Browsing Tag

children’s books

It’s a collaboration

13 September 2017

Last weekend I presented at SCWBI’s Level Up conference on the collaborative process of editing a manuscript, and how the author–editor relationship should ideally work. I thought it might be useful to share an abbreviated version of the section on how to get the most out of the experience, because if you’ve never worked with an editor before it can feel like a daunting process. Every writer is deeply attached to their work, so turning a manuscript over to an editor can feel like having your soul laid bare, and critiqued.

It’s important to remember that editors are ordinary people who love books. An editor’s job is to make the writer look good. They have nothing to personally gain, other than the satisfaction of knowing that they helped you make your book better.

In order for the editorial process to run smoothly, it’s important to develop a good working relationship with your editor that is based on mutual trust and respect. So here are my top tips for how to create a strong partnership.

  1. Let go of your ego

The truth is nobody really enjoys being critiqued. We all secretly want to be told that we’re a genius and the work needs absolutely nothing done to it. But even the most experienced writers benefit from a close edit. A good editor will provide honest, constructive feedback designed to improve your book. Anyone who believes they don’t need an editor is letting their ego get in the way of commonsense.

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If you are a first-time author, you may be unsettled by the number of changes your editor makes on the manuscript. But remember that this is normal. It doesn’t mean that the editor doesn’t love your book. Try to remember that that the feedback is not personal criticism but professional insight into what could make your manuscript stronger. The editor’s goal is the same as yours: to make your book a success.

So don’t be defensive, instead…

  1. Be open

Be open to new ideas. Be open to different approaches. Be open to major rewrites. Be willing to listen and learn. The best editors see potential. They see what the writer’s vision is and they help sharpen it and enlarge it — they help the book reach its full potential.

Listen honestly to what your editor has to say. Their suggestions may require you to do some really hard work that you might resist. But be brave. Embrace change. Experiment with structural revisions. In short, be willing to move in a completely different direction from where you started.

  1. Take time out

But first thing’s first. When you receive your editor’s comments and you’ve read them through and realised that you’re going to have to grapple with some major changes, you might need to take some time out. You might need to sulk. Or cry. Or drink wine. Or eat an entire block of chocolate. Or do all of those things. And that’s okay.

Give yourself time to gain some perspective because your initial reaction is likely to be driven by emotion, but then get on with it. Consider every point carefully, without letting emotion play a part, and objectively assess the substance of the critique.

  1. Pick your battles

The editing process is not about winning or losing. The editor is your ally, not your opponent. And if you treat them this way your work will only benefit. That’s not to say that the editor will always be right. Even the best editors sometimes get things wrong.

Anyone who is a parent will know that you pick your battles with your children. You also need to pick your battles as an author (and know, too, that your editor will be picking their battles). If you don’t agree with a suggestion clearly explain your position, and be willing to engage in a discussion about it. Editors are creative problem-solvers and they want to work with you.

Often an editor will identify an area that needs work and might suggest a solution. However their suggestion should be treated  as a springboard. You might use their solution, but often the author comes up with something that’s even better. Think about the process as being like a conversation. Exploratory discussions give rise to the best work.

Some newer authors feel intimidated by editors, but don’t be. Always ask questions if there’s anything you don’t understand or aren’t clear about.

  1. Be professional

Always be professional, polite and timely with your responses. Remember that the editor will be working on multiple books simultaneously, and another author’s book might be their current priority. Editors are extremely overworked, so be understanding if they don’t get back to you immediately.

Ensure that you always meet your deadlines. The editor will stipulate a deadline for every round of revisions. If you don’t meet these deadlines you will put the whole production cycle out. Even though it’s your book, you are only one person in the process. If for some reason you think you’ll be unable to meet a deadline, let your editor know as soon as possible.

  1. Be patient

Know that publishing is long game, especially with books where an illustrator is involved. My next picture book, Seree’s Story, will have taken about four years by the time it comes out with Walker Books. And that’s only from submission — the research, writing and self-editing process began long before that. Admittedly this is a particularly long timeframe (my previous picture book took 18 months, my short fiction collection took one year), but publishing is a slow process. The smaller independent presses tend to be quicker than the larger publishers, but waiting is a reality of the industry. The best antidote is to get on with writing your next book.

  1. Say thank you

It is true that not every traditionally published writer has an amazing relationship with their editor, and there are certainly horror stories out there, but these are not the norm. Most published writers value their editors. So if your editor has helped you create a better book, thank them. Editors get very little credit, they are essentially invisible, and they work hard to help you make your book the best that it can be. So express your gratitude — privately or publically, or both. Flowers are not necessary — we are all word people after all, and words are more than enough.

