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10 Writing Tips:

1. Write. Write anything. Write lots. Write more than lots.

2. Read. Read the kind of books or poems you like to write. Ask yourself questions about the techniques the author used to write them.

3. Planning does help: So think about your character. What does he/she want more than anything? What will stop them getting what they want? What conflicts will arise? How will they be overcome? What will your main character learn by the end of the story?

4. If you’re not enjoying writing a particular piece, write something else. Otherwise your boredom will be obvious to the reader.

5. Use correct nouns and strong verbs. Halve the number of adjectives and adverbs. Watch your writing grow stronger.

6. Show don’t Tell is important. When you simply report an action or emotion, it doesn’t capture the heart of the reader. Don’t Tell the reader that your character is anxious. Show him or her. For example: Jackie scratched repeatedly at her fingernail, as if to wear it away. She could feel the pressure right through to her finger.

7. Write your story. Then re-read the beginning and re-write that. By then, you’ll have a better idea of what your story’s about; plus you’ll think of a stronger way of hooking the reader and making them read on!

8. Use a Thesaurus. Words are powerful. Expand your vocabulary. You need the best ones to lift your writing.

9. Try the trick of writing your piece three times; The First time you create. The Second you communicate. The Third you add sparkle to your words.

10. Write for a real or imagined audience. That can help as you are then writing for with a purpose.

Here are some answers to particular writing questions from students: 

Q: How long have you been a published author for?

 A: My first book, My Sister learns Ballet, was published in 1984, but I’d had several poems and articles published in children’s and general magazines prior to that date.

Q: Can you explain the process you had to go through to get a book published once you had written it?

A: Before getting an agent, about four years ago, the process was all done by me. I would make a hard copy (printed), get an appropriate sized envelope, with another with a self-stamped addressed envelop in side, in case of a return (rejection). I would make a note in my note book, stating the title, the word length, to whom I sent the material and the date. If accepted I would highlight it in colour! If rejected I would simply put the date.

After that I might send it out to another publisher or leave it alone for some time – weeks, months or even years. The waiting time to hear back from a publisher was and still is, anything from 3 – 12 months. Some publishers are okay with sending a ‘multiple submission’; that is you can send the same work to many publishers, but it’s critical that you state that on your title page.

If the work is accepted, the publisher will notify you, usually by email/letter, or a phone call. After that will come structural editing, once an editor has gone through your work. Then a copy editing, to check for smaller details. If your work is being illustrated, you will be shown examples of the ongoing visual progress. After all that is done, you will receive galley proofs; sheets of work set up in the final layout; they are checked by you and several others in the publishing house. Once all is ready, it’s sent to the printers to complete the book.

Now I send my work online to my agent, who first reads it and sends feedback. Often I will then rework and resend to her again. When she’s satisfied, she will then send it out to potential publishers, often several at a time.

Q: Who is your publishing company? Is this the same for hardy copy and e-books?

A: I don’t have one publishing company. I am published with whoever chooses to take my book. Publishers these days create an e-book at the same time as they publish a printed book.

Q: Are your books available as e-books or just hard copies?

A: Several of my later books, or those which are under contract, are/likely will be made into e-books, but I’m not sure what each publisher plans to do about other books at this stage.

Q: Is this your decision?

A: It’s the publishers. However, if you have an out-of-print book, you can ask the publisher for the rights of that book to be reverted back to you and you can organise your own e-book, should you wish.

Q: Do you know what the process would be if you were to have your books published as e-books?

A: Not at this stage. I may in the future if I choose to create e-books from some of my own out-of-print titles.

Q: Are authors affected by whether or not their books are available as e-books?

A: If you mean financially, at this stage I believe the remuneration is quite small. By promotion and availability, I think people enjoy having a choice and hopefully that improves matters for the author.

Are you finding any trends in what other authors you know of are doing when it comes to publishing their books?

Most of my writing colleagues are still working in traditional ways but watching closely at the variety of ways publishers are using technology to introduce other ways of reading to the customers.

Q: Are commissions the same for hard copies and e-books for the author?

A: There is a difference in percentage but at this stage, I believe different authors offer different percentages.

Q: If your books are available as e-books as well, do you know the percentages of sales for e-books and hard copy books?

A: It would be possible to find out on your royalty statement which comes out every six months.

Q: Do authors get a say in this or only the publishers?

A: My agent deals with those types of situations.

Q: What advantages and disadvantages do you see for e-books?

A: E-books are great to use during travel, they have ease of portability and accessibility. It’s easy to download a vast number of titles. They still supply story.

Disadvantages are that they desensitise the reader from the physicality of the object, namely the book.

Young children, especially need to learn from using ALL their senses, and so I believe ALL children’s books should be available in both printed and if possible, e-books as well. It’s vital for children’s growth and development that picture books remain in printed copies.

Q: Do you personally read hard copy books or e-books or both, when for each?

A: I use my Kobo with e-books when I travel. I read printed books otherwise.

