I’m currently in the second year of a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing with the Open University. In addition to helping writers working in several genres to hone their craft, the course has a section called ‘Writer in the World, which is designed to encourage students to consider their professional development. Here’s a recent ‘Writer in the World’ task:

Research the career paths of two of your favourite writers. Try and find out how they got their first publishing deals, whether they have day jobs or write full time, how often they produce their novels or short story collections and whether they have published any articles or interviews about their process as writers.

Luckily for me, some of my favourite writers follow me on Twitter, largely because I said nice things about their work when I was regularly reviewing football books (see Reading the Game for these posts). As a result, I was able to reach out directly to Steven Scragg and Daniel Gray to ask them about their careers.  But who are they?

About Steven Scragg and Daniel Gray

Steven Scragg has written five books about football, all of which have been or are being published by Pitch Publishing. He is a senior writer and podcaster for These Football Times and has featured on Guardian Sport and The Athletic.

Daniel Gray has written thirteen books and co-authored The Historical Dictionary of Marxism. In addition to seven books where football is the main subject, Gray has written extensively about Scottish social history. He is also the editor of Nutmeg Magazine and a podcaster.

How did our writers get their first commissions?

According to the Publishers Association, the ‘traditional’ route into the industry is for an author to have their manuscript accepted by an agent, but neither author started out this way.  Steven Scragg told me that “no agent was involved” in the process he went through with Pitch Publishing:

I had submitted the idea for In the Heat of the Midday Sun initially, and we were in discussions about that when I dropped in the possibility of the Cup Winners’ Cup project, given the 20th anniversary of its demise was approaching. This was in late 2018, and with the next World Cup not due until 2022 I redirected focus to that. So, essentially, my first book idea came to fruition after the European trilogy.

I didn’t write the Cup Winners’ Cup book with the plan for it to be the first part of a trilogy. I fully intended to return to Mexico ’86 straight afterwards, but after Frozen in Time had been well-received, it just seemed natural to do a UEFA Cup book that focussed on the two-legged final era, to run alongside it. Once that had been written, I was kind of locked into doing the European Cup too. After that, it was back to Mexico ’86, which was already half written.

Daniel Gray put his first publishing contract down to a combination of hard work and good fortune:

In the mid-noughties, I was working at the National Library of Scotland, having moved up from north-east England. One of my great interests for many years was the Spanish Civil War. I gave a talk on the archival holdings the Library has of International Brigaders in that conflict, at which a publisher – Gavin from Luath Press – was present. He was aware that I had done some writing before – on football, but also helping a university lecturer on a book – so asked me into his office for a meeting. After chatting for a while, he offered me a contract to write the story of Scots who volunteered in Spain. So really, some work and a lot of luck at him being there that day is the answer!

These days, Gray does have an agent, but not having one clearly doesn’t automatically prevent an author being published.

Is writing their ‘day job’?

Here’s what Steven Scragg told me about his working life:

I also do some work for a local primary school. Writing doesn’t make enough to be a full time career, so I have two part time roles that combine together to make a round wage. Within this, my commute is exceptionally short on both fronts and the demands of the school aren’t enough to disrupt writing and research. If anything, I probably over-research. But I enjoy that part of the process as much as the actual writing. These Football Times is freelance, as is my work for This is Anfield. Both have opened other unexpected doors from time to time however, and I’ve done commissions for the BBC, Hummel, Guardian Sport, The Athletic, Give Me Sport, The Sportsman, and several others that slip the mind.

Should there eventually be a tipping point where writing makes enough on its own, then I will step away from the primary school. Currently, the balance works well, as with writing, the work is supply and demand, while the school offer a secure base of pay that isn’t dictated by ever fluctuating media budgets, nor the dangers of falling out of favour when editors move on, and the new ones arrive with other ideas.

By contrast, Daniel Gray doesn’t have a nine-to-five job… at least, not any more!

After working various day jobs, then going part-time, I was finally able to afford to become a freelance writer about five years ago. I write my own pieces and books, but am also Editor of a football magazine – Nutmeg – and present/edit a podcast for When Saturday Comes. My working life is about balancing a number of different things and topics.

Both Scragg and Gray are clearly busy people, so I asked how much writing their various commitments allowed them to do. Daniel Gray told me that “At the moment I write one book every year, but that could easily become none if I can’t get a book deal one year!”  Steven Scragg said that he doesn’t take on every project he’s approached about:

I only commit to writing what I want to write, rather than taking on all the commissions that are offered to me. Writing should never be a chore, and this can be the case when being handed a topic you don’t have a passion or fascination for, especially if the money on offer isn’t worth your precious time, time you can instead dedicate to something you want to be working on, even if its something that ultimately might not float.

The writing process

Neither man had a ‘top tip’ for me when I asked if they’d ever thought deeply about their writing process. Daniel Gray told me “I can’t remember ever writing about the writing process, as it were. The only time I think about things such as this are at events/school workshops, when people are always interested in routines/tips/insights.”

Steven Scragg’s thoughts on how he writes gave me some comfort. I once had a disagreement with a tutor who told me to “think about who your audience are” before putting digits to keyboard. My first goal is always to write something I want to read, my logic being that ‘if I want to read it, the chances are at least one other person will too’. Scragg’s honesty when I asked how he puts a project together gave me hope:

I always write for myself in the first respect. I see it as a wonderful bonus that there is an audience out there that seems to like what I produce. I’m not brilliant at analysing how I write, but I’m aware that it comes naturally to me, when compared to how other authors describe their processes. It’s all to do with mojo for me. Some days I can be too easily distracted and only write a paragraph or two, while other days I can crash out thousands upon thousands of words. The shape of my books and articles tend to drift to me from somewhere or other. I don’t agonise over any of it, and rarely find the need to make sweeping structural alterations. The finished product is more often than not a fuller mirror image of the original scribbled piece of paper they were born from.

So, what did I learn?

The experience of reaching out to people who both occupy a fair amount of space on my bookshelves taught me a few things. Firstly, Messrs Scragg and Gray reminded me that the writing life isn’t exactly a ‘golden ticket’, even for established authors. They also provided further evidence the writing community is, by and large, a hugely supportive space. Neither man had to respond to my messages; that they did so enthusiastically and generously was a huge fillip to me, just as the support of my OU Tutor and fellow students are on a daily basis.

I learned that it’s OK to have good writing days and bad writing days and not to do too much. And I’m now convinced that everyone in my Tutor Group – hell, everyone on the course – can get a book published provided they can get the right idea to the right publisher, then put the work in.

I’m massively grateful to both Steven and Daniel for their help with this piece. Steven Scragg’s fourth book, In the Heat of the Midday Sun: The Indelible Story of the 1986 World Cup is out now via Pitch Publishing, who are releasing his next work, Euro 88: The Football Purists’ European Championship in May 2024. You can follow him on Twitter @Scraggy_74. Daniel Gray’s latest book, Food of the Cods: How Fish and Chips Made Britain is out now and published by HarperNorth. You can find him on Twitter @d_gray_writer.