In this minisode of So you want to be a writer: Have you started your book in the right place? And meet picture book author and AWC alumni Shelly Unwin.
Got a question for Val and Al? Ask at podcast [at] writerscentre [dot] com [dot] au
Hi Val and Al,
Firstly thanks for a fantastic podcast – I listen to each and every one and especially love the new minisodes where I get to hear listener questions and your feedback. It’s invaluable.
I have a question for you about a YA novel I have been working on for about 12 months (my first novel).
I did the Creative Writing Stage 1 course early last year and loved it. It gave me the tools and drive to launch myself into writing a story that has been simmering away in my mind for many years. I have written around 60,000 words now and I feel like I should be coming to the point where I can write the climax and tie the whole thing together.
However, the events that I thought might be the climax of my story feel like they are only a stepping stone in my protagonist’s journey. The way it is feeling is that I am perhaps in the middle of her journey, the middle of the story and I am still far far away from the climax.
It is a little disheartening and I have pulled back from the fervour I had to get this story onto the page. I don’t want it to become an unfinished manuscript that I wasn’t able to follow through on.
What I really want to do is start back at the beginning and work on the structure of the story (as there is very little at the moment – literally pages and pages of text with no distinct chapter breaks). I’d do this in the hope that some some new elements of the story will present themselves and give me pathways or clues to find a climax. If I do that, am I avoiding the task of completing my protagonist’s journey? How can I find the motivation to continue on and ‘write the book’ as you so often like to say, when I feel like I’m just wading through murky waters and getting nowhere?
Very much looking forward to some feedback to help me through this! 🙂
Writer in Residence
Shelly Unwin is a children’s picture book author. Her debut series of five picture books, You’re One!, You’re Two!, You’re Three!, You’re Four!, and You’re Five! picture book series was published by Allen and Unwin in 2017.
Find out more about Shelly on her website
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Thanks so much for joining us today.
It’s lovely to be here.
Now Shelly, you’ve launched your first book. In fact, it’s not only one book, it’s a series of books. Can you tell us, for readers who haven’t discovered your picture book series yet, what it’s about?
So it’s five books all about age and number. So they are You’re One, You’re Two, You’re Three, You’re Four, and You’re Five. So book one, You’re One, is all about talking to the one year old and all of the wonderful things in their world that come in the number one. And You’re Two, all about the things that come in number two.
And it builds. It starts really, really close and egocentric and deliciously about one tummy to tickle, one head to shake, and one little mouth for eating cake. And then it develops into broader concepts as the age gets older. So by five, we look at five oceans and five vowels and bigger ideas for them to get their head around.
And it’s all written in rhyme, which is beautiful to read too
It’s such a great series. Now I just think that they’re beautiful. And I just think that they’re so clever. And they’re so great to read.
This is your first published series of picture books, or any books. Tell me what did you do before? What was your profession before you discovered the world of writing?
Well, at university I trained to be a teacher. And then I travelled out to Australia and unfortunately couldn’t stay teaching because I hadn’t got enough years of experience to be sponsored as a teacher.
So because I was so keen to stay living here, I went into sales and into a recruitment role. And I was in recruitment for about eight years, I think, before I then had the children and settled down. And became a stay-at-home mum
And then when did you think, oh, I might try my hand at writing?
So I had loved the aspect of reading children’s literature whilst I was training to teach. But it was reading to my children at night. And I actually read to them in utero. I was so keen to get going.
Read Beatrix Potter. Yeah.
But my daughter, so my eldest child was about three when the idea hit me that I wanted to have a go at writing. And I was reading a beautiful little book about an incy wincy spider. And I suddenly went, oh! This is it! This is what I want to do.
And my conviction was so absolute. It was incredible, really. My dad was out from the UK at the time and I raced downstairs to say to him, “dad, I know what I want to do! I want to be a writer!”
And he went, “oh yes, I’ve got a few ideas.”
And he’d never mentioned to me that he’d written a few ideas before. So it was really intriguing to know that it obviously is a little bit in the family.
Yes. Now, you say that when you had that lightbulb moment you had that real conviction, that you knew that this was what you wanted to do. Had you not had any hints or any inkling before that? Or interest?
No. There really wasn’t. I mean I obviously, I’ve always been very dedicated to reading to the kids. And fondest childhood memories are of my dad reading with funny voices as went through all the Enid Blyton series and those sort of books.
So children books, I was fond of them. But I hadn’t, at school, my school report in English they used to say, needs to elaborate and develop her language and things. So there was no inkling early on that this was something that I was going to do. It really was a lightbulb moment out of the blue.
