Ep 51 What publishers want; weird writer habits; notebook obsession; internships; the 5-minute journal; and Writer in Residence Judith Rossell

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In Episode 51 of So you want to be a writer: agents and editors calling out to authors, internships, publisher forced to retract allegation in Julia Gillard’s book, weird writer habits, ideas on how to use your new notebook, the 5-minute journal, Writer in Residence Judith Rossell and more!

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Show Notes

#MSWL: Agents And Editors Calling Out Requests — To Authors

Publisher of Julia Gillard’s book retracts Nick Xenophon allegations

Weird Writer Habits, Ranked

5 noteworthy ideas on how to use your new notebook

Writer in Residence

Judith Rossell is a full-time writer and illustrator of children’s books. Over the past 12 years, she has written 10 books and illustrated more than 80. Her work has been translated into 14 languages.

Judith teaches Writing for Children at RMIT and lives in Melbourne. She worked as a government scientist for a cotton spinning company and studied textile design in Scotland before becoming a full-time writer.

Judith’s website

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Your hosts

Allison Tait
Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

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@valeriekhoo

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Transcript

Allison
Judith Rossell has been writing and illustrating children’s books for more than 12 years and has written 11 books, working on number 12, and illustrated more than 80. She teaches The Writing Picture Books course for the Australian Writers’ Centre in Melbourne. Her latest book, a junior novel called Withering-by-Sea was recently short-listed for the 2015 Indie Book Awards. 

Hi, Judith. Welcome.

Judith
Hi, thank you.

Allison
Firstly, tell us a little about yourself. Have you always been a writer and illustrator of children’s books?

Judith
No, I’m one of those people who has changed careers a little bit. I used to actually work for CSIRO as a scientist. I’ve studied science out of school and I did that for a bunch of years. Then I worked for a cotton spinning company as a product development officer, believe it or not. I like to think I’m the children’s illustrator in Australia who knows the most about early stage fiber processing.

Allison
I’m sure you are.

How did you go from early stage fiber processing to writing and illustrating children’s books?

Judith
It was mainly the illustrating. I started off as a illustrator. I’ve always enjoyed drawing and I’ve always done a little bit of illustration on the side. When work was becoming a little bit hard to go with, at one stage I thought I would just take a break and do some illustrating for awhile and come back to it. I had always planned to come back to work. But, I was just so lucky and I really like working from home, I love drawing pictures and I got a bunch of work straight up, which was just really lucky. I never went back to work.

Allison
Lucky you. Did you have a portfolio? How do you start being a children’s book illustrator? Do you just launch yourself?

Judith
That is how some people start. I often suggest for illustrators, and this might be the same for writers, sometimes it’s useful to think of the thing that you do other than illustrating that might help make a start. For me, I’m very into music. My first jobs were with Allens Music, who produced music books like How to Play The Recorder or whatever, and I illustrated a bunch of them. So, coming in with my extra music knowledge was helpful.

Allison
That’s interesting. You came in first with pictures, why did you then start writing your own books rather than illustrating other people’s?

Judith
I did a few books, which were maze books, they were very elaborate artwork. Someone writes the story and the illustrator draws the pictures. In a maze book the story is really slight and the pictures are really elaborate you do those and you think, “I could write those words. And then I could be in charge.

Allison
Is that part of why you started? You wanted to be in charge?

Judith
Yeah. Well, I think it was just that they looked easy in that case. They actually are. Most books are actually quite easy to write, they don’t have very many words and they don’t have much of a story.

Yeah, I started off writing maze and puzzle books. And then I did a course with Hazel Edwards who wrote Hippopotamus on the Roof Eating Cake about writing that gave me a little bit of confidence. I wrote a junior novel while I was doing that course.

Allison
You went into a junior novel after doing the course rather than sort of going to another picture book? A more complicated story.

Judith
Yeah, that’s right.

Allison
Why did you do that? Why did you branch out into that?

Judith
I had an editor once that said that everyone has an age group they write the best for. And I think for me I really like writing for that age, sort of 8-12, the sort of classic age of children’s books.

Allison
And why is that? What is it that you like about that age group?

Judith
I enjoy the humor, I think. I like that you can write quite an elaborate story, it can be quite complicated. They’re good readers at that age.