Reading memories

6 June 2017
One of the perks of being Ambassador for the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge is visiting schools to talk about my favourite topic—books (duh). This week I headed to Holy Trinity Primary to meet the Year 1s and 2s. Here we all are getting a bit crazy together.

Talking about reading got me thinking about my own special reading memories, and one teacher in particular. Her name was Miss O’D and she was my Grade 6 teacher. She wore blue mascara and shoulder pads and was every kind of eighties cool. She was young, not that long out of university, and she made everything fun. And I mean everything. It was the only year that I enjoyed maths as we played ‘The Footy Game’ to learn our times tables. It involved an actual footy and four teams and much laughter. That year everyone’s understanding of maths skyrocketed.

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But for a booklover like me it was the literary activities that got me all shiny-eyed. Every week Miss O’D wrote a Poem of the Week on our blackboard and illustrated it with Dr Seuss-style characters. We would copy out the poem (using smelly glitter pens) and create our own illustrations. I still remember the time I got a rare and coveted 10 out of 10 for my work. ‘Perfect!’ she wrote, and my feet did not touch the ground for the rest of the day. She also constructed a haunted house reading corner from a massive crate painted black. It was full of cushions and dangling streamers and clearly sent one message: reading is fun. But best of all, she got us to write, illustrate and ‘publish’ our own picture books. I had been writing stories and making my own books at home for as long as I could remember, so the opportunity to create a shiny hardback (well, more laminated cardboard) had me practically salivating. I still have those two books and I often take them with me on school visits, as I did to Holy Trinity, to encourage kids to make their own.

So as all the Reading Challenge Ambassadors head out for their school visits, I thought I’d ask them about their own special reading memories. Here’s what they had to say.

Jack Heath: At Lyneham Primary School I had a wonderful teacher librarian named Kay Pietsch. When I missed school due to a crippling ear infection, she hand-picked books for me to read during my recovery. Thanks to her I discovered Claire Carmichael, Jackie French, Brian Jacques and many others. When I finally got back to school, I wasn’t behind my classmates. I might even have been ahead.

Harry Laing: There’s a nursery rhyme that’s always stuck in my head with a particularly vivid quality. I think my grandmother read it to me (and I’m sure my mother and maybe a favourite great aunt). I think it was probably just before I was reading properly so the words had that talismanic quality…

Hark! Hark! The dogs do bark
Beggars are coming to town
Some in jags, some in rags
And one in a velvet gown.

Listening to this as a child gave me a delicious shiver. Something to do with the wonderfully tight and expressive sounds and rhymes of hark/bark and jags/rags. It was scary to think of the beggars coming to town, and their power to provoke the dogs with their rags and then the really scary last line ‘and one in a velvet gown’. What did that mean? I’m sure I barely understood what velvet was or even a gown but it was such a smooth and sinister phrase. I still get the same feeling 50-odd years later. I can go back and look at Mother Goose and there’s the nursery rhyme with illustration but it’s the sound of the words that lingers. And how precious that is, to be able to go straight back to being five years old with nothing in-between. Mind you I did have to look up the meaning of ‘jags’ (tatters, rags).

Tracey Hawkins: As a child I owned a boxed set of Golden Press books, Wonderful World of Walt Disney. There were four books in the set, Fantasyland, Worlds of Nature, America and Stories from Other Lands. My favourite was Stories from Other Lands. Turning the pages took me to a world far away from the small coastal town I lived in. Books provided knowledge and escapism, and fascinated me. Reading fed my imagination as I unearthed the mystery, myths, legends and cultural diversity of other countries. I read thousands of books as a child, but I believe it was this book led me on my future path as an adult to explore and travel the world.

Tania McCartney: One of my earliest and most precious reading memories is with my mum, reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. The intriguing thing about this persistent memory is that it’s not the actual story I remember. It’s the warmth of her lap. It’s her arms around my shoulders and the rumble of her voice, resonating from her diaphragm into my back. It’s the smell of her clothes and the smoothness of the book’s pages. I can still feel my little toddler fingers poking through the holes in the page as the caterpillar eats its way through a multitude of delicious treats, and how the paper scratched my skin. I can also feel the rumble in my tummy, wanting to join the caterpillar for cherry pie, watermelon and a lollipop. It’s all those tactile elements, yes, but it’s also the less tactile—that envelope of love, that feeling of belonging, that parental attention and sheer enjoyment of story. And that, my friends, is how children fall in love with books.

