Sally Murphy: Author of more than 30 children’s books

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image-sallymurphy200In 2002, while living in a small town in WA, Sally Murphy made the decision to fulfill her dream of becoming a children’s author. Since then she has published 30 books and has been short-listed for the Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards, among others. Her latest book is Toppling, an illustrated verse novel about childhood illness.

Some of her most loved children’s fiction books are The Floatingest Frog, Pemberthy Bear, and Snowy’s Christmas. In 2009, Pearl Verses The World was released to rave reviews. It was short-listed for the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards, was named a Notable Book and shortlisted for the CBCA Book of the Year Award, and won the children’s category in the Indie Awards as well as being short-listed for their Book of the Year Award.

Sally has worked as a teacher, and is also a book reviewer. She runs the website Aussiereviews.com, which features reviews of Australian books for children, young adults and adults.

Click play to listen. Running time: 43.47

Toppling

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie
Thanks for joining us today, Sally.

Sally
My pleasure, Valerie.

Valerie
You’ve got an interesting story because you decided, apparently, in 2002 that you wanted to become a writer. Can you tell us a little bit about what you were doing at the time, and how this epiphany came about?

Sally
Well, I really always wanted to write. I can remember trying to write stories on a rainbow pad in my mom’s office really before I even actually performed there too. So, I was very small. Right through my childhood when I started to realize that people actually wrote books I always thought, “That’s what I want to do.” So, I was always very determined to do it.

I actually started writing a long time before 2002. Pretty much from the time I left school I was trying to get published, although not necessarily writing and submitting everyday. I actually had my first book accepted in 1996. It was an educational book. Over the next several years I did have more of those published.

But 2002 we moved to a little country town, and my husband worked there, so we were there for his reasons. I only had one child at home at the time, and I thought, “What am I going to do with myself?” And, I hadn’t ever really done what I wanted to do, which was to write fiction. I thought, “Gee, the reason I’m not making it here is because I’m doing too many other things with my life, and allowing myself to try to do too many things,” and what I really wanted to be doing was writing for children.

So, I set myself the goal of making that the year that I actually had something accepted, and it worked.

Valerie
Wonderful. What did you do in terms of discipline at the time? Did you decide, “I’m going to make myself sit down everyday for ‘X’ number of hours,” or how did you actually make it happen?

Sally
Yeah, I did sit myself down everyday. I put as much time into it as I possibly could. I laugh now because I actually at the time had a one year old child. I’m actually a mother of six, so I say that I put my whole time into, but I obviously didn’t. But, I put as much time into as I could. I removed as many unnecessary things from my life and my time as I could, and stopped distracting myself with things that weren’t as high priority, and I became a bit of a recluse and I wrote.

I actually got proactive. I joined a critique group online and I learnt to really listen to feedback from other children’s writers. Most of those were actually based overseas, which is the wonder of the internet. I also became active in online groups, not just critique groups, but email groups where I could share information, and listen to information. And, I started researching markets. And, the acceptance that first year came directly from doing those things and finding specific opportunities and then writing and submitting manuscripts that met the guidelines of those projects. Especially the first books that I had accepted was a reading series, and so I found the guidelines for those particular reading series- I had written books that had fitted those series and submitted, and got those accepted.

It was the same with my first trade book, which was with Banana Books. They had a very specific brief first series, and I wrote a book that fitted that series.

Valerie
In those cases you specifically wrote for exactly what they wanted?

Sally
Yes, I mean there is a little bit, obviously, of trial and error because you think you know what someone wants. There’s a set of guidelines, they don’t actually want you to write a book that’s already been written for that series. You’ve got to come up with something new. But, if there’s specific word banks, if there’s specific themes, if there’s no-go areas, if it’s for the educational market then obviously it’s got to meet the requirements of age, or reading level. So, I suppose there is an element of guesswork and an element of actually listening to what publishers want, and doing that as well.

Valerie
Tell us about your first acceptance then. Do you remember what you were doing at the time when you find out? How did that go?

Sally
Yes, well, my first non-fiction acceptance I was about seven months pregnant. That was my first educational book back in 1996. I nearly sent myself into labor jumping around the kitchen.

