um, yeah. They’re both very intensive. So Peony in How to Bee is only nine years old. And Tamara in In the Dark Spaces is 15. So I knew from the outset that I was writing for the peers of the character. And I was writing from the perspective of a nine year old and the perspective of a 15 year old. And hoping that that would appeal to same age readers. So yeah, I just knew I was writing middle grade and I knew I was writing young adult. Well, I think young young adult, but some people think it’s a bit scary.

Allison

So did you ever get the sense then that people… Because there’s that whole thing going on out there that you need to choose what you’re going to write and stick to that and get really good at it. And then once you become published, then you’re sort of branded into that market forever more. So did you ever get a sense that writing for those two different age groups was a risky thing to do? Particularly given that you’ve technically sent those submissions out on the same day? Which I think is hilarious.

Bren

I was in a good mood and I decided to just go for it.

I don’t know. There are a lot of authors who write under two or three names. Especially in YA there’s a few who write romantic YA under one name, and then they’ll write fantasy under another name. So I think when you’re writing genre, it’s common to try not to mislead your fantasy readers by giving them science fiction or romance. And just to have separate identities, even if you just go down to initials for one group of books and full name for another. So I think that’s a fairly common genre thing.

And I wrote a lot of science fiction. I’ve got science fiction for adults, and published short stories, and I’ve got children’s chapter books published in the educational sector, which are books that go into reading boxes in schools and stuff like that. So I kind of knew where I was heading.

But I think you can do both. Can’t you do both?

Allison

Yeah, well, I think you can do both. But those People, with a capital P, the They out there, the They that says you mustn’t do this. But were you always going to write under two different names? When you submitted those manuscripts on that Friday, did you submit them under two different names? Did you send In the Dark Spaces off under Cally Black and submit to Allen and Unwin under your own?

Bren

No, they both went off under MacDibble. And it was after… When the award was first announced, the Ampersand came through, it was for Bren MacDibble. But then we got together and we had a chat and they said, oh, you’ve got all these… I said to them, look, Allen and Unwin are hanging on to a book too, and they’re talking about it, and it’s looking pretty serious. And they were like, well, if they reject it, we want to see it.

But also they said you’ve got all these children’s chapter books out in the education sector under MacDibble. And this is a new career launching YA books. So how about we have a new name? Because I said to them at the outset I’m open to a new name, because I was aware that MacDibble carried the history of children’s chapter books and adult short stories. So they were like, yeah, let’s do that. And so Cally Black arrived.

Allison

Cally Black appeared in the market. So tell us about winning that prize. You’ve sent it off, this thing that you were like, yeah, let’s have a crack. And obviously you then get shortlisted. And then there you are, you’re winning the Ampersand Prize and you know the book is going to be published. So what was that experience like for you? Obviously entering a competition has worked out extremely well for you at that point.

Bren

Yeah. It must be about the 100th competition I’d entered.

Allison

Was it? Oh, that’s good to know.

Bren

So I was pretty impressed that I’d won. They rang me to tell me that they wanted to publish it whether I won the award or not. And they said, how do you feel about that? And I said, I want to win the award! I’ve been paddling along for so many years getting nowhere and this is my chance to actually arrive in the marketplace with an award. And I said, I want this to be the best book it can be. I don’t want to be like a one book wonder. There are so many people who get their first book out and then stumble at their second book. They never get another contract or whatever.

So I was like, no, I don’t want to just put out a mediocre book with no fanfare and have it just die. I want it to be the best book it can be and I want it to come out with an award stuck on it already.

Allison

Wow. Okay.

Bren

And I think they were kind of impressed with my ambition.

Allison

So if you hadn’t won…

Bren

At that point me going, no, no! Let me have the award!

Allison

I want the award.

Bren

If I hadn’t won…

Allison

You wouldn’t have published that book?

Bren

It would have still come out anyway. But it wouldn’t have had an award.

Allison

Right, okay.

