Ep 103 Children’s writing competition scam; what disgraced journalist Stephen Glass is up to now; and children’s author Meg McKinlay.

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podcast-artwork In Episode 103 of So you want to be a writer: The “internet” is now officially lowercase. Beware this children’s writing competition scam and find out what disgraced journalist Stephen Glass is up to now. Our Writer in Residence is children’s author Meg McKinlay. Also: an app that blocks distracting websites, tips on how to build an author platform when you have a common name (and your ideal domain is already taken), and much more.

Click play below to listen to the podcast. You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Stitcher Radio. Or add the podcast RSS feed manually to your favourite podcast app.

Show Notes

The Internet’s lowercase demotion by AP Stylebook upsets the internets

Vanity publishers

Write4Fun – scam?

Stephen Glass says he’s repaid $200,000 to 4 magazines

Stephen Glass

Writer in Residence

Meg McKinlay

megmckinlayMeg McKinlay is a children’s writer and poet. She has published twelve books for children, ranging from picture books through to young adult novels, and a collection of poetry for adults. Her work has been shortlisted for awards such as the WA Premier’s Prize, the Environment Award for Children’s Literature, and the Children’s Book Council Book of the Year Award, and her novel Surface Tension won the Children’s/Young adult category of the 2012 Davitt Award for Crimewriting. Her book A Single Stone won Best Children’s Fiction at the 2015 Aurealis Awards.

Meg lives with her family near the ocean in Fremantle and spends most of her time cooking up books.

You can find Meg on Twitter here

Working Writer’s Tip

How do you build an author platform when you have a common name and your preferred domains are already taken?

Answered in the podcast.

Build Your Author Platform

Alisdair Daws

App Pick

SelfControl – A free Mac application to help you avoid distracting websites

Competition

Olive of Groves by Katrina Nannestad

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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Ep 103 artwork

Interview Transcript

Allison

Meg Mckinlay is a children’s writer and poet who lives near the ocean in Freemantle Western Australia. Her publications range from picture books, chapter books and young adult novels through to poetry for adults.

 

Recently her children’s novel, A Single Stone, was awarded the Aurealis Award for Best Children’s Fiction.

 

Welcome to the program, Meg.

Meg

Thanks you very much for having me.

 

Allison

Excellent.

 

Now, I read on your website that your writing journey actually began with poetry. Can you tell us a little bit about that? Like, how you kind of started writing poetry?

 

Meg

Yes, and I would say that I guess my publication journey in some ways also began with poetry. I think, like many people, I started writing poetry… well, I was going to say I started to write poetry as an adolescent, but that’s in fact not true. I started writing poetry when I was much, much younger. And I think that has to do with the fact that my father introduced me to poetry at a very young age. So, he read me poetry. I grew up loving the rhythms and the cadence of poetry. And even though I often didn’t understand what he was reading to me, I just knew that it was a space that I enjoyed being in.

 

So, I guess it was a natural sort of fit for me. When I was very young I was writing rhyming poetry, you know, that real kind of da, da, dah, dah… in primary school.

 

When I became a teacher I was writing, you know, the free verses, sort of the angsty exploring existential stuff that I think lots of have and we put in drawers and hope that they’ll never see the light of day.

 

But, I look back on some of it now and there were the seeds of stuff there. But, fundamentally I think the reason my writing began with poetry is that I am not a natural storyteller, I’m not a good plotter, I’m someone who comes to writing and creativity more out of little vignettes and fragments and stuff. I’ve always been an observer and I’ve always been someone who jots down little bits and pieces of stuff, and those sorts of things that I’ve jotted down over many years, well, before I was ever thinking that I might be a writer, because I fell into this sort of accidently, those are the sorts of things that leant themselves more to poetry in the beginning, so I felt at least.

 

Allison

All right, so you can you remember the first poem you had published? Like, how did it come about? What made you start submitting your work to I’m assuming literary journals is where you would have been published.

 

Meg

Yes, exactly. And, in fact I think my very first poem was published in Blue Dog, which is the — was, I’m not sure if it’s still going, I should know this, but the Journal of Poetry Australia. And, that also came about, I would say, in a sort of accidental way. When my daughter was very young, I think she may have even been just two, I was an academic and I was working in Japanese literature, and I had to go to Japan. I was going off for a month, which was quite a long time to leave a child of that age, we hadn’t been apart.

