Tania McCartney talks about writing

Today we welcome Tania McCartney to Soup Blog! Tania will share with us how she goes about writing a story. (This post is part of a Blog Tour to celebrate the launch of her newest book—Riley and the Grumpy Wombat: A Journey Around Melbourne.)

Riley and teh Grumpy Wombat (cover)

Riley and the Grumpy Wombat: A Journey around Melbourne by Tania McCartney, ill. Kieron Pratt. Ford Street Publishing, ISBN 9781921665486

Before we hear from Tania, here’s a bit about the book:

Riley has discovered a wombat in his nanny’s garden. But why is this furry creature so grumpy? Join Riley and his friends from books one, two and three, as they zoom around the stunning sights of Melbourne in search of a wombat that simply needs a place to call home.

Riley and the Grumpy Wombat has black and white photos along with illustrations, and takes the characters on a fun adventure around Melbourne, Victoria.

And now, over to Tania McCartney!

Tania McCartney and characters, August 2011
Tania McCartney, with characters from her books

It seems the writing processes of authors are as varied as there are books … and perhaps this is why it’s so fascinating to learn how authors go about penning their work. I’ve been writing since my teens, yet each style of book I write goes through an almost entirely different process—and this process has actually changed over the years as I’ve found better ways of working.

I remember writing my first adult novels in my late teens and early twenties—the process I used then was … well, there wasn’t really a process. It was just ramblings. There was no plot structure, no character development, no deliberately-placed threads that were then woven delicately through the text, no no. It was just open slather. I wrote from the heart, I wrote with passion—I just wrote.

That was some of the easiest writing I’ve ever done. I sent one of these novels—Breathing Under Water—in for The Australian/Vogel Award (this was around 20 years ago) and although it wasn’t shortlisted, the publisher liked it enough to send it to an outside reader. After a few months, I received the outsider’s critique, which basically said there was ‘obvious talent’ but did the publisher really want to spend time working with me to hone a messy storyline. The publisher didn’t.

I was so crushed, I didn’t submit anything to a publisher again for close to ten years. But it wasn’t only because I was crushed—it was because I had no idea how to hone and structure my work.

Since that time I had plenty of ideas but was simply too confounded about the process. I thought about reworking Breathing Under Water, and I played with it occasionally, but nothing eventuated. Then, in 2007, I began work on a fresh idea for a young adult novel that struck me so quickly, it poured with ferocity from my fingertips.

The plot of this new book—let’s call it The One—required a lot of research, intense character placement and development, and a mass of location and time links. I needed to plan.

So what I did was set up a spread sheet listing the characters, their location, their specific roles and their connection to each other. I also kept detailed notes on the information required to tie characters and events together, and placed ‘markers’ through the manuscript to indicate where extra pieces needed to be written.

I needed these markers because I found I was writing parts of the book that weren’t necessarily in chronological order. It didn’t help that the book also skips through time, so I had to be very careful about where I placed which occurrence.

Taking the time to chart what I was writing kept me on track. At first I was worried a spread sheet would endanger the freedom of the storyline. I worried it would become too formulaic—too predictable. But the opposite happened. Extraordinary coincidences began to occur with characters and events and the research I conducted. It was extraordinary.

Life circumstances forced a four-year break from The One, and I have only just looked at the manuscript again this past month or two. Without my notes and spread sheets, I would have been lost, so I’m thankful I learned how to structure my own writing process.

When it came to writing my Riley the Little Aviator picture books, things went a little differently. I’m a really visual person, so all four books (as well as number five, being written now) were actually done after I had chosen a series of photographs to dot throughout the storyline.

I would place these photos directly onto Adobe Illustrator book pages and begin to write the text around the photos, chopping and changing it as the story went along. For all four books, I had absolutely NO idea of the endings. I knew roughly where the story was going and I had faith that the ending would unfold, magically. And indeed—each time, it did.

For Riley and the Curious Koala, this writing style was particularly strong. As Kieron illustrated each page, I was spurred on to the next, and would often make changes to the text to reflect Kieron’s (often hilarious) interpretation. The storyline for Curious Koala wasn’t finished until around three weeks before printing. This was a wonderful process—collaboration between author and illustrator. I loved it.

For Grumpy Wombat, I had to get the text in shape well beforehand because Paul Collins from Ford Street needed to approve it for publication. The final version, however, was still played around with right up to the last minute, even as pages were being laid out by the graphic designer.

The back cover of Riley and the Grumpy Wombat
On the back cover of Riley and the Grumpy Wombat

I absolutely loved having such freedom and scope to perfect the text so close to printing.

For my non-fiction books, my process is more methodical. For my history book for the National Library (Australian Story: An Illustrated Timeline, out 2012), I did a stack of historical research. I kept a Word document and a spread sheet that covered the text, images, references, links and notes. When it came to actually finalising the text, I placed it onto landscape book pages, just like I did with my Riley books, so I could ascertain how much text would be needed and in which timeslots I would need to write more. This helped me with image selection, too. It helped me keep focus.

