Imagination, Editing, and Writing with Steve Cole

Steve Cole
Steve Cole

My guest this week is Steve Cole, a bestselling children’s author of more than 200 books. Those books cover many styles and children’s genres, with titles including the Astrosaurs and Young Bond ranges, Go to Sleep or I Let Loose the Leopard, and most recently, Drowning in my Bedroom. Steve is also the creative consultant for BBC Books’ Doctor Who list, as well as project editing and writing titles. Steve and I talk about how TV influenced him as a child, beginning his career in editing, how he moved into writing—and how his editing background influences his writing—and more.

Episode breakdown:

00:00 Introduction

01:56 Creative child, loved words, invented imaginative worlds.

05:24 Teacher encouraged imaginative storytelling.

07:39 Writing became unexpected career path.

10:43 Fascination with Incredible Hulk, from production to details.

15:05 Influential writer Enid Blyton’s office and typewriter.

16:59 Published short poems on aliens in space.

22:35 Manage 22 novels, videos, audios, and more for BBC Doctor Who range.

25:18 Transitioned from editing to writing children’s books.

29:53 Managing editor at Ladybird, facing challenges.

32:13 Writing books on various popular children’s shows.

36:48 Pitch: “Star Trek with dinosaurs. Instant publisher interest.”

40:21 Authors be clever, editors be wise.

41:57 Juggling edits for US and UK publishers.

47:38 Doctor Who authors now pursue other endeavors.

50:06 Editing for renowned authors was thrilling and intimidating.

Read this week’s article, on what Ella Fitzgerald can teach us on rolling with what life hands us, here.

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Want more? Here’s a handy playlist with all my previous interviews with guests in theatre.

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Please note: This is an unedited transcript, provided as a courtesy, and reflects the actual conversation as closely as possible. Please forgive any typographical or grammatical errors.

Nancy Norbeck [00:00:06]:
Welcome to Follow Your Curiosity. Ordinary people, extraordinary creativity. Here’s how to get unstuck. I’m your host, creativity coach, Nancy Norbeck. Let’s go. Hi, folks. I have some really exciting news. I am, at long last, able to make transcripts available for podcast episodes.

Nancy Norbeck [00:00:27]:
It’s something I have always wanted to do, so I’m really thrilled that I finally can. While I’m not able to edit them to perfection, they are still very good. I’m making them available starting with the newest episodes, working my way back through to add them to previous episodes as time allows. They’re available in the show notes link you’ll find for each episode in your podcast app. If you use Apple Podcasts, Apple has also made its own auto generated transcripts available for all podcasts in its app, not just this 1. I hope you’ll find them useful. My guest this week is Steve Cole, a best selling children’s author of more than 200 books. Those books cover many styles and children’s genres with titles including the Astrasars and Young Bond ranges, Go to Sleep or I Let Loose the Leopard, and most recently, Drowning in My Bedroom.

Nancy Norbeck [00:01:20]:
He is also the creative consultant for BBC Books’ Doctor Who list, as well as project editing and writing titles. Steve and I talk about how TV influenced him as a child, beginning his career in editing, how he moved into writing, and how his editing background influences his writing, and more. Here’s my conversation with Steve Cole. Steve, welcome to Follow Your Curiosity.

Steve Cole [00:01:45]:
Thank you very much. It’s nice to be here.

Nancy Norbeck [00:01:48]:
So I start everybody with the same question, which is, were you a creative kid, or did you discover your creative side later on?

Steve Cole [00:01:56]:
I was a creative kid, I have to admit. Because I’ve written quite a few books, I get asked sometimes if I always knew I wanted to be a writer, and I normally say that, no, I didn’t know that. I knew that I enjoyed messing around with words, and I knew that I enjoyed imaginative play. But I didn’t think that it was actually something you could go on to do as a career. So, yeah, as a child, I was just very happy inventing worlds, and I still have copies of books I made when I was 7 or 8, the Pete and Anne adventures. And in my imagination, I was playing Peter, the boy investigator, come ghost chaser, come alien defeater, with his sister, Anne, and their cousin Linda, doing adventures that some of which were suspiciously similar to Doctor Who adventures I’ve seen on television. But, yes, that was that was very much at the heart of me being inspired by the stuff that I loved and, wanting to emulate it with, through through my own kind of filters.

Nancy Norbeck [00:03:00]:
Sure. It’s amazing that you still have some of those.

Steve Cole [00:03:04]:
Yes. I know, when I visit school that I take them with me to say that, you know, if your dream of being a writer but don’t feel you’re very good at it, allow me to make you feel better by sharing this. You would not think that the person who wrote this had a career as a professional author ahead of them.

Nancy Norbeck [00:03:21]:
So did you have a a sister and a cousin that were kind of you were casting in those stories, or did you make them up?

Steve Cole [00:03:27]:
Well, I had to, yeah. Weirdly, my sister played the cousin, and my sister’s friend was my sister, probably because I wanted a nicer sister than she was. But, chiefly because, you know, my my sister was kind of it was her tape recorder. We used to record these adventures originally, you see, and so I was in a way novelizing those for posterity. But, really, it was just like an episode guide, so there are lots of lots of stories I kind of made up, and a few are based on the original cassette tapes. I probably have them somewhere too. I mean, I am a bit of a hoarder, and it’s good to go back and see some of those things that you were created when you were little. And, and sometimes get inspired by them, but more often just think, well, you know, I am a little bit better now.

Nancy Norbeck [00:04:14]:
Probably more than a little bit. Did did your family and and, you know, teachers encourage you, or did they just kinda think, this is just a kid thing?

Steve Cole [00:04:25]:
They, they did right from the start. I mean, on Monday mornings, back at school when I was 5 or 6, the first thing we had to do in our school week was called diary. And we would have to write a few lines about what we did at the weekend and draw a picture to illustrate. Simple enough, but after a while, I grew bored of always writing the same stuff. You know, I saw my nan, I went to the park, I watched TV. And so 1 day, I wrote, on Saturday, my house was attacked by deadly dustbins, but I beat king dustbin by pushing him out the window. And then drew a very intricate picture of me defeating king dustbin, mocking trash can, I should call him, for the in the states? But and I I spent a lot of time on this on this drawing, then we had to hand our books in, and I had that awful sense. Oh my goodness.

