When picture book illustrator Liz Anelli moved from England to Australia in 2012, she was keen to add something new to her two decades’ experience. And it was a chance encounter with Australian Writers’ Centre (AWC) presenter Cathie Tasker that would provide the spark to a new career as a writer.
Liz had been successful in gaining Australian picture book illustration commissions from publishers such as Walker Books, Penguin Random House, Reader’s Digest and EK Books. But she was keen for more. “I wanted to start writing my own manuscripts,” she recalls. “I submitted a few stories that had been building up in a bottom drawer to my agent, who promptly batted them back. Taking a good long hard look at those earlier efforts I realised they lacked structure and that it was time for some education.”
This is where a fortuitous meeting with Cathie Tasker at a literary event was to prove a turning point of sorts. “She encouraged me to sign up for the AWC online course [in Writing Picture Books]. I knew I wouldn’t be able to attend in person as I was about to travel to England but could commit to using any spare time for the next month studying, writing and learning.”
Studying, writing and learning
Liz completed the course in July 2016 and immediately found that writing a picture book is very different to illustrating one. “As an illustrator I had always designed the books I worked on, taking responsibility for dividing the manuscript into page spreads that generate the flow of text and image,” she explains. “However, this was more intuitive than to any set of rules.”
In particular, she found the AWC-recommended pattern of story building really useful to follow. “Putting my writing into a more formal structure and learning about genres, themes, topics and point of view. I immensely enjoyed playing with words in the same way that I have always played with composition when illustrating texts.”
But most of all, it taught Liz to play up her strengths as an illustrator, rather than set them aside. “Previously I was trying to write the full story first, as if I were an author, not an illustrator. Now I see how I can allow my picture-making to lead the plot, or at least to sit alongside and weave in and out of it.”
The big picture
Liz continues to work full-time as a busy illustrator – drawing pictures, conducting school visits, library workshops and even reviewing picture books for the Children’s Book Council of Australia. She has also enjoyed working in new places thanks to several fellowships and residencies, with two books that she illustrated out this year and two slated for next. She still gets a thrill seeing them on a bookstore shelf.
But now she has an extra string to her bow. With the knowledge gained from doing the Writing Picture Books course, she feels she can now see the process from both sides – and work towards developing her own author/illustrator voice that complements her well-honed drawing skills.
Her advice for someone doing the course is to allow time for it. “I had an overgrown garden and some wayward overseas family to sort out and found it hard to meet the deadlines. However I did keep my promise to myself to go back over all the material several times in the weeks afterwards. Print everything out and keep it in a folder so you can refer to it every time you return to your writing. This has kept me buoyant, given me direction and a push to get started again after each stop.”
She also knows first hand about how long the picture book journey can take, so is prepared to be patient with these next exciting steps – armed with the confidence of her new writing skills. “There is no such thing as a ‘clear-run’. You will always be interrupted so having a path to follow makes all the difference.”