Sitting in darkness feeding her newborn daughter each night, Felicity McVay began to dream up the character of a boy who loves to burp. After taking two courses at the Australian Writers' Centre – Writing Picture Books and Creative Writing Stage 1 – Felicity is now a published author, with her picture book The Boy Who Burped released by New Holland Publishers.
“I feel a great thrill when I tell people that I'm a writer,” Felicity says. “The courses at AWC gave me a sense of legitimacy.”
Corporate job, creative aspirations
Writing and publishing picture books is a far cry from Felicity's day job as Director of Content for TikTok Australia. Prior to her current position, she worked in other corporate roles at YouTube and Google, so writing for kids wasn't really on Felicity's radar. But when she started a family, Felicity took time to re-engage her creative side.
“I think having children encouraged me to reassess some of my life choices, including my career and vision for my growing family, and to consider alternatives to the traditional 9-5 work model that might provide me with greater flexibility and fulfilment,” Felicity says. “I also found that having kids helped me reconnect with my inner child as I started reading and re-reading favourite books like Each Peach Pear Plum and What the Ladybird Heard and making up silly stories to make my kids laugh. I always loved writing stories and poems at school and studied some journalism subjects as part of my undergraduate degree, so suddenly it just made sense to enrol in a course with AWC.”
After having her initial picture book idea, Felicity felt that her story needed some direction and structure.
“I found every aspect of the Writing Picture Books course useful as I came into it knowing nothing about structure, characterisation or writing techniques,” Felicity says.
Understanding the industry
One of the valuable things that she learned was about ‘gatekeepers' in the world of children's and picture books.
“Gatekeepers can include teachers, librarians, booksellers, reviewers, parents etc. Essentially anyone who will be involved in decision making as to whether to purchase, stock or read your book. I took this on board when editing my story,” Felicity says. “In an early draft I had the main character moving from burping to ‘popping' (a euphemism for farting) as I was certain that teachers and librarians would prefer this. I was wrong! I surveyed several teachers and librarians and they were very supportive of a more irreverent ending and told me that having Barnaby fart at the end would be much funnier and more impactful. This was a great tip and I now make sure that I test my stories on a wide audience.”
Another thing Felicity learned on her course was that stories take time, with writing, rewriting, and editing all part of the lengthy path to publication.
“Cathie Tasker at the AWC told us that writing children's books takes time and a lot of patience,” Felicity says. “I remember thinking at the time that her process sounded extreme, and naively wondered whether I might be able to get there sooner. I often think of Cathie's wise words as it took me eight years to publish my first children's book, The Boy Who Burped.”
Initially, Felicity's goals were modest – she hoped to self-publish a few books for friends and family. But after working with a local illustrator, she wondered if her book could find a wider audience. Following a serendipitous meeting at her local bookstore, Gertrude & Alice, Felicity was introduced to New Holland Publishers, which was looking to build out their children's division.
“The introduction happened that afternoon via email and by mid-week I had a contract with them,” Felicity says. “I couldn't believe my luck! I was in a daze for weeks afterwards and my heart felt so full. It was so exhilarating to see my book on the shelves of Harry Hartog earlier this year.”
Despite her busy life, Felicity makes time to write in fits and spurts, fitting it around her work and three kids. “Sometimes it's just a few words, perhaps a rhyme or a couple of lines that pop into my head. Sometimes it's a few sentences about a place or character that I've imagined. Occasionally I'm gripped by an idea and I'll fixate on it for days or weeks until I have a rough first draft of my story.”
Felicity is currently editing her next book and, while time is a luxury, she says the key is to just write as regularly as possible.
“I always have several stories that I am working on at any given time…the main thing that is lacking is time where I can really focus and disappear down the rabbit hole of imagination.”
But her patience and perseverance – as well as the courses she took at the AWC – have led to publishing success.
“I was right at the start of my writing journey when I took my first course at the AWC but I have re-visited my notes and handouts many times over the years and have appreciated being able to refresh my knowledge as needed,” Felicity says. “AWC offers something for everyone and welcomes people from all walks and stages of life.”
Ever the go-getter, Felicity is already thinking about her next steps. “The next course on my hit-list is Writing Chapter Books for 6-9 Year Olds,” Felicity says. “If you are deliberating whether to take a course at AWC and wondering whether it's right for you, I say ‘Just do it!'”