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6 Lessons from my first year as a debut author

6 Lessons from my first year as a debut author

What’s it really like to be a debut children’s author?

When I think back to my own experience (ten years ago now!) I remember excitement, trepidation, confusion, consternation, celebration and more.

But everyone’s experience is different – or is it?

Over the last year, I’ve had a front row seat for several debuts as members of my Write With Allison Tait group have launched their book babies into the world.

I asked one of those members to encapsulate the experience in a post and she has delivered in spades.

Heidi Walkinshaw writes stories for children, finding the fun and laughter in the everyday.

Her debut picture book Some Fish Have Moustaches (illustrated by Michel Streich) was released in June 2023 through Affirm Press, and she was recently Longlisted in the Just Write for Kids Pitch It competition.

Below, Heidi shares her experiences of being a debut author over the past 12 months – because the debut process begins well before publication day!

 

6 lessons from my first year as a debut author

By Heidi Walkinshaw

I’ve loved to read for as long as I can remember. I would tag along with my grandmother to our local library, spending hours trawling the shelves and delighting in taking those stories home to get lost in for the two-week loan, the little return-by-date stamped inside the card on the front cover.

At school, I had great teachers who encouraged me to write, and I would fill pages with worlds beyond my own. Life doesn’t always go according to plan, however, and writing was pushed to the side for more “serious” career pursuits, leading me to a world outside the creative field.

It was only years later, a series of life changes and the courage to take a leap of faith that I stepped back into something that had been calling me for so long, and last year my debut picture book Some Fish Have Moustaches was published.

It hasn’t been an easy first year as a debut author. There have been highs and lows, wins and rejections and a lot of lessons along the way. Here are six of the key things I’ve learned.

 

It’s a game of inches, not miles – take your time and persist

There is an old saying that an overnight success takes a decade. This could apply to any career and certainly rings true when stepping into the world of authorship.

Success seldom happens instantly – as the online world may have you believe – and there are hurdles that you
will need to cross to get your manuscripts to those glorious bookseller shelves.

The path to becoming an author takes time and persistence. Even after you are published and the excitement has settled down, there is more work to be done and no guarantee that you can get your next idea across the line.

Keep going, keep working at it and eventually one will stick.

 

The roughs are just that – rough

When I look back at my first drafts of Some Fish Have Moustaches, I often wonder what I was thinking at the time.

It was headed in a completely different direction from what was eventually submitted and then published.

First drafts are just that – the first attempt before you iron out all the details.

Whether it’s your manuscript or the illustrations that you first receive, it is imperative to remember that it is the first concept and not the finished product.

On days when I had doubts, I was reminded to go back and look at the first drafts of some of my favourite picture books, like The Gruffalo and gain insight into the journey of some of the most successful creators in our space.

 

Find other creatives for support

There are wonderful humans out there who will cheer you on, especially on the less-than-creative days and pull you up when the blows knock you down.

And you had better believe there will be a few of those.

A career in the arts is certainly not for the faint-hearted and a group of like-minded creatives will help to motivate you, give you support and a reality check when your ego needs to go back in the pocket.

Joining a writing group was one of the best investments that I made in getting to know other writers and their projects. We get to share what we are working on, our challenges and the wins.

Life as a writer can be a solitary existence and having others to share it with helps build a supportive community.

 

Ask questions and look fear in the face

For most of my career, I worked in a space where questions were a part of daily life.

I developed a mantra of “No question is a silly question, especially if it is going to help you learn.”

While I’m not always great at reaching out and asking questions – usually out of a ridiculous fear – one thing I am trying for when I’m not sure, is to ask someone who has already taken the road less travelled and learn from their lessons.

Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and build connections with others, no matter how much networking scares the pants off you. The writing community is incredibly warm and willing to share their experiences.

Just keep in mind that their time is also valuable.

 

Be prepared to do the legwork

There are so many avenues to publishing now and all have different approaches to getting your book to market.

I was incredibly fortunate to have the support of the team at Affirm Press to launch Some Fish Have Moustaches and as a debut author, they were amazing every step of the way.

While the publisher will handle producing and getting your book onto the shelves, it is also up to you to do the legwork.

