Browsing Tag

publishing

Launching in the time of COVID

17 September 2020

Launching a book into the world can be a strange and surreal experience at the best of times, but launching a book into a pandemic just got a whole lot stranger. Authors have been forced to adjust to new technologies and ways of engaging with readers, and reconcile themselves to the fact that events are now all via a screen. So I asked three authors how their recent book releases compare with their previous books — back when we were all naïve and thought pandemics belonged only in novels. Laura Elvery, Elizabeth Tan and Mirandi Riwoe share the best and the worst of their book babies going out during the time of COVID.

Laura Elvery
In the week after Ordinary Matter came out, my sister and I drove to Brisbane bookshops following an itinerary my publicist had organised. I don’t remember doing this for my first book. It was new to head into a shop and try to non-awkwardly introduce myself. It was new to sign piles of books and try to note all the locations of stacks around the shop. And the whole time sanitising, sanitising, sanitising. (Also new was somebody at one of the shops saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if you had COVID because then you would have taken down all the bookstores in town?’ INDEED! A good joke!)

Strangely, I felt both a little more armoured than I did with my first book (a thicker skin, no newborn baby strapped to my chest, less time on my hands now to fret) but also less armoured (turns out some people actually knew I’d written a book and were waiting for it). In late February 2018 I was about 38 weeks pregnant. The launch for Trick of the Light was this incredibly fun party with 100 people, and it was, for me, all about making it to the event in one piece. A week or so either side and I’d have to reschedule. Look at photos of me that night and I’m just beaming — I’d made it. One week later my son made it into the world too. I sat up in the hospital bed with a stack of copies that Avid Reader had sent along for signing, my baby asleep beside me.

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But, look. A book during a pandemic! Could be worse! The good bits: in Brisbane, I can actually go into bookstores and spot Ordinary Matter on a table. I had more people at this Zoom launch than at the one in 2018. My sister-in-law and my little niece sat at their dining table in Copenhagen and watched. My oldest friend in the world, now living in Townsville, could watch. I got messages from writers in other parts of Australia who tuned in. My next-door neighbour could both hear me speaking through our shared apartment wall AND through her laptop. Good times!

More good bits: that I’m published at all. That Ordinary Matter remains a 2020 title and was pushed back only by one month, not a whole year, or not indefinitely. Podcasts and radio interviews. Good reviews coming in. That it’s a privilege to be reviewed at all. That it’s validating to have reviewers mention my second book in the context of the first. That there was a first book at all.

But some disappointing parts remain. I have friends whose books have been delayed, and friends whose livelihoods have suffered. No events at any bookshop, full-stop. No in-person Q&As. After years of writing the damn thing and then receiving early invites to writers’ festivals — no writers’ festivals. That all feels a bit sad. No line of loved ones waiting for their copy to be signed, waiting to grab a hug and a photo and a glass of wine together down the road.

Next time.

Laura Elvery is the author of two short story collections, Trick of the Light and Ordinary Matter, published by UQP in September 2020. She has won several short story prizes in Australia and her work is published in Griffith Review, The Saturday Paper, Meanjin and Overland. Laura has a PhD in Creative Writing and Literary Studies. She lives in Brisbane.

Elizabeth Tan
My first book, Rubik, was launched into the world by the exuberant Brooke Davis in April 2017, at Beaufort Street Books in North Perth. While I remember the night of Rubik’s launch with incredible fondness and gratitude, I also remember hanging from tenterhooks of nervousness for the entire month. Will enough people turn up? How much wine should I buy? How am I supposed to act among all these people from various social groups smooshed together, all of whom know a different me? How can I sufficiently convey my appreciation to everyone?

Smart Ovens for Lonely People launch

As the days crept closer to the June 2020 publication date of my second book, Smart Ovens for Lonely People, I worried about enduring all those anxieties again, but without that propelling energy which accompanies the release of a debut.

In late March 2020, when the whole country was locking down, my publisher, Alice Grundy, emailed me to ask if I wanted to delay the release of Smart Ovens. It was impossible for us to know the best decision. Certainly, I could see the benefit of waiting. But I knew it in my heart: it was time for the book to leave my hands.

