‘Writing is so intense. It’s almost like pulling teeth, sometimes,’ Joanne Newell says as we discuss her new book over coffee.
‘I deliberately allow myself 15 to 20 minutes’ “puttering time” to mess around, tidy my desk, procrastinate, make an outline… I give myself easy “in” time when I’m writing.’
She smiles openly, her face honest and friendly. She is the picture-perfect advertisement for the healthy, wholesome lifestyle she writes about.
Newell has wanted to be an author since childhood, when she delighted in writing short fiction, won a writing competition in Grade 2, and intended to write ‘the great Australian novel’. Her parents were very encouraging.
‘My dad brought home a huge office typewriter. I was eight years old and I just sat staring at the blank page. When I said I wanted to be published, mum dragged me along to the local newspaper and pushed me through the door.
‘I was petrified. I said, “Will you publish my stories?” and they said, “Of course we’ll publish your stories!” But I never finished the stories because I was so scared of being published in the newspaper.’
In Grade 6, Newell read in a government document that most authors do not earn much money, so she resolved to be a journalist and later worked on her high school’s magazine and learned shorthand.
Newell followed a natural path to becoming an author. She studied Arts(Journalism) at the University of Southern Queensland and was an active member of the Queensland Society of Editors. She then undertook a four-month stint as an editorial assistant at USQ Press in Toowoomba and moved to Melbourne, where she gained further publishing work experience before completing RMIT’s Graduate Diploma in Editing and Publishing.
‘At Macmillan Education, I worked as an Assistant to the Publisher’s Assistant, which was actually a position. I was mostly sending out author copies. At the time, they’d just started the kids’ Crackers series and I got to read through the unsolicited submissions.
‘That experience at Macmillan helped me to know quality when I saw it and I learned about the publishing process. So with my latest book, the editor didn’t need to send me any author queries. Sending in a high-quality manuscript makes the job so much easier for the editors, but of course not all writers have the time to put all that work into their manuscripts.’
Newell’s first book was I’m Hungry, Let’s Cook! The title was originally published as Nutritious Snacks for Kids in 1984 and after going out of print the publisher was still receiving requests for it. Newell (who had worked for Lonely Planet as an editor in its food department) was approached to write an updated version of the book. ‘I thought [becoming an author] was some dim, distant thing and then it just came along,’ she recalls.
Inspired by the philosophy of nutritionist Cyndi O’Meara, Newell turned the book’s emphasis towards organic, fresh food.
‘I ended up completely rewriting it, adding detailed instructions for novice chefs—for children—but including some original recipes. By the time it was ready I was the only author because all the text was new.’
The book had a feature on gardening, which eventually led Newell to write her third and latest book, I’m Hungry, Let’s Grow It!, from scratch. Let’s Grow It! is aimed at families and encourages the whole family to produce food to cook in the kitchen.
‘Basically I wanted an Australian gardening-recipe book for my kids and I couldn’t find one. Dorling-Kindersley has a book in the UK which is similar but UK specific, whereas my book is relevant to the Australian environment. I had a horticulturalist look over the gardening tips to make sure everything was right.’
Between Let’s Cook! and Let’s Grow It!, Newell collaborated with a contact in Canada to write the e-book Monkey Mike’s Raw Food Kitchen, available at Rich Life by Design. As the website explains, ‘After [Newell] rediscovered the amazing taste and power of raw foods in 2007, she hunted for a raw-food recipe book for [daughters] Evie and Bella, but realized there wasn’t one! So she set about creating it…’
‘It’s a big market there,’ Newell says. ‘Working on Raw Food Kitchen has been a great experience and I’ve drawn a lot on the skills I developed at RMIT, in particular relating to self-publishing. We’re still marketing the e-book and we’re thinking of getting it published.’
When I ask about how she stays motivated as a writer, Newell is full of ideas.
‘I’m a big believer in visualising what you want when you start. If you focus on imagining the end result, it helps you get pulled towards it.’ Indeed, Newell has her own life-coaching business and website called Rich Radiant Real (richradiantreal.com – now Rich Life by Design), which offers guided visualisations to coaching clients.
‘For aspiring authors, visualisation could be by way of getting an existing book and sticking a sheet of paper on the front cover, putting your book cover on it,’ she suggests. ‘Try to make it real. Believing helps it come true, makes it real and concrete. It’s about having faith. What I once did was stick an affirmation on my fridge that said, “I’m going to be an editor of non-fiction books by January 1999”.’
Aside from visualisation?
‘I give myself mini-deadlines,’ Newell says. ‘A deadline is the big motivation, but I’ll do many deadlines within that.’ She shows me a simple pagination which she used to write I’m Hungry, Let’s Grow It! The table’s 144 boxes are colour-coded to relate to the book’s structure (“intro material” is green, “plant gardening profile” is red, etc.).
Rewards and incentives help, but sometimes it is necessary to impose an external deadline, and stick to it, she explains. ‘If you say you’re going to do this by tonight and your reward will be to go out to dinner with a friend, then that someone knows whether you live up to it or not.’
Like many editors and writers, Newell admits to having a perfectionist and obsessive streak. ‘I edit as I go but have to try to just get the ideas down and fix it up later. You can’t get it perfect straight off. It’s like you’re diving in, submerged. It’s really focussed work.’
She continues, ‘When I was in the Puffin Club, I received a note from a lady which said, “To be a writer, you just have to write”. If all the how-tos we’re told were that easy, we’d all be rich, thin and in love!’
Nevertheless, as far as being a successful writer goes, Newell recommends being open and amenable and as helpful as you can to publishing staff. She has an established relationship with her publisher and editor and, she says, ‘they know I give 110%.’
When I’m Hungry, Let’s Cook! was published, Newell attended a book signing at a shopping centre, and took along cookies which were a recipe in the book. ‘They were a hit,’ she says. ‘My philosophy is: give more. It’ll come back threefold.’
Her advice on getting published?
‘Persistence. That’s the thing with everything really. Never give up, but if something isn’t working, change what you’re doing. Everyone has to start somewhere. Listen to the feedback you’re given.
‘In publishing, marketing reasons are very relevant—a lot of books these days are commissioned. So you need to know your market: I picked up on the growing trend in natural cooking and living which is evident in titles like Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden Companion. Don’t forget that in the end, it’s a business. My books are practical so my ideas come from “what would I want?” If I want it, others will want it too.’ She recommends the website of British ex-publisher turned writers’ coach Julia McCutchen for great ideas on writing book proposals and getting published.
Then she adds a final thought, in her friendly, genuine tone. ‘If you’ve been drawn to writing, then you’re a writer. The desire has to be there.’
I’m Hungry, Let’s Grow It! was launched in September 2010.
This article was originally published as ‘Writer at Work: Joanne Newell’ in The Australian Writer issue 369 (September–November 2010).