Allison
Yeah.

Judith
I think it’s just something about that length of book too. Do you remember that feeling from when you were little, you could really lose yourself in a book?

Allison
Yeah.

Judith
I think that’s the kind of thing that I want to experience.

Allison
So they average out at about the 50,000 mark, the books that you’re writing?

Judith
Yeah, the shortest ones that I’ve written were 30,000 and my most recent one was 50,000.

Allison
Have you ever considered writing for adults? Has it always been children’s books that interested you?

Judith
I’ve never really considered writing for adults. No.

Allison
What is about children books that you love? Is it just the fact that you can write a full adventure, like very much a story? Is that what it is?

Judith
I think it’s the story thing. Some people think that writing for kids is restrictive, but I actually find it the opposite. It seems to me that you have a wider range of things that you can write about than for adults, because if you want to write the story about the harrowing reality of terrible life you can certainly do that for a kids’ book, but you can also write the story about the dinosaur who wanted do ballet. You can have a dragon appear, if you want. You have an enormous range of things you can write about. I enjoy that. You can create a world and send off your little characters to have their…

Allison
To have their adventure?

Judith
Yeah.

Allison
How does your writing process work? Let’s talk about Withering-by-Sea, because that’s your most recent completed work. How does it come about, what happens there? Where did the idea come from and how did it go from idea to complete book.

Judith
I’ve always been a bit obsessed with Victoriana. I love the era. I’ve read every book like this sort of mad woman. If I go to a museum or something it’s always a Victorian that attracts my attention.

I have this idea of writing a proper Victorian sort of melodrama. That was my first idea. I read a heap of history books, so I know lots of facts.

I not a very good planner, so I start with the first scene and then think, “What could happen next?” “What could happen next?” So I just sort of get plugging away at it until I get to the end, and that’s really hard. It feels like a very hard process to me. And then when I get to the end I’ve got this complete thing and I can start structuring it properly and fiddling around with it. It’s quite a long process actually.

Allison
How long does it take you to get a first draft together?

Judith
Well, I’ve never tried to do it as a full time job, because I’ve always been illustrating, and writing on the side. The first one took some years. Now I’m writing the second one and I’m working full time on it. It would be interesting to see if it’s quicker. I really hope so. I really hope…

Allison
You’re currently working on the first draft of the second Withering-by-Sea book?

Judith
That’s right.

Allison
When you go back in and you’re sort of working with the first draft does it change a lot? Do you find that that first scene that you wrote remains to be the first scene, or do you find that things change?

Judith
Because I tend to edit quite a lot as I go, which is not what I would advise people to do, by the way…

Allison
“Do as I say, not as a I do…” yes.

Judith
The thing is quite sort of solid, usually. But, in the first case, in the first book I actually rewrote the last… perhaps the last third of the book. At that stage it changed the ending completely.

Allison
Right, OK. It just wasn’t working for you?

Judith
The editor, actually.

Allison
OK, interesting.

Judith
She said she didn’t think it was any good. So, I fixed it right up.

Allison
You obviously fixed it right up, given that it’s been short-listed for awards.

Judith
I know. I know. So, I really appreciate a good editor, there’s nothing like it.

Allison
Are you still writing picture books as well?

Judith
I’m not working on any at the moment, but I’ve written a few in the past, yeah.

Allison
How do you approach that process? Is that different? Where do most people go wrong when they try to write a picture book?

Judith
I think for people who are just writing the text the things that they might do wrong are… sometimes they put too many ideas into it. A picture book is really quite a simple structure, and the best advice I’ve heard about writing a picture book is it should be about one thing or one aspect of a thing. I think that beginners often try to just do too much. You really want one clear story line and one theme. The best picture books are really quite simple. But, of course the difficulty is to get that simple it often has to be very complicate to start with and then you need to edit it down.

Allison
Is that how you recommend people work? Like, write a complicated story and then work it out from there?

Judith
That’s how a lot of people do work. I think it’s effective, but I think you have to be quite tough on yourself when it comes to the editing and I think that’s where a lot of people fall down. You fall in love with your complicated ideas and you need sometimes to step back and look at it with a hard head and say, “No, the story is about this…” “So all of the things that are not ‘this’ probably don’t go in the story.”

