Today, we feature an interview with the incredible, the amazing, the truly astonishing Michelle Worthington. Michelle is part of the Greenleaf Talent Team and does a number of school and preschool visits for us throughout the year.
She is also one of our very special guest presenters at the inaugural Sunshine Writers Retreat (Nov 9 - 12).
I don't know about you, but I have the feeling that 2017 is absolutely flying by. At the end of last year, I put into place some big plans to run the very first Sunshine Writers Retreat, to be held at Montville on the beautiful Sunshine Coast in Queensland.
With these grand plans in mind, I set about finding a suitable location (done!) and securing some wonderful presenters (done!). I also secured grant funding from the Sunshine Coast Council to assist in making this marvellous event a reality.
Now, as the year flashes by and we close in on the Sunshine Writers Retreat in November (9 - 12), I'd like to include some focus interviews with those wonderful creatives who will be presenting and teaching our attendees at the retreat. Michelle Worthington is our first author to feature in this interview series.
The Sunshine Writers Retreat will be three and a half days of glorious writing, learning and networking time. The retreat concept has a wholistic approach to story, or manuscript, development. It's suitable for those writing for adults and children. Our residential, on-site accommodation packages sold out incredibly quickly and we are now into overflow accommodation. Selected spots still remain.
We also offer Day Visit Packages for those who live locally or those who only want to come for specific days over the 3.5 day retreat. https://goo.gl/JqEujv
Friday Night Dinner Packages are available for those who wish to come along to connect with the retreat attendees and hear literary agent, Alex Adsett speak. https://goo.gl/JqEujv
Limited Publisher Manuscript Assessments are still available with Rochelle Manners, owner and publisher at Wombat Books. https://goo.gl/JqEujv
Professional Photography Sessions are also available on Friday 10 November. If you need a new author or illustrator photo taken, now is the time to get one! They're very reasonably priced. https://goo.gl/JqEujv
You can find out more about the Sunshine Writers Retreat at: http://www.greenleafpress.net/sunshine-writers-retreat.html. Or you can email us at email@example.com.
I hope you enjoy this interview with Michelle Worthington. She is a true star of the Australian children's publishing industry!
Can you tell us briefly about yourself and the style of books you write?
I am an award-winning author of empowering picture books that celebrate diversity. My goal is for children to fall in love with books and reading, regardless of their level of ability, and to promote literacy internationally.
Which of your characters do you most identify with and why?
Hootie the Cutie was the first book I wrote based on my own experiences growing up. I was always the smallest owl in the wood and was underestimated as a result.
What is your favourite inspirational writing quote?
“If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.” – Toni Morrison
What is your favourite place to be when writing?
Being a busy Mum of three boys, I have been known to write manuscript ideas on the back of a McDonald’s napkin, a Medicare Receipt or on my phone at football matches, but my favourite place to write is sitting at my kitchen table with a hot cup of coffee and something bad for me to eat.
What experience do you think most shaped your journey as an author?
Rejections have always been something that haven’t frightened me, even though they are disheartening and can lead to bouts of overconsumption of Cadbury’s chocolate, and I find it empowering to get feedback from publishers on my work. I think my rejections have shaped my journey in the sense that it has prompted me to refine my writing style, do more research before submitting and get rock solid on the “why” behind my stories and my career as an author.
I don't know about you, but I find radio interviews can be a little daunting. And I hate listening to them being played back - it's something about the sound of my own voice that freaks me out.
But, they're marvellous when you can score one and they're obviously great coverage.
Here I talk about a recent radio interview that didn't start so well... I hope you enjoy the read!
All my best
For the recent release of my latest novel, Running from the Tiger, I was very lucky in that the publicist for Empowering Resources, the publisher of the book, scored me a radio interview gig. These are always exciting opportunities to promote your books but also to talk about yourself as an author to a potentially new market.
This particular interview was set down for a Monday afternoon at 2:15pm. I'd been advised that the radio host would pre-record and edit as needed to play the interview the following day.
The thought of that safety net of a pre-recorded show gave me a sense of security. If I made a mistake it could be deleted and left unplayed. Awesome.
