Reflections On Being a Writer of Children’s Books

I wanted to be a writer in my late teens but wanting to be a writer was the easy bit. Life became busy and a lot of things delayed me doing anything about it for another twenty years! Studying, playing sport, teaching, travelling – there was never any time for writing. And that was before my wife and I started a family, after which there was hardly time to breathe!

I eventually found some time when the children were teenagers and didn’t need (or want) me around all the time. I remember thinking I was at a stage in life when I needed to have a real go at writing or forget about it altogether. Time for writing was still intermittent, between family life, teaching and playing some sport, so I gave myself about five years to get a manuscript accepted, after which I thought I’d give it away and focus on other things.

The first thing I had to learn was how to work instantly in the short gaps and spaces between fulltime work and other ongoing commitments. Subsequently, I always had a pen and current drafts close at hand and I systematically put them in the car when travelling anywhere just in case I unexpectedly found some time or the car broke down and I had to wait for the RAA! I also eliminated any delaying habits such as getting a drink, arranging equipment, checking the mail or seeing to any other number of things first. I had to make the time appropriate, rather than waiting for an appropriate time to write. The last thing I did was the hardest. I set the alarm to go off an hour earlier on weekdays so that I could write every morning before leaving for school.

It didn’t take long to learn what rejections were. I soon had some dents in my self-belief. But several of the rejections were what I called ‘good’ rejections. They offered a glimmer of hope because they included a handwritten note from the publisher saying things like “We’d like to see more of your work”. It was one of those publishers who finally accepted a manuscript.

I’ll never forget the acceptance phone call for that first book, Dial-a-Croc. It was hard to believe I was hearing phrases like, “loved your manuscript” and “offer you a contract”. There was so much that was new and exciting about having my first book published. The meeting with the publisher, talking about illustrators, signing the contract, receiving an advance, seeing the draft illustrations, discussing refinements to the text and, finally, holding a finished copy of the book. It was a dream come true. Then it got even better. The book was published in the UK and America.

But now I had a new fear – the fear of being a ‘one book wonder’. There’s not much I could do about that, except to keep on writing and keep my fingers crossed, but I did do one other thing. I made sure that everyone in my family had their name in the book, in case the opportunity never arose again. My name was guaranteed on the cover, but I managed to slip my wife’s name into the author information, and I included the names of our three sons in the dedication.

Luckily, there were more books to follow and I celebrate each one because it is the high point of an activity which includes its fair share of doubts, difficulties and disappointments. Some ideas prove harder to bring to fruition than anticipated at the outset and, with most manuscripts, there is a point where it’s not working and the words on the page seem pitiful. Then, even when you think you’ve solved the problems and made the manuscript sing, rejections continue. At times like this the only thing to do is to keep working, sometimes ‘polishing’ the same manuscript, sometimes starting something new.

Like most writers I’ve experienced a dry spell at some stage and wondered if my writing career had come to an end. Along with this there’s always the wish to have something in the ‘pipeline’. The dreaded pipeline question comes up quite a lot in conversations with other people. “So what’s in the pipeline now?” “Is there something in the pipeline?” “What’s next in the pipeline?” The truth is that sometimes the only thing in the pipeline is a circle of light at the end. Then you have to mumble something vague about working on new ideas, or being in between projects, while desperately wishing you had a blockage in your pipeline, in the form of a prospective publication!

I soon discovered that persistence was a key quality I needed as a writer. Persistence when the writing is not working. Persistence with refinements when I thought the manuscript was finished two months ago. Persistence responding to critical feedback. Persistence resubmitting manuscripts after knock-backs. In addition to any positive qualities particular manuscripts may have had, it is that persistence which leads to publication and the many accompanying rewards.

The rewards have been both public and personal. The public rewards have included shortlisted and award winning books, newspaper articles and school visits as an author. The private rewards have included being able to give a copy of a book to friends, relatives and family members, which is officially dedicated to them. It also includes having original illustrations on display at home from several of my illustrators. Another personal reward is simply the opportunity to work with publishers, editors, illustrators and designers to turn the initial manuscript into a published book. Producing picture books is a truly collaborative activity and a genuine voyage of discovery. My words on blank pages are just the beginning.

Some rewards are predictable while others are unexpected. Predictably, it’s always a thrill when a publisher accepts a new manuscript. Similarly, the joy of seeing your latest book on sale in the shops is predictable, as is the delight of being paid an advance or royalties. The excitement of being in the audience to see Cat produced as a play was expected. But being stopped in the supermarket and thanked for writing Passing On, because it helped a young reader with the loss of a grandparent was a touching surprise. So was the scribbled note from a parent saying, “Thank-you for giving my daughter the urge to read.” Then there was the rejection note from a publisher saying that unfortunately my manuscript was not suitable for their list, followed by an unexpected letter, from the same publisher the next day, saying that they loved the manuscript and wanted to publish it! Fortunately, the second letter proved to be correct.

I continue to write children’s books because I enjoy creating stories as well as playing with the language to produce different results, sometimes riotous, sometimes sensitive and sometimes somewhere in between. At the moment I’m working on several new ideas. As usual, one idea has barely started and another has stalled after a promising beginning. So, what’s happens next? What’s that I can see on the horizon ahead of me?

Is it a bird?

Is it a plane?

No, it’s persistence!

And I’m going to need it, yet again, if I want another manuscript to really take off and fly.

Mike Dumbleton

Mike Dumbleton

Author

Mike is an award winning writer and a Literacy Consultant with eight titles selected as ‘Notable Books’ by the Children‘s Book Council of Australia. Other awards include: Speech Pathology Australia Book of the Year, Muddled-up Farm, 2004 and CBCA Honour Book, Cat, 2008. In 2005 he received the Federal Minister’s Award for Outstanding Contribution to Improving Literacy, which recognised his work both as an educator and a writer over an extended period of time. In his spare time, Mike enjoys reading, travelling, trying to keep fit, listening to jazz and watching sport.