Allison
As a writer/illustrator when you’re writing a picture book you probably got in your head space for the pictures — am I right?

Judith
Yes. I think when you write and illustrate quite often you work on them together. But, if you’re just writing it you’ve always got to be thinking about the pictures, because the way a picture book works is the text and the pictures tell the story together.

Allison
So you have to leave space in the text for the pictures, is that how it works?

Judith
You do. Like you would never describe what your character looks like because the picture is going to do that so much better than your words could, because there’s the character. But, also sometimes with picture books the joke can be in the pictures. Like, you can imagine a book where the text goes, “Jill was always a really good little girl,” and then the picture has Jill smashing the house up. That’s how humor can really work in picture books. If you’re writing the text you always have to be thinking of how the pictures can work with your story.

Allison
Say I am just writing a picture book on my own, like I’m only the author without being the author/illustrator, how do I submit it with, “I intend that the picture will tell the joke.”

Judith
Well, if it it’s like that then you need to know what’s in the picture to get how the book will work people would advise you to include an illustrator note in the text, so you put in italics, you say [Illustrator Note:], but you would only do that if in that situation where without that happening in the picture the story doesn’t make sense.

Allison
Otherwise the story needs to tell the story?

Judith
That’s right. You need to give the illustrator space to do what they would like with the scenery and everything. You can’t say, “I want it to look like my holiday house,” because the illustrator might have a completely fun idea of how it will look and they’re a creative person who needs their space as well.

Allison
It’s a very creative process, the whole thing, isn’t it?

Judith
It’s an interesting process, I think. I really admire the writers who write picture books well, because they’re giving their story into the hands of another person, sort of entirely. I think it might be a bit like writing a movie, not that I’ve ever written a movie. But, it’s famous isn’t it? How the writer works and then the story is taken off by the producer and the director and everyone changed all about. It’s a bit like that. You sort of write the picture book and then your story is taken off by the designer and the illustrator and the editor and everyone else.

Allison
And then you just have to hope.

Judith
Hope that it comes out well. And a lot of people are charmed by the results, quite even what they imagined sometimes, but so much better than they imagined sometimes.

Allison
What do you think then is the key to writing a good children’s book? Like for either a picture or junior novel?

Judith
Well, in the case of the junior novel I’d say you’ve got to hold children’s interest, really. I’d say action and plot. You really need stuff to happen, you need stuff to happen in every scene. And you have to have a main character that the children can relate to.

Allison
Right.

Judith
In the case of a picture book you’ve got to be child-centred. Write about something that kids are interested, or would be interested, but you also have to keep a little eye, I think, on the adults for picture books, because picture books are read by adults to children on the whole. So, whereas when you’re writing for the older children the kids are reading it themselves, you’re writing straight for them, but with a picture book there’s no harm in keeping a little eye on your adult reader as well, I think.

Allison
Do you have all of those things in your head when you sit down to write? Because that gets kind of crowded in there, doesn’t it?

Judith
It’s different writing for kids, I think, than it is writing for adults because when you’re writing for adults, not that I do it, but I assume you write for yourself.

Allison
Yeah, you’re writing for peers.

Judith
For people like you, yeah. When you’re writing for kids you’re sort of writing for them. And I think that one of the most useful things is to sort of channel your own childhood a bit?

Allison
Yeah.

Judith
If you can remember what it was really like when you were eight or whatever, and write for that eight year old. Not write for some sweet little child who you see, but write for someone who really feels like…

Allison
So you’re not just writing for children, you’re kind of writing for ‘a child,’ so to speak?

Judith
Yeah, or writing for yourself when you were a child, that kind of feeling, I think. Because otherwise you think, “Oh, they’re little kids, they’re happy with anything. They won’t understand if I can’t work out the logic of the scene I’m working on right now, but it doesn’t matter because they’re only kids.” That attitude won’t help.

Allison
Whitewash, OK.

Judith
You’ve got to say, “No, this is important, I want this to be as good as I can make it.” Respect your reader, I suppose.

Allison
Just going back one step slightly, how long does it actually take for a picture book to go from an idea to a finished product? Is it a long process?