The last story I wrote for Smart Ovens was ‘Ron Swanson’s Stencilled ’Stache’, whose protagonist is an ASMR YouTube artist. At the time Alice emailed me, virtual literary events were already popping up. I realised I’d been given the strange gift of not having to organise and navigate a big social gathering. ‘A virtual launch wouldn’t be totally out of character for this book,’ I eventually replied to Alice, adding: ‘e.g. an ASMR-themed launch?’

The launches of Rubik and Smart Ovens were incomparably different experiences — I can’t say one was better than the other. Some of my anxieties persisted, or were replaced with new anxieties, especially about the technical aspects of the launch. My partner, Shane, helped me work out the best way to record, edit, subtitle, and broadcast the launch — I couldn’t have done it without him.

One nice thing about the virtual launch was that people outside my hometown could attend and participate — especially Alice, who I’ve met in person only a handful of times. Alice recruited Bram Presser and Jane Rawson to record ASMR videos to contribute to the launch, which they did spectacularly. I also appreciated that friends who missed out on the live broadcast could still watch the launch later.

What I love most about online events is that there’s a tremendous amount of goodwill — nobody expects perfection. It’s clear that everyone is using the tools, props and software that they have on-hand. We have to be resourceful and imaginative like children. On the day of the broadcast of my launch, with the live chat humming, I felt very much like a child putting on a bizarre, gleeful play for my friends. Together, we cultivated a sweet, peculiar kind of intimacy — a perfect fit for Smart Ovens for Lonely People.

Elizabeth Tan is a writer from Perth, Western Australia. Her first book, Rubik, was published in 2017 by Brio. Her second book, Smart Ovens for Lonely People, was shortlisted for the 2020 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. View the Smart Ovens launch: https://youtu.be/zR41sptHI-A.

Mirandi Riwoe
At the very end of February this year, when coronavirus still seemed a distant problem, my husband and I flew to Los Angeles. We stayed in Santa Monica and visited family, rode rental bikes, ate out on the crowded pier, caught Ubers everywhere. By about 5 March, we heard news that a couple of LAX workers had contracted COVID-19 and that people in Australia were hoarding toilet paper. First, I said to my husband, jokingly, ‘I wonder if we should take some toilet paper home with us’, and then, more seriously, ‘I wonder if my book launch will go ahead.’

‘Of course it will,’ he said. ‘It’s on the 27th! Nothing’s going to happen in such a short time.’

Ha.

By the time we arrived back in Australia on the 9th, health warnings and restrictions were kicking off. It’s hard to remember how quickly everything happened, but over the next two weeks, the number of people who could attend my book launch at Avid Reader bookstore shrunk, until only a handful of people, including staff, could be spaced out on their deck. And did I really want to put older people, like my father, at risk? (My mother and two adult children had already had to cancel their air tickets to attend my launch.) Luckily, over the week before my launch the lovely people at Avid Reader practiced Zoom meetings with me a few times, and a couple of days before I was to have my launch, we all decided it was best if we went ahead with a Zoom launch instead. I think I had the first Zoom launch in Australia.

I dressed up — just as I would have if I’d had an in-person launch — in a lace cheongsam, put on my red lippy and perched on my dragon couch in front of my computer clutching a glass of champagne. Of course, I would have preferred to be surrounded by loved ones cheering me on, to hug, to gulp down a little too much wine while signing my book, (I had badges and magnets made up to give away with each book), to eat the cupcakes UQP were going to provide with my book cover iced on top, to go next door to Chop Chop Changs and eat noodles with said loved ones. But there were upsides to the Zoom launch. I get terribly nervous talking in front of a crowd, so speaking to the screen was a little less harrowing. And I got to clutch my daughter’s guinea pigs during question time. The best part of the Zoom event, though, was that so many lovely people who could not have attended the live event ended up coming to my Zoom launch — interstate family, writers and readers, who I love and admire.

Mirandi’s Stone Sky Gold Mountain launch

Missing out on a live launch is such a miniscule thing in the scale of what is happening this year. And I’m so grateful for how supportive readers and other writers have been during this fraught period. Back in March it was very difficult to know what was going to happen. At first I wondered if the release of Stone Sky Gold Mountain should be postponed, but by the time we realised lockdowns and restrictions were going to take place, it was too late. Thankfully, a lot of people have found time to read over the last six months and I hope people continue to find solace in books. There are just so many great novels coming out, despite this pandemic.

