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Ep 99: How writing crime has changed recently; the increasing demand for content writers; and picture book author Emma Allen.

podcast-artwork In Episode 99 of So you want to be a writer: How writing crime has changed in the last ten years and the increasing demand for content writers. We ask if an app can improve your writing plus give you tips on how to survive writing envy. Meet picture book author Emma Allen. Plus, the most dangerous writing app. What are the benefits of editing a printed manuscript over editing on screen, and more!

Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here, or listen to us on Stitcher radio.

Show Notes

Writing Crime Fiction—10 Years Later

You Really Can Make a Living as a Writer. Here’s What You Need to Know.

I Improved My Writing With Grammarly, and So Can You

The Haves and the Have-Nots:  Surviving Writer Envy

Writer in Residence

Emma Allen
Emma Allen author profile pictureEmma Allen is an award winning author whose debut book The Terrible Suitcase won the 2013 CBCA Early Childhood Book of the Year and was shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Literary Awards.

Based in Canberra, Emma was a paediatric speech therapist for many years and is currently studying for a PhD in Creative Writing.

Her latest book is My Friend Ernest which is illustrated by Hannah Sommerville.

App Pick

The Most Dangerous Writing App

Working Writer’s Tip

Is it better to edit your manuscript printed out or on screen?

Answered in the podcast. 

Competition

Tom Houghton by Todd Alexander

Also

Pick Allison Tait’s brains

Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

Connect with us on twitter

@altait

@valeriekhoo

Email us

podcast at writerscentre.com.au

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Interview Transcript

Valerie

Thank you so much for joining us today, Emma.

Emma

Thank you, Valerie. I’m looking forward to it.

Valerie

My Friend Ernest, very exciting. It’s about the first day of school. For readers who haven’t read your book yet, can you tell us what it’s about?

 

Emma

Yes, it’s a story about two children and I guess the trials and tribulations of growing up. It’s about a child who learns to be brave by making a new friend on his first day of school.

 

Valerie

And how did this idea for this book form? What made you think, “I’m going to write about the first day of school and about these two kids.”?

 

Emma
Originally, Valerie, the idea wasn’t to write about the first day of school, that really sort of came later. It was really about this little guy, Oscar, who popped into my head and I imagined what his character was like. I’ve got a little boy who’s a similar age. And, he just grew on me over time, and I started to scribble down ideas of maybe little things that might happen in his life, how he might react to friends. One day a scenario popped into my head where he was playing with the dress-up box, a kid in a dragon costume frightens him.

 

I thought, “Oh, that’s the beginning of my story.”

 

Valerie

Wow.

 

Emma

And it grew from there. It grew from there.

 

Valerie

Yes, is that how most of your books form? With a character first? Like, Oscar, or whoever?

 

Emma

It does, Valerie. Just before our interview I was looking through some books that I have on the shelf that are like little writer’s journals for me. And, when I sit down to start a new story I spend time looking through them. And, it struck me that none of them have stories, as such. They’re full of characters. When I’d go to start a story then I might be drawn to a character, one more than the other and that then starts me off thinking about, “Who’s this character? Where do they live? Who might their friends be?” And then a story grows from that.

 

Valerie

You were a pediatric speech therapist originally.

 

Emma
Yes.

 

Valerie

Is that correct?

 

Emma
That’s correct.

 

Valerie

How in the world did you go from being a pediatric speech therapist to becoming an author? Did you always want to be a writer? Or did you discover it later in life? What are the steps?

 

Emma
It’s a good question. I think both is the answer. I always wanted to be a writer and I discovered it when I was very young, like in year one or year two. I used to love writing little poems. I even got them, I think, at my parents’ house, little copies of poems I used to write and a first picture book that I did. I just loved stories back then and it stayed with me and through my high school years I wrote poetry. When I got older I thought, “Oh, I really want to be a poet when I grow up.”