Judith
It’s a long process. Generally the writer would write the text and send it off to the publisher and say they accepted it straightaway, like they read it and straightaway accepted it, that’s still is a few months, that bit. Then they start looking for an illustrator. Say, you’re a first time writer, they might want a really good famous illustrator to illustrate your books, because one of the names often needs to sell the book.

Allison
Right, yeah.

Judith
But that person might be busy for the next 18 months. So they book them up, and the months pass, they do the illustrations, this is quite typical and then they might take three or four months to do the illustrations, or more. Then the book has to go off to be printed and bound and distributed. So, I would say two years would be not unusual.

Allison
It’s not what you call a quick turnaround?

Judith
It’s really not. There could be exceptions, but I mean I illustrated a book, I finished the illustrations in the middle of last year and that book is out in May this year, so that’s a year between me sending the artwork off and the book coming out even there.

Allison
Yeah, because they’re quite big productions, aren’t they? They’re usually beautifully produced and lavish.

Judith
They’re very expensive to make. Sometimes a publisher might say, “Bring out two picture books a month,” or whatever they do. And so then your book will just be scheduled in the next gap, and the next gap might be months away.

Allison
What do you think it is that makes some picture books go off, like, go mad? I’m thinking of probably last year’s was probably The Day the Crayons Quit with Oliver Jeffers.

Judith
Oh that was great, wasn’t it? Funny.

Allison
Just a great book on an adult level as well as a kid level. There’s always a standout, there’s your Gruffalo… there’s a random one that becomes the classic of the generation. Like, what is it that makes them happen?

Judith
If only we knew.

Allison
If we knew! I know!

Judith
I mean I’m sure publishers would love — I mean a lot of those books do that thing of being good for adults and children, they’ve got a little eye on the adults. There’s a lot of humor in the big books. I think some of them are very funny.

Allison
Yes.

Judith
But, not all.

Allison
No.

Judith
I would say the pictures and the text have to work really closely together to tell the story.

I mean there’s so many brilliant books that don’t do that, and you look at them and think, “That’s amazing.” Or, “Why didn’t it sell,” is really the point, isn’t it? There’s so many things that can affect a book’s sales, which are quite separate from how good the book is.

Allison
From the quality of the book, which brings me neatly to my next question. Thank you for that lovely segue. Let’s talk about author platforms and profiles. As far as children’s authors go, what are your thoughts on that? Do you need to put a lot of work into the profile and the platform if you’re writing for children?

Judith
It depends on the age of your readers, I think. If you’re writing for the younger children, or even up to the age I’m writing for, which is sort of 12-ish, it’s the website that’s important. Most of those little kids are not on Facebook, although their mums might be. I find that when a book comes out the hits on my website go up quite a lot. I think that’s where people go to find their information.

For older children, like if you’re writing YA, it’s a bit different because you might have to go on Instagram and Facebook and really properly interact.

I get quite a lot of emails from my readers.

Allison
Do you?

Judith
Well, I never used to when I did picture books, because they’re presumably like two year olds. But, now I’m writing for nine, ten, eleven year olds. They send me emails quite often, usually with problems they have with my story.

Allison
Great.

Judith
One of them emailed me the other day and asked me if I’ve ever tasted treacle. There’s treacle in my story mentioned and what does it taste like? I think it’s lovely. I love that.

Allison
What do you think about when you’re setting up your author website with that in mind, like knowing that’s what happens, that kids will come to your website when your books come out?

Judith
I probably should do a bit better than I do, actually. I’ve been thinking recently it would be good to have a page for the book, something about the actual book. Whereas now it’s just sort of a bio, list of books and my contact details. Yeah, I could probably do better than I do, there’s not question about that.

Allison
So will we be looking for Withering-by-Sea.com at some point?

Judith
That’s not a bad idea.

Allison
You know?

Judith
I’m not very good online, to tell you the truth.

Allison
What kind of stuff do you do in the way of promotion? Are you doing a lot of school talks? Because that’s sort of part of the life of a children’s author in some ways, isn’t it?

Judith
It can be. A lot of people do heaps of school talks. I know someone who did 300 last year.

Allison
300?!

Judith
Yeah, more talks than school days.

