This blog post might be of great interest to emerging writers, especially YA and children’s authors.
Recently, on a Saturday morning, three members of SCWBI Canberra carpooled and headed off on a memorable journey through artist-worthy Australian bush landscapes to a quaint little cottage, nestled in the Araluen Valley. We were trekking, on a mission to absorb the wisdom of a seasoned author, Jackie French, (Senior Australian of the Year in 2015 and Australian Children’s Laureate for 2014-2015), who had much to share and who generously donated her valuable time to give us a workshop on writing for children and young adults.
We set off early, making a coffee stop at Braidwood, following detailed directions and hot tips given by the very efficient ACT SCWBI committee, about the long trek there and the likelihood of having to endure a toilet that was not in complete working order. (We ‘went’ in Braidwood.) The trek was long, but not arduous, and it ended up being a twelve-hour day, by the time we got home, and so worth it.
The day was inspiring, illuminating and insightful for the 40 emerging and established authors who attended and Jackie spoke from her heart. She had us engaged, entertained and enthralled through every minute.
I had heard Jackie speak before, at an ASA conference two years ago and my first impressions were that here was a woman of passion, who loved being an author and who worked at it professionally with heart and zest, as well as with a deep moral obligation to write what matters for children and to invite them to see the world through different lenses.
Jackie spoke of many things throughout the day, answering our questions all day long. She spoke for seven hours and not a bored moment was experienced by any of us. That’s an extremely rare talent alone. Never mind her skilful writing!
Of course, I took copious notes and here are the main takeaways that I recorded on the day.
PART ONE: ON THE CRAFT & ART OF WRITING
- You can teach writers to write well, but exceptional writers are born with that talent.
Stephen King said that we can all learn to write well, but only a few are exceptional and they are born to it. Jackie gave great examples of the pitfalls of writing, which she flagged for especially newly emerging writers. I know she’s right, as I have experienced these first-hand, through my clients. These included:-
- So much of what we write is cliché
Jackie pointed out that our default setting in communication is the over-use of cliché which makes work too predictable. This can rob the reader of narrative tension and the imperative to keep reading.
- We should use an element of misdirection
Jackie took us through a delightful exercise on the clichéd murder mystery plot, and invited the audience to misdirect. It inspired ideas and even gave Tracy Hawkins, a murder mystery writer, new ideas for her current series! Brainstorming and deep thinking are part of the process of writing. Jackie said that she often first thinks of an idea for a book and it can be many years of thinking about it, before she writes it. This was much food for thought for our beginning writers.
- You only have 75 seconds to engage an acquisitions/submissions manager
Jackie gave insights into the acquisition process. Submitting a manuscript, needs to pass through many readers. If selected, it will face the acquisitions team which includes sales, marketing, publisher, editors. They all need to accept the manuscript, prior to an offer of publication. Jackie’s advice is to create a powerful beginning, from the first page/paragraph to engage the publishing house. Make it polished, succinct and compelling. This is invaluable advice for authors who are self-editing and preparing their books for presentation. Making it succinct is imperative. The age-old adage still holds true: “if in doubt, cut it out”.
- Editors are right if they say that something doesn’t work
This is a powerful piece of advice. As a book coach, I find that working with well-established writers with a back list, they are open to feedback. Sometimes inexperienced writers are far too sensitive and married to their text to take on or consider editorial advice, to their detriment as editing is part of the process.
- Children need to learn how the world works
The gem from Jackie is that as writers, we need to open the world to children, through creating different perspectives. I found illuminating, Jackie’s view that while children are aware of the truth, they can engage in the escapism of the story, and hold two realitis simultaneously. So while children believe in Santa, they are aware that Santa cannot tuck them into bed.
- Kids can cope with a lot of reality if there is hope
Jackie feels that young readers can handle difficult topics, if there is a happy ending. Hope is the essential element. Humanity can meet challenges in history from the Great Plague to war and survive. Story can equip children with insights that provide resilience in dealing with life’s great challenges. So, the happy ending is a way forward.
- Deep themes are necessary and complexity is desirable – children can take it
Writing successfully for children is writing for the hardest audience of all. Children know when you are writing down to them. Writing for children includes, literacy, entertainment and search for meaning.
