The Problem With Puggles: A Case Study
Here's a question for you... do you know what a puggle is?
Even though I’d grown up in the country surrounded by bush and animals, I’d never laid eyes on a puggle until I was a fully grown adult, well into my thirties.
A puggle is a baby echidna.
Oh, you’re saying, yes, I know what an echidna is. EVERYONE knows what an echidna is and what they look like.
But a puggle, a baby echidna looks very different to the adult echidna.
I stumbled across a photo of a puggle while surfing the internet one day. I don’t recall exactly how I found it, but there it was on my computer screen looking like nothing I’d ever seen before.
Pink, plump, bald and totally cute, puggles are born completely without spines.
Why had I never learnt this before?
Did other people know about puggles? I wondered.
I did some research and found video footage of baby puggles in zoos. One video had a voice over in German! I kept searching, trying to learn as much as I could about these shy, fascinating little creatures.
I soon lighted upon the idea that a puggle would make a fabulous main character for a story. At the time (this was 2006) there weren’t really any other picture books out there about puggles. I know. I looked and looked.
Aha! I thought. There’s a gap in the market. Australia needs more books about puggles. Children need to learn about these cute little creatures.
So, I started writing my story.
I knew the story had to be relevant to young children. That’s what picture books are all about, right?
While I wanted people to be introduced to these incredible creatures, I didn’t want the story bogged down in facts. I didn’t want to write a non-fiction story.
That’s why I decided to write a tale where the puggle – and all the animals in the book – were anthropomorphised. I wanted them to talk and interact like humans.
To include some alliteration in the title, the original manuscript was called Gertie Puggle. The main character, Gertie, was a girl puggle whose spines wouldn’t come.
I started writing the story in 2006, writing twenty different drafts of the story and going from 810 words to 530 words before I thought it was ready to send to publishers.
I did some research and found several publishers who I thought might be interested in a picture book with an Australian animal main character.
After fielding a few rejections, I then received a phone call from JoJo Publishing. The owner/publisher, Barry I think his name was, wanted to publish my book. But they wanted me to pay for a marketing report to be done.
Even as green as I was, I became wary of this offer.
Commercial publishers pay the author and illustrator. We don’t have to pay them. I soon realised that what I was being offered was not a bona fide publication deal. It was a vanity publishing deal where I was expected to pay for the publication of the book – potentially thousands of dollars if I agreed to go down that path.
As my singular goal of going into this business was to be commercially published, I declined JoJo’s offer.
Then I discovered a boutique picture book publisher called Wombat Books.
Surely with a wombat for their logo and in their NAME, Wombat Books would be looking for Australian-style picture books that included good old Aussie echidnas… certain that Wombat was the publisher for me, I sent my manuscript off.
A Major Milestone
This was the very first image I ever saw of my baby puggle brought to life visually by Sandra Temple, the illustrator for Puggle's Problem.
Little did I realise that just because a publisher has an Australian animal for their logo, it doesn’t mean they want to publish books about every Australian animal there is.
Still, the story possessed something that appealed to the publisher, Rochelle Manners because she offered to publish Gertie Puggle. Wombat Books’ titles carry important themes and messages for readers woven into their stories. It was the message of patience that Gertie Puggle was teaching that made the story a fit with Wombat’s list, not the fact that the message was being delivered by an Australian animal.
Although Rochelle wanted to publish my story, she did request some edits. Even when you think you’re sending the most perfect, polished manuscript to a publisher and they give you the BIG YES to publish it, there will invariably be changes that need to be made.
Rochelle requested that we change Gertie from a girl to a boy to ensure the story appealed to both genders. Doing this meant we also had to change the title.
I brainstormed new titles and new names for my puggle for days, testing them out in various versions of the story and including each new name in the story as I read it out aloud. Two titles that came close were The Impatient Puggle and Puggle’s Patience.
However, I did feel that both of these titles gave away the storyline a bit so I finally chose Puggle’s Problem to provide an element of mystery that might hook young readers into wondering what the puggle’s problem was and so prompt them to read the story.
After listing about a hundred names for the puggle, I narrowed it down to a shortlist of three:
One of the final illustrations of Pipp Puggle as it appears in the book.
Eventually, I went with Pipp. The name provides alliteration, a pip is a seed, it’s small and needs to sprout into a tree that grows branches and leaves just like my little puggle needed to sprout his spines and grow into an adult echidna. So, we had some layers of meaning developing…
Now the text was finalised, it was time for the draft illustrations.
