Looking at Tim Harris’ body of work, it would be easy to think he had planned it all out in advance. After spending 15 years as a primary school teacher, he picked up a pen and started writing for that same age group: less than a decade later, he has 11 children’s novels under his belt along with a pack of literary awards, and he’s an in-demand presenter at primary schools across Australia.
But he almost never became a published writer at all. In fact, if it wasn’t for an eager student whose mother was involved in the world of children’s literature, Tim says he might never have made the career change he did.
Fortune favours the bold
Reading stories to his classes, particularly short stories by legendary children’s author Paul Jennings, triggered Tim’s interest in writing.
“I decided to have a crack at writing my own short story for one of my classes – I didn't tell the class that I wrote the story, I folded it up and hid it inside of a Paul Jennings book and read it to them thinking ‘I've got that off my chest, that'll be the end of it.’”
Luckily for his legion of fans, that wasn’t the end of it. Instead, he received an email from a parent of one of the students in that class saying that her son had loved the book and asking to see the original. Unbeknownst to Tim at the time, she was a member of the Children’s Book Council.
“After she'd read it, she contacted me to say ‘maybe you should spend a bit more time writing’,” he says. “If it wasn't for her, I likely wouldn't have persisted.”
“That little interaction kickstarted me thinking ‘perhaps I should take this more seriously’. Because I just did it for a bit of fun to start with. So while I was still teaching – and thanks to that encouragement from the parent, – I self-published four books in the Exploding Endings series.”
After he had self-published the fourth book in that series – Exploding Endings 4: Screenshots & Laughing Gas – Tim decided it was time to take it up a notch and find a publisher. He contacted independent publisher Harbour Publishing House, who were keen to get him on board.
“I said, if you can promise me two books in 2016, then I will resign from teaching and give my everything into promoting the books. They said yes. It’s been five years full-time since then.”
Harbour published the Exploding Endings series, and it was the combination of the reader appetite for the series and the presentations that Tim was doing at primary schools which helped him get noticed by Penguin Random House.
“We first heard about Tim when a children’s bookseller told us about an amazing new children’s author who was fantastic at school visits and whose first series Exploding Endings was selling like hotcakes,” says Zoe Walton, Tim’s publisher at Penguin Random House.
“I invited Tim for a chat, and we started brainstorming ideas for the series that would become Mr Bambuckle’s Remarkables.”
Those school visits remain an important part of the marketing for Tim’s books, and Zoe says he works particularly hard to create and regularly update his presentations to suit his books and his audience.
“School visits and workshops are one way that children’s authors can raise their profile and get their books to be visible in schools – but it takes the right kind of author to perform in front of hundreds of kids at a time, and Tim is a star when it comes to performing.”
A remarkable second series
It was Mr Bambuckle’s Remarkables, his second four-book series, which really put Tim on the map as a writer. Author and Australian Writers’ Centre podcast host Allison Tait says she knew Tim through Australian children’s writers circles, and the first book in the series made his profile “jump exponentially.”
“I first actually physically met him at the first Shoalhaven Readers and Writer's Festival in 2018, because I'm the program director of the children's portion of the festival,” she says. “At that stage, the first Bambuckle book was really going nuts, so I reached out to him and asked ‘will you come to our festival?’”
Allison had also heard that Tim’s school visits were something special, and his presentation at the festival lived up to the hype.
“With the children's author network, your reputation can precede you. I'd heard that his presenting was very good and I wanted to see it. So I decided to bring him to me, and it was great. It was really enjoyable.”
Part of what makes Tim such a successful children’s author is his deep understanding of what children want to read, Allison says.
“He understands what makes kids tick, and understands what they're going to engage with. The Bambuckle’s Remarkable series was just a sensational example of that: every kid who read it loved it, because they understood the classroom environment, they understood the teacher, they understood the various things different kids go through and it's because he understands it, and I think that that honesty is what engages kids.”
Spending 15 years as a teacher, mostly teaching years 3 to 6, has been a huge help in writing for that same age group, Tim says.
“I spent so much time interacting with that age group and also reading stories to that age group and seeing what they enjoyed, it made for – I won't say a smooth transition – but it certainly gave me a bit of knowledge to work on and a bit of background information to go off,” he says.
