Issue 15 is out now! And we’re thrilled to feature an interview with Peter Carnavas—author-illustrator of many fabulous picture books such as The Important Things, The Great Expedition, The Children Who Loved Books, and many more. We had far too many questions (and answers) to squeeze everything into the magazine’s pages, so we are very pleased to share the full interview with you here on Soup Blog.
Where do you live?
I live in a beautiful little town called Mapleton, which is in the mountainous part of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland. I’m surrounded by trees and some very talkative birds.
Where do you get your ideas?
I start writing stories about things that I care about. Sometimes this happens after reading another book, reading the newspaper or watching a good movie. The best stories seem to jump in your head when you least expect it.
What made you become a writer-illustrator?
My wife! After I had made some picture books for my family, she encouraged me to take writing and illustrating more seriously and send something to a publisher.
Was it easy to get your first book published?
I was lucky enough to get my first book accepted by the first publisher I sent it to. It did take a lot of work to put the book together before I sent it. I made a lot of mistakes before I was happy enough to send it away.
Does the story influence your choice of materials for the artwork?
I usually use watercolours with an ink outline because that is what I’m comfortable using. The story definitely influences a lot of other choices I make when illustrating, particularly the style of the characters and the colours. Some of my stories have quite serious themes so I like to balance this out by using warm colours and making the pictures a bit light and whimsical.
When you work on your books, which comes first—the artwork or the story text?
I always write the story first with the pictures swimming around my head. When the story is finished, I spend a lot of time working on the storyboard (sort of like a comic-strip version of the book) and doing pencil sketches. Finally I’ll trace the pictures and paint them.
Are you working on a book at the moment?
I’ve just finished a book of mine called The Children Who Loved Books, which is about a family that discovers they cannot live without books. I’m also illustrating a novel at the moment.
Do you have any advice for young writers and artists?
Just keep writing and illustrating. Read as much as you can and spend a lot of time looking at your favourite illustrations. It’s always good to find other people who are interested in books, too, so you have someone else to share your interest. This might be a friend from school, or perhaps someone in your family or a librarian.
What do you like to do when you are not writing or illustrating?
I love spending time with my two daughters. I like walking my dog, fishing and tramping through rainforests. I also spend a lot of time playing music. I have lots of instruments that are bursting out of the cupboard, demanding to be played.
Is your work influenced by another writer and/or illustrator in particular?
I am a big fan of many picture book artists. Some of my favourites are Libby Gleeson, Freya Blackwood, Bob Graham, Stephen Michael King, Quentin Blake, Nick Bland and Oliver Jeffers. Plus many more!
Sometimes writers need inspiration. Are you having trouble coming up with ideas for your next story?
Yesterday I found the writing tips page on Elaine Forrestal’s website. It has a section dedicated to writing tips—like how to get ideas, finding the right voice for your characters, and using metaphors and similes. (And some other tips too!)
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.
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!
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:
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 settingor 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
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.
Sheryl Gwyther visited us last month as part of the celebrations for the launch of our Undercover Readers Club. She’s back today to talk a bit about how she got the idea for her latest book, Princess Clown. Welcome back, Sheryl!
What gave you the idea for writing Princess Clown?
Princess Clown began with a challenge – to write a chapter book using words that clashed. I chose CLOWN and PRINCESS.
(Musicians have used this same process to choose intriguing, unusual names for their bands. That’s why we have rock bands with names like Led Zeppelin, Guns ‘N Roses, Green Day, Pearl Day and Stone Roses.)
Once I had chosen the words Clown and Princess I asked myself, What if?
What if there was a princess who was different? What if she loved clowning and making people laugh? What if she was the heir to the throne? What if she was in trouble because she can’t stop clowning around? What if her tricks go terribly wrong?
Then before I could say, ABRACADABRA and ALLIBALOO, out sprang Princess Belle and a story was born.
Are you good at any circus skills yourself? Juggling, unicycle riding, back flips, squirting unsuspecting people with your joke flower/buzzing them with a handshake?
I prefer my bike with two wheels so I don’t fall off. I can’t do black flips or somersaults and neither do I have a zingy clown ring like Princess Belle, but I do have a set of three professional juggling balls – a perfect size and weight for my hand.
I’m trying to learn to juggle. So far, I’ve worked up to three throws and a catch, but it’s been difficult to throw that fourth throw. My brain does not like it at all! But I’ll never give up trying – one day I will get there.
How do you get inspiration and ideas for your writing?
I get ideas for writing stories from lots of places. Some start with daydreaming, or childhood memories, some from intriguing things I’ve read or heard about, some from combinations of words, a couple even came from dreams. Once I get the idea, I always ask, What if? And that is when the story really begins to form in my imagination.
I like to write a rough outline while the idea is fresh in my brain. Then it’s a good idea to brainstorm – that fills out the characters’ development and also the plot.
While I’m writing the first draft, I play some background music on the CD player. When writing an adventurous part of my stories, I like the soundtrack from The Lord of The Rings – helps to keep the fast pace going. You might find that works for you too.
Alphabet Soup is a magazine about books and creative writing for primary-school aged kids. A subscription would make a fantastic Christmas gift for your favourite young bookworm. (A 1-year subscription only costs $29.80.)
All our subscribers for issue 5 go into a draw for a chance to win a book pack from Fremantle Press, worth $200.00!*
*Books in book pack may differ from those pictured.
Subscribe now to ensure your first issue arrives in time to go under the tree!
Inside issue 5:
Kids’ writing competition (win a $20 book voucher!)
Q&A with Christine Harris, author of the Audrey books
Meet an astronomer
Stories, poems and book reviews
6 pages of kids’ writing (kids’ stories, poems, book reviews and artwork!)
