I first met Shelly Unwin at a CBCA event a few years ago, and gradually got to know her as we bumped into each other at regular meetings and events. She is warm, open and encouraging with an English accent I could listen to all day. I’ve heard Shelly talk about a manuscript that came ‘so close’ to being picked up, only to be let down; I’ve thrown around ideas with her about a young adult novel; I’ve chatted with her at book launches celebrating colleagues’ success when it has seemed to allude her. And now here she is having signed the Holy Grail – a contract for 5 picture books, with a major publisher, to be released as a package hopefully next year. It is such a pleasure to be able to now celebrate her achievements and hear her story. There is so much in Shelly’s story to offer wisdom and hope for those of us who write for kids. I’ve highlighted some themes to pick up on at a later date.
This is the first of a few installments – so stay tuned…
Described as a concept book, I know you contractually can’t tell us much about it – what can you tell us about it and when did the idea come to you? Hum, what can I tell you? The series is aimed at 1-5 year olds and has a strong education focus, wrapped inside a warm and cuddly bedtime story. Its subject matter is one that all kids fixate on in these early years and beyond. It has minimal text, between 120-150 words per book, leaving room for some really wonderful illustrations. The narrative speaks directly to the child and is written in verse.
Not unusually for us creative types, the idea hit me in the night. I sat bolt upright in a hot sweat, reached over to wake my husband up and said “Oh My God! I’ve got it!” I have been writing seriously for the last three and a half years. I’ve been on a stack of courses, and written lots of lovely ‘quiet’ stories, and I recognized immediately that what I had stumbled upon was not a quiet story. It was the illusive ‘commercial’ story that we are all hoping to write. Needless to say I couldn’t go back to sleep.
How long did it take you to write it?
I wrote the first one in a couple of hours. It wanted to be written and flew from my subconscious. Then it went through the critiquing and re-writing process.
Who did you discuss it with or get advice from?
Firstly my husband, which is unusual, I normally don’t mention my ideas to him until they have evolved fully. His excitement mirrored mine, which was very encouraging. Then I took it to my critique group. I wanted to see if they thought it was as commercial an idea as I thought it was. I also wanted to check that they didn’t know of any similar books out there. I’d done internet research and couldn’t find anything – the idea seems so obvious it was crazy that it hadn’t been done already. But I guess every so often a new gem of an idea emerges and someone gets to grab it with both hands and run with it. If I’d had the same idea three years earlier though, my execution wouldn’t have been anywhere near where it was when this idea formed. I had taken time to learn the craft and really understand how to structure a picture book and really speak to the child. So I was in a prime position to take the idea and write it well.
How did you decide it was ready to take to a publisher/agent?
I wrote the first draft on the 19th October and I was booked in for an editor consultation at the Sutherland Shire Writing Festival on the 1st November, so I worked to the deadline. But more than that I’d also realized fairly quickly that I had stumbled across a series possibility, so I had written the first drafts of all five books and had one of them fairly well polished by the 1st of November. The editor I met with was very excited by the idea and asked for me to send two of the manuscripts through to her. I had also submitted one manuscript by email to an editor I had met with at the SCBWI conference that I felt may be interested.
You can find Shelly Unwin on her website: http://shellyunwin.com and on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ShellyUnwinAuthorPage