Mem Fox is a retired Associate Professor of Literacy Studies and also Australia's most highly regarded picture book author. Her first publication, Possum Magic is the best-selling children's book in Australia. This year marks its thirty-second in print, still available in hardback. She has written many other internationally best-selling books including Time for Bed, Where Is The Green Sheep?, and Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes. She has also written several nonfiction books for adults, including her renowned book for parents: Reading Magic. She lives in Adelaide, Australia, but travels constantly as an advocate for literacy.
Over the many years I've been attending SCBWI conferences, time and time again I've heard editor extraordinaire Allyn Johnston say, "If you want to write picture books study the work of Mem Fox."
This summer we get to hear directly from her. What a treat!
Not only that, but she took time to answer a few questions before the conference for all of us.
How has your writing process changed (if at all) since you began your writing career?
My writing process hasn’t changed at all over the years, which is to say I probably write for a total of about four weeks a year. Most of my writing occurs in my head, in my subconscious, most of the time. In other words I work constantly, but not on paper or on the computer. I still handwrite a lot. My brain works more contemplatively with a pencil in my hand: it slows the speed of thought, which is hugely beneficial for my creativity.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
The best piece of 'wakey-wakey!' advice came from my first publisher, before my first book came out: ‘Writing is a business not a hobby.’ I’m grateful to have been given that advice. It has concentrated my mind on writing the best books possible. Wasting two years on writing a 400 word picture book that doesn’t sell is irritating and chastening, and bad for the bank balance.
A small number of lucky conference attendees are registered for your intensive class. You, along with editor extraordinaire Allyn Johnston, will be discussing the importance of rhythm in picture books. For the majority of us who will not spend those three hours fully immersed with the two of you, can you give us a thought, suggestion, or tip as it relates to rhythm in our stories?
Glorious art and high-end writing are essential in any picture book, and by 'high-end' writing I mean prose in which every syllable counts. Word choice is crucial, such as the choice between beneath and under. Both have two syllables and mean the same thing, but one has a slow beats and the other has fast beats, and if you can’t tell the difference you’ll spoil the sentence you’re trying to get right. Musically, it’s about composing with crotchets, quavers and minims; but if that’s unfamiliar territory, we’re talking about the sort of speed and weight of words. It’s so hard to explain. Sometimes I wonder if having a sense of rhythm in writing is a case of 'you either have it or you don’t'. I’m not sure whether this essential, deep-seated sense of rhythm can be taught. It has to be caught by hearing rhythmically perfect prose and poetry, and speaking it aloud. I’m thinking of anything from the King James version of the Bible to Dr Seuss, to folk songs and children’s clapping rhymes. Rhythm has to be in the marrow of our bones and we’ll only know if it’s in our writing by reading aloud every phrase and sentence, then every sentence and paragraph, as we write. I am a re-writer of phrases to the point of madness and despondency. I draft as I go, not at the end of the first draft. Often the beginning of a book has more drafts than the rest of it put together, for the sake of the right rhythm. I re-wrote the first paragraph of Possum Magic 23 times before I was happy with it. (That worked!)
You mention on your website that you write three to four books at a time and that it has taken you up to two years to revise a picture book (I’m certain that resulted in many, many drafts). Do you find there’s an often-overlooked aspect when writers revise? And, how do you know when the book is hitting all the right notes and you’re ready to hit send?
These are hard questions. I’ve been rabbiting on about the importance of rhythm, but perfect rhythm counts for nothing if the characters, setting and plot don’t speak to the child. Too many of us write children’s picture books to please our adult friends. We forget that our main aim and focus should be capturing the child’s mind and heart. So when we’re revising, the question too rarely asked, and probably most often overlooked, is this: 'Would a child give a damn about this book?’
As for knowing when the book is ready! Hmmm. It’s different with every book, but in general (and I hope this isn’t going to sound crazy) the hairs on your arms have to stand up.
Watch for Mem's forthcoming book NELLIE BELLE, coming later this year.
Follow Mem on Twitter: @MemFox1
And, if you want to find great advice from Mem, check out her wonderful website.
Today is the last day (June 23) to register for the conference at early bird prices. Don't miss your chance to see Mem Fox.