Sandra Temple was appointed as the illustrator. Sandra is an award-winning wildlife artist. She paints the most amazing images of animals from all around the world. They look so life-like! But for Puggle’s Problem, a picture book for young children, we needed something more simplistic with loads of white space.
I received some initial character sketches in black and white and some draft colour illustrations. I loved these original images and it was all systems go from there.
Sandra completed the internal illustrations and the cover drawings, the book was laid out and design finalised. Sandra used Faber-Castell coloured pencils and black felt tip Artline pens to complete the drawings.
Several months later, after checking the proofs and hoping that I knew what I was doing and didn’t overlook any errors, the book went to print.
Having worked for four years developing my craft, networking, writing, rewriting, submitting and getting rejected, I was super keen to get behind the launch of my first picture book. Even though I’d been offered several other book contracts, including another picture book, Bearly There, Puggle’s Problem ended up being my first book to be published. The entire process from acceptance to publication took twelve months, which is really quite quick.
The long-awaited book launch of Puggle's Problem was held at Berkelouw Books, Balgowlah (Sydney). We had a crowd of about a hundred people turn up, mostly friends and family. I was absolutely petrified to be holding the stage in front of so many people. My son, Riley, who was six at the time didn't seem to have any problems with it though. He's the kid whispering in my ear.
I was very lucky to have loads of supportive friends (both authors and non-authors) and family members who came along to support me at the launch.
Months of planning went into the event. I even arranged for a real live possum named Penny – who was cared for by a WIRES volunteer because she’d been injured and couldn’t be released back into the wild – to come along as my special guest.
I was absolutely terrified to be in the spotlight, to be the centre of attention. I was not used to it at all and couldn’t believe that everyone was there to see ME. Shock! Horror!
With all eyes on me, I half-read, half-recited the speech I’d prepared and been practising for weeks in advance. I hardly remember a thing that I said or did on that night. It really was a whirlwind. All I can say is that I’m grateful that I have lots of photos from the night to help me remember everything that happened.
One piece of advice I’d like to offer other authors is to ALWAYS have a photographer on hand at events like that. It doesn’t matter whether they’re professional or not, as long as they’re capable of taking lots of non-blurry photos of you, your book, the champagne bottles popping and of course your wonderful family and friends who come along to support you.
Friends and family are the absolute cornerstone of any first-time author's book launch. They fill the room, they applaud and support you and they buy copies of your books to make you feel like you're someone.
The birth of your book baby is always a special celebration. Try not to let it be overwhelming and enjoy it. Oh, and remember to breathe, whatever you do!
A never-released-before photo of me at the launch of Puggle's Problem.
Look how nervous I am!!! Oh my goodness.
Penny the Possum worked a treat!
She was a hit on the night and very well behaved.
The Australian publishing industry is very small. The children’s publishing industry is even smaller. If you hang around for any length of time you’re bound to see the same people pop up time and again at functions, festivals, conferences and so on.
So it’s a really good idea to get to know the players in the industry. Not just for what they can offer you, but for what you can offer them. Sooner or later there may be a way for you to help someone out or to work with them in one capacity or another.
For example, you may be an author and you have a picture book picked up by a publisher who then selects an illustrator to work on your project. If you already know that illustrator, it makes the whole book creation process that much more enjoyable and open in terms of communication flow.
Sometimes, if you already know an illustrator and are familiar with their work (ie you totally, totally love their style and have always dreamed of having your story illustrated by said illustrator) then you might even be able to suggest that illustrator friend or colleague to your publisher.
While I’d always recommend that you approach networking with a relaxed style and to never be militant or too focused about the whole thing, there are some basic rules that you should be aware of.
For instance, when you’re networking don’t even mention the word ‘networking’! Don’t be so blunt.
People don’t want to know that you’re only talking to them because you think it’s a good idea or because you believe it might sell books. People in our industry actually want to get to know others. They are usually genuinely interested in you and your project. Be polite, never forceful, be confident and friendly and make sure you get to know the other person by listening to what they have to say.
Sometimes being a good listener is the best skill you can have as a networker and a friend. So don’t ramble on for hours and hours about yourself without showing any interest in the other person.