Q: Do you think the days of hard copy books are numbered?

I believe we will always have printed books, but there will be a duality with e-books and therefore a choice for readers.

Q: In your experience, do girls and boys like the same kind of stories? If yes, what are they?

 A: Very young children don’t tend to differentiate between what might be perceived as more a book for boys or a book for girls. That tends to come later, around the ages of 8+. So picture books for this age group can be enjoyed by both genders. When children reach school age and begins to read for themselves, they may veer towards single gender style of stories or stories which echo their own interests (eg. cars, humour, family type stories etc.)

Q: If no, what stories do girls like best?

A: While there is no hard and fast rule, the trend seems to be that girls will read boys’ books but boys won’t read girls’ books. Girls enjoy humour, action, adventure and fast paced stories, but later enjoy more the family/friend/social type as well. Girls like to see themselves depicted as strong characters – which was often not the case in books of early eras.

Q: If no, what stories do boys like best?

A: Boys enjoy humour, action and stories with less description and introspection. But we are talking about the upper end of the age range here. However, picture books have to also have a story that’s riveting and one in which the child gains enjoyment at each reading. Illustrations add to the story in this genre. In fact in picture books, the pictures and the text create the WHOLE story.

Q: Do children like stories with predictable endings, or do they prefer to use their imagination?

A: Very young children need happy endings. Their worldview is smaller than adults. They haven’t experienced as much and therefore they need a sense of security that a happy ending provides. However, having said that, a good story ending shouldn’t be predictable. After all what would be the point of the story if the child knew all along how it would end? Certainly we need them to consider possible outcomes as the story goes along, but the ending, apart from being satisfying, should come as a surprise, or a revelation or have a twist to it. The main character should’ve changed throughout the story and the child reader needs to have enjoyed the character’s journey.

Q: Do you think that stories with animals as the central character are popular?

A: Animals as main characters are popular – possibly for several reasons. While all children may not be serious animal lovers, what they do enjoy is that they are creatures, like themselves – but not necessarily depicted as ‘adults’. Therefore children relate better to them. Also if there is a story situation, which might prove a little upsetting or unsettling for a child, the use of an animal character means that it’s slightly removed or distanced, whereas if it was a ‘real’ character, the child might identify too strongly with it.

Q: Do you think that large, colourful pictures are necessary in any story?

A: As I said in an earlier question, there are picture books, and then there are story books, or chapter books as they are now called, for the slightly older child (6-8 years of age). While the latter books will still contain pictures, they are often in black-and-white. They are there for the child to enjoy, but also to break up the slabs of text for the emerging, independent reader, and to provide a visual context in which the reader may find clues that help him/her with the words of the story.

However, a picture book, which, in most cases has four colour or full colour illustrations, must contain pictures. That is the critical difference between this genre and other fiction. The writer will write the words of the story in a concise manner, considering the opportunities that he/she is offering the illustrator to expand the concept. While an adult or older person is reading to a child, the child is absorbing the word-story, the visual story and at the same time, creating his/her own compilation story in their mind, according to their own experiences. For example if a child were to hear a story about a dog, it might remind them of their own dog or their grandpa’s dog which ran away etc.

Q: Do you think that children generally prefer stories about Australian animals, or more traditional animals, such as rabbits, cats or dogs?

A: Once again, I think it is the story that decides whether the child enjoys it or not. Like anything, children will have their own preferences, including animals, but if you look in a bookshop at all the books with animals on the covers, I’m sure you’ll see a great variety.

Q: Do such stories require a “goodie” and a “baddie” in the story line?

A: In stories for the young, there must be a likeable main character for the child to relate to or identify with. In each story, there must also be a problem solved, a quest achieved, a promise kept etc. and it must be the main character who actively does this. There must be no adults who step in and fix it up for the character. However, to increase the tension and add to the sense of story, with a beginning, middle and end, the character must not be allowed to reach the goal immediately or easily. What would be the point of reading or listening to anything like that? So the ‘baddie’ as you say, can be anything that causes problems for the character in completing the goal – which adds to the suspense and interest. The ‘baddie’ doesn’t have to be a child character or even an animal or toy character. It could be the wind. It could be a boat or a train – anything that is appropriate to the story.

Q: Should children’s stories be educational, purely just for fun, or a combination of both?

A: First and foremost, a children’s book should engage the reader, or the child being read to. It should be fun, but that doesn’t mean that every book should necessarily be lighthearted. There should be a quality of emotional response – otherwise the story is slight and trite and doesn’t nourish the growing child or his/her imagination. There are books and stories which are primarily designed to go into schools which have an educational basis to them – that is, they may be stories that introduce concepts like ‘things that melt and things that don’t.’ These stories or ‘readers’ are have particular word lengths, and themes and are often series based.

Q: Are there any books that are particular favourites with the children, ones that they frequently request be read to them?

A: Of course. What were yours?

Q: Are there any suggestions you would make to someone writing a children’s book of short stories?