Steve Cole [00:05:24]:
I’m gonna get into trouble for this. Missus Caves is gonna realize I was making that up. And so I was full of dread, but it turned out that missus Caves was just as bored reading about my boring life as I was writing about it. And so she actually said, oh, I like what you did, but I’d like you to make up what happened to you every week now, which was wonderful. It’s like this this green light to, to fully indulge these, silly imaginative flights of mine. So, you know, it’s like on Saturday, I flew to Jupiter in a spaceship that my granddad made or, you know, it was it was that. And that was a wonderful release from, you know, the realities of things, which, you know, when you’re 5 or 6, you know, the it’s it’s a fairly structured and structured world, and you were it’s nice to be able to break loose of that. And so I think I was just doing what what I did, and what others did, like, you know, in the books and the television and the films that I was able to see, which was just taking characters and put them into a situation, whether I was the character or whoever someone else was.

Steve Cole [00:06:27]:
It didn’t matter. It’s just those first steps to exploring outside your own reality and imagining what could be there.

Nancy Norbeck [00:06:35]:
That’s fantastic. I love I love when teachers give permission like that, and and I’m sure you’re right. She probably was really bored reading all of the rest of it. Yeah.

Steve Cole [00:06:45]:
So it’s, it was an arrangement that suited us both. So that was good. Yeah.

Nancy Norbeck [00:06:48]:
Yeah. It’s a wonder she didn’t extend it to other people in the class for the same reason, but you know, either way, the effect is is the same. So when did you start to think that writing might be more than just a fun way to make up adventures?

Steve Cole [00:07:05]:
Well, I think I’m not sure. Really, it was something I carried on doing into my teens. Like, I wrote my first book when I was 14, which was called Death on a Boeing 707, which was meant to be a comedy thriller, but it was neither very funny or very thrilling, unfortunately. But I completed it, and I think that that’s really important to try and finish something you start creatively. Because then you have something that’s a finished document that you can look back and say, okay. I did this wrong, that wrong, that wrong. I rushed the ending. I did this.

Steve Cole [00:07:39]:
And, you know, it was never something I intended to send off for attempted publication, but it was something, you know, I just did to, to pass some time. And there’s, you know, there’s grim pre Internet days, pre screens and tablets and phones. It was kind of how we rolled. So it was, yeah. I think it was probably when I actually started work that I realized that this was, you know, an area that I could perhaps be interested in because I ended up becoming an editor of BBC Preschool Magazines and full pages to fill fortnightly on, for various children’s, properties. And sometimes we had to commission people, but it was actually saving money to write something myself, you know, and quicker. And because I knew exactly what was needed, I could you know, there was less editing afterwards. But, that’s, I think, when I realized that actually this thing that I’d enjoyed doing for all these years could actually be something that could make me you know? I just thought maybe a a little bit of money on the side and for my main job, which was editing.

Steve Cole [00:08:47]:
And it’s not because I think that, editing is is a creative thing as well, of course, because you’re you’re engaging with someone else’s work. And if anything, I think, as a child, I think I was probably more suited to editing because, you know, when I would play games based on things off the TV, I was weirdly acutely aware of their form and their structure. Like, my favorite 1 of my favorite TV shows was The Incredible Hulk, if you remember, with Bill Bixby as Doctor David Banner. And I loved that show. It was my second second favorite with Doctor Who, although sometimes when they were when they were actually scheduled opposite each other in the UK, This was terrible for me. I had to kind of, like, run between 1 TV and another to try and Yeah. Keep up with both stories simultaneously. It was very tough.

Steve Cole [00:09:35]:
But when I was playing my Hulk games, I was aware that the Hulk, you know, he only appeared twice in the hour long episode, and you had to have advert breaks. You know, the commercials had to play. So I would leave the, commercial break on a in orbit, and I would sit down in my game for 3 minutes pretending that the commercials were on. Wow. And then I would pick up a different scene because I knew that it wouldn’t follow on directly from the scene before. There’s a change of a change of of cut. We had that fade to black. And so it seems weird that at the age of, you know, 6 or 7 that I had I was quite, yeah, fluent in the code of, of television.

Steve Cole [00:10:14]:
So I was I was aware of the budget already, and I was aware of special effects needed. And the way the story is structured, I knew that he couldn’t just, you know, meet aliens or he couldn’t just, you know, science fiction elements were very rarely in it. So it had to be something criminal based or or helping helping someone he’d come across based. So becoming an editor was yeah. It made much more sense to me, and that’s kind of how I I started off.

Nancy Norbeck [00:10:38]:
That’s amazing, especially that you that you observed the commercial break.

Steve Cole [00:10:43]:
I know. I went back and I think that’s strange little boy, Absurdly obsessed with the, the film of something, but I think it was, yeah, it was just loving it so much. I wanted to emulate not just the characters, but, you know, the production and, you know, the incidental music and the things I knew added to the excitement, the sound effects, you know, when when David Banner’s eyes turned greeny white and he knew that he was about to change into the Hulk, that was the peak of excitement for me more so than the Hulk’s bits himself because that was a bit it’s David being beaten up or trying to achieve something, being frustrated, and you shared that frustration. He knew that the anger was building and that any minute now, there’s that sound that he’s off on his way, ripping his shirt and his boots and, turning turning green. I I did used to wonder how on earth did he get his duffel bag at the end of the episode because, you know, you left that you left that behind some place. You know, how would he go back and get that? I mean, it makes no sense. But, yes. I I was I was concerned for the bunions you must have because you never seem to wear socks either.

Steve Cole [00:11:45]:
The horse foot always burst through the leather. For sure, there was no embarrassing sock to, to clothe it. So, yes. Anyway, that’s, that’s how the Incredible Hulk, put me onto a career in editing.

Nancy Norbeck [00:11:58]:
You were a very modern viewer for that age and that time. You know? I don’t think anyone much cared about continuity details back then, especially not like they do now.