Mirandi Riwoe’s novel Stone Sky Gold Mountain won the Queensland Literary Award for Fiction 2020. Her novella The Fish Girl won Seizure’s Viva la Novella V and was shortlisted for the Stella Prize and the Queensland Literary Award for Fiction.

To go in the draw win a book pack of Laura Elvery’s Ordinary Matter, Elizabeth Tan’s Smart Ovens for Lonely People and Mirandi Riwoe’s Stone Sky Gold Mountain simply sign up to my newsletter (sign-up box on this page).

Editing process rundown

11 June 2020

Given that I’ve worked as an editor for 21 years it seems crazy that I’ve never written a post that breaks down the different kinds of editing, but I’m about to remedy that! Most of the books that I edit are for publishers, but about a quarter of my work is directly for authors who fall into one of two categories. Either they intend to self-publish, or they want to ensure that their manuscript is the very best that it can be before submitting to agents or publishers (most fall into the latter category). Often writers are unsure about exactly what kind of edit their book needs, so here’s a quick rundown. I’m going to focus on fiction because it’s my first love.

Structural/substantive edit

If you’re wondering if your book needs a structural edit (sometimes called a substantive edit), the answer is YES! Every single book needs a structural edit, even those by the most experienced authors. This is the big picture stage where the editor is looking at things like characterisation, plot, pacing, appropriateness of language and style for the intended readership, order of chapters and scenes (including whether there are missing scenes or unnecessary scenes), chapter breakdowns, narrative progression and gaps in the narrative, and so on. Every book is different and the list of possibilities is endless. The editor might recommend that the book should in fact begin at Chapter 3, or that a subplot is enlarged, or that a character is cut completely. Be prepared for anything! You will usually receive an extensive report outlining all the areas that need work.

I love this stage because it’s a long conversation between the editor and the author — two people who care deeply about the book and want to see it become the very best version of itself. It’s always a privilege for me to be a part of this highly creative stage of the editing process, and to work so intimately with a text and its author.

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Copyediting

Cartoon Irma talking on a panel at Noted Festival

With copyediting we move from the big picture down to the fine detail. The editor will go through your manuscript with a microscope, line by line, examining grammar, punctuation, spelling, vocabulary, formatting, clarity and awkward phrasing. At this stage it is absolutely imperative that your editor becomes a chameleon. (As you can see from the cartoon, this is a philosophy that I live by! As a sidenote, the irony of the spelling error follows Muphry’s Law, a lesser-known cousin of Murphy’s Law, that states that whenever you write about editing there will always be an error.) But I digress. Back to chameleons. In fiction, the voice is everything. The editor needs to take on the author’s voice, and work with it to make it the very best version of itself, not impose their own. If they can’t do that the result is death by a thousand cuts. The voice — which is what makes every work unique — can quickly become a dead thing. So choose your copyeditor wisely. Some editors have this skill, some don’t.

Proofreading

Page proofs for a book by Nick Earls

This stage is often misunderstood because the word ‘proofreading’ is used differently outside of the publishing context, often to mean a last-minute, super quick check of a document. With a book, proofreading happens once the manuscript has been typeset and the first set of page proofs have been delivered. And it is not a quick process; it is actually slow, careful and time-consuming work. It is essentially a quality control process where you are checking that everything is exactly as it should be. So, indie authors, please don’t ask your mum (who happens to be quite good at grammar) to do the job — I urge you to employ a professional.

In fact, many self-publishing authors neglect this stage altogether, to their great detriment. It’s like taking all the care in the world to build a limited edition car, only to skip the paint job. Once the typesetter enters the text there are a whole raft of errors that can inadvertently be introduced. What’s more, at this stage it is no longer just about the text, there are a new set of elements to consider in terms of design and layout. When I was teaching editing I used to show my students two sets of proofs for the same book: one with mark-up from the author, the other from me as editor. It demonstrated how even authors (with some exceptions) pick up comparatively little. A professional proofreader knows what to look for. They will ensure that the paint job is flawless.

Where can I find an editor?