Get to know your local booksellers, especially in your immediate community. Booksellers are some of the best people you can meet and are usually very welcoming.

While there is no requirement, a website is essential real estate for others to learn more about you and your book.

There is no shortage of social media sites available for use and whatever you choose – for me it was focusing on Instagram – make sure that it is manageable and gives you a space for engagement with readers and the writing community.

 

Celebrate on publication day

Publication day is everything and nothing all at once and I had sage advice from a mentor to go out and celebrate.

Battling minimal sleep and a toddler who decided it would be fun to bring home head lice from daycare, going out was the last thing I felt like doing.

But we deloused, organised the troops and headed out as a family.

It was the best advice I could have received and well worth it to celebrate a milestone that had taken many years to achieve.

The author’s life is one that we do for love and if you blend that love with commitment and add a dash of discipline, the wins will come.

Just keep at it and the writing community will be right there to cheer you on.

 

Some Fish Have MoustachesFind out more about Heidi Walkinshaw on her website, or follow her on Instagram

Discover more information and teacher’s resources for Some Fish Have Moustaches here.

 

 


 

a l tait profileAre you new here? Welcome to my blog! I’m Allison Tait and you can find out more about me here and more about my online writing courses here.

Subscribe to my newsletter for updates, insights and 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.

Meet ‘So You Want To Be A Writer’ the BOOK

Meet ‘So You Want To Be A Writer’ the BOOK

It’s been a big year for the So You Want To Be A Writer podcast team!

Not only have we screamed past the ONE MILLION download mark (you’ll find my 15 favourite interviews here), with a LIVE event at VIVID Sydney (book now!) in the works, but we’re happy to announce that we’ve written a book!

So You Want To Be A Writer book by Allison Tait and Valerie Khoo

So You Want To Be A Writer: How To Get Started (While You Still Have A Day Job) by Allison Tait and Valerie Khoo will be on sale from 8 June (be at our event to be the first to own it!)

Here’s the blurb

The ultimate guide to making your writing dreams come true!

Want to write a novel or earn an income as a freelance writer, but not sure how to go about it? Authors Allison Tait and Valerie Khoo – co-hosts of the popular So You Want To Be A Writer podcast – will give you the steps you need to make your dream a reality.

In this book, you’ll discover everything you need to be a successful writer, including how to connect with people who will help your career grow and productivity tips for fitting everything into your already busy life. You’ll also explore how to keep your creative juices flowing and where to find other writers just like you.

This book lays out a blueprint to help you get started and thrive in the world of words. With advice from over 120 writers, you’ll tap into proven wisdom and find the path that will lead YOU to success!

Here’s what five of Australia’s favourite authors have said about the book

‘Practical, grounded and inspiring. When a thousand voices tell you that you can’t, you need a voice to make you believe you can. This book is that voice.’
Candice Fox, #1 New York Times bestselling author

‘So many pro tips in here from working writers. This is like Tim Ferriss’s Tools of Titans but exclusively for writers. I loved it.’
Tristan Bancks, award-winning children’s author

‘Perfect for the person who wants to write but doesn’t have the confidence or the know-how to start.’
Pamela Hart, award-winning historical fiction author

‘Essential reading for any aspiring writer.’
Graeme Simsion, international bestselling author

‘Val and Al were a godsend to me before I was published, offering a guided tour to the world of publishing that was otherwise closed to me. Their advice is highly, highly recommended.’  
Dervla McTiernan, international bestselling author

And here’s a picture of the co-authors on the day (nearly a year ago) we decided to write a book

Valerie Khoo and Allison Tait So You Want To Be A Writer book.

We are thrilled to bring this book to our podcast audience, our writing community and to new and aspiring writers everywhere. It will be available through a range of online booksellers, here and overseas, so stay tuned for more details.

If you’d like to read more about So You Want To Be A Writer the book, or register your details to receive notice as soon as the book is on sale, you’ll find all the details here.

Are you new here? Welcome to my blog! I’m Allison Tait and you can find out more about me here and more about my online writing courses here.