Steve Cole [00:12:09]:
It’s yeah. It’s it is odd, but again, I think film was very important to me because in other areas as well, I was I loved Marvel Comics as well. And in the UK, we don’t get the what we do now, but back then, you didn’t get the same style of comic. Obviously, in America, they well, they lovely little glossy covers and they’re full color throughout. In the UK, we got glossy covers, but inside was all black and white. And it was a it was like, you know, the strips were, you know, edited and truncated, because it was a weekly thing rather than a monthly thing, so they’re quite different. I loved this policy covers so much that when in 1970 8, I think, 78, 79, the UK had big inflationary problems, and glossy colors were no more. And I went into mourning because, you know, it was it was still the same stuff inside, but it had been wrapped up in this beautiful glossy piece of artwork, and now it wasn’t anymore.

Steve Cole [00:13:05]:
So it was never quite as good. And when, Doctor Who, you know, it was my my favorite show, the I loved the opening credits so much and the music so much. And when in 1980, that changed and became this synthesized thing and this star field instead of a creepy time tunnel. Again, it was just really dislocating, and I was absolutely I remember feeling confused and discombobulated and actually quite devastated that the show that I love had changed in an instant from what what it had always been. The Doctor was wearing a different costume, and the incidental music had changed. So, yeah, I don’t know why I was I was kind of so aware of it all, but I think it was all about trying to create an experience. And I think when you’re a child and you’re you’re happy and secure, the TV you watch, you know, you you have certain expectations, which in an adventure series like that are almost always realized. And you go away satisfied and feeling happy that you’ll have a repeat experience the following week the next time you see it.

Steve Cole [00:14:07]:
And so I suppose having waited for months for Doctor Who to come back for its 1980 series to get this was I had to get I had to learn to to love it all over again, especially as my sister was busy watching Buck Rogers in the 25th century on the other side, which was, which was serious stuff. I had to I had to go and watch it in black and white on the little portable set in my mom and dad’s room. It was hard times.

Nancy Norbeck [00:14:31]:
Wow. And, yeah, you know, it was it was great for that kind of series because you mentioned Buck Rogers and the Incredible Hulk and you had doctor who and the the what was it? The $6, 000, 000 man? Yeah. And the bionic woman and

Steve Cole [00:14:46]:
Oh, yeah.

Nancy Norbeck [00:14:46]:
You know, all of all of that stuff.

Steve Cole [00:14:49]:
It was a very happy time to be around. It really was.

Nancy Norbeck [00:14:53]:
Yeah. Was it was great for that kind of thing. So so you took all of that and you started editing and then realized that, hey, maybe I could do some writing on the side.

Steve Cole [00:15:05]:
Yeah. And it was, 1 of the first magazines I worked on was called Noddy Magazine, and the character of Noddy was created by a writer called Enid Blyton, who in the UK is still although she died in the seventies and she was active writing in the kind of the forties, the fifties, the sixties, she’s still massively, has a massive influence in in this country and would go in to have meetings with her daughter who helped run the estate in those days. And it was in the Enid Blyton offices where all these books by Enid were around the place translated into all these different languages. And on the shelf was, this old typewriter that Enid Blyton had used. And she was prolific, and she would get right up to, you know, 9 or 10000 words a day on that typewriter. And it looked like it had taken a beating over the years. You know? And it was sitting there, and it reminded me of when I was much younger. Occasionally, I would attempt to tap tap tap away at my dad’s typewriter because it made the writing seem more real.

Steve Cole [00:16:08]:
Can’t remember how obsessed with form I was. Well, if it was typed, then it it seemed that much more real. Like a real story. And, it just yeah. Seeing anybody’s typewriter made me think about, yeah, having a go at this little stuff myself. And so, yeah, I started to write, poems and little short stories aimed at, you know, very young readers. I didn’t have any children myself then, and so I was really just hoping for the best in many ways. But it was checked over by the internal editors and and went out.

Steve Cole [00:16:38]:
And, yeah, at some point, I think I sent off some of those poems to, a publisher who asked me if I wanted to write some little poem pop up books, and they became the very first books I ever had professionally published back in 1997. So a very, very long time ago.

Nancy Norbeck [00:16:57]:
But they were poems. That’s interesting.

Steve Cole [00:16:59]:
They were. And not not very good poems, aren’t they? That great. And there’s only 5 poems per book, you know, so because it was very much a paper engineering project. But it was, you know, it’s usually rewarding to, be able to, you know, make a bit of additional income, but chiefly get something with my name on it Mhmm. Published. So it wasn’t like this was wasn’t like the the work I’d been burning to write my whole life, but I was interested in in different approaches in being able to fulfill a brief, if you like. So because these had to be short, full line poems on the theme was aliens in space, so, you know, there wasn’t exactly a reach for me with my interest. I could, I could deliver that to a professional standard and have them published accordingly.

Steve Cole [00:17:53]:
That was that was super exciting for me. However stressful my my main job was, I found some solace in that.

Nancy Norbeck [00:18:00]:
And it it seems like, you know, sort of a gradual escalation of the real factor. You know, suddenly it’s a book. It’s a it’s a real thing. It’s for kids. It’s a pop up book, but it’s a real thing.

Steve Cole [00:18:14]:
Mhmm. Yeah. There was 4 of them all at once, which was because I had to do all of these things. So it was exciting to have 4 little titles there, and they were translated into French and into German as well. In fact, I think just if you have no knowledge of German, just reading the German poems aloud is actually funnier than the originals. So I take I take some solace from that. But, yeah, it was just, it wasn’t like I wanted to carry on writing own pop up books. I was quite happy being an editor, but, yes, it was nice to have that on this time.

Nancy Norbeck [00:18:46]:
So when did you make the switch from primarily editing to primarily writing?

Steve Cole [00:18:51]:
Well, it was, it was a slow burn. But after, some years at, BBC Magazines, I felt promoted into a corner. I just gone into it because I wanted to enjoy the it was a very creative endeavor, and it was lovely working with workers and illustrators and also being able to write my own stuff. And and then I had a team of 2 that I was acting working with on, different magazines. And then I became the group editor there, which meant I was suddenly having to manage a team of 12. And I was only 24 years old, so a lot of these people were older than I was. And, you know, I didn’t join it to be a manager. Mhmm.