Now that I’ve outlined the three stages of the editing process I thought I’d answer the two questions that I get asked the most often. The first is about how to find an editor. Firstly, you need to find someone who is qualified. Like every profession, there are people out there who claim to be editors who don’t have the necessary skills or experience. If you head to reputable sources like IPEd or the society of authors in your state you will find a register of editors. Your local writers centre may also be able to recommend an editor who’s a good fit for your book. But one of the best ways to find an editor is through word of mouth recommendations. This brings me to the second point. You need to find someone who has experience working in your genre. So if a writer friend wrote a fantasy novel and you’ve written a middle grade novel the editor who they used may not be right for you. I emphasise ‘may’ here because it all depends on which genres that editor works in.

Finally, know that good editors are in demand and will likely be booked up several months in advance, so be sure to factor this in. Picture books are the exception (for me, at least) because they can usually be fit in around larger jobs.

How much will I pay?

The way it works is that you send the editor either a few sample chapters or the whole manuscript (the latter is better). They will assess whether the manuscript is a good fit for them, how much work is required and how much time it will take. They will then send you a quote that you are under no obligation to accept. After over two decades of working as an editor, my quotes are usually very accurate, but if a manuscript takes me less time than anticipated I always reduce the fee accordingly. If it takes longer, I never increase the fee. It is standard to expect to pay at least half the fee upfront, with the rest paid on delivery of the manuscript. For smaller jobs — for example, editing a picture book manuscript — expect to pay the full fee upfront. You may also be required to sign a contract that will protect the interests of both parties.

Occasionally I am contacted by new writers who think a structural edit of a 90,000-word manuscript is going to cost them a couple of hundred dollars. Remember that you are paying for a professional’s time. And if you don’t employ a professional, your money is probably going to be wasted. Which brings us back to the earlier point — and the most important one to end with — that you need to make sure that you find the right editor for you and your book.

If you have any questions about editing or publishing, please drop them in the comments. And no question is too silly!

Irma has been an editor, both in-house and freelance, for 21 years. She is a professional member of the Canberra Society of Editors and for a decade was Convener of Editing at the University of Canberra. For examples of her work and endorsements, or to get in touch about editing a manuscript, see Editing services.

 

Dream realised: on being a debut author

6 May 2020

Releasing a book into the world is both terrifying and exhilarating, even more so when it’s your debut.

It’s a precarious business being a writer. As John Steinbeck once said:

The profession of book-writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.

For debut writers, entering into the world of publishing for the first time often brings with it a confusing cocktail of doubt and fear, validation and joy. So I asked debut authors Anna Downes, Donna Ward and Holden Sheppard to share the highs and lows of their experiences.

Anna Downes
On the day I received my first offer of publication, my friend took a picture of me.

We were hanging out at her place, trying to keep our kids cool in the ridiculous February heat, when an email popped up on my phone. My friend, reading my expression, froze. As the kids splashed and shrieked in the pool, I held my breath … opened the message … and burst into joyful tears. Squealing, my friend ran inside, returning eventually with a lone can of Jameson’s Smooth Dry and Lime she’d found hiding at the back of her fridge.

‘Congratulations!’ Click.

In the picture, I am sitting on the ground, dripping wet and wrapped in a towel. I’m holding my phone in one hand and a can of whiskey in the other. I’m crying, though you wouldn’t know it from my smile. My face is bright red, my shoulders rounded. I look like I’ve just run a marathon. Out of shot, my children screech and laugh and demand to be fed.

For me, this image pretty much sums up my debut author experience. The woman in that photo, the me of just over a year ago, is knackered, overwhelmed, distracted and a little bit drunk. She’s also very happy; the happiest, possibly, that she’s ever been. She’s worked so hard, sacrificed so much. She’s proud yet stunned that people want to read her words and see them fly. Agents and publishers are handling her precious creation carefully, as if they are the lucky ones. Oh, the validation! Oh, the sweet relief!

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She doesn’t yet realise, however, the length of the haul, the intensity of the work still to come. She hasn’t yet stumbled over the many tripwires of self-doubt (What if it bombs? What if I can’t write another? What if I never write a decent sentence ever again?), pressure to perform (I only get one shot at this, I’d better not stuff it up) and the fear that the editing process will actually kill her dead (I can’t do it, I’m just not the writer they think I am). The girl in the photo is also blissfully ignorant of the complications this dream-come-true will heap on her family, her marriage. Deadlines. Responsibilities. Endless logistical conundrums, and the tug-of-war that will play out between work and home. Some days, she will wrestle with chronic mum-guilt; on others, she will feel resentful, like a teenager at a party whose family want to drag her away and spoil her fun.

