I'm interrupting this dormant dog-blog to write about my entry into the world of children's literature - there will still be the occasional mention of my erstwhile doggie companion who is still a pup in spirit, if not in size.

26 Jun 2013

Meeting a hero!

This is what I wrote before I met Bob Graham –

        Today I’m meeting one of my heroes – 
Bob Graham picture
Bob really is a dog lover!
book writer and illustrator extraordinaire. It’s hard to know what I’m going to say besides ‘love your work’. I don’t want to be a suck – but my girls and I have taken such pleasure in his books over the years. His books have that magical quality which allows you to discover something new every time you read them. There are subtle life messages and they’re full of family love – I think that’s why I enjoy them so much!

After meeting Bob Graham –

     We met at a cafe in Federation Square with the lovely Helen Chamberlin playing chaperone. Bob looks like a retired school teacher - grey hair, beard and glasses. Apparently he’s a bit on the reclusive side...but he gave no sign of this to me. Rather, he was like a friendly, well-connected uncle who wanted nothing but the best for me and my career.

      He shared the story of his first publication Pete and Roland based on a true story about his son and a budgie. He created the book (he’s been drawing all his life)  and dropped it into the publishers on his way into work in Canberra one day. And – as seems to be the way with some lucky few – he was picked up straight away!

     Bob then showed me some of his "dummy" books - minature mocked-up picture books complete with words and illustrations.  Most of his work starts with illustration, doodling around and then asking the ‘What if?’ question. However, he also showed me a work-in-progress about a sparrow that travelled by ship from India (?) and escaped at the other end in Perth – where apparently sparrows are outlawed. What a great premise for a story!

     Bob then surprised me by revealing he’d done research on me! He’d read my CV and the picture book manuscripts I’d submitted for the Maurice Saxby mentorship. We spoke about my time working for the national wire service Australian Associated Press (AAP) where I had to write up news stories of 500 words in the space of half an hour. He said this was fabulous training for picture book writing and he very kindly said there was nothing anyone could teach me about writing - I just had to go and do it. Shucks!

     It was a fabulous morning – thanks Bob and Helen.

     And Bob – in case you’ve missed him (not sure how, this being his blog and all) this is our gorgeous boy Pip!
Pip with the Rose-bear

Meeting the people who can change your life...

While it’s every aspiring writers dream to have a personal introduction to a publisher, their capacity to launch (or not) your career is incredibly daunting. I wondered how it would work. Surely, they wouldn’t get all four of us to meet the publishers at the same time? And if we did, how could one stand out from the others? How do you communicate that “hey, I’m talented and easy to get along with and would love to work with you” in a non-sucky, non-overbearing way?

        Well, we did all meet together and, of course, it was fine. And the publishers turned out to be surprisingly nice, normal people – not exactly sure what I was expecting.
        First up was Erica Wagner at Allen & Unwin. First impressions
Children's publisher Erica Wagner
– like Books Illustrated, Allen & Unwin is housed in a non-descript terrace house – this time double-storied in East Melbourne. There was a dog in the reception – another good sign – although I went to the loo when I arrived and there was a strict instruction manual above the toilet roll about the correct way to place it on the spiel. Hmm…

        We met with Erica in the board room. Also, like Books Illustrated she had pre-prepared a platter of tantalising goodies for us. Erica told us that Allen & Unwin publish about 10 to 12 picture books a year. They distribute through Faber and use a UK-based company called Nosy Crow to create picture book apps.

        Erica said the Australian public was hungry for Aboriginal stories and showed us original illustrations by Terry Denton of one
of their latest picture books Jandamarra. The illustrations of the Australian outback were glorious! The story, written by Mark Greenwood, is about an Aboriginal outlaw who, after becoming a police officer of sorts, later freed a mob of Aboriginals and was then tracked down and shot by a cop. We talked about the difficulty of white people writing Aboriginal stories and the negotiations with the community that need to take place. 

     I’ve always thought of Allen & Unwin as a high literature kind of publisher and was quite surprised when Erica confided that they’d love to find the next Wimpy Kid. She’s looking for fantastic voice, characters kids can relate to, a good story and authenticity. She said you need to be able to imagine giving it to a 10-year-old and them liking it.