Steve Cole [00:19:31]:
I joined it because I wanted to do silly stuff with words. So I got horribly stressed out. I was having to get disinamist of people and sack people and make people redundant, and this all felt far far too real for me. Mhmm. I was much happier in a slightly escapist setting. So I was able to kind of duck a little sideways and downwards, because upstairs at the BBC Worldwide, I was on the 1st floor, and on the 3rd floor was the children’s book department. And I got wind of the fact that they were taking in the Doctor Who books in house to, edit them there. And, obviously, I’d never grown out of my infatuation with Doctor Who.

Steve Cole [00:20:18]:
So I began to think, well, that would be an interesting switch. I feel like I’ve done magazines now, and the Doctor Who job would allow me experience of working in books and video and audio, so different media. So I took a few grand less than a pay cut, and they were saying, why do you want to lose money to work on Doctor Who? I said, well, you’ll never understand. And so I did. That’s what I, I went to do. So, yes, I went went down 2 2 pay grades, I think, but felt considerably more liberated as a result. I think money can create a bit of a prison for us if we’re not careful. Mhmm.

Steve Cole [00:20:57]:
And if it’s which is fine if you want to accumulate wealth. But I guess if you want to be happy while you’re trying to do it, then you sometimes have to kind of look outside that velvet cage, you fashioned for yourself.

Nancy Norbeck [00:21:11]:
Agreed. Sometimes taking a pay cut is totally worth it. Mhmm. Having having done it myself. Even the It’s it’s not necessarily, you know, fun in the moment, but for exactly the reasons you say, you know, if you’re if you’re in the wrong place, if if there’s nowhere to go, you’re tired of it, you know, whatever it is, it it can really be worth it to get out and be somewhere else and do something different. So I don’t think we talk about that enough, but it’s true.

Steve Cole [00:21:45]:
It is true. I I think it it does hold us back in many ways, and not just professionally, but but personally as well. The comfort of the familiar. Mhmm. Even if we recognize there are aspects of it that maybe corroding us from the inside. It takes a lot of, a lot of bravery to do that. I mean, in the case of the Doctor Who thing, it was less bravery and more like, woo hoo. It’s Doctor Who.

Steve Cole [00:22:08]:
Yeah. But, you know, people said, you know, it would be like a child in a sweet shop. And, of course, you know, leave a child alone in a sweet shop for a while. They’re gonna come out pretty sick pretty quickly Yeah. Which was my experience of working with Doctor Who. So, I’d say that, you know, it can be good to sort of strike out, but also also, you know, make sure it’s it’s the right direction. The problem for me wasn’t wasn’t the nature of the work. It was the fact that I was the only person doing it.

Steve Cole [00:22:35]:
And that was that was a that was difficult because just the books alone, It was I was having to commission and edit and oversee or project manage 22 80, 000 word novels a year. So What? Yeah. 2 every month apart from December. December, they didn’t release them. And on top of that, I had to do video releases every month and wipe all the blurbs for them and choose the titles and arrange and dispatch the tapes and get them done. And I had to do quarterly audios as well, and there was also a non a couple of nonfiction titles annually as well. And just the book side alone, the previous makers of of the books, Virgin Publishing, they had about 2 and a half people working on the list full time, whereas I was the only person working on the list, and also trying to do the other areas of it, and also, you know, work through the slush pile and do all the general admin tasks. So I assume it worked out that there actually wasn’t time to do any of the editing within office hours.

Steve Cole [00:23:49]:
Generally, that time was reserved for firefighting, having to go through copy of the queries, proofread the queries, make sure everything was input to the files in the right way. Overseer it, send it off, organize the covers. I mean, there was a colossal amount of work, and I would work in the evenings as well, and I’d work weekends. Wow. And so it kind of it I maintained, you know, the creative buzz. It was kind of the only thing that dragged me through already. But also when there are I was doing, as well as doing past Doctors having their adventures, I was doing the ongoing new adventures of, of the 8th Doctor Who was played by Paul McGann. And there are times when I wanted to kind of bring in a new development, and I would write that title myself.

Steve Cole [00:24:33]:
So it did give me wonderful on the job experience, and it also brought me some some bad bruising reviews early on. But I learned I learned quite a lot from, from that. But, also, I think if you want to appreciate what your authors are going through, you need to kinda go through it yourself and work with an editor yourself. So which is what I did. And, again, it was very in instructive, and I found that I enjoyed both sides of of the process. And so I I certainly wasn’t looking to give up editing. I just I just had to give up part of the workload. So I slowly I slowly dismantled it after I was only I think I was only there full time in the job less than 2 years because I was absolutely burnt out.

Steve Cole [00:25:18]:
But then I, I kept up 1 strand of the books and let someone else edit the others, and and then I was, I transferred to a position within children’s books. So I didn’t have to worry about the, the videos or the audios anymore. So I was able to kind of clear my space some space on my plate a bit to take on other tasks. And I managed to get sort of a staff writer job at BBC Books, which meant that I was able to write titles for other children’s TV properties, such as Walking with Dinosaurs or, various of the other, younger TV programs out there at the time. And that was, again, good experience and made me realize that being a writer editor was where I was happiest, being able to do bits of both. And that led me to writing TV and film tie ins for other publishers as well, because I found that the BBC was, after 6 years of work in there, was becoming a little bit stifling. And so there was a job coming up at another publisher and left for that. So that’s when I kind of defected to books.

Steve Cole [00:26:26]:
It was Penguin UK that I was, working for and the children’s books. And I realized then that I’d left the magazines behind me now, and and books was where I was going. And that kind of, I suppose, focused my desires to, to carry on writing in that sphere.

Nancy Norbeck [00:26:42]:
Wow. It it just hearing you describe those 2 years sounds so overwhelming. I’m both unsurprised that it was only 2 years and amazed that you made it that long.

