“What’s the one thing you wish you’d known when you started out as an author?”
It’s a big question, and one I’ve been toying with over the past week.
The problem is, there are just SO many things I wish I’d known. Narrowing it down to one seems impossible.
So I decided to get some help to articulate my thoughts, and rounded up some of Australia’s best and most popular children’s and YA authors to answer that question for me. To create a kind of encyclopaedia of super tips for beginner writers.
And I’m so glad I did, because this post contains some of the most insightful advice that any aspiring or beginner author, of any type or genre, could ever ask for. I wish I’d known every single one of these things when I started out.
Mostly, though, I just wish I’d known how very much I didn’t know.
16 Australian children’s and YA authors share the one thing they wish they’d known when they started
I found a publisher under ‘P’ for publishers in the phone book – the first one was Angus and Robertson, who I still publish with. My manuscript was so badly spelled and on a machine lacking a working ‘e’ that they pulled it out to laugh at. I didn’t even know what genre I was working in.
These days I dutifully tell beginning authors to research their genre; to see what kind of manuscript a publisher is looking for, and to use their spell checker, then check their spell checker hasn’t changed their ‘camels’ into ‘condoms.’
But you know what? None of that matters in the long run. If your writing is compelling and saleable it will be accepted. If it so good that the reader HAS to turn the next page, the publisher will probably refer you to another company if they don’t publish your genre. Editors are editors because they love books, and will go to extraordinary lengths to help a writer of brilliant promise.
You are a writer. Write. Write well, and then rewrite, rewrite and rewrite. Don’t write what you think publishers want, as thousands of others will be writing the same. Write the story that has its teeth in your throat and won’t let go till it is words on the page.
PS. If the editor says ‘that bit doesn’t work’ believe them. An editor may not know exactly how to fix the problem, but if it doesn’t work for them, it won’t for the public either. Never think that because you are ‘the writer’ that the book is yours. The words are yours, but the book is created by an editorial team, the marketing team, the design team, the proofreaders and many others. I always feel guilty that only my name is on the title page, and feel forever blessed that my words are taken by the team to work on.”
Jackie French is the author of ‘around 300’ books for children, YA and adults. Her latest releases are Christmas Always Comes (PB, ill. Bruce Whatley) and No Hearts of Gold (adult fiction). Find out more about Jackie here.
I wasted a lot of time blogging, making Youtube videos and tweeting. It was important to me that my views on every topic – politics, science, the environment, life – were public knowledge.
I saw myself as a social commentator – but I realise now that I was a novelist.
People didn’t like me, they liked my novels. I should have spent my time working on my books, rather than play-acting as a celebrity.
In a broader sense, I should have focused on writing, rather than being a writer.”
“As an emerging writer, I thought that when I cracked an elusive publishing deal, all the rejections (so many rejections) would be behind me. That shiny debut novel would be my golden ticket to open doors and yesses. To festival invites, prestigious fellowships and award ceremonies. My ‘thanks but no thanks days’ would be a thing of the past. Surely?
But even as I snagged that exciting first book deal and built a career as a YA and middle -grade author, the set-backs, knock backs and failures stuck around.
Hello, rejection, my old friend.
Even as I put the finishing touches on my seventh children’s book, I’m still getting brutal (sometimes baffling) ‘not right for our list’ emails from all corners of the globe. Sometimes they sting a little, but I usually bin them and move on quicker than I would’ve ever believed possible as a younger, more fragile writer.
Instead of crying into a tub of cookies ‘n’ cream and shredding my latest manuscript when I miss out, I accept that all art is subjective. Some people will love my work, others not so much. C’est la vie. Better to be brave, take chances and back yourself and your ideas, than believe the naysayers and critics.
To be a successful author, long term, you have to reinvent yourself often, try new things and be ready for the disappointments when they come – and oh boy, they will. Have a few writing pals on hand to commiserate when you don’t hit the bullseye. But know, in your heart, the stories you’re telling are important, sometimes vital, and they will find an audience.”
