Sometimes in life we make a decision that turns out to be so life-changing it doesn’t just mark the end of a chapter, it marks the end of an entire volume. I made one of these decisions on 14th February 2010. No, it wasn’t to send a Valentine’s card to Bruce Springsteen – I do that every year – it was to self-publish a book. This decision was all the more momentous because I’d already had four books traditionally published with big publishers. Sure, my friends and family yelled at me - choosing to self-publish would be a massive step backwards for my writing career. But I didn’t see it like that. I had doubts, but in my heart I felt it was the right thing to do.
My previous four books had all been for adults, and in the time I’d been writing them I’d started running writing workshops for libraries, schools and other young people’s organisations. Helping young people develop a passion for writing soon became the most rewarding part of my working life, and working so closely with teens really reminded me of what a challenging and dramatic time it can be. It wasn’t long before I felt compelled to write a novel for young adults about these challenges. And so Dear Dylan was born.
Dear Dylan is the story of a 14-year-old girl called Georgie who starts emailing her favourite actor as an escape from the pressures she faces at home. The novel is told entirely in emails and charts the resulting friendship and Georgie’s progress as she pursues her dream of becoming an actress, falls in love, and helps her mum stand up to her violent step-dad.
I chose to self-publish it because I was afraid a traditional publisher might want to water down some of the issues covered in the book. It wasn’t long, though, before I started to realise the drawbacks to self-publishing: it was impossible to get Dear Dylan into the shops and reviewed in the press. Thankfully, the wonderful YA book bloggers weren’t nearly as snooty, and, thanks to their positive reviews, a bit of an online buzz began. Emboldened by this, I decided to enter Dear Dylan for a national book award. I knew that most book awards turned their noses up at self-published books but I figured I had very little to lose.
When I found out that the organisers of the Young Minds Book Award had accepted Dear Dylan into the competition I was over the moon. When I heard that it had been long-listed I had to go to the toilet at work and do a celebratory dance. When I heard that it had been short-listed I felt like dancing on my desk! All of the other books on the list were from best-selling authors and big publishing houses – to get short-listed alongside them felt as good as winning. On the night of the award ceremony I was so certain that Dear Dylan hadn’t won I didn’t even bring anyone with me. And when I heard my name being called out I thought it was because I was the runner-up. I strolled casually on to the stage and it wasn’t until I was actually handed an award with my name engraved on it that the truth sank in – and I burst into tears.
Since then, my writing career has been transformed. Literally the day after winning the award I received a flurry of emails from agents asking if I needed representation – a surreal scenario for any writer to find themselves in. I ended up signing with Erzsi Deak from the Hen & Ink Literary Studio, and she then sent Dear Dylan out to all of the major UK children’s publishers. A couple of weeks later I had gone for my Christmas work do – afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason’s in London – when I heard that Walker were going to be making an offer for the book. It was a magical moment, in a magical setting, and one I’ll never forget. An hour later, I heard that two other publishers would also be making offers. In the end, a total of six publishing houses made offers for Dear Dylan. It was a wonderful Christmas present and I felt so privileged to be able to choose which one to go with.
I now have book deals in France and Germany and I’m currently working on a YA series with a television tie-in. But the best thing to have come from that fateful decision I made back on Valentine’s Day two years ago is that it’s enabled me to encourage far more young people to pursue their own writing dreams. Ever since Dear Dylan hit the shops in April I’ve been inundated by emails from readers who’ve identified with the main character, talking about their own hopes, dreams and fears. Inspired by this I’ve recently launched Dear Writer, a weekly blog and mentoring scheme for young people. I love the fact that by pursuing my own dream I’m now in a position to be able to help so many others pursue theirs.
Siobhan is currently offering young writers the opportunity to win her as a writing mentor for a month. Please visit Dear Writer to find out more. Dear Dylan is out now, published by Egmont - read our review here.