Although I had had a job, a corporate job doing environmental consulting where I’d had to write some documentation. And I had really enjoyed playing with the words and tweaking things. So that was perhaps my first insight into the idea that I might like to play with words.
But no, it really was a bit of a bolt from the blue.
So after this bolt from the blue, and you had this conviction, this is what I want to do, did you… These things can pass, these inspired ideas. What happened after that? Did that conviction really stay with you? And did you then decide, I’m going to do whatever I can to make this happen? How did it all roll out after?
I knew that I didn’t know enough to really give it a good go without starting to educate myself. So as well as obviously borrowing widely from the library, I enrolled in a course, actually, at your Writers’ Centre, the Australian Writers’ Centre, and did the Writing Picture Books course. Which was just such an amazing experience and gave me such a solid foundation.
And there was enough feedback from that course, from the tutor and the other people on the course to make me think that I might have something. So that was enough to motivate me to keep going.
And look, honestly, it became an absolute obsession.
Very quickly. It was all I could think about. And a friend who’d inspired me at the beginning went, “Oh, I’m not sure I should have encouraged you because we’ve never had lunch again since.”
And it’s true! Because the children were at limited time frame in preschool at the time. And so the minute I dropped them, I would grab a coffee and race back to my laptop and chain myself to my desk and work at it as if it was any other sort of business. I’d put as much into it as if I was running a business that was already earning money. And I was accountable for my hours.
So I really did throw myself at it with complete conviction. And I never really wavered. I did sort of wonder whether I should be telling people that I was writing in case it never came to anything, and that I’d end up with egg on my face that I’d put all this time into something that came to nothing.
But I needed to own it. And also I was so excited, I wanted to tell people. And so I did. And I think that that also helps. Because then you kind of get, like, there’s no way back now. I’ve said that this is what I’m doing and so I’m going to make it work.
And I just love it. I really do. There isn’t a day that I don’t enjoy being at my computer playing with words.
Now. When you say you chained yourself to the desk and you didn’t see your girlfriends for lunch anymore, what did you… Because it takes a while to get published. So when you did chain yourself to the desk, in your first throes of excitement when you’ve discovered this world, what did you actually do? What were you actually writing? What were you doing at the desk?
Yes. So working on picture book manuscripts. I also write young adult, as well, although I’m still in the development phase of that. I’m not ready to submit anything. And obviously the word count and the timeframe that goes into that is fairly huge.
But with my picture books, I have quite a few on the go at any given time. And so I just dip into whichever one I’m feeling inspired by and play with it and tweak it and read it out loud to myself to see if the rhythm’s flowing and the words are right and see what I can do to make it better.
But also, I’m part of a couple of critique groups. One in particular that’s focused on picture books. And so I’m also, at that time, was really heavily involved in critiquing other people’s work, which was such a learning curve. And also made me realise a lot about myself and my own writing. So I developed a lot because of looking critically at other people’s work.
So the day would involve looking at other people’s work. And I also joined a forum where you had to submit a manuscript every month and you got feedback for that. So there were deadlines there that helped make you make a manuscript as good as it could be by a certain time.
And then lots of reading. And courses.
Yes. Because after you did the course Writing Picture Books, you then did the course at the Australian Writers’ Centre, Writing Books for Children and Young Adults.
So did you know when you had your epiphany that you wanted to write picture books and books for young adults? Or did you just think, I want to be a writer and it didn’t really matter what kind of writing? What did you think?
I think I was thinking picture books. That was what I absolutely loved at the time. The digression into young adult happened at 6am on a really rainy day. And I just said to my husband, “quick! Get me my laptop! I want to write. I’ve got an idea.”
And I actually thought it would be middle grade when I started to write it, and it developed into a much more sinister plot.
Yeah. And that was so much fun. So much fun to write.
You really do have bolts of lightning, don’t you?
I do, don’t I! And I wouldn’t say I’m a hugely spontaneous… I’m not unspontaneous, but I’m not hugely spontaneous. But in the world of writing, everything has just hit me from the blue. Yes.
So why did you do the courses?
Because I hadn’t done any sort of degree in literature or… I didn’t feel like I… I think I had insight into the fact that everything was a lot more complicated than it seems. When you read a really good picture book, for example, it seems like it’s so easy to do. But I had an inkling it wasn’t and that there was a lot more to it behind the scenes that you needed to know to actually do it well.
And so I wanted to educate myself and give myself a good foundation to get going with. And I was really happy. And it really is, often you go into things and you don’t know what you don’t know. And it’s only when you start to do a course or speak to experts that you… And there are so many layers. The more years you’re at it, the more you uncover. And then you forget that you’ve learned it. It’s just then there to use.