Steve Cole [00:26:57]:
I I’m kind of yeah. I I look back and it’s the same. I I kind of developed. I called them 3 tier days during the week, which would be you’d work your working hours, you know, get in half 9 and work till 6. That was your 1st tier. Then you might go out and see 1 of your relatives in the evening and have drinks and and chat with them, which is tier 2. And then on the, train back home, you’d go on with the editing and do that when you when you got in until the early hours, you know, repeat repeat day after day. So I got quite a good facility for editing whilst slightly tipsy, which, which still be a good step.

Steve Cole [00:27:36]:
There were times when, you know, the following day, I’ll be thinking, uh-oh. I don’t even remember editing this last night. Well, I’ll check back and I think, wow, I caught everything. So I was quite I was quite impressed with myself. You know? Obviously, it’s not something I recommend Or, oh, especially not long term. But, it was good to know that in a in a tight spot, I could, because the work always needed to be done. There was always the next 2 titles. I used to, you know, joke that, you know, every time I I went to the bathroom, nothing was happening in the world of Doctor Who.

Steve Cole [00:28:07]:
And if I was to if I was to die at my desk, eventually, weeks later, people might say, hey, won’t we meant to have had 2 more Doctor Who books out by now? You know? And, they find my figure hidden under the under the desk or something. So, yes, it it wasn’t, a very nurturing environment, but I was very motivated because I cared so passionately about about the subject matter, about doing the best by it that I could. It was just frustrating that you just weren’t allowed to. You know? Mhmm. That wasn’t the day. Didn’t allow it. So, you know, technically, it’s the Earth’s fault for rotating in 24 hours. You should probably you know? If you could, you know, just slowed it down to maybe 36, that would have been okay.

Nancy Norbeck [00:28:52]:
That would have been helpful. Yeah. Well and especially when you were writing something too. I mean, that takes up a good chunk of time all on its own on time and everything else.

Steve Cole [00:29:02]:
So I would take my my annual leave. I would spend writing stuff. So it wasn’t like I was I was having a a break from work. I would be just setting myself different work. I used to say, you know, change is as good as the rest, and sometimes I’d try and go away for a week someplace to a cottage by the sea and do the writing there nice and quiet. So I suppose I found solitude quite enjoyable and and and helpful because these were days before you could always keep in touch with everybody. You know? So if you want to make a phone call, you went down the phone box, you know, and, the public pay phone and and talk there rather than being able to do it all the time. So there are fewer distractions, I suppose.

Steve Cole [00:29:42]:
And I think that was that was certainly helpful to me.

Nancy Norbeck [00:29:46]:
Wow. So you moved on and mostly were doing writing.

Steve Cole [00:29:53]:
You’re writing and editing still. But when I went off to Penguin Books, I was looking for an imprint called, Lady Bird, which I had this stuff again for younger readers. I found that I was having to, the position was managing editor. And, again, I was having to manage some staff, and I was also having to be in charge of of promotional materials, which I really didn’t see as part of my job. And it was a a fairly awkward time for the company because they were busy closing down the original Lady Bird group, who were based a few hours in the north of of England. And there was a lot of discontent amongst that team. And I was finding that certain projects have been undertaken would be pretty much finished only to have all the support from the sales team removed at the last minute for whatever reason. So it was became frustrating, and agents were complaining, and the whole situation felt not a step up from what I’ve been doing.

Steve Cole [00:30:55]:
So I thought, well, I’ve been keeping up this writing in my spare time. I’ve been writing projects, you know, for Penguin, I wrote the Charlie’s Angels action file, for example. Angel power, it was called, and I changed my name to Samantha Cole for that 1 because Ah. I think it the the kind of the girl power thing didn’t ring through with, you know, Stephen Cole. Mhmm. It’s all over the the top of it. But it made me think, well, maybe if I can just, you know, get enough writing editorial work, maybe I can pack in having to do this job that I don’t enjoy so much. Danielle, you’ll relate to this as well.

Steve Cole [00:31:35]:
When you’re caught in circumstances that you don’t enjoy and, eventually, you feel this is untenable. I can’t I can’t stay with this. I want to see if I can make it go but somewhere else. And so I did, and I only stayed there. In fact, I only stayed there, I think, 7 months before I gave my notice, and I had to serve 3 months more notice. But I was already out of there. You know? And I was writing, audio stuff for Doctor Who I think I did proofreading and typesetting. You know, I was happy to do anything to do with the process of books, you know, setting the the words into proper book form.

Steve Cole [00:32:13]:
That was something I was happy to do. And if, you know, another publisher would say, can you write this book on Thunderbirds, Forrest, or this 1 on Shrek or Madagascar or The Incredibles or Finding Nemo or Scooby Doo 2 or mister Bean or the Koala Brothers? And I was, you know, I I did. I was enjoying the variety of it, and I was enjoying the challenge of trying to, you know, get the voices of these shows, get something that would, you know, appease the, you know, whatever person was, was was checking these words over at Disney or DreamWorks, you know, getting stuff that they would accept. It became a a challenge to kind of produce something that was right and needed very little changes, very few changes. So that was a good thing. And I suppose, again, it goes back to that awareness of form and voice that I got from my ridiculous playing Hulk games, you know, being aware of of that form again. But it meant that rather than express something that might have been inside myself, I was enjoying dipping into these different worlds and expressing what, you know, the core values of those were. Mhmm.

Steve Cole [00:33:23]:
In a way, it felt like a shield, I suppose, from something I might create myself. I was in my twenties, and I didn’t yet feel, perhaps, confident enough to go or moved to go and, you know, present my own titles to the world back then. It’s only when, I was actually approached by an agent who asked me if I had anything original she would like to represent me. She said, I won’t take a cut of the work you’re doing for your existing publishers. I don’t think I’ll be able to improve on those deals. They’re fairly basic, you know, 1 off fees. Mhmm. It’s fine.

