A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.
G. K. Chesterton English author & mystery novelist (1874 - 1936)

This evening I came across a very useful podcast series produced by the Scottish Book Trust. It's a series of 5 masterclasses, all presented by children's author Keith Gray.
Each podcast covers a different aspect of the writing process. While a lot of the advice is much the same as any other source of information for beginning writers, it's still a very enjoyable series - and you're still likely to come across little things that you hadn't considered before.
Lesson 1: Ideas and inspiration
This lesson reinforced everything that I've already read (and heard) about sourcing ideas and inspiration. I didn't really come away with anything new...but it did prompt me to write down the ideas that I'd thought of during the day but had neglected to write down at the time. Good job too as I'd probably have completely forgotten them by the morning.

Lesson 2: Characterisation
The main points that I gained from this lesson were:
1. Plot grows from character - your plot is driven by the main character's actions therefore the reader must believe in the character and understand his motivation for the actions he takes.
2. Action is character - the way a person behaves or reacts tells us a lot about their character. This was a significant reminder of the importance of showing, not telling!

Lesson 3: Plot
Again, not much new here, but worth a look.

Lesson 4: Setting
This was the most enjoyable podcast by far. There were 3 significant points to be gained from this lesson.
1. Keep descriptions brief
2. Only describe your setting enough to set the mood or create an atmosphere
3. Use sensory details to enable the reader to experience the setting for themselves

Lesson 5: Redrafting
This was a very useful lesson on how to recognise when your work is done.
There are 3 C's to look for when redrafting your work: 
1. Clarity
2. Construction
3. Colour
It reminded me of the importance of reading your work from the perspective of the reader - a child. It also prompted the recall of an incident at school today. 

I was relieving in a class at a school that I've never taught at before. The children were in awe of the fact that my hobby is writing children's stories. They were keen as mustard to hear some of my work, but alas I hadn't brought any with me! 

This got me thinking about critiquing and editing  - perhaps the best indication of how close your story is to completion comes from how well your target audience responds to it. Children can be brutally honest when asked for their opinion! Allowing children to critique your work is also a very useful teaching strategy too as it encourages the normalisation of constructive criticism and helps children to accept it as an inevitable part of improving one's writing skills.

Next time I get a call I'll be sure to include some of my works-in-progress! :)  

Over the past couple of days I've spent a lot of time hunched over a 3 meter roll of newsprint trying to perfect the placement of my plot and subplot elements. As you've probably gathered by now I'm a 'planner' so a clear road map is very important to me...although I am happy to take detours if I spot that there's a more efficient means of reaching my destination.

Inevitably there were times when my back could stand it no more. I was forced to abandon my 'mad scientist' pose and take a little time out with a toasty hot water bottle and a few short podcasts.

As I was listening to Laura Backes and Jon Bard's podcast on publishing trends and the tween market, I had another one of those 'Ah-ha' moments (No, I didn't suddenly have the urge the need to listen to '80's pop!). I'd stumbled across an answer to my nagging questions...
What level to pitch the intensity of the danger at in a middle grade novel? 
What sort of dangerous situations are appropriate for 8-12 year olds before they cross over into the YA sphere? 

But, I'd also discovered the value of meandering aimlessly through the mounds of information on children's writing that exist.

There is time and place for everything. Sometimes a clear and focused plan is necessary to keep you on track, but other times the lack of a plan can lead you to undiscovered gems that - had you been following a plan - you might otherwise have missed.. 

The link to the podcast for any interested Fightin' Bookworm members out there  

On Saturday I was treated to a rather amusing insight into one of the differences between children and adults.

The event was a trip to Wellington Zoo for our daughter's upcoming 3rd birthday. We thought she'd really enjoy it since she reads so many picture books with lions, giraffes, kangaroos, monkeys etc. in them.

