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Patrick Samphire: SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB

OneFour KidLit is absolutely plump with brilliant and amazing new writers. Today we’re going to introduce you to another: Patrick Samphire, author of the middle grade adventure, SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB, to be published by Christy Ottaviano Books (Henry Holt / Macmillan).

Hey, you’re getting published! How’d that happen? (aka, what was your path to publication)

“Path” is a little bit too generous a word for my trip to publication. Path implies some kind of direction.

For me, it was more like waking up in the middle of a bleak and windswept moor, and then wandering about dazed until I finally stumbled to a shelter. Or something like that.

Ah, here’s a pie-chart to explain it all:

Pie chart pretending to show path to publication.

The blackberry-and-apple-pie chart of publication.

Wasting time – 40%
For almost ten years, from when I went to University, I didn’t actually achieve anything. I wanted to be a writer. I read how-to-write books. I occassionally wrote the odd sentence or paragraph. But most of the time I did other stuff.

In fact, if the Fates hadn’t got fed up with me noodling around, I might still be doing that. Instead, they dropped me into the most insanely boring job I’ve ever done. Every day, I sat behind a computer with nothing to do. Absolutely nothing. So, I started to think about writing again. I joined the online critique group Critters and started writing and critiquing short stories.

Short stories – 19%
Some writers — particularly science fiction writers — will tell you that if you want to learn how to write, you should start with short stories.

I’m not sure I agree; there are too many differences between the forms, and most of the skills you need for a novel aren’t the same as you need for short stories. This is why many great short story writers can’t write novels, and why many great novelists can’t write short stories.

Anyway, I took the advice and started with short stories, mostly for adults. I think I ended up getting seventeen or eighteen stories published in some pretty good magazines, and I’m still really proud of those stories.

But the truth is, I’m not a massive fan of short stories. Some are brilliant, no doubt. They can be beautiful and heartbreaking and terrifying and hilarious. (If you haven’t read Light of Other Days, or Flowers for Algernon, or Slow Birds, or Gauging Moonlight, or The Last of the Winnebagos you’re missing out.) But when I have to choose something to settle down with, it’s always going to be a novel, and normally a big, fat fantasy novel.

Eventually, I figured that if I was ever going to write the stuff I loved reading, I was going to have to just get on and do it. So I stopped writing short stories.

The adult diversion – 12%
I actually wrote a couple of pretty hefty adult fantasy novels, but they didn’t really spark. The less said about them the better. Suffice to say that the trees of the world do not regret that I never tried to get them published.

Almost but not quite – 11%
I started writing middle grade novel almost by accident. I certainly hadn’t been intending to. But one day I had an idea that really could only be only told as a older middle grade or younger YA. It was a contemporary, magical realism called Touching Ice. If I had to compare it to anything, it would be to David Almond’s books. It got me an agent and nearly sold at a couple of publishers, but it never quite made it.

I don’t think it’s an exageration to say that middle grade liberated me. Writing adult novels, I could never free myself from worrying about what cynical adult readers would think, and it stunted my writing. I think if you’re going to write, you have to throw yourself in headfirst. If you’re looking over your shoulder all the time, you’re going to break your neck. Or, er, something.

Middle grade readers are demanding, but they’re not cynical or self-conscious. If they hate your book, they’ll say it, and if they love it, they’ll say that too. They’re honest and open. I stopped worrying about what readers would think, and just wrote what I loved writing.

My next middle grade book was an alternate-world adventure based on Norse mythology, and that nearly made it at a couple of publishers, too.

Win! – 18%
Finally, I wrote SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB. I changed agents to my current, brilliant agent, Jennifer Laughran of Andrea Brown Literary, who threw herself 100% behind it and sold it to Christy Ottaviano Books (Henry Holt / Macmillan).

Right now, I’m writing the sequel, provisionally entitled THE EMPEROR OF MARS. Well, not right now. Right now I’m writing this blog entry. But I should be writing the sequel.

And that’s how I wandered into being published. Take it as a cautionary tale. There are better ways of doing this…

What’s your debut book about? Can you share any cool details with us?

In my head, I think of SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB as Indiana Jones meets Bertie Wooster and Doctor Who on Mars. With dragons.

But here’s how I’m describing it on my website:

Mars in 1816 is a world of high Society, deadly danger, and strange clockwork machines. Pterodactyls glide through the sky, automatic servants hand out sandwiches at elegant garden parties, and in the north, the great dragon tombs hide marvels of Ancient Martian technology.

Fourteen-year-old Edward Sullivan has always dreamed of becoming a spy like the ones he reads of in his favorite magazine, Thrilling Martian Tales. Instead, he spends his days keeping his eccentric family from complete disaster … that is, until the villainous archeologist, Sir Titus Dane, kidnaps Edward’s parents as part of a scheme to loot an undiscovered dragon tomb.

Edward sets off in pursuit across the Martian wilderness. With him are his brilliant and outrageous little sister, Putty, his impossibly starchy older sister, Olivia, and his secretive cousin, Freddie. Together they must evade Sir Titus’s minions, battle mechanical nasties, and escape deadly Martian hunting machines. If they can’t, they will never uncover the secrets of the dragon tomb and rescue Edward’s family.

You can find SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB on goodreads.

What are you most excited about in the debut process?

I started dreaming of being a writer when I was fourteen years old. I figured, How hard can it be? I was sure I would have a novel ready and published by the time I was eighteen…

Now, about mumble-mumble years later, it’s finally happening.

And, somehow, I’ve been doing this so long that it doesn’t seem real at all.

But there is one thing that I totally wasn’t expecting, and that’s what I’m really absolutely most excited about. My book is going to have illustrations!

I can’t wait to see a copy, a real copy, with real pictures done by a real artist of my story. It’s going to be awesome! I may do nothing but stroke the book for several years.

What cool facts might readers not know about you?

– I spent a big chunk of my childhood living in a small town in rural Africa, where my dad was teaching. I think I still remember how to make a brick out of mud and straw. To get to school, I had to sneak across an airfield, avoiding the guards.

– I’m married to another writer, Stephanie Burgis, who also writes middle grade novels. Her first book, Kat, Incorrigible, was published in 2011, and her most recent book, Stolen Magic, has just come out. I’m racing to catch up!

– When I’m not writing, I design websites and book covers.

– I live in Wales, U.K., right beneath a mountain that looks just like a volcano. So far it hasn’t erupted, but it can only be a matter of time, right?

– If you want to make me happy, take me out for an Indian meal at Prashad near Bradford, U.K. Seriously, they make the best food in the world. Okay, now I’m drooling in an incredibly undignified way.

Photo of Patrick Samphire.Patrick Samphire’s first book, SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB, is a cracking MG adventure set on 19th century Mars. Patrick has been a teacher, physicist, editor, web designer, explorer, and dinosaur hunter. He’s lived in Africa, South America, Europe, the U.K., and on several small asteroids part way between Mars and Jupiter. You can often find him on twitter: @patricksamphire. Not everything in this biography is true.
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