Steve Cole [00:34:04]:
It’s bread and butter work, but, you know, I won’t be able to improve those for you. So I wouldn’t seek to take 15% or whatever. So I liked honesty and I liked you know, I felt, you know, she had integrity. And in fact, she’d been the publishing director when I wrote the, Charlie’s Angels book, and when she left Penguin to set up a children’s list, I was you know, it was I guess because we’ve got on during the process, she was, it felt nice to be in at the start of something new. So that gave me, in a way, the confidence, I think, to start actively generating my own material rather than being offered jobs and accepting them, which was quite a crucial difference. Because suddenly you had to work on spec. It’s a dangerous thing when you’re not getting a regular paycheck. Yeah.

Steve Cole [00:34:49]:
And, you know, you’re you have bills to pay and and a mortgage to to worry about. So I think maybe that kind of focused me. I was very quick at writing in those days as well. A lot more energy than I have now as a 52 year old man. So I guess I was, I was quickened to do it and was able to, you know, do the other jobs that were paying money, slot them in around those early things. And when I didn’t get the first thing I came up with, got some some kind kind rejections and some offers of lunch and discussions, It never got anywhere. And that’d been based on a few sample chapters and a synopsis. And my agent said, for the next thing, I think you need to write the whole thing so they can see what it’s like, see what the tone is is like, finish it.

Steve Cole [00:35:42]:
You know? And I thought, well, I I wanted to write a big young adult book, but I thought I haven’t got time to write a big young adult book. It could take months. Why don’t I write something shorter as a placeholder, you know, just to keep my name circulated? And so I wrote this this book called Astrosaurs, which is kind of inspired by the, the walking with dinosaurs books that I’ve written. And feeling sad that the dinosaurs had been wiped out by the meteor, I think it wouldn’t be much happier end for their story if actually they’d seen that meteor coming and they built a fleet of spaceships and taken off before it hit.

Nancy Norbeck [00:36:19]:

Steve Cole [00:36:20]:
Obviously. Yeah. Obviously. And so and that’s 65000000 years ago. They were in space by now, wouldn’t they? There’d been another part of space, call it the Jurassic quadrant. You know, it almost wrote itself. You know? It, you know, when I kind of presented this book to my agent who read it and said, oh, okay. So it’s Star Trek with dinosaurs.

Steve Cole [00:36:38]:
And I was like, how dare you? How dare you belittle it and and reduce it to 4 words. Of course, this is the hallmark of of a good saleable idea.

Nancy Norbeck [00:36:48]:

Steve Cole [00:36:48]:
If you can dilute it right down to 4 words, not dilute it, concentrate it to 4 words, That’s your pitch. That’s your nutshell pitch. Star Trek with dinosaurs. And suddenly, 3 publishers wanted to publish it, which was, know, amazing, I think, because it was a fairly easy concept to get their head around. And my dismay at how easily it had been summarized faded a little when I found out that Gene Robinbury, when he was selling Star Trek, he pitched it as wagon trail to the stars. So he was trained on an existing TV show, but giving it a space twist, and I was taking a space scenario and giving it a twist with dinosaurs. So I guess that’s kind of quite instructive. And so while you can’t always necessarily take 2 contrasting things and make a hit with it, like, you can’t say, oh, you know, prison break with badges or something.

Steve Cole [00:37:38]:
Although that might be a good idea. I don’t know. I guess sometimes it can strike a chord. You know, obviously, kids like dinosaurs, kids like space. Some of you were saying, oh, you were very clever, you know, sort of putting together putting together thing 2 things that kids like. I said, actually, it didn’t happen that way. It happened much more organically from stuff that I’d already been working on and stuff that that I enjoyed. So I don’t think you can cynically take these things, but if it will come from a place inside you that feels happy and and enjoys creating that kind of stuff, then that’s that’s a good thing.

Steve Cole [00:38:11]:
I think that’s where where everything overlaps, and creativity can can start to equal financial reward as well, which is kind of the dream. So I was, yeah, very lucky that that happened for me almost by accident. It certainly wasn’t the young adult title, but I’d thought my name, Stuben Cole, would be all over. In fact, I, called The Astrosaurus by Steve Cole because I felt, well, this is for younger readers, and it’s it’s not my proper authorial name, you know. I’ll be Steve Cole. And then, of course, Steve Cole was the name that took off because the Astros became very successful, and that led to me writing lots of other books for, you know, readers who are, like, 8 to 12. And so, yeah, all those all those plans for for Stephen Cole’s magnus magnum opus kind of, like, went under that banner for quite a while. And I, and I’ve always enjoyed being Steve Cole, so I have no complaints.

Steve Cole [00:39:07]:
Actually, again, I I took I I was really sure to find that Stan Lee he’d been wanting to sort of, like, you know, save his name for his big book. You know? Stanley Lieberman, I think his name is. And so for the comics, he just went to Stan Lee because it was like a short name, and if it all went wrong, then it wouldn’t become you know, it wouldn’t have, you know, sullied his name in that way.

Nancy Norbeck [00:39:28]:

Steve Cole [00:39:28]:
Of course, We know what happened there. So quite often I think that life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. Mhmm. And, you know, that can I can work out your advantage if you’re prepared to, to ride that train and see where it goes?

Nancy Norbeck [00:39:43]:
Absolutely. And I’m curious since you spent so much time editing, how that’s influenced your writing and your writing process?

Steve Cole [00:39:52]:
It’s meant that I’m quite happy to be edited. I’m very un precious about what I write. In fact, editors would despair of me because I was always changing my stuff up to the last minute long after they had said, no. It’s fine. You edited it. It’s fine. He who lives by the red pen dies by the red pen and is quite interested in seeing other people’s red pen. You know? I think if you respect your editor and you understand that they’re working for the good of the book, if not the blood pressure of the author.

Steve Cole [00:40:21]:
You know? Once you get past that, I think, it can be a very fruitful relationship. I always, you know, say, my my wisdom on this matter, such as it is, is that it’s the author’s job to be clever, and it’s the editor’s job to be wise. Mhmm. And I think that that that is true because sometimes the author is too close to something and can’t necessarily see who wants to do something whereas the editor with less personal stuff invested who wants to do the best both by the author and by the book. They can bring, something that’s non tempering We wanna feel that you’re restraining a month, but, hopefully, a different way to help them fly. And that’s kind of what’s always I’ve always enjoyed about editing is finding a different way to do something that pleases me and them and which we both feel is an improvement on the original. An original can always be improved on. It’s, it’s our 1st first run down the track.

