Today, I’m talking with author Chrissie Michaels. Chrissie’s new historical fiction novel for young adults, In Lonnie’s Shadow, is published by Ford Street Publishing.
Chrissie, can you tell me how you first came to be published?
I started writing short stories as a hobby. I took a manuscript along to a workshop run by Bruce Pascoe who at the time was publishing a literary journal, called Australian Short Stories. Someone at the school I worked at knew him and organised his visit as part of a community arts project. This was in 1988, I remember, because my daughter was only a few weeks old and it was the first time I had actually ventured out after the birth. She came along too!
After this a few of us got together and started a local writers’ group. Being with other writers can spur you on. From there I began entering competitions. Often when you are a prize-winner your work is published in an anthology. Luckily, I managed to win a few prizes, so saw some work go into print. Our writers’ group then started publishing some anthologies of their own and doing readings.
A few years later I decided to do a professional writing course. It was there I started to write a novel. I recall telling one of my tutors that I was a short story writer, not a novelist. I just didn’t feel that I had a novel in me. She said, ‘Nonsense.’ I started kicking and screaming (figuratively, not literally) but she persevered. Within the year I had finished my first children’s novel and it was accepted for publication by Scholastic. I ended up teaching short story and a few other subjects at TAFE, so eventually my hobby became my work.
In the end the story you send in has to stand alone.
You’ve entered competitions and had lots of short pieces published. Was this part of a deliberate strategy to develop your career as a writer?
It was all ad hoc in a way. I was lucky that in my early stages when I sent off work it seemed to be published. So I thought it was easy. Well, I have learnt a thing or too since then! I still think I write for the pleasure and the challenge, although I’ve never been shy about sending off manuscripts. And I still enter competitions, especially the local ones as they are so supportive of the community and it’s always an affirmation when someone likes a story or poem enough to award a prize or commendation. I am in the process now of judging the Kathryn Purnell Poetry Prize for the Society of Women Writers (Vic); this has been a very enjoyable task.
I like to sponsor eager students as well. Last year one of my Year 10 students who really was struggling with his writing skills, did five drafts of a story. This was a mammoth effort on his part and when he took out the first prize for his age group I can’t tell you how delighted I was for him. Seeing him so happy and proud at the presentation ceremony was a fantastic feeling.
You’ve written for three quite different audiences: children, teachers and adults. Do you go through phases where you’re just writing for one audience?
I guess the fact I teach as well as write for children means I am a pretty child-centric sort of person. It’s true I always have a few projects going on together. At the moment I have a couple of adult novels in various draft stages that I visit every now and then. I have written some adult poetry recently. There are a few picture book texts and a chapter book for younger readers that are currently with publishers. I also am in negotiations with an educational publisher for a workbook, which is at the trial chapter stage.
When I have a deadline to meet then I am usually ruthless about how I utilise the time. Everything else stops until it is completed. When I was revising Lonnie for Paul Collins at Ford Street, I would do long stints at a time. It is a matter of going into the necessary sphere for writing or editing, depending on the task at hand.
I always have ideas swirling around in my head. It’s just finding the time to write them down…
Is there a particular audience you prefer writing for?
Depends on my mood and the idea which comes to mind, although I do seem to write more for children. When I started In Lonnie’s Shadow I wasn’t sure whether I would write it for the adult general market or for young adults. The characters ended up defining the pathway, most particularly Lonnie and Pearl. Even so the novel does seem to fit into the crossover market.
Did your background as a teacher help when you approached education publishers for writing work?
For the teacher texts, yes, definitely. Some educational publishers are happy to put you on their file if you send in a sample of your writing and your style fits their purpose. It’s definitely worth checking out their websites and submission guidelines.
What are the differences between writing for the education market and trade?
Education markets are fairly prescriptive. They usually have a project in mind and you will be required to write to a tight set of guidelines. This may be for a series of readers that are targeted to a certain age group and are language specific. Textbooks very much require a teaching perspective as well as a direct knowledge of the related curriculum.
The trade market is a hard nut to crack. The avenues for unsolicited material are becoming fewer and fewer, the slush piles seem higher and higher. I believe in being persistent. I keep checking publishing websites to see if and when they are open for submissions. It is important to present as professional a manuscript as you can to them. I’ve found most publishers respond genuinely to your submission. But it can take a long time before you receive a response.
Did having a publication record help you when you approached Ford Street Publishing about your novel?
I must say first of all that everyone at Ford Street Publishing has been fantastically supportive. I sent Lonnie in cold. At first, they returned the manuscript but gave me a detailed response. What they said made great sense and I could tell that they had clearly spent time reading the story. When they suggested I revise certain parts and they may give it a second look I quickly set to work. This is what I meant when I said earlier about the genuineness of some publishers. I wasn’t sure if they would consider it a second time, but they did and what’s more they accepted it.
I guess it helped in the initial stage that I could send in an author CV with some writing credits. But in the end the story you send in has to stand alone.
Tomorrow, Chrissie explains how she does historical research and how she plans to promote In Lonnie’s Shadow to schools.