Fortunately our prediction was correct and she did really enjoy it...but not in the way we had expected. A  giraffe standing right over her failed to impress, as did the lions, kangaroos, cheetahs, African wild dogs, sun bears, and chimpanzees!  
Instead, the things that most captured and held her attention were watching the emperor penguin being operated on in the animal hospital, a random chicken on the loose, and feeding hot chips to the ducks!

It wasn't long before I realised that her experience of the zoo wasn't going to be what I thought, and perhaps hoped, it might be. She was never going to find lions, cheetahs, and kangaroos  fascinating because she doesn't know enough about them to recognise how unnatural it is to have them living in New Zealand. 

Furthermore, they weren't where the action was at! A chicken on the loose provided an opportunity for playing chase. The emperor penguin operation provided the chance to see something out of the ordinary...and most certainly not anything she's ever come across in a picture book before. And last - but by no means least - feeding the ducks. What (almost) 3 year old wouldn't enjoy having a couple of ducks follow your every move? She just loved feeling their beaks peck the chips from her hand!   

As we continued our circuit around the zoo it was amazing how many times I overheard other parents battling the inevitable. One dad tried desperately to convince his son to have a look at the lions. He assured his son that he would be amazed by them. The son's reply 'Nah, I've seen lions on TV before.' The dad could do little more than stalk off in the direction of the lions, alone, muttering about how he hadn't seen them like this before but it was going to be his loss, grumble, grumble... 

And the point of this a writer it's always important to keep your readers in mind. This experience reinforced the importance of knowing the children you write for. While it's tempting to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and get down the story we want to tell, there can be no substitute for observing children and getting know and truly appreciate their reactions and interactions in different environments and settings. Ultimately it's time well invested and will lead to the production of a book that children will identify with and love reading.


I don't know about you, but I love to write in the company of others. There's nothing better than the opportunity to brainstorm, bounce ideas off other writers, and share tips and hints on craft and the writing process.

And on that note I'd urge you to check out the link above.  Here's just a snippet from Deana's information on what it entails...

'Each week in July we are going to focus on the agent-grabbing elements (platform building, learning the craft, the novel and queries) in an interactive way.'

If that's not enough to whet your appetite then perhaps this will!

'At the end of each week I will be giving away CRITIQUES GALORE from some seriously talented people... I can assure you, you won't be disappointed (*hint hint* think agents, writers with agents, published authors...see, you aren't disappointed are you?).'

It's open to people who blog and those on twitter so sign up and get sounds like a lot of fun!

Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.
Cyril Connolly (1903 - 1974)
I found this quote from a fellow countryman, born in my hometown.

To me, it sums up the importance of enjoying the writing process rather than focusing on the end goal.

I for one am thoroughly pleased by this as my entry into the world of children's writing began solely as a hobby that best suited my need for flexibility - both in setting and time. 

Not that I'm any different to other writers in my aspiration for success and publication! Of course I'd love to have something published for the world to enjoy, but it's all too easy to get caught up in 'the rat race'. 

The more you read on writing, and the more forums, blogs etc. you follow, the easier it is to feel like you've entered a race for publication. At times like this it's important to take a step back and evaluate why you write and what your goal is. It's also important to remember that taking time and care over your work is incredibly valuable as this is an important contributing factor to the eventual publication (or not) of your work. 

Rather invest the time and energy into producing a few great manuscripts than a lot of good-average ones! After all, if you're not thrilled with your efforts you can hardly expect other to be ;)

For now I'm aiming to be the tortoise rather than the hare!


Over the past couple of days I've engaged in some intensive research into how to structure a novel. Boy is there a lot to consider!

I had made a start on trying to identify the features of a well structured novel for myself - namely things like the average length of chapters and at what part of a scene the chapters ended on. However after a bit of research and completing the Children's Book Insider modules I quickly realised that there were so many things I hadn't considered.

