How did you first come across the CYA Allstars Conference?
I have been lucky enough to be part of CYA since the very first conference in 2005, where I attended as a volunteer. Being an art student at the time, I designed the original ‘Beckett’ logo. It has been great to watch the conference grow every year and become a highly polished event that draws attendees from all over the country.
How did CYA help you in your creative career?
Apart from attending multiple conferences and being able to sit in on sessions (being a session timer definitely has its perks!), I have regularly entered the annual CYA Competition as both a writer and illustrator. Some of my entries were awarded Highly Commended, which has helped boost my profile as a creator as well as flesh out my writing bio.
I’ve also attended numerous CYA manuscript assessments over the years, which has provided invaluable feedback direct from agents, editors and publishers.
In 2020 I booked an assessment with Justine Barker from Mayfair Literary Agency for my junior fiction series MerTales, for which I was pitching myself as both author and illustrator. I had already booked an assessment with a publisher and booked the session with Justine on a whim. It was the right call because Justine loved my submission and offered to represent the series. Within a few short months we had accepted an offer from Albert Street Books (an imprint of Allen and Unwin) to publish all four MerTales books.
When did you first come up with the idea for MerTales? What inspired you?
I had the idea for MerTales in 2009, during a snorkelling trip. I had never been snorkelling before and it kind of blew my mind! I am TERRIFIED of swimming in the ocean but managed to face my fear on the day, and am so glad I did. There was an entire other world under the ocean’s surface – coral and fish and plant life. On the way home, I decided I wanted to write a book set in the reef – and what better characters to use than mermaids! I also thought it would be a lot of fun to base the characters on my best friends.
Over the next 10 years I wrote multiple versions of the manuscript, but none of them were ever quite right. I was accustomed to writing middle grade, not junior fiction, which seemed like the right age group for a mermaid book. I also never intended to illustrate the books myself, simply because I didn’t believe I was good enough at drawing. I sent an earlier version of the manuscript to a few publishers and never heard back. I really felt like there was something special about my concept, so I enrolled in an online course on writing chapter books and enlisted a mentor to help guide me on writing for a younger audience. I also read LOADS of chapter books and junior fiction titles. After a few months of intense re-working I ended up with a much stronger manuscript and a clearer idea of what I wanted the series to look like.
What did you include in your CYA manuscript assessment for MerTales?
As part of the CYA guidelines, I submitted a one-page writing/illustrating bio, and one-page synopsis that included a single sentence pitch, target audience details, themes, genre info and full outline of the story (including the ending, of course!). I also included a few sample illustrations – one full colour illustration, two black and white interior illustrations, and some full colour character designs.
I also had a series proposal on hand, ready to provide if needed. A series proposal is a great part of a submissions pack if you’re writing a series. It covers the overall concept of the series, character profiles, and a short outline for each book.
What made you decide to illustrate the books yourself?
Illustrating the MerTales books myself was never part of the plan! In high-school I used to think I was a pretty good drawer. Then I went to uni to study animation, and everyone in my class was an AMAZING artist. I went from somewhere near the top of the class to the absolute bottom. In hindsight, and being (slightly) more mature now, I know I should have used that shock as fuel to improve, and simply put in more practice. Instead, I let it erode my confidence. I left uni after two years and dabbled in the occasional illustration project, eventually settling into a career in graphic and web design. It would be decades before I rediscovered my calling to art.
In 2017, I got married. My 89-year-old grandmother was able to come from overseas for the wedding, and I was so grateful I illustrated a poem she had written years earlier called The Growly Bear, and self-published it as a picture book. Some of the artwork was spotted by Paul Collins from Ford Street Publishing, and I was invited to illustrate a picture book for them. It was a dream come true – albeit, a dream I thought I had put to bed, having decided to give up on illustrating and concentrate on writing!
Illustrating Super Nova (written by Krys Saclier), rekindled my love of story-telling through art. I was still working in my web design business so I decided to use digital media to colour the artwork, rather than do everything by hand, to help save time. Up until then I had worked in water colour pencils, using digital media only occasionally. Working digitally changed my entire process. Painting on a graphics tablet is fast and fun, and if you make a mistake, you can undo it with the press of a button!
I illustrated a second picture book, Reggie Red (written by Josie Layton and published by Larrikin House) in early 2020. Working on these two books gave me the confidence to give illustrating MerTales a shot. I also decided to go 100% digital. Whereas before I had still drawn on paper and only coloured my artwork digitally, for MerTales I drew all the outlines directly into the computer, using my graphics tablet. It has improved my work considerably. I can zoom in to refine details, zoom out to get a better feel of the composition, and undo as much work as I want without the risk of erasing a hole in the paper! And I erase a LOT.
What is next for Rebecca Timmis?
This year (2021) I am putting most of my time into MerTales. Aside from the books, I’ve whipped up a website at www.mertales.com.au, which is full of info about the books, as well as activity sheets, character profiles, and puzzles. I’m also developing a MerTales app that will include three unique games. It’s been crazy fun to work on – I’ve even started animating again!
What advice do you have for aspiring authors and illustrators?
The most obvious and over-stated advice (but still has to be said!): don’t quit. You never know what opportunities are just around the corner.
Your idea is paramount. If you’ve been trying for a while and are not finding much success, ask yourself – is my concept unique/exciting enough? If not, how can I improve that? Do I need a new idea?
Engage with a mentor. I worked with both a writing mentor and an illustrating mentor to get MerTales up to scratch, and believe it was a true turning point in my career.
Make sure you’re having fun – otherwise, what’s the point?!
For all MerTales media requests, please contact Yvette at email@example.com
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