Posts tagged writer

Book magic (and poo)

What a fantastic time I had at the Word Café Raglan writers and readers festival at the weekend. Books are so much fun! And so interesting. And so are the people who read and write them.

3 Image of Andre NgapoAround 35 people came along to the workshop that Andre Ngapo and I ran on getting started in writing for children. (Andre’s in the picture, doing his stuff on the day: I’ll tell you more about him in my next post.) That’s 35 avid writers and readers of children’s fiction all in one room. It was electric.

We had a wonderful discussion about what makes a great children’s book. It reminded me why I love them so much (and also of all the things I should be doing in my stories to make them even better). Everyone agreed that there needed to be:

  • lots of humour – kids (and the adults reading with them) love to laugh
  • a great story – that’s a beginning, a middle and an end, with lots of twists and turns in between
  • plenty of action – whizz, pow, bang, uh-oh, ah-ha, ahhhhhhh…that sort of thing
  • fabulous characters – no dull and boring please
  • not too many messages – the aim is to entertain
  • a pinch of amazing – that special something that makes a story zing.

Can you think of anymore?

Personally, I think there is one, and it’s a bit of a magic ingredient when it comes to stories. That something is poo.

In the 20-ish years that I have been writing stories, I have noticed that, along with humour, kids love poo. Look at all the books that have been written about it.

For starters, there’s Baa Baa Smart Sheep by talented New Zealand author and illustrator duo Mark and Rowan Sommerset, about a bored sheep that tricks his mates into eating, you guessed it, poo.

Then there’s the hilarious Poo Bum by Stephanie Blake (she’s not a new Zealand author, but her publisher Gecko Press is from here) about a little rabbit who will only say one thing: “Poo bum”. That is, until he gets eaten by a wolf, at which point he changes his tune to…read it and find out.

Then there’s Captain Underpants by Dave Pilky about all things to do with undies, wedgies and toilets (that’s got to count poo). And the all-time poo-topping favourite, The Little Mole who Knew it was None of his Business by Werner Holzwarth, about a mole that is poo-ed on (it lands on his head) and runs around trying to find the culprit (and encountering many and varied poos along the way). It even has a plop-up version!

That’s just off the top of my head (the list that is, not the poo). There’s no denying poo is popular.

So at the moment I am busy writing my own story about poo. I can’t give too much away, except to say that it’s a picture book and it’s about a dung beetle who spends his nights rolling endless little balls of poo (well dung, but it’s the same thing). Until one day he looks up and discovers…

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So Long And Thanks …

If you’re a Douglas Adams fan, you’ll know that the only way to end that line is with ” … for all the fish”.

Although no one has actually given me any fish, so long and thanks for all the page views doesn’t really have the same ring to it. So I think I’ll go with this.

It’s been great blogging here as your Star Author this month. Thanks for having me. And for letting me ramble. I know I ramble. My editor knows it too. When Zac invited me to blog here, he suggested that 300 words might be a good sort of post length. I totally planned to take his advice. And then I started writing …

If I’m very disciplined, I might manage to keep my ‘So Long’ post under 300 words. Let’s see how I go.

I’m working on a young adult novel at the moment. It needs to be somewhere around 60,000 words. Maybe 70,000 max. I knew this when I started writing it but that hasn’t stopped me writing over 100,000 words. And in some ways I’m still looking for the story. But that’s okay. That’s how I do things. Somewhere in the middle of all the noise, I eventually find the stuff I need.

I hope that somewhere in the middle of the noise I’ve made this month, there were a few bits and pieces of interest to you guys reading along.

Thanks to all of you who have been reading. And thanks especially to Tierney and Ella, for keeping me company in the comments section, and giving me the opportunity to ramble even more.

If you’re interested in keeping up with what’s going on for me, I blog from time to time here: As In Egg.

However, I am a bad blogger, and often forget to add images. And sometimes words. If I’m busy, I have been known to abandon the blog for months at a time. It’s just how things work.

Despite being a bad blogger, I’m also running another blog at the moment. It’s called Ten Tiny Things, after a picture book I recently published with street artist Kyle Hughes-Odgers. It’s a place for secret somethings and hidden happenings and we’d love to have some submissions from New Zealand.

379 words and counting. Oh dear. I’d better go now, for real …

… BYE!!

