Sunday, April 21, 2013

Robyn Opie Parnell - An Article By Anastasia Gonis

The following article was written by Anastasia Gonis for the April 15 2013 edition of Buzz Words Issue 151. The article is reproduced on my blog with Anastasia's kind permission. Thank you, Anastasia.

© Anastasia Gonis

Robyn Opie Parnell is an Australian children’s book author, screenplay writer, and a generous heart with a vision to becoming so much more. She has published 88 books since she began writing. 

“When I was fifteen, my English teacher gave me an A for every essay I wrote. One day, as he handed me back an essay, he said, ‘You should be a writer.’ At the time, I hadn’t given any thought to people writing books. I only thought about the characters and the stories.

Thanks to my English teacher I realized I, too, could write a book. So I did!

“Unfortunately, the first book I wrote at fifteen wasn’t suitable for publication. My main character was too similar to the super-sleuth Nancy Drew. I was a big fan of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew when I was growing up. In my early twenties, I tried to get a story published but I had no idea that illustrated books of 2,500 words were difficult to get published. Picture books are usually less than 700 words. I knew nothing about the publishing industry and I had a lot to learn.

“From 1994, I spent about five years reading every book I could find on writing children’s books. I also did several courses, one on picture books and the other on writing for children. The writing for children course was through TAFE (Technical and Further Education) and Elizabeth Hutchins was my tutor. The feedback I received from Elizabeth helped me move forwards in leaps and bounds. Three of my homework assignments from the TAFE course with Elizabeth went on to be published by Macmillan Education. They were my chapter books The Mad Mower, Martian Milk and Mrs Twitch and the Small Black Box. I believe feedback from an experienced writer is vital.”

Robyn believes this course was the turning point for her. 

“I knew I was ready to submit to publishers, thanks to Elizabeth’s help and feedback. I also joined a writers’ group and formed one of my own. My first children’s books were published in 1999.

“I signed a contract with Barrie Publishing for my first three books, which were packaged and published by Macmillan Education. My next six books were also signed to Barrie Publishing but published by Macmillan Education. I had three chapter books published by Blake Education in 2002 and 2003. I had a lucky start, with many of my books published either by Macmillan Education or Blake Education.”

Robyn worked with Era Publications from 2001 to 2009 with her first books published by Era in 2002. In March 2011, she terminated her publishing agreements with Era after a dispute about the assignment of rights.

Robyn believes in exploring all avenues for her work. She has even submitted a story to Hollywood producer Wolfgang Petersen for consideration as a family movie, and a screenplay to an Australian producer. But it’s at children’s books that she excelled. She elaborates. 

“I wrote a story with my husband, Rob, that I believed would make a great Hollywood movie. Rob put together a proposal, which we then sent to Wolfgang Petersen. Why not? Wolfgang Petersen might be a famous movie producer but he’s also a businessman looking for good projects. And we believed we had a good project. 

“A week after we sent our proposal, I received an email from Wolfgang’s Creative Executive. We signed a release form so that Wolfgang could consider our proposal. Approximately four weeks later, we received a phone call. While everyone agreed that our project would make a great movie, Wolfgang had decided not to make three disaster movies in a row. Alas!

“Encouraged by the experience, Rob and I pitched a new, uniquely Australian idea, to Australian producers, which was accepted. However, as first time screenwriters, we were offered terms that were well below the Australian Writers' Guild recommendations, so we followed our instincts and rejected the offer. We submitted the screenplay to other producers. We're still awaiting their replies. Fingers crossed.”

How easy/difficult was it for Robyn and Rob to write a screenplay? 

“Rob and I co-wrote our family feature screenplay. We were surprised at how easy it was to work together and to write this particular screenplay. We simply adapted what we knew about writing books to this different medium of film. The first draft was completed in four weeks.” 

Things seemed to fall in place for Robyn once she began writing. Even submitting her work to mainstream publishers went without a hitch due to networking. 

“All of my books have been published one way or another as a result of networking. For example, I found out about Barrie Publishing’s call for submissions from another member of a writers’ group I attended. Once I had the publishing credits with Macmillan Education, other publishers were willing to accept my unsolicited submissions. 