With Georgie Donaghey, author, owner of Creative Kids Tales and Greenleaf Press Talent Team member. George was a chairperson and guest speaker for me when I directed the NSW Writers' Centre Kids & YA Festival. I've also had the pleasure of being featured on the CKT Website.
If you’re looking to connect with a more senior or influential member of the industry, whether they’re an author, award-winning illustrator or a publisher, make sure you know a little bit about the person before you approach them. It doesn’t have to be a cold, calculated approach that you take, but knowing something about the person’s background will show that you care and are genuine.
Otherwise, what do you talk to them about? And how do you show them that you’re actually interested in getting to know them for who they are, not just what they can offer you?
You can approach people at any face-to-face, real live event. Most people are more than happy to talk to anyone – especially if you start asking them questions about themselves, their books, their artwork or their careers. A compliment doesn’t hurt to break the ice, but you don’t need to be a sycophant. Calm. Cool. Confident. Right?
You can also approach people via email or you can reach out to them through social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.
All of these forms of social networking have worked for me in the past AND I’ve been contacted by many, many people through social media and emails. It’s okay to connect on Facebook even if you haven’t met a person before. That’s part of what social media is designed for.
You will find that most authors and illustrators are very accessible and friendly.
And here’s a little secret – in our industry people SHARE.
Some of the greatest mentors and sharers who I’ve had the pleasure and joy to be helped along by are: Di Bates, Susanne Gervay, Belinda Murrell, Jan Latta, Libby Gleeson, Georgie Donaghey, Jackie Hosking and Libby-Jane Charleston.
These people have all helped me in some way over the years and assisted in educating me as an author and shaping my career. There are plenty of people out there who will happily do the same for you. Sometimes, all it takes is for you to reach out them in a polite and positive way.
Once you’ve been in the industry for a while, you will also learn another important truth: we are all the same.
With Dimity Powell and Jenny Stubbs.
Dimity is an author like me, a Greenleaf Press Talent Team member and is about to have her first picture book published with EK Books. Jenny Stubbs is a teacher-librarian who volunteers endless hours of her time work tirelessly to promote authors, illustrators and children's literature in QLD.
No matter how long we’ve been in the game, where we come from, how many books we’ve had published or how many school visits we’ve done – we all feel the same passion for and doubts about our writing and we’ve all experienced similar of highs and lows.
That’s why the camaraderie exists – because we are all in this together.
You can network in an ad hoc way, getting out and about whenever there’s an event. Or you may decide to join a specific network to attend regular meetings. Membership to these types of networks usually costs money, so be aware that you will have to invest in this side of your ‘author business’.
If you do join a network, make sure you regularly attend meetings. Make sure you get to know the people in your network. Not just for what you can learn, or take from them, but for what you can give them.
Networking is a two-way street. It takes time to get to know someone – I don’t believe for one moment that you can instantly be best friends with someone – but with time and repetition, you can build firm friendships and share your journey with others who will grow to care for you and vice versa.
With one of my great author friends, Oliver Phommovanh. Oliver and I met through a writer's group I was running at the NSW Writers' Centre about nine years ago when we were both unpublished.
As a writing mentor and manuscript assessor, I have the privilege of reading many manuscripts from authors at various stages of their career. I can only imagine how many manuscripts publishers and editors must read each year. It would literally be thousands!
It’s tempting when you submit a manuscript to make it want to stand out – perhaps by using coloured paper, funky paper clips, including illustrations or printing the manuscript in colour or all capitals.
Just so it’s a little different.
Just so it captures the eye of an overworked editor or publisher.
In our highly competitive publishing industry it makes sense, doesn’t it?
Well … I used to think it sounded like a good idea, but I quickly learned that you shouldn’t do any of these things. Instead, what will make your manuscript stand out is if it looks professional and adheres perfectly to the publisher’s submission guidelines.
Adhering to a publisher’s submission guidelines not only makes your manuscript neat and easy to read, it also shows that you’ve done your research and read the instructions on the publisher’s website. Making sure your manuscript fits these guidelines is your first test.
You definitely want to show the publisher that you can pass this simple test!
All publisher guidelines are pretty much industry standard, perhaps with a little variation here and there. Writing competitions will also have similar guidelines.
Once you’ve conquered the ‘template’ layout for a manuscript for one publisher it can usually be applied to other publishers. This may mean you need to become familiar with Microsoft Word, but if you want to be an author and write manuscript after manuscript, then it’s simply part of the job. Microsoft Word has a Help function, which can assist in this and you can also use google to search for instructions on how to format your manuscript.
