There’s a story going around about the aspiring writer who went to the Writing NSW Kids and YA festival for the first time, pitched his manuscript in a first-line competition, wowed the judges, won the whole thing, and got a book deal from it.
Yes, that was me.
But it didn’t actually happen.
Well, not like that anyway.
It was 2007. I had begun work on a manuscript loosely about my life, a cheeky Thai-Australian kid resenting his parents who ran a Thai restaurant. I quit my full-time teaching job to pursue a career in writing for kids. The first thing I did was join Writing NSW, which gave me access to their writing groups.
I picked the Tuesday night writing group and, every fortnight, I ventured out to Writing NSW to hang out with my tribe. We were a small group of writers keen to get published.
Writing is usually a solitary thing, but it doesn’t have to be. Joining a writing group keeps you honest with your work. It keeps you humble. When I read the opening paragraphs of my book, Thai-riffic!, to the group for the first time, I was met with indifference. My main character didn’t sound like he was twelve years old. Some of the jokes fell flat. I drove away feeling disheartened, though determined to rewrite and try again.
A writers’ group helps you develop your resilience. When you share your story with the world, you will get feedback, both good and bad. Deep down, I knew my writers’ group were on my side, so I respected their criticism. Once I’d had time to get over my disappointment, it helped me improve my manuscript.
Attending that Kids and YA festival in 2007 was a little less daunting because I knew I would at least see a few familiar faces from my writing group. This was my first taste of mixing with the wider writing community. Our shared interest made it easier to spark a conversation with strangers. I met writers who had just started writing and others who had been writing for years. We all had a common goal, to get published. It was like being at a footy game, surrounded by fans except, instead of a team, we were cheering for each other.
I sat in the front row, scooping up pearls of wisdom from established authors, editors, publishers and agents. By the time it came to the pitching competition at the end of the day, some of the judging panel recognised me. Yes, I was easy to spot because nobody else had spiky hair and looked like they were fresh out of high school. I also knew my comic, contemporary Asian-Australian story for kids made me different from the other writers in the room.
One of the judges picked entrants for the pitching competition out of a hat. Without a microphone, you had to project your voice and it was hard for some of the entrants. Luckily, I was a stand-up comedian, so delivery wasn’t going to be an issue, but I was nervous about my line. This was the first time I would be reading my work outside of the bubble of my writing group. What if nobody laughed?
The judge picked my name and I stood up to read my opening lines.
I hate it on trains when Asians speak in their own language. It makes me paranoid that they’re talking about me. Especially when it’s my own family.
The room erupted with laughter.
One of the judges, an editor for a boutique publishing company, asked me to send her the rest of the manuscript as soon as possible. The other two judges, including children’s author James Roy, were encouraging too. I won the competition and a bottle of wine.
But there was no book deal from the competition because, well, I hadn’t finished the book yet.
It took me over a year before I finally got Thai-riffic! up to scratch and by then the editor had moved on from the publisher and gone freelance. A missed opportunity, but at least I knew my work was on the right track.
Again, it was the community of writers that helped me keep going. When one of my writing group friends invited me to attend the first meeting of a Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) sub-branch, I thought it would be fun to check it out. Plus I’d get to meet more like-minded writers.
I had always walked past the CBCA state office whenever I was in the Writing NSW building, but I didn’t know what they were really all about. It turned out the new sub-branch included a mix of teacher-librarians and authors. I felt a little out of place, mainly because it was the Northern Beaches sub-branch and I lived in Western Sydney, but they made me feel welcome. I’m still a member of that sub-branch, and have made lifelong friends such as Kate Forsyth, Belinda Murrell and Jacqueline Harvey. From the very beginning, they all treated me as though I was already published. It still blows me away how supportive the community of children’s authors is. Maybe it’s because we hang around kids all day, but we generally don’t take ourselves too seriously.
A group of friends who write are the seatbelts you need on your rollercoaster ride as a writer. They will understand the utter disappointment of rejections, the stress of deadlines, and the anxiety of writer’s block. They will also be the first to celebrate the little wins and milestones too.
I returned to the Kids and YA festival in 2008, where I booked a one-on-one consultation with a manuscript assessor. While I respected my writing group’s feedback, I needed someone to view my manuscript through a publisher’s lens. The manuscript assessor, Brian Cook, was interested in Thai-riffic! and offered to take it to an agent. It turned out that was himself because he also runs an agency. It was the shot in the arm I needed to get the book into shape. That took another year.
Thai-riffic! finally hit the shelves in 2010, and my writing group was there at my book launch, cheering me on.
You might think, once you get published, you don’t need to hang around other writers any more but I need them more than ever. I’m into my second decade as a children’s author now, and it can be a lonely job sometimes. There are weeks and months when I feel like a travelling salesperson, going from school to school, hand-selling my book. I can spend a whole week travelling interstate and, once the school bell rings, I have the rest of the day to myself.
Yes, I can spend my time writing and I do, whether it’s inside my motel room, at airports, on planes and trains (I can’t write inside automobiles, I get car sick). I am comfortable being on my own, but I cherish the time I spend with other children’s authors. It’s fun when we catch up at a writers’ festival, school author day, or at a CBCA or SCBWI event. Other writers are the closest thing I have to work colleagues.
During the pandemic, when it was harder to catch up face to face, we strengthened our ties through social media, supporting each other’s new books on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Some of us did the whole Zoom wine catch up thing, though it was sometimes more whine than wine. But even that was useful because we were all mourning the loss of our livelihoods during lockdown together. It brought us closer.
I went back to the Kids and YA festival this year, speaking on a panel this time, and it was like going on a school camp. I reunited with so many author friends in person, some of whom I hadn’t seen before the pandemic. It was a double celebration because I also got to mingle with the crowd of aspiring writers, people in the same position I was in when I first came to the festival. I like helping emerging and new authors, paying the support forward.
As soon as you write your first word, you become a part of the community of writers. It’s up to you how much you want to connect. You may be an introvert or too caught up with other things to attend events, and not all writers can be social media butterflies. But I would encourage you to dip your toes. Some of the best parts of my writing journey have been the connections made with fellow writers.
Sometimes, you just have to put yourself out there. I may not have got a book deal from winning the pitching competition at the Kids and YA Festival back in 2007. But I did find my voice on that day, and I was heard.
Oliver Phommavanh loves to make people laugh, whether it’s on the page writing humour for kids or on stage as a stand-up comedian. He also shares his passion for writing with kids, using his experience as a primary school teacher. Oliver has performed at various comedy and writers festivals around Australia and Asia.