Bren

And I think it just needed that to get people to pick it up. Because it’s odd. It’s an odd story. It’s very difficult to explain. It’s not like How to Bee where you can say, all the bees are dead. Read this. It’s going to be very cool.

Allison

It’s not got that succinct elevator pitch to it.

Bren

No. It’s not simple to explain, which is giving marketing a bit of difficulty. So they call it a thriller, a kidnap thriller, when it’s actually science fiction as well. But if you start talking about the science fiction elements, it’s just so much to absorb. Because it’s quite a complicated story.

Allison

Yeah, wow.

Bren

So it’s quite difficult to pitch. And it’s told in a contemporary style but it’s set in the future. So it’s kind of… Well, I don’t know. Is it a contemporary style?

Allison

Yeah, well, you know…

Bren

Bit of a futuristic style. Well, an intensive viewpoint, like a regular YA novel.

Allison

So what about How to Bee, then? What was the path to publication for that one? You’ve sent it to the Friday pitch. What happened next?

Bren

I sent it to the Friday pitch and they said, oh, we love it. But can you see it’s not even a chapter book? It’s too short. And I went, oh yeah. But don’t worry, I’ve got an idea.

Allison

How many words was it at that point?

Bren

I think it was only about 12,000 words when I sent it off.

Allison

Oh, that was short.

Bren

Yeah, it was really short.

Allison

Yeah.

Bren

I was just on a crazy day where I just sent anything off that day. Apparently that works!

So I said, oh don’t worry, I’ve been thinking about it, and I have a really great idea for the middle. So they said, oh, can you send it back when you put a middle in it. So I did. I wrote the whole Esmerelda going to the city bit in the middle and sent it back and they were like, yes! We like it!

Allison

Wow. That’s amazing. So how many words did you add to it?

Bren

Oh, look, I added another 10,000 words.

Allison

Okay.

Bren

So it was basically half a book that I’d sent off.

Allison

And you put the rest in?

Bren

And put the rest in and sent it off. Yeah.

Allison

So how long did that process take?

Bren

Getting it to Allen and Unwin, getting it back to Allen and Unwin, probably took, oh, I don’t know, another four or five months.

Allison

Right.

Bren

Yeah. And by then, In the Dark Spaces had been contracted and won the award and How to Bee got a contract immediately when they saw the middle. And then How to Bee needed only a little bit of rewriting and In the Dark Spaces needed tonnes. So In the Dark Spaces took another year of rewriting.

Allison

So what year did they come out? Tell me what were the publication dates? So you’ve sent them off for submission technically on the same day. What were the publication dates for those two books?

Bren

How to Bee came out in May and In the Dark Spaces in July.

Allison

Wow. So you’ve gone…

Bren

Of 2017.

Allison

So you’ve gone from no books in that sort of general trade space to having two within a couple of months. Was that a strange thing for you? You’ve got two books coming out under two different names within a couple of months of each other.

Bren

Yeah.

Allison

How did you manage that? How did you manage that, Bren?

Bren

I thought I’d hit it big! But of course, I kind of entered the market quietly and without much aplomb. There was a bit of aplomb for the Ampersand prize, but not much. So that was kind of luck, oh, don’t you people realise I’ve hit it big!?

But no. They just entered the market quietly and then people started talking. The pre-readers had started reading and talking about How to Bee and talking it up. And they suddenly just started to take off.

And it was really good having an Allen and Unwin publishing team and a Hardie Grant Egmont publishing team hooking up radio interviews and all sorts of things. I’d never done that before. So I felt a little bit special.

Allison

Yeah, really.

Bren

So that was good. But during the rewrites, the house had burnt down. So I was kind of clinging to my books going, I need success! My life is a disaster!

Allison

So just to clarify…

Bren

It was a really weird time.

Allison

Just to clarify, your house had burnt down? So you’re in the editing process for two books and your house burnt down?

Bren

Yes. My house burnt down.

Allison

Wow. Okay.