- Write what you don’t know, but through your own authentic perspective
It is a common misconception, according to Jackie, that we should write what we know, but indeed it is the joy of discovering what you don’t know that keeps you fresh as a writer. She encourages writers to explore new ideas and concepts. The only no-no in her book is that you must not write from a perspective that you have not lived yourself. She argues against writing from the perspective of an indigenous person today or from a gay, when you have not experienced it in some direct or indirect way. She cited an anecdote about the American sci-fi writer James Tiptree Junior, who was a female author and developed a reputation for being a male author who understood women. Apparently, she was outed when she wrote a masturbation scene from a male perspective and it was not authentic enough, so it became known that she was in fact, a woman.
- In historical novels, letters are not as good as primary sources as are diaries
Jackie’s passion for history is evident in her historical novels. She advocates being a researcher and seeks to uncover the truths of an episode in history. She tends to dig deeper, often discovering unknown facts which she includes in her books.
- In picture books, every single page must break with narrative expectation
Going through her famous Diary of a Wombat book, Jackie demonstrated how, each page breaks with narrative expectation. The reader thinks one thing will happen and then an entirely different sequence of events unfolds, consistently surprising and delighting the young readers.
- Picture books are expensive to produce compared with chapter books
Publishing is a business and costs of production are vital to consider when publishing a picture book. Self-publishing is as a consequence a serious financial investment. She suggested that a picture book may have to sell 10,000 copies to recover costs. A chapter book is much cheaper to produce and may only need to sell 2,000 to 3,000 to recover costs. This impacts on the publisher decision-making process for acquisitions.
EARNING A LIVING FROM WRITING
Then we got to the nitty gritty – making a living as a writer. She dismissed the common misconception (nay the absolute furphy), that most authors only make an income of $13,000 p.a. (Good on you, Jackie!) It is totally variable. While some authors earn $200,000 to $300,000 p.a., others earn nothing. It is possible to make a living if you put the work in, you are good at your craft, luck, but it is an investment in yourself, with unknown outcomes.
- What is success? Bestseller or just a good solid seller?
There was much discussion about success and whether it is important to aim for “bestseller” status. Jackie leans towards having a good solid mainstream author status, rather than having a best seller. Many of the Christmas “best seller” books are often gone within three months after Christmas, never to be reprinted. She cited Blanche D’Alpuget’s best seller sold 90,000 copies and then was remaindered. Bryce Courtney promoted his own books through buying 100,000 copies of his books on a “sale or return” basis. However this is a risky strategy.
- Beware of advances
This was an interesting anecdote that spoke volumes in terms of best sellers. Apparently, an author she knows well received a $100,000 advance from a starry-eyed publisher who predicted that the book would sell 100,000 copies. It was a mistake for this author to take the advance (as she admitted in hindsight), because although the book sold 39,000 copies in a six-week period, it lost money for the publishers due to the high advance. Jackie is not concerned about advances as much as the sales and promotions.
- Best advice Jackie was ever given, was: “You will live on your backlist”
Considering all her experience to date, this was the best – her backlist continues to sell ad infinitum. It’s about writing, publishing, writing, publishing, and building up a backlist that will continue to bring income for years to come. It’s the “jam” in every author’s refrigerator.
- The second best advice she got was: “Never believe your own press releases”.
This was tongue-in-cheek, but of course, it’s useful to keep your feet planted firmly on the ground, in any case.
- A good strategy in relation to contracts is to ask for rising royalties
Jackie suggested that negotiating with a big publisher is very doable, as long as it’s reasonable. One suggestion was to ask for “rising royalties”, so that the more the book sells, the more royalties you would receive.
This was gold to me. Even as a book coach, I had never considered such a deal for my clients, but in future, I sure will! Thanks, Jackie.
The day was interspersed with wonderful anecdotes from Jackie. Her passion for history was first planted at the age of three, by her mother and grandmother. The passion shone through when she uncovered so many titbits of history, in the course of her writing career.
A highlight was her reading of the prologue from “Goodbye Mr Hitler”, and you could have heard a pin drop. The writing jumped off the page as she read it, and tremendous applause followed. And there you have inspiration, ladies and gentlemen, pure and simple.
We finished the day the way we started it. Remembering that what we do not only matters to children, but to society at large!
I would like to congratulate Nicole Godwin, ACT Coordinator for SCWBI and the ACT committee, Cate Whittle, Emma Allen, Grace Bryant and Shaye Wardrop for arranging and executing such a sensational workshop. (Did I mention the delicious lunch and the port-a-loo?) We are all very grateful. And of course, to Jackie herself, an author who without a doubt, has changed many lives. May we all tread that meandering path to reach the point at which we too can make a difference.
© Suzanne Kiraly, February 2018