I checked my schedule and 2:15pm was clear, although I did have a three hour workshop to run with thirty children at the State Library in Brisbane. Luckily, the workshop finished at 1:00pm. Plenty of time get packed up and on my way home. Brisbane is over an hour away from where I live on the Sunshine Coast, but I knew that when the radio station phoned me, I'd be on my way home up the freeway and I could pull my car over to take the interview.
Piece of cake, right? So I thought...
I have a pretty busy schedule, so I'm used to juggling a multitude of tasks throughout the day without any problem. These things don't normally phase me.
But I'd forgotten one small detail.
The radio station host was based in Victoria. I'm based in Queensland. And there's this little thing that Queenslanders don't normally have to worry about when we're in our own state - and that is DAYLIGHT SAVINGS!!
So there I was happily going about my business with the children in my workshop until the finish time. As usual, I spent some extra time chatting to the students, answering their questions, packing up and thanking the library staff. I took my time as I thought I didn't have to hurry for the radio interview. I'd take it on my mobile in my car when I needed to.
I wandered off to the bathroom for a final stop before heading to my car to drive home. And just as I was about to push the bathroom door open... my mobile phone rang.
Luckily, I'd turned it back up to normal volume or I may not have heard it in my handbag.
Instantly, I knew that it was the radio station. And instantly I realised my mistake.
It may have only be 12:15pm in Queensland but it was already 1:15pm in Victoria.
The State Library is a busy place, there are people everywhere and it isn't really somewhere you can have a radio interview on your mobile phone. It's not the done thing and it disturbs others.
Anyway, I scurried into the bathroom, answered the phone pretending everything was absolutely hunky-dory my end whilst at the same time frantically scanning the bathroom for people.
Please be empty. Please be empty, I was thinking inside my head while at the same time I was calmly greeting the radio host.
The bathroom was empty. Yay!
While the acoustics might have been a little echoey and hollow perhaps, at least I had a private room where I wouldn't disturb anyone and could talk at a reasonable volume for the radio host to hear me.
We ploughed through the interview for at least five minutes, possibly more, with my heart beating wildly as my mind raced to answer all the questions that were posed to me in a professional and coherent manner.
I'd almost made it through when - you guessed it - someone entered the bathroom.
I was holed up in a toilet stall at the time. I prayed that the bathroom visitor wouldn't make too much noise and that the flushing toilet wouldn't be able to be heard the other end. To help with this, I scurried out into the washbasin area and back out into the corridor that led to the bathrooms.
When she left, the lady did give me a bit of a strange look as she passed by, but if that was the greatest price I had to pay then it didn't make me feel so bad. My struggle at that time was trying to sound cool and collected on the phone.
The radio host asked me all sorts of wonderful questions. He was very positive and upbeat and said the nicest things about the book, which he'd read cover to cover and loved. He really promoted the book and I was very grateful for his time and his support.
At the end of the interview, there was obviously great relief. Radio interviews can be a bit of a baptism of fire in themselves. Thinking and talking at the same time, delivering answers off the top of your head and knowing that lots of people will be listening... it's daunting.
My consolation was knowing that any mistakes would be edited. However, when I asked the radio host about this at the end of the interview, he told me he wasn't going to edit, that the interview sounded just fine as it was. Yikes.
I only hoped that when it did indeed play on the radio the next day there weren't any sounds of flushing loos... or the drumbeat sounds of my heart flipping out.
Mistakes are part of the learning process. Everyone makes them no matter what stage of your writing journey you're at. And from now on I'll try to remember that little matter of daylight savings.
Today, we feature an interview with popular Australian author, Debra Tidball, to tell us about KinderFest, a miniature Writers Festival.
Debra is a Sydney-based author and is releasing an exciting new picture book in September called 'The Scared Book', which looks absolutely amazing and lots of fun!
KinderFest entails a selection of three authors or illustrators presenting for children on a participating school's or preschool's property. Children don't need to leave the grounds to experience the delight of interacting with authors and illustrators as they speak, sing and draw. It is an action-packed day involving three thirty-minute rotating sessions and book signing following the presentations. KinderFest is a compelling way to encourage students to read and write.
Why not recommend KinderFest for your school or preschool? To find out more about the KinderFest at: www.greenleafpress.net. Or you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I hope you enjoy this interview with Debra.
Debra, you were one of the authors at a KinderFest visit at the end of last term, how did it work?