Bren

Yeah. So I was like, In the Dark Spaces was going back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. And How to Bee didn’t go back and forth often, but every now and then I had to stop throwing burnt objects into skips and…

Allison

Go and do some editing.

Bren

Read through a manuscript.

Allison

Oh no. That must have felt surreal.

Bren

Cling to it going, oh save me! Yeah. Because you have to move into emergency accommodation. So you have to pack up what’s left and move and buy stuff because you don’t even have bedding or anything. And then we started rebuilding the house and that was a nightmare as well. So there were several real life nightmares going on.

So it was very nice to disappear into the world of my own books and work on that. And they were coming along surprisingly well. I felt like I really knew what I was doing back then. The publisher would say, do this, and I’d take it and I’d run with it. And come up with something that they thought was good. I don’t feel like that anymore.

Allison

No. Funny how that works. So you were editing them at the same time. When you were actually writing the manuscripts, did you write them separately? You weren’t working on two manuscripts at the same time, were you? They were one after the other?

Bren

No. They were one after the other.

Allison

And what is your process for writing? Is it, I’ve got this random idea about all the bees dying, I’m going to start writing a book? Or is it that you have more of a planned approach than that?

Bren

Yeah. How to Bee I’d just been waiting for that idea to write a story set on a farm, because I grew up on farms so I just wanted to write what I knew. And when I saw the bees in China and the people crawling through the trees in the Huffington Post article about hand pollination, I thought that’s what my kid does in future Australia. She’s on a farm and she does that. And that just kind of all fell into place.

I started writing it, ran around in circles for a little while, found the voice of Peony, and kind of just started again. And let her tell the story. And her voice came across really strong, so it was quite easy to follow that.

In the Dark Spaces, I think it had three or four beginnings before I found what I was writing and where I was writing off to. And I wrote that right through, I went down a few corridors, came back. I’ve got, I think I’ve got 60 or 80,000 words in a rubbish bin from In the Dark Spaces. So I do a lot of writing and don’t keep much.

But when I first wrote it, it kind of lacked heart and didn’t have enough heart. So it wasn’t until I added the Gub* character and gave Tamara more to live for that it started to come together. And that was a suggestion by Hardie Grant Egmont after they read it. They said, we love it, but her life is so dismal and everything bad’s happening to her. What’s she living for?

Allison

Why is she bothering?

Bren

I’m like, hm, okay. Yeah, you’ve got to give her some higher purpose, some family, some love. So I came back and put her in charge of Gub and wrote him into it.

Allison

And then you had a book?

Bren

And then I had a book, yeah.

Allison

All right. So now you’ve got The Dog Runner, which is a new Bren MacDibble novel. And it’s a middle grade novel. It’s actually being reviewed as upper middle grade, which I think is interesting. But tell us a bit about the book.

Bren

This one is basically during a famine a girl and her brother try to get out of Melbourne city and head north to her brother’s mother’s farm. And their sport, when there was food, was dog mushing. So they have three big malamutes and a dog mushing cart which they use to get out of the city.

But the famine in this one I’ve caused by having a fungus wipe out all grasses, which is a much bigger disaster than wiping out all the bees. Because most of the modern food chain relies on grass or grass-based products. Meat and dairy and sugar – it all comes from grass. Rice is a grass. Corn is a grass. Bananas are grass. So it comes from grass!

So it was quite devastating. And I’ve set it in the middle of the famine, which is a little bit scarier than How to Bee which is 30 years past the famine, when everything’s resettled.

Allison

Right.

Bren

So I think it’s more gentle, How to Bee, than The Dog Runner. Because The Dog Runner is kind of like the city is falling to bits, we’ve got to get out.

And mum and dad, mum is off trying to get the power grid going. And that’s obviously failing so dad’s gone to get her. But neither of them come back so the kids set out on their own.

Allison

Ah. You mentioned that How to Bee came from seeing the article about hand pollination in China. Where did the idea for this one come from?

Bren

I go to a lot of science fiction conventions, and The Death of Grass is an old 1940s novel set in England which is absolutely horrific. Don’t read it.