Then when my first fiction books were accepted, in 2002, I drank champagne and I ran around town and told everybody. Yeah, it was really amazing feeling after years of trying to do it, or dreaming about doing it, to actually find out that someone actually liked my work enough to put my name of the front cover, that was just incredible.

Valerie
Did you always think it was going to happen, and that it was just a matter of time?

Sally
I always hoped it was going to happen, but I suppose like a lot of writers when I started writing I thought that I was just so good and so clever that I’d write these stories and there was a publisher sitting there at the other end of the mail process who was going to open these stories and go, “Oh, yes. She’s so clever. We’ll publish 20 of those.” And, by the time I was accepted I figured out that was not going to happen, that obviously there was a lot of rejections before I got an acceptance.

So, I didn’t ever give up permanently, but there were lots of times along the way where I felt like giving up, or where I’d stop submitting for awhile, because it was just too painful. But, that I’d keep coming back to it, because I was actually, I can’t not write.

Valerie
Yes. So, if you can cast your mind back, just to give people an idea, you said you sat down and wrote as much as you could, but what does that translate to on a practical level in hours per day? Was it like one hour? Or ten hours? You know, what did you really do?

Sally
At the time it was probably an hour or two of writing a day. It was when my child was asleep, the one that was still at home. So, it wasn’t hours and hours, but I’ve also- back then I only tended to write shorter things. I tended to write in bursts, and I actually did write when the kids were around. So if I had something that I wanted to write I would sit at the kitchen table and write.

I actually used to do a lot of writing in longhand back in those days, whereas now I refuse to do that if I can help it because it hurts my hand.

So, I didn’t have six, eight, ten hours to write. I’ve also never been a person who can stay up late writing, because I need my sleep. I think because I’ve had so many children… sleep is really important to me.

So, back in those days it was really, yeah, when the kids were asleep. I also had to be quite disciplined in saying, “Even if he has his afternoon and I’ve got housework to do…” or something else to do, the writing was coming first. I was really giving it a priority.

Valerie
You write for children. Tell us what do you find so appealing about writing for children. Why do you want to write for children? What age group do you write for?

Sally
What appeals to me is everything.

Valerie
OK.

Sally
I really remember the magic that books gave me when I was a child. A lot of my earliest memories are about books, and about being read to, about discovering books for myself. I still get that thrill out of reading a good children’s book. I still pick up a book, you know, it just makes me tingle if it’s done well. That’s what I was always going to write.

So, when I was a child I was going to write kid’s books because that’s what I was reading. In high school I still liked kid’s book, and I knew that I was a little bit odd because of that. Like, I was still- I read a lot of teenage fiction, obviously, but I was still enjoying those books from my childhood. When I was an adult it was just a natural thing. I’ve always thought that I would write for children, and I haven’t ever discounted possibly also writing for adults, but writing for kids is what I’ve always loved to do.

As for age groups, I initially always thought that I only wanted to write picture books. I think as I read more and more good fiction for older children as well- I’m still, I’m really passionate about good picture books, but I’m writing also for primary age readers. My actual current project is actually for young adults, which is a bit of a challenge I’ve set myself, because I thought, “I’m doing well for that age group, but I also have teenagers in my own life,” and this story came to me. I thought, “I’m going to have a go at that.” I have admit that I’m finding it challenging. It’s not going to be my best book ever. It’s certainly one of my most challenging projects in terms of re-writing and getting it right.

So, I write for all age groups really. But, I suppose my published works have been picture books for early childhood, and middle and upper primary for my verse novels.

Valerie
Young adult is very different to picture books. What do you do to switch gears? Do you have to get yourself in a different frame of mind? Or what happens there?

Sally
It’s finding it really different in terms of when I write for younger children I tend to actually have- the story is worked out in my head, particularly with picture books. Like, a picture book might be in my head for weeks before I actually sit down and write the words, because I actually get it right, I think about it, I play with words in my head, and then when the story is ready to be written I write it.

With my verse novels, not quite the same, but again, parts of it form and then I write them.

