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?