How do you go from television news to children’s books? Author of the Hazard River series, JE Fison, worked in television news in Australia, Asia and Europe, before turning to kids’ fiction. Today, she’s visiting Literary Clutter to tell us how she made the change and how her years as a reporter have helped and hindered her adventure-story writing.
From television news to kids’ fiction
By JE Fison
It’s a Sunday morning in June 1989 and it should be a quiet day in Hong Kong’s Asia Television newsroom. Instead, as I walk into the office, the place is buzzing with emotion – a couple of veteran reporters have tears in their eyes, others are grabbing at the wire service copy and reading out the developments in Beijing, the news editor is barking down the phone to our correspondent on the ground. Within minutes I’ve cobbled together a story, slapped on some makeup, and I’m in the studio, delivering a news bulletin – troops have opened fire in the Chinese capital, unleashing what will become known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and ending the student protests that many hoped would bring democracy to China.
It’s a day that stands out from my memories as a television news reporter, partly because I was in Beijing when the student movement first took off and because the bloodshed had such a profound effect on China and Hong Kong, which was home to me at the time.
The fourth of June, 1989 certainly wasn’t a typical news day but I mention it because it sums up the essence of being a news reporter – most of the time you’re trying to pull together facts that no one wants to give you, rushing to meet a deadline and flying by the seat of your pants to get a story to air. Then, when the bulletin is over, you do it all over again for the next one.
Writing fiction can be as far from that as possible – it’s more about waiting for the muse to strike, then writing, rewriting, rewriting some more, then waiting, waiting, and waiting some more to find a publisher, then waiting again for the story to hit the bookshops. For an impatient former news reporter all that waiting can be a killer. But I don’t feel like I chose fiction writing as a career path – it really chose me.
I gave up television news after having children and moved into freelance feature writing and marketing because it was more family-friendly. The idea of writing fiction for kids crept up on me a few years ago, during a family holiday on the Noosa River. My two sons teamed up with friends and spent the summer building rafts, exploring sand banks, setting up camps, dodging stingrays and avoiding snakes. I had to write about it.
I’d had plenty of experience as a writer, so I knew I could string a sentence together. I also thought my ability to write to a deadline would be helpful in the future. But my first attempt at fiction was mired in my eagerness to report what had actually happened on the Noosa River. I had trouble breaking away from the truth and it took several rewrites before the Hazard River series came together – full of adventure and action, that is inspired by (rather than based on) real events.
Apart from having to make stuff up, there were several other challenges I faced – writing 10,000 words on one story wasn’t easy and I had to learn to use description to draw in the reader. As a reporter, the focus is on boiling down a complex story into one minute and thirty seconds worth of information, and using the visuals to help convey the message. The words just back up what the audience sees. Writing fiction works the opposite way and that’s something I’ve had to work at. I’m constantly fleshing things out when I rewrite a story to build up the scenes, so they’re not just sketchy outlines of what’s going on.
I have done plenty of reading and listened to the advice of experienced writers to improve my work. I also get lots of advice from my two sons. They never let facts get in the way of a good story. And if they think I have, they let me know – with a fat, red marker pen.
The latest books in the Hazard River series, Toads’ Revenge and Blood Money were released today. For more info about the books visit the official website. For more info about Julie, check out her blog.
Catch ya later, George
PS. Follow me on Twitter… or I’ll switch from children’s books to tv news… and I’m much too verbose for news. 😉