It was a year and a few months from signing the contract to the book being published and it was really hard to predict what my life would look like by the time the book came out. I didn’t know where I would be living, what I would be doing, what job I would have.
Having to read the story over and over was interesting, as I would find myself excited to learn new things and come up with new ideas while, at the same time, really just wanting to get to the end.
By the time we had finished editing, I was ready to never read the book again.”
“I wish I’d known the weird tightrope I would end up walking between taking advice and forging my own path. I did all the ‘things’ – taking courses, attending festivals, talking to people in the industry, reading the books, listening to the podcasts – but when I actually found myself ‘in’ the industry, I realised I had to pull a Frank Sinatra and do it my way.
I’m not saying don’t listen to the advice. But listen and be ready to set it aside if it doesn’t line up with who you want to be as a creator.
I discovered that some advice I’d heard over and over during the proceeding years, didn’t gel with how I wanted to exist in the kids book world. And that’s because many different creators have a completely different focuses.
So know what your focus is, keep that focus, and make your own decisions based around that. And sometimes that takes bravery. So be brave. Nobody owns your career or your art but you.”
“The one thing I wish I’d known when I started writing is that it doesn’t get any easier. Sorry if that’s terrible news! But you don’t magically get more time or energy or ideas or confidence once you’re published.
If anything, you have less time, less energy, more self doubt… Maybe that’s just me and my brain?
But what I’ve learned is that I still need to make the time and create a space for myself to write, and to prioritise the writing and enjoying the process over the “business” side of things. It’s easier said than done, but so important and ultimately what is most satisfying.”
I chose one author I admired, they nudged me towards another.
As a grateful 17-year-old, I was like, “Sure!” And the editorial process was who I wanted to be wrestling with who they wanted me to be. The book suffered.
After it failed to set the world ablaze, I worked on my craft and found a publisher who believed in my vision of who I could be, and supported that. The result was a novel that better reflected me. But it was a reintroduction, it came after a five-year hiatus and the publisher nudged me towards changing my name (William Kostakis became Will Kostakis)…
I know all the talk of personal branding is dehumanising (we’re people, not products!) but there’s a reason for it. I know we all like to pretend we like to be challenged, stimulated and surprised as consumers, but deep down, we really don’t. We like the taste of Coke as it is. We like movies that reheat familiar beats.
When you have a favourite author, you know what you expect from them. If you pick up their latest book and it isn’t what you expect, you’re a little annoyed. I had plenty of those experiences as a reader, but as a writer, even though I was perceived as the author I always wanted to be, I felt stifled by what a Will Kostakis novel was.
So I kept the broad strokes and added the fantastical. While I refined my craft and added to my toolkit, and found new readers … those who entered a bookstore for the new Will Kostakis novel they expected were let down. I hadn’t built strong enough foundations to experiment.
All this is a long-winded way of saying: Ask yourself who you want to be. What kinds of books do you write? What themes do you explore? That first book of yours needs to capture that, and the next few need to echo it.
Find your niche, but build a strong foundation before you really experiment, because in today’s industry, we’re building houses of cards. Considering how long it takes to write and release books, rebuilding can take years.”
“I wish I’d known that publication wouldn’t be the meat that would sustain me. Of course publication is a necessary first step in a career, but it’s not the panacea I’d imagined. The real nourishment comes from the work itself.
One of the hardest parts of being a writer, for me, is the week after I finish a manuscript. Off the email shoots, and the characters and world that have occupied me for months vanish.
I should be celebrating but that’s when I fall into a slump.
I drift around the house letting cups of coffee go cold. I lie on the rug beside the dog, certain I’ll never write anything good again. I’d thought being a ‘published’ author would fill that hole but it doesn’t. I’m not myself again until I catch a new story.”
Inda Ahmad Zahri
A kind of alchemy happens when you flip that ‘No’ – embrace it, own it, use it. It leads to better writing, better ideas, better stories, and eventually, a rightful home.”
Inda Ahmad Zahri is the author of five picture books – two published and three on the way.