Submission guidelines can be found on any publisher’s website, usually under the ‘Submission Guidelines’ tab but sometimes under tabs like ‘Contact’ or ‘For Authors’.
Most publishers now accept electronic submissions, either through an online form, which you fill out and attach your manuscript to, or via an email cover letter with your manuscript attached. Even though your manuscript won’t be printed out, the publisher will still want their guidelines adhered to.
Generally speaking, industry standard components of any manuscript should be:
Typed - as a Word Document or PDF
Times New Roman
12 point font
Contact details included
On the first page of each manuscript, I include a cover page. The details on the cover page are:
1. Manuscript title
3. Author Name
4. Word Count
Which I usually have centred in the middle of the page.
Then, in the footer on the cover page I include:
On all other pages, I ensure that the manuscript title, my name and my email address are in the header while page numbers are included in the footer.
Don’t be tricked into thinking that these things are minor and therefore don’t matter. They’re absolutely crucial when setting out your manuscript.
If you story is presented in a clear, neat and professional way that shows you CARE about your story and where you’re sending it, the publisher will notice and respect this. They will also have more respect for you as an author. They can then focus on reading your brilliant story and won’t be distracted or disappointed by sloppy, inconsistent layouts.
Whatever the guidelines stated on a publisher’s website, please read them carefully and stick to them. It’s the first step you can take to give your story the best chance of making it through the submissions process.
As every author knows, the path to publication can be a difficult one. But this doesn’t make it any less enjoyable or worthwhile. I hope that by sharing my experiences with you that I can help make your journey a little easier. They say that writing is a lonely occupation. It doesn’t need to be. With social media, networking and conference opportunities becoming more accessible, it’s easier to stay in touch and get that support you need to help you become published.
It took me three years to get my first picture book deal and that was with a small, boutique publisher called Windy Hollow Books.
Bearly There, published by Windy Hollow Books, was the first picture book contract I was offered.
When I started out, I really had no idea of what I was doing. I didn’t know what genre or age group I wanted to write for. I didn’t know the word limits for each market segment. I didn’t know who the publishers were in the market… I was very green.
Despite my passion for books, stories and writing. I literally knew nothing.
And that’s when I realised, I needed to educate myself.
I didn’t have the finances available to attend a university course and, being the full time carer of two very young children, I didn’t have the time to dedicate to long term study.
How could I educate myself quickly, effectively and without breaking the bank, I wondered?
I put my thinking cap on and started doing what every good author does: research.
I soon discovered that there were writers’ centres, writing workshops and NETWORKS that I could join. Associations like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), the Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA), the Australian Society of Authors (ASA) and the Fellowship of Australian Writers (FAW). Just to name a few.
There were lots to choose from and each came with a membership fee.
Northern Sydney CBCA Sub-Branch Members:
Kate Forsyth, Belinda Murrell, Antonette Diorio and Aleesah Darlison.
I also discovered writing competitions. A quick google search, or joining up to regular e-newsletters like Buzz Words and Pass It On, provided details of writing competitions that were open all around Australia and overseas. Competitions that provided a theme to write to, a deadline, sometimes feedback and if I was clever enough and lucky enough a certificate for winning or placing and even monetary prizes!
Just like there were lots of networks to choose from with membership fees attached, there were lots of writing competitions to choose from. With entry fees attached.
I wasn’t earning money from my writing, but it was going to cost me money to get my career off the ground.
I realised that maybe I’d have to approach this business of writing just like it was a business.
I would need a budget for my expenditure. But it wasn’t just going to be my expenditure. I had to view the money I was spending as an INVESTMENT. An investment in my career, my dreams, my fulfillment and satisfaction.
I’d need seed funding – that’s what they call it if you’re starting up a business.
If I wanted to be a doctor or lawyer, a nurse or builder, there would be a period of time where I would have to study and learn my profession. It would take time and money and dedication. Any profession does.
And that’s when I had my AHA! moment. If I was really serious about becoming a commercially published author, if I really wanted to make the grade, be good enough to be noticed amongst all those other brilliant (and already published) authors out there … I would have to learn the craft. And yes, it would require an investment of funds.
I’m not talking about millions of dollars here. You don’t need to spend a fortune on workshops, courses, mentorships, competitions, association memberships.
