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The journey to publishing my first children’s novel has been full of roadblocks and rocky bridges. The good news? I’ve picked up tips (and anti-tips) at every stage that I’d like to share with everyone…
For me this was the easy stage! Aspiring writers should read like maniacs to be aware of the work of other writers, both local and international. There is no point in writing a killer story if it is similar to something already published. Unfortunately, that means no scar-faced teen wizards named Barry.
Here’s a simple equation: the more you write, the better you get at writing. By the time I was ready to be born, I had already completed my first three manuscripts (most of the time spent looking around for somewhere to plug my laptop). When the doctor slapped me on the back, I nodded at him and went: ‘Waaah!’ Which of course meant: ‘Ah, you must be my agent!’ I started writing homemade comics in my childhood before I started writing for surf magazines at the age of 17. Since then I have published thousands of articles and pieces of fiction. Many were ‘hack’ stories; a few won me prizes and contests. All helped build my writing skills and voice.
A local teacher read my first manuscript to his class (thanks, Bob Swoope). The feedback was great. One child enthused, “It’s just like Harry Potter, only funnier!” I ate from that compliment for a month.
I’m lucky that ten year olds believe that payment in Paddle Pops is the industry standard for editors, otherwise I’d be broke right now (well, actually I’m broke). I read all my stories to my daughter, her friends, and any young relatives I can pick up. Every time my youth focus groups wander to the nearest TV, I know the chapter I’m reading needs a major reconstruction. Every time the kids are glued to their chairs and demanding more, I know my story is going in the right direction (and I bought the right glue and Paddle Pops).
It is useful to include adults in your story as well. Adult writers, that is. I have learned that it is best to avoid family members and friends unless you enjoy fleeing these people when they see you. Join a local or online critique group instead. Growing elephant thick skin will also help you through this stage.
Finally, you think your book is finished. It is not. Time to let the manuscript breathe for a month, before looking at it with fresh eyes. Be relentless. Hack those redundant adjectives that editors loathe. Delete any scene that doesn’t sparkle, advancing the plot on multiple levels and forcing the reader to keep reading.
As a children’s writer, you’re competing not only against the mutant slush pile from hell and other children’s books, but against the Internet, computer games, and 24-hour cartoon networks. Remember: the modern child is smarter, smarter and easily bored than any generation before.
Crunch time. When you submit your first manuscript, get straight into writing the second one. If your manuscript doesn’t come back, send another submission on the same day (or better yet, send two). For every five rejections, rewrite. Never surrender.
Over the course of several months, I sent my manuscript to every agent in the country. They all refused, until I was offended. So I focused directly on publishers instead. I almost fell out of my computer chair when the second answered immediately. Melbourne’s wonderful Ibis Publishing liked my story so much, they asked me to commit to writing two more in the same series. Truth is, to publish, I would commit to writing a sequel naked in a bubble in the middle of Pitt Street. Luckily they didn’t. But I still have my bubble.
More than a year has passed since my book was accepted. My patient editor Belinda Bolliger pushed me through two more rewrites to add backstory, remove my ellipsis fever, and tone down my more extreme jokes. My main character has become less obnoxious and had a sex change from girl to boy. How come? Apparently, girls will read about boys; but boys are not happy to read about girls.
I originally named my book after the planet of talking horses and mutant chooks at the center of my story. However, Uponia (too strange) was changed to Planet Horse Fart (too rude) to ZAPP to Planet Horse (on horseback) to Raz James and The Amazing ZAPP Discovery (too vague) to Erasmus James and the Galactic ZAPP Machine (too .. wait , that’s it!).
The cover art has changed almost as many times, while the publication date has been pushed back from last Christmas to May to June to September. Fingers crossed on the latter!
It is important to remain flexible and positive through such changes and delays. Yoga helps. It is better to get everything right than to rush an inferior product. The extra time has also given me time to set up a website, work out a battle plan with the Ibis marketing team Anthony and Paola and watch my hair grow even greyer. Meanwhile, my bank account is nosediving, but who really needs fancy mod-cons like electricity and food?
On the road
Last month I drove to Sydney to psyche up the Pan Macmillan sales team. I delivered a ten minute standup comedy routine and was as surprised as anyone when the friendly team laughed at my weak jokes and seemed excited about selling my book. On the long drive home, I realized that this would be just the first of many such promotional trips: to schools, book signings, anything and everything that helps me sell a few more copies and do what I love so much. Then the rain started to pour and my front tire blew out. Jumping into the bush, I realized I was about to experience another first on the scenic detour known as Publication Road.
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