THE MANY TALENTS OF MEREDITH COSTAIN
by Dee White - August 9th, 2010
She is one of the most versatile writers I have met and has published more than 200 books in a mixture of trade and education titles and a range of formats: picture books, chapter books, novels, non-fiction and text for graphic novels.
Meredith has been writing since she was six and says she used to ride her bike to school along country roads, and ideas for poems and stories came into her head as she pedalled along.
I was always scribbling things into notebooks. I kept this up right through school – I’d be writing poems instead of studying for exams.
When I was eight I had a poem published in the Junior Age section of The Age newspaper. They paid me for it – 17 shillings and sixpence! – which was an absolute fortune to me. I decided then and there I was going to be a writer when I grew up. I even had a pen name picked out, because I thought that’s what writers did. Mine was to be Gemma Craven. It sounded so romantic and writerly. It was only much later, when I needed a pen name for a series I was writing, that I discovered my name had already been ‘taken’ – Gemma Craven was an English actor. So I changed the surname to something else (which I will never reveal).
Meredith says that the thing she enjoys most about being a writer is getting to work from home with her dogs at her feet, and setting her own working hours. And she loves being paid to use her imagination.
She says that writing is a great way to ‘sort’ stuff that’s floating around in your head.
It helps you to crystallise half-baked thoughts. You find out lots of things you didn’t realise you knew!
Giving workshops in schools is great too. It’s a lovely way to find out what kids are thinking and how they see the world. They’re also totally honest when it comes to giving feedback.
The things she finds hardest about being a writer are juggling deadlines and waiting . . . and waiting . . . and waiting . . . to hear back from publishers about submissions.
Before she became an author Meredith worked as a secondary English teacher for nine years.
She wrote articles and stories for the Victorian Education Department magazines while she was teaching.
It took being hit by a car on a pedestrian crossing in Paris (during long service leave) to make Meredith realise life was too short to not do what she really wanted to do. So she resigned – and took on part-time jobs: waitressing, data entry, playing in dodgy bands, band management, VCE tutoring – until she was getting enough work to become a full-time writer.
But just getting published for the first time was a huge achievement in itself.
Meredith’s Tips For New Writers
Read as much and as widely as you can. Not just the kinds of books you want to write yourself – though this helps. All kinds of styles and genres that show all the different ways words can be put together.
Work on developing your own voice. Ask any publisher what they’re looking for and after they’ve said, ‘I’ll know it when I see it’ or ‘something with the X factor’ they’ll add ‘something that has a fresh, new voice.’ Something that may help is to write in lots of different styles and formats until you find the one that seems most natural to you. And when you find it, don’t make the mistake of discounting it because it seems to be the ‘easiest’. It’s the easiest for a reason!
Network! Join writers’ clubs and associations. Subscribe to writers’ newsletters and online bulletins. Make friends with other writers and find excuses to see them regularly. Go to book launches, conferences and writers’ festivals. Keep an eye on what different publishers are doing.
Send stuff out! Nobody will make an offer for that masterpiece of yours if it’s languishing in your bottom drawer. But ensure it’s as polished as you can make it before you do.
Meredith says, she did an apprenticeship in writing.
The first pieces of writing I had published were short stories and articles for kids’ magazines. I like to think of it as my writing ‘apprenticeship’. It was a fantastic way to develop skills I used later once I started writing picture books and chapter books: economy of style, grabbing the reader in the opening paragraph, writing to a specific word count, meeting deadlines – along with interview and research skills. It’s also a great way to build a list of publishing credits, which come in handy on your writer’s CV. An international education publisher invited me to contribute titles to a series of emergent readers on the strength of my history of writing for Comet magazine. These were my very first published books, and I still find it funny to think that American kids are learning to read from them.
Consistent Themes and Symbols in Meredith’s Writing
Dogs manage to worm themselves into quite a few of my books. They have so many wonderful qualities: loyalty, playfulness, boldness, unconditional love. Dogs also make wonderful confidantes (for both you and your character). I could never put a dog in a story for the sole purpose of killing it off later to create an emotional response in the reader.
I also seem to write lots of books about ‘fitting in’ – finding your place in a group, making friends. I’m interested in how people relate to each other.
I’m working on a series of non-fiction narrative picture books about wild animals. I’m also writing text for a ‘journal’ that ties in with the Dance Academy TV show and a book on the last days of Pompeii. There are also three picture books in various stages that keep putting their hands up, reminding me they’re there.
My other ‘hat’ is literary editor for Challenge, Explore and Comet magazines (the ones I started writing for all those years ago). At the moment I’m selecting fiction for the next issue, and organising books to be sent out to student reviewers for the book review pages.
You can find out more about Meredith and her work at her website
On Wednesday, Meredith is back to talk about how she wrote her new Aussie Nibble, Rosie and Ned and the Creepy Cave.
On Friday here at Kid’s Book Capers we’ll be reviewing Meredith’s other new release Dance Academy: Learning to Fly and talking with her about the journey to publication.