Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed author Melanie Notaras about her children’s game and story book, The Art Show That Came To Life, what inspired her, and the creative process that she went though.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
Hello! I’m Melanie Notaras. I live in Australia with my three kids, and one of my best moments was winning first prize in a public storytelling competition at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2001. When my kids were young, I used to do a lot of volunteering for their primary school, both in the classroom and in fundraising, which is where the idea for my book The Art Show That Came To Life At [Your School Name Here] was born.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
Writing a book has been a long-time dream! I really felt the urge though when I had the idea for a story and structure that hadn’t existed before. I thought this type of book would really excite my kids – and other kids too.
When did you take a step to start writing?
My talent lies more naturally with poetry and rhyme – it’s concise, structured, and I love the beat of words. Prose always felt less natural, and really long, so my first step towards writing a book was breaking it down into scenes that I could complete in a short space, so I wouldn’t have to sustain an idea over a whole chapter or novel.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
Five years! That included writing, drawing, editing, publishing and setting up the website. I repeated several of those steps multiple times! However, with that all settled, now I can create, publish and deliver custom editions of The Art Show That Came To Life At [Your School Name Here] for primary schools in three weeks or less.
What made you want to write The Art Show That Came To Life?
One evening, I went to see my kids’ school art show, which was also a fundraising event that we’d organised. One part of my brain started to have a little fun imagining all the pieces moving around or snapping at people; and another part of my brain was thinking about how we were next going to raise money for the school after this event, maybe cookbooks, except they were hard…. and the two thought processes collided into one idea – a book, about an art show coming to life! Set in real schools, customised for each school with their teachers as characters! This quickly merged with other ideas of making it educational, easy to run, environmentally sustainable, and healthy. One of my kids had severe food allergy and missed out on a lot of exciting food-based school events – my book could be a school event that included kids like him, safely and with fun!
What were your biggest challenges with writing The Art Show That Came To Life?
It’s a gamebook, and most pages are a self-standing scene with a choice offered to the reader at the end of the page, so the main challenge was keeping the writing tight and mostly to one page. The other challenge sometimes was trying to figure out a good ‘ending’ (there are 22) or how to tie the story back to another plot so it didn’t end.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?
Gamebooks are typically written in second person, so the protagonist is – you, the reader! My story doesn’t create or shape the protagonist but thrusts them into impossible situations that they must try and survive! I was inspired to make the situation as exciting as possible for the protagonist/reader by all the fun I had reading “Choose Your Own Adventure” books when I was a kid.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?
There are many antagonists, and they’re all based on reality – they’re objects like cameras or chairs, or historically important characters from the art world such as the Mona Lisa, Vincent Van Gogh or the Terracotta Warriors – but wildly animated! I wanted to merge the everyday world of kids, with the extraordinary richness of art – with a mix of crazy adventure thrown in!
What is the inciting incident of your book?
As soon as you step into the art show, things go awry.
What is the main conflict of your book?
The art characters want to draw you into their world – with nefarious intent. You want to stay alive – or escape!
Did you plot your book in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
Seat of my pants, and I didn’t even write in page order! I’d ask my kids to nominate a number and I’d start writing on that page, then I’d branch off to a new page or return to a previous plotline. I handwrote the first draft in an exercise book to keep the words physically fixed to that page and kept mental track of the multiple plots. Gradually I filled the empty pages and twisted the loose plotlines together into one synchronised story.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did The Art Show That Came To Life need?
I edited it myself – easily a hundred times. I wanted to craft the best story possible, so I tweaked it – a lot! I also road-tested the book on a few kids before publishing. Reading the story aloud (or setting your computer to ‘read aloud’) is very helpful – if the words are hard to get out of your mouth, or take too much breath, your writing probably needs to change.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
Have kids. Then write stories for them. I’d write two pages about twice a week – my kids would hang onto every word, even if the words were obviously wrong, because they heard the intention of the story and didn’t worry about mistakes. So I didn’t worry either! It was a really positive feedback loop as my little audience loved it and kept demanding more – that’s how I finished the first draft, which is the biggest hurdle.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
I have a series of about 6 books planned for my publishing business My School Adventure, and have started on “The Science Fair That Went Berserk At [Your School Name Here]” featuring lab rats, exploding volcanoes, time travel and all the other mayhem that might happen at your school’s exciting science fair.
And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
Yes and yes! I’m really proud of my book and what it can offer schools. I invented a type of story that no one else in the world writes and a book that, because of its structure and content – an adventure so uniquely based around a child’s school – will encourage kids to read, help foster a fun connection with their school, and can help schools fundraise in a healthy, educational and inclusive way. It was definitely worth the effort! 😊
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