is the author of many books and is a July 2013 graduate of the Hamline MFAC program. Her most recent release, Dying to Tell Me,
was published by Kane Miller
in the US in 2011, and was recently released in Australia.
Please describe the book.
It’s a mystery novel for 10-14 year olds, with paranormal elements. I wanted to write a real mystery for kids, one with a murder, and a situation where my young character could reasonably solve it. The blurb is: When Sasha’s policeman dad takes up a remote country posting, she falls and hits her head on the very first day. So when their new pet, retired police dog King, starts communicating with her, she puts it down to her concussion.
But more strange things start to happen. Who is the greasy-haired man she keeps seeing? Why is the local art dealer so nasty? And who killed Mrs Alsopp and set her house on fire?
When Sasha ‘sees’ the burning house in a dream, it’s not enough to save the elderly woman. But the beaten man she sees in the old police cell is already dead – isn’t he? Together, Sasha and King must solve the mysteries of Manna Creek, and save the one person she thought she could rely on.
As the story progressed from inception to copy-edited version, what were the major changes? How did those changes come about? When did you first begin work on it? When did you finish?
Probably the biggest surprise for me in the writing was when the dog, King, started talking to Sasha. That wasn’t planned! But I really liked it, I liked his voice, and I liked the idea of them as a detecting team. Initially it was about her ‘visions’ and her compulsion to save people and how that messed up her life, so it was good to have another character who understood her so well when, for the rest of the world, she was putting on a brave front. I have a wonderful writing friend who critiqued the manuscript for me, and I spent a lot of time deepening the characters and making Sasha’s emotions more real. The novel probably took me about a year, from start to finish, so it was ready to submit early in 2010. I do tend to work on more than one project at a time, and let drafts “sit” for weeks before I come back to them.
What research was involved before and while writing the book?
It started with a police dog – he and his handler lived next door to my brother in New Zealand, and I interviewed him, then I visited the police dog training centre here in Melbourne, all for a nonfiction piece for a magazine. Then I decided I’d like to have an ex-police dog in a story. I also interviewed two policemen in sole-officer stations out of Melbourne, and a homicide detective. With the historical part (the ghost) I researched about gold mining in the 1800s in Victoria, and pulled in a bunch of things I knew about the era from visits to museums and books I’d read.
You’ve had many books brought out by publishers in the UK and Australia and you’ve also self-published. Now you’ve got Dying to Tell Me–a hybrid. Please share that publication journey.
In 2010 I went to our SCBWI conference in Sydney and the guest publisher was Kira Lynn from KaneMiller. I booked a consultation with her, thinking it would be great to get her comments on the first chapter of what was then called Fire and Ice. I arrived at the room, and she said, ‘Love this, send me the whole manuscript.’ She accepted it within a month and the only changes they made were to change some words and the spelling to US. My agent negotiated to keep the Australian/NZ rights but no publisher here showed any interest. Finally, one revealed that it was because the international rights weren’t available! (I have to say this is a continual bugbear for Australian writers because publishers here demand world rights but often don’t sell them.) I thought about importing a few hundred copies from KM, and then I decided to do it myself – as a print book, not an e-book. I did a lot of community books and taught self-publishing classes back in the 80s and 90s, and my writing group published a national poetry magazine for 20 years, so I had a lot of experience in independent publishing of all kinds.
But I also had my traditional publishing backlist behind me, so I was able to get a top distributor and also a big order from a book supplier to schools. I created a marketing plan, had two launches, and have been doing school talks focused on the book. I was also able to use my good US reviews in my marketing materials. Someone just starting out with no other books published would struggle, I think, especially to get the pre-orders I did. I’ve been really lucky that so many people have helped me with this. I haven’t broken even yet – fingers crossed! But I felt really committed to this book, and I thought kids would like it. The next step is an e-book version.
The Too-Tight Tutu, your first children’s book, was published in 1997. What have you learned about the business of writing since then?
Everything! Back then I didn’t even know the difference between a trade and an educational publisher. I had some wonderful people early on who helped me, I went to a lot of seminars and read a heap of information on the internet (the bonus was I could pass on all of this to my students). I also joined SCBWI. In those days in Australia it was pretty small, but I went to two of the big LA conferences, and also to Chautauqua and a summer school at CSU Fresno (you can tell I love to travel). It’s all made me very aware of the differences in publishing between the USA, UK and Australia. Here we are still lagging a bit with e-books and technology. I get a bunch of good newsletters and blog postings on all kinds of things – publishing, marketing, agents, goal setting – and I’ve become good at skimming to find what’s useful.
Mostly what I’ve learned to this point is that none of that counts if you don’t have a great idea and a polished manuscript, but I think the road to publication after that is getting harder for everyone. Self-publishing electronically is fast and relatively easy, but the big word is “discoverability” – how to get your book noticed in among the hundreds of thousands of others, otherwise you’ll only sell a few copies (despite the success of Hugh Howey!). I don’t think children’s books are nearly as popular as adult books in terms of e-publishing – I see plenty of life left in print books.
Where do you do most of your writing?
I used to do it at the kitchen table. In the last couple of years, I’ve felt like a writing nomad, because my husband retired, so I’ve had to continually try to find headspace. All those years of being alone at home … I wish I could have bottled them. What works best now when I am frustrated at home is to go to a café and write.
Do you remember the first book you loved?
The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis. My sister gave it to me and it was like being given a box of magic. Like a lot of kids, I wanted my wardrobe to take me to another world and was very upset when it refused to!