The journey to the publication of my first children’s novel has been littered with roadblocks and narrow bridges. The good news? At every rickety stage I’ve collected tips (and anti-tips) that I’m happy to share with everyone …
For me, this was the easy stage! Aspiring writers need to read like maniacs to keep up with the work of other writers, both locally and internationally. There is no point in writing a killer story if it looks like something already published. Sadly, that means there are no scarred teenage wizards named Barry.
Here’s a simple equation: the more you write, the better you write. By the time I was ready to be born, I had already completed my first three manuscripts (I spent most of my time looking for a place to connect my laptop). When the doctor patted me on the back, I narrowed my eyes at him and said, ‘Wow!’ Which of course meant: ‘Ah, you must be my agent!’ I kept scribbling homemade comics as a child before I started writing for surf magazines at 17. Since then, I have published thousands of articles and works of fiction. Many were “hacker” stories; some won me awards and contests. They all helped develop my voice and writing skills.
A local teacher read my first manuscript to his class (thanks Bob Swoope). The response was excellent. One boy enthusiastically said, “It’s like Harry Potter, only more fun!” I dined on that compliment for a month.
I’m lucky ten-year-olds think paying at Paddle Pops is the industry standard for publishers, otherwise I’d already be broke (well, I’m actually broke). I read all my stories to my daughter, her friends, and any young relatives I can rescue. Whenever my youth focus groups head to the nearest television, I know that the chapter I am reading needs a major rebuild. Whenever 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 popsicle sticks).
It is also helpful to allow adults to intervene in your story. Adult writers, that is. I learned that it is best to avoid family and friends, unless you enjoy making these people run away every time they see you. Instead, join a local or online critique group. The growth of thick skin like an elephant will also help you at this stage.
Finally, you think your book is ready. It is not. It is time to let the manuscript breathe for a month, before reviewing it with new eyes. Be ruthless. Hack those excess adjectives that publishers hate. Eliminate all the scenes that do not shine, advance the plot in several levels and force the reader to continue reading.
As a children’s writer, you are not only competing against Hell’s mutant sleet heap and other children’s books, but also against the internet, computer games, and cartoon networks 24 hours a day. Remember: the modern child is smarter, smarter, and easily bored than any previous generation.
Time of truth. When you submit your first manuscript, work directly on writing the second. When your manuscript returns unloved, send another submission the same day (or better yet, send two). For every five rejections, rewrite. Never give up.
Over the course of several months, I sent my manuscript to all the agents in the country. They all rejected until I got discouraged. Instead, I went directly to the editors. I almost fell out of my computer chair when the second answered right away. The wonderful Ibis publisher in Melbourne liked my story so much that they asked me to commit to writing two more of the same series. The truth is that, to be published, I would have promised to write a nude sequel in a bubble in the middle of Pitt Street. Fortunately, they did not. But I still have my bubble.
It has been more than a year since my book was accepted. My patient editor Belinda Bolliger has walked me through two more rewrites to add a backstory, eliminate my ellipsis fever, and tone down my most extreme jokes. My main character has become less obnoxious and has changed sex from girl to boy. Why? Apparently girls will read about boys; but boys don’t like 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 weird) changed from Planet Horse Fart (too rude) to ZAPP to Planet Horse (too little horse) to Raz James and The Amazing ZAPP Discovery (too lazy) to Erasmus James and the Galactic ZAPP Machine (too. … Wait, that’s it!).
The cover has changed almost the same amount of times, while the publication date has been pushed back from last Christmas to May and from June to September. Let’s cross our fingers on the last one!
It is vital to remain flexible and positive through these changes and delays. Yoga helps. It is better to do everything right than to launch an inferior product. The extra time has also given me time to create a website, come up with a battle plan with the Ibis marketing team Anthony and Paola, and watch my hair turn even grayer. Meanwhile, my bank account has sunk, but who really needs modern conveniences like electricity and food?
On the road
Last month I drove to Sydney to cheer on the Pan Macmillan sales team. I gave a ten minute comedy routine and was as surprised as anyone when the friendly team laughed at my weak jokes and seemed excited about the sale of my book. On the long drive home, I realized that this would be the first of many promotional trips of this kind: to schools, book signings, anything that helps me sell a few more copies and keep doing what I love so much. Then it started to rain heavily and my front tire blew out. As I bounced off the bush, I realized I was about to experience another first on the scenic detour known as Publication Road.