But yeah, I was very keen to do it right from the beginning. And I think that you could, it would be very easy to spend a huge amount of time writing. And writing, you know, really beautiful stories, but that don’t quite hit the mark of publishable if you haven’t really got that understanding of what makes successful picture books.
Yes. Now you’re a member of some critique groups, which means that they critique your stuff and you critique their stuff. How valuable is that for you?
Oh, it’s my world. It’s incredible. And I really don’t think that I would have… Well, I don’t know that it would have happened as quickly if I hadn’t had the critique groups behind me to give me that feedback.
And also, to give you the staying power for when the publishing contract hasn’t come yet. Because, you know, it took three years. And you think you’re on to something, but you have your ups and downs and you get your rejection slips. And even if they’re a warm, you know, “we think it’s lovely but it’s not quite right for our list” it’s a real knock back. And if you don’t have people who understand that…
You know, your family can be beautifully supportive, but they don’t know how it feels to have a rejection when you really, truly believed in something.
So a critique group, my critique group, particularly, they’re my writing family. They are the people that go, no, come on! Get it out there again. Send it to such and such and see what they think. It’s worth pursuing.
And it’s nice to be able to be that for other people too.
And so just tell us, I mean, I know the story, but I’d love our listeners to hear the story of how this series of books made its way to bookshelves. If you can give us the potted timeline, if you know what I mean.
Yes. So as all other things have happened with my writing, it was a bolt out of the blue. I was fast asleep in bed. And it was only about 11:30, it wasn’t super late, but I had been asleep. And I woke up, bolt upright, and the adrenaline through me was huge. And I woke my husband and went, “I’ve got it! I know! I’ve got it. It’s You’re Five.”
And I told him what my ideas were, and it was book five that came to me first. And he’s there going, yeah, yeah, sounds good.
So I wrote some notes into my iPhone and sort of stayed sitting there for a little while and nothing else came. So I laid back down and then two minutes later I sat bolt upright again. And so the story sort of came out in these little fits and starts. Every time I lay down a bit more came.
And then, so having written it, I just couldn’t, I was like a cat on a hot tin roof for a couple of days until I could take it to my critique group to get their feedback, and see if they thought it was as commercial, I guess, as I did.
Because I’d written quite a few stories that had had lovely feedback but that were quiet. What editors tend to call quiet stories. They’re lovely, but there’s not the hook for people to want to reach for the shelf and buy it, if you’re an unknown author.
So I was like, this is commercial. And on my way back from one of the meetings with them I was like, oh my goodness. It’s a series! I’ve got to write You’re One, You’re Two, You’re Three, You’re Four. And they all flowed beautifully on to the page. They wanted to be written. They were so willing to go on.
And it was, writing it for one year olds was so much fun, thinking about what was really important at one. And then as it built up and thinking about three, and the triceratops and your three-legged races, and all of the gorgeous things in life that fascinate three-year olds. And so on.
And I was in a very fortunate position. I had spent those three years going to lots of conferences and networking with editors and having one on one consultations to get feedback. So I knew the industry fairly well. And the main people at the big publishing houses. So I was able to either email it to them directly or meet with them at a conference that was happening very soon after I’d had the idea to pitch it to them.
And the feedback was unanimously excited about it. Which was great. And I also then did a literary speed… It’s not dating. Literary…
It’s like speed dating.
Literary speed pitching session. Where I met my lovely agent, Alex Adsett. And that was interesting in itself. Because I actually was pitching my young adult novel, and I’d done such a bad job of it with one editor, that I thought I really need to give this another go. So I saw Alex there and I went and pitched it to her and she was so lovely and encouraging and I just got the sense that she was this beautiful person.
And I’d read what she was looking for, and she wasn’t looking for picture books. And I just sort of said, “you wouldn’t be interested in hearing my pitch for my picture books, would you?” And she said, “yeah, yeah, tell me.” And so I told her and she’s like, “oh, that sounds fantastic.”
And so we then got into a conversation. And then after a couple of phone calls she agreed to represent me which was very exciting. And the books went to a small auction. There were a couple of publishing houses interested in it. So it was great to have an agent to manage that negotiation because I think I probably would have found it quite stressful if I hadn’t had someone who really knew what they were doing walk me through it.
This is such a great story, isn’t it?
Yes. Yes. And so Allen and Unwin were really keen and shared their vision for it with me. And then we decided to go with them. And it’s been so exciting since then to see Katherine Battersby, the beautiful illustrator, come on board and watch her bring it all to life with her amazing characters.
And the books, they’re just so clever. And they’re so beautifully written. But, as you say, they’re also very commercial. I mean, I always have my commercial hat on as well. Because when you’ve bought You’re One for a one year old, chances are very high that the following year you’re going to buy You’re Two, and then you’re going to buy You’re Three, and so on. So they’re going to have a long shelf life.
