You, the audience member, have a moment of realisation; the storyteller’s truth is your personal truth and suddenly you have a connection...And that’s what makes a story unforgettable.
I recently interviewed Marianna Shek about her experience in animation, self-publishing, and as an #OwnVoices children’s and young adult author. I’m always fascinated by the many different pathways into writing. So for tips on self-publishing and following your creative dream, please read this open and honest interview with an author I reckon will achieve much in kid lit!
NLK: Can you please share a little about your journey into writing and creating children’s fiction?
MS: Storytelling is my second career. I worked as a pharmacist for over ten years before I finally made the leap and enrolled in a Bachelor of Animation degree at Griffith Film School. I told my family I wanted to study animation to improve both my drawing and creative writing skills but I think even back then, I’ve always been drawn to children’s stories and animation is a wonderful media for its expression.
Unfortunately, I found working in animation limiting. I took to writing children’s stories (incomplete novels, short stories, picture books, comics, anything really) as a creative outlet, something purely for me. But it took me ages to take it seriously. I wasn’t one of those single-minded creatives who knew exactly what genre, form and medium I wanted to work in. I dabbled in many art forms – illustration, animation, games, painting, sculpting… I only started seriously trying to hone my writing craft a few years ago, after my son was born. My friends and I have lots of discussions about being ‘emerging writers’ in our forties (and older). It’s been both liberating and frustrating because the usual perception of an emerging writer is someone young who gets to hang out at cafes to write and owns kick-arse, stomping boots.
NLK: You’ve been a storyteller in many roles from production, illustration, animation and sculpture, and you even have a PhD in transmedia. In your opinion what makes a good story?
MS: A good story is when the creator weaves an idea, a truth they believe into the storyworld. You, the audience member, have a moment of realisation; the storyteller’s truth is your personal truth and suddenly you have a connection.
I don’t know if that makes sense.
So, this is a story I tell my first year uni students in scriptwriting. I don’t often cry in films or books. One exception is Disney’s Little Mermaid. I was ten years old when I watched this film at the cinema with my sisters. My father had dropped us off. He and I had gotten into an argument about something, I don’t even remember what it was about. In the film, King Triton forbid Ariel to go up on land to be with Prince Eric. Of course, being a teenager, she completely disregards his advice and makes a very bad deal with the sea witch, Ursula to give her legs so she can seduce the prince. When Ariel fails, the sea witch tries to turn her into one of her worm-slaves. King Triton can’t bear to see his daughter become a worm, so he offers to take her place, and the sea witch turns him into a servile, grey worm instead. And that’s when I burst into tears.
Because in my tender, pre-teen heart, I knew on some level what the filmmaker was trying to say. He was talking about the conditions placed on love. To me, the real love story was not between Ariel the mermaid and Eric the Prince. There were too many conditions placed on Ariel for that to have worked out. The love story was the unconditional love King Triton had for his daughter. And I’d started crying because I’d realised my dad was not like King Triton. That was the day I realised that not all fathers loved their daughters unconditionally.
So the filmmaker had been telling one truth with his story, and it resonated with a truth in my personal life. And that’s what makes a story unforgettable.
These insights can happen in any artistic form which is why as a storyteller, I keep experimenting in so many different media.
NLK: Can you please tell us about your books? Why did you choose to self-publish? What are your top three tips for anyone considering self-publishing?
I self-published my first book Choose Your Own Death when I was in my first year of my PhD program. It was a story I’d written for fun, something that was not intellectual and had nothing to do with my research. It was an ode to the classic Choose Your Own Adventures, with amped up macabre humour.
I knew enough about the arduous path to finding an agent or a book publisher to realise I had no time to pursue this route.
Also, I’d worked as a producer and I had already spruiked my own work and that of other filmmakers. Self-publishing is what emerging filmmakers do. You raise the funds to make a short film, send it to film festivals, hopefully get enough hype to get some funding to make a second short film… it’s not until you self-publish a few short films that you might sell a concept to a television broadcaster or get a funding body to back a feature film.
It’s the same in most artforms. If emerging artists don’t self-publish, their work won’t be seen at all. So it was very natural for me to just go the self-publishing route. It was a great experience – getting an editor, finding out about distribution, marketing and formatting my work.
I’ve self-published a couple of picture books as well. I’d fully intended to get a traditional publisher for my fairy tale The Stolen Button. The story is about a spoiled girl Mei Ling who runs away from home and in order to return, she trades her belly button to a gypsy. The feedback from publishers was that it had potential but they always wanted me to dial the content back to suit a younger audience.