Steve Cole [00:41:17]:
Chances are we can best our, our our personal, you know, speed on that run the next time we do it or the next. So I think we shouldn’t ever fear having to change things, whether in our lives or at work, but we should try and make sure we have people we trust around us when it happens. I think that might be, might be an idea.

Nancy Norbeck [00:41:39]:
Well and that’s really the thing. Right? Because you need an editor you can trust. I’ve always always been of the opinion that, you know, any any good smart writer knows that they need a good editor. You know, you need someone to save you from yourself.

Steve Cole [00:41:57]:
Well, this is that’s weird. Yes. Who knows what? Dark calories even go down sometimes. I mean, it it has you know, there are moments when you kind of, I can’t pretend it’s always been, like, you know, happiness and joy. I want some I once sold a series, a trilogy called Zedrex or Zerex in America, of course. I sold it to UK and US publisher at the same time, which was wonderful on the advance fee front, but less wonderful because I was having to take in 2 different lots of edits at the same time, because they were pretty much publishing at this, you know, same schedules. So in a way, he became a servant of 2 masters at that point, which was quite tricky, especially when they were both pulling in different directions. So there was, you know, a US version of the book, and there was a UK version of the book because I’d have to do different creative decisions in both, and I found that difficult.

Steve Cole [00:42:49]:
So Yeah. Yeah. Didn’t make a didn’t make a habit of that 1. I kind of learned my lesson. Wow. Because that’s what happens though if you only write the opening chapters and then a synopsis, then, Then, of course, you have to write the book whilst you’re on the contract. You lose some of that creative freedom. You get the money to to fund you while you write it, which is great, but you don’t have necessarily the the fullest freedom because, yes, suddenly you are beholden to 2 people.

Steve Cole [00:43:11]:
But, you know, it’s all part of the experience. So part of, you know, I believe that every experience, you know, good or bad, you know, is very, very important because it can, you know, take us in different directions. It can open our eyes to what could happen. Sometimes it can show us what’s possible and what we’d like to have more of in our lives, and other times it says, no, retreat. Back off. Get away from this thing right now.

Nancy Norbeck [00:43:39]:
Yeah. Well and and knowing when to retreat is a skill unto itself too.

Steve Cole [00:43:46]:
Yes. Not always the easiest 1 to, to master for sure. But, you know, it’s also an interesting 1 because sometimes you don’t get a choice to run away. Sometimes, you know, you’re sort of slightly forcibly evicted. Being a writer, you have part of your job is reinventing yourself periodically, unless you’re only known for a handful of books and 1 big property, which is fine. And and, you know, fantastic if you then sort of, like, can, you know, live off the the different, exploitations of that. That’s brilliant, of course. But if you, want to try lots of different areas, then you have to accept that some will be more successful than others and some, you know, some that maybe you really loved or wish you could do more of, just on, you know, hitting that that curve in the right way, or there’s too many other people already there, or, you know, you need a change of change of thought.

Steve Cole [00:44:37]:
So, you know, sometimes, you know, it can feel like doors are closing. At which point, of course, you have to look for the door that’s opening, because it’s you’ll always find 1. You may have to, you know, kick it down as hard as you possibly can to get in. But, once you find it, then, you know, chances are you may, you have another chance to do that. And who knows, you know, where this one’s gonna lead you? Who knows where that door’s gonna take you to? So, yeah, even if things aren’t going so well, I think looking for the doorways is important.

Nancy Norbeck [00:45:12]:
I think that’s very good advice. Yeah. Especially, you know, in the, you don’t know where it’s gonna lead you department. I think a lot of people, if, you know, if you look back when you’ve, you know, made a decision and and followed a particular open door, you have no idea. And, you know, you could end up anywhere, places that you couldn’t imagine just because it’s it’s kinda like, you know, those choose your own adventure books when when we were kids. Right? Like, you don’t know where this is gonna take you and some of them, you know, in half a page, you’re dead. But most of them, you end up on some further adventure that you couldn’t predict. That’s the whole point of those books.

Steve Cole [00:45:56]:
And, you know, where possible, you know, keep that page turned so you can always go back to it in case you did die after half a page. That was I never used to go back to the start. I always just go back to a couple of spots. So, yeah, I think I think what we’re saying now is definitely look for the, open doors where maybe carry, you know, a can of mace and, kind of flashlights with you as you go in case, in case the going gets tough.

Nancy Norbeck [00:46:17]:
Yeah. Don’t don’t bolt that first door behind you just in case.

Steve Cole [00:46:21]:
Very, very true.

Nancy Norbeck [00:46:22]:
If you can help it.

Steve Cole [00:46:24]:
Yeah. Yeah.

Nancy Norbeck [00:46:25]:
Yeah. Well and and I’m also wondering when you were doing the the BBC books with Doctor Who, it seems to me both with the Virgin books and the BBC books, you know, that so many people came through there, you know, submitted something and got published and have gone on to do so many other things that, like, that that was a door for them. Were you aware of that when you were editing those books? Did you have any sense that some of these people were gonna go on to bigger and better things beyond what they were doing for you?

Steve Cole [00:47:01]:
Yes. Certainly. It was just part of the, excitement of it. I already knew that, certain authors from the, the Virgin range were diversifying and going to work in different media. Of course, many of the Virgin writers ended up writing for Doctor Who, the TV series, and some of the, authors I worked with have gone on to, write their own novels and things. I think there was a there was a big difference and a clear divide back in those days between people who wanted to be writers and people who wanted to be Doctor Who writers.

