Perseverance, patience and partnerships: Three critical components to developing a successful writing career.
Building your career as a writer is 'a marathon not a sprint,' said International Children's author Jacqueline Harvey at the CKT Festival.
False starts and rejections did not stop Jacqueline Harvey from 'getting back on the horse'. Without her persistence, resilience and tenacity, many young readers would not have had the Alice-Miranda, Clementine-Rose, and Kensy and Max series to explore the world.
Some 20-odd years ago Jacquie found herself 'poking around in the dark' with no opportunities like CKT Writers' Festival, Creative Kids Tales, SCBWI and writing/illustrating groups alike. Today, aspiring and emerging creatives can attend conferences, festivals, workshops where authors and publishers share their knowledge to support creatives' goals.
In Jacquie's early submissions to publishers, she recalled cringing when she looked back. Just like rejection letters, it was all part of the process. It was something Jacquie had to go through to evolve to where she is today. It was 10 years of dogged determination which paid off, hitting 20 books in one series and a 15 goal for another. And what will happen will her spy series, Kensy and Max – wait and see.
Deciding What to Write
Apart from considering how your story would stand out, what is its point of difference in a crowded market place. With Jacqueline Harvey's three series, 'Children want to see their lives reflected in stories. They want windows into other worlds.' Kids wanted relatable characters and to be in charge. They want characters they could admire, be like and be their friend. They also wanted to learn from the characters solving problems and how to overcome the baddies.
Before she wrote Alice-Miranda, she looked at the ingredients of stories she loved as a child. Mystery, humour, adventure like in 'Secret Seven', 'Famous Five', 'Paddington Bear', 'Trixie Belldon', 'Nancy Drew' and the 'Hardy Boys.'
'I looked at a girl protagonist that had stood the test of time,' along with books. She pondered, how her stories could be different. Alice-Miranda's point of difference was her 'perpetual positivity and her real can-do attitude.' She went to boarding school at seven-and-a-quarter. The story idea evolved through her teaching in boarding schools, 10 years in one and 11 years in another. The youngest girl, 9-year-old, and only boarder in the junior school was the 'most positive child' she had ever met. Whilst the young girl had no brothers and sisters, she felt immensely lucky to have big sisters 'who wanted to look after her.' Alice-Miranda evolved from parts of the young student and two others, along with parts of others she has worked with over the years.
How Will Your Story Sustain You?
'I've had adventures of my own over the years and my own adventures have definitely informed the things that I write.' Your own adventures are very important to your writing. In the Alice-Miranda series, Jacqueline had drawn sketches of what her country manor looked like in her own mind. She searched the Internet high and low – trying to find derelict mansions and in the end stumbled upon a website called Location Works. She found just the right place – a crumbling country mansion which was the perfect replica of the place she calls Caledonia Manor. With virtually no information she ended up finding the mansion during a trip to England and wangled herself a tour of the 100-room property – real name Brogyntyn hall in the county of Shropshire. Using actual places helped her crystallise how her characters, setting and storyline would meld together. Staying in those places and seeing those places first hand made it authentic for herself and her readers.
Brogyntyn Hall partly inspired her series Kensy and Max too as during the war, the house was used as British Telecom and apparently also the headquarters for MI6. No matter the adventure, big or small, Jacqueline advised, 'take plenty of photos of places and situations.'
Patience and Publishing
'Patience, nothing happens quickly in publishing, until it suddenly does.' For Jacquie it was 'a long slog of about ten years.' Regardless of how talented you were, without hard work your story would never happen. As Jacquie mentioned, with her and Susanne Gervay's writing foray, there was no SCBWI or Creative Kids' Tales to help them. Therefore, it took a very long time to understand the expectations and how the publishing industry worked.
Invest In You
'You guys are really in the box seat. You have so much talent in this room. This festival is about investment.' Be prepared, writing will be your hobby for a long time. Irrespective of how successful a writer, 'You're only as good as the last book.' Whether writer or illustrator, maintaining a standard is about investing in yourself, 'Learn, evolve and get better.' Of how hard you're expected to work, Jacquie's sister's favourite saying nailed it, 'Hard work beats talent, when talent doesn't work hard.'
Engage with Your Audience
Facebook, Instagram, twitter is time consuming, but is a good way to reach your audience. Each day Jacquie would respond to, up to 10 inquiries from parents or kids via email. 'When I go on tour, the numbers rise.' She advised to use media opportunities to help build your brand. 'If you're nervous, do some training for radio, tv or talking to a reporter.' Invest in yourself.
Markus Zusak Advice
Book Thief author, Mark Zusak, shared with Jacquie 'a special ingredient' when she was stuck. When there was too much of a stereotype, he advised, 'Think about what is obvious and write the opposite.' 'It was such a basic concept but it was exactly what I needed to hear at the time. A character that wasn't working suddenly was.'
Last Guiding Gems
'Establishing a career takes time and patience', 'Engage with booksellers – it helps them to remember you', 'Humility is key.' Engage with publishers in ways that mean they will remember you, but for good reasons – not bad. Which, Dear CKT Festival creatives, is why International Children's author Jacqueline Harvey has three super successful series – Alice-Miranda, Clementine-Rose, and Kensy and Max thus far.
Maria Parenti-Baldey - CKT Reporter