Robin Elizabeth popped up in my Twitter feed several years ago and adds a bright spot of conversation to it nearly every day. So when I was looking for someone to talk to about self-publishing, I thought of her immediately. Her memoir, Confessions of a Mad Mooer, explores what happens when a mum keeps saying she isn’t coping but nobody will listen.
As Robin tells it: “Despite the fact that I had the seemingly perfect life with a good looking husband, a cute two year old girl and identical twin new-born boys, I fell into a deep depression. I kept telling people that I was exhausted and that I needed help but they didn’t believe me because I could still smile and laugh. I was basically told to suck it up, that exhaustion was just part of motherhood. By the time people actually decided to help me I was ready to commit suicide and well past needing 50mg of Zoloft to bolster me up. My twins and I were immediately sent to a psychiatric hospital with a Mother and Baby unit for treating postnatal depression (PND). This treatment saved my life.”
In her brutally honest memoir, Robin shares her story, rants a little bit, and basically tries to shatter the stereotype that postnatal depression means you don’t smile or play with your baby.
“Women are often dismissed and not listened to, especially mothers,” she says. “They’re made to feel like they’re hysterical and unreasonable and I want them to know that they’re not alone, and that they matter. A lot of people think that going into a psychiatric hospital is a shameful secret that should be hidden. But for me, it helped me gain confidence, not just as a mother, but as a person in my own right. In many ways my stay in the psychiatric hospital is actually a highpoint rather than a low point.”
Today, Robin shares her self-publishing experience with us.
AT: Why did you decide to self-publish your book?
Robin Riedstra: “To be honest, I had a very specific purpose and audience for the book and I didn’t want to compromise on that. I wanted it to be appealing and accessible for mums with new-born babies. Which meant I wanted it to have a seriously beautiful cover, that tired women would see and just go “yes, that me.” So I hired Sally Walsh of Sillier than Sally Designs to give me the exact cover I wanted. Traditionally published authors warned me that the cover wouldn’t pass in a traditional publishing house because it was too “busy,” but everyone compliments the cover, so I know I definitely nailed it.
“I also didn’t want to compromise on the message. I’ve been to hell in my own brain. I know exactly what the exhaustion feels like, I know the thoughts, I know the things to look out for intimately. It’s part of who I am now. I wanted to make sure that this didn’t get sanitised to keep in with the way with some people like to portray mental illness. I didn’t want key things washed away and I didn’t want the content to become overly poetic and unintentionally glorify depression. Depression is messy, and ugly, I don’t want people romanticising it.
“Above all else I wanted it to be able to be digested by fellow exhausted mothers. So my language is conversational and pretty direct. I wanted to compete really speak to people who are suffering. I, of course, hired editors, but I still got to call the shots in the end to ensure that my core message wasn’t lost. I went for independent publishing so that I didn’t have to force my square peg into a round traditional publishing mould.”
The book is based on a series of blog posts you wrote while actually in hospital – what was the process of turning those into a book-length narrative?
RE: “I am absolutely sure that there is a more streamlined way of doing this than the way I did it, but I’ll share what I did. First off, I must admit I didn’t come up with the idea. I had slumped into another deep depression in 2015. My medication ended up needing to be changed to a higher level of anti-depressant, and I didn’t just have writers’ block, I had life block. My friends Lisa Fleetwood, author of Destination Dachshund, and Helen Petrovic, of the popular High Fantasy Addict blog, could see how badly I was struggling and that my inability to write was further exacerbating my condition. They suggested that I already had a lot of stuff written on PND in my blog so why didn’t I try turning that into a book. I was really excited by the idea because that seemed quite manageable and like something I could do in my depressive state.
“After that I just typed “postnatal depression” into the search on my blog and copied and pasted all the entries into a word document. I read them and though, “hey, I’ve said some important stuff there.” And then I thought, “Actually, I’ve got a lot more stuff I want to rant about.” And I just began writing about my experience with PND. I pretty much switched my brain off and let the words flow. After I had all the words out, I tried to order them in chronological order starting with my admittance to the hospital, cut out repetitive rants, and then added a few more.”
