You have written that you cannot churn out children’s picture books on demand, as you can with other kinds of books, because you need inspiration: “I need something to stir me in some way and as I believe good picture books are about emotions, I need to start with an emotional core.” Could you describe the emotional core you started with for one of your picture books?
I am struggling with this at the moment with a chapter book I am writing. I have some great characters and a solid plot idea, but my story is lacking that emotional core which will hold it all together and pump blood through its veins. I had a similar problem when writing my picture book, You Wish, Jellyfish. I loved the sound of the phrase “you wish, jellyfish” and could hear it as a gorgeous refrain in a picture book. But what would a jellyfish wish for? A bit of research solved this problem and I soon had my first line: Jellyfish was tired of being a drifter. Then the story stalled. Why? How? What’s this all about? These questions hounded me and I didn’t have any satisfying answers. It wasn’t until a couple of small domestic moments illuminated the notion that sometimes you can’t always get what you wish for and that there are some things in life that you just can’t change that I had my “hallelujah moment” and knew I’d found the heart of my story.
You have also worked as an editor for several book publishers. What are three of the most important aspects you look for, or are most often lacking, in fiction manuscripts?
1. Voice. Authentic, unique voice.
2. Character. Authentic, relatable, well developed characters that will stir emotion in readers and make them turn the pages to find out what is going to happen next.
3. Heart and soul.
What kinds of fiction do you most enjoy reading, and do you have some favourites?
I read widely across many genres, but I usually tend to favour realistic fiction over fantasy. And at the moment I seem to be favouring YA fiction over adult fiction! (I think Aussie YA writers rock!) But my all-time favourites are To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee and The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
Teachers are extraordinarily busy people. (I must out myself as an ex-schoolie, here!) So I believe the best teacher’s notes are written in a format that allows teachers to make a copy and plop them in their programs. They should contain easy to organise and administer activities that not only bring the book to life in the classroom, but also tick as many curriculum boxes as possible. (Teacher’s notes for my latest novel, Get a Grip, Cooper Jones are now available at http://www.walkerbooks.com.au/Teachers/Classroom-Ideas.)
Children’s books are short. What is the key to packing value into such a small piece of writing and making it special?
There are obviously lots of factors that contribute to making a children’s book sparkle. Many of them are the same as for writing for adults: voice, character, heart etc. But I believe there are two elements that are particularly important for writing for children. One: Every word must count – must hold its weight, serve a purpose. Two: The author must view the world and tell the story from very deeply within the child’s point of view. This second point, in my opinion, is very diffiuclt to achieve and what sets apart the okay from the great.
There is an article on your website about the collaboration between an author, illustrator, editor and designer. What are some of the most important considerations in putting together a great team to produce a fiction book for publication?
Every collaboration is different, but it is all about drawing on people’s strengths and securing the best matches. The first step usually is to find the “right” illustrator – the illustrator that is the perfect match for the text with regard to style, age group and visual storytelling ability. Once the illustrator is secured, then this often informs the choice of designer. Again, it’s all about creating the right match, considering and balancing relative experience of the team members, matching styles etc .
What is the most important piece of advice you would like to give for new fiction writers?
Write from the heart.
Never give up.
What is next for your fiction writing?
I have spent most of the last twelve months reworking and developing my latest novel for readers aged 10 – 14, Get a Grip, Cooper Jones. Now that Cooper is finally out, I am itching to get back to the projects that have been on the back burner for some time. So, at the moment, I am working on another Strange Little Monster story, messing around with two picture book and one early chapter book idea and also trying to find some solid time to get back to my YA thriller, A Simple Act. I am about halfway through the first draft of this, and although I haven’t added to the word count for many months, I am constantly thinking about it. But like many people, time is my enemy.
The Australian Literature Review