 

When I was leaving, that point where you go through the gate and you say goodbye, and my husband was there and my daughter, and I actually had a moment where I thought, “I physically cannot get through these gates. I can’t be separated from her,” and it caught me so absolutely by surprise. As soon as I got through into the departure lounge I felt this incredible reversal, this incredible feeling of lightness.

 

You know when you’re a new mother and you’ve had your child on you for these couple of years, I just thought, “This is incredible, I feel so free.” And then hot on the heels of that feeling of freedom, this incredible sense of guilt at feeling that.

 

I sat down and I started writing about it. And, I don’t really know why, but this stuff came pouring out of me. And, it turned into a poem, or what I thought might be a poem. I thought, “This might be something. I’ll send it off somewhere,” and it was published. And you could have knocked me over with a feather.

 

So that’s sort of how it started. At that point I started thinking, “Perhaps some of these other bits and pieces that I’ve gathered over the years that are just sitting in notebooks and that are just funny little observations about life, maybe they are the beginnings of things.” And I think that was where it really started for me.

 

Allison

I would imagine that poetry is not an easy field for aspiring writers. Like, it just seems to me that there are so few places to actually put poetry even these days. Like, did you have any sense of that when you started doing it? Or was it just like, “Well, this is what I’m writing I’m going to see what happens.”?

 

Meg

I didn’t have a sense of it. I was working then as an academic at the university of Western Australia. So, I was aware of Westerly, which is a literary journal where I also published some work quite early. I was aware of some literary journals, but I… I guess if I had been conscious of the difficulty of placing things it wouldn’t have concerned me, because once this switch got flipped, and I know that’s a cliché, but it is sort of how it felt, once that had happened I couldn’t stop working with these fragments. And it was such a pleasurable challenge for me to try and turn them into something that I wanted to send them off and I knew that I would keep doing them, and even if they didn’t get published that there was a joy and an inherent sort of appeal in that process.

 

But, I also think the time that I started doing that was around the time that little blogs and websites were starting to take off on the internet. So, there were many more opportunities opening up for publication in different sorts of forums, and I think that’s even more so the case now. There are lots of opportunities to put your work out there. It sort of depends on what you want to get out of it. Do you want to be paid? Do you want the publication credit in terms of getting something into a particular journal and those sorts of things.

 

So, I guess those are variables as well.

 

Allison

How did you go from that to writing children’s books? How and why did you start writing children’s books?

 

Meg

It’s all accidental. Honestly…

 

Allison

The accidental poet.

 

Meg

… my daughter is 18 now. Yeah, that’s the accidental everything, really. My daughter is 18 — The Accidental Everything would be a great title for something. I’ve got to write that down.

 

Allison

Write that down.

 

Meg

Tell your listeners they can’t have it, it’s mine.

 

Allison

Copyright.

 

Meg

My daughter is now 18, I think she’s responsible for my writing career in many ways. In fact, that poem that I mentioned earlier is… something that became a key part of that poem is that afterwards, after I arrived in Japan my husband actually told me… because she had been feeling a bit hot and I had said to him, “I think she’s sick,” and he said, “No, no… she’s fine.” He said the moment the doors closed behind me she actually threw up all over the carpet in the airport. And this became a key part of that poem.

 

She said to me over the years, because I would go out to do poetry readings, “Oh, you’ve got to read that vomit poem again, can you just stop?” Once she was a teenager, this idea that I was still reading this poem about her throwing up in an airport.

 

But, she got me into poetry in that sense, but she also got me into children’s writing, because… she was about four years old and I think I was in children’s books because I was reading them to her. And this is one of my great loves, when she was young. She is my only child. Just the pleasure of reading to a child, and I miss that now, and I still assault her with books from time to time. She’s less patient these days.

 

But, I loved that, and I was in children’s books. And, so possibly stories were sort of the water that I was swimming in.

