Like many writers, I have a large number of writing projects on my trusty USB in various states of neglect and incompletion. For many of them, even using the term ‘half-finished’ would be generous. Barely started, vaguely plotted or indecipherably sketched-out is more apt for most of my personal writing projects. In fact, most of my ‘best’ work is still kicking around in the recesses of my brain (under the misguided notion that whilst it is still in my head it has best-seller potential… but once it is on paper it becomes tripe in need of a lot of revising, editing and uncomfortable hard work).
Previously, most of my projects were fiction novels, and I had never really given too much thought to writing children’s stories. That is until, (in a never before heard of turn of events), my interest in children’s stories was rekindled by the acquisition of a very small new housemate who reintroduced me to the magic, fun and excitement of children’s picture books. Said housemate also had many demands… not least of which was that I spend countless hours helping him to get to sleep by rocking, patting, or just twiddling my thumbs in his general vicinity.
One particularly helpful sleep-settling technique was humming the rhyme scheme of a favourite book, Grandmas from Mars by Michelle Robinson. While repeating the da-dada-da-dada-da-dada-dada for the umpteenth time I started to make up little rhymes of my own and quickly developed the idea for a story about one of our family passions, surfing… and from there, Facing the Wave was born.
I spent a week or so writing down ideas until I had a fully fleshed out story. I was even so excited about this story and its potential that I read it to my husband (the first time I have let anyone read or hear a personal writing project).
Don’t hit send
Even though I was really excited about my story and felt that it had a great, original angle that might appeal to a publisher, I knew from my professional experience and familiarity with ‘how-to’ writing blogs and books, that it was really important to avoid the temptation to just google a few publishers and hit send as soon as I had finished.
I took the time and made the (very worthwhile) investment to complete the Australian Writers’ Centre Writing Picture Books course, hosted by the lovely and talented, Zanni Louise. This was an online course that offered practical advice as well as tutor feedback on writing children’s picture book stories. This gave me helpful advice for polishing my story as well as some great insights into what publishers are looking for (and how to avoid writerly faux pas).
To assess or not to assess?
Once I felt that my story was strong enough, I submitted it to Larrikin House for a manuscript assessment. This was a user pay service offering detailed manuscript feedback with the possibility of a publishing contract.
The factors that I considered when submitting were:
- Whilst I loved my story, I had also spent some time considering the commercial appeal. Commercial appeal is important. Art, storytelling and creativity are all lovely and worthy – but publishers are running a business. I was confident that my story had a unique angle and theme that would be appealing to the market.
- I was putting my best foot forward (rather than just an enthusiastic and excited foot) because I had taken the time to extensively proof and polish my work
- I felt it was worth the money to get tailored feedback from a publisher on my writing. This is not something I would do with every story but it felt right for my first time submitting. It gave me the security of knowing that my manuscript was definitely going to get seen (and not just sit in a slush pile).
- There was a chance of receiving an offer to publish (not the case with all manuscript assessments).
- Larrikin House seemed to be a good fit with my story and theme. They focus on stories with heart and humour and my story had a heartfelt hook and, whilst not a side-splitter, was lots of fun.
I received my manuscript assessment back a few days later from Larrikin House’s publisher, James Layton. It included feedback detailing how the story fit against Larrikin’s assessment rubric covering elements such as the quality of the writing, commercial viability, use of humour and similar. (The Larrikin House manuscript assessment process has since changed in format and currently includes a Zoom meeting).
The story performed very well against the Larrikin assessment rubric and, as such, I was invited to have a chat with James by phone. During that conversation James made it very clear that there were no guarantees of a publishing agreement but that with some revisions, he could see it as a strong fit with Larrikin House. The major changes were around tweaking some didactic elements to maximise agency for the child protagonist (so that great story was prioritised over any ‘messages’ or ‘teaching moments’), and looking for opportunities to increase the humour and fun. I will speak to the editing process further in future posts, but in short, a few weeks later I signed my first publishing agreement.