Guest Blog: On Writing Children’s Books without a Magic Wand – “The Magical World of Clementine Mitch” By Jan Oldham (aka. Janette Howe)
I think a useful exercise for everyone to do is to sit down and write what your dream life would be in five years time. Imagine you could wave a magic wand – what are you doing, how are you feeling, who is surrounding you, where are you? For me, this conjures up a modern light-filled office space at home, overlooking the sea – and writing. In this glorious, sun-filled scenario I see myself as an established author with many books under my belt and with an income that means I can be content with my modest lifestyle.
It is not so far from where I am now, yet it still seems unattainable. As someone with a background in book publishing it should be easy to succeed in the world of self-publishing, yet actually sitting down and committing to the task of writing is the test of whether or not you are an author or a ‘wannabe’.
I often talk about how I sat at a typewriter all summer holidays when I was probably 11 or 12 and tapped out a first novel. I still have that manuscript. Then came the teacher who told me I should write about ‘what I know’. I took this literally so when I couldn’t get excited about small town New Zealand and the minutiae of my life I gave up ideas of writing.
It has taken thirty years to kick-start the habit again. When a work contract came to an end I decided it was the perfect time to do a course on writing for children. I gravitate towards children’s books because I still feel the thrill of those stories that first opened up new imaginative horizons: “Carbonel” by Barbara Sleigh and “Ballet Shoes” by Noel Streatfield. I skipped Nancy Drew and went straight to Alexander Dumas’ swashbuckling tale “The Three Musketeers” and “Masha” a story set in exotic St Petersburg by Mara Kay.
The writing course was at first demotivating – sharing work made me feel that I couldn’t write and of course I compared myself unfavorably to everyone else around me. I still had the idea that I should write about what I know – and that maybe there was room for a ballet series for girls drawing on my past experience as a ballet student and teacher. But late one night after the course I applied the “what if?” question to my idea. What if it was a witch who did ballet? And Clementine came tumbling out.
Image: Clementine Mitch cover
Finding this character helped me to find my voice in the story. She is funny, determined and an individual who I can spend time with. She aspires to be a beautiful ballerina but the reality is that she is a witch and is thwarted at every turn. It is writing what I know – that dreams usually take work to become a reality, so my teacher was right after all. I hope for young readers Clementine is funny and relatable – and not Disney perfect.
It is now seemingly easy to convert your great idea and hard work into a saleable book. The publishing journey is in reality a bit like Clementine’s ride into High Kicks Ballet Academy. You fall with a bump at the bottom of a rainbow and have to find your way in a whole new world without any magic wand to wave.
I sent the manuscript to traditional publishers, wanting that validation of a large company but to no avail. It is hard having been on the other side of the publishing desk to now know that your beloved manuscript is sitting in a reject pile, or in the ‘liked pile’ but not enough to make it to the contracting stage. Publishers don’t need to take a risk on new authors when they can see who rises to the top in the online markets. I had thought about self-publishing and after waiting by the letterbox for months with no result I decided to take control again. I felt confident that the manuscript was ready for an audience – it had been assessed, tested on its audience and would be professionally edited, proofed and designed using my publishing networks.
It is an exhilarating feeling to know that your story could be reaching even just one child who needs to believe in something outside their world. Reaching a wider audience and balancing the budget is a lot harder. Domestically, independent book shops are shutting down, self-published authors are a dime-a-dozen and you are competing with well-marketed and prolific authors. Online you face obscurity in the midst of hundreds of new titles published daily. That five-year dream requires a Clementine-like determination.
Writing a second novel is probably even harder than the first because of all you have learnt along the way. There is no magic wand, Clementine may not be centre-stage yet, but the dream is definitely worth the journey.
The Magical Adventures of Clementine Mitch is written by Jan Oldham and published by the Story Caravan.