I write because I love writing. I’ve always loved writing, even as a child. I think it’s because I always enjoyed reading fantasy and felt drawn into the story. There was a little bookshop near where I lived as a child. I discovered lay-by there. The Enid Blyton books were always prominently displayed in the window and I’d lay-by a book and pay it off sixpence at a time (the total cost of a book in those days was 4/6 (4 shillings and sixpence). I lay-byed my way through The Famous Five, The Secret Seven, The Wishing Chair, The Faraway Tree and many more. I think it was these books that kick started my imagination.
To complete a story, go through the editing stage, the publication stage, the marketing stage and finally hold your book in your hands is an incredible feeling.
I was an Early Childhood teacher and picture books played a big role in the teaching of reading and writing in the early years. I must have read thousands of picture books to children over the years. The power of a picture book can’t be underestimated. I believe picture books, being the first books young children encounter, have a huge impact on whether or not a child becomes a life-long reader (and hopefully writer).
How did you come to writing?
I lived in a home where reading and writing were highly valued. My father contracted polio as a child and while he was recovering he couldn’t play outside with the other children. So he spent a lot of time with his mother painting, drawing, playing music and writing. My grandmother loved poetry and passed this love on to him.
I discovered a love for story writing at a very early age but it wasn’t until I had finished work and raised four children that I began to pursue writing in earnest.
What were your greatest obstacles starting out? How did you overcome them?
I suppose initially, while I was still working, studying part time and raising my family that time (or lack of) was a factor. And I didn’t really know how to go about actually writing a book. I could write but transforming it into a published book was something I know nothing about. So I decided, once I had the time and a little spare money, to do a 12 week course in Professional Children’s Writing. I loved it. I loved the challenges of having to write something new every week and I looked forward to the feedback like a child looks forward to an ice-cream on a hot day. I also discovered that there was a lot I didn’t know about writing. This only fuelled my desire to know more so I became a writing course junkie. I did several courses with QWC and learned something new every time. I also met other writers, many in the same situation I was, that is, just starting out. Many of these people are friends now and I meet regularly with them. We read each other’s work and give open and honest feedback. Yes, one of the courses I did was an editing course. Everyone starting out on their writing journey should do an editing course!
And I just kept writing and my confidence and self-belief grew. That doesn’t mean that I don’t second guess my work! I do. That’s what networking is for too. Having writing colleagues and friends who believe in you!
How do you keep yourself motivated and disciplined?
Now that I have had several picture books published, the desire to keep going and see another story published is motivation in itself. I am comfortable with the whole process now, having set up my independent publishing business (Butternut Books). I have a wonderful group of people of I work with now: Anthony Puttee of Book Cover Cafe, all the wonderfully talented illustrators I work with, my editor Penny Springthorpe and Jenny James who helps with the design of notes, activities and worksheets that accompany all my books. Unless you have loads of time to spare and specialist knowledge in technology, publishing and all business related aspects of publishing a book then it is best to leave some things to the experts. These are the people too who help you stay motivated and on track.
I took over a room at home and turned it into my own space. I quite like an uncluttered environment when I work. It helps me think straight. I think that came from my years as a teacher and Deputy Principal. I like to be able to lay my hands on things when I want them. I hope that doesn’t make me obsessive!
Deadlines help keep me disciplined. I actually like working to a deadline; the sense of urgency seems to help me focus. I’m also learning to write things down and that helps too.
I don’t write at a particular time each day, but I do write or work on publishing matters every day. I don’t really like the rigidity of having to do something at a particular time every day. But everyone is different and I think we all just need to organise out time to suit our own particular circumstances and personality.
How do you manage your writing time with everything else you do? How has that changed from when you were starting out?
Oh, I’m more organised now. I have a calendar and everything goes on it. I couldn’t manage without it. When I started out my writing didn’t take such a big slice of my life but now it practically IS my life!
Writing isn’t just about writing now, it’s school visits, running courses, even doing radio interviews, book launches, touring, liaising with organisations on some books… the list goes on. So it’s really important to know what you’re doing in advance as there’s usually preparation to be done. And things can go wrong! One time I almost had a book launch without any books. That was dreadful. We had ordered the books well in advance but we found an error at the last moment and the books had to be reprinted. We still thought we’d get the books on time but then there was a transport strike. Some things you just can’t control.
Where do you write? How do you arrange your working space?
I mainly write in my office. It is a lovely space. It has big windows that look out over the hills and provide plenty of light. I have a rather large desk that always seems to get messy so there are usually piles of papers stacked each end.
There is a large book case with books (of course) and folders for each of the stories I’ve ever written. They’re arranged in published and not-yet-published sections. In these folders I keep all the different drafts I’ve ever written as social proof. I find this works for me.
I do all my writing on the computer, except for the notes I write when I get a random flash of inspiration when I’m not at my desk.
What are your essential writing tools?
Of course I have a notebook that sits next to the computer. At the beginning of a writing session I write down what I plan to do for the day. That gives me a goal and sense of accomplishment when I actually do everything I set for myself to do.
I also have printers. Three actually, but two are usually out of ink or being cantankerous.
What’s the one thing you wish you’d known when you were starting out as a writer?
If the writing journey sweeps you up, be prepared for writing to redefine you!
What do you read and how do you read as a writer?
I like reading mystery and crime. I’m an avid reader and have a book on the go all the time. I love reading books by Australian authors and try to attend book launches when I can. I have a shelf on my bookcase set aside for Aussie authors. My collection of signed books is growing.
How do you overcome ‘writer’s block’?
Put the work aside, step away from it. Sometimes we get too close. Sometimes I have to tell myself to look at it from a different angle and get a fresh perspective.
Don’t stress too much. Sometimes you may have to scrap a chapter or a scene because you’ve written yourself into a corner.
Talk to your writers’ group. Let them read your work. Tell them the problem. They may come up with some ideas to help you redirect your characters or progress the plot.
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Becoming a writer is a journey of discovery and we learn as we go along. I think believing in yourself and being open minded about learning are essential. There’s a lot to learn and the best way to do that is to immerse yourself in the writing world. Believe that you belong there and go with the flow.
I would advise new writers to seek out feedback on their writing and take part in workshops and be part of networks and groups with like minded people.
Robin Adolphs is a published author of nine children’s picture books. Her books have received five star reviews both in Australia and overseas. In 2012, Robin is also the founding director of Butternut Books and works closely with illustrators, editors and other professionals in the publishing and marketing industries. She is a member of the Australian Publishers’ Association.
Robin’s background is in Early Childhood Education. She has taught in Victoria and Queensland and in Germany. She now dedicates herself to writing children’s picture books, publishing, visiting schools and libraries across Queensland and leading workshops on various aspects of the writing process. You can find her at robinadolphs.com.