 

And what happened was, she had a friend over for a sleep over and I was driving him home to his house the next day, and it was a house I had been into many, many times. He was in the backseat with my daughter, and I just started playing with him in the way that you might do with a four-year-old, because four-year-olds love whimsical play. I said, “Oh, oh, um, wait, where’s your house. I’ve forgotten, is this the turn? Oh, I think we’ve gone past it. Oh, is that your house? Oh, that’s a shop. Oh no, I’ve forgotten, I’m lost. I need you to tell me how to get your house.” And I looked in the rearview mirror and he wasn’t interested at all. He had his arms folded and he was rolling his eyes and he just said in this hideous world-weary tone, “You know where my house is.”

 

I thought, “This is wrong,” and something in me just reacted and I said, “Well, you know, I knew where it was yesterday when I picked you up, but who’s to say where it will be today.” And I just saw this light go on in his eyes and he went, “What?” And, I was on the hook then. I had to tell these stories.

 

So, it wasn’t much of a story then, but I just came up with this idea of a house that walks around at night. So that when the family wakes up in the morning they never know where they’re going to be.

 

And, I thought, “Hang on a minute, could this be a picture book? I’ve been reading picture books to my daughter all of these years. I think this could be a picture book.” So, I went home and I wrote it and I worked on it until it was, you know, 2,800 words, which as your listeners will know is the perfect length for a picture book.

 

I sent it off, and I actually got a very… I can hear you laughing… I got a very promising response from a publisher and I thought, “Wow, this is super easy.” And then I realize that’s it’s…

 

Allison

You’ve got to cut 3/4 of the words out of it.

 

Meg

But, it didn’t work out… it didn’t work out. All kinds of things happened on their end and it didn’t work out. And I thought, “That’s fine, because it’s super easy. I’ll just send it to another publisher.” And that book — I was going to say it never got published, but it actually was just published in October of last year. It took me 14 years to find the right shape for that story.

 

Allison

How amazing.

 

Meg

Yeah, but in the middle of all of that I published another 11 books, because again with the switch and the flipping, once that had happened I just… I could not turn it off. I started thinking, “Hang on a minute, could this be something that I can actually do?” And, low and behold I eventually…

 

Allison

How many did you write before your first one was published?

 

Meg

I would say that I probably wrote about ten picture books, most of them appalling.

 

There are three novels that I completed, none of which were any good. But, some of which had promising elements, and one of which was a young adult novel, which um the first 10,000 words of which I wrote quite quickly because I heard at the last minute that there was a mentorship opportunity that was coming up for young adult, which was through what was then the state lit center in WA, which is now Writing WA.

 

And so I wrote 10,000 words quite quickly and I was really fortunate enough to be chosen for this mentorship and the manuscript was then completely torn apart. I had to complete it, it was then torn apart by my mentor and I revised it, and that then got me to a master class at Varuna, which Mark McCloud, and he tore it apart again. I revised it. That went on for a long time, and that book was never published, but it sort of… it got me some good feedback and people in the industry got to see it. It sufficiently encouraged that I thought, “Perhaps this is something I can do, I need to do a lot of work,” and I did need to do a lot of work, “but, perhaps this is something that I can do.”

 

Allison

Wow, so there’s a fair bit of persistence involved in that though?

 

Meg

A lot of persistence and I have thick folder full of rejection letters, there was one point — I think it was probably about five years from the time I started seriously submitting work until I got that first real… the glimmer of hope that turned into what became my first novel. And towards the end of that process I started thinking, “This is not going to happen in Australia. The market is too small. I think my stuff is OK, I think there’s something there, but I need to… maybe I’ll try the US,” and so I started sending stuff off to the US. I got some nibbles, but nothing concrete.

 

Allison

So the first thing that you had published was actually a novel for children, as opposed to a picture book?

 

Meg

It was a novel for children, and it came out in 2007, and it was a novel aimed mostly at, uh, girls in upper primary and it was called Annabell, Again. And there’s a bit of a story to how that got published as well. It’s a story of heartbreak and rejection in that I sent it off to an imprint of a publisher that was around at the time that was called Otford Press, and there was imprint called Banana Books. I sent it off and I got an email quite quickly from an editor there saying, “This is really promising, you have a great voice. Congratulations, fantastic work. I’m sending this to another reader we’ll get back to you.” And I heard back from them again quite quickly. “Second reader loves, we want to take this to acquisitions.” I thought, “It’s all happening, it’s all happening.” And then I heard nothing from them.