Later that afternoon we went to the flash new offices of Penguin. Located in the Docklands new development area the office was open-plan and felt light and airy. There was something about it that made me think it seemed like an architectural firm rather than a publishing house.

     We sat around a little table in an office with children’s editors
Amy Thomas
Amy Thomas and Katrina Lehman. Katrina was very pregnant – in fact it was her last day on the job before going off on maternity leave. I gave Katrina a copy of Ferret on the Loose, joking that she'd have plenty of time to read it while breastfeeding (and then mentally kicking myself!) 

They told us that Penguin publish between 12 and 14 picture books per year. And then went on to talk about who those books were by - Alison Lester, Pamela Allen, Graeme Base, Mem Fox and the like. "So not much competition at all," I joked (somebody shoot me now!) 

They showed us a couple of junior series. Juliet as a Vet and the Eerie Series which was written by a number of authors but marketed as the one writer - S.Carey. 

So in a nutshell - editors are nice normal people - who knew? And yes, they want great stories, they just don't quite know what that is until they see it. Ah, there's the rub!

2 Jun 2013

Maurice Saxby mentorship - Day 2

It was my first official day of the Maurice Saxby mentorship today and I met my mentor Hazel Edwards in her eastern suburbs home.

Children's author Hazel Edwards

Hazel in person proved much like her public persona – a human dynamo. She greeted me warmly, complimenting me on my punctuality and ushered me into a sunlit sitting room. Before I’d even sat down, she warned me that her comments would be blunt – she wanted me to get the most from her critiquing.

I was surprised that my story formerly known as The Floordrobe Phantom (now simply Floordrobe on her advice) was her favourite of my three picture book offerings. She loved the floordrobe concept – something she said every kid and parent could relate to. She then went through the manuscript line by line. She liked my use of threes – floordrobing is like bungy jumping, surfing or sky-diving. But she had concerns about the names I’d used for the children – a no-name gender neutral main character has broader appeal, she said. And she pointed out passages that needed dramatization.

Hazel also went briefly through my other picture book manuscripts (I submitted three in my mentorship application) recommending one as worthy of development into a longer work and the other as having series potential. I must admit the idea of a series about a character called Haggis McStink is quite appealing!

We finished the session with Hazel talking about the need for self-promotion. I was already aware of the need to get cracking on these aspects and felt too ashamed to admit that in a fit of despair last year, I had put my writing ambitions aside and taken up a proper job. Of course, the offer of publication for Ferret on the Loose arrived about two months later.

Now I feel like all these opportunities are opening up and I’m seriously lacking the time to take full advantage of them.

So, on my to-do list (with Hazel’s recommendations):

-          * Create an author website/blog (which is probably NOT this dog blog)

-          * Make author business cards

-          * Join the ASA (Australian Society of Authors) and/or SCWIBI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators)

-          * Create a profile on Linked In

-          * Start tweeting

-          * Contact local papers about Ferret     


Helen Chamberlin – publisher at Windy Hollow who coordinated the mentorship program – met us ‘mintees' – the others were Neridah McMullen, Nadine Cranenburgh and Laura Wilson – next at Books Illustrated in Middle Park.

            I remembered this wonderful book shop from its former home at GasWorks in Albert Park but it is now located in a non-descript terrace house on Beaconsfield Parade. Hence I drove past it the first time, panicking because I was only just on time and didn’t have time to not find it. On my second drive around the block, the outside name plate caught my eye and I managed to park almost directly outside.

The two Anns – illustrator extraordinaire Ann James and former teacher-librarian Ann Haddon – are in possession of a treasure trove of children’s books. It was like stepping into a Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory of children’s books – beautifully displayed picture books, rows and rows of the latest chapter books and gorgeous original illustrations adorning the walls. If money was no object I could’ve gone crazy!

After our guided tour, we sat in a cozy dining room, with the Ann’s two dogs keeping us company in their baskets by the gas fire. As we chatted I became aware that Ann James was the Ann James (so much for doing my research!) and was a little over-awed.
The talented Ann James
Ann has illustrated a lot of Margaret Wild’s books – one of my favourite picture book writers – and their joint The Midnight Gang was one of mine and my daughters’ favourite bedtime stories.

