'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Thursday 6 June 2019

Guest Post: Teena Raffa-Mulligan on Catching Butterflies

Every book has its own back story and sometimes as a writer I can’t pinpoint what inspired a particular book. When the Moon is a Smile is rather easier to explain.

One summer evening when our grandson Joel was small we set out for an after-dinner family walk along the beach path near our home. We hadn’t gone far when the crescent moon in the sky caught our attention.

Memory has blurred the lines over whether it was Joel or his mum who first said the moon was smiling, but as in the book’s dedication, that night he saw the moon smile. The moon as a smile was such a lovely image that it stayed with me.

About the same time our son was going through a marriage breakdown. He was fully committed to his role as a father and had been closely involved in the care of his two children from their earliest days.  The reality of having to now be a half-time dad was hitting him hard.

It wasn’t a conscious decision on my part to use the smiling moon and our son’s situation as the basis of a picture book to reassure young children going through a similar experience but in the days that followed the idea took hold and wouldn’t leave me alone.

As is my usual process with a picture book or poem, I scribbled random lines and story fragments on scrap paper when they came to mind in between other activities. Once I thought I had enough to work with I set up a rough spreads draft on a large sheet of lined paper to see how it would look in a book format. After playing around with that for a while I decided it was finished and prepared it for submission — but first I sought some feedback from my wonderful critique group. We have been meeting regularly for about 14 years and while they are not children’s authors, they are professional, multi-published authors and I value their feedback. They felt the story was ‘beautifully written’ and had my usual ‘charm and whimsy’ so I felt confident to send it out in the hope of an acceptance.

That original manuscript is not the published version of this story. The idea was there, but looking at it now I can see it was too serious and lacked the element of lightness that is in almost all my writing. The turning point in shaping it to the story it is today came when I booked in for a publisher critique during our annual SCBWI West Rottnest Retreat. Before I submitted it for this critique session I reworked the story because I felt something was missing. The feedback was positive and I came away with more suggestions of how to take my manuscript to the next level. This version didn’t make it to publication either but the rejection wasn’t hard to take: 'We are publishing a similar sort of picture book already — though I really liked this'. That was 2008 and over the ensuing decade I sent the story to various publishers without success, revising it from time to time along the way.

The published version is number eight, which is more than I would usually do, so clearly there was something about this idea that wouldn’t leave me be.

Ideas are like butterflies. They flit through my mind, alighting for a moment or two then fluttering away. I have to be alert to catch them. My words are the nets I use to capture them in flight and pin them to the page. And just as butterflies go through various stages of becoming, my stories often change on their way to publication as this one did. On rare occasions, a story or poem will arrive almost fully formed. But usually it’s a process, an evolution from a fleeting idea that has the gentle touch of a spring breeze and can easily be missed. Catching them takes practice. It’s never too early to start.

I keep paper and pen handy at all times so I won’t be caught out. You might prefer to use your phone.

Stay curious. Be open to possibilities. The idea you dismiss might be the one with the most potential. You won’t know if you don’t follow it and see where it leads. With commitment to your craft and a little serendipity, it will connect you to readers. And isn’t sharing our stories the reason we write?

Teena Raffa-Mulligan is a reader, writer and daydream believer. She’s been a regular visitor to the world of make-believe since her primary school days and knew from an early age she wanted to be a writer. 

Teena writes across genres and has published picture books, chapter books, MG novels and many short stories and poems for children and adults. She shares her passion for books and writing by presenting talks and workshops to encourage people of all ages to write their own stories. Her writing life has also included a long career as a journalist and editor. Teena is convinced there is magic in every day if we choose to see it. She lives near the beach south of Perth and has three children with families of their own who provide plenty of ideas for new stories. 

Teena would love for you to share her writing journey with her via her website, writing blog or visit her on Facebook.

When the Moon is a Smile is available from DaisyLane Publishing and Amazon.com