For my lifestyle book—Handmade Living—I kept computer and hard copy versions of the work so I could write, layout and edit with greater ease. This helped me cut down the editing process considerably.

Some authors may work their way through books from front cover to back cover, but I find that, no matter the genre, I tend to jump around and write what works at the time. If I’m struggling in one area, I leave it and move onto a part I feel compelled to write in. Whilst I do believe in ‘pushing through’ writer’s block (it works for me), I also believe that if a section of any work is sticking, you may need to work on another section for a while. Sometimes we just need a few hours or even a week to let a certain part of any book simmer. Then things will flow again.

The writing process is certainly a unique one and—like anything—the more you practise, the easier it becomes.

So long as I have good coffee, silence, a nearby plant or flowers, and lots of sunshine streaming into the room, my writing processes are always joyful.

Thanks for visiting and talking to us about the writing process, Tania!

If you want to follow the Riley and the Grumpy Wombat Blog Tour, here’s where to go:

Thursday 1 September

Blog Tour Announcement

Tania McCartney Blogspot

Blog Tour Schedule

Kids Book Review

Book Review and Giveaway

Bug in a Book

Publishing v Self-Publishing

Claire Saxby’s Let’s Have Words blog

Friday 2 September

Author Guest Post and Book Review

Read Plus

Hosting a Fabulous Book Launch

Sheryl Gwyther 4 Kids blog

Melbourne Via the Pages of Grumpy Wombat

Buzz Words’ Book blog

Book Giveaway

Handmade Canberra

Saturday 3 September

Interview with Riley

Boomerang Books, Kids’ Book Capers blog

Book Giveaway

Fat Mum Slim

Speaking at Schools

Under the Apple Tree with Angela Sunde blog

Book Giveaway


Sunday 4 September

Book Giveaway

Posie, The Blog

Writing Effective Teachers’ Notes

Sandy Fussell’s Stories Are Light

Interview with Wombat

My Little Bookcase

Book Giveaway

Alphabet Street

Monday 5 September
Creating Effective Presentations for Schools

Blue Dingo

Researching Tips for Writers

Chris Bell’s From Hook to Book blog

Book Resources for Parents

The Book Chook

Top 10 Tips for Writing a Submission

Sally Murphy’s Writing for Children Blog

Tuesday 6 September

Writing Processes

Soup Blog

Top 10 Book Writing Tips and Top 10 Book Marketing Tips

DeeScribe blog

Travelling with Children

Wise Words blog

Author Interview


Wednesday 7 September


Book Review

Buzz Words’ Book blog

Author Interview

Helen Ross Writes blog

Book Review

My Little Bookcase

Book Giveaway

Australian Women Online

Thursday 8 September


Balancing Motherhood with Career

Planning with Kids

Self-Publishing Journey, Review, Book Giveaway

Pass It On blog

Tania McCartney Blog

Blog Tour Wrap Up and Exciting Announcement

authors, competitions, teachers' resources

Story ideas, with Tania McCartney

Riley and the Curious Koala is the third in the Riley series of picture books. Riley’s first adventure began in Beijing with Riley and the Sleeping Dragon, continued on to Hong Kong with Riley and the Dancing Lion, and his latest adventure brings him to Sydney Australia.

"Riley and the Curious Koala (cover)"

To celebrate the launch of Riley and the Curious Koala, author Tania McCartney has set off on a blog tour. You can check out the other stops on her tour if you scroll to the bottom of this post. She’s here today to talk about how to come up with good ideas for writing stories.

Over to you, Tania!

"Tania McCartney, author"

Before you start reading this article, you need to do something—and don’t skip ahead and cheat or it won’t work! Write these words down a page: setting, character, object, situation. Now, next to each word, write a two-digit number between 11 and 99. Go on, do it now. It should look something like this:

Place 17

Character 87

Object 56

Situation 44

Put it somewhere safe. Done it? Good. Okay—now let the article begin …

One of the questions I receive most when reading to school kids is this:

Where do you get your ideas from?

This is such an interesting question! Least of all because it’s such a hard one to answer. Everyone gets their story writing ideas in different ways—and many authors will tell you it’s from the everyday happenings in their life—boring but true. From opening a yoghurt pot to tripping on a rug … these are the things that inspire an active imagination. And yes, they’re also the things that inspire me.

Imagine, if you will, opening that yoghurt pot and finding something other than creamy white yoghurt inside. Perhaps it’s a pot full of centipedes. Or a tiny white rabbit. Or a strange green slime that pours out pink smoke. What kind of story could unfold from such an opening?

