Tell me about your books
I have lots of works-in-progress right now, but my current focus is on picture book manuscripts (3 that I’m actively working on) and a middle grade novel. The middle grade is an adventure novel set in a rural town in Australia that’s running out of water. My main character, who’s never stepped foot out of her hometown, comes up with a plan and enlists her friends on a journey to save their town – she’ll discover along the way that home means more than just the place you grew up in.
When and how did you start writing?
My writing journey is not like most I’ve heard before. I did not start writing at the age of 8 knowing that was what I wanted to do forever. I did write terrible poetry in high school, but I never felt particularly good at it, and I never EVER thought I’d be able to get anything published. Throughout high school and the beginning of my 20s, I was stuck. Early high school, my parents were separated, and they ultimately divorced, and we moved two hours away from the place I knew as home. Although it should’ve been a fresh start, I was stuck waiting for life to feel ‘normal’ again and I had no idea what I wanted to do career-wise.
During my early 20s, I ended up at university taking on a Bachelor of Social Science, and at that time I realised that all I wanted to do was escape into the world of books – and not the scholarly kind that I needed to read for my studies. A little while after I’d finished my degree, I started writing a novel and then I wrote my very first picture book. They weren’t very good, and I never finished the novel, but it was at that moment that I started to wonder what it might be like to be a writer. I ended up studying again. This time it was a Master of Publishing where I picked up lots of skills and knowledge to help me work towards my goal of being an editor – working with authors seemed a dream career when I never thought I could reach as high as being a writer myself. I started a freelance business, and while I edited everyone else’s work, my writing was on the backburner. I did write here and there but not consistently, and I still didn’t have any confidence whatsoever that I could really, truly be a writer.
Finally, in 2018, having had one child, I figured out that I needed to make writing a priority. It was the thing I kept coming back to and the career I secretly yearned for. Having children is what pushed me to pursue it for real this time because I wanted (and still do) to show my kids that pursuing your dreams is possible even when it doesn’t feel that way. So, I took on some courses and started freelance writing before turning to novels again.
Now I’m a bit of a mixed bag – I write personal essays, short stories, picture books, and novels ranging from middle grade to young adult. Along this journey I’ve discovered that kidlit is the place for me and that’s where my focus will continue to be, but essays and other forms of writing are still on the table too.
How does a story begin for you? Is it an idea, a conversation, a title, or an image?
For me, it’s usually a character + a problem. Sometimes it’s the character first (as is the case with some picture books I wrote last year that came from conversations with my then 3-year-old) and sometimes it’s a problem first (the idea for my MG novel came about after a bad bushfire season in Australia that followed drought – I started wondering what might happen to a small town that completely runs out of water).
What writing advice have you been given that really helped you?
There is so much great advice that I’ve taken on and use regularly, but something that’s really stuck with me is advice that came during a university class with author Fiona Kelly McGregor. She said that before her writing sessions she reads from a book that’s similar to what she’s currently working on. Although I don’t always read before a writing session (I have two small children so sometimes my writing time is in short spurts that don’t allow for such luxury), if I’m stuck on my current project, reading something that’s within the same genre, has a similar theme, or is in a writing style that aligns with mine, works wonders in getting creativity flowing again for my current project.
What do you consider your greatest writing accomplishment?
My biggest writing accomplishment so far is the very first time I had my work accepted for an online publication. It was within a popular Australian parenting publication where I saw articles that I never thought I was capable of writing. To have something accepted – and to be paid for that work – was such a wonderful moment.
And which was your biggest challenge?
My biggest challenge was pushing past a lack of confidence. There are many reasons for that lack, and it took a long time to move forward, but now that I have, it feels silly that it took so long to take my writing seriously and put my work out there. It’s still kinda scary, but it’s also amazing, and I’ll never look back now.
What’s the best thing someone has said about your writing?
This isn’t so much something someone has said, but the best reaction for me is when people have cried over my writing. That sounds a little evil, I know, but when I’ve written something so painful that it’s like therapy to get it down on the page, it’s amazing to know that my words and feelings have translated well enough to affect others too.
What do you want your readers to feel when they have closed the last page of your book?
Ooh such a great but tough question! I don’t sugar coat things in my writing. I aim to show the bad along with the good because that’s reality, but I want people to end my stories feeling like the whole journey is worthwhile despite the bad.
You are training to be an illustrator; do you plan to illustrate your own books?
Illustration is so new to me (I’ve only been attempting illustration for 6 months), so right now I’m building up a portfolio and working on a website to showcase my work. It would be lovely to illustrate my own books, but at the same time, I’m open to having someone else illustrate if my art isn’t the best fit. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m open to anything and I’m excited to see where this new venture leads – wherever that may be!
What are your current projects? What should we be looking out for?
As I mentioned earlier, I have lots of projects in the works, but since I’m trying to find agent representation, they all seem a long way from publication. However, I do still publish articles and short stories, and I run a short story publication with one of my sisters who’s also a writer. The publication is on Medium and it’s called Short-B-Read. We are looking at making changes in the new year (possibly moving to another platform), but we’re aiming to start regular writing prompts and competitions – you can keep an eye out for those via my Substack, which is where you can stay updated on all my other writing ventures too.
What would you do if you didn’t write?
I work as a freelance editor as well as a writer, so I’m sure editing is still what I’d be doing even if not writing my own stories. But something I’ve considered that’s not quite so close to writing is psychology. I have taken on a few courses in the past and it’s a career I could see myself in if not for writing being my main squeeze.
What is your ultimate dream as a writer?
My ultimate dream is seeing my book in a bookstore or library. I know that’s a common one, but that’s the thing that would make my teary – actually, who am I kidding?! I’m probably gonna happy cry at every milestone because all of it feels like a dream to me.
Melissa-Jane Nguyen is an Aussie freelance writer and editor and mum to two little ones. She has writing published in Kidspot and Essential Baby. Melissa is currently working on writing picture books, a middle grade novel, and letting a young adult manuscript marinate for a while before turning it on its head and rewriting the entire thing.
Melissa is (sort of) becoming an expert at juggling lots of projects simultaneously. If you can get her to sit down for a chat, she’s partial to any kind of tea and will happily relate all she’s discovered about celebrities and topics she has no real interest in but has researched thoroughly thanks to falling down rabbit holes.