Allison

Don’t read it. Okay.

Bren

Don’t read it.

Allison

Don’t read it.

Bren

It’s terrible. It’s like, oh, the womenfolk are all complaining about being raped and blah blah. It’s just awful.

So that is a theme that they talk about at science fiction conventions, what would be the worst famine? And it’s always fungus, grass fungus. Because there is actually a fungus that tends to mutate every ten years and get out of control. And last time was 1999 in Uganda. It’s called Ug99. And that got out of control and they basically burn everything to try and kill it.

But you keep seeing up in Queensland these big circle funguses attacking grass. And you think, oh, you know, it’s kind of a little bit too real, this one.

Allison

Yeah, okay.

Bren

A little bit too real. I mean, the bees are real. That’s happening. It’s not so bad in Australia, but it’s terrible in the rest of the world, and it’s only getting worse. But this is also a bit real. But people haven’t really seen it outside of science fiction circles. But it something that we talk about in science fiction.

Allison

All right. So this is a book that… Obviously, you’ve been writing this book with the house burnt down and you’ve got a whole lot of stuff going on behind the scenes. How did you manage to do this? How did you manage to write a whole nother book about such a post apocalyptic or middle apocalyptic subject while you’ve got all of that other stuff going on in your actual life?

Bren

So actually I wrote this one when we were rebuilding the house and then putting the house on the market and then selling the house and moving into a bus.

Allison

Right. As one does.

Bren

As one does. What also happened was I put in for the Neilma Sidney travel grant, which is a grant organised by the Myer Foundation and Vic Writers, I think it is. Let me just check that. I don’t want to say that wrong.

Allison

You’re looking up the name of your own grant. I love it!

Bren

It’s the Neilma Sidney Literary Travel Grant from the Myer Foundation and Writers Victoria. There you go.

Allison

Okay, cool.

Bren

And I put in for that and I didn’t think I’d get it because I thought, oh, I never get grants. I won’t spend too long on this. I’ll just choose a pile of things that I want to do to research The Dog Runner and put the grant in. So I did that really quite quickly. And they gave me the money. So then I had to turn around and do all these things that I said I was going to do, as I’m trying to sell the house and move into a bus and write The Dog Runner.

So I ended up travelling all over Victoria researching elements of The Dog Runner. Which is also quite helpful because it keeps the story fresh in your mind, but you’ll go and see how mushrooms grow in tunnels, or go out to the grasslands and talk to people about regenerating grasslands. And all these little ideas and images and visuality would come to you. So you’d run back to The Dog Runner and write them all done.

It was kind of a good way to go. I learned so much! I thought I knew a bit about grass growing up on farms and things like that. But I’ve learned so much more. So I was really pleased I got to do the travel grant and go out and have a look at things. And walk a few rail bed trails which is what Ella and Emery use to get out of Melbourne. They use old rail bed trails and things like that.

Allison

Fantastic.

Bren

Yeah. Very good. But…

Allison

Did you know from the… Sorry. Continue.

Bren

I was just going to say I think writing keeps me sane when everything’s going mad around me.

Allison

Yeah, it’s an escapism, isn’t it?

 

Bren

It really is.

Allison

How did you know that The Dog Runner was a Bren story and not a Cally story? Because the idea could have potentially gone either way given that you set it right in the middle of the apocalypse.

Bren

I wanted to follow on from How to Bee, and I wanted another character the same age. So I knew at the outset it was going to be a children’s story. Young adult stories, I think they’re kind of different to children’s stories. Children stories can be wild adventures and stuff like that. But young adult stories, they’re people who are trying to figure out who they are. Where they fit into society, who they are, what kind of people they’re going to be. So there’s a lot of esoteric type of thinking that goes on in a YA story.

Allison

Do you think that’s the key difference between the two?

