The journey to having my first novel for children published has been riddled with road blocks and shonky bridges. The good news? At every rickety stage I’ve picked up tips (and anti-tips) which I’m happy to share with everyone…
For me, this was the easy stage! Aspiring writers need to read like maniacs to be aware of other writers’ work, both locally and internationally. There is no point writing a killer story if it resembles something already published. Sadly, that means no scar-faced teen wizards named Barry.
Here’s a simple equation: the more you write, the better you become at writing. By the time I was ready to be born I’d already completed my first three manuscripts (spent most of the time looking around for somewhere to plug in my laptop). When the doctor smacked me on the backside I squinted at him and went, ‘Waaah!’ Which of course meant, ‘Ah, you must be my agent!’ I went on to scrawl home-made comics throughout my childhood before I began writing for surf magazines at age 17. Since then, I’ve had thousands of articles and pieces of fiction published. A lot were ‘hack’ stories; a few won me awards and contests. All helped build my writing skills and voice.
A local teacher read my first manuscript to his class (thank you, Bob Swoope). The feedback was terrific. One kid enthused, “It’s just like Harry Potter, only funnier!” I dined off that compliment for a month.
I’m lucky ten year olds believe payment in Paddle Pops is the industry standard for editors, else I’d be broke by now (well, actually I am broke). I read all my stories to my daughter, her friends, and any young relatives I can bail up. Whenever my juvenile focus groups wander off to the nearest TV, I know the chapter I’m reading needs major reconstruction. Whenever the kids sit glued to their chairs and demand more, I know my story is heading in the right direction (and I’ve bought the right glue and Paddle Pops).
It’s useful to let adults rip into your story as well. Adult writers, that is. I’ve learned it’s best to avoid family members and friends, unless you enjoy making these people flee whenever 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 ready. It isn’t. Time to let the manuscript breathe for a month, before revising it with fresh eyes. Be ruthless. Hack those excess adjectives that editors loathe. Delete every scene that does not sparkle, advance the plot on multiple levels and compel the reader to keep reading.
As a writer for children, you’re not only competing against the mutant slush pile from Hell and other kid’s books, but against the internet, computer games and 24 hour cartoon networks. Remember: the modern kid is smarter, more savvy and easily bored than any generation before.
Crunch time. When you submit your first manuscript, get stuck straight into writing the second. When your manuscript returns unloved, send another submission out on the same day (or even better, 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 rejected until I was dejected. So I directly targeted publishers instead. I almost fell out of my computer chair when the second one immediately replied. The wonderful Ibis Publishing of Melbourne liked my story so much, they asked me to commit to writing two more in the same series. Truth is, to be published, I would have committed to writing a sequel naked in a bubble in the middle of Pitt Street. Luckily, they didn’t. But I still have my bubble.
Over a year has gone by since my book was accepted. My patient editor Belinda Bolliger has driven me through two more rewrites to add backstory, cull my ellipsis fever and tone down my more extreme jokes. My major character has become less obnoxious and had a sex change from girl to boy. Why? Apparently, girls will read about boys; but boys aren’t happy reading about girls.
I originally named my book after the planet of talking horses and mutant chooks at the centre of my story. However, Uponia (too strange) was changed to Planet Horse Fart (too rude) to ZAPP to Planet Horse (too horsey) 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 date of publication has been put back from last Christmas to May to June to September. Fingers crossed on that last one!
It is vital to remain flexible and positive through such changes and delays. Yoga helps. Better to get everything right than to rush out 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 turn even more grey. Meanwhile, my bank account has nose-dived, 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 feeble jokes and seemed enthused about selling my book. On the long drive home, I realised this would be but the first of many such promotional trips: to schools, book signings, anything and everything that will help me sell a few more copies and keep doing what I love so much. Then the rain began to bucket and my front tyre blew out. As I bounced into the bush, I realised I was about to experience another first on the scenic detour known as Publication Road.