Just look at all those hands! Such enthusiastic little readers!

As Ambassadors we all hope that our school visits will inspire kids to explore many more books and develop a lifelong love of reading. So I was so thrilled to receive a stack of letters from Holy Trinity with beautiful words of thanks and equally beautiful illustrations. I wish I could include them all here but since there’s not space here’s my lounge room carpeted in them, and one of my favourites from Lachy. His exclamations (‘Your visit…OH! I loved it. Please come again!’) brought a big grin to my face. Also, I am ‘awsem’. That’s the best bit of being an author right there.

 

Forest for the Trees

26 May 2017

Yesterday I got up before the sun and jumped on a bus to Sydney, headed for the Sydney Writers Festival’s one-day publishing forum, Forest for the Trees. The bus originally seemed like a good idea, preferable to navigating peak-hour traffic myself, but after being trapped beside a man who was attempting to cough his lungs up for four hours, I wasn’t so sure. I arrived at the State Library frazzled and late and practically inhaled a large coffee. Thankfully, it got me back on track.

The day consisted of two keynote speakers and a number of panels that addressed various aspects of publishing. I must admit that I love a good stat (even when it depresses the hell out of me) and there were plenty of stats thrown about during the day. None of them were particularly new to me but I often find myself startled anew. For example, based on Nielsen Bookscan’s data, Julie Winters concluded, ‘We’re lucky to get 80 per cent of the population reading two books a year.’

Two. I cannot conceive of reading only two books a year; I often read two books a week. When I shared this stat with a friend she expressed doubt at its validity. But, sadly, I believe it. Bookish people surround themselves with other bookish people and the result is a skewed picture of what the general population is doing, which seems to be pretty much anything other than reading.

Despite that Winters said there is an English-language book published somewhere in the world every three seconds, and in Australia 20,000 new books (including self-published titles) are produced each year. Children’s literature is the fastest growing market, and currently makes up eight per cent of onshore sales.
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Jonathan Green, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Sophie Hamley, Juliet Rogers, Julie Koh

Talk naturally turned to writing and how to get published. It always irritates me when industry professionals dance around the truth, making claims that offer false hope to inexperienced writers with limited understanding of how the industry works. But thankfully there was none of that during Forest for the Trees. Sophie Hamley from Hachette revealed that over three years she has only published two manuscripts from the slush pile (where unsolicited manuscripts end up). Ask any major publisher and their stats will be equivalent, if not worse. In other words, if you’re an author you want to avoid the slush at all costs. There are a number of ways to do this. The most obvious is to acquire an agent (easier said than done) but there are other avenues too. Manuscript prizes are a good entry point, and a number of festivals and conferences now offer opportunities to have work assessed by senior editors.

Once a book is published, Hamley explained that 85 per cent of authors don’t earn out their advance. This is something that writers often worry about (amongst so many other things) and that huge figure should put their minds at rest. As everyone in publishing knows, what makes a book succeed is often a combination of intangible circumstances that even the best publicists can’t deliberately create (or recreate). Harry Potter is the quintessential example. Why did that particular book, and not another, become a publishing phenomenon? Any number of reasons can be given but, in truth, no one really knows. Bestsellers keep the industry afloat and offset the other books that don’t earn out their advances. In Australia Hachette publishes Rowling and Hamley coined it the ‘JK Rowling subsidy for local publishing’. So I guess thanks are in order, JK.

Hera Lindsay Bird, Alexandra Payne, Connor Tomas O’Brien, Matthia Dempsey

Naturally talk turned to how authors can best promote themselves and the value of creating a brand. Publishers are looking for strong author platforms and social media engagement, but as poet Hera Lindsay Bird said, ‘Don’t do social media cynically. You can’t fake it.’ Alexandra Payne, nonfiction editor at UQP, added that an author might have 23 followers on Twitter but it’s the work that matters. ‘Publishing is purely subjective,’ she said. ‘I’m publishing what I fall in love with. Authors need to find someone who gets their work.’

That said, it’s not just the editor who needs to fall in love with the book it’s also the acquisitions team, and that ultimately comes down to projected sales. Book scout Catherine Eccles said, ‘We do often find ourselves saying with Australian and Canadian books that they’re ‘too quiet’.’

‘So what about Alice Munro and Elizabeth Strout,’ an audience member piped up. ‘They’re ‘quiet’ and I love their writing.’ Eccles agreed on both counts and referred to an issue that I’ve written about previously. It used to be the case that writers were given three or four books to establish themselves, to develop their work and build an audience. Eccles cited Hilary Mantel as a classic example. It wasn’t until her tenth book, Wolf Hall, that her career took off. But these days writers live or die by their debut novel. If it’s not a success, they are unlikely to get a second shot at it. So would Mantel or Strout or Munro get a second book deal these days? Eccles said she’d like to think so, but realistically it would be unlikely.