 

And, at that time I was a subscriber to an industry newsletter called Pass It On, and a few weeks later I saw a note in Pass It On that Otford Press had gone under, that they closed their doors. I thought, “Oh…”

 

Allison

That is heartbreaking.

 

Meg

So… it was! And I emailed this editor and said, “Oh, look, I’ve just seen this, and thanks for your interest and I hope it’s not too much of a shock to you, this has happened quite suddenly.” And she replied and said, “Someone should have let you know. I’m really sorry, but please persist with this book, because we really think it has promise.”

 

I don’t know how much time elapsed, but it might have been a year later that I had some interest from a couple of other publishers, but nothing definite. That editor emailed me and said, “I am interviewing for a position at Walker Books, who are beginning a local nest. Nothing definite, but I’m optimistic that I might get this position and I’d love to consider this manuscript, if it’s still available.”

 

Allison

Wow.

 

Meg

And the rest is history, because that was Sue Whiting.

 

Allison

Oh, she’s fabulous.

 

Meg

She’s the publishing manager at Walker books now. And, we’ve worked together closely ever since. And, I feel like Sue has really built my career and turned me into the writer that I am today. If I’m any kind of writer she’s a fantastic editor who really gets me.

 

All right, so that’s my story.

 

Allison

That’s a great story.

 

Having had all of the experience and all of that persistence and all of those things, what do you think is the secret to writing a great children’s novel, like what was different about that book that got it over the line?

 

Meg

Honestly, I think it was the voice of the book. I feel like my first few books I was trying to do something that wasn’t quite me and I hadn’t quite found the voice that I needed to write in. But, there was something about this particular book that I was able to find the voice of the character more easily and I always feel a little bit nervous when people ask me to give them tips and explain how I do things, because it’s so nebulous and hard to explain. But, there was just something about this book that when I started writing — do you know what I think it is? Now that we’re talking about it… because it’s a book about a girl in year four, who is sort of on the outside of things. And she’s not being bullied, but she’s just… she doesn’t really have a close friend. She had a close friend, but that close friend moved away.

 

I had an experience in year four of having some friends who I thought were close friends, but they moved away, but not physically. They moved away sort of psychologically and emotionally through a series of events. Someone intervened, all of my friends who I thought were my friends were suddenly saying, “We’re not your friends and we’ve never liked you.” And if you’ve ever been in a situation — even remotely similar — you can probably imagine how even talking about, I can still feel what that felt like. And, so I think I was able to tap into that and capture that in the voice that character and that really worked for that book.

 

Sue actually said to me — I am a terrible plotter, I’m awful with structure and that book needed a lot of work. Sue, who was my editor on that book, said to me, “You know, plot, that’s fine. It’s not that it doesn’t matter, but we can fix plot. We can work with you on plot, but voice, that’s harder to fix. If you don’t have it, it’s hard to get it.” So, I think that was really key for me, and kind of inhabiting that space of ten-year-old girl.

 

 

 

Allison

All right, so moving on a bit, A Single Stone has just won the Aurealis Award, where did the idea for that book come from?

 

Meg

Oh, gosh. This is another question that I sometimes do struggle with, especially when I’m asked where did the idea come from, because what happens with me often is that it’s sort of an alignment of ideas, and an alignment of things that don’t seem to be connected, but at a certain point, you know, I’m a magpie and I gather stuff from all over the place. I have a lot of noise in my head, because I’m collecting things all the time.

 

At a certain point things that don’t seem to be connected bump together and I often think of it, if you can visualize… I don’t know if you’ve ever seen mercury, where it’s sort of… it’s all of these disconnected blobs, at a certain point when those blobs get close enough to each other they connect and they form up, and off they go. They start to form this kind of flowing stream. That’s how it feels for me.