Now, I know that you had, you created a vision board for yourself.
Yes. I did.
Tell me about that. Because I love this story, too.
Yeah. So I was just at a playgroup with a friend who had a business and was creating her own vision board. Was sat at the table where the kids just cut and stick from magazines. And she’s there and I’m like, what are you up to? And she said, “Oh, I’m just creating a positive affirmation for myself.”
And I went, “oh, I think I might do that.”
So I chopped up a few beautiful pictures of books and things. And then I wrote – “a great publishing contract.” So I was never aiming for just a publishing contract. I wanted a great one.
And I stuck it inside my tea cupboard. Because one of the things that I will do when I’m chained to my desk is to have multiple cups of tea. And I thought, well, every time I go for a cup of tea, I shall just remind myself that this is what I’m aiming for.
And I really visualised it. I’ve had success in the past, actually, with just strongly believing in this is what’s going to be, this is what’s going to happen in the future.
And it took a long, long time. And there were days, I’m sure, when I opened the cupboard and didn’t even notice the vision board. But then there were days where I did, I would stand and look at it and go, yep, this is what I’m aiming for.
Did you have doubts? Did you have days that you just thought, I’m just kidding myself. This isn’t going to happen.
Yeah. Little ones. But you know, I had so much pleasure from writing that I would have, even if it had never amounted to anything, I think I would have stayed at it.
Because it was… Unless my husband sort of said, come on, seriously now, go and get a job. I was having too much fun to stop. And I think I would have perhaps deviated from picture books and done a little bit, had a go at some chapter books, early readers and middle grade, maybe, if I really did keep hitting a dead end with the picture books.
But I think they are my sweet spot. I think they are what I really enjoy. And I love the age of children that you’re writing for for picture books. It’s that magical time in life where they really believe. And you’ve got this, you know, it’s such a blessing to be able to write for them when they are so influenced and so in love with what you do. It’s gorgeous.
Now I understand also that you had this goal to be a published author before you turned 40. Is that true?
Yes. And look, I’ve done it by about ten years. No! I wish. So I turned 40 in September, so I’ve scraped in by a couple of months.
Well done. I think it just goes to show the power of positive thinking, and the power of setting goals and the power of believing in yourself and reminding yourself that this is really possible. I think that’s the whole thing. You need to believe that it’s actually possible.
So this series is gorgeous and it has been very successful in the short period of time that it’s been out. What’s next for you? What have you got planned?
It’s all happening. I’ve got another book that’s coming out with Penguin Random House in the middle of next year, which is actually a slightly nonfiction book. It’s called Blast Off, and it takes kids into space. And it’s really funny. There’s lots of humour in there, but also they learn about each planet. Just by accident, as they go around the solar system.
So I think with this series, You’re One to You’re Five, it’s sneakily educational. They’re learning all about number without realising that that’s what’s happening. And a bit of science, bit of geography and things in there as well.
With Blast Off, it’s sneakily educational. They’ll be giggling like crazy as they read the story, but they will also come away knowing a little bit about each planet, which is nice.
And then there’s another book with Allen and Unwin that’s coming out later in 2018 that’s called There’s a Baddie Running Through this Book, and it’s a really fun chase through the book. The child reads the book as if they’re chasing the baddie through the book.
And that was, that came about because of my son’s obsession with one page of a library book that had a baddie driving a van that had money falling out the back and a police car chasing after him. And he just wanted to go back to that page again and again. “Can we see the baddie? Go back to the baddie. Mummy, look at the baddie.” And I thought, I’m going to write a book about a baddie.
And that’s full of prepositions. Did he go up or down, through or around, and things. There’s a sneaky bit of learning in there too. But so much fun.
And each set of books is illustrated by different illustrators. And that’s really fascinating to see. I’ve got Ben Wood on Blast Off and he’s absolutely hilarious. So, so funny. And there are layers to his humour. So kids will see things on the third read that they didn’t see on the first read, which is really fun.
And then Vivienne To for the Baddie, and just starting to see her concepts come through now which just look absolutely beautiful. So it’s all very exciting.
And we’ve just… Oh no, I better not say that. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say that… But there’s lots in the works.
Okay. So there’s obviously something else happening as well. Which is very, very exciting. It’s like those two books already for 2018. It seems that you’re unstoppable at the moment. So it’s just all happened. And I cannot be happier for you. So I’m so thrilled, and congratulations on this debut series. And I have no doubt that there are going to be many, many more to come.
Thank you. And thanks for your support. It’s been absolutely fantastic. And so lovely to chat to you.
My pleasure. Thanks a lot.
Thank you. Bye.