Given that it’s an intensely personal, irreverent memoir, did you install any checks/balances in the process?
RE: “I asked my husband to read the memoir many times, he declined, so I asked my friends Helen and Lisa, the same ones mentioned above, if they would read it and they were willing victims. I also had my psychologist take a look at an early draft to get her opinion on it.
“A lot of the women I had been in hospital with are regular followers of my blog and knew all of the old stuff already and I was careful to detail that the experience was my own and not drag them into it. That was one of the things I had in mind from the start. I wasn’t there to “out” anyone or speak for them so I deliberately hadn’t described them and I never name them.
“I also got a solicitor who specialises in creative works to take a look at it after I was finished. They said everything was fine and said I could actually name places and locations if I felt like it and put in more details from a legal standpoint, but I wanted to protect others. Right or wrong, there is still a stigma. I am happy to come out and try to smash it, and I am happy for other people to come along and smash it with me, but I am not going to drag along anyone against their will.”
You’ve produced the book both in digital and print form, whereas many indie-published books are digital only. Why did you choose to create a print version and was it difficult to organise?
RE: “I have actually been that indie author who has done digital copies only. I have a serialised commercial women’s fiction work that is in just digital format. They’re novella length and I think the subject matter and length lends itself well to digital.
“With Confessions I wanted mothers to be able to access it any way they wanted. I wanted to make it easy for them. If they want to read it in digital, great it’s ready, if they want it in paperback, it’s there for them. It’s also why I went wide with my ebook distribution. I knew it meant that I couldn’t go into Kindle Select and use all the tricks to get it onto the best seller list, but I felt that the message was more important than a tag and I wanted people to be able to get it as quickly as possible. That’s why it is available from most digital providers and on-line bookstores.
“This month I am going to start approaching bookstores. I should have done it earlier but I have social anxiety so it has taken me awhile to work up the courage. I gave myself until February to sort myself out, and February is here so it’s time I got to it. I’ll update you on how it goes.”
What was the steepest learning curve in the self-publishing process for you?
RE: “I have no idea about media releases. You’re apparently supposed to do those. I didn’t. My next book, which is coming out at the end of the year will have one… I hope it will.
“For me, thinking outside of that narrow focus of purpose and who I want to communicate with is definitely the part I am finding difficult. I am not business minded by nature so it has been quite challenging for me.Also, thinking about awards, I didn’t do that at all. I submitted it for nothing because it just didn’t even occur to me to do so.
“Great editors I know, because I have been to a million writing courses and am on twitter all the time. Cover designers I also know, so that was fine. Marketing? Forget about it, I knew nothing about it and now only know enough to know that I seriously know nothing about it.”
You’re very active on social media, you blog and you’re incredibly supportive of the Australian publishing industry as a whole – has that been a conscious step to help build an author platform?
RE: “I wish that it was and that I could give people really good business tips on how to build your author brand but, unfortunately, I’m just an impulsive sort of person. I remember the first time I heard Walter Mason, author of Destination Saigon, talk and he said, “Bring the spirit of fandom to Australian literature.” Prior to that I had always wanted to do something to support my passion, which is books, but didn’t know how to beyond buying books, which I do, but have budget constraints. As soon as he said that it was like a cartoon light-bulb went on above my head.
“You see, I’m a geek at heart, I’ve admined on some massive Doctor Who pages in the past and still admin a fairly successful “geek” group with around 10,000 members, so I know fandom. I know how to put a meme together. I know how to tweet about how much I love stuff. The notion of fandom suited me perfectly.
“I have boards on Pinterest with memes I have made of quotes by Australian authors, I even have a board dedicated to Toni Jordan’s sock collection and one of Whiskey I think Emma Viskic should drink. I started a thing on my blog called Robinpedia, which humorously catalogues Australia authors who are yet to be snapped up by Wikipedia, and I even recap The Book Club ABC. Yep, while all the cool kids are recapping The Bachelor and MKR I am sitting in my jammies, wearing toe-socks, and recapping Book Club. And the most embarrassing confession ever is, that the release date of Confessions was based around the screening of Book Club.”