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From Spark to Story …

One of the questions writers are often asked is where they get their ideas. It’s a perfectly good question but it’s also one I find perplexing. Because getting ideas is not my problem. If anything, my problem is having too many ideas. I think that once you open your eyes to what’s around you, there are stories absolutely everywhere.

I mentioned earlier that Surface Tension began with the image of a drowned town. But I also said that the image slept in the back of my mind for over 25 years. Because an image is not a story. Even an idea is not a story. For me, there’s a kind of collision that needs to happen before that initial spark of something begins to turn into a story – a sort of bumping together of two or more little fragments.

In Surface Tension, the image of the drowned town somehow bumped against a character idea I had. I was reading a book called The Member of the Wedding, by one of my favourite writers, Carson McCullers. In the book, a girl called Frankie has an older sister who’s getting married, and somehow Frankie convinces herself that she’ll be going with her sister after the wedding, which of course isn’t the case.

I started thinking about a character who was a ‘late baby’, born years after her older siblings, and who feels disconnected from their family history, all the stories that were made before she came along. Somehow that idea bumped up against the ‘drowned town’ image. I started wondering about a girl who not only missed the making of her family history, but also the place in which it was made. Maybe they lived in the town that got flooded? Maybe she never did and is now haunted by that idea. Ooh. What if she was born on the day it was flooded and that’s why she feels so connected to it? 

That’s where that story started. I can’t tell you why those two ideas connected in the way they did – that’s a mysterious part of the process that I often don’t quite understand. But I do love how it works.

A couple of the Lightning Strikes Books I mentioned in my last post came together in similar ways.

With Going for Broke, the two things were:

  •  An assembly I went to at my daughter’s primary school. There was a boy who had won a merit award for neat handwriting, who looked like he’d much rather have the shiny trophy a Year 7 kid had won for BMX bikeriding.
  • Looking through old photos and remembering my older brother’s attempts to break a world record when we were kids.

Once those two things had come together, the story began to form.

With Wreck the Halls, the two things were:

  • seeing my house on Google Maps and thinking it would be funny if something weird/embarrassing had been happening when the photo was taken, which would then be on the Internet for everyone to see.
  • knowing some people who moved, without realising, into a street where everyone goes all-out with their Christmas lights.

For me, ideas are easy. I collect them every day and jot them down into notebooks. And then I wait. I never say, I think I’ll work on this idea now. Okay, what can I write about? and I don’t say What if …? as I know some writers do. I just wait for an idea to join up with something else and push its way to the surface of  my mind.

Once it has a momentum and an energy of its own, once the story starts taking off by itself and I can’t stop thinking about it – that’s when I know it’s time to sit down and get cracking, to do the hard work of trying to find a narrative shape for it. And that’s when my problems really start!

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Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

So I said earlier that I’d talk about some of the unexpected places my books have taken me since I started this whole writing thing. And even though my last post was about my work travelling to the US, in this case I’m not talking about geography but something else entirely.

When I started writing, it was in tiny fragments. I’m a bit like a magpie and love to gather bits and pieces of observation – images that strike me, interesting sentences, snippets of overheard dialogue. I come to both reading and writing via poetry and am generally more interested in image and idea than in plot and action.

So it’s been a surprise to me that I’ve found myself from time to time writing books that are entirely plot-driven, that are all about hooking the reader and keeping the pace moving, where there isn’t really much time for savouring turns of phrase or wry, sideways observations about life.

These books are more about boys falling off various things – bikes, ramps, roofs. They’re about exploding hoses and cockroach eating and kamikaze penguins. The contain exclamations like “Mate!” and “Dude!” and possibly even one tiny fart joke. [I know! I am as surprised as anyone by this.]

The thing is, I’m a fairly serious person. I spend a lot of time taking things very seriously indeed. But years ago, when I was in the trenches trying to get published, I had a mentor read a YA manuscript I was working on. He liked it but he didn’t love it. And when we met in person, he said, “You know, you’re actually pretty funny. Why aren’t you writing funny?” He said he thought perhaps I was too busy trying to be all literary, making sure people knew I was A Serious Writer, and wasn’t letting myself have fun with the writing. It was highly offensive. And also somewhat correct. It was certainly worth thinking about.