It makes me want to climb into the picture and whisper kind words in that poor woman’s ear. ‘Breathe,’ I would say. ‘Don’t be afraid. All that stuff I just said? You’ll figure it out. You have a new job now, with money and legitimate ‘office’ hours. You’re going to meet such wonderful, supportive people. Your teammates, both at work and at home, will look after you. And the words will always be there. No matter what happens (and let me be clear, ANYTHING could happen — a global pandemic, for example, that will put a gigantic cat among the pigeons), the words will see you through.’

Then I’d pat happy crying me on the back. ‘Come on,’ I’d say. ‘Drink up. Get up. No more tears. Because the kids need food. And, despite the challenges (or maybe because of them), your life is about to get so good.’

Anna’s debut novel The Safe Place comes out in July 2020 with Affirm Press (ANZ), Minotaur Books (US) and Hodder and Stoughton (UK). Translations have so far also been sold to Germany, Russia, Hungary, Netherlands, Croatia and the Ukraine.

Donna Ward
The best aspect of being a debut author is being a debut author. There is nothing as grown up as your own book coming out through a nationally respected publisher like Jane Palfreyman at Allen & Unwin.

Many compare publishing a book with having a baby. And in fact, one person referred to my book launch as like a wedding. A key message in my book is how the narrative of family life distracts us from knowing the way life goes for those without families. Naturally, I railed against these comparisons. For me publishing a book is nothing like the intimacy and domesticity of family life, and everything like an initiation into one’s society as a whole. And, since I’ve been a spinster all my adult life, I have missed any kind of initiation. Consequently, being a debut author has utterly transformed me from an ugly duckling to a beautiful swan.

Knowing the publishing process so well helped me understand and negotiate the contract, prepared me for working with an editorial team, and allowed me to know when to engage and when to step back in the cover design process and the publicity campaign. I understand intimately the importance of letting the publisher do the publisher’s job, though sometimes I had to breathe out and let go. But only for minor things.

But nothing prepared me for the moment of truth — the reality that my book will come into the world. In my experience this usually happens when an author receives their box of author copies in the post. For me it came when I picked up an almost final draft I had printed and bound at Officeworks so I could sit down and scribble on it with a red pen. When looking through the document on the screen, I had not noticed the watermark on the bottom of each page. In the paper copy the words ‘unedited proof’ in upper case, feint as a morning shadow, ran along the bottom of each page.

I stood silent at my desk. I breathed in, then I heard myself say: ‘I never thought I’d ever see ‘unedited proof’ on something I’ve written.’

In closing, being a debut author for me had only minor hiccups. Nevertheless, there is an inherent challenge when one crosses the floor. At my book launch in Melbourne, people flowed into Readings Carlton for the event. When I felt the crowd grow to a certain readiness I automatically went to the microphone to welcome everyone. The event host pounced. He whisked the microphone from my hand and guided me ‘backstage’ behind a bookshelf. He said, ‘No! Donna, you are not the publisher, you are the talent tonight.’ We laughed. I was simultaneously surprised and embarrassed. He told everyone about my reluctant role change for their amusement. They were amused. As was I. And I remain amused by how easy it is to forget oneself when treading a new path over familiar ground.

Donna Ward’s book, She I Dare Not Name: A Spinster’s Meditations on Life, was released by Allen & Unwin in 2020. She is the publisher at Inkerman & Blunt. Her essay, ‘Mortality’s Hour’, will appear online in Griffith Review 68: Getting On.

Holden Sheppard
The best part of having my debut novel, Invisible Boys, published was the sense of accomplishment. I’d wanted to be a published novelist from age seven — a dream realised at 31. In the intervening decades, I grew accustomed to a constant but unquenched thirst for validation. Telling people I was an unpublished writer made me feel like a permanent loser: the admission sparked atomic eye-rolls and pitying smirks. But you’re smart you could be an engineer, doctor, lawyer! Maybe get a big boy job?