 

So, with The Single Stone, it was a couple of things. And, the two main things were, I think, when I was about seven I read The Narnia series, which I loved. And, my favorite of the Narnia series, um, the Silver Chair, and there’s a moment in that where the children in Puddleglum the marsh people go down below and they go down underneath, you know, underground into a place where they’re not very comfortable at all. And they meet these gnomes underground. And the gnomes have come up from much further underground and the gnomes say, “We don’t know how you can stand being up there, outside with that horrible expanse of sky, with no roof above you.”

 

And I remember thinking at the age of seven, that was the first time I really felt something so fundamental, “Not everyone thinks the way that I do and it’s possible to have a world view that’s completely other.” And I think that stayed with me and formed the very early seeds of this character that is so at home inside a mountain with rock pressing down on her. I think that’s where that came from.

 

But, the other element that joined up with that, and this didn’t happen for many, many years. It was just that these things were lodged in my brain and eventually connected. Is a line from Franz Kafka, who writes these piffy little fragments and wrote these piffy little fragments called The Aphorisms, and one of the aphorisms is this really odd little thing that just goes like this, it’s, “Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers; this happens over and over and over; eventually it can be predicted in advance, and becomes incorporated into the ritual.” And it was this idea as a teenager when I read that growing in an Anglican high school, the idea of ritual and how something so random can come to be co-opted into ritual and what that means for belief systems and power and those sorts of things.

 

So, those are the two very early seeds for the book. But, it didn’t really come to me as an idea until about five or six years ago.

 

Allison

So, you’re exploring some fairly big themes and ideas and stuff in the book.

 

Meg

Yes.

 

Allison

I mean has its success surprised you? Or did you always have a feeling about this particular story?

 

Meg

No… no to both I guess. The success… I wouldn’t say that it surprised me. I certainly don’t ever expect that kind of thing. I sort of hoped quietly that it might find a certain sort of readership. I guess there have been — I’ve certainly been surprised by the number of short-listings and that kind of thing, because I always think of my books as being a bit niche, especially this sort of book where I write slow, quiet sorts of books. They’re not fast-paced, they’re not page-turners. So, I didn’t expect it to get the kind of mainstream acceptance that it has.

 

The second part of your question was…

 

Allison

Did you always have a feeling about the story? Like, this particular story?

 

Meg

The answer to that question is emphatically no.

 

Allison

 

Meg

I had a feeling that if I could manage to write it, that it would be a story of which I probably would feel quite proud.

 

Allison

Yes.

 

Meg

But, I certainly didn’t have any feeling that it would meet a wide readership in the way that it has. But, I thought there would be readers out there, like, the kind of reader that I was, that it would be the right sort of book for. But, like I say, I always think that that’s possibly a niche reader, and perhaps I’m wrong about that.

 

Allison

Clearly.

 

Meg

I must be.

 

Allison

Do you write full time now? Or are you fitting writing into your life still?

 

Meg

I am still fitting into my life.

 

Allison

And how do you go about doing that?

 

Meg

With great difficulty.

 

Allison

I know.

 

Meg

I work about ten hours a week for a writing organization, there’s some voluntary work that I do, and then I do school events and workshops. I have various other commitments. So, the writing does fit in. I have to keep a close eye on things. I have to be very careful about my writing time. But, I do go for whole periods when I’m not able to do much of anything at all. But, when I’m not putting words on the page — especially if I’m working on a novel, if I’m going through a period when I can’t actually put words on the page, I still try to connect with the work in some way, even if that’s just to sit down in front of it and revel in the mess of it for fifteen minutes or so, just to remind myself that this is what I’m doing and not to lose touch with it too much.

 

Allison

So, the other thing I notice you do is you’ve got a very comprehensive website, which is terrific, and you blog. Is blogging something that you like to do?

 

Meg

Yes, and no. I like to have an outlet where I can talk about things that appeal to me from time to time, I suppose, and sink my teeth into topics that are writing-related, but that I can’t necessarily explore in my work in the same way.

 

So, I guess possibly it’s a little bit narcissistic in that sense. And, certainly it’s narcissistic and self-serving in the sense that I don’t treat it in the way that someone who was advising someone to build a writer platform would advise you to treat a blog. I don’t have a schedule. I don’t really even see it as a blog. I just see it as not even a semi-regular thing. It’s just… it’s there, and when I have something to say I’ll say it. It’s in the back of my mind that I should probably put something there once a month at the minimum, but it’s not a priority for me. And I’m not concerned about traffic or anything like that. It’s just there.