It was fascinating talking to Ann about how she approaches a text and what she likes and doesn’t like from authors. For instance, she was saying how much she enjoyed receiving Gillian Rubenstein’s Dog in, Cat Out manuscript.

For those unfamiliar with the book, it’s aimed at babies and toddlers and reflects the different times of day in a typical young child’s life by when the dog is in and the cat is out. There are very few words in this picture book but Ann said she adored the challenge and the opportunity for her imagination to run wild. She said she studied the text to such an extent that she’d be like “hmm, there’s a full stop there, what does that mean?”  

She also spoke about the pacing of picture books and showed
us the original paintings from one of her most recent books Chester and Gill. She explained about an error in the book to do with pacing – ie, the words preceded what happened in the pictures.

        All in all it was a very enjoyable afternoon and, in spite of our comparative artistic poverty, none of us were able to leave without buying a book or two.      

27 May 2013

Maurice Saxby mentorship - Day 1



 Today I became a butterfly.
 After a seeming eternity of writing, striving, giving up – starting over, taking courses, submitting, getting rejections, giving up and starting over again, at long last I can call myself an author. No longer the under-achieving caterpillar – today I spread my wings and it felt great!

No matter how much self belief you can muster, how many times you tell yourself I write, therefore I’m a writer – it’s not until you hold that magical first book in your hands that you feel able to say ‘I’m an author’.

(*Disclaimer: To all you struggling writers out there - and that includes you my dear mintees - your cocoon is showing!)
So my first book Ferret on the Loose was launched today at the opening of the Literature Alive festival. It was launched by the Stonnington Mayor Matthew Koce. Not only had he read my book but he’d enjoyed it – waxing lyrical about the adventure, mystery, humour and life lessons.

Me pretending to sign a book while grinning (oh and that's Nipper)

He did mispronounce Gallagher – we have a silent ‘g’ in the middle which certain members of the family are adamant about (I’m one). The other members of my family, the ones who don’t insist on the g, feel irrationally embarrassed by those who do. As I stopped to correct the Mayor, I could see my brother in the audience flush and role his eyes. I don’t care. It was my moment in the sun and hey, my grandmother would’ve been proud! About the g that is, not sure what she’d make of me writing a book for kids about ferrets.

But I digress. I had to say a few words and while I’ve become a little bit more relaxed about public speaking in recent years, I was still pretty nervous. In my mind’s eye, the launch would’ve been to a hall packed with kids. I’d bought a gorgeous ferret puppet to aid ‘my show’ and vaguely contemplated studying up on ventriloquism. I did google ‘tips for stand-up comedians’ but this didn’t prove a very learning experience.

The audience for the launch was actually composed of big wigs from the City of Stonnington, the National Education and Employment Foundation (NEEF) and the Children’s Literature Australia Network (CLAN). I had attracted a handful of friends and family but 2pm on a weekday was not a great time to draw people in – workers at work and Mum’s not left with enough time to get to school pick-up.

So, by this stage, feeling quite jittery, I began – starting with the correction of my name and followed by mucking up the acronym for CLAN – the dear people who awarded me the Maurice Saxby mentorship in the first place. So far so bad! Perhaps I had a premonition that I would stumble in the beginning because I had the (somewhat genius if I do say so myself) idea of keeping my ferret puppet hidden behind a screen. As I blundered, I asked the audience to excuse me a moment, ducked behind the screen and came out with ‘Nipper’ to help with my nerves. After that things went relatively smoothly. I told the story of how I’d come up with the idea for the book – conveniently stemming from an interview I’d done with a ferret-owning girl while working on the Prahran local paper.      

The funny thing was the ferret was named Basil – coincidently the same name as the head of NEEF. I hadn’t realised this until I said it and it caused a little titter. But of course, Basil – the man – had also corrected the mayor on the pronunciation of his name – it’s pronounced Bayzel – whereas the ferret Basil was pronounced the same as the plant. I pointed out the difference and continued.

I read an excerpt from my book which I think went down well, although my voice (to my ears) was several octaves higher than usual. But I guess that’s okay when you’re writing for children.

And then, finally, I got to do that thing where you act like you’re somebody important and sit behind a little table signing books. Strangely, it didn’t feel that weird after all. But I think my signature needs work...
Oh, yes, and Pip was proud!