At John the Baptist Primary School, Bonnyrigg Heights, 150 students in each of three infants classes rotated between half hour presentations from each of the KinderFest team - Katrina McKelvey, Georgie Donaghey and myself. It was a fun and inspiring day.
What books did you present?
At the time of the visit, only When I See Grandma was available so this is the book that the classes had been studying. I was so gratified by the way the children had embraced it. But I was also able to take along the advance copy of my hot-off-the-press The Scared Book as a special surprise. This meant that I was able to focus on behind-the-scenes fun facts for When I See Grandma then road test The Scared Book - and what fun that was!
What made The Scared Book so much fun to present?
The Scared Book asks children to interact with it to help it not be scared - scratching a tingly spine, rubbing away the goosebumps, and flicking away the monsters. From kindergarten to year two they responded to the book's requests by scratching, rubbing and flicking their hands in the air to alleviate the tingles and goosebumps, and to rid the books of its greatest fear - monsters! It was a hair raising moment when 150 students blew away the monster butterflies!
Aleesah, I have heard you say at a writer’s festival that picture books are to be performed, and The Scared Book is certainly a performance piece! The cool thing is that as well as being scared, the book is also sneaky. While the kids are having so much fun, unbeknown to them, they are also learning about and practicing strategies for dealing with fear.
What else can you tell us about your KinderFest experience?
We got the rock star treatment! And what was so good about that was that the kids got the most out of the time we spent with them. Here's a few things that made the visit great:
A lot of thought had gone into the rooms and the facilities. It was easy to set up and be ready with minimum fuss, and the kids could be comfortable and able to participate fully in the session.
We also had access to a staff area which was a great place to have a cuppa and debrief at the end of the visit, and we even got a 'thank you' box of chocolates each to help keep us awake on the drive home!
It sounds like an amazing day. Would you recommend KinderFest to other schools and venues?
Totally! It is such an interactive, fun way to engage children with books and reading. And they may even learn a thing or two along the way!
Thanks for the information, Debra. We're thrilled that you and the students you spoke to enjoyed KinderFest. These mini festivals for mini people are a new concept developed by Aleesah Darlison and Greenleaf Press and they're proving very popular and successful.
Good luck with your book launch activities!
To celebrate the launch of her new book, Debra is running a competition to win a signed copy of The Scared Book and, for writers, the chance to PITCH and SUBMIT a picture book manuscript direct to publisher Suzanne O'Sullivan at Lothian/Hachette. To find out more, visit Debra's website http://www.debratidball.com/blog
Visit her book blog blitz sites:
Monday to Friday this week she's at Books on Tour with Just Write for Kids
Plus break out blogs with:Tours at the Tales by Creative Kids Tales https://www.creativekidstales.com.au/authors-illustrators/tours-at-the-tales
And curator of Buzz Words, Di Bates’ Writing For Children blog http://diannedibates.blogspot.com.au
Over the years, I've developed a market niche for writing picture books that feature animals and environmental themes.
My picture books Puggle's Problem, Warambi, Our Class Tiger, Zoo Ball, Little Meerkat, Spider Iggy, Stripes in the Forest: The Story of the Last Wild Thylacine and Mama & Hug all feature animals. I've written about echidnas, bats, tigers, meerkats, spiders, thylacines and koalas. Plus, I have a number of picture books coming out in the next year or so that also feature animals.
Using animals as your main character in a picture book allows you to champion an animal or environmental cause - if that's what your story theme is about - but it also allows you to go deeper when sending a message.
Animals such as giraffes, kangaroos, elephants, lions and monkeys are loved and recognised the world over. Children from all countries and cultures love and admire them.
So when you tell an animal's story, or a story from the point of view of an internationally recognised animal, you're telling a story for everyone. No matter what race, religion, age or culture.
My picture book, Little Meerkat is a humorous, lively and adventurous picture book aimed at 3-7 year olds. I've always loved meerkats and always wanted to write a book about them. To be successful, however, the book has to be more than just self-gratification for the author.
I wrote the book as a reflection on childhood independence and bravery, which also carries a message of the importance of family to guide little ones.
Although Little Meerkat is tiny, he has a big imagination. He’s also very brave. Perhaps a little too brave … which leads to all sorts of fun.