“Towards the end of my career, when I was thinking about resigning from teaching, it became full on market research, because then there was a chance to take it more seriously. My final year of teaching, a lot of the shared reading time was actually testing out ideas and that was fun.”
What children value, he says, is quick pacing, humour and an element of surprise or an element of wonder. While he’s no longer in the classroom, he finds the presentations and workshops he does at primary schools give his imagination plenty of leaping-off points.
“One of the best parts of the school visit is brainstorming with the audience and getting their ideas because suddenly you’re not just tapping into one other mind, you might be tapping into 250 minds, and that can create some fantastic ideas.”
Pillar of the community
Children’s authors in Australia work together to help get kids reading, and Tim innately understands and contributes to that community, Allison says.
“I have not ever heard anyone say anything except he's such a nice guy, because he is,” she says. “He very much understands the connectivity of what we do.
“There's this real kind of communal and connected approach. If I can't do, for example, a school visit, and I know of someone who would be great for it, then I will say ‘you should call Tim Harris, he's excellent with grade five boys'.
“He innately understands that, and that's always been his approach. As a member of the team, he's fantastic.”
The mechanics of writing
To get the discipline needed to begin writing the Exploding Endings series in the first place, Tim looked to resources like the Australian Writers’ Centre’s So you want to be a writer podcast, which he binge-listened to.
“I think I squeezed in 200 episodes in eighteen months or something at one stage,” he says. “What I particularly enjoyed was, through the interviews with different authors, hearing their different ways of doing things. It's not just one way you can go about your task.
“As someone who was still working full time, it told me that it was okay to moonlight and taught me that it was okay to write in little bursts. Most of all, it taught me that it was important to persist and get to the end of the manuscript.
“Also invaluable was learning about the industry, learning industry know-how, and starting to become familiar with types of genre and who was writing what. Whenever there was a children's author interview, I would often play the episode twice, just to try and get as much out as I could.”
Now he’s one of those authors – having been interviewed for the podcast – he still sees persistence as vital to writing.
How he does it
Typically, he’ll spend two to three months drafting a 25,000 to 30,000-word children’s novel, and prefers to write in the morning and do admin in the afternoon. However, when he’s doing school visits, he focuses on the presentation and will instead spend whole days writing around those visits.
The process of writing his 11th book Toffle Towers: Order in the Court (August 2020) – was not quite like this ideal workflow, though. After doing 46 consecutive school days of 2019 doing school visits, he wrote the first draft in just nine days to meet his deadline.
“This is not recommended. It was 27,000 words in nine days. And then the edit came back – yes, it was pretty much a complete rewrite, which then took a few months, but the results, I'm just so happy with. Every time I read the manuscript now or the proofs, I get a real kick out of it.”
Order in the Court will be the third, and final, book in the Toffle Towers series. Tim says he laughed out loud writing the court scenes in the book, which span a couple of chapters.
“A lot of the traditional court rules are broken because you can do that in kids’ books, you can be imaginative. And there's lots of fun banter dialogue, it was a very fun scene to write.”
Back to school
While Tim has no plans to go back to primary teaching any time soon, he will be running the Australian Writers’ Centre’s course, Laugh Out Loud, a course for adults who are interested in writing funny books for children. He says he’s looking forward to teaching again.
“There's great reward in articulating through a lesson an outcome and then seeing students grasp that outcome – it doesn't matter how old they are, whether they're 7 or whether they're 65,” he says. “That's one of the great joys of teaching, when you're seeing students latch on to an idea that's being taught and then run in their own way.
“With this adult audience for the course, I'm super excited about diving into things at a much deeper level, and really looking at not just the concepts behind funny writing, but also the ‘how’ and teaching them how I actually do it.
“I think there's a bit of a fear for some aspiring, emerging authors, they worry if they're funny enough. They don't need to worry about that because there are ways to create funny content, as long as you understand how, what the process is and how to actually do it.”
Want to try your hand at writing funny books for the little folk? Learn the secrets to creating uproarious stories with tips and tricks from Tim Harris in the online course, Laugh Out Loud: Crafting Stories for Kids.