A: Read, read, read. Read what is being written for children in that genre. Go to libraries for books but also bookshops to see what is current. Model your writing on works by highly experienced writers so the style and feel of the genre becomes more familiar. You won’t lose your own style or ‘voice’. Instead you’ll understand why the writer has written the words just so, or developed that character in that way etc. Write every day. It’s a practice that even experienced, published writers do, to get their brain working, to flush out new, interesting ideas and to tone the writing muscle.

Some students asked about writing Picture Books:

Q: What elements are required to produce an effective storyline/plot?

A: Picture book demands are so special, and its form is both restrictive, yet exciting for its creators. One of the particular elements is that the content is within the grasp and interest of the 2- 8 year old; although of course I would also advocate that children are read picture books as soon after birth as possible. The kinds of content elements would include such themes as Friends, fears, family, siblings, outings, toys and pets.

Another element is that the storyline and language must be simple but not simplistic. It must have a strong beginning, middle and ending and must not resort to ‘dumbing-down’ or being ‘cutesy’ to children.

Because it is the rare beast that is designed to be read aloud, the text must be as multi-levelled as poetry; so it stands up to repeated readings and offers both the adult and the child the joy of language; the flow, the patterning and a sense of rhythm.

Something must happen constantly; the child needs action.

From the illustrator’s point of view, the author must be provide varied opportunities for visuals that will stimulate the imagination of the child; often by providing visual subplots, or irony (eg. the text says one thing and the illustrations show something different) offering them different settings or character’s emotional responses. etc.

Q: What language techniques generally heighten the effect of this storyline when writing for children?

A: The language must be concise. Picture books are mainly 32 pages, or numbers that are multiples of 8 (24, 64) but not all those pages are available for text. (approx. 25-28) Word lengths are generally between 0 – 1000 words with 500-600 words being the current ‘norm’ for Australian picture books. Words, therefore, have to be carefully selected. Each word must be there for a reason. The writer must consider and write only selected details as many aspects can be shown in the illustrations – thus unifying the work. The beginning must be immediate. There is neither time nor words for lengthy descriptions.

Children of this age group love to predict; so setting up a pattern where there is a relevant refrain or story aspect repetition, will help their enjoyment of prediction, confidence, a sense that they are ‘learning to read’ and satisfaction. It is also a joy to the ear.

Rhythm and rhyme are also very important for this age group.

Because the picture book is read to the child, the writer can employ a wider, more varied, and richer vocabulary that he/she would be able to if the book was the child’s first attempt in reading solo.

Q: How do I convey a strong message based around political and social issues without the picture book becoming too confusing, gruesome or confronting?

A: When a creator wishes to convey something of the nature you indicated, he/she will often choose a simpler, singular aspect that carries the same message. In other words he/she hones the general to the individual.

An example from my work would be from my award-winning book, Where does Thursday go?

The original notion was triggered by a situation that led to a child to wonder when time went. That was too large a topic, so I reduced it to where does a day go? So the character Splodge wonders then, where does Thursday go before Friday comes. And the whole story

Creators also use animals, toys or inanimate objects (trains etc) rather than human beings to depict characters when a topic might cause them distress, anxiety etc. (ie. being lost) The ending of a picture book should always provide a sense of security for this age group.

Q: How do I appeal to children under five when writing a picture book?

A: As in question 1; by writing about their world, what appeals to them and especially what makes them laugh. Children love humour. By posing story questions that make them think and gives them surprises.

Q: How do I ensure that the book explores important moral, intellectual and social issues, but is also understandable for children?

A: By being aware that the child is a growing, developing human being with the same emotions as any adult, but only a shorter and more restricted life-view and experience. By acknowledging gender and racial tolerance.

Q: What do parents look for in a picture book?

A: Often what parents want can be different from what the child wants. I’m a great advocate of the children choosing their own books; but suggesting that they have ‘turns’. Ie. the child gets to choose a book for reading and then the adult gets a turn. Children will appreciate this sense of fairness and it won’t put the adult off from always reading the same book over and over again. But children will often love a particular book and the adult is baffled as to why. I’d suggest the adult go with it for as long as it takes to move onto something else; offer other suggestions without demeaning the child’s choice. Talk about the books afterwards; what parts the child liked. The pictures will always draw children in first; so they will love to explore them repeatedly as well. Another idea would be that the child makes up their own story from the pictures. Parents often appreciate subtle little aspects which an illustrator might add that are directed at adult humour, without in any way detracting or demeaning the child’s story.

Q: How important is the underlying moral in creating a picture book that appeals to parents?

A: History shows us that books for young children were mainly designed as cautionary tales; stories which carried a suitable moral for the social mores of the time. There are still ‘morals’ within picture books today- but children and publishers will get a sniff of overt ‘preaching’ from miles away. Both detest it. Creators should even consider it. Themes within the story carry the underlying tone of the story; ie. good friendship; creatively solving problems; understanding that results come from effort rather than lethargy etc.