 

When I went through high school I was always drawn to literature and the arts, but I also had a bit of a science-y maths bent as well. I thought that speech therapy might sort of be a nice fit with the linguistics and the narrative, putting it together and the science. So, I did that and I had a great time.

 

During those years I spent a lot of time working with children with language disorders who needed assistance with understanding narratives, and I did this with stories. And, I hadn’t intended to do anything further with stories, except to enjoy them with the children I worked with. But, I found that sometimes when you’re working one-on-one with children all day, we did do groups, but a lot of my work was one-on-one, it became quite lonely in terms of adult company. And so what I did was, to entertain myself, I put up a poster of a dinosaur on my wall and I used to tell the dinosaur stories about the children that I saw.

 

It became such a fun thing, I drew the beautiful children that I saw into this. And they used to come in and they used to tell the dinosaur stories and that was one of the techniques I used to get them into narrative and to understand why narratives are so much fun. And, anyway, so I did this and after a few years it turned into a journal.

 

When I started dating my husband I used to read him some funny stories from my journal. To my surprise he loved them. I confessed that I had always wanted to study literature, I was quite young at the time. My husband said, “Well, why don’t you go back and do literature?” I thought, “Well, why not?”

 

So, I went back and I did an arts degree.

 

During that time my goal was to explore what I liked and what I was drawn to. So, I worked as a speech therapist and studied literature and film, and a bit of drama as well. During that time I just kept growing closer to both film studies and literature. I ended up doing a honors degree in creative writing, which combined literature and film studies.

 

And that was great. I had a ball. I grew as a writer, in my understanding of literature I thought, “Right, it’s got to stop there.” In the meantime I got married, I had my first baby. I thought, “I can’t stop.”

 

Valerie

Can’t stop doing what?

 

Emma

“I can’t stop writing. I want to keep writing.” So, I enrolled in a masters of creative writing, and when my first child was a baby I began that.

 

During that time I came across a subject called children’s literature. And, the lecturer, the lovely lecturer there, Belle Alderman, who’s at the National Centre for Children’s Literature here in Canberra. She said, “I think you’ve got a knack for writing for children, why don’t you have a go?”

 

During that time I tried to learn how I would begin, how would I send things off, who would want to read what I write? And I had a go, and it began from there.

 

Valerie

While you were exploring literature, you decided to go to uni and study it, was the intention purely, you know, like out of pleasure? Or in the back of your mind did you think, “I might have a career change.”?

 

Emma

I definitely wanted a career change. I loved the speech therapy, but I found that during my days as a speech therapist I wanted to be closer to literature. I never imagined pursuing a writing career — I don’t know why, because I loved writing, but it wasn’t in my head. But, I did think, “Well, maybe I can somehow get involved in the literary scene somehow.”

 

I became very open-minded.

 

Valerie

When you say that you didn’t really think you’d be a writer, you just thought you’d be in the industry, so to speak, at what point did you think, “Oh, I can be a writer…”?

 

Emma

I think I’m still learning to think that. Things changed during the masters, when I started producing pieces of writing that people responded to really positively.

 

I had written bits and pieces for family and friends over the years, and they always really enjoyed them, but I think it’s a different thing when someone who knows the industry says to you, “Hey, I think you’ve got something. You should try again, have another go.” It just gave me the confidence I needed.

 

Now I think I’ve got to the point where every time I start something I think, “I’m not sure I can do this,” and then the other part of me says, “But, I love this. I’ve got the background, why don’t you have a go?” So, I have a go and then it just grows and grows, and by the end I feel really good about it.

 

Valerie

What was your first book? Take us through the steps on how you got that break, how you got the first publisher to say yes.

 

Emma

Look, I was extremely fortunate. I’m almost learning backwards, I think, in this. I find out the more I realize that I was just very, very fortunate with how it happened. The first manuscript that became accepted was called Grandma, the Baby, and Me, which was actually the second book that I had published, but it was the first manuscript that was accepted.