From dedicated documentary series to insurance advertisements, meerkats are familiar and popular animals. I used this internationally recognised animal as the main character for a picture book to ensure children from all backgrounds, cultures and countries could connect with and learn from Little Meerkat's story.
The main character, Little Meerkat, craves independence and adventure in his life. His extended family, of Mum, Dad, brother, sister, Aunty and Uncle, are there to guide and protect him.
This is a story that will resonate with young children who sense within themselves a desire to explore and grow, but who still need family support and a cuddle from Mum (or Dad) at the end of the day to reassure them.
Incidentally, my son Riley also loves picture books. He helped me with ideas for the story characters, text and plot.
If you'd like to pick up your very own copy of Little Meerkat, you can find it at the Wombat Books website at: www.wombatbooks.com.au
I'm going to finish off this article with some tips for writing an animal picture book.
5 Top Tips For Writing a Picture Book
Oh, and PS: happy endings are always recommended in a picture book for younger readers!
That's it in the six-part series about picture books. I haven't been able to cover every aspect here because there is so much to learn!
Otherwise, you can download the Greenleaf Press e-book called Making Picture Books with Aleesah Darlison.
Thanks for joining me.
Many people dream of publishing a picture book. This particular format, and genre, is my favourite of all the books I write.
But it’s not easy to write those few hundred words, which to some seems such a meagre amount!
Making a picture book is not simply a matter of writing those words, after all, it’s a matter of perfecting them, selecting them and making sure that each and every word carries its weight.
Recently, I was working on a picture book, toing and froing with my publisher, as we finalised layout and design and word choice to the nth degree. As we were discussing what words to keep or perhaps delete from the manuscript, my publisher wrote in an email to me:
We probably are picking at tiny grains of sand here…but I am enjoying crafting this book to the best we can make it.
This struck me as a profoundly prophetic and true statement about picture books. This comparison is, in essence, the entire crux of what making picture books is about.
To write a picture book, a good picture book, you have to think of each word as a tiny grain of sand that requires intricate crafting, with correct usage and placement, which, when combined with all the other tiny grains of sand within the story, will create an overall impeccable result. Something memorable, inspiring, emotive and … lasting.
As I said before, it isn’t an easy process, but it is a joyous process.
Combined with the crafting of sand grain words, picture books must then have a layer (or several layers) of storytelling added through the illustrations.
One picture book I’ve had a lot of fun working on recently, and which was released in April 2016, was called Zoo Ball. It’s a funny, rhyming story about a boy named Ned who takes his big, bouncy ball to the zoo. Almost the moment he arrives, Ned loses the ball and then the chase (and the pandemonium) begins as each animal at the zoo has a go playing with Ned’s ball.
The special thing about Zoo Ball is that it’s illustrated by children. Twenty-three Australian school children, to be precise.
The publisher, Wombat Books, established an Illustration Challenge to provide aspiring young illustrators with the opportunity to be published in a professionally produced children’s book and gain an introduction into the world of illustrating. Once I’d written the text for Zoo Ball, it was then up to children to send in a drawing of one of the scenes from the book.
From the illustrations children submitted, it was clear that they had as much fun drawing the pictures as I did writing the story.
And that’s the other key thing about making a picture book – it’s crucial that an illustrator falls in love with the story text as much as the author who has written it. Otherwise, they miss the subtle nuances of story and overlook possibilities to make the book even better than the words can achieve alone.
I was amazed at how talented these young artists were and what nuances of storytelling – and humour – they’ve added to Zoo Ball. It’s definitely worth the read and a perfect example of picture book making teamwork.
Many of us harbour the dream of becoming a picture book author. Teachers, librarians, mums and dads, grandparents. Anyone who has ever loved books, anyone who has ever had children and clocked up hours of bedtime readings. Anyone who has ever dreamed or imagined that they were creative.
I’d wager just about everyone out there has thought at some stage or other that they could write a picture book, or thought, ‘I couldn’t do any worse than what’s already gone before, right? How hard could it be? It’s only a few hundred words.’
There surely is a picture book in us all.
But before you go sending your manuscript to a publisher I strongly suggest you bring your book to life by creating a dummy version.