Bren

Yeah, I think YA’s more coming of age. Whereas children’s fiction can be a wild adventure. Now people say that my books are a little bit scary so they try to push them on to young adults. But I don’t know that young adults would get so much out of a wild romp through the countryside and dealing with bad guys and starvation and big dogs. They might enjoy it. But it doesn’t satisfy that higher level of what a young adult is searching for when they read. They’re trying to live lives and experience other people’s thoughts and figure out who they’re going to be and what kind of people they’re going to be.

They’re on the way to adulthood, I guess.

Allison

So on that, have you also been working on a new Cally novel? Is there a new Cally novel coming out?

Bren

I have! I’ve handed one in to Hardie Grant. And it’s so much harder to write young adult! Because you have to operate on different levels, I think. But I’ve handed one in to Hardie Grant and I’m just waiting to hear if they like it or not.

And it’s more contemporary than In the Dark Spaces in that it’s set on three main characters and the land has been invaded by an alien force that may or may not be mechanical. And there’s just no way to stop it. It’s just harvesting what it wants. So the land is breaking down around these three young people. A bit devastating.

Allison

No, really? A bit devastating.

Bren

Just for a change.

Allison

Just for a change.

Bren

A bit devastating. The earth is being torn to bits, but don’t worry about that.

Allison

That’s hilarious.

Bren

But I’ve got these three young characters who are bouncing off each other and they’ve all got different problems and different ways of thinking.

So I don’t know. I’m hoping Allen and Unwin like it.

Allison

You’re finding the fun in it where you can. All right. So you’re now in the position of managing two different author brands out there in the marketplace, including two different websites, a whole bunch of different social media channels, etc. How does that work for you? Are you actively engaging in all of those things all of the time?

Bren

Well, moderately actively. I’m not super active. I try to chat to people who are interested in books and form relationships. I find that useful. I retweet a lot of stuff. If people are talking about my stuff, I just kind of share that around.

I wouldn’t say I’m too pushy on social media.

Allison

So where do you focus your efforts for Bren? Because I know you’re on Twitter as MacDibble. But are you on Instagram as MacDibble as well as Cally Black? Do you differentiate between where you’re going to reach your markets, I guess that’s my question.

Bren

Yeah, I’ve got two Twitter accounts, one for each. I’ve only got Instagram for Cally Black. I just thought that young people are more into picture based stuff. And I’ve got Facebook for Bren MacDibble.

I’ve got two Twitters, one Facebook, and one Instagram. That might be enough.

Allison

And two websites.

Bren

And two websites. Which I manage myself.

Allison

I’m pretty sure you’ve probably got enough going on there. Does it take a lot of time to be even moderately active across these things?

Bren

Oh yeah. You can spend a couple of hours a day just roaming around and seeing what people are up to. And reading online.

I don’t know. I think I spend more time reading what other people are doing and adding other comments. Because I think Twitter can get really cold and boring if you post stuff and no one comments. So I try to go around and comment on other people’s things. And hopefully when I post something or repost something they’ll give me a little comment and we’ll all be warm and fuzzy.

Allison

That’s good citizenship right there, Bren. Good job. Love it. Now let’s just have a moment to imagine, because you’ve been in this position so you can tell me what it feels like, what does it feel like when both of your books are sweeping awards at the same time? Now that must have been a slightly surreal situation to find yourself in.

Bren

Oh yeah. Absolutely. It was crazy. Everything had been chugging along fairly quietly and doing fairly well. And some good reviews were coming in, and I’m like, oh thank god! And that was 2017 when they came out. And in 2018 they started getting shortlisted for everything. And I’m like, yeah, yeah, right, right.

Allison

Great.

Bren

It’s very nice to be shortlisted, but that’s probably as far as it’s going to go. But then they started winning a few things. So I was just stunned. I’m like, oh my god, I can’t believe my first book is out and it’s doing everything I hoped it would do. You only dream of your first book achieving some of the major awards.

Allison

Anything.

Bren

Even getting noticed!

Allison

Exactly.