With the young adult novel I actually had a challenge in actually trying to work out- it’s too much to do that all in your head. I actually started very specifically with an image and situation that this teenage girl was in, and then I did play around in my head a lot with, “What about the other characters? Where are they at?” “Where’s it going to lead?”

When I wrote my first draft in a way that was my thinking time. My first draft when I had finished it, it was, “It’s too short.” “It’s not developed enough,” but I now have I suppose an outline or a skeleton of the book. Now, in the re-writing process I’m making it better.

Valerie
You talk about remembering the books from your childhood that made you tingle. What does a book need to do to make you tingle?

Sally
I think there’s a mix of magic, and I don’t mean that it has to be fantasy, although I like fantasy, but there’s magic in that it works. It’s believable. You can put yourself into that book. I’m also a really firm believer that books have to offer some form of hope. I don’t necessarily believe that every book has to be happy, touchy, feely, and everyone lives happily ever after. But, I actually think kids need to know that the world can be OK.

And so I suppose a book that makes me feel good in its rightness- like my verse novels for example, I think they’re very sad and they make me cry, but also what I’m trying to do is actually show that your life can be hard, and life can make you cry, but there can still be good stuff in it. I suppose that’s what I like in a book is that it can bring out all those emotions, but in the end I know that there’s hope. Not that everyone lives happily ever after, but that there’s a way forward.

Valerie
Tell us about your latest release, Toppling, and about the themes you’ve chosen to write about in that.

Sally
OK. Toppling it’s a verse novel for upper primary-aged readers, so, ten and up I suppose. It’s a book about friendship. It’s about what it’s like to watch a friend battle a life-threatening illness.

So, John, who’s the main character, he’s a twelve year old boy. He’s in his last year of primary school. He’s got a really good, strong friendship group of mates. He’s got a particular best friend, Dominique. Then one day Dominique gets sick and goes home from school and then he doesn’t come back to school. Eventually John discovers that Dominique has cancer.

So, John and his other friends they then struggle with how to support their mate, and how to be there for him, spend time with him, understand what he’s going through, and yet they still carry on with their own lives. And, how do you balance that?

I think it’s quite a tricky situation and I know it’s one that lots of kids find themselves in, whether it’s cancer, or whether it’s a child at school who might die, or a marriage break-up, or whatever. Kids find themselves in situations where they’ve got a friend going through something and then they have to work out how they deal with their friend’s problems as well as whatever life is throwing at them.

Valerie
What made you decide to tackle that idea?

Sally
I actually had experience of being that person. I’ve been the supporting person. I had a sister with cancer, and sister-in-law with cancer. And so, that was several years ago. That wasn’t like sort of thought, “Great, I’m going to write this book about them.”

But, I had long thought about what it’s like and that process that you go through. And, also having seen kids go through situations like that, and I thought, “There’s a story there.” But, in the end the story that came to me was actually- there was a child who liked playing with dominos and he lines them up and he topples them over, and I knew that he had a friend in his life who had something wrong. So, that was actually where the image came from, and then that story from my past came into play, I suppose, and it was written.

Valerie
What do you think is the most challenging thing for you as a children’s writer?

Sally
The most challenging thing? I actually still think it’s getting published.

Valerie
Right.

Sally
I know, like, I look at my number now, I’ve had thirty books accepted and I’ve got a really good relationship particularly with Walker Books, who had published my two verse novels, and yet I still have to write the book and then find a publisher. I still get rejections. I still have to make sure that I actually know that I’m writing- I don’t actually write always thinking, “This publisher is going to publish this book,” but I still need to make sure that I’m writing things that are marketable, that are going to have a place. Although sometimes I just write a story because it has to be written, and then I’ll worry about that later.

But there is still that need to be on top of the market and know that not everything that I write will be published, and rejections really hurt. They hurt less, I suppose, when you that you’ve had some acceptances. But, it is a hard, hard market. I think some people make the mistake of thinking that writing for children will somehow be easier, easier to get published, easier to actually do the writing. I don’t write for kids because it’s easy. I write for kids because I like to write for kids.

Valerie
You mentioned about really knowing the market. Do you read a lot of other children’s books? Other authors?

Sally
I do. I read hundreds of books. I’m sort of fortunate because I’m a book reviewer, so I actually get a lot of new release books coming across my desk every day. I really think that has made a huge difference to both my writing and to that knowledge of the market.

I’m really passionate that if you want to write for any market that you have to read books in that market. And, I hear some people say, “Oh, I don’t want to read kid’s books because then I might accidentally copy them.”

Valerie
Yeah, I know. I hear that a lot.

Sally
Or, “I want to write romance, but I hate reading it.” Well, if you’re not reading it and not enjoying it, then I don’t think that you can actually write it, because I think that will come across in some way in your writing, because you’re in a way sort of parodying the market if you’re not actually reading it. You’re only writing what you think it is rather than what it actually is.

So, yes, I do read a lot.

Valerie
So tell us about the book review site. When did you start that and why?

Sally
I started it, I think, I late 2000 or early 2001. I have to admit I’m a little bit hazy with dates. I’m not a dates person. But, it’s a really labor of love.

When I first got onto the internet, and it was all fairly new in my life, and I looked around- and I was very aware that here was an opportunity to find out about writing and also to do some writing online. And, I looked around and there was lots of websites springing up that were reviewing books. Also, again, I go back to romance, there was a lot of specific romance sites. And, I think romance writers actually got caught onto the whole internet thing a lot quicker than other genres, although fantasy and sci-fi as well, I suppose.

There were always websites reviewing books, but there wasn’t any that focused on Australian books, and there were actually very few reviewing any Australian books. And, there was a company, it was called Webseed, that set up free websites if you told them what you wanted to write about. I think their idea is they would make money but putting advertisements on them.

So, I applied to set up a site called Aussie Reviews. They accepted me. They paid for the domain name and actually set up the structure of the website and I started reviewing books.

Then their business model actually failed within a couple of years. It might have been a year or so. And, they actually then put the domain names up for sale to the people who had been writing on them.

Valerie
Alright.

Sally
So, I bought the domain name, and had to find out very quickly some extra things about HTML, and having web hosting and all those sorts of things. So, I bought it and thought, “Well, I’ve been doing this for a while. I’m going to keep doing it.” And, it’s just grown and grown. I’ve reviewed, either myself or other people, have reviewed over 2,000 books on the site.

For a long time I think it was the only site sort of dedicated to reviewing Australian books. Since then there’s lots of blogs and websites now that do review Australian books, some of them exclusively, some of them Australian books along with everything else. And, that’s great.

I actually don’t think other people have taken my idea, because I don’t think it was just my idea. I don’t think I was that clever.

But, I think it’s really wonderful, because when I started reviewing online the internet was new and more than one time people sort of said to me, “Yeah, internet reviews are irrelevant. I only print reviews, and review in esteemed journals, they’re the relevant ones. What you’re doing is just a bit of fun.” I actually think now that there is a really widespread acceptance that a blog or a website is actually a great place, and a great forum for reviewing books because it puts those reviews at readers’ fingertips.

Valerie
Wonderful. Thirty books, seriously… and in all that you say that some get rejected. So, you must be very prolific. How long does it take? What’s the gestation period, or the life of a book for you?

Sally
How long is a piece of string?

Some books I suppose are very quick. For example, I suppose my early readers, which might in total be a couple hours work, and actually might go from the process of me getting the idea, submitting it to a particular series, being accepted and being published in six months, but that’s really unusual. Others have taken months, and sometimes years to actually go through that process.

So, for example, if I was writing a verse novel, a first draft might be written over a couple of weeks. Then I will need resting time, which is where I try and put it away and forget about it. Then re-writing time, and then I might put it aside again and then eventually it will be ready to submit. Whereas, say, a picture book, and I’ve spoken about this already, it might actually be in my head for quite a while before I start writing. So, it will rattle around in my head and I tweak the idea and I’ll start thinking about words and character names. Then when I actually sit down to write the first draft will be written in one setting, and then the actual fine-tuning takes ages.

So, yeah, it really varies quite a lot, and I do usually have more than one project on the go. So, at the moment, for example, I’ve got another verse novel, which I’ve actually written the whole first draft, and actually that first draft was written in an afternoon. The idea came to me and rattled around in my head for a couple of days. I actually talked about it with my children, which is unusual, but I threw the idea around a little bit. Then I sat down and I wrote it in one sitting, and I’ve now put that aside.

And then I’m working on my young adult novel, which I’m onto the second draft, but it’s still got a long way to go. At the same time I’m researching a picture book idea. I’ve got ideas for a short story, and I’ve got a couple of other picture book ideas brewing.

So, I have lots of things on the go, but having said that I don’t tend to jump around from story to story. So, I try to give one project precedent until I’ve got it either completed, or to a point where it actually needs resting. So, at the moment my young adult novel is number one project. If I have time to write in my day I make sure that I do some work on that before I do anything else, other what could easily happen is I could have lots of half stories that never get finished.

Valerie
Do you have a writing routine? Do you have a ritual that you do every morning?

Sally
I wish.

Valerie
Describe your writing day to us.

Sally
Well, the first thing is if I ever talk to beginning writers I always say you really should try to write every day. Then I confess that actually doesn’t happen for me. I actually work a day job three days a week.

Valerie
Right, what do you do?

Sally
I actually was a teacher, but I’m actually running what’s called a resource center, which is a thing we have in country towns where people can come and use the internet and access government services, do their photocopying and, we do training courses. So, it sort of uses my teaching background, but it’s actually just a nice nine to five people contact kind of a job.

I suppose going back to the question, the days that I work my day job it isn’t always possible for me to actually do any writing. Sometimes if an idea comes to me, I’ll scribble it down at work, don’t tell my boss, even though I’m married to him. But if I’m on a project then I’ll try and grab some time in the night if there’s a possibility when the kids are asleep, or organized.

But, on the days that I’m at home I do make a point of writing everyday. I actually do try to have a routine. I’ve found over the last twelve months where I’ve gone into a three day job, whereas before it was only a day and a half. I’ve actually had to be more strict on thode days that I’m at home and use that time. So, I try to set up a pattern that gives me about four hours of writing time on most home days. But, some days it might be a lot less, I admit.

What I do is I do tend to write in snatches, as I’ve said. But, I try and set aside a dedicated writing time. So, on a writing day I’d get the kids off to school. I’d try to clear the decks with any housework that has to be done. I’ll check my email…

Valerie
That could take forever.

Sally
It could do, but I’m not a wonderful housewife, I have to admit. I’m also doing that why the kids are up in the morning and around. So, I try to do that when there’s people in the house, as much as possible.

Then I try to get the distractions out of the way, so I read my emails. I empty my inbox. I check my facebook, I check my Twitter, so I’m not thinking, “Oh, I wonder if anyone has talked to me on Twitter today.” Then I start writing, but I also set myself a time to start writing, so that I’m not allowing myself to just keep on with those distractions and never getting to the writing. So, I usually say, “At half past ten I’m going to be at my desk and writing,” and I try to stick to it.

Then once I start writing I do take breaks. So, if I write up to four hours I’m obviously not just sitting there writing none stop for four hours. I generally write until I find myself either going, “What am I going to say next?” When my fingers stop moving I’ll generally stop, and I might have a cup of coffee and read a chapter of my book, or I might check my facebook again, or answer emails, or whatever else needs to be done. Sometimes I might get up and hang out a load of washing if I really think I have to, and then I get back to it. But, that is my writing time.

If I do get really stuck then I might actually work on something else. So, I might work on another project, I might pick up something that needs revising, I might prepare something to send off to a publisher, or I might read. So, I’m still in the working zone, but not just banging my head against the computer monitor.

Valerie
You said that one of the challenges in the big picture is just getting published, but how about in the day to day writing, what’s your biggest challenge there? Do you ever get writer’s block? Or, do you ever get stuck? What do you find difficult about the actual writing process?

Sally
I wouldn’t say that I get writer’s block as in I ever run out of ideas, but I probably start to second-guess myself sometimes and think, “Gee, is this any good.” I’ve been a chronic one for putting something in the mail and then thinking, “Why did I submit that? Maybe I shouldn’t have submitted that.” And, even with Pearl Verses the World, which has been my most successful book, I sent it to Walker Books and then I just thought, “Oh, they’re just going to think I’m such an idiot when they read that. They’re going to think, ‘what’s she doing wasting our time?’,” you know, and they accepted it.

So, I suppose there’s an element of confidence, but I actually think in a way it’s better to lack a little bit of confidence and actually make sure that you don’t submit things too quickly, than what I used to do in the old days was basically I set up my typewriter, I’d put it in a envelope and I’d send it, which is probably why it took me so long to get published because I didn’t understand that your first draft is a first draft. It has to be a first draft, and there has to be many other drafts before it’s actually ready to submit.

I find the re-writing process a big challenge, because like a lot of people when I write something I’m generally in love with it, because otherwise I wouldn’t have given up my time. It is hard to actually then sit down and work out what’s wrong with it and fix it, and re-write. You know that fear of, “If I take this paragraph out it’s lost forever,” that kind of- we can be precious about our words. We don’t want to waste words.

Yeah, the re-writing process, and yeah, that self-confidence I suppose are my challenges.

Valerie
Have any of your books ended up vastly differently, like, significantly different to the first draft as result of feedback from the publisher?

Sally
One has, although I have to say it hasn’t actually been published. I had a book that I wrote specifically for Banana Books. They had a series, which was actually- my first paid book was published in that series. It was the series of Banana Splits. And it was two quite short stories in one book back-to-back, so the kids could flip the book over and read the second story.

I wrote two little stories, 3,000 words each, and they did continue on from each other, although they were self-contained. By the time I had finished writing them I had thought, “No, there’s two more stories,” so, I was going to write number three and four, and of course they were going to accept them and publish them, and that was going to be great. And, before I submitted them the publisher actually went out of business.

Valerie
Oh.

Sally
And, I had those two stories that were- didn’t have a place to go. So, I actually sat down and wrote the other two. And, I thought, “That’s alright. It’s four stories. I’ll be able to submit them somewhere else,” and I think I actually did try to get them published, and then Banana Book came back into business.

Valerie
Right.

Sally
But, I now had four stories. So, I actually submitted them like that, and the publisher came back, or the editor actually came back and she said, “We really like these, but there’s quite a lot of work needed to make them a cohesive whole.”

So, from being two little 3,000 stories, it eventually became 33,000, which is the longest thing I’ve ever written, although my young adult novel will be longer. It completely changed. It became for an older age group. I wrote some graphic novel elements into the story. Yeah, it certainly became quite a different story based on trying to fit it into what they wanted.

Unfortunately, Banana Books went broke a second time.

Valerie
OK.

Sally
So, if anyone is looking for a wonderful book with graphic novel elements after primary, I still have it.

Valerie
How did you feel as an author when it became so different to your original intention?

Sally
I think at the time, and often during the editing process they’ll say, “Can you do this?” Or, “Can you do that?” I’ll usually say, “Yes, of course I can!” But, once I’m off the phone, or away from the computer I think, “No, I can’t actually do that.” It’s partly self-confidence and partly it’s, “That’s my story.”

But, often when I make the changes I think, “Yes, they’re right.” Very occasionally, and not necessarily with that book, but very occasionally I’ve actually argued not to make changes. But, I don’t say, “No, I’m not going to change it.” I say, “Look, this is why.” Sometimes I’m right, and sometimes I’m convinced the other way, that, “No, I’m wrong, and this is why…”

So, generally I think the publisher or the editor isn’t really the enemy. They actually want to sell your book well, just as much as you want to sell your book well. So, if they’re asking you to make changes, there’s usually a pretty good reason. So, I do try very hard to be a good author and not be too precious, and throw my weight around.

But, as I said, occasionally. I wrote a rhyming picture book and the editor came back and there was a suggested change, which didn’t come directly from the editor. It went to the editor to the publisher, the publisher spoke to me. The change really made a forced rhyme. It changed the story, and it was just ridiculous and I cried, because I just thought, “I’m not putting that in my book. There’s no way I’m having a book with…”

And, I actually felt strongly enough that if that change had gone in I was going to pull the book because it is a rhyming book, you don’t put a word in just for the sake of having a rhyme in there. The problem was that I’d used a word that they thought was too hard for the market, and was only a partial rhyme. The suggested change was just ridiculous.

I have to be careful, because I’ve only written one rhyming book. So, it might be easy to work out which book it was. But, the change- I think what had happened was the editor had said, “She’s got to take this word out. How about ‘this’?” Whereas I took it as they were just going to change my book and it was going to be terrible.

But what I actually did was after I’d sort of cried and stomped my feet a bit, which I said, I did that in private so they didn’t know I was doing it. I then sat down and wrote an email and said, “Look, I’m really adamant that I don’t want that changed, but I have thought about it and I actually came up with a solution.” I came up with a better change. I said, “What about this one?” They accepted it, and then when that book was published at its launch I had someone else read it aloud I thought, “Yes, that works really well.”

So, again, they were right. They were trying to make the book better. They weren’t trying to ruin my book or ruin my life. At the time it sort of, very briefly it felt like the world was against me, because they wanted to do something silly, but in retrospect I don’t really think that they wanted to ruin the book. I think that there was a suggestion that I just didn’t want to happen, but I came up with a solution that worked for both of us.

Valerie
So, out of those thirty book were there any that were milestones for a particular reason? Either because you just really wanted them in some way, or they were the result of a difficult process? Were there any that sort of stand out for any of those reasons?

Sally
I think there’s probably three that I could mention. The Floatingest Frog, because I had always wanted to write a picture book, and that was my first picture book. It was hardcover, and it was beautifully illustrated. That was a big moment, was to hold what I’d always imagined myself writing.

Then Pearl Verses the World, which I’d always from the time I read the first- the first time I read a verse novel, which was Jinxed, by Margaret Wild I thought, “Wow, that’s an amazing book. I want to do that one day.”

I didn’t even know they were called verse novels then, but I hadn’t come across the form before. But, I just thought, “Wow, this is incredible.” So, I started reading more verse novels and I always knew that one day I would write one. But, actually when I wrote Pearl I didn’t actually think, “Today I’m going to write a verse novel.” The book actually started to come to me in verse, so I wrote it down and then realized it was actually a book, not just little poems.

Valerie
Right.

Sally
But, that was, I suppose, a big milestone because up until then I had written a lot of books for series. I had written a lot of books that were just happy and lots of fun. When I wrote Pearl it was serious book, although kids read it and laugh, which is good.

Valerie
Right.

Sally
So, it was a big change in direction for me. It certainly the book that’s changed my life in terms of media attention and awards, and those sorts of things. So, it has been a huge thing, and probably a once in a lifetime book in that way.

The other one I think that’s special that I should mention is Snowy’s Christmas, which my third picture book, and it’s special because I actually got to do it with my brother in law, so he was actually my illustrator.

Valerie
Right.

Sally
A bit of a testament, I think, to the power of networking. I tell people networking is important, and then I see people network and then I cringe because networking is not going up to publishers at conferences saying, “I want to be published.”

Networking is something that happens, for me, as sort of a natural process because are involved in the industry, you do go to conferences, you do take opportunities, but it doesn’t happen because you walk up to people and say, “Hey, you should publish me.”

Valerie
Especially if they’re in the ladies’ loo, or something like that at the conference.

Sally
That’s right.

So, when I tell the story of how Snowy was accepted I always think, “Oh, no these poor publishers,” because I had got know Linsay Knight the children’s publisher at Random House through going to conferences. We’re actually- I think we’re friends. You know, we always say hello, we always chat.

I went to a breakfast at a conference, and I must say that I was sitting down first, Linsay came in and sat with me. Then my brother in law, David, he at the time wasn’t published as an illustrator, but was an aspiring illustrator, he came in and obviously he came and sat with us because I’m his sister in law. Over the course of the breakfast when we were talking to Linsay, and we were talking about actually Courage, the town I live in, she said, “Oh, you so should write a book about that. You should write it, he should illustrate it.”

I said, “Oh, is just sort of saying that because we’re having a nice time at breakfast” And, it really worried me afterwards. I thought, “If I don’t take this opportunity, I’m missing an opportunity. But, if I take this opportunity I look like one of those mad networky people that just thinks, ‘I should take everything you say as gospel, and I should follow you around into the ladies’ loo’…”

Valerie
Yes!

Sally
Later on in the conference we talked again in just a casual chat I said, “Oh, you know David and I were quite taken by that idea.” She said, “I know, I was serious.” I said, “OK, you’re serious,” but then I still actually when I got home emailed and said, “Look, do you want to see this story?” Because I was still a little bit unsure whether it was just a moment in passing.

Valerie
Yes.

Sally
I wrote the story. David did some sample illustrations and I sent it in. She came back and she actually didn’t accept that story, because want she really wanted was a Christmas story.

Valerie
Right. OK.

Sally
She came back and said, “Is there anyway you can put Christmas into this story?” I said, “Well, no,” but as it happens I’ve got this Christmas story that I wrote several years ago that I’ve never submitted anywhere. Would you like to see that?” She said, “Yes,” and she accepted it and got David to illustrate it. So, it was a direct result of going to a conference.

Valerie
Yes.

Sally
But as I said, I think when I started going to conferences and things that I actually hoped that it would lead to publishing opportunities. I probably was guilty of caring a manuscript around in my bag. But, I never went up to anyone and said, “Please read this.”

Those opportunities do happen, but they don’t happen through forcing them.

Valerie
Yes.

Sally
They happen through time. They happen through showing people that you are professional.

Valerie
That’s exactly right.

Sally
You have to invest time and unfortunately money. A lot of people say, “Oh, I can’t afford to go to these conferences, or this festival. They’re too expensive.” It does cost you money and it might be years and  years, and years before you see any return on that money. But if you’re serious you need to get involved in the industry.

Valerie
You need to build relationships. That’s the most important thing out of networking and then something comes out of the relationships.

Sally
Those relationships aren’t always with, say, a publisher. I’ve been going to the Children’s Book Council, it’s a national conference, I’ve been going to that, I think this year would be my fifth one. One of the key relationships I’ve formed at those conferences is actually with two writing friends who I met at the first one and we’ve now become sort of each other’s very close writing buddies.

Now, I wouldn’t say that’s made me money, or whatever, but those friendships are just so valuable as friends, you know? It certainly has kept me going. They’re the people that I email and say, “I got rejected again, and I’m never going to write again.” They say, “Don’t be stupid. Of course you are.” You know? And, we do the same for each other. We celebrate each other’s successes. I don’t know if that’s networking as such because we’re friends much more than…

Valerie
Well, it’s about relationships, as you said.

Sally
Yeah.

Valerie
Now on a final note, what would you advice be for budding children’s authors out there?

Sally
I suppose the same as I’d give any writer of any genre, you need to read, and you need to read more than you write. You actually need to spend more time reading than you do writing. So, if you want to write for children you have to read children’s books. You have to read lots of children’s books, and they have to be new releases. If you’re writing in Australia, they have to be new releases from Australian publishers. So, don’t read the books that you read when you were a child, well, certainly you can read them, but don’t read those as an example of the sort of books you’re going to write. And, don’t write the books that you loved when you were a child.

A lot of people make the mistake thinking, “I’m going to be the next Dr. Seuss.” You’re not going to be the next Dr. Seuss. Dr. Seuss is Dr. Seuss. If you’re going to copy what he did, then you won’t get published, because his books are still around.

Or, they think, “I’m going be the next Emma Blighton, well Emma Blighton was a very talented and lovely lady and kids still love her books. But, if you write like Emma Blighton, then you won’t get published.

Valerie
No.

Sally
So, you need to read what’s actually being published. You need to know what kids are like today, and then you need to write for today’s kids.

Valerie
Wonderful. On that note, thank you very much for your time today, Sally.

Sally
Thank you, Valerie.


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