After you’ve typed your story up and saved it on your computer, print the text out, cut it up into scenes then place those lines/scenes across a dummy book of thirty-two pages.
This is a great way to see how your story flows. Hopefully, the text will progress smoothly as you turn each page. You might even find that you’ve created appropriate breaks or cliff-hangers that flow across the pages. These are ideal.
If this isn’t happening, move the text around, rewrite your story, print out it again and try again. Read your dummy book out aloud over and over. Then over again
If your story isn’t hitting the mark, edit your work. Make it funnier or more dramatic. Print the new text out and start again and create another dummy book. Your sketches or illustrations (if you have them) can then be pasted in with the text.
You can test your story by reading it aloud to yourself, a writer’s group if you’re a member of one (I highly recommend this!) and to friends, family and young children. Anyone who will listen and who you think will give you constructive feedback.
Picture books aren’t designed to be read. They’re meant to be PERFORMED. And until you perform your manuscript out aloud (which should always be long before it goes to a publisher), you won’t know whether your story will indeed work in a picture book format.
The best advice I can give to picture book authors is to make sure your manuscript is well and truly road-tested before you submit it. You usually only get one shot at a publisher with any given story. So make that shot count.
The matter of illustration instructions in a picture book manuscript can cause many authors consternation. Especially if you’re starting out or haven’t worked with a particular publisher before, you don’t know what their preferences are in terms of illustration instructions and you may be a little uncomfortable with giving your own visual interpretations of your story.
There are two schools of thought on this matter. Some authors and industry experts believe it’s crucial to include illustration instructions. Others believe minimal or no instructions are better and that the text should be able to stand on its own.
I think somewhere in the middle ground is best.
You don’t need to include copious amounts of illustration instructions about your characters or setting or plot. Editors and illustrators don’t need to know that your main character is wearing a red dress or red shoes, for example, unless it’s critical to the story.
But they may need to know that your main character is, for example, confined to a wheelchair, or is a panda bear not a human. When I submit a picture book text to a publisher, I only include the most minimal, most important illustration instructions to provide visual clues. And when I do, the instruction is bracketed and in italics. For example: (Max lives in the city. PK is his dog.).
The idea behind this is that I do like to include crucial information but at the same time I don’t want to stifle the illustrator’s creativity. I want to leave the illustrator plenty of room to bring their own interpretation and layers to the story.
I believe the illustrator needs to love the story as much as the author does. If they’re going to commit to the project, do their best, get behind the book and perhaps even promote it down the track, they must have ownership of the project too. This involves the author giving up a little control, yes, and being flexible.
What you gain far outweighs what you give up.
Illustrators are far more talented and have much more experience and training at thinking and creating visually. So why would I, the wordsmith, take the joy, the passion and the scope of their expertise away by setting down too rigid a structure for them to illustrate in?
It doesn’t make sense.
A common error authors make is to include illustrations with their submissions. Sometimes, they do the illustrations themselves or have paid a friend or someone they know to do these drawings. This can be an expensive and unnecessary exercise.
My advice would be that unless you are a very skilled artist and know a lot about picture books, that you don’t include any illustrations with your picture book submission.
If you’re an author, submit your words only. If you’re an author-illustrator and are confident in both your words and your pictures, then go ahead and submit your text and one or two samples of your artwork. Always check the publisher guidelines before you do this.
If you aren’t an illustrator, this doesn’t mean you can’t draw pictures to match your text. It’s actually a great idea to visualise your story and this can involve drawing thumbnail sketches or creating a storyboard of the entire manuscript. It might also involve you drawing larger sketches or colour images for each of your scenes. I find this particularly helpful.
But, unless you’re a talented artist, I’d suggest that if you’ve written a picture book text that you focus on and submit the words only.
This is the second instalment in my six week series called
Picture Books: Making It Count
I hope you find some interesting tips here. Thanks for reading!
Jill Carter-Hansen, Illustrator of Bearly There
(Windy Hollow Books, 2013)
Part 2: How Do I Find An Illustrator For My Picture Book?
For those seeking commercial publication, one thing that holds them back is the belief that they need to find and pay for an artist to illustrate their work before they submit it to a publisher.
Whenever I run a picture book course or speak to beginner writers, one of the first questions I’m asked is ‘Where I can find an illustrator for my picture book?’.