I’m glad I didn’t listen. Finishing a novel gave me intrinsic satisfaction, but being traditionally published, winning awards, and selling well gave me the external validation I’d always craved. I could pretend I didn’t want other people’s praise, but that’s a fictional level of humility. Critical and commercial acclaim is a very pleasant high.

Hearing from readers is a thrill. I get many messages from people for whom Invisible Boys resonated deeply, helping them process trauma and making them feel seen. This is both altruistically and selfishly rewarding: their messages make me feel seen, too. Knowing readers connect with my work spurs me on to keep writing, sharing and showing up.

The challenging aspects of being a debut author revolve around expectations. Before publication, writers are solo acts hunched over laptops, totally autonomous. Publishing a book means working with others: editors and publicists. Even though everyone at my publishing house is a total legend, relinquishing some control wasn’t easy —  but it was vital. My book isn’t solely my baby anymore. Shared custody means letting the experts work their magic and trusting that they, like me, want the best for the book.

An unexpected downside of being a debut author is that what feels like the pinnacle of achievement is only the minimum entry requirement into The Published Authors Club. Sometimes you meet established authors and think, Ah, compadre! We are the same! and they think, Ah, who let this noob into the greenroom? While almost all authors are supportive and encouraging, it stings when some don’t take you seriously. Others will outright snub you — sometimes those you thought you would surely get along with.

Publication also doesn’t fix your life. It’s an awesome milestone, but not a panacea for personal issues. Your insecurities will persist, and can’t be remedied by achievements. For me, achieving my dreams was also disillusioning in an identity sense. I was a lifelong Aussie battler, so experiencing success was rad, but confusing. Who was I, if no longer a hard-working, struggling author? But once the dust settled, I realised I will always be that battler, because a career is made not of one book, but five, or 10, or 30.

This is the crux of being a debut author. We climbed a mountain peak to discover the summit is much further up — and we may not even reach it in our lifetime. The best thing I can do is enjoy the climb and be amazed and grateful for it all. I want to relish in how scrambling up rockfaces makes my muscles work; how joyous it is to connect with fellow climbers; how the view from each beautiful ledge on the ascent is absolutely magnificent.

Holden Sheppard is an award-winning West Australian author. His debut novel, Invisible Boys (Fremantle Press, 2019), won several accolades including the City of Fremantle Hungerford Award. His writing has been published in Griffith Review, Westerly, 10 Daily, and The Huffington Post.

This month you can win a book pack of these incredible authors’ debuts: an advance copy of Anna Downes’ The Safe Place, Donna Ward’s She I Dare Not Name, and Holden Sheppard’s Invisible Boys. Simply sign up to my monthly newsletter (sign-up box on this page) before  5 pm on Thursday 28 May to go in the draw.

Picture book illustration: Dub Leffler

6 April 2020

If you’ve ever wondered what goes into the illustration process of a picture book, this is the post for you. Illustrator Dub Leffler is a descendant of the Bigambul people of South West Queensland and one of Australia’s most sought after children’s book illustrators. He has created 23 books and I’ve been fortunate enough to edit two of them — Sorry Day by Coral Vass (2018) and Strangers on Country by Kirsty Murray and Dave Hartley (out April 2020).

In this interview he takes us behind the scenes on his creative process and gives us an insight into the publishing process, which is particularly invaluable for emerging picture book creators wanting to understand the nuts and bolts of it. I didn’t manage to get him to dish the dirt on working with the illusive Banksy (damn it) but he explains how new books have come to him through psychics and werewolves, how coffee and salt can be a medium for illustration, and what makes him want to illustrate an author’s manuscript.

Irma Gold: You are one of 13 kids, what was life like growing up? And did you spend a lot of time drawing?

Dub Leffler: Yes, it is a big family, however I didn’t grow up with my family due to being adopted at birth. Growing up in my adoptive family — who had five boys including myself — I always had time for drawing and did so quite frequently. I remember drawing a lot — before and after school, usually using spare pages in my school exercise books. I even made my own picture books using spare paper and dodgy staples.

Storyboard for Our Dreaming by Kirli Saunders

IG: What led you to illustrating children’s picture books?

DL: My mother went to a psychic and the psychic told her, ‘Your son, is going to write a book and he will travel overseas.’ A few months later, I moved back to Sydney and the following morning a lady came to the house I was renting to speak with my flatmate about working on children’s books. So it literally came to my doorstep. And the rest, as they say, is history.