But Michael Mohammed Ahmad was adamant that ‘a good writer will always do well’ and will eventually find a publisher to champion them. He spoke at length about the number of wannabe writers who think they are creating works of genius but are completely deluded. ‘They self-publish because they suck,’ he said. As the Australian Society of Authors’ Juliet Rogers said, ‘Whoever said everybody has a book in them deserves to be shot.’ Her comment received laughter and cheers. And that’s where I’m going to leave you, because it’s a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy picture. Onward.

On reading and the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge

2 June 2016

One of the coolSouthern Cross things about being Ambassador for the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge is that you get an extra excuse to do school visits. Last week I headed out to Southern Cross Early Childhood School to meet a bunch of Kinder students. Let’s face it, Kinder is the most adorable school age, and these kids were so enthusiastic about books and reading that it made my heart sing.

Chatting to their executive teacher afterwards it was pretty clear why. The school’s approach to teaching their kids to read is to use as much ‘real literature’ as possible (as opposed to just home readers), and to let the kids choose whatever they want. No limits. The teacher shared that one child who is struggling to read, desperately wanted to borrow a chapter book and was then so thrilled with herself when she could correctly identify some of the words. She was reading a chapter book!

There are two things that I love about this. Firstly, mention home readers to any group of parents and teachers and a collective groan will erupt. The home readers most schools have are years old and deathly boring. They have no plot, two-dimensional characters, insipid illustrations and dull subject matter. Nothing to engage a child on any level. They send children the message that reading is boring, or worse, sheer hard work. For the children who have a home life that is rich in exciting reading experiences they will no doubt come out the other side of home readers. But for many children home readers, at that very crucial formative stage, come to define the reading experience.

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The second thing that I love about Southern Cross’ approach is that they don’t tell the children what they can and can’t read. I am a firm believer that children should be allowed to read whatever interests them. If they only want to read comics or manga or books about zombies, that’s totally fine. As soon as you tell a child that they can’t or shouldn’t be reading what they are interested in, you run the risk of damaging their relationship with books.

Serious readingThere was a time when my daughter obsessively read the Geronimo Stilton series and another series about fairies (the name of which it seems I have deliberately blocked from my memory). This was at a time when I still read to her (now she is 12 and will not be read to, thank you very much), so this meant that I got to share in this never-ending stream of awfulness. But I never let on, because she loved them. She is still a voracious reader (witness the sign she recently posted on her bedroom door during a weekend session, with spelling corrected by her younger brother who clearly has the editor gene). Some of her book choices resonate with me, others don’t. But they are her choices. And that’s important.

When my son was in Year 3 he desperately wanted to borrow books from a shelf that was forbidden because it was for the senior students. The well-meaning school librarian told him that these books were above his comprehension level and tried to direct him to a range of other ‘more appropriate’ books, all of which he thought were ‘boring’. Every week he came home with ‘appropriate’ books that he didn’t read. The forbidden books were by authors like Andy Griffiths and Morris Gleitzman, and we had already read most of them at home. These books were most definitely not outside of his comprehension level, but even if they were that would have been okay. He would have made the choice himself to put that book down and move on to something else. As it was, after several emails he was granted access to these books, though the other children weren’t.

Southern Cross_smlThe worst thing we can do is to censor our children’s choices. When we tell children that they are only permitted to read a certain kind of book that doesn’t appeal to them, we run the risk of turning them off books completely. I liken it to me being prevented from reading anything but Dan Brown novels. Pure torture! If Dan Brown was the only thing on offer, I’d never read again. He is my version of a home reader.

Many schools are adopting the same kind of approach as Southern Cross, but there are still many more that aren’t. We need children to associate books with pleasure. And what we now know is that children who read for pleasure do significantly better at school than their peers who don’t (Melbourne University study, 2013). We also know that the single most important indicator of how well a child will do at school directly correlates to the number of hours that they were read to as a toddler. So books are absolutely fundamental. Thank goodness for initiatives like the Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge which puts a spotlight on books as fun and exciting places to be.

Kids need (good) books. They allow kids to dream big and make new discoveries and go on adventures and grow their imaginations. As adults we need to find ways to get books into kids’ hands as often as possible.