So years later, when Walker Books asked if I wanted to write something for their new Lightning Strikes series – something fast-paced, plot-driven, full of humour and action and generally stuff happening, I thought, Why not?

So I wrote Going for Broke, which is about three boys who decide they want to win something more spectacular than a merit award for neat handwriting, and set about trying to break a world record.

Then I wrote The Big Dig, which is about three boys who decide what they really need is a pool in the backyard, and set about trying to dig one themselves.

And then I wrote Wreck the Halls, which is about three boys (you may be sensing a pattern here, astute reader) who decide they need some cash for a specific reason, and the only way to get this is to win the local Christmas lights decorating competition.

Wreck the Halls is my newest book, out just this month. It’s not the kind of book I ever thought I’d write; it’s a place my writing has taken me that I never thought I’d go. These books have been very challenging for me because I like to ramble. I like to play with words and ideas and set plot aside and go on and on and on (you may have noticed some evidence of this in my blogging style …). But there’s no room for that here. So these have been great, because they’ve taught me things: about pacing and plotting and writing with a strong narrative hook, and how sometimes – often – less can be more. All of these things have fed usefully back into my other writing, which is, of course, Far More Serious.

I think I’m finished writing this kind of book now. I don’t really have any more of this sort of idea and there are other stories pulling on me more insistently. But I’m very glad I did it. Not only did these books teach me things, but they were lots of fun to write. I can only hope they’re lots of fun to read.

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Lost In Translation …?

In my last post, I mentioned that Surface Tension will be released early next year in the US, with a new cover and a new title. This will be the third of my books to come out over there and people are often curious about how that process works, what sort of changes are needed and so on. So I thought I might talk a bit about how it’s worked for me.

Although I haven’t been asked to alter anything major, certain changes have been necessary for readability and to make some of the specifically Australian aspects of the books translate for US readers. I’m talking about things like:

  • In Duck for a Day, there is a gum tree which is important to the story. The US editor said their readers wouldn’t understand ‘gum tree’ and suggested we change it to ‘eucalyptus tree’. I thought that would sound strange – too specific or something, and it would also be constantly saying, Hey, kids, this is in Australia!, which isn’t really relevant to the story. I suggested we simply change it to ‘tree’ so kids would read ‘past’ it, and that’s what we did.
  • In Surface Tension, there was confusion over the ‘house system’ used for school sports. The editor was curious as to how Liam and Cassie could be in the same class but in different houses. I was confused by her confusion. It took a while for us to work out what the other was confused about. Then we still had to solve the problem in the text.

In both books, there were language changes here and there. For example:

  • The 4WDs and utes in Surface Tension all became trucks, something I find very amusing, given the image ‘truck’ conjures up here.
  • There was much debate over whether ‘toilet’ should be ‘restroom’ or ‘bathroom’. It absolutely could not be toilet!
  • In Duck for a Day, Max is not allowed to have strawberry lollies. But the US editor thought that meant lollipops and that was confusing for a while. After we worked out what was going on, we had to decide whether to say taffy or candy or sweets.

Luckily I really like messing about with words, so I found this whole process really interesting and fun.

Although Surface Tension became Below, both No Bears and Duck for a Day kept their original titles, and No Bears has the same cover. The Duck for a Day cover is almost the same, with a few small changes in colouring and the layout of design elements. Here are the two covers below so you can see what I mean.

Here, I think I prefer the Australian cover, on the left.

I like the way the title steps

down

across

the page.

I’m not sure what the reasoning was behind changing it, but it’s not something I feel strongly about so I was fine with it.

There is one other interesting change I’m still getting used to. In the Australian edition of No Bears, the main character’s name is Ruby, but the US editor said they had too many Ruby books at the moment. She asked if I would be open to changing the name, and I said yes, but I wanted it to be another name that I loved – something short and strong, with a lot of personality. I chose Ella, and so that’s her name in the US. Which is great, and I have no problem with it, but I still think of her as Ruby, which can get quite confusing sometimes. I occasionally get email from US readers, who say things like I love it when Ella says ABC, or Why doesn’t Ella do XYZ? and I think, Who on earth are they talking about?

And then I remember. That Ruby went over the sea and turned into Ella on the way. That my books are over there slightly changed. What is it they say – same, same, but different. I guess that sums it up.