IG: What does a typical day or week look like for you?

DL: A typical day for me is — drop daughter off at school, take dog for a jog and then work until 12 pm. Coffee break and then work again until about 2 pm. I often work late into the night/early morning too, because it is the quietest time. Going to bed between 1 am and 2 am is not uncommon.

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For each book, most of the time working on them comes down to research. I create a huge folder of images for inspiration for each story, as well as creating a soundtrack for each book so I have something to listen to while I work. I create my own mini deadlines for each book — finish the storyboard by this date, and so on. Being an illustrator, you work unconventional hours and often weekends.

IG: You have written and illustrated your own book, Once There Was a Boy, but you have also illustrated other authors’ stories. What is it about a manuscript that makes you want to take it on?

DL: If I connect with the story in some way, I usually illustrate it. It makes no difference to me if the author is established or being published for the first time. If the story is good and I can already see images in my head just from reading the text, then I usually say ‘yes’ to illustrating it.

Cover image of Once There was a Boy

IG: You have collaborated with internationally recognised illustrators like Shaun Tan, Colin Thompson and Banksy. Tell us more!

DL: Years ago, when I had illustrated only a handful of books, I met Colin Thompson at my wife’s cousin’s birthday party. The theme was fur and I went dressed as a werewolf. I had a very interesting conversation with Colin Thompson in the middle of a dance floor surrounded by people dressed in fur. Quite surreal. Colin ended up asking me to collaborate on a book with him. That book also contained work by Quentin Blake, Freya Blackwood, Shaun Tan and Sarah Davis. It was called The Bicycle Book and came out the same time at Once There Was a Boy, in 2011.

As for Banksy, I can’t talk about Banksy — circle of trust and all that.

IG: What mediums do you work in?

DL: I illustrate using an architect’s pencil for roughs, paint and draw with watercolours and use very, very expensive paper. Sometimes I use coffee, paint and salt on wet watercolour paper to build up texture on the paper and then draw back into it.

IG: What was the most challenging book that you’ve worked on, and why?

DL: Sorry Day was the most challenging story to illustrate due to the emotional content involved. Researching for Sorry Day was hard too — there is so much negativity out there in cyberspace in regards to Aboriginal people. I would often come across comments and replies to posts and videos filled with racism. And there was A LOT of it. This spurred me on to make Sorry Day the best damn book I could. It’s the most important book I have and possibly will ever illustrate.

Storyboards for Sorry Day by Coral Vass

IG: Out of all your books and illustrations, do you have a single favourite illustration?

DL: My favourite illustration would have to be in Sorry Day when the children are hiding in the creek among the bullrushes. You can hear the crinkle of the blades of grass and the children holding their breath. It has a quiet intensity.

IG: Sorry Day uses a dual narrative, with one narrative strand set in the past when the children are being stolen, and another in the present at Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations. The two colour schemes that you use for the two threads cleverly demarcates them. How did you come up with this?

DL: I have an old photograph of my mother. It is a faded black and white photo that has yellowed with age. I knew that this is how the ‘past’ section of Sorry Day should look. I worked closely with Amy Cullen, the graphic designer, in deciding how to use sepia tones throughout the book — at one point both full colour and sepia were proposed to be on the same page. It’s a good example of showing two different times using just illustration.

Storyboards for Strangers on Country

IG: Tell me about Strangers on Country by Dave Hartley and Kirsty Murray. How did you go about bringing this real people to life?

DL: The short answer is — research. The longer answer is — after I had done enough research and have collated enough reference images to form a coherent idea, I made sure to illustrate each image as if they were a still from a film — as if they could move at any moment. I try to imbue all of my illustrations with some type of movement — even if it’s the suggestion of someone breathing, this approach can help your images come alive in the viewers’ mind.

IG: What is the best aspect of your job?

DL: Being able to work from anywhere and choose my work hours. It’s great being your own boss. Plus, you get to travel — whether it’s to a conference or a book festival. These things help your career and it’s great connecting with people doing the same job.

IG: What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

DL: Having to work long hours. Although it’s a pretty cool job — I get to draw pictures for a living!