THE GOOD STUFF

6 December 2015

Working in publishing is full of ups and downs, and it can be easy to dwell on the ‘downs’, allowing them to taint, or even eclipse, the ‘ups’. So in the spirit of celebrating all the good stuff, I thought I’d put together a newsy post about the ups of the last couple of months.

First up, the big news. I recently signed a contract for my next picture book, Seree’s Story, with Walker Books (publisher of Megumi and the Bear). Getting the call from your editor to give you the thumbs up is The Best. Let’s just say there was much dancing around the house and celebratory mid-afternoon champagne.

As a self-confessed elephant nerd, this book is very close to my heart. The manuscript has emerged from the culmination of many experiences, beginning with a trip to the circus at age seven. I started writing the book at 3.30 one morning when, seemingly out of nowhere, the opening line popped into my head. By 5.30 I had a first draft. Then came an artsACT-funded trip to volunteer at an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, which saw a complete rewrite, and now a book contract. I’ll save the full story behind the book for another time since it won’t be out for two years, but the story itself is about a captured baby elephant, forced to work in the circus, who is eventually rescued and brought to a sanctuary.

Picture books take a long time to come together (painfully long for the author who can do nothing but wait). One thing most readers aren’t aware of is that the publisher, not the author, chooses the illustrator. At this stage an illustrator for Seree’s Story has not yet been finalised, but Walker has such an incredible stable of talented illustrators to draw upon that I am awaiting the decision with great anticipation.

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Another call came at the end of last month from CAPO (Capital Arts Patrons Organisation) with exciting news of a different kind. The organisation has awarded me a travel grant to research a new full-length work. It’s a fledgling thing at the moment and a grant like this means everything in allowing me to develop it. I don’t want to say much more about it at this stage, except that I’m grateful to CAPO for believing in its potential.

On to more tangible things, and the publication of a couple of new short stories in Westerly and Contrappasso literary journals. Westerly is one of Australia’s oldest and most respected literary journals, and is always chock full of good stories and poetry. So I’m stoked to see my story, ‘Rescuing Chang’, in its pages. It’s set in Chiang Mai and features tuktuks, elephants, ladyboys and a magnetic attraction. It was pretty much the most fun I’ve had writing a story in recent times. ‘Hose’, on the other hand, which appears in Contrappasso is a much darker tale. It features alongside a Nobel Prize winner, no less. In fact, the line-up in this issue is crazy, with writing from China, Malaysia, Iraq, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Russia, Ireland, England, Argentina, the US, New Zealand and, of course, Australia.

I must also give a shout-out to Duncan Felton and the Grapple Annual which has just picked up a MUBA. This award is close to my heart as Two Steps Forward was shortlisted for its inaugural award, but Grapple Publishing has gone one better and actually won the thing. It’s great news for publishing in Canberra, and I’m so pleased to have a short story included in what is now a multi-award-winning publication. Look out for the next annual which is due out before the end of the year.

Still on short fiction, the ACT Writers’ Centre invited me to run a six-week short story critique group which turned out to be even more enjoyable than expected, largely because I had such a lovely group of emerging writers to work with. I’m told feedback was entirely positive (a rarity, apparently — so how nice is that?) and I’ve been asked to run another next year. So if you’re a writer with some stories in your back pocket keep an eye out.

As always I’ve been working on all of the above around editing books for various publishers. November has been editing madness with two novels, two picture books, one non-fiction book, and five novellas all at various stages. There’s lots to be excited about but I’ll mention just two. The first is a stunning picture book by Coral Vass called Sorry Day (out with National Library of Australia Publishing 2017). This is a heartfelt and beautifully-written story about the Stolen Generation that moves so cleverly between past and present. I can’t wait for kids to get their hands on this book, and I’m sure it’s going to become a staple of schools around the country. The second is really five, that is five novellas by Nick Earls (out with Inkerman & Blunt 2016). There’s a lightness to these stories that is so enjoyable, but then they sneak up on you to reveal deep truths about families that are struggling in different ways. Working with Nick on these novellas has been such a pleasure, and I really hope they do well; they certainly deserve to. So look out for the Wisdom Tree series, launching early next year.

As we head into December I’m looking forward to getting back to my own writing (I have barely put down a word during this madly busy November). I still have another three books to finish editing before Christmas but then come January I’m jetting overseas on a writing adventure! And my littlest is off to preschool in February, which means two-point-five days to write and edit and read! I know I’m imagining that I can pack in way more than I actually can (the literary version of eyes being bigger than the stomach) but nevertheless it’ll be the first time in 13 years that I won’t have to fit in everything around full-time mothering. And that, my friends, is thrilling.