What publishers really want (in their own words)

What publishers really want (in their own words)

What publishers really want (in their own words)As Valerie Khoo and I head rapidly towards 200 episodes of our So You Want To Be A Writer podcast, our backlist of fabulous – and by that I mean fabulously useful – interviews grows. Thanks to the attention that our recent interview with publisher Marisa Pintado received, I realised that we’ve had some cracking conversations with publishers and editors over the years. So I dug up eight of them for your listening pleasure.

What do publishers want? Click on the episode number to read the show notes or listen to the episode to find out!

Kristen Hammond

[At the time of interview] Kristen Hammond is the senior commissioning editor in the area of professional development, business finance and accounting business for John Wiley & Sons Australia. Today, Kristen is still with Wiley, but she’s now the Publisher specialising in Digital Content Creation, Curation and Solutions for Corporate and Academic Partners. She gives a lot of great advice for aspiring non-fiction authors in this interview. Episode 13

Bernadette Foley

Bernadette Foley has worked as an editor and publisher in the Australian publishing industry for over 25 years. For the past ten years she was a publisher of fiction and non-fiction for Hachette Australia, one of the largest publishers in the country, working with such authors as William McInnes, Gabrielle Lord, Graeme Blundell, Bronwyn Parry and Pamela Freeman. She is teaching a new course at the Australian Writers’ Centre called What Publishers Want, which of course is what we all want to know. Episode 37

Suzanne O’Sullivan

Suzanne O’Sullivan is the Lothian Children’s Books publisher at Hachette Australia. She has worked in the book industry for over a decade and has spent most of that time in children’s books, editing everything from board books to YA/crossover fictionEpisode 62

Brandon VanOver

Brandan VanOver is the Managing Editor of Random House – allocating projects to the editors and guiding books through a busy publishing program every year, managing plant costs, negotiating terms with suppliers, representing editorial concerns at various meetings, steering the company into digital formats (often capsizing on exposed reef in the process) – but he still spends the majority of his time editing. Episode 66

Meredith Curnow

Meredith Curnow is the publisher of the Knopf and Vintage Imprints at Penguin Random House, looking after both fiction and non-fiction, and has been with the company for 12 years. She was the founding director of the Sydney Writers’ Festival from 1998 to 2002. Episode 74

Sue Whiting

Sue Whiting started her working life as a primary school teacher with a special interest in literacy education and children’s literature. In 2005 Sue left teaching to pursue a career in children’s book publishing and until recently was the publishing manager for Walker Books Australia. She’s also a successful children’s author who has written picture books and chapter books and novels for teens, and last year she left her publishing day job to write fulltime. Sue recently joined the Australian Writers’ Centre as a presenter. Episode 109

Louise Thurtell

[At the time of interview], Louise Thurtell [was] the publisher for the Arena imprint at Allen & Unwin. Louise has worked in publishing for more than 20 years. She is a former recipient of the Beatrice Davis Fellowship, allowing her to spend time in various US publishing houses, and established the popular and successful Friday Pitch at Allen & Unwin in 2006. Louise publishes commercial fiction and non-fiction, and her list of authors includes Fleur McDonald, Karly Lane, Therese Creed, and Nicole Hurley-Moore.  Episode 161

Marisa Pintado

Marisa Pintado is the publisher of children’s and YA fiction at Hardie Grant Egmont in Melbourne. In 2011, she launched the Ampersand Prize, which is Hardie Grant Egmont’s annual search for YA and middle grade manuscripts from unpublished writers. And throughout her editorial career she has worked closely with a variety of emerging commercially successful and award-winning authors. Episode 182

So You Want To Be A Writer book by Allison Tait and Valerie KhooAre you new here? Welcome to my blog! I’m Allison Tait and you can find out more about me here and more about my online writing courses here.

Join my online writing group for Industry Insider interviews every month. Details here

 Or check out So You Want To Be A Writer (the book). Find out more and buy it here.

 

Industry Insider: Why I self-published my memoir

Industry Insider: Why I self-published my memoir

Why I self-published my memoirRobin 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?

RE: YES!