Do you have three tips for anyone considering self-publishing their book?
Robin Elizabeth is an Australian writer, ranter, reviewer, dyslexic, twitter addict, and definitely a mad mumma. She blogs at Write Or Wrong about her love of Australian literature, depression, and whatever tickles her fancy bone. You’re most likely find her procrastinating away on Twitter, so feel free to say hello (and tell her that she should be writing – because she should be, she really should). You’ll find more information on her memoir here.
The first blog post of the year is always a creaky affair. I can almost hear a whirring sound as the computer boots up in my brain and dormant writing muscles wind up. You’d think I’d be used to it by now – next week I’ll celebrate my 8TH BLOGGING ANNIVERSARY (which pretty much makes me this a geriatric author blog…).
To help psych me up to sally forth into 2017, I’ve prepared a short survey for readers of this blog. It’s just 10 questions long, and it’s designed to give me a better idea of who you are, why you pop in here to visit me, and what I can do for you in the coming 12 months.
With the end of the silly season in sight, I’m focussing on the calm, blue waters of the holidays on the other side, and what I see is Time. Time to read, time to write, time to think.
I find the couple of weeks after Christmas afford me an excellent opportunity to catch up on enjoyable things I’ve been meaning to do for – well, forever.
With that in mind, I’ve put together a list of podcast episodes you might have missed. You might remember my post here where six fabulous Australian YA authors talk about writing. This time around, I’m focussing on those authors we’ve interviewed who write for children.
If you’re hoping to be published in this area one day, why not set aside some time over the holidays to have a listen – or read the transcripts. Click the episode link to do both or either.
Allison Rushby is the Australian author of ‘lots of books’ for kids and for adults. Her last middle-grade book ‘How To Save The Universe in 10 Easy Steps’ was shortlisted for the 2014 Readings Book Prize, and she has a new novel, The Turnkey, for that age group coming out in March 2017. Episode 4.
Alexa Moses is a journalist, screenwriter and author of the Jenna Bookallil-Brown series about Ancient Egypt for tweens. She talks with us about writing children’s fiction, plotting versus pantsing, and how to write history without sounding like a textbook. Episode 11.
Yes, Valerie surprised me with an on-the-spot interview. If you’d like to hear about my days as a magazine journalist, how I started writing fiction, how I juggle work, family and writing, and all about the inspiration for The Mapmaker Chronicles, it’s all here. Episode 44.
Judith Rossell has been writing and illustrating children’s books for more than 12 years and has written 12 books and illustrated more than 80. She teaches The Writing Picture Books course for the Australian Writers’ Centre in Melbourne. When we spoke, her highly acclaimed junior novel, Withering-by-Sea, had been short-listed for the 2015 Indie Book Awards (which it went on to win). The sequel, Wormwood Mire, was released this year. Episode 51.
Andy Griffiths is one of Australia’s most popular children’s authors. Andy is best known for The Treehouse series, the JUST! books and The Day My Bum Went Psycho. Over the last 20 years Andy’s books have been New York Times bestsellers, adapted for the stage and television and won more than 50 Australian children’s choice awards. We spoke just before the release of The 65-Storey Treehouse.
This interview contains one of the most serious conversations about bums I’ve ever experienced. Episode 67.
This brother and sister team make up the dynamic duo behind the Zarkora series. I spoke to Nicholas about how they manage the co-writing process, their experiences with both self-publishing and traditional publishing, and how to write a series. Episode 70
Robert Hoge has worked as a journalist, a speechwriter, a science communicator for the CSIRO and a political advisor to the former Queensland Premier and Deputy Premier. He has had numerous short stories, articles, interviews and other works published in Australia and overseas.
In 2013, Robert’s memoir, Ugly, was published by Hachette Australia. In 2015, a children’s version of the book was released and has gone on to be published internationally. Episode 79.
Danny Parker is the author of the young reader’s series, Lola’s Toybox, published by Hardy Grant (seven books and counting), as well as . His fourth published picture book Perfect, illustrated by Freya Blackwood, received Honours in the CBCA Book Of The Year Awards (Early Childhood).