My most significant learning has been in the area of subplots. I knew that my story would need them but I wasn't sure whether there was a rule of thumb with regards to how many one should have or how intense they should be. I also became aware of the fact that I had completely neglected to actively seek out the subplots in the middle grade novels I've been reading.

The good news is  there doesn't seem to be any rule surrounding quantity. And even better news is the fact there is a strong recurring message when it comes to writing:

There are no coincidences in children's books (or any other well written fiction for that matter)

In simple terms, everything in your story should contribute to driving the plot forward. Consequently every subplot, character, utterance etc. should serve a purpose and the reader should understand why it's there and what it adds to the story.

That said, I'm off to make myself a nice big sign with those 7 words of wisdom and hang it on the wall above my writing space. I think it sums up the essence of a great story perfectly and is certainly something I keep coming across as part of every checklist, be it for characters, plot, subplots, settings, or any other component of a story.    

Next time: Field Research

Just a quick note to let you know of some upcoming writing competitions.

The first is the Writers’ Village Best Writing Award 2011  

Any form of short story may be submitted up to 3000 words and in any genre (eg. mystery, romance, fantasy, crime, science fiction, children’s, etc).
The work should not have been previously published in print media at the time of its submission to the contest.
Playscripts and poetry may not be entered. (True, the definition of a ‘script’ or ‘prose poem’ may be arguable. But to ensure a level playing field for all entrants, anything that clearly appears to be a script or poem will be excluded and the judge’s definition of the term ‘clearly’ will be final :))
In judging entries, particular weight will be given to their power to move the reader, their originality and their demonstration of the craft skills of creative writing.

Closing date 30th June 2011
The second is the Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing 
  • Submit one story or novel excerpt up to 10,000 words
  • You may include a synopsis if your entry is an excerpt, but an excerpt should still work as a stand-alone piece
  • Work must be original, written in English, and previously unpublished
  • Your name or address should not appear anywhere on the work
  • Once submitted, entries cannot be altered
  • All entries will be considered for general publication as well as for the Katherine Paterson Prize
  • No artwork, or translations please
  • Multiple entries allowed—each entry must include a separate entry fee
Closing date 30th June 2011
Hope it proves useful!

You may have noticed that I've yet to post the book review I mentioned last week. That's because I've yet to actually finish the book!

Somehow life has got in the way of my goal - but that's not to say that I've been neglectful of my writing. On the contrary, I have managed to write a few blog posts, create a character sketch for my protagonist, start creating a broad plot outline for MG novel, do some research on setting and main character details, start sketching out the details for some of my secondary characters, and continue researching different aspects of craft. 

This brings me to the point of today's blog. It's human nature to focus on the things we haven't accomplished or done well, but in doing so we miss opportunities to celebrate all of the things that we have achieved. 

It's easy for writers to beat themselves up about not reaching their word count goal or writing as many chapters as they'd hoped. But writing is so much more than just putting pen to paper and churning out pages. A great story sometimes needs a bit of research, and ALWAYS  requires a lot of thinking space. 

Tip: If you're one of those people that's focused on what they haven't achieved - STOP! Try making a list of all of the things you have got done and you'll probably find that they amount to a whole lot more work than you first gave yourself credit for. ;)

As I watched an episode of Spongebob Squarepants with my daughter this morning a question began to nag away at me...

Why can TV shows get away with aggressive, somewhat frightening, behaviour in their episodes, yet picture book writers have to be super careful about how they phrase things?

An example:
As a result of having a picture book critiqued I was advised (by a very experienced author and reviewer I might add) to change "Someone painted a picture on my tunic. My mum's going to kill me!"
The reason given was that children of picture book age tend to take things too literally. Hence a mum killing a child for getting paint on their tunic would be far too scary. Drawing on my experience as a teacher I could see her point, and not wanting to frighten my readers I willingly changed it to something more appropriate.

