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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Analytical Leap to Children's Writing: Author Interview with Gary Nelson

You have a highly analytical background that deals with business management. How did you make the jump from the business field to the more creative side of writing fiction?
Well, I have enjoyed writing ever since I was a teenager. Up through University and my early career, I did a lot of creative writing -- mainly poetry and a few short stories. In my work career, the writing has perhaps not been as “creative."

When developing and delivering training courses, I looked for ways to make the material more relevant and accessible to the participants. This included telling anecdotes (stories) during training sessions which supported the delivery. Response from the participants was very good; it seems no matter how old or young you are, everyone likes a good story, whether it is fiction or an experience-based anecdote.

The jump from business to fiction was not as big a leap as I thought it might be - particularly as The Ultimate Tree House Project is a series of core lessons woven into a fun, full-length children’s story. So I guess you might call it “instructional fiction”.

What inspired you to do this instructional fiction for kids?
The inspiration for this book comes from several sources. My wife had been bugging me for years to write a children’s book because I have been making up silly songs and bedtime stories for my children for a while now.

The other inspiration, or challenge really, came from a conversation at a project management conference last year. I was telling them about my first book, Gazza’s Guide to Practical Project Management, which uses anecdotes and stories to teach specific topic lessons. They were intrigued by the idea and then suggested that my second book should be a children’s book - teaching basic project management concepts for children aged 8-11, as there was really nothing much in this space and they were looking for something to support schools at this level.

It was an interesting idea - and quite a daunting challenge, really - as I had decided to first and foremost make it a fun, readable story, but still convey important concepts.

Prior to writing your children’s book did you do any other fiction writing?
I did a lot of writing in my early years - and then took a long break from poetry or fiction. I always wanted to write a book - but the problem was that I was not sure what would be interesting enough to write a book about. I started writing some sci-fi stories back in university but I didn’t have the confidence or skill at the time to carry it through. Looking back, they were pretty horrible, actually.

How long did it take you to write the first book?
In April 2012 I started writing my first book (Gazza’s Guide to Practical Project Management) - but it was primarily based on my personal experience, so it was not fiction at all. That one was published in September 2012 and the actual writing and editing took about 4 months.

I started the children’s book (The Ultimate Tree House Project) in November 2012 and wrote like crazy for two weeks or so with lots of changes and edits based on daily feedback from my 9 and 10 year old boys …and then I changed jobs, things got really busy and I did not pick it up again until February this year.
I finished writing the rest of the book in the last half of February because I suddenly found that I had a hard deadline to get it finished.

I had pitched the book concept to a group of Project Managers as part of a Pecha-Kucha presentation session in early February and they loved it! I was asked if I could be ready to launch the book at the inaugural PMI Australia conference in Sydney at the beginning of May. After checking the schedule with my illustrator, I started writing the rest of the book on the flight back up from the board meeting - and wrote The Accident chapter at 30,000 feet.

The full draft was finished by the end of February and the editing/proofreading and the artwork were all finished before the end of March. So actual writing time - about a month or so. It was an intense effort - but it all came together and the book arrived in time for the launch, which was very successful. Whew!

How many rewrites did you do on it?
I did extensive rewriting of the first 4-5 chapters during the first few weeks. The last time I had attempted writing story dialogue was in 1988, and as I said before, it was a horrible result. I was not really sure I could do it. I also wanted to make sure that the story was set at the correct level of language and flowed well for my target audience (children aged 8-11).

My 9 and 10 year old sons, Daniel and Liam, were the perfect review team. They were really tough on me, which they not-so-secretly enjoyed, but the result was very good. The very first night I read to them I had a draft of the first 2 ½ chapters. They kept interrupting me with helpful criticisms like “You can’t start the adventure in the first chapter, Dad - you have to introduce the characters more first!” So I listened closely and followed their advice. I rewrote the first 4-5 chapters several times until my kids felt I got it “right”.

Who helped you with the editing?
Editing happened in several stages. After I had the basics down with my children and had the first 8-9 “good” chapter drafts written, I asked their teachers at school to review what I had written so far, to give feedback on structure, language reading levels, general concepts, and suitability for classroom vs. independent reading. They gave me some very constructive feedback that I used to go back and edit what I had written before I wrote further chapters.

After that - I asked family and a work colleague to proof-read it and mark it up. What they found for edits were generally minor - nothing that required any extensive rewriting. They did catch some typos and grammar of course, and also some inconsistencies between earlier and later chapters that I had missed.

Have other books been started and stopped along the way?

Since I started the first book, I have progressed with one book at a time. I have a few ideas for other books that I have been bouncing around in my head but I have not actually started writing them yet, other than the next children’s book in the series.

How did you go about trying to find a publisher?
With my first book, I decided to self-publish because a colleague had recently done it. So I self-published Gazza’s Guide to see how the process worked, and I was not as concerned about trying to sell thousands (or millions!) of books. I wrote the book to help people, so if I was successful in that for even a few people, I would consider the experiment a success. I was really focused on the quality of the content and the writing - and frankly, I wanted to see if I could do it and do a good job of it.

With the children’s book, I thought long and hard about the traditional publishing route, but as this book is also in a bit of a unique niche, I was not sure that many traditional publishers would see where it fit. From the conversation I had in October there was definitely a need for this type of book - and there was literally nothing out there in this particular segment - “project management concepts for primary/middle school kids” - so I started out with knowing there was a potential market that was largely untapped. I made the decision to self-publish again, to get the book out there and start promoting it. So far, everyone who has read it loves the book and the concept - and kids love the story too.

