February 23, 2012

Interview with Children's Author Karen Collum

When did you first know you wanted to be an author?
 I’ve wanted to be an author from the time I was a child and as a teenager. I remember placing ‘write a book’ at the top of my list of things I wanted to do in life. It wasn’t until I was in my early 30s and home with my small children, however, that my dream transitioned into a reality. I had tinkered with novels and picture books over the years but it wasn’t until I was a stay-at-home mum that I decided to go and take some courses and learn about the craft of writing.

What was your first book published? 
 SAMUEL’S KISSES was my debut book and was released in December 2010.

 What was your road to publication like?
I submitted my first manuscript to a publisher when I was 34 weeks pregnant with my twins (my eldest son was 2 at the time) and amazingly enough, they accepted it within a matter of hours. I’d been attending workshops, devouring online ‘how-to’ sites, following industry and author blogs, and writing picture books for over twelve months by that stage, so although the ‘yes’ came rather quickly, there was a long process prior to that. Sadly, that publisher collapsed in the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and my book never was published. However, that experience gave me the confidence to keep on submitting. I sent a different picture book manuscript to four or five publishers over the next year and in May 2009, SAMUEL’S KISSES was accepted by New Frontier Publishing.  

 Tell us about your other books.
 I’ve written two other picture books – FISH DON’T NEED SNORKELS and WHEN I LOOK AT YOU: A book about feelings. Both of these are published by a small, Christian publisher in the UK and are designed for the Christian market. FISH DON’T NEED SNORKELS celebrates the uniqueness of animals and reinforces to young children that God made animals just right and he made them just right too. WHEN I LOOK AT YOU, is a therapeutic picture book designed to help parents and children explore feelings together. It focuses on what particular emotions look like from the outside in terms of posture, body language and facial expression and is aimed at assisting children develop a vocabulary to name and understand their feelings.
What attracted you to writing picture books?

 I’ve always loved picture books. There is something so inherently powerful in the combination of illustrations and text; the end product is greater than the sum of individual parts. A beautifully crafted picture book is a case of 1+1=3 for me. That is, the text is magnificent by itself; the illustrations tell their own unique story, but when you combine them together you get something that is even more wonderful.
I was a primary school teacher for 7 years prior to having my children and I always used picture books in my classroom, even in upper primary. I love the honesty and authenticity of a good PB, along with the way it captures the essence of childhood. When it comes to picture books, it’s a case of what’s not to love, for me.

You created #pblitchat (an online resource for picture book authors) with author and friend Kathryn Apel. Can you tell us a little about it? 
#pblitchat came out of our participation in existing Twitter chats such as #yalitchat and #kidlitchat and realising that there was nothing specific to picture books. Kat and I decided that we had the passion and at least some of the experience we needed to run the chats. We meet fortnightly on the 2nd and 4th Wednesday of the month at 8pm QLD time and have a specific topic we discuss for the hour. It’s been such a great learning experience for me and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being part of a community of authors and illustrators and appreciators of picture books.

Do you plan your picture books and if so, how?
In the early days of my writing, I didn’t plan at all. I followed the muse and essence of the story and saw where it led. As my writing has evolved and I’ve learned more, I’ve realised that the shape and pacing of picture books is absolutely crucial. I’m gradually learning control over the craft of writing, and for me to do this most effectively requires quite extensive planning. I did a picture book seminar with Writers Digest and US literary agent, Mary Kole, last year and it totally transformed the way I write. Since then, I create a dummy picture book before I sit down to write and can see where the crucial moments in the story are going to happen. It helps me get the right shape to my story.
I’m also going back over some of my previous PBs and using the same process to identify why they’re not working. For example, I had a PB that I really loved but it just didn’t seem quite right. When I looked at the shape of the story I discovered I actually didn’t have a beginning that anchored the reader in the character and the problem. In another story I discovered I had a beginning and an end, but the tension in the middle was almost non-existent.
I’m quite logical and scientific by nature so planning is something that appeals to me in most aspects of life and it’s no different in my writing. I know many successful authors who don’t plan – they instinctively know how the story should go – but for me it definitely helps and is something I have embraced.

