Book Chat: Teena Raffa-Mulligan
It's a great pleasure to welcome my latest guest to Book Chat – the incredibly talented and prolific Teena Raffa-Mulligan. Teena has written many books and articles for people of all ages in an impressively varied career which has seen her publish fiction titles for children and young adults, romance fiction and poetry, as well as numerous articles in her career as a journalist.
Hello Teena! A very warm welcome to Book Chat, and congratulations on the release of your latest book, You Can Be a Writer. I’ve been wanting to pick your brain on writing for a long time, so it’s a real treat to welcome you to the page.
Firstly, I’d love to know about your journey as an author. Was writing something you’d enjoyed as a child? And was it always your plan to write professionally?
I’ve been writing stories from the time I learnt to read and write. I knew from an early age that I wanted to be an author, though I was also a ballet fanatic and my plan was to dance in theatres around the world and write novels in the dressing room between performances. The dancing dream didn’t last the distance but the writing ambition stayed strong.
In my late teens and early twenties I started submitting short literary fiction and poetry to magazines and journals and began collecting rejections. After the birth of our son in 1971 my focus shifted to writing children’s books. I had a lot to learn, so I continued to collect a lot of rejections over the next 10 years until my first picture book was published.
During that author-in-waiting period, I started writing – and selling – freelance magazine and newspaper articles with no intention of ever making journalism a career. In fact, when the career guidance officer in high school had suggested I become a journalist I’d dismissed it outright because I wanted to be a ‘real’ writer. It turned out journalism was a good fit for me and by the time my book came out I was working part-time at a local newspaper and freelancing for magazines. I was also Mum to three young children so the stories I wanted to write were being created in the gaps between family and work commitments.
My first published book attracted a lot of media attention because it was a stranger danger story, so I thought I’d made it as a children’s author. I was wrong! My next two picture books arrived on the scene 15 years later, and then there was another gap of 10 years before the release of my fourth published children’s book. Fortunately I sold a lot of short stories and poems along the way, along with many positive rejections and a few near acceptances, so this gave me the incentive to keep writing and submitting. It also helped that I’m an optimist with a strong streak of persistence.
You have an incredibly varied publication output – including children’s books, young adult fiction, romance fiction, poetry and journalism. These are obviously quite different forms of writing, but are there any recurring patterns in the way you approach writing each of them?
I don’t work through from beginning to end. Instead I start with whatever is clear in my mind – a conversation, some narrative, a random paragraph, a whole scene if I’m lucky. I scribble it into a notebook so that when I go to the computer I have something to work with and can start filling in the gaps. It’s a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle.
Having written across such a wide spectrum of genres with varying word counts, do you find that the expected length of a manuscript affects the ease or difficulty of plotting your stories?
Definitely! Short manuscripts are much easier for me. Novels are challenging because of the commitment and focus required and the fact I don’t do any formal plotting. Once I have a sense of who my characters are and a general idea of what the story is about, I start writing and see where it takes me. Inevitably I will reach the end of a chapter with absolutely no idea what happens next. It’s become a standing joke in my critique group that when someone says, “Can’t wait to see what happens next,” after reading my latest chapter, my response is usually, “Neither can I!”
Often the next part of the story will come to mind while I am doing something ordinary such as walking the dog, washing the dishes or having a bath. I will also think about possible directions the story could take last thing at night before falling asleep. It can be a long, slow process to reach ‘The End’ of a novel but that’s OK because I’m not working to any publisher deadlines.
How does your experience as a journalist and editor inform your creative writing process?
Journalism taught me that I could write regardless of how I felt. In my earliest years as a writer I was convinced I had to be inspired to write anything worthwhile. While writing to deadline for newspapers, I realised that only I could tell the difference between words that had flowed effortlessly and those I’d struggled to find. I also learnt not to be precious about what I’d written, how to tell a story simply and directly, and how to edit my own work.
Unfortunately, after so many years of working as an editor I now struggle to switch off that part of my brain and find it impossible to dash off a first draft without polishing it along the way. Sometimes I miss those early days of free flow writing.
Do you find yourself gravitating towards any particular themes when you write for children?
Home, family, friendship and belonging, underpinned by strong elements of hope and optimism are recurring themes in my writing for children, though I don’t consciously set out to include them.
Your new book, You Can Be a Writer is a powerful tool to help young writers develop their own characters and stories in very clear, achievable steps. What prompted you to write it?
One of the best aspects about being a children’s author for me has been the opportunity to chat to children about writing and encourage them to write their own stories. If I hadn’t become a writer I’d have been a teacher so I’ve loved doing school and library visits. I get to do the fun part without all the day to day responsibilities of a classroom teacher.
In the pre-technology years I would just go into a classroom and wing it, though my sessions soon began to follow a theme of looking at where writers get ideas and how we shape them into stories. About 10 years ago I began creating PowerPoint presentations to use during author visits and the first one I made was You Can Be a Writer. I’d always had the idea of making it into a picture book and had a manuscript on file.
Last year when the pandemic brought most of my usual activities to a halt, I suddenly had extra space in my life but I didn’t feel like writing anything new. Instead I used the time to produce the book.
What’s next for Teena Raffa-Mulligan?
I have a new picture book called Looking After Grandma coming out with Serenity Press this year. It’s been beautifully illustrated by Amy Calautti and I can’t wait to receive an actual copy.
Also due out some time this year is a book for mid to upper primary children called Just Write. It expands on the concept introduced in You Can Be a Writer and goes into more detail about the writing process for older children. The idea is to encourage kids who find writing stories difficult to take a different perspective and have a go. Once that’s done, I have a writing craft book for adults that I’ve been working on intermittently for a while.
Where can readers find you online and get hold of You Can Be a Writer, as well as your other books?
This post is part of a blog tour for You Can Be a Writer, presented by Books On Tour PR & Marketing. Please continue following Teena's journey on the many fine blogs below.