How do you write?
In terms of the actual writing, I tend to internally verbalize the words as I write - I find this to be the same both for work and personal writing. I think this helps with the flow and grammar - if something does not seem quite right when I am typing it, I will repeat the sentence or paragraph aloud and rework it in my head until it flows. I write mostly at night, when the kids are in bed and it is quiet - but when inspired I can write at any time of day depending what else is going on.

When I was finishing up The Ultimate Tree House Project draft, I had my iPad with me all the time and I was adding in sections in the morning before work, at lunch and on my breaks - and then again in the evening. By the time February came round, the rest of the story had been sitting in my head for several months waiting to be typed out, and I could literally not type it out fast enough.

Did you do an outline first?
Absolutely. I find that this works extremely well for any type of writing - work or personal. When you have the basic outline flushed out - headings, some details, filling in the rest of the detail comes relatively easily.

Did you do individual character development before doing the full plot?

I had the outline for the book in place, an idea of what characters I needed (four boys, four girls), but I started character development on the fly in consultation with my 9 and 10 year olds as I wrote the first drafts. I wanted to make sure the kids were believable and likeable (and a few appropriately annoying), so their input was invaluable. They tossed out a bunch of potential character names, too.

The characters developed as the story grew. Interestingly, about two-thirds of the way through the book, I found that the characters imposed limits on the writing - “Amanda would not say that” type of thing - I found that their “voices” directed me to write some sections quite differently than I had originally planned.

Since you already have experience in speaking to business groups, are you now doing talks to children’s groups to promote your book?
I have not started speaking to many children’s groups yet, but that is in the works. As I wrote the book, I did readings for my Cub group, who are in this age range as a “test market”.

My schedule has been quite hectic since the book was published - but I am looking forward to having some more time to speak with other groups. I have also been asked if I could do some workshops around the book concept and structure it for teachers, so I will be looking at developing something for that too.

What type of promotion has worked best for you so far in generating sales?
I setup the website early, did some social media promotion and advance giveaways, but so far the most effective method has been the personal touch. Everyone I have spoken to loves the concept, and many have read the book and rave about it - and they are actively promoting it in their circles. Visibility is key, I suppose - and word-of-mouth is a powerful way to make it happen.

To date, hundreds have heard about the book in Australia, New Zealand, USA, UK and now in Europe - so that is a good way to get the word out. I will augment this approach with social media, testing as I go to see what channels and methods will be most effective for this type of book. Goodreads is a good place to start, of course - that is how you found the book.

What do you know now about writing/publishing now that you wished you had known sooner?
Well, I guess I wish I had known I could actually write good dialogue a lot sooner than now. I may have actually started writing more seriously a number of years ago if I had that confidence. To be fair, I think the timing actually worked out just right - I finally had the topic to write about, the writing skills, experience and the ability to give it a go with self-publishing. Could I have published earlier? Maybe, maybe not.

What is the best advice you’ve been given about writing you would like to pass along?
1. Read, read, read. If you want to write well - read a lot of different authors in a variety of genres. I read mostly sci-fi and fantasy through my childhood and early adult years - but I have expanded into other genre since then, and I think that has helped me a lot with rounding out my writing.

2. Don’t let people tell you what to write or how to write it. Let them review it, edit it and make corrections after you have written it - but it is your story. Write it the way you feel you need to. Of course, you might write some horrible stuff along the way and never get it published - but your writing is part of you. If you let someone else tell you what to write - it is not really yours anymore. Do, however, be open and listen to your editors when they suggest constructive changes.

3. Write about things you are passionate about. I love to teach people and share lessons through stories; and this has been reflected in my books, as well as my blog and podcast.

4. Have fun. Both books have been very fun for me to write; I probably would have stopped writing them if I was not having fun doing it.

5. If you plan to self-publish, write a good, well-written piece of work, and have it edited and thoroughly proofread. There is a lot of junk out there - make sure yours is not one of them.

You have another book for children in the works. Could you tell me a little bit about that?
The second book of the Project Kids Adventures series is titled “The Scariest Haunted House Project - Ever!” This book continues with the same eight central characters from The Ultimate Tree House Project, and will add a few more in the mix along with some other challenges.

Here's a summary... The Project Kids are back at school after a long summer of enjoying their Ultimate Tree House. Amanda, Becky and Susan are now in A.J Wilkins Middle School, which is just next door to their old Primary school. This year, the principals of both schools have decided to hold a joint Halloween contest – to see which groups of children from both schools can make the best Halloween display. The eight Project Kids – Becky, Alice, Amanda, Susan, Ben, James, Tim & Tom embark on their bravest adventure yet – to come up with the Scariest Haunted House – ever. The kids get started on the project and learn that it is not just Haunted Houses that can be scary!

The Haunted House book will be out later in 2013.

Do you think you will now be devoting more time to writing for children? Or is this just a break in writing style for you?
I have some other ideas for adult-level books that may fit in the mix somewhere, but the children’s series will likely be the focus for a while. My in-house experts are aging every day, and I need to keep up!

Someday, maybe, I may finally write a sci-fi novel. I may even dust off that horrible draft - it had a few interesting ideas in it that I might just be able to salvage. Maybe.

If you would like to buy his books, instead of reading about them, here are some links that you direct you along the way.

Amazon      Kobo     Gary'sWebsite       Blog     Project Kids     

1 comment:

  1. As a retired former fifth-grade teacher, THIS BOOK SOUNDS EXCITING. Years ago when I was teaching I could have used something like this. I plan to recommend this to our current teachers at that level. This is great Gary!