Jess Horn was a busy working parent with no time for hobbies, but she decided she could just squeeze in a few minutes to enter the Furious Fiction competition at the Australian Writers' Centre. After that, she was hooked. With her childhood love of writing rekindled, Jess enrolled in Creative Writing Stage 1 and then dived into Writing Picture Books.
“I hate to sound cliché, but that was the course that changed my life,” Jess says.
Her debut picture book, Bernie’s Boxes, is now due to be published by Affirm Press.
“In true working parent style, I celebrated that evening by making dinner, showering the kids and cracking open a bottle of non-alcoholic wine. I later posted a reel to my Instagram page, sharing my real-time reaction to the news. I’m so pleased that I filmed it because it was such a special moment.”
Getting out of the parking lot
As a proper grown-up with a job and kids, Jess had put her childhood dream of being a published author in the same parking lot as being an astronaut.
“I mean, kids want to be magic and visit Mars and turn every inanimate object into a snack buffet,” Jess told us. “But it turns out that a parking lot of unmet childhood dreams is an excellent place to go digging when you want a new hobby.”
When a friend suggested she enter Furious Fiction, Jess gave it a go. But she knew that if she were to give her writing a proper chance, she needed to learn the ropes, and enrolled in Creative Writing Stage 1.
“For someone who had never formally studied writing, starting with basics was great,” Jess says. “I found it helpful to learn about character development, point of view, scenes, and narrative structure. These were things I had a vague concept of, from reading books and studying English. But prior to this course I always wrote what sounded good to me, without knowing why or how to improve it. The Creative Writing Stage 1 course opened that door for me.”
After that first course, Jess decided to try writing picture books, but found them harder to write than she expected.
“As someone who knew absolutely nothing about the KidLit world and had never heard of the concept of a ‘pitch’, I probably wasn’t best placed to go sending off picture books to publishers. Of course, I tried anyway, because how hard could picture books be, right? Ha! When the publisher didn’t immediately snap up my first manuscript (which I didn’t even know was called a manuscript at the time), I decided perhaps another course was in order.”
And then her life changed …
Enrolling in Writing Picture Books was, Jess recalls, life changing.
“If you want to save yourself a whole bunch of bumbling around and wading through conflicting sources of information, then this is the course for you!
“One of the most valuable lessons I learnt was that picture books have rules. Like most rules, I’m fully aware they’re there to be bent. But I thrive on rules, so having a bunch of them to provide some order in an otherwise creative and seemingly unstructured game was a wonderful thing. These rules included things like the rule of three, show don’t tell (I love that one!) and the three-act structure.
“Another eye-opening discovery I made in this course was just how many words you could chop out of a story. And not only that but how much better a story could be with far fewer words than this wordy brain of mine likes to conjure. I also learnt about a handy thing called drafts, and how picture books need more than one of them (gasp!).
“Finally, the Writing Picture Books course taught me the importance of giving and receiving feedback. The class was a safe place to test those murky feedback waters and discover just how much this enhances your learning. I still give and receive feedback regularly and the process has been my best source of continued learning.”
Thinking out of the box
The manuscript that landed Jess her first contract was one of many she had been working on, and it was also the one that had taken her the longest to write. After going through seven drafts, she knew that it was something special and that she wanted to see it out in the world. But she gave it some breathing space while she worked on other projects.
“During the time I left this manuscript, I worked on many other submissions and immersed myself in the wonderful KidLit community. I believe this time of growth and learning helped shape and polish my manuscript when I returned to it. When it was finally ready, I booked my first editor assessment at the CYA conference. I knew exactly where I wanted this manuscript to land.
“When I met with the editor and she told me she loved my story, I was over the moon. Receiving positive feedback on something I had poured my heart into was gratifying. The process between that assessment and receiving the letter of offer for a contract was around three months and felt incredibly long to endure!”
Jess’s debut picture book Bernie’s Boxes is about an autistic girl who thinks in boxes, and how she overcomes a challenging, ‘out-of-the-box’ situation.
“It’s an ‘own voices’ narrative that provides a relatable analogy of a dichotomous thinking style that many neurodivergent folk experience,” Jess explains. “I hope that when kids read this book, it will broaden their awareness of different ways of thinking and encourage them to put their own needs ahead of social norms and conformity.”
Juggling writing with life
While she waits for the release of her book, Jess continues to find time to write in the chaos of life as a working mum.
“As many working parents could attest to, fitting writing into your life is almost impossible. And yet, if you love it, you make it happen. I continue to work a full-time job in four days per week. I do drop-offs and make dinners and ignore the washing on a daily basis. And sometimes, I write.
“I have a very long writing ‘to-do’ list and far too many projects in progress, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I tend to write in the evenings, and often because my laptop screen makes an excellent shield when watching scary Netflix shows. Occasionally, I take a day or two off work and head to my local café to spend the day writing (bliss!).
“Writing has changed my life in more ways than just giving me another task list. It has given me something to be excited about, something to look forward to, and a shared interest that has welcomed me to the beautiful KidLit community. Writing has brought me new friendships and a new sense of purpose.”
That new sense of purpose started with one simple entry into the Furious Fiction competition – which Jess has gone on to enter a total of 27 times!
“In my experience, the courses at AWC are detailed but succinct, well-structured, and fast-paced. They give you the information you didn’t know you needed! You know how they say, ‘You don’t know what you don’t know.’? Well, the AWC people know the things you don’t know – let them tell you.”
Courses completed at Australian Writers' Centre: