When Dr Zewlan Moor started her training to become a general practitioner, she had two goals: to complete her GP fellowship and to write a novel for National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo). It might seem like an unusual combination, but Zewlan was determined to follow her passion for writing alongside her medical career. She was drawn to Writing Picture Books at the Australian Writers' Centre and can now call herself a published author, with the release of her first two picture books in 2023.
“The courses have directly led to me being published, because I would have taken a lot longer to glean the ins and outs of the craft and industry of picture book-making if I had to start from scratch with online research,” Zewlan told us.
2023 was a big year for Zewlan, with Nothing Alike (published by Bright Light) and The Bill Dup (published by Windy Hollow) both coming out within a few months of each other.
Tapping into industry expertise
Zewlan has always had a deep love of reading, and briefly considered a career as a librarian before she realised how much computer work was involved. She studied English literature as part of her combined Arts/Medicine program and even incorporates book prescriptions as part of her medical practice – a type of therapy called bibliotherapy.
While listening to the popular “So You Want to Be a Writer” podcast as she walked around the Lifeline Bookfest, Zewlan caught an interview with best-selling author Wendy Orr.
“She talked about her transition from occupational therapist to author after her injury and she mentioned working with the editor Cathie Tasker,” Zewlan recalls. “I knew about Wendy Orr from watching Nim’s Island with my daughter, and I remembered Peeling the Onion from my teens. I was excited when I realised Cathie ran the Writing Picture Book course and I could have direct access to her wealth of knowledge through the online course.”
Zewlan admits that learning is her preferred form of ‘me time’ so she dove straight into the course.
“The most useful thing about the Writing Picture Books course was realising the importance of keeping abreast of current and recent titles. It legitimised my favourite past-time of browsing the shelves at the library and bookstore.
“It was also eye-opening to do the activity about blurbs – finding the marketing copy aimed at the general public and industry professionals. It’s so useful to learn how to pitch your work succinctly, in one-line and then extended versions.”
Zewlan also took Australian Writers' Centre’s practical courses in Freelance Writing and has enjoyed the buzz of publishing freelance articles – quite a different experience from her regular job as a GP and surgical assistant! Zewlan credits the courses with giving her a boost of confidence in herself as a writer.
“Fundamentally, I’m much more confident now about reaching out to publications and publishers. I see that I do have something worthwhile and unique to say, and that these publications and the general public are hungry for material.
“This also applies to reaching out and developing relationships on social media. I’m seeing that you needn’t feel shy about tagging an author or publisher on your tweets or posts. They might not reply, but part of them might really appreciate your effort. Now that I know the amount of work that goes into writing and publishing a novel, or a picture book, or an essay or article, I realise that authors and publishers probably appreciate discussion around it.”
Focusing on picture books
Despite her love of literature, Zewlan never actually imagined she would become a published author – not, that is, until she started listening to the “So You Want to Be a Writer” podcast!
“Like most writers, I was an avid reader as a child. But I can quite honestly say I never really realised the names on the covers were of real people. I grew up in a country town where we never had author visits or anything like that. At that stage I knew I liked reading, but I didn’t think there were any jobs for that.
“I think there’s this weird and mysterious magic that happens when you read a lot. You start to see the patterns in things and the potential for big story arcs and metaphors in daily life. Then you start to realise the gaps in the books you’re reading, the lack of mythical fantasy set in the Australian landscape, for example, or the lack of characters who look like you, or view the world in your way, and you start to get a niggly urge to write those books…”
To satisfy that niggly urge, Zewlan completed several more courses at the AWC, including the Writing Picture Books Masterclass, Creative Writing Stage 1, Novel Writing Essentials and Write Your Novel.
“I’m a serial user of Australian Writers' Centre’s courses for adult and children’s writing. My heart lies in children’s literature, mainly because the books I read as a child have left such an indelible impression on me,” Zewlan says. “I probably ended up focusing on picture books because I was immersed in reading them to my children. And I am really fascinated by the interplay between written text and illustrations and all the different levels of meaning this can open up for young readers and their adults.”
Finding a Bright Light
For her debut picture book, Nothing Alike, Zewlan drew on the experience of her young son – literally!
“I wrote Nothing Alike very quickly. It poured out in the voice of my 6-year-old son, basically because I shamelessly wrote down his words. He came home from school one day and told me about this situation where he couldn’t tell these two girls in his class apart. I edited it with the help of my critique group and submitted it to agents after about the fourth draft.”
With that edited manuscript, Zewlan gained the attention of several agents, and signed with Amy Thrall Flynn at US agency, Rubin Pfeffer Content. After a few more drafts, Zewlan sent the manuscript to Australian publisher Bright Light.
“I thought the tricky nature of the main character’s story problem, not being able to tell the girls apart, might appeal to Bright Light because they publish stories that shine a light on curly conversations,” Zewlan says. After going through acquisitions, Zewlan received an offer of publication..
“I was over the moon! Bright Light make beautiful books and I felt that Marisa [Pintado, publisher at Bright Light and Hardie Grant Children’s] really got what I was trying to say.”
Nothing Alike came out in 2023, and Zewlan’s second picture book, The Bill Dup, followed shortly after with publishers Windy Hollow.
“Nothing Alike is about a boy who can't tell these two girls in his class apart. It was inspired by my son having a similar dilemma, and it rang some bells for me. Ironically, at the same time, I kept being mistaken for another Asian writer in my writing group, even though we look nothing alike! It's a gentle poke at some of the absurd behaviours we have around race, and is charmingly illustrated by Peter Cheong, SCBWI Emerging Illustrator of the Year, 2022.
“The Bill Dup is about a 5-year-old boy and his first experience of rain. As you can tell by the title, there is a bit of play with words and the slipperiness of their meanings for the young child in this book. It's being illustrated by the divine Simon O'Carrigan.”
As a self-confessed control freak, Zewlan initially thought working with illustrators would be a little stressful, as she had to allow room for the illustrators to bring their own creative vision to the project. Ultimately, though, she found them kind and sensitive and is delighted by the results.
“I always recommend AWC courses to friends and acquaintances,” Zewlan says. “I don’t know how they do it, but their teaching style is very structured and focused, and if you stick to it and do as they say, you will have success.”