  1. Hire fantastic editors and cover artists. Doing courses and attending festivals helps you learn who the good ones are. The good ones are expensive but they are so worth it. I’m dyslexic, that’s okay for my approach to blogging, but I can’t even sneeze on a published page without clearing it with three editors.
  2. Think about marketing! I really should have. And now I have to play catch up. And I hate running.
  3. Know what awards you should apply for. I am big into the Spec Fic scene so know most of the relevant award cut offs for those but for the other, I know almost nothing. I have an English degree so I know of the awards, but not when or how to apply. Know this stuff. Back yourself, if you’ve had the tenacity to get it into print then value it enough to put it forward for awards. I really wish I had. Don’t live with my regrets. Be a lot smarter about it than me. And honestly, you and your work deserve the care and consideration. Back yourself.

 

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.

How to edit your own writing: 5 top tips from an editor

How to edit your own writing: 5 top tips from an editor

How to edit your own writing: top 5 tips from an editor | allisontait.comOn Monday, I shared my five top tips for editing your own writing, from a writer’s perspective.

Today, as promised, I’m following up with five top tips from an editor, thanks to the willingness of professional (and respected) freelance editor Nicola O’Shea.

“Nothing beats feedback from an objective reader (that is, not a family member or friend),” says Nicola. “But I hope these tips help you get your manuscript in the best shape possible before you hand it over to other readers.”

An editor’s 5 top tips for editing your first draft

Get some distance.

Put your manuscript completely away for a month, then read it through in one go – preferably on hard copy and resisting the temptation to tweak. You’re looking for places where the story feels flat, where the pace drags, where your characters are passive rather than active, where plot lines fall away without being resolved, for long blocks of narrative text without any dialogue. Mark these spots and come back to fix them only once you’ve completed your full read.

Examine your point-of-view (POV) choices.

Are you telling this story through a first-person narrator (‘I’ voice); or one or more third-person (‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’) narrators? Does your choice of POV limit the story in any way? (E.g. a first-person narrator must be present for all plot events, unless you can find another way to present that information.)

If you have a lot of POV characters, ask yourself what each POV is adding to the story. Usually you can remove secondary POVs and limit yourself to main characters’ POVs.

Are you in control of the POV within each scene, or does it jump around between characters (‘head-hopping’)? Ideally you’d stay with one POV per scene or chapter.

Create a scene breakdown.

This is a summary of the plot events in each scene, the characters involved in them, and choice of POV. Use this skeleton structure to track your main characters’ story arcs and motivations, and to look for missing scenes or unresolved plot lines. Examine each scene individually to make sure it has a clear purpose and structure, and contains some kind of conflict.

Read your dialogue aloud, or ask someone to read it to you.

If you can hear your dialogue as it would be spoken, you’ll be more likely to notice whether you’ve let a character speak for too long, or whether their vocabulary and sentence structure are too elaborate. Most people use contractions in dialogue (we’ll, I’ve, wouldn’t, let’s) and often speak in fragments rather than complete sentences.Look out for characters over-using each other’s names in conversation; filler text (e.g. hellos and goodbyes); or characters telling each other information they already know for the benefit of readers.

Tighten your language.

Once you’ve completed your structural revisions, turn your attention to your language. Run a spell-check and decide on each change individually; then search for misused homophones that the spell-check won’t pick up (they’re, their, there). Remove adverbs that repeat the sense of the verb they’re attached to (the TV blared loudly; she shrieked piercingly); cut filler words like totally, very, actually, completely, probably, and started to or began to before a main verb (e.g. she started to walk downstairs becomes she walked downstairs). Look for passive constructions (he was asked to leave) and consider making them active (they asked him to leave).

Nicola O’Shea has been a book editor since the mid-1990s, and a freelance editor since 2004. She helps authors prepare their manuscripts for submission to publishers or for self-publishing; and regularly freelances for Australian publishers.

Nicola offers Skype feedback sessions, in which she’ll read the first 5000 words of your novel or memoir and then offer feedback in a 45-minute session on Skype. $195. For details and to book, click here.

 

Are you new here? Welcome to my blog! I’m Allison Tait and you can find out more about me here and more about my online writing courses here.

 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.

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