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I Didn’t Mean It, Officer …

In my last post, I talked a bit about where my novel Surface Tension came from. This time, I’m talking about where it’s ended up because something quite curious happened recently and it’s made me think about the unintended places our work can take us.

I was very surprised earlier this month to learn that Surface Tension had been judged the winner of the Children’s/Young Adult Fiction category of the Davitt Awards, for crimewriting by Australian women. It’s always surprising to win something, but in this case it was particularly unexpected because I somehow hadn’t realised that Surface Tension was a crime novel.

That may sound spectacularly clueless, but I think it’s partly that I was more focused on chasing down the image than on writing a particular sort of story. When I began, I had no idea what sort of plot I was going to shape around the image; that came out of a sort of messy brainstorming process where I found myself thinking about  secrets and things being buried or hidden.

The other reason is probably that as as writer and a reader I’m more interested in ideas than I am in plot. In Surface Tension, I was less interested in what actually happened – the ‘crime’ or mystery narrative – than I was in the underlying ideas, and for me, those are about history and memory, the way the past is written (and overwritten) and who gets to tell what stories. So I think my eye was on those things and less on the nuts and bolts of the plot itself, and perhaps that’s how I managed to become a crimewriter without really noticing.

There are other ways in which my writing has taken me to unexpected places over the last few years and I’m going to talk more about that in another post. But for now, I leave you with two images. Because as we’ve established, all good blog posts require pictures, and also because these represent another place Surface Tension is travelling to – this time a literal place, being the United States, where it will be published early next year by Candlewick Press. The first image is the Australian cover and the second is the US cover. There are some obvious differences between the two and I’d love to hear your thoughts. Does one appeal to you more than the other? Which would you be more likely to pick up off the shelf?

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Water, Water Everywhere …

I’ve been thinking about the image of the boathouse in my first post. I think there are lots of reasons why this is appealing, but for me, one is the presence of water. I grew up loving the water and someone recently pointed out to me that it tends to crop up over and over in my work. I was skeptical at first, but it turns out they were right. Sometimes, writers are the last to know what their own obsessions are, but when you’re confronted with the evidence, it’s hard to argue.

In my first novel, Annabel Again, two friends live on opposite sides of a lake, which becomes central to the story. In The Big Dig, three boys set out to dig a pool in one of their backyards. In Duck for a Day, part of what the kids have to do is construct a ‘suitable aquatic environment’ for Max, the class duck, so there is a lot of concern with ponds and pools and mudbaths and the like.

But it’s in my latest novel, Surface Tension, that the watery theme really comes to the fore, and in this case it’s directly related to a childhood experience. Back in Year 7 or 8 I went on a school camp to a town called Tallangatta, in north-eastern Victoria, and the interesting thing about Tallangatta is that there are two versions of it – the town you can live in now, and the town that sits, drowned, at the bottom of a lake.

The marker at the site of ‘Old’ Tallangatta, and an article about the surfacing of Adaminaby, another drowned town.

Tallangatta is near Lake Hume and was flooded in the 1950s to make way for the expansion of the dam complex. When we were there, the water was quite low, and you could see some of the remnants of the old town above the surface, including the beginning of a road that led down into it. I remember being taken by the idea of setting off along the road and following it underwater all the way into the town. That image sat in the back of my mind for years until one day the line The day that I was born, they drowned my town came to me, and very slowly, a story began to form around it.

It became the story of Cassie, who starts swimming up at the lake in a quest for bandaid-free water, and Liam, who joins her up there for reasons all his own. As the drought kicks in and the water level drops, an old secret begins to come to light, and it’s up to the two of them to make sure it gets all the way to the surface.

Curiously enough, it’s just occurred to me that I have another water-related book waiting to be written. I wonder if there are other obsessions I’m unaware of? I guess I’ll have to wait for my readers to let me know.

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Well, Hello There …

Hello everyone! Thanks so much for having me as this month’s Star Author. It’s a rather sparkly title but I’ll try and wear it well.

So … a bit about me, to start? Not only am I from Australia but I live all the way over on the other side – near Fremantle, in Western Australia. It’s a brilliant place to live, near beaches and a little patch of bush, and one of my favourite things is staring out the window when I really should be writing.

Writing-wise, I’m all over the place. I came to children’s writing via poetry and have published everything from picture books through to novels for upper primary/lower YA. I continue to write poetry and wherever possible try to sneak poetic language into my prose.

