How Ruth McGurk got her picture book contract for ‘The Dinosaur Did It’

Ruth McGurk’s love of picture books was reignited when she started reading them with her little ones. She dreamed of one day publishing her own picture book, one that made everyone laugh and drew requests for encores every night.

Ruth was drawn to the Australian Writers' Centre’s Writing Picture Books course because it was short and punchy, and she finished feeling like she knew exactly what publishers were looking for. After working on a few manuscripts, Ruth signed with Five Mile to publish her first picture book, The Dinosaur Did It, and is also contracted to write another one.

“When I got the news that [the editor at Five Mile Press] wanted to make an offer, I was thrilled. I was holding a green plastic chopping board at the time and did a little dance with it around my kitchen,” Ruth told us. “I also immediately told my children who were… look, less than impressed if I’m honest, but to be fair I think Bluey was on and they were distracted.”

Looking for a challenge

While it was her love of kids' books that first got her interested in wanting to write her own, Ruth says that she was also keen to do a course to keep her mind stimulated.

“I was on maternity leave and in the middle of that Groundhog Day/cabin fever stage of having little ones. To be super honest, I was looking for a lifeboat to keep my mind stimulated and a challenge to work towards that was accessible with small kids and didn’t require me to leave the house.”

The AWC’s Writing Picture Books course fit the bill perfectly.

“I looked online and was really drawn to the flexibility of the AWC course. I knew I could fit it around my life as I needed to and it wasn’t going to be a huge financial or time commitment,” Ruth told us. “I wanted to make sure I was fully equipped with the know-how to write picture books. I felt like it was a non-negotiable if I wanted to get published.”

Ruth loved the way the course is structured, allowing her to listen to lessons and feedback in her own time, but still keeping her accountable to weekly deadlines.

“I could access it when I had time and the house was quiet. I also loved being able to keep the handouts and have referred back to them often. It’s given me a better critical eye on my own work. I know the rules now, so I feel much more confident in submitting to publishers and competitions.”

Real life inspiration

Ruth’s debut picture book, The Dinosaur Did It, beautifully illustrated by Aleksandra Szmidt, was inspired by a true event.

“I wrote the story after I found a biro drawing on our living room wall. It was very Banksy-esque… in that the artist was trying to remain anonymous. I asked my eldest who had done it but she said she didn’t know. It got me thinking about a protagonist who blames someone else for their mess, but then that person turns up!”

Armed with the knowledge she had picked up through a course on the publishing industry, Ruth pitched the manuscript to a few publishers but didn’t receive any responses. Then she pitched another story to an editor she’d previously contacted at Five Mile.

“The editor remembered my name from a previous submission. She was interested in this story – but I’d forgotten to attach the actual manuscript. She asked if I’d resend that manuscript and anything else I was working on. So I hastily zipped the original manuscript through, and added The Dinosaur Did It too. And it was that one that got up – the first manuscript was a pass! Which just goes to show you how important a good pitch is, and that silence after submissions doesn’t mean you’re not making progress.”

With her first picture book now on shelves, Ruth is busily working away at another picture book manuscript for Five Mile.

“My approach to writing is much like my approach to eating chocolate: in chunks and when the kids aren’t around. I’m a part-time primary school teacher so I write on my days off, when my little ones are napping or after they’ve gone to bed at night. It might be one hour at a time, but it works for me!”

Ruth also completed Writing Chapter Books for 6-9 year olds, and won first place at the CYA conference Chapter Books category.

“Because of that win I was able to speak with an editor who gave me some very encouraging feedback. I’m now in the process of writing a middle-grade version with those characters in a bigger story,” Ruth says.

Ruth is prosaic about her publishing success and knows that it is the result of hard work and solid skills.

“I absolutely had the dream of becoming a published author in my sights. I just figured if I had the tools and persisted, I’d eventually get there,” she told us. “The AWC courses are made to fit around you and your life. They’ll make your writing stronger and will introduce you to other aspiring writers too. And you don’t know what you don’t know. After completing my AWC courses I always felt so much more knowledgeable about what publishers and editors were expecting.”

Courses taken at AWC:
Writing Chapter Books for 6-9 year olds
Pitch Your Novel: How to Attract Agents and Publishers
Writing Picture Books

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