 

It’s quite a funny story, because I had consulted some people around the place who I knew wrote, and I said, “Look, I’d like to send this off,” and most people said, “Good luck, but you probably don’t have any chance.” I said to my husband, “Well, I think that might be right, but I’m just going to have a go anyway. I’m going to send it off anyway. Then I’ll know that I’ve given it my best shot.”

 

So, I looked around and I followed the advice of what a lot of people say, which is to look around the books that speak to you, that you enjoy. And, so I did that. I ended up thinking that Omnibus might like my story.

 

I printed it off and sent it off, a hard copy and didn’t really expect to hear. Then one day, to my amazement, a few months later I received a phone call from Dyan Blacklock at Omnibus, who said, “We love the story, we want to publish it. Can you send us an electronic copy?”

 

Valerie

Wow. And how did you feel?

 

Emma

Oh, I couldn’t believe it. As I was saying, it was quite funny because I was really very convinced that no one would say ‘yes.’ I printed off, I hadn’t actually kept a copy for myself, and when they said, “Send me the electronic copy,” I thought, “I didn’t even keep one,” which is terrible because I usually keep drafts of everything. But, I was just beginning. I just really hadn’t believed it would happen. Anyway, I went back through my archives and we found a copy that I had kept at the university on file there, in the email, and I printed it off. From that moment on I’ve religiously kept every draft.

 

Valerie
Yes.

 

Emma

I’ve developed quite a process now for the dealing with all of those drafts. But, that was the very, very first one.

 

Valerie

How did that end up being the second book published, if that was the first manuscript?

 

Emma

It took a long time to find an illustrator, I think, that was the story. In the meantime I had written some other stories. I sent off one called The Terrible Suitcase, which was actually the first one that came out. I really loved doing The Terrible Suitcase, I found a little bit of confidence by then and I had done much more work with my writing, with my masters. I loved that process. I sent it in to the same company, and was successful with that. The way that the schedule worked and the availability of illustrators. It just worked out that way.

 

Valerie

In fact, that won the 2013 CBCA Early Childhood Book of the Year, and was shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Literary Award, so it was super successful.

 

Emma

Yes.

 

Valerie

Just to give people an idea, the book you have now, My Friend Ernest, how many words is it? About?

 

Emma

About… it’s probably about 500 words.

 

Valerie

So, it’s 500 words, because it’s a picture book, it’s illustrated by Hannah Sommerville. Some people think, “Wow, 500 words. I’m writing 80,000,” or whatever. Can you give people an idea of how long it takes you — I know it’s a little bit like asking how long is a piece of string, but just some kind of idea from concept to gestation to writing to all of that, even though it’s only 500 words. It’s still a long time, isn’t it? Like, how long did it take you?

 

Emma

This one took actually an enormously long time. It began as a completely different story. It sat on my computer for quite a while. For me, that’s how I work. I generate a lot, and then what I do is I put it away and I leave it for at least a year.

 

Valerie

Wow.

 

Emma

Yeah, at least a year.

 

Valerie

Oh my goodness.

 

Emma

At the moment I’ve got about three years of stories, just simple ideas, beginnings of stories, middles, ideas that I like. So, they start off in journals, just these little characters. Then I might just begin a story one day, or I might come up with a concept. I’ll just type it in my computer, and I do that.

 

I have a number going at the same time. Then I’ve developed now, as I was saying, a couple of years’ backlog.

 

Then I go through and I choose, when I’m about to write a story I’ll go back through those and I try to choose one that I feel that the timing is right to work on, just one that I’m drawn to. Then I’ll work on that. And, it might take me a couple of months then to go through and really get the story right.

 

Then I put it away and I leave it again for a couple of months, and then I come back to it and I go through it again. I try to make it better, to edit it, improve it in whatever way I can.

 

Then I think I generally show some people at this stage. And, then if it’s all positive there then I might think, “Well, is this good to send off to someone?” So, it takes ages.

 

 

 

Valerie

When you are actually focusing on it and it’s not put away, what’s your daily routine like? Do you work on it for, like, eight hours? Like, do you have some kind of routine when you’re focusing on a particular work?

 

Emma

I think it’s a nightly routine. I’ve got three young children, Valerie. The youngest is now three. So, in the years that I’ve been writing these I’ve really been in the chaos of young children. But, that has its own… I carry the story with me during the day, I guess is the best way to describe it. When I’m really working on it, it stays with me. And it stays with me in the car. I have a little thing on my phone that I type ideas if they come to me if I’m out and about.

 

I do all of the nightly chaos. After the children are in bed and everything is sorted out, then I’ll sit down with the characters and with the stories and I’ll go through sections of the story and I’ll go through… I try and be fairly methodical. I look at the narrative arc. I look at the language choice. I look the order of which I’ve sort of written things. I look at the characters. I try and go through and write — sort of edit my own work like that. As I do that then the story grows and it shrinks and it and grows and it shrinks.

 

Valerie

What age group would you say your picture books are for?

 

Emma

So far the picture books that have been out have tended to be for the preschool to year two market, preschool to year one. I know a lot of people with The Terrible Suitcase… there are a lot of year two students that come up to me that really enjoy that one. I know that Grandma, the Baby and Me was read on Play School recently. They obviously felt that hit the preschool age group, which was amazing and a highlight to see that read.

 

Valerie

Yes.

 

Emma

And I think My Friend Ernest probably hits preschool to year one.

 

Valerie

Right.

 

Emma

Or possibly year two. Yeah.

 

 

 

 

Valerie

How do you immerse yourself into the world of a preschooler or a year one child? How do you get your mind into how they would want to read or what kind of stories would resonate with them?

 

Emma

Partly I’m immersed in it. I have these three young children. My heartache aches a bit when I see all of the trials they go through.

 

Valerie

Really?

 

Emma

I remember how hard and how happy it is to grow up. It’s just such a —

 

Valerie

Really?

 

Emma

It’s an exciting time. I really love it. I really have a passion for trying to explain it. I think a lot of people — it’s easy to forget in the busyness of adult life just how rich that time is. Yeah.

 

Valerie

You vividly remember how it was for you?

 

Emma

I do! I remember lots of… I’ve got vivid memories of that time. I was telling my daughter’s class the other day, when I went in for a school visit, that I remember when I was little Possum Magic came out. We had a wonderful librarian who used to make these amazing displays of the library. One of them was — we made these polystyrene lamingtons to celebrate. And the teacher said to me, “Now remember these are not real lamingtons, they’re going to look like lamingtons, but they’re not real lamingtons.” And we painted them brown and we rolled them in coconut. And, I just thought they were amazing. And I knew they were fake because I had made them, I had painted them.

 

One the way out I still remember this, we were lining up and they said, “Great work, off to class now. Don’t touch the lamingtons.” I said to my daughter, “I couldn’t help it. I just had to have a bite.” And so I took a bite and I got a mouthful of paint and polystyrene. I still remember it.

 

Valerie

Oh my gosh.

 

 

Emma

But, to me, even though I knew that we had made those lamingtons, it was so real and so exciting that I had to have a bite. And that’s what the story is like for me. I thought, “If stories can move you to eat polystyrene lamingtons… they’re worth investing in.” I just… yeah, I loved stories ever since. I had such wonderful teachers during those years who loved to read us stories and I have a lot of very vivid memories from those years.

 

Valerie

Wow. I mean you obviously decided to become a speech therapist, did you ever seriously consider going into writing the first time around?

 

Emma

I did. I’ve got journals, as I’ve said.

 

Valerie

Yes.

 

Emma

Over the years. But, I never could see, as a young person how I could do it.

 

Valerie

Yeah, same here. Yes, I made the switch later in life as well. Yeah.

 

Emma

Right.

 

Valerie

What’s next for you? What are you working on? You said you’ve got a number of stories, like in the cupboard or in the hard drive or whatever.

 

Emma

Yes, I do.