As both a writer and a reader, I’m driven much more by things like character and images/ideas than by plot or story itself. The challenge for me is often trying to find a plot on which to hang the quirky little ideas that have captured my imagination.

I haven’t really decided what I’ll be blogging about this month, but that’s also in keeping with how I write. I’m not much of a planner and tend to launch myself into things, having faith that the story will unravel before me as I go. I’m very fond of a quote by the American writer EL Doctorow: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

I look forward to journeying to wherever it is we end up going this month, and I hope you’ll join me along the way. I should add that I’m the kind of traveller who likes to make sudden detours down unexpected tracks, so if there are any particular sights you think we should take in along the way, feel free to grab the wheel!

* Someone who Knows Things About Blogs once told me you absolutely must have a picture in every post, so here is a photo of a boathouse on the Swan River. I love that you can see the river through the open door because it didn’t have a back wall when this photo was taken. It sat like this for ages and whenever I rode my bike past it would make me think about imagination, and portals (which are kind of the same thing, if you think about it a certain way).

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Meet our September Star Author – Meg McKinlay

Our super September Star Author is Meg McKinlay from Australia.  Meg grew up in Bendigo, Victoria, in a book-loving, TV- and car-free household. On the long and winding path to becoming a children’s writer, she has worked a variety of jobs including swim instructor, tour guide, translator and teacher.  Meg divides her time between teaching and writing and she is always busy cooking up more books.  Meg has written picture books and novel and is the author of Duck for a Day, Going for Broke, No Bears, and her latest novel, Surface Tension.

Thanks for joining us Meg!  We look forward to hearing all about your writing and your wonderful books.

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Some writing tips

For those of you who love writing, I thought I would share some tips that have helped me on my own writing journey:

* Write about what interests you and then your passion will shine through in your writing.

* Great stories involve the main character facing a problem or obstacle and overcoming it through their own efforts. The main character grows and changes as a result.

* Great stories need great characters. Characters must be both interesting and believable. And remember your main character shouldn’t be perfect: even Batman has his weak spots.

* Use all the five senses when you write; describe scenes or action using sight, hearing, touch, smell, and even taste.

* Use strong and interesting verbs. Instead of “he walked to school” what about “he trudged to school” or “she skipped to school”; they convey more emotion and meaning.

* Show, don’t tell in your stories. For example, if your character is unhappy, don’t tell your reader by writing “Susan was unhappy.” Instead show how Susan is unhappy: for example, “The tears tumbled down her cheeks.”

*Start your stories with a great hook that will make your reader want to continue reading. And end chapters with a cliffhanger or a question not answered so readers want to turn to the next chapter to find out what happens.

* Writing is a craft: the more you practice it the better you’ll get!

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What superpower would you like to have?

zackids said,

“Charlie is a really cool character but my favourite is General Pandemonium because things never really work the way he planned.

If you were a superhero like Charlie what superpower would you like to have?”

Thanks for your comment.

Yes, General Pandemonium is my favourite character too. He really is more of a wannabe than Charlie is. At least Charlie gets things done. General Pandemonium has a big mouth (and nose) and tries to impress everyone with how cool he is. But really, he’s a nerd.

If I had a superpower it would be flying. I used to be a fast sprinter at school (I have really long legs) and zooming fast through the sky would be the ultimate rush of speed. Also it would mean avoiding traffic jams too.

Anybody else out there like Lieutenant Kurse as a character?

See ya

Peter

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Who is Richard Newsome?

Richard Newsome is another of the fantastic authors that are joining us for the launch of the Christchurch Kids Blog on Wednesday 8 September, 7pm at Central Library.  Richard is an Australian author (although he was born in New Zealand) and his first book, The Billionaire’s Curse was published in 2009 when he won the Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing.

He’s had lots of different jobs before becoming a writer, including a journalist (“he chased after police cars while they chased after bad guys”) and jobs in TV and radio.

He’s written two books in The Billionaire’s Trilogy, The Billionaire’s Curse and The Emerald Casket.  They are both amazingly adventurous stories and I really recommend them.  You can read my review of The Billionaire’s Curse here on the blog.

If you would like to meet Richard Newsome and maybe even get his autograph, come along to the launch of the Christchurch Kids Blog on Wednesday 8 September.

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