When we spoke, Perfect was just about to be published, and he had eight other picture books in the pipeline… Episode 81.
Tristan Bancks is a children’s and teen author with a background in acting and film-making. His books include the My Life series, Mac Slater, Cool Hunter, which was published in Australia and the US, and Two Wolves, a crime mystery novel for middle graders. Two Wolves received Honours in the 2015 CBCA Book of the Year Award, and, when we spoke, had just won the YABBA Award for years 7-9, decided by the Young Readers of Victoria. Episode 84
Best known for the children’s literature classic, There’s a Hippopotamus on our Roof Eating Cake series, Hazel Edwards writes for children, teenagers, and adults. She has had more than 200 books published, and, when we spoke, had recently written a memoir of her life and work, called Not Just a Piece of Cake: Being an Author.
Jen Storer has written 18 books for children, including the best-selling Truly Tan series, for which she won a 2014 Davitt Award, and the acclaimed gothic fantasy, Tensy Farlow and the Home for Mislaid Children, which was shortlisted for everything from the CBCA Book of the Year Awards to the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards in 2010.
When we spoke, her first picture book, Clarrie’s Pig Day Out, illustrated by Sue deGennaro, was about to be released. Episode 98.
Meg Mckinlay is a children’s writer and poet who lives near the ocean in Fremantle, Western Australia. Her publications range from picture books, chapter books and young adult novels through to poetry for adults. When we spoke, her children’s novel, A Single Stone, had just been awarded the 2015 Aurealis Award for Best Children’s Fiction.
It went on to receive Honours in the 2016 CBCA Book Of The Year Award (Older Readers), and won the 2016 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Young Adult Fiction. Episode 103.
Sue Whiting is the author of more than 60 books and has worked in the publishing industry for over 15 years. Sue’s nature storybook, Platypus, was a Notable Book in the 2016 Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Awards. Her junior novel Get a Grip, Cooper Jones was a Notable Book in the 2011 Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Awards, and her picture book, A Swim in the Sea, won Speech Pathologists Australia’s 2014 Book of the Year.
Sue was Senior Commissioning Editor and Publishing Manager at Walker Books Australia for more than 10 years. Episode 109.
Belinda Murrell is a best-selling internationally published children’s author with a legion of loyal fans and a history of writing in her family that span over 200 years. Her 21 books include the Sun Sword fantasy trilogy, as well the newly released Lulu Bell series for younger readers, and a collection of time-slip tales, which have been recognised through a host of awards.
When we spoke, The Lost Sapphire, her latest time-slip tale, had just been released. Episode 113.
Richard Roxburgh is one of Australia’s best-loved and most versatile actors. For his work in films like Moulin Rouge! to the lead role in TV’s Rake, as well as his many highly acclaimed performances with the Sydney Theatre Company, Richard Roxburgh has become a household name.
So there you have it, lots of great listening to keep you going! Subscribe to So You Want To Be A Writer on iTunes if you want to make sure you never miss a future episode!
How do you know when your writing is good enough?
This is a question that’s come up a few times of late, via social media, via email, via my Skype coaching sessions. And it’s a big question, particularly when you’re a new writer, wrestling with self-doubt and a headful of words.
It’s not an easy question to answer. As someone who’s been a writer, in one form or another, for my whole working life, it was a question that was often answered for me by other people. By an editor throwing a story back at me, covered in red pen. By a first reader in a writing group, making ‘suggestions’. But, at some point, you begin to find your own way, using past experience to feel your way through your current project, and you just know.
Realising that this may not be helpful, I’ve brought in reinforcements, asking nine Australian authors to share their own answers to this very perplexing question.
How do you know when what you’re writing is good – or at least ‘good enough’ to send to your agent/publisher?
“This is actually something I struggle with a lot – mostly because I honestly NEVER think my writing is any good. I’m one of those writers who doesn’t love writing but ADORES having written. I always feel like a fluke and that my writing isn’t good enough, so I usually end up sending it before I think it’s ready. However, I believe the important things are the characters and the core story – if I think these two things are working, then all the little things can be fixed at the next edit stage with my publisher.