“I wrote a story called The Pony Game, which was based on my childhood experiences. I researched the Giggles series and discovered that Lothian Books didn’t have a pony story in its Giggles series. When I attended the Children’s Book Council of Australia conference in Sydney, I approached Helen Chamberlin and asked if I could submit a story to Lothian Books, despite the fact that its website stated ‘no unsolicited submissions’. Helen was pleased to receive my submission. Three months later, The Pony Game was accepted.  

“I met Sue Whiting, from Walker Books, through an online writers’ group and then at the CBCA conference. Sue was happy to read my submissions, despite the fact that Walker Books’ website stated ‘submissions from agents only’. Walker Books published my novel Black Baron in Australia and the UK. While I was able to submit to mainstream publishers due to my publishing credits, my books were published as a result of networking.”

But mainstream publishing has definitely changed over time. Robyn tells us about these shifts in publishing.

“Publishers have changed the way they accept submissions. Some are now only accepting submissions via an email query or pitch. ABC Books request an appraisal from a reputable manuscript assessment agency. Penguin Australia will only look at one type of book each month. September is picture book month. A proportion of publishers only accept submissions sent via a literary agent. Overall, a writer’s ability to submit to publishers has been curtailed by the much tighter, more restrictive submission guidelines.

“The other difference is in publisher response time, which has obviously led to the tighter, restrictive submission guidelines. When I submitted Maya and the Crystal Skull, I waited 7 months for one publisher to respond and 12 months for two others to respond.

“Publishers receive thousands of submissions. The changes are obviously meant to allow publishers to continue to receive unsolicited submissions from writers but in a more manageable way.”

Robyn’s books now are mostly Self Published. She explains how and why she chose this path, considering the time-consuming tasks such as marketing and promotion which she has had to include in her work load.

My husband, Rob, has been publishing books since about 2005. He has wanted to publish my books for a long time but I’ve resisted. I didn’t want to do the extra work I was used to publishers doing, such as proofing, design, distributing and marketing. After waiting 7 and 12 months to hear from publishers about my novel Maya and the Crystal Skull, I had a change of heart. I’m a psychic medium who communicates with spirit guides. (More on this in a moment) Through consultation with my spirit guides, I realized that self-publishing was my destiny.

“Marketing and promotion is always the difficult part when publishing one’s own books, for it is time-consuming work for an author when all they want to do is get on with their writing. Nowadays, it seems to be a necessary evil. The real-world stuff isn’t as much fun as my fiction.

“I have a distributor that sells to bookstores and a distributor that sells to libraries. I create order forms with special deals for libraries and schools. I’m always available for author appearances, workshops and school visits. I promote my books through my website and blog, as well as other people’s websites and blogs. I also use social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Where possible, I look for opportunities to be interviewed in the media.”

In Backstage Betrayal, Robyn covers themes of envy and jealousy, and in Our Secret Place she explores the repercussions of one’s actions, loyalty and friendships. In Black Baron, published by Walker Books, Robyn builds an exciting adventure around a racing cockroach and a race to save his life. Eye of the Future is about a girl with the gift of second sight.

Robyn, too, has a special gift. I ask her if she would share the other side to Robyn Opie Parnell, the writer, with us. She is more than willing to oblige. 

“In 2005, I became interested in psychic mediums. I watched TV shows and read books to learn more about this amazing field. After a ‘chance’ recommendation, I also went to see a psychic medium for the first time. What a life-changing experience! My fascination with psychic mediums continued.

“In September 2010, after watching Tony Stockwell’s Psychic Academy on Foxtel, I bought a pendulum and began using it on a daily basis to communicate with my spirit guide. Around this time, I also began meditating every day. In November 2010, while having afternoon tea with a friend, I had my first experience as a medium. I saw the spirit of my friend’s deceased husband.

“Despite all my research through television and books, I doubted my first experience and didn’t want to mention it to anyone. My friend’s husband had other ideas. He wanted his spirit presence acknowledged – he jumped up and down, and waved his arms around in the air, until I acknowledged him. When I got home, my deceased nana said to me, ‘See! You can do it!’ Another life-changing experience! I’ve learned so much and had many wonderful experiences since November 2010. Living with spirit is now as important to me as being a writer.”