So I made the decision to self-publish The Stolen Button to maintain my artistic vision of the work.
Top three tips for self-publishing:
- Find a professional editor that you trust and can work with.
- Unless you are a professional artist, pay for a cover artist and/ or illustrations.
- Don’t go to vanity publishers. There are plenty of legitimate freelancers who are wonderful to work with. The Alliance of Independent Authors Self Publishing Advice Centre helped me a lot https://selfpublishingadvice.org/alli-blog/ (Honestly, this website and podcast taught me solid writing and business practices. This isn’t just for writers who intend to self-publish. All emerging writers should listen to their podcasts.)
NLK: You’ve won and been shortlisted for a number of awards (including the 2020 CYA Fiction Writing Award for Best MiddleGrade Manuscript, 2017 Conflux Short Story Competition with shortlistings for the 2020 Affirm Press Mentorship at Varuna and 2018 Deborah Cass Writing Award), what have you learned from the process of putting forward your work?
MS: I’ve learned to become a better critic and editor of my own work. I think it’s really important to put your writing out there regardless of rejection because the validation of your craft (when you participate, get longlisted or shortlisted or win – because you will if you keep trying) is what keeps you writing.
There are hundreds of reasons not to write. There’s always someone (maybe yourself) who will make you feel your writing should be secondary to your family, partner, kids, paid work, cleaning the house, friends.
I’m a writer because I write everyday. And I can write a little bit everyday because I carve out time and space and make everyone (including myself) respect that.
NLK: As an Asian-Australian writer do you think it’s important for the kid lit industry to move towards embracing and promoting #OwnVoices? Do you identify as an #OwnVoices author? Can you please share your thoughts on this topic?
MS: The #OwnVoice movement is so important for young people. Many of my middle-class Asian friends grew up during the eighties and nineties when white actors dominated Australian television. Lee Lin Chin might have been the news presenter on SBS, but most households could only get signal depending on the mercy of the magpies sitting on their television antennae.
I find the attitudes of a lot of middle age Australian-Asians to be frustrating. There’s this apathy, or a view of, ‘Well, we grew up viewing limited representation of ourselves and we turned out fine.’ There’s an intolerance as to why the younger generation might desire more and a lack of excitement about what new works can come out of the #OwnVoices movement.
I definitely identify as an #OwnVoice author. This is most obvious in my work The Stolen Button which is a Chinese fairy tale set on the Silk Road. Also, my short story The Lady on the Dark Side of Moon, which was shortlisted for the Deborah Cass award, is a retelling of a classic Chinese myth about the moon goddess Chang-o having a run-in with Neil Armstrong. You can read the story on my website https://www.rockonkitty.com.au/2019/07/19/bunny-girl-short-story/
In the two novels I’m presently working on, I haven’t explicitly explored my Chinese heritage. Having said that, I feel it’s impossible to not inject my background into any of my artwork because that is an inherent part of who I am.
NLK: What advice do you have for emerging kitlit creators?
MS: It’s enlightening to beta test your work with the target audience. I’ve recently just finished an interactive fiction commission for a client (https://www.slq.qld.gov.au/whats-on/queensland-quest). To get through the story, kids have to solve puzzles that unlock new sections of story. My illustrator and I just tested the work on a group of 9- 11 year olds.
I knew straight away what story parts weren’t working just by looking at the kid’s reactions. It made me feel foolish because there were some jokes I thought were so clever when I wrote them, and then after the beta test, I realised I wrote them in to make me feel clever, I wasn’t thinking about how it would make a kid feel at all or whether they would even have enough context to understand.
The other thing I realised after this particular beta testing session was our responsibility as children’s writers to encourage literacy. I noticed a wide range of reading levels among my beta testers. I could see the way the weaker readers absorbed the illustrations, the text messages, the pictorial clues to solve the puzzles and finish the story. I think we move kids away from picture books too early. It would be wonderful to see emerging kidlit writers working more collaboratively with other artists to create picture books for older readers, also more graphic novels and interactive fiction works too.
Marianna Shek is a children’s and young adult fiction writer with a PhD in transmedia. In 2020, she was the winner of the CYA Conference fiction prize, joint winner of the Wakefield Press YA Horror Anthology competition and shortlisted for the Affirm Press Mentorship Award at Varuna House. She was awarded the 2017 Conflux short story competition and shortlisted in the Deborah Cass Writing Prize in 2018. Her short stories have been published in Space and Time Magazine, Serenity Press and Griffith University.
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