Nancy Norbeck [00:47:37]:
Mhmm. Because there

Steve Cole [00:47:38]:
were some people who they just wanted to write Doctor Who, which is fine. You know? I completely understand that, and they were very, very good at it. We sort of wished as well that they would take those talents and do something else with them because it’s so much to offer to, you know, a readership beyond that which Doctor you had, which in those days was was actually quite niche. So, yes, I think that it can be a stepping stone to other things, anything that we enjoy. I mean, I’m now, oddly, I’m now the creative editor of the BBC Books Doctor Who list on a freelance level, so as well as still writing children’s books. I actually came back to the job that I I left behind because I passed it on to, a lovely, author and human being called Justin Richards, who then passed it back to me in 15, 16 years later. So between the 2 of us, we kind of looked over that list, for, yeah, good 25 plus years, but have you know, Justin went on to do lots of other writing for, you know, different children’s books, different, genres, and so did I. So it’s something that obviously means a lot to us.

Steve Cole [00:48:55]:
It’s very important, but didn’t define our creative ambitions, I suppose. So, you know, it can give inspiration and experience, but it’s always good to, you know, try other stuff as well. At least that was my personal feeling. So, yes, I always applauded some of the authors I worked with when they went off into into other adventures with words. And I thought that was, that was very exciting, and I was happy to have played a small part in the journey that they had had. Yeah.

Nancy Norbeck [00:49:30]:
I think there were I I wouldn’t wanna try to guess how many there are, but I think there are a decent number

Steve Cole [00:49:38]:

Nancy Norbeck [00:49:38]:
From back then.

Steve Cole [00:49:40]:
Absolutely. Well, Russell t Davis. I was

Nancy Norbeck [00:49:42]:
just gonna say and a

Steve Cole [00:49:42]:
whole former. Yeah. I mean, I think I think I think he’d he’s up to something currently with Doctor Who right now, I think. Yeah. Yeah. Maybe. Steven Moffat, of course, had also written a short story conversion. And since then, I’ve been so lucky, of course, because as editor of of of Doctor Who Books, I’ve got to work with Russell and miss Stephen and with other of the TV scriptwriters on the novelizations of their books.

Steve Cole [00:50:06]:
And, that was, you know, a big a big thrill, but also very intimidating because, you know, you have, you know, writers like Russell and Stephen who have, you know, done so much and achieved so much, but you have to go in as an editor and and treat the book on its own terms regardless of who’s written it and and engage with the author. And, of course, as authors, they’re happy to engage with, with the experience. You know? So, yes, there’s happy times working on those and also lovely to, to get to experience their work on a slightly more personal basis. And I felt that as well when I was, you know, lucky enough to edit Terrence Dicks, who was a man who wrote a lot of the Doctor Who novelizations when I was growing up. And they were pretty much all I read in Spider Man comics and the Peanuts cartoon strip. Doctor Who novelizations were were were everything. You there were the only adventures you could get when it wasn’t on TV. And so to actually work with Terrence, who basically taught me how to read, was extraordinary.

Steve Cole [00:51:12]:
You know? And then to, you know, help him out, you know, with the writing of some of his stuff when things were a little bit fraught for him. It’s like, wow. I’m getting to, you know there are sections here. I’m getting to ghostwrite tearing sticks. This is extraordinary. And, you know, he he dedicated 1 of the books to me, I think, 1 1 called Players, I think. It was said, for Steve Cole, an editorial raft in the stormy sea of deadline. And I thought, gosh, I went from seeing him in my local library at age 8 thinking I would love to do what you do, but he was giving a talk there about the books.

Steve Cole [00:51:43]:
And I saw him again at 13, and he was giving a a different talk in the same library. And then suddenly, I was we were meeting in the BBC club, eating steak and chips, drinking red wine, discussing the next Doctor Who book. So I think words and creativity can pull you on this extraordinary journey that can sometimes come full circle and sometimes it just lead you in directions that you never expected. So, yeah, I have to say Doctor Who’s been an enormous influence on my life, especially as, you know, there have been times where it’s it’s looked like, you know, when it stopped in 1989, I couldn’t imagine it ever coming back. But, you know, it still lay there like this underlying strength, I suppose, so being able to enjoy it and, and discuss it and think about it. And then, of course, came bursting back, and I’ve been so lucky to be involved in that in a small way.

Nancy Norbeck [00:52:44]:
I I can’t help but wonder, you know, if have you thought about what your 8 year old self or your 13 year old self would have thought if they’d had any idea that this was what you would end up doing?

Steve Cole [00:52:56]:
I think my little head sort of explained it. Certainly. So, that’s why I tell children when I go around schools now. I say, you know, it seems like a long shot, but, you know, if you do have a dream of doing something, then, you know, it’s worth following. To be honest, III didn’t follow mine very closely. I went in a different direction, and it led me back around there anyway. So it’s never too late to get into something that you enjoy if you have the skills and if you’re willing to develop the skills and work with them. But you need that spark, 1st and foremost, and you need to have a willingness to move on to something else, if something you really want isn’t working out.

Steve Cole [00:53:37]:
If you stay with that doggedly, chances are you won’t succeed. But if you go off and get experience somewhere else, whether it’s life experience or practical experience in what you’re trying to achieve, I believe that’s hugely important.

Nancy Norbeck [00:53:49]:
Absolutely. And you’re right. You never know where it’ll lead. So so many things in life you never know where they’ll lead, but that’s why it’s worth exploring them. Well, thank you so much for coming and talking with me today. This has been so interesting and encouraging, I think. I hope for any writers or any other type of creative folks who are listening.

Steve Cole [00:54:11]:
I hope so. And thank you very much for having me.

Nancy Norbeck [00:54:15]:
That’s this week’s episode. Thanks so much to Steve Cole for joining me, and to you for listening. Please leave a review for this episode. There is a link right in your podcast app, so it’s really easy and it will only take a minute. If you enjoyed our conversation, I hope you’ll share it with a friend. Thanks so much. If this episode resonated with you, or if you’re feeling a little bit less than confident in your creative process right now, join me at the spark on Substack as we form a community that supports and celebrates each other’s creative courage. It’s free, and it’s also where I’ll be adding programs for subscribers and listeners. The link is in your podcast app.

Follow Your Curiosity is produced by me, Nancy Norbeck, with music by Joseph McDade. If you like Follow Your Curiosity, please subscribe, rate, and review on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. And don’t forget to tell your friends. It really helps me reach new listeners.