IG: How long does it usually take you to illustrate a book?

DL: I have been known, from time to time, of going WAY past my deadlines — a lot of authors/illustrators do it. I actually had to push back Sorry Day a whole year because of the detail needed in the work. Plus the book was published on the 10th anniversary of when Kevin said ‘Sorry’. But usually I aim to finish one to two books a year.

IG: Can you take us through your illustrative process? How do you work with the publisher and author?

DL: It’s important to not only work with the publisher when illustrating a book, but also to work with the graphic designer if you can. They help hone your illustrations into something beautiful.

The process changes from publisher to publisher. Some are more hands on, some trust your judgment and let you do your thing. Sometimes you get notes suggesting what the illustrations should be. Sometimes you’re given free reign to interpret the text. Generally I work closely with both the publisher and graphic designer if I can, and make it a rule not to consort too closely with the authors. If you do work closely with an author, they have to realise that you have a job to do and that they (the author) are not the illustrator and should not tell you your job. In my experience, I unfortunately have had this happen. I have never come across an illustrator who told a writer how to write. You’re all working on the one book and it should be collaborative.

 

My personal process starts with small sketches of anything that comes to mind in regards to the story. I write notes on the story and underline key words in the text that should be illustrated. I read and re-read the story many times to make sure I illustrate true to the text. From there I begin storyboards. I have a special book just for storyboards and draw many different panels exploring things like colour, technique and composition. Along the way, I may do one or two concept illustrations — they are basically finished illustrations. They give me a good idea of what the tone of the book should be and how the finished artwork will look.

Throughout this process, there is a lot of correspondence between the publisher, graphic designer and myself and once we decide on a final storyboard, I begin the final art. This usually (but not always) is something I do quite quickly — I usually finish the final art in less than a month — but it’s the preparation I under take beforehand that takes a lot of time. The final art is basically the afterthought of all your prep.

Once I finish a piece of final art, I send photos of it to the publisher and graphic designer to make sure I haven’t missed anything, or if anything needs changing. I always draw final art to size — I mark the dimensions on the paper and am always aware of where the text will be on the page — you don’t want anything important in the illustration to be covered up with the story. It’s the illustrators job to support and enhance the story.

Once the final artwork is complete, a courier is organised and the artwork is picked up from my studio and six months or so later — BAM! You get a new book in the mail. And then the whole process starts again.

 

The dance between character and place in fiction

11 March 2020

Place is so important in fiction writing. It is more than just setting, more than just a space that characters inhabit. The way each of us views a place is different, filtered through our subjective experiences. And the way characters interact with the space around them can reveal so much about their interior lives. So, for me at least, place is intrinsic to story.

Usually the characters and their setting arrive in my imagination in tandem. They are already entwined. But occasionally the characters arrive in search of a home. Before I travelled to South Africa, I had a trio of characters playing in my head who I knew were destined for a short story. And on a trip to Boulders Beach, near Cape Point, I found the perfect space for them — a place that offered echoes for the things my characters were wrestling with.

My brother and I took the train from Cape Town to Simon’s Town. It was the most glorious ride and the footage below gives you a glimpse of why.

 

From Simon’s Town we walked to Boulders Beach, which was swarming with tourists and penguins. I’m not a fan of tourist traps but it was worth battling through selfie sticks to see these cute little guys. African penguins look very similar to Magellanic penguins from South America, who feature in my next kids book, Where the Heart Is (June 2021), so it was extra special to see them sunning and squawking and swimming. We also smelt them, oh how we smelt them.

Continue Reading…

But back to the short story, which is called ‘Pole pole’. The way each of my characters experiences this particular place in South Africa is specific to them, with all their worries and joys and frailties. It is not my experience, or my brother’s, or anyone else’s for that matter. It belongs only to Dexter and Adelaide and Lix. The title is a Swahili saying (pronounced ‘polay polay’) which means ‘slowly slowly’. You’ll have to read the story to find out the significance of this saying, and how the characters and the setting (with its tuxedoed inhabitants) interact. It’s in issue 7 of StylusLit and you can find the full story online. I do hope you enjoy it.

And if you’re interested in reading more about how place informs writers’ work, Angela Meyer, Angela Savage and Leah Kaminsky wrote some wonderful words about their literary travels previously for this blog.