This is a common misconception people have when they’re starting out.
Unless you’re thinking of self-publishing, the task of finding an illustrator is undertaken by the publisher.
Publishers work with several, if not many, illustrators. They may even have a ‘stable’ of illustrators who they regularly employ on projects, whether they are picture books, chapter books or book covers.
Authors may not even know the illustrator who is commissioned to work on their picture book. I’ve worked on a book where the illustrations were done by two manga artists living in Japan.
Fangs was a full-colour illustrated chapter book
(a little unusual - chapter books normally have B&W illustrations).
The drawings were done by a Japanese manga group called Gurihiru.
Other books I’ve worked on have involved illustrators who live in different states. Our only correspondence has been via email or sometimes telephone. Sometimes not at all. In other cases, I’ve known the illustrator before they’ve signed onto the project or met them afterwards and become firm friends with them. We’ve even held joint events to launch or promote our new picture book.
Different types of relationships will evolve on different projects. This is all normal.
The publisher or editor will act as the middle-man or conduit for the relationship. They will manage the editing of both the text and the illustrations, passing on information or queries or feedback. This may seem a strange process to some, but the practice is conducted industry-wide and from my experience it works well because it allows each party their own creative freedom.
What the publisher does want to see from an author is fresh, clever, original words. And usually words alone. Your words have to stand out. They have to SING.
It wasn't until well and truly after our book, Stripes in the Forest: The Story of the Last Wild Thylacine, had been published that the illustrator and I actually got to meet. I live in QLD and Shane McGrath lives in VIC, so we were separated by geography. We spoke on the phone and via email quite a lot throughout the book creation process, however.
For those of you interested in writing or illustrating picture books, I thought you might be interested in this series of articles I'll be publishing over the next six weeks called
Picture Books: Making It Count
Picture books are one of the most popular children's book formats to write, but they're not always easy to master. Learning the craft of writing a picture book can take years. It's a good thing we all enjoy the process so much and that the rewards of publication make it all worth it!
Puggle's Problem was my first ever book,
and my first ever picture book, to be released.
(Wombat Books, 2010)
Part 1: The Magic of Picture Books
There’s something magical about picture books.
I view them as the Zen of children’s writing, as works of art, the fusion of two independent creators combining words and images to produce a lasting impact, a statement about the world or those creatures who inhabit it.
I create picture books because I love to play with words and rhythm and rhyme.
I create picture books because I love to write stories that enchant this younger age group.
And, I have to admit, I create picture books because of pure and unadulterated selfishness.
Sure, I create every story with a design and a desire to share it with others. To impassion. To entertain. To teach. To evoke.
But deep down, one of the key reasons I write picture book stories is because I know that one day, if the planets align and I manage to score some luck on my side, then I will have the heady pleasure of seeing my words brought to life by a skilled artist.
Warambi was my second picture book.
It was shortlisted for the CBCA Eve Pownell Award and
the Wildernress Society Award for Children's Literature.
(Working Title Press, 2011)
For someone whose drawing prowess extends only to stick figures illustrations, the joy I feel when I hold one of my picture books for the first time is immense. It’s like I’ve been handed a precious gift.
There’s no way I could bring to life the images of my story that exist in my mind. I couldn’t function as a picture book creator without the help of the talented artists and designers I work with. Admittedly, they need my words to provide the scaffolding for the story. But without their pictures, my words are lifeless on the page.
Stripes in the Forest: The Story of the Last Wild Thylacine is my latest picture book release.
It came from a passion for thylacines, a desire to tell their story from their POV and a hope, a dream, that they might still be out there.
This is the second part of my blog 'Can You Write 25 Words... More or Less?'.
In the last issue, I finished off with mentioning that I'd had an epiphany, a light bulb moment, after winning so many 25 words or less competitions.
You see, at the same time I was entering competitions, I was also working at something I’d always considered as a hobby – writing.
Occasionally if I could get my now two baby boys (they’re seventeen and a half months apart) to sleep at night, I could slip out for a few hours to the State Library in Sydney where we lived at the time and do some research on an historical novel I was working on.
Baby Number 2 arrives home...
I’d been dabbling in a few other things but I still hadn’t found my voice or my place in the writing world. I still very unsure what the future held for me in terms of my writing.