Australian author, Claire Saxby, is on a blog tour with her new picture book, Sheep, Goat and the Creaking Gate (illustrated by Judith Rossell.) Today we are talking to Claire about how she goes about writing a book, the illustrations in a picture book, and how long it takes for a picture book to be published.
How did you get your idea for the story of Sheep, Goat and the Creaking Gate?
I don’t actually remember where the original idea came from. I think it started with the creaking gate as I liked the idea of the silence and tranquility of the countryside being interrupted by the grating sound as Sheep became dissatisfied with her lot.
Where do you write your stories?
I generally write directly to the computer. I always travel with a notebook and will jot down ideas but I’ve become so accustomed to drafting on computer that I seldom draft on paper. However, when I’m stuck, I do use paper and pen, or even pencil. I just write and do the ‘what if?’ thing over and over until I work out where I need to take the story. When I do use a notebook, I only write on one side of the page, using the other side for notes, or facts I need to research
What do you do with drafts of the book once the book is published? Do you throw them away?
I tend to keep drafts. I’m not good at throwing much away although I do usually file them quite neatly! I’ll print out really different drafts, or save them as separate documents, particularly if the new draft is going in a really different direction. It’s like insurance, in case the new draft just loses its way. It’s always interesting to look back at the early drafts and see how a story has changed.
How do you come up with a title for your books? Does the title come to you before you write the story?
I love titles. I love finding the right title for each story. Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes the title even comes first, but not always. Then I do use paper and pen/pencil. I write down words or potential titles and keep doing it until I find the perfect title. If the story has changed a lot, often the title needs to change to reflect that. For Sheep, Goat and the Creaking Gate, the title came quite early although the story changed a lot through the drafting. I toyed with the idea of using specific names for the characters, but returned to the generic ‘sheep’ and ‘goat’. I’m not really sure why, but names can sometimes be too specific.
Do you ever change the title after you’ve written the story?
Sometimes, as above. But sometimes a publisher will suggest that the title change. There can be many reasons for this. For one book I did, the title was too similar to the previous one. Not in subject or style, but just in how they sounded. The title I had was also similar to another book still in print and the publisher felt this could cause confusion. That was an interesting process as I also decided to change the name of the character … even harder than changing the title. It took several weeks before I found an alternative character name that was a good fit. Then the title was easy.
Did you meet with an editor in person, or discuss your book via email?
There’s a bit of both, depending on where the publisher is. For Sheep, Goat and the Creaking Gate I met once with the editor face-to-face, but then we were in touch via email. Roughs (pencil sketches) and proofs (full colour art with some or all layout) are either emailed or posted to me and then there are phone and/or email discussions.
What does an editor say to you?
It varies with the project. Sometimes it’s global things, like ‘The text is a bit long, can you look at tightening it?’ Other times it can be very specific. I had an email conversation (several emails) about the placement and use of punctuation. After sketches and proofs the discussion will be about the relationship between text and illustrations and also about the layout.
Is it hard to make changes? Do you have to make the changes that an editor suggests, or can you say ‘no’ sometimes?
It can be hard, but producing a picture book is a collaboration despite the writing coming first, then the illustrations. Sometimes the changes are easy because a fresh set of eyes can point out something which then seems really obviously out of place. Other times, the changes will be about being clearer about my intention. Then I’ll clarify in discussion what I was trying to say, and the editor/publisher will say whether or not that’s been clear. Sometimes that leads to changes, sometimes tweaks, occasionally more. Editing for length can be tricky, but it’s all about making the book as strong as possible and leaving room for the illustrator to work their magic.
Do you make suggestions for the illustrations, or leave it to the publishing team and the illustrator to decide?
I generally don’t have a sense of what my characters look like unless it’s relevant for the plot (and it often isn’t). I am always very excited to see the first sketches to see what my characters look like from the outside. I write looking out through their eyes so don’t see what they look like to others. Most publishers prefer not to have any illustration suggestions, as it may limit the illustrator. There are times where I might put a very brief ‘Note for illustration’, but not often.
Do you see the illustrations before the book is published?
It varies but usually I’ll see a rough outline of the whole book. Then I’ll see coloured images, sometimes one or two, and then proofs when some layout and design has been done. Sometimes I’ll see a character sketch first, before the roughs are done. It’s always very exciting and I generally wear out my family and friends showing them everything!
When you’ve written a story, how long does it take before it is published? Sheep, Goat and the Creaking Gate was accepted in mid 2007, so it will be just over two years from acceptance to release. That might seem a long time, but is fairly average in the world of picture books. It can take much longer. I have several other projects that have been longer in production. The timing has many components. Once the publisher accepts the manuscript then there is the search for the illustrator. Then the illustrator has to schedule in the time (up to six months or more) that it might take to do the illustrations. Next there is design and layout time and then printing. It’s a long process.
Are you working on another project now? Can you tell us anything about it?
I’m always working on several projects at once. They will generally be at different stages and of different length. Some will be at the research and reading stage, others in first, second, tenth draft form. For example, I’m working on a poem about a beautiful old tree in our street that has just been cut down, a picture book manuscript about a critically-endangered Australian animal, a historical novel set in early Melbourne and a non fiction biography.
Do you have any tips for budding authors?
Read and write. Simple as that, hard as that. Read widely because it helps a writer understand their world. Read for fun. Just read. And write. Know that your first draft will not be perfect, but by practising a writer will discover their voice. Write shopping lists, write letters, write novels and poems. Eventually you will learn how you most want to write and to make your work sing.
You can find out more about Claire Saxby and her books by visiting her website.