However, this morning's episode of Spongebob had a gorilla thrashing Patrick and Sandy, who'd been put in a sack, within an inch of their lives!  As this was happening my daughter was calling out "No! Patrick are you okay?" She's 3 years old and the time slot it's on at is 7:30am so I wouldn't expect something inappropriate for toddlers to be on at that time...and I'm not generally offended by Spongebob's just raised the question...

Are there different standards for TV and books? (or is it just poor scheduling by TVNZ?)

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

P.S. My daughter doesn't appear to have been traumatised by watching this episode, but it does serve as a reminder of the importance of monitoring what children watch!

I now know what it's like to be a fly on the wall!

Yesterday I spent about an hour getting to know my main character (MC). Initially he was a bit abstract, but it didn't take long before I was transported into his world - his home, school, and local hang-out spots.

Allowing myself that time to daydream was immensely helpful. Not only did I suss out the seemingly basic aspect of physical appearance, I was able to see how his physical appearance affects both his personality/mannerisms and those of the people around him too.  Annoying habits and speech patterns abounded and my pen could hardly keep up!

Suddenly my view began to expand. He was no longer a solo character but part of a family and peer group too. In trying to figure out his place in the family my rough sketch became a vivid family portrait filled with memories. By watching him at school I got flashbacks of all his school experiences - past, present, and future.

Another unexpected benefit of being a fly on the wall has been the development of a cast of secondary characters and a potential antagonist.

I've yet to figure out the answers to the BIG 4 (see previous post) but I'm sure as the day progresses and I continue to tune in to my MC they'll become clearer. I suspect that they may remain a little elusive until I figure out what sort of crime my MC is going to have to solve...

Until next time, happy writing ;)

Today I've decided to invest a little time in planning my MG mystery novel. Although I'm still in the process of reading and researching I decided that getting to know my main character (MC) is aspect of my story I can start on.

One recurring message I've picked up has been the importance of investing time in getting to know your MC. Knowing your MC intimately is what helps the direction and development of an exciting plot.

There are a whole list of questions to help writers get to know their MC. The four most important things you need to consider are:
1. What MC's goal is
2. What the MC's motivation is for wanting to achieve their goal
3. What obstacles  stand in his way and stop him from achieving his goal 
and one final question that I wasn't an obvious part of my brainstorm until reading an article on the CBI website (it's a great site - you should really consider joining if you're not already a member)
4. What might happen if the MC gets what he wants?

There are countless other questions to consider too. 

Tip: I found it useful to play a game of Truth or Dare with my main character. I asked questions about his dreams, goal, fears...and noted his response to dares - this helped me to identify contrasting characteristics e.g. confident cool kid who doesn't care what people think about him but in reality cares deeply about what people think.

Another idea that sprang to mind was the idea of taking your MC on a speed date...or kid equivalent - perhaps more of a quickfire 'find a friend' meeting. 

The list of questions to ask is endless! Take time to get to know your MC, and remember to avoid stereotypes as they make for a very boring and predictable story.

P.S. Feel free to leave a comment or ask questions. I'd love to hear from you!

Yesterday I set myself the challenge of reading The Sisters Grimm and attempting a review of the book today.
Bad news...I failed!

There were many contributing factors to my inability to meet this somewhat ambitious goal - a toddler who decided that she no longer wants to go to Playcentre with Granny; an exceptionally busy supermarket; lack of a trolley suitable for a baby and toddler to name but a few.

Some - my husband for one - might say that perhaps I ought to set smaller, more realistic goals but I like to look at this as an inevitable part of being a writer.

In an ideal world I'd write a story, do a bit of editing, send it off to a big NY publisher, and receive a phone call a few months later begging me to sign a contract. Unfortunately that's about as likely as me winning the Euro millions lottery this weekend. I'm sure there are many rejection letter in store for me, just as there will be many occasions where I'll fail to achieve a personal goal. It's hardly worth beating myself up about it...especially as I've still got to take Roland for a walk. He wouldn't be impressed if he missed out on his daily constitutional!