But I realised that I must be okay at it. I knew what to give those competitions. I knew what to write. Another seed started germinating in my mind.
I began to wonder if I could make money from my writing not just with competitions but with proper stories. By becoming a proper, published author.
I thought if I can write 25 words, a picture book isn’t much more. Surely I can write 300 or even 500 words?
At least I could give it a shot.
Funnily enough, this where most mums-turned-writers start. I guess I’m just a cliché!
Of course like everyone else starting out, I underestimated how difficult writing picture books actually is. I still had a lot to learn. But luckily, I found the right path.
Probably the first thing I did was discover the NSW Writers Centre and the first course I attended was with Di Bates who gave me a crash course on writing for children. It was invaluable and set me on the right path to publication.
In our first house in Willoughby (Sydney). Baby Blake and his Whinnie the Pooh teddy were inspiration for my picture book, Bearly There. It was in this house that I made my decision to become an author.
I guess what I’m trying to say is start small.
You might try 25 words or less competitions too.
You might also start off by entering short story or picture book competitions.
At the same time, keep your eye on that big prize of commercial/traditional publication in book form. But along the way, vary and practice your writing (and your ability to meet a deadline) by entering writing competitions – in any form they might take.
When I went to see Irina Dunn, former director of the NSW Writers Centre, speak at the Sydney Writers Festival she told the audience that a publisher wouldn’t take notice of an author or their manuscript unless they had thirty writing credits on their CV.
That’s an awful lot of writing credits!
I tend to think you can get noticed with less than thirty, but at the end of the day having those credits sure isn’t going to hurt your chances.
What Irina was saying was practice your writing. Perfect it. Make it good enough.
The publishing industry is highly competitive. And picture books are probably the most highly competitive genre in the market.
Authors, especially new ones, have a bad habit of sending their work off before it’s ready. They write their story one day then submit it to a competition or a publisher the very next.
It’s only second or third draft, if that.
An illustration from my first-ever story published 'Rusty and the Car Auction'. The story was published in Little Ears Magazine, which was edited by Di Bates. This was my first big break!
So, me being me, I decided that I’d focus on entering these 25 words or less competitions. I didn’t feel that I had any particular aptitude to winning them, mind you, I just thought I’d give it a go. What did I have to lose? They were free to enter so they cost nothing, but I could win stuff. And you have to be in it to win it.
Remember, when you send your manuscript off it’s competing for air-time with a publisher against the likes of Mem Fox, Libby Gleeson, Margaret Wild, Jackie French, Tobhy Riddle, Peter Carnavas, Gus Gordon… major award-winning authors… I’d hazard a guess that these authors don’t send their work off after one or two drafts.
Even for me, a relative new-comer, I wouldn’t let anyone see my story until I had written and edited it many, many time. Perhaps thirty-two drafts or even more…
You can bet that the best, most conscientious authors spend weeks, months, years perfecting their stories – yes, even picture books – before they submit to their agent or publisher.
I’ve learned through numerous rejections that sometimes my story wasn’t good enough for publication. And sometimes it never would be.
Ah, rejection letters... we've all had them!
Competitions give you the opportunity to practice your writing and also test the market. If your manuscript does well in a competition, you know you’re on the right track. You can use that placing/highly commended/prize as a pitching point in your cover letter to the publisher.
Sometimes you’ll even win prize money and get paid for your story to be published. I can’t recommend The School Magazine enough. They were one of the first places for my short stories to appear and my stories were illustrated by some of Australia’s finest children’s illustrators including Kim Gamble and Tina Burke.
One of Tina Burke's gorgeous illustrations that accompanied my story, 'A Magpie Called Swoop' in the School Magazine. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven when this story was published. And I got paid for it!
Fast forward to 2017 and I’ve now published thirty-six books including picture books, chapter books, junior series and novels for middle grade/older fiction.
I am writing quite a lot more than 25 words.
But I still wholeheartedly believe that 25 words got me started.
It motivated me and showed me what I was capable of.
Starting small, tiny steps, that’s what it’s all about.
There’s a well-known six word story, often attributed to Ernest Hemmingway.
For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.
If in six words you can say so much, what can you say in 25 words… more or less?