 Where do you see the future of picture books?
 I know there’s a lot of speculation about whether picture books will exist in 20 years’ time because of the surge of e-books and apps, but I must say I’m quite optimistic about the future of picture books. Yes, there is a place of e-books and apps and other fancy ways of reading, but ultimately, in my mind, there is nothing that will replace the experience of cuddling up with my kids and reading a physical book with them.
 What would your dream writing area look like?
Not like my real one! I’d love to have a small space that was quiet, had a beautiful view and was decorated with quotes and pictures that I find inspiring. I quite like the idea of a yurt.

When and where do you write?
I have a desk set up in the corner of our second lounge room (which also operates as a toy room). It’s central, I can keep an eye on the kids as I’m writing and I can pop onto the computer while dinner is cooking. I try and get up early in the morning to write before the kids get up, but the demands of parenting four kids under seven mean that doesn’t always happen. I used to work late at night – and the temptation is still there – but if my brain gets too creative then I can’t sleep and I struggle to get up with the kids the next morning. Early bedtimes are now a must in my house (for me as well as the kids!) and I’m hoping that soon I’ll get back into the rhythm of getting up early to write most days.

Recently you did an online school visit via Skype. What was this experience like?
 It was fantastic! I visited my nephew’s school in Birmingham, Alabama in the US and got to speak with about 230 students. I was amazed at how dynamic Skype was and how I could still get a feel of whether the students were with me or not. It wouldn’t be ideal for running a workshop-style visit, but for an out-and-out author visit where the kids ask questions and I talk about my writing process, it was fantastic...except for having to be up and in my dressy, author clothes at 2am!

What do you think is the hardest part about writing a picture book?
 The pacing! I have no trouble coming up with a good character and a cute/interesting/funny plot, but combining those two elements into a picture book that has shape and tension is another thing altogether. There are so few words in picture books that the control you need over your writing is actually quite intense. I’ve just finished a picture book that I first wrote in September 2009. It’s been through thirteen complete rewrites to get it to where it is now and I finally think it might be right. I hope!
What's new?
In December last year I had something wonderful happen – I signed with a literary agent! I’m now represented by Anjanette Morton of Rick Raftos Management. I firmly believe that having a good agent on my side will improve my writing and my sales so I’m very excited that Anj wanted to take me on. We haven’t got any book news that I can reveal as yet, but stay tuned :)
What advice would you give aspiring picture book writers?
Read a lot, write a lot and invest time, energy and money into learning about the craft. When I decided to take writing seriously five years ago I committed the next few years to doing my ‘apprenticeship’. In hindsight, that was a great approach to take as I quickly discovered you need to have a teachable heart in this business; there are many disappointments and rejections along the way. And now, this far into my writing journey, I’m more committed to learning than ever and try not to be in too much of a hurry. This is a lifelong journey that is a marathon, not a sprint. The funny thing is that the more I learn, the more I realise how much I still DON’T know!


Julie Hedlund said...

Hi Karen! So wonderful to learn more about your writing and your process. Congratulations on Samuel's Kisses! Can we get it here in the States?

Karen Collum said...

Hi Julie! Unfortunately SAMUEL'S KISSES isn't available in stores in the US (yet!) but I am coming the States this year and will pack a few extra copies in my suitcase if you're interested. You can email me karen[at]karencollum[dot]com[dot]au if you're interested :)

DimbutNice said...

A favourite author. A beautiful person. Gorgeous picture books. A delight to read this post Karen and Renee!

Dee White said...

Thanks for a great interview, Karen and Renee,

Karen, your energy and enthusiasm for picture books is inspiring.

Charmaine Clancy said...

Such an awesome interview, Karen is always so positive and helpful to writers online. Can't wait to see what new picture books she comes up with

Unknown said...

Thank you Julie, Dimity, Dee, Charmaine, and of course Karen for presenting such an interesting and detailed interview. I will be referring back to this inetrview many times for writing ideas.

Thanks again, Karen. Your enthusiasm is infectious!

Mike McQueen said...

Thanks for sharing this interview with author Karen Collum.

Mike @ French Books - start teaching French to your kids today!
~Book Illustrator