 

Valerie

Is there one that is going to be your next book that you’ve decided on?

 

Emma

So, beautiful Hannah Sommerville, she’s the illustrator for My Friend Ernest, she also illustrated Grandma, the Baby and Me. We’ve struck up a great creative partnership. I really needed someone who I could talk about some ideas with. As I said, I usually work from home late at night on my own, which is fun, but sometimes you just really need people to toss around your ideas with.

 

I’ve grown to trust Hannah over the last couple of books we’ve done, and I think we have a very similar way of seeing. Even though we’ve actually only met the once. I think we’re just very, very fortunate in how it’s worked out that we have such a lovely connection.

 

What we’ve done is we’ve tossed some ideas about. When I get to a point in a manuscript that I think, “Hey, I really like this,” I might send it to Hannah. And I find that enormously helpful, because she has the artist and the visual sort of perspective on how to bring it to life. Yeah, I’m learning a lot from Hannah about how an artist might see what you’re writing and that’s been really exciting.

 

Yeah, I’ve shot Hannah a few stories. How we work is that she puts together a few sketches, if she likes the story, and we might further toss some ideas together. We’re doing one like that at the moment. It doesn’t have a contract as such yet, but we’re working. It’s quite advanced in how far it’s come along. So, hopefully that will come off at some point.

 

Valerie

Yeah.

 

What’s your advice to aspiring writers who hope to be in a position like you are one day? Maybe they’re a speech therapist and they’re secretly wanting to write. What’s your advice on the steps that they should take?

 

Emma

It’s different for everyone, isn’t it?

 

Valerie

Yes.

 

Emma

I’ll tell you what it’s like for me. For me, what I needed to do was to get some confidence that what I was writing had some merit, and everyone has different ways of going about that. That’s great, but for me I really did have to go back and study literature and do it the long way, I guess. But, it’s given me such a great freedom now, because I feel that when people ask me what I’m doing with the book or with the story or with the words, I can really respond in a professional way, hopefully.

 

I think that I have learnt just so many valuable skills, like how to work on a text and how to not feel discouraged if it’s not working out, and how to reapproach it and renegotiate it, and all of those things. All of those skills, for me, personally I would have gone back and done that. But, people get those skills other ways, but that’s how I’ve done it.

 

The other thing is I would say to people love stories. Love what you do, because, for me, there have been occasions where I’ve tried to force the story, and I don’t know if this is common, but for me if I try and do that it’s just completely… it just falls down flat.

 

Love what you do, if it’s not working and you can’t work out how it’s not work and you’re not liking it, leave it and then come back to it. Find something else, keep working, but leave that particular story, work on something else. I find that cycle works really good.

 

Valerie

Do you think you’ll write for other age groups one day?

 

Emma

Yes, I hope so. I’m writing a novel at the moment.

 

Valerie

For what age?

 

Emma

For early high school age group. So, I may dump it higher into a young adult novel. So, I’m doing a PhD at the moment with the University of Canberra. Part of that PhD is a novel for young people. So, I will. I will explore all sorts of different areas.

 

But, I’ve begun in picture books, because that’s where I felt I fitted. That’s where I felt I knew, so everyone knows the saying, “Write what you know.” And that’s where I felt I fit best.

 

Yeah, the big thing for me is just stay authentic. I don’t try to write things that aren’t me. A lot of people maybe want to try something different, and I think that’s great, but maybe find what you think your own voice is first and then explore that. I think that gives you a lot of confidence. At least that’s sort of what I’m doing.

 

Valerie
You’re obviously doing something right, because the books are very successful and award-winning.

 

Emma
Thank you, Valerie.

 

Valerie

Great advice. Great advice.

 

Emma

Yeah.

 

Valerie
All right, wonderful. Well, thank you so much for all of your insight and your time today, Emma.

 

Emma

Thanks, Valerie.

Mar 9, 2016 Podcasts Australian Writers' Centre Team

Written by Australian Writers' Centre Team

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