Interview with children’s author Joyce Dunbar

Joyce Dunbar is one of the most experienced children’s authors in the country today penning over seventy books for young people to date. Joyce is passionate about helping young people through her work for charities like SCOPE and going in to schools to teach and inspire the youth of today. So if you’re interested in writing and want to learn more about the life of a published author you need to read this interview.

What first sparked your interest in writing?

As a child at school, I loved word games. I wasn’t a great reader – I didn’t live in a bookish household, but I loved Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Aesop’s Fables. It was discovering Shakespeare in the sixth form at school that really made me feel what a wonderful thing it is to be a writer – to speak across the centuries to people.

When did you start to realise you had a talent for it and started to think about publishing some of your work?

I did an English degree – but it’s very difficult to study and be creative at the same time. It was while I was teaching in a college of further education that I started to write. I did a lot of fumbling around with journalism, radio talks, plays and short stories, before I discovered what kind of writer I was. I married a lawyer who wanted to be an illustrator – so I wrote my first children’s book about a jug that has lots of adventures.  I showed it to a publisher who took it, together with my husband’s illustrations.

How did you get published was it through an agent, a publisher or self publishing?

Well, the first book turned out to be a bit of a disappointment.  Although it was published, the publishing house was sold and the children’s list closed down. So our book never made it into the shops! But it was enough to get me an invitation to do some children’s stories for radio. This, in turn, secured the interest of an agent.

Self publishing is much easier now – but beware of vanity publishing: people who charge a lot of money to print your books but have no means of distribution.

What advice would you give to a young person that wants to get there work published?

Just keep writing and writing. Build up a portfolio of work and when you feel it is good enough, approach a publisher.  It is a good idea to join a writers’ group to get feedback and there are some very good courses available, like the Arvon foundation. And there are creative writing courses in most areas. If there isn’t one where you live, you could start one up yourself!

How do you get in touch with agents and publishers and do you need to send them your whole piece or just a few chapters?

You will find all the information you need about this in THE WRITERS’ AND ARTISTS’ YEAR BOOK, available from most bookshops. There is also a special edition for Childrens’ writing.

Is it sensible to write a whole book before you have a publisher or should you just stick to refining an idea and the opening first few chapters until you get someone interested?

Write the whole book – then send in a synopsis and sample chapters. But expect to be rejected. Most writers are. I have published 70 books, but I also have a lot of stories rejected. It goes with the territory. You have to be very determined and resilient. But don’t be too ambitious, too soon. Publishers get hundreds of stories sent to them each week, many of which are never even read.

How hard is it to get published these days?

Very hard. The market is dominated by established best sellers at the moment. But new talent will always find a way.

Would you ever advise self-publishing which seems to be growing in popularity as a quick and easy way to get your work out there?

It is so much easier now with desk-top publishing – and you can always start out with limited editions for friends and family to enjoy. My daughter Polly, who is now a children’s writer, used to write miniature books for her toy mice when she was a child. She still has them. A lot of people do blogs on the internet nowadays which sometimes get picked up by publishers.

You have won many prizes for your work, is entering competitions a good way for young people to get noticed?

I won a prize of a fountain pen for a poem about my mother when I was eleven, I was very thrilled. But I’ve never won a prize for my books although I have often been shortlisted. It’s enough for me to know that my books make a lot of children happy, all over the world, and to work with wonderful illustrators. Yes, entering competitions is a good idea – unless losing would be too discouraging for you.

Are there any good websites, groups or guilds out there which help or give advice to aspiring writers?

There are writers groups all over the country. Just ask your local library or find out on the net. Norwich has something called the New Writing Partnership which encourages new talent but this is mainly for aspiring professionals. There Arts Council initiatives all over the country. School magazines are a good place to start for younger people. Make your own little books. Keep them. They can be a lovely reminder when you are older.

What advise would you give all the young aspiring writers out there?

Keep writing! And try to remember that stories are never about everything being all right. Stories start with problems which in real life are not always easy to solve. But you can make anything happen on the page. Words are magic. They conjure up characters and worlds. They make pictures in the mind. With words, and lots of imagination, you can work miracles. It’s a good idea to use your own life as a starting point, then to be inventive with it.