I had naively thought once the book was released, I’d be free to move on and get stuck into my next project. In reality, the most time-consuming (but also enjoyable and rewarding) part of being an author is just beginning in the run up to publication day.
You get to meet your readers, booksellers and interviewers and share the project you’ve been working on for so long. But, as a consequence, your writing takes a back seat.
You have a window of about six weeks when the publicity and marketing teams will be working overtime to to get your book some traction in the market, but after that, it’s largely up to you. And, of course, that next project is still waiting.”
“I wish I’d been more attuned to listening to my writer gut before making changes to my work. There’s a lot of personal opinion in publishing and I think at the beginning of my career I was too ready to change my work to take in every little comment I received from an agent/publisher/editor/other writer about my writing.
Of course, when you hear the same thing over and over again from different sources (for example, your protagonist is too whiney, the end of your novel too rushed etc.), it’s well worth listening to what people are telling you and make changes accordingly. However, it’s also good to know that sometimes one person’s opinion is just that – one person’s opinion.
I had a novel out on submission a while ago where the feedback was a great example of this. I had one editor say they loved the voice, while another didn’t love the voice. Another editor thought the pacing of my mystery was too slow, another thought it was “solid”. One editor loved the start, another thought I’d started in the wrong place.
It’s very easy to run off and start changing your manuscript, but sometimes you find you end up not changing it for the better.
When you put a price on your work, you’re letting the world know that you’re serious about what you do.’
Oliver Phommavanh is the author of ten books for children. His latest release is Brain Freeze.
Find out more about Oliver here.
“The one thing I wish I’d known when I started was that you really have to manage your expectations. One book (most likely) won’t make a career (unless your initials are JKR). You will have to work consistently hard over a long period of time to ‘make it’ as a children’s author and even then there are no guarantees.
Heed advice from publishers and editors – but make sure that you write the stories that make your heart sing.”
Find out more about Jacqueline here.
“When I first started writing I was 40 with a new born baby and an 18 month old. I knew nothing about the industry so some of my concerns were really grassroots. My main concerns were ‘am I too old?’ and ‘if I can’t illustrate can I be a picture book author?’.
I’m so glad I reached out to the writing community and found out.
So I would tell my newbie self ‘no, you’re not too old, all you need is a great manuscripts and no, you don’t need to be an illustrator to write picture books the publishing house will find one for you’.
Another thing I wish I had known sooner was how absolutely fabulously lovely all the authors, illustrators, agents, editors and publishers are. It’s a wonderfully supportive community of people who genuinely want to see you succeed and celebrate your achievements. Why did I wait so long?”
Lesley Gibbes is the author of 14 books for children, including picture books and junior fiction. Her latest release is Dinosaur Dads (ill. Marjorie Crosby-Fairall), with a new paperback edition of Searching For Cicadas out in January 2022. Find out more about Lesley here.
“A thing I wish I’d known before starting my writing career is that the days I don’t write any words (or the words I do write are truly terrible!) are equally as important as the days I produce thousands of words.
I always knew thinking days were essential, but as I develop as a writer I realise it’s nearly always these days when I emerge from the forest with clearer visions, plot points fixed, fresh ideas to try out, and with less pressure to achieve perfection.
People say write every day, but that doesn’t work for me.”
Find out more about Kate here.
It took a surprisingly long time to understand the importance of finding a unique writing voice.”
Tim Harris is the author of 12 novels for children. His next release is Mr Bambuckle’s Remarkables Join Forces (out on 1 March 2022).
Find out more about Tim here.
Are you new here? Welcome to my blog! I’m Allison Tait, aka A.L. Tait, and I’m the author of two epic middle-grade adventure series, The Mapmaker Chronicles and The Ateban Cipher, and a new ‘almost history’ detective series called the Maven & Reeve Mysteries (you’ll find book #1 THE FIRE STAR here).
If you want more insider secrets on being a children’s author, don’t miss my new one-hour course, created with Sue Whiting. Called ‘7 Things You Must Know To Be A Children’s Author’ it’s your short-cut to career success. Find out more here.