And what of the rug trip? Perhaps it’s an old Persian rug, tightly woven with mystical patterns. Perhaps I trip and I fall, only I don’t hit the floor, I keep going, right through the carpet into another world …

These everyday occurrences can really spill over with story ideas if you just open yourself to the possibility … and think outside the square.

But you know what—sometimes it’s hard to think outside the square when you’re young and life experience hasn’t twisted your brain into a mangled wreck of crazy thinking. There’s also those Parent and Teacher expectations—the pressure of coming up with something marvellously creative.

So I’ve come up with a little exercise that will help you create a fantastically imaginative story that will ooze out of you like taffy.

We all know the basic storyline structure—yes? Basically, there’s a beginning, middle and end. Got it? Great.

Then there’s the details. First of all—the setting or the place. Where is your story going to take place? Then we have to think about characters. Who is involved? Who are the main players? Next is a situation. What is actually going to happen in this story? It helps if we add an object that becomes the focus, along with the characters, in making a story come to life.

The other thing we need to consider is conflict. Conflict means making something troublesome or difficult for our characters. Changing things around, making them do something or work towards something. One of the easiest ways to do this—as with my Riley travelogue books—is to make them search for something.

Characters often search for something in books, even if it’s not an actual object. It’s a common recurring theme.

When a character searches for something, you can put in as many cool plot twists and problems as you like. Plot twists, problems, drama, conflict—that’s what makes a story interesting—and makes people want to read your story. Nothing worse than writing a story no one wants to read.

So—here’s a challenge for you. I want you to write a story—an adventure story where someone is searching for something. And here is how you’re going to do it.

Grab the page with words and numbers you wrote at the beginning of this article and find your numbers on the following grids—reading first down the side of the grid then across the top. For example, for my number choices (above), I will write a story with the following components:

Place 17 – haunted house

Character 87 – a tribe of eskimos

Object 56 – a forest of stalagmites

Situation 44 – having plastic surgery

"Tania McCartney Places Chart"
Place Chart: Double click on the image to zoom
"Tania McCartney's Character Chart"
Character Chart: Double click the image to zoom
"Tania McCartney's Objects Chart"
Objects Chart: Double click the image to zoom
"Tania McCartney's Chart of Situations"
Situations Chart: Double click the image to zoom

Once you have written down your four basic elements, you now need to construct a short story using these references. So, for me, I need to write about a tribe of Eskimos hunting for a forest of stalagmites in a haunted house. And plastic surgery will need to be someway involved in order for me to find those stalagmites.

Hmmm. Maybe I should leave this particular story up to you …

You have just 20 minutes to write your story. Make it fast and off-the-cuff so you don’t think about it too much. Then, if you want to—why not email it to Soup Blog (or to me for Kids Book Review!) to be published online, so we can revel in your cleverness. You can also ask your teacher to run this challenge in your classroom.

You might surprise yourself how creative you can be when writing this story. Remember to throw in conflict along the way and to resolve the story at the end … will your character(s) find what they are searching for?

I, for one, would love to see what you come up with. Use this story writing grid often to challenge that wonderful imagination you have hiding inside your head. And do let me know when your first book is published, will you not?

Tania McCartney is an author, editor, publisher, blogger, book reviewer and mango devourer who loves writing, celebrating and supporting children’s literature—and literacy. She is the author of the Riley series of travelogue picture books, as well as several published and self-published books. Tania is also an experienced magazine writer and editor, is the founder of Kids Book Review and is a Senior Editor at Australian Women Online. She lives in Canberra with a husband, two kids and a mountain of books.

Enter Tania’s colouring-in competition to win your own copy of the book!

(Entries close 30 November 2010.)

Tania’s Riley and the Curious Koala blog tour schedule:

Monday 15 November

Writing Out Loud


Monday 15 November

The Book Chook
Crafting a Book Using Photos

Monday 15 November

Handmade Canberra Blog


Tuesday 16 November

Dee Scribe

Marketing a Self-Published Book

Tuesday 16 November

Reading Upside Down


Tuesday 16 November

Australian Women Online


Wednesday 17 November

Little People Books

Reading to Little Ones

Wednesday 17 November

Miss Helen Writes


Thursday 18 November

Soup Blog [You’re here!]

Story Writing Ideas

Thursday 18 November

Bernadette Kelly’s Blog


Thursday 18 November

Posie Patchwork: The Blog


Friday 19 November

Sally Murphy’s Writing for Children Blog

Approaching Publishers

Saturday 20 November

Sue Whiting’s Blog

The Pros and Cons of Self-Publishing

Saturday 20 November

Sheryl Gwyther’s Blog


Saturday 20 November

Kids Book Review


Sunday 21 November

Sandy Fussell’s Blog

An Interview with Riley!

Sunday 21 November

Kids Book Review


Sunday 21 November, 6pm

Tania McCartney Blog

Book Launch Party

"Riley and the Curious Koala (cover)"