Allison
Wow, that’s impressive.

Judith
It is, isn’t it? I do much less than that.

Allison
Do you enjoy them?

Judith
I don’t mind them. They’re quite tiring, actually. I like meeting the kids, obviously.

Allison
Yes.

Judith
I’ve gotten much better at them than I used to. When you start they can be a bit intimidating and frightening, because you go into a strange school and you’re given this sort of unruly class who perhaps don’t even know who you are and you’ve got to sort of engage them. You do get skills over the years from doing them, definitely.

Allison
What do you think are the kind of skills you need for that sort of work? I think it comes as a surprise to children’s authors that is even a thing, if you’ve never done it before?

Judith
It just seems funny, it’s just so different from the skills you actually have as a writer.

Allison
Yes.

Judith
They are completely other skills.

Some people don’t do any. It’s not essential, at all. You need to be able to… actually, to tell you the truth, I think the most useful thing is to put together a presentation that’s really solid and that you know works. You probably will do a few on your way to working out what that is.

The thing about school talks is you don’t need to do lots of different things each time, you can pretty much do similar things each time, maybe vary it a little bit until you work out what works. That will give you a lot more confidence and then you can be a bit more relaxed about them.

Allison
It’s like anything, prepare yourself and know what you’re talking about.

Judith
Oh goodness, yes.

Allison
Let’s finish up there. Obviously you teach a lot of students through the Australian Writers’ Centre courses and various other things that you do. 

Judith
Yes. 

Allison
What are your top three tips for would-be children’s authors? You’re writing a lot of different types of books for children, what are your top three tips? Hit me.

Judith
I would say first is you have to be quite determined. You have to want it. I have a lot of students who say they don’t have time to write. That’s fine, everyone has many things in their life.

Allison
So they come to the course, but they don’t have time to write?

Judith
I think it’s a choice. You can choose to make time. It doesn’t matter how busy your life is, and it might be incredibly busy, like unbelievably busy, but if you can’t squeeze ten minutes into the day you just don’t want it enough is what I would say. You’re making choices, you’re choosing to — I don’t know — feed your children or write your novel. Maybe in that case you probably should feed your children.

Allison
You probably would choose the children at that point, even if it’s only baked beans.

Judith
I had a student who would text her novel to herself while she was working as a waitress in her little breaks. At the end of the day collect those texts together and write another paragraph. You have to want it and you have to be determined, that would be my first thought.

Try and write and everyday is really good advice, actually.

Allison
Do you write everyday?

Judith
I try to. I am at the moment, I don’t always, but right now I am. It does help because you sort of come up against the same problem, eventually you will solve it, eventually, if you keep trying.

So, that’s two.

I suppose my third one is don’t give up. People get very dejected by rejections from publishers. We’ve all had lots, even really well-known writers get rejected, it’s really important to see that as what it is, which is that your book doesn’t fit them right at the moment, or it’s not something they can see a way of selling right at the moment. It doesn’t mean that you’re a terrible person, it doesn’t mean that you’re not a good writer. Try not to get discouraged by that stuff. Just keep trying to improve.

Allison
It’s extraordinarily competitive, isn’t it? Children’s fiction.

Judith
It really is, and actually picture books are one of the toughest ones, because very few first time writers get published each year. But, each year some do. I’ve heard editors who read through the slush pile saying they would love to find treasure in there. They’re genuinely looking.

Allison
How many submissions do you reckon they get, like one publisher, on an average basis in the picture book division?

Judith
Hundreds.

Allison
Hundreds.

Judith
Because they’re so short that people think they’re easy to write, so they just whip them out and send them off.

Allison
Right.

Judith
But, out of those hundreds, even just doing a little course would put you, I reckon, in the top ten percent, because already you’re producing something that could be a picture book text. It’s the right number of words, it’s presented in the right way. You’ve given some thought to it. And already you’ve given yourself a much better chance than some random person who has just scribbled on the back of an envelope with a crayon and posted it.

Allison
I guess that happens often, I’m sure. 

All right, Judith. Thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate you talking to us.

Judith
Thank you, thanks so much.

Allison
Good luck in the Indie Book Awards.

Judith
Thank you. It’s exciting. Thank you very much.


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