“So what I look at before I submit a book is whether a) the characters have a strong journey/arc – that they have changed and learnt something over the course of the book and b) that the plot makes sense and is believable.
“Sure, readers sometimes need to be able to suspend disbelief a little bit when reading but as I write contemporary fiction about ordinary people facing dilemmas, I want their lives to be intriguing and interesting but also possible.
“Having said that, I’m not suggesting you don’t do a bit of a copy edit before sending. I always print my book out and edit it on paper, specifically looking for repetition of gestures/emotional response, ways to tighten the writing and ensuring the dialogue sounds realistic.
“Then I hit send and try and forget about that manuscript until I hear from my publisher with their response.”
“My moment of readiness is a bizarre double vision. On the one hand, my squinting doubt goes away: I can read without furrows or “hmmm” or “ugh”. It feels like me, right?
“On the other hand, it’s no longer me at all. The words suddenly feel alien: like someone else wrote them. So the voice is mine; the ideas, rhythms, sensibilities. But the writing now has its own distinctive character: it is a work.
“To put it simply: I know the work is done when it stops prompting unease, and gains its own independence from me.”
“For me, because I have such a good relationship with my publisher and because I really value her feedback, I send it to her when I’m ready for that feedback.
“I have a particular redrafting process I go through, which usually means I do four drafts and then a tidy-up, and at that point I mostly feel ready for another set of eyes. Before that it’s too early; I’m usually still unfolding the plot and the story and developing the characters more fully and so I would be wasting her feedback on those elements if I sent it off before I’d done those sets of drafts.
“I really want her feedback about the way a reader would respond to the story, characters, and plot I’ve created, so I need to have these elements in place before I send it. So I don’t wait until it’s perfect; I send it to her when I have questions that I’d like her input on, such as—is the reveal of the secret too slow, too fast, too difficult to understand etc.
“It’s a bit different [now] to when I was pitching A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald, which I worked on until I felt I could do no more with it—once again though, I knew it wasn’t perfect; it was just the best I could do at that time.”
“I don’t always know when my writing is good enough to send off. Sometimes I send it off before it’s ready. But usually I send it when I feel excited by it. Even if its not perfect, it still has something in it that’s working. Some spark.
“And I’ve usually done a few drafts before I find that.”
“Short answer, you don’t and have to take a shot at some point and hope for good editors.
“But time is important. Always put something aside, then look again with fresh eyes some days or weeks later and redraft. When it’s as good as you think you can make it, have some trusted beta reader friends go over it. And in truth, the more you do, the better you get at judging.
“But everyone always needs an editor.”
“I send it to a trusted writer friend, and if she likes it, I know I’m on to something.”
“My answer is: when it feels ‘good’ or ‘complete’. It’s a bit ephemeral. I don’t try to compare it to another admired author’s work, but I try to take a step back from it and read it objectively. That often means putting it in a drawer for a while (as long as possible).
“I think everyone has their own understanding of what’s good writing and what they admire. I just aim for that – and occasionally I get there.
“It doesn’t always work. Sometimes it doesn’t feel good to me, but my publisher likes it. Or vice versa (which is worse).”
“I am never sure that it’ s good enough which is why I love deadlines because at that point I just have to send it off!! I sent my new book to my publisher last week, and the days that I had to wait for her to read it and give me her feedback were like torture. It was such a relief when she rang to say she loved it!
“Reading aloud helps me to hear how [a manuscript] sounds. When I feel it’ s just about ready I give it to my two trusted readers – my husband and my daughter to see what they think (not that they’ve ever said they hated anything!).
“Most of all, though, I trust my publisher, Zoe Walton at Random House to tell me if she thinks anything is not working.”
“When you discover the heart of the story beating strongly through the pages, read the first page out loud. If it sings, then you may just pass the first audition of a publisher or agent.”
Subscribe to So You Want To Be A Writer podcast for more amazing writing advice.
Or check out So You Want To Be A Writer (the book), where my co-author Valerie Khoo and I have distilled the best tips from hundreds of author and industry expert interviews. Find out more and buy it here.