 

Allison

“Just there –” well, it’s just there and that’s good.

 

Meg

Yeah.

 

Allison

That’s a good start.

 

Meg

Yeah.

 

Allison

Um, so do you do other things, like you were talking about speaking in workshops and all of that sort of stuff. Are those — is that kind of where you spend your time with regards to kind of keeping your name out there and your books out there and that sort of stuff?

 

Meg

Um… I’m saying a lot of yes and no. I don’t do it for that reason.

 

Allison

No.

 

Meg

I guess I do it fundamentally because, look, at heart I’m a complete introvert and a bit of a hermit. In fact when my daughter turned 18, just recently, and I realized — she’s a uni now, and I realized, “Hang on a minute, I don’t even have to drive her around anymore. She’s driving herself. I don’t have to take her to buses…” that idea appeared to me as such a relief, as if I was someone shipwrecked who had washed up on a beach. And the sheer force of that relief made me realize, “This is dangerous and I must stay connected to the world.”

 

So, it’s a way of staying connected to the world in a broad sense, but more importantly to read it. My impulse is always to be solidary, and to get out there, to say ‘yes’ to things and to get out there, and to find myself exhausted by it, but also really energized in a different way, and to meet those readers. It sounds ridiculous to say that I can forget about the readers and who they are, but I can.

 

I’m writing my for my past self, I think, and it’s good to be reminded of who kids are now. So, I think fundamentally that’s why I keep doing it.

 

Allison

  1. All right. So for our final question for today, we are coming to the great three top tips for aspiring writers question. I’m just wondering what you’ve got for me.

 

Meg

I’ve already said to you, I think, that I’m nervous when I’m approached to give tips and advice. But, I think I’m going to give the tips that I give to kids when I talk to them about writing.

 

They often say to me, “What should I be doing if I want to be a writer,” and think these things are the same. One of the first things is read. You know? I’m probably talking more to adults now, but I would say to be a reader when you were young is so important.

 

When I was teaching at uni I could tell as soon as I got that first piece of writing, I could tell the people who had grown up in language and had a real ear for language, and I think you can improve at that when you’re older, but fundamentally you can’t get it in quite the same way if you’ve missed it.

 

So, read and be in language.

 

And I would also say, I guess this is number two, be in the world, which is actually the tagline of one of my picture books, to Ten Tiny Things, be in the world. You’ve got to be in out there, and you’ve got to have that fundamental curiosity. Unplug yourself, let yourself be bored, stare out the window of buses, don’t be looking at screens all of the time. Have that space for ideas to fall into.

 

I find it hilarious when people say, “Where do you get your ideas?” Because my problem is too many ideas. They are just absolutely everywhere.

 

And the third thing, I guess, so read, be in language, be curious, be in the world — the third thing, I guess, is to let yourself be your absolute strangest self, because I think we are all fundamentally strange and weird at heart. And those connections, the little connections that we make, we will make in a way that no one else can make and I really think that’s where the most interesting stories and ideas come from.

 

Allison

So true.

 

Meg

But, as we get older it’s really easy to shut that down, because…

 

Allison

It is.

 

Meg

… it’s a bit too — we don’t want to let that happen. We want to let ourselves have those thoughts. So…

 

Allison

Fantastic.

 

Meg

Those are my three top tips.

 

Allison

And you’ve done very well for a person who doesn’t like giving top tips. Well done.

 

Meg

I don’t.

 

Allison

All right. Well, so that’s us for today. Thank you so much for your time. I really, really appreciate it. Congratulations on the win. I see that the book is actually coming out — where is it coming out? The UK… somewhere?

 

Meg

It’s coming out in the UK in June.

 

Allison

Fantastic.

 

Meg

And it’s coming out with Candlewick in the US next year sometime, so that’s all pretty exciting.

Allison

Fantastic. That’s really exciting. Well done.

 

And, yeah, thanks very much for your time. And best of luck with it all.

 

Meg

Thanks so much, it’s been my pleasure.


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