All I can do is try again tomorrow. So that's what I'll do!
C'est la vie :)

Yesterday saw the start of another research phase, this time on middle grade novels – mystery in particular - and yet again it began with web-surfing. 

Actually the internet searching began on Monday because Wednesday is toddler story time at our local library – which incidentally is an excellent way of getting to know what new books are available AND striking up a conversation with the children’s librarians. They’re extremely useful people to know if you intend to write for children (librarians…but children are too!).

A quick search for ‘best children’s mysteries’ returned a lot of results. One site was especially useful as it listed all of the novels nominated for The Edgar Award (in honour of Edgar Allan Poe), an annual prize for the best crime and mystery fiction across all genres. 

I also did a search of my local library catalogue. They’re not going to have every award winning book so it seemed logical to start at the end and work my way forward. Any books that looked interesting (yes, I did judge books by their cover!) then made it to a ‘Google Books’ search for star ratings and reader reviews. It didn’t take long to narrow my search down to a few popular and readily available options. 

Next was the process of reading with a critical eye. As I’m just starting out I had my notebook – with MG novel features checklist - and pen next to me. A couple of selections were short eight chapter novels. Although I’m hoping to write something double that length they were an excellent way of warming-up and getting to grips with recognising the techniques employed in constructing a MG novel (e.g. split scenes, page breaks, character and scene description etc.).

Last night I started on The Sisters Grimm: The Fairytale Detectives. I didn’t get very far as my daughter was suffering with teething pains, but the first 3 pages were great! I’m totally hooked and can’t wait to get back to it today. 

For the uninitiated, the sight of a woman sitting down with a novel (and my ‘handy-dandy’ notebook) and a cup of coffee is hardly suggestive of intense research, but my response would be that reading and writing go hand-in-hand. Consequently I’m going to enjoy every moment of it…especially as my 3 year old will be out with her grandmother for the morning!

Next time: My first book review…hopefully on The Sisters Grimm

Mayra Calvani's picture book workshop 'Walking on a Rainbow' was fantastic! You'd be amazed at the rate one's skill level can advance in such a short amount of time, especially under the guidance of a skilled teacher. If picture books are your thing I'd highly recommend her course.

Now it might seem perfectly obvious that picture book stories need to be tightly focused.
Indeed it is. But knowing and achieving this are two quite different things.

Mayra provided us with a challenge - to answer 4 simple questions in no more than a sentence:
1. In 1 word, what is your character's flaw?
2. What is your main character's goal?
3. What is standing in the way of your main character achieving their goal?
4. Does your character have an internal conflict? (one that parallels the external conflict)

These questions have been perhaps the single most useful idea for a starting point that I've managed to identify yet. While my head is filled with a gazillion picture book ideas, each brainstorm I do always starts off with answering these questions.

And, while the idea was introduced in the context of picture book writing, I'm certain it's just as applicable in other contexts too. I'll let you know once I get underway with my next project - a middle grade mystery!

I've also found that revisiting these questions as I re-read and edit my work has helped me to narrow down my focus to the bear essentials. It's amazing how many 'bonus features' you end up adding that just aren't necessary.

After writing a story, the next challenge is having someone critique your work. This can be a scary thought - although as a teacher I'm rather accustomed to being observed and critiqued - but it's important to remember that a good critic will offer you encouragement, a rundown of what works and what doesn't, and most importantly offer suggestions for change.

Finding people to critique your work is fairly simple. A quick web search is all it takes. Two very useful pieces of advice I've received are:
1. Join a group that specifically deals with the genre you're writing in - very important since each has its own set of rules.
2. Join a group that has both experienced and novice writers - experienced writers have the know-how when it comes to the nuts and bolts, but beginners can have something to offer too.

Next time: A progress report on my branching out into the unknown that is middle grade novels.

I myself am somewhat of a perfectionist so my first thought was not to start writing until I knew EVERYTHING about each genre of children's literature. I didn't want to appear to be totally ignorant and out of my depth...even to myself!