Bren

So many good books come out and they’re not even noticed. They’re not shortlisted. So to come out and be shortlisted and then win some of them, as well. And you’re just like, that’s just so much attention that they’re getting. So that was lovely. More than I could hope for. I just feel it was kind of lucky.

Allison

Does it then set you up for second novel syndrome times two, though? In the sense that these two first things that you’ve done have been incredibly successful, critically and all of that sort of stuff. And I’m assuming you were working on The Dog Runner at the time. You’ve then got to produce a second novel for two brands that are going to follow up the success of the first ones. And what does that feel like?

Bren

It’s really crazy, because you spend so much time running around marketing and answering interviews and doing stuff for the first two books, that it’s really hard to work on the second book. But then everybody expects your second book out a year later. And your first book may have taken three years. But the second book has to basically been turned around in a year and it’s a year when you’re running around picking up awards, which is nice, but also going to workshops, talking at festivals, and answering interviews. And you think, how am I going to do it?

And then how are you going to recapture whatever it was that people liked in the first book. Because so many authors get one book out and then stumble over their second book. And you can see why.

So I was absolutely devastated to find out that I didn’t know how to write when I started writing my second book. I was like, oh, it’s a completely different character to Peony. And I’m like, oh, it has to be different. She starts off, she’s not bold and out there, it’s not so far in the future, it’s more contemporary. So I wanted a more relatable character rather than somebody, you know, Peony is amazing and brave and inspirational but I wanted someone that kids could say, oh, that’s me, I’m a little bit scared of this world around me that’s falling to bits.

It makes it very, very difficult to write. Much more difficult than the first one.

Allison

But you got there.

Bren

In less time.

Allison

In less time.

Bren

But I got there. Yeah.

Allison

I think the deadline aspect of it is actually one of the more difficult things that many first time authors find to manage. Is the sense that you have all of that time to get your first book right, to get that first deal. And then you have to produce a second book to a deadline. And I think that the pressure of that is often what comes with the second novel thing. And I’m thinking of you, with all of that success around those first ones, and then having to create a second book under those circumstances – or a third book – would be very difficult.

Bren

Two first books. Two second books.

Allison

I know! This is like everything is echoing for me.

All right. Thank you so much for your time today. I think that you’ve given us some brilliant insights there into a whole range of different things. And now I’m going to hit you with our last question which of course is what are your top three tips for writers Bren/Cally?

Bren

Oh. Read widely. It’s pretty obvious to say that if you want to write science fiction or fantasy, you read science fiction or fantasy. But don’t stop just reading science fiction and fantasy. Read contemporary as well. And read lots of different voices. And figure out how people are doing what they do when you love something. So read widely is my first tip.

My second tip is write to have fun. So have fun when you’re writing and try to surprise yourself. People who plan out plots may find themselves leaving that plan. But write to surprise yourself. Stop every now and then and go, oh, what if something really cool happened at the end of this chapter? And what could it be? And just try to do that every chapter.

Allison

Every chapter. No pressure.

Bren

Well, you know. Some people are doing it every chapter, and you do kind of have to be, if you want to get published, you do actually have to be better than what’s already out there to some degree. Or new or unusual or different. Because why not just keep publishing the same old people that are already published? It’s not like we have a shortage on writers out there.

Allison

And your third tip?

Bren

Three. Um. Pick apart the things you love and look for techniques. Follow those authors and read everything that they write about how they write and how they think they’re achieving what they want to achieve. Then go back and pick apart their work again. Because you can learn a lot by just stalking the authors you love and picking apart their techniques.

Allison

Stalk authors.

Bren

This is how I learned to write.

Allison

I like it. I like it a lot. All right. Well, thank you so much for your time today, Bren. It’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you. Now if you would like to have a look at Bren’s two different websites, you can go to CalanTheBlack.com or MacDibble.com. So go and have a look. Because it’s a really interesting exercise in how to manage two different author brands in one handy spot. Thank you very much. And best of luck with The Dog Runner. I hope it also wins all of the awards for you.

Bren

Thank you, Allison. That would be wonderful if it did.


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