Robyn Opie Parnell’s most recent books are:
· STOP! Do Not Read This Book, which is the story of Sam who hates to read, but the reason for this is her well-kept secret; and
· You’re Amazing: the Law of Attraction for Young People, is a clear and easy to understand approach to the Law of Attraction that reinforces the laws of the universe, (a strong presence in Robyn’s informative and well-structured How to Write a GREAT Children’s Book) and

· Maya and the Crystal Skull, the superb first book in a fantastic series. It is a thrilling paranormal adventure, set around the Mayan civilization, its ancient laws and the spirit world. This has an interesting and diverse selection of themes and subjects. The sequel, Maya and the Daring Heist, will be available in May 2013.

“When I wrote Maya and the Crystal Skull I had to do a lot of research about psychic mediums and spirituality. By the time I wrote Maya and the Daring Heist I was writing from my own experience.”

The wonderful Maya series is riveting reading, full of intrigue, adventure, and betrayal. But are there additional books planned for the series? Readers certainly hope so! We are put at ease when Robyn confesses that she is forced to write a third book due to the open-ended winding up of Book Two, despite the preparation for the paperback production of her two e-books and so much more in the pipeline.

Maya and the Daring Heist ends on a cliff-hanger, which puts me under pressure. I have to write a third book in the series, even though I have no idea what that story will entail at this point in time. I trust my spiritual guidance, so I took the plunge and left the story open for a third instalment.

“My novels Stop! Do Not Read This Book and Best Joke Ever have been published as kindle e-books but still need to be produced as paperbacks. I have two picture books Wiggle, Jiggle All Around and Jade’s Goals I’d like to see published. I also have a novel about a family dealing with a daughter’s O.C.D. called If Not Jannah, a novel about a boy looking for his dad called (surprisingly) Looking for Dad, and a novel about a boy who becomes a spy called Undercover K.I.D. Sheep Trouble all of which could be ready for submission or publication in 2013. I illustrated my novel Best Joke Ever – a first for me – and I’m considering illustrating If Not Jannah.” 

A writing life incorporates more than books for Robyn. She also runs writing classes based on her How to Write a GREAT Children’s Book. But what other services does she offer?

“I offer manuscript assessment and editing services. I don’t advertise these services on my website or blog because I don’t want too much work. I’m happy with the paid work I get without advertising. This work usually comes through students of my courses or via email queries. Obviously I need a balance between my work and other people’s work. If I spend too much time on other people’s work, I don’t have enough time for my own.”

Robyn is also a generous supporter of many charities through her websites. The environment, nature, animals and spiritual living are extremely important to her. She shares her vision with us.

“Besides writing, my passions include animals and nature. I believe it’s important for all of us to spend time in nature, so we can ground ourselves. One of my favorite experiences was going to the Singapore Zoo at night. Sitting with my husband watching the giraffes at eleven-thirty at night was one of the most peaceful and memorable experiences of my life. Our world is a beautiful place with so much breath-taking scenery and totally amazing animals.

“It’s been a dream of mine for a long time to be able to donate large sums of money to charities. I want to make a difference. Animals can’t speak out for themselves. They are at our mercy. One of the reasons I write and want to be successful is so I can donate money to charities. When I’m old and grey, sitting in my rocking chair on my front porch, I want to look back at my life and know that I made a positive impact on the world. 

“We should marvel over our environment, instead of abuse and destroy. Life should be revered for the miracle it is, instead of discounted and discarded.”

As always, I ask what advice Robyn would offer to anyone dreaming of a career in children’s books. 

“Run! Just kidding! In my early twenties, when I submitted my first manuscripts to publishers, I didn’t know about word counts, age groups, types of books or anything else to do with children’s books/publishing. My first manuscripts were rejected. My advice, based on my own experience, is to learn everything you can about writing, especially about your chosen genre. After all, you wouldn’t think of piloting a jumbo jet without first learning how to fly.

“If you’ve learnt about your chosen genre, then my advice is persistence. Professional
writers often say that the secret to their success is persistence. They never gave up.”

Buzz Words is a fortnightly e-zine designed specifically to cater for the needs and interests of children’s writers, illustrators, librarians, teachers, editors and lovers of children’s books. It features interviews with editors, authors, illustrators, agents, booksellers and publicists as well as valuable information on the children’s book community in Australia and internationally including writing markets, opportunities, competitions, courses, conferences and book reviews. And it's delivered straight into your in-box. CLICK HERE for more information about Buzz Words.