But you do need to spend something.
And not just money.
You need to spend your time and energy. You need to put yourself out there and invest YOURSELF in becoming an author. You need to immerse yourself in the industry.
How do you do this?
SCBWI Representatives attending the 2016 SCBWI Conference in Sydney.
Well, networking is one way you can invest and immerse.
If you join a network, make sure you go along to the meetings. Make sure you get to know the people in that network. Not just for what you can learn, or take from them, but for what you can give them. Networking is a two-way street. And it takes time to get to know something. Lots and lots of time. But, hey, that’s the fun part.
Okay, so I know I’m digressing a little here. There’s so much to learn after all! I’m going to save the topic of networking for the next Greenleaf Press Newsletter where I’ll give you some tips on what to do and what not to do when networking.
For now, I’d like the take-home message to be this:
There are four key things you can do to kick start your author or illustrator career.
Number 1: Enter Writing Competitions.
Number 2: Join associations and networks.
Number 3: Attend workshops, courses, conferences and festivals.
Number 4: Be prepared to invest in yourself.
Create an annual budget for how much you want to spend, or can afford to spend on working towards your publication goal. Then use that budget wisely throughout the year to help you achieve your aim.
I hope this information has been of some help to you and I look forward to sharing more information next time about networking.
One of the unpublished manuscripts in the Totally Twins Series was shortlisted (Highly Commended) in a writing competition. I ended up publishing four books in the series with New Frontier.
I’m Aleesah Darlison. I’m an author and the owner of Greenleaf Press.
Over the last decade, I’ve set up and run several critique groups, helped establish the Northern Sydney sub-branch of the CBCA and been Director of the NSW Writers’ Centre Kids & YA Literary Festival (2014 and 2016). When I moved to Queensland two years ago, I also become Coordinator of the Sunshine Coast SCBWI.
I’ve met and worked with loads of aspiring, emerging and established authors and illustrators during my time in the industry. I’m proud to call many of these creatives my friends.
After talking to these authors and illustrators, and seeing what was happening in the industry, I established Greenleaf Press to provide quality support services that were desperately needed but often in short supply.
It’s hard to find your way as a new author or illustrator.
It’s hard to know where to look for advice and support.
It’s hard to believe in yourself and commit to a career that doesn’t provide any surety of success.
I speak from experience here because I’ve often been filled with self-doubt.
From the age of sixteen, I’d dreamed of being an author but I’d always been told it was too hard to get published. Because of this misconception – by myself and others who I listened to – I treated writing as a hobby, never believing in myself or my ability to make my own dreams come true.
Then, when I had two young children at home and I’d decided I didn’t want to go back to the corporate world, I decided to give writing another shot.
Being a mum has as many challenges and joys as being an author.
I committed myself – and every spare moment, every spare dollar I had – to becoming an author.
I entered competitions.
I attended workshops, conferences, courses and festivals.
I submitted stories, articles and reviews to magazines, newspapers and anthologies.
And I sent some incredibly awful manuscripts to publishers long before they were ready to be sent! Ouch… which is why I also received over four hundred rejections before I received my first acceptance.
But I never gave up trying.
Luckily, my writing improved. After three years of submitting and sweating and hoping, I had my first picture book manuscript accept for publication by Windy Hollow Books – from the slush pile.
That was a real dance-around-the-house moment. I’ve never forgotten it.
Bearly There, published by Windy Hollow Books, was picked up from unsolicited submissions.
Since then, I’ve learned a lot about deadlines, editing, the importance of creating a commercially viable concept and story, and how to think visually when creating a picture book. Along with a few hundred other things…
Thirty-three books and six-and-a-half years later and I’ve now set up Greenleaf Press to help others on their publication journey. It’s not always an easy path, it’s filled with challenges and sacrifices, but the rewards and joys of the journey are definitely worth it.
I’m living proof that it can be done. I started from scratch. I knew nothing. But I never gave up and eventually – eventually – I was published.
One of my first-ever book launches. This one was for Totally Twins.
Here I am with the wildly talented author of the series, Serena Geddes.
My hope is that I can help others to learn from my mistakes. Together, we can be stronger, better book creators. We can be more successful. We can achieve our dreams of being published and of sharing out stories with the world. I look forward to talking to you more over coming months about the challenges, joys and triumphs of being an author in the amazing world of publishing.