Luckily an opportunity to participate in a picture book workshop, hosted by Mayra Calvani,  arose - and it was just too good an opportunity to miss (it was through Savvy Authors - see my last post). Feedback from someone with experience in the field is a dream :) At the time of starting the workshop a couple of weeks ago I didn't know everything...and still don't. The good news is neither does everyone else - writers are always learning!

Anyway, the workshop was just what I needed to focus my efforts because, as you'll find when you start to delve into the world of children's writing, each age category of book has it's own very unique set of rules. Far too many to absorb all in one go!

In the end a huge 100W light bulb went on for me...research and writing go hand in hand.
Consequently I've come up with a new (well new for me!) plan of action, and so far it seems to be working:
1. Thoroughly read up on the 'rules' for the age category.
2. Devour lots of children's books  in the genre that you intend to write - not literally ;)
3. Write something every day...even if it's just jotting down some possible ideas; a brainstorm; or a blog entry.
4. Don't be scared to put pen to paper/fingers to keyboard and make a start. It doesn't matter if it's 'dreadful', you can always go back and edit to perfection once you've got your basic ideas down.

 Next time: Tips on keeping focused, and how to find people who'll give you constructive feedback (critique groups).

Having identified my potential hobby I was now confronted with the challenge of finding out what writing for children actually entails. I began as any 21st century person hitting the world-wide web – not literally of course!

Initially I searched my local online book stores for THE MANUAL on how to write for wee little darlings. Needless to say there are tons of books on the subject.

In order to narrow down my options I turned to my old friend Google Books. For those of you who haven’t tried it out yet, it’s great! I searched each book, taking note of the ones with good reviews and reader star ratings, as well as having a good old nosy through the ones with previews of the inside pages. 

Eventually I settled on You Can Write Children's Books by Tracey E. Dils - namely because it had good reviews and I could purchase it in e-book format (They're generally much cheaper than than hard copy versions).
Fortunately the book has proved a good starting point...but it is just that. While How To... books are great for setting you on the right track they're no substitute for a healthy dose of getting stuck into coupled with continuing research on craft and process.

After a lot more web-surfing I discovered that there are a few must-see websites on children's writing  that continually crop up. They're packed with great resources and are fantastic for networking with other children's writers - novices and experts alike. An awesome, must-see site for children's writers.There are plenty of free resources available for those not wishing to join, but membership is really cheap. It's definitely the one to go for when on a tight budget. A membership based website, but still plenty on offer for those not wishing to join. They offer great children's writing courses - haven't had an opportunity to take one myself yet, but they come very highly recommended from multiple sources. There are also plenty of free articles available under the RX for Writers heading. A membership based site with free monthly newsletters for non-members too.  A site for writers across all genres and age groups . This site has some fantastic and very reasonably priced workshops. There are 2 levels of membership: basic (free) and premium ($30/year).

Take a look :) 

Next time: How much should you research your craft before getting stuck in?! 

I'd be lying if I said that applying myself to the task of children's writer was my life-long ambition. It simply isn't true. In fact it hadn't ever occurred to me that I might be remotely interested in writing for children until my husband stomped his foot down and demanded that I find myself a hobby.

After much thought, a lot of web-surfing and by process of elimination...not sporty, not a drinker, not in the habit of being a regular 'coffee morning mum' thumped me over the head! Why not pool my regular enjoyment of children's books (an occupational hazard for a Mum and Teacher), with the pleasure of writing, and the nagging desire to dismantle these seemingly 'cute little stories' to discover the art of generating an awesome story. 

And thus my journey began. Needless to say there was an audible sigh of relief from the lounge as I informed my love of this new-found enterprise, whilst making the dinner one evening. 

Next time: Where to start? What organisations are worth knowing about? Where to go to find out the ins-and-outs of the different children's literature genres?