As the NSW school term begins, and we look down the barrel of potentially weeks and weeks of trying to keep kids engaged with and on top of their school work, I know that many parents are tearing their hair out.
With two high school-aged boys, I’m lucky that the school has pivoted very quickly to online learning and they get their lessons served up to them in regular timetable order. Mostly, they get on with it. But I know that many parents, particularly those with kids in primary school, are needing to be much more hands on. Then, outside of lessons, there are a lot of other hours to fill and parents are wracking their brains for ways to keep kids off screens.
So when the wonderful Australian children’s book author Zanni Louise approached me with this guest post idea, I couldn’t get her to write it fast enough. Because, of course, we both believe that creative writing, in all its many forms, is definitely one of the BEST ways for kids to deal with boredom. In fact, boredom is ALMOST ESSENTIAL to drive the kind of creativity that inspires the best stories. (See this post to find out why.)
I’ll be honest, I felt like I was in a pickle for the first few weeks of lockdown, between schooling kids and keeping my writing career alight. But as the weeks pass, our family finds its feet more and more, and isolation is becoming easier. One thing I wanted to really indulge during this time, was not just my own writing life, but my kids’ immersion in writing as well. I know they do some creative writing at school, but at school, writing tasks are often stifled by rules. Back in the day, when I used to talk to kids IRL during school visits, kids would tell me the most important things to remember when writing were capital letters and full stops. Some mentioned sizzling starts, which was impressive! While those things ARE important, what’s really important is your writing confidence. So I thought I’d share a few ideas about ways I try and spark that writing fire.
Admittedly, I was one of those kids that kept reams of journals under my bed. Also admittedly, I will never ever return to them for fear of what I might find. But one thing I will say about journalling is that it’s a wonderful place to indulge your writing. NO ONE ELSE READS IT! So your writing is for you alone. When we write without an audience, our natural writing voice emerges. Before my kids embark on the good old home-schooling schedule, we set the timer and the kids journal for 15 minutes. I join in. We write about anything and everything, and I am continually amazed at how much my 7 year-old and my 10 year-old both delight in this part of our daily schedule. If your kids feel daunted by this, give them a theme or topic, like ‘How are you feeling?’ Or ‘Aviation History in the 20th Century’ … I don’t know. Anything! And invite them to draw, because some reluctant writers find their way in through doodles and illustration.
2. Take them outside
Since you now have 100 per cent control of your kids during the school day (um …) you may as well take this writing lesson outside. In schools, my students come outside with me, and sit in teepees and on rugs and they love it. It’s a change of atmosphere, for one, and something about being outside really sparks creativity. Sit under a tree, or in a hammock – in a treehouse if you have one! I personally am looking for any opportunity to get my kids away from screens during their learning hours, so this is a good one. You could even try a nature safari! Get kids to collect five things from the garden, lay them out, and write a story about what they find.
3. Create characters together
We tried a really fun exercise at the dining room table the other day. The writer was blindfolded, and told the illustrator as many details as they could about their character. The details were wacky and insane, and both kids took delight seeing what the illustrator had created from their description. Once we had a pile of characters on the table, we made mini books and each kid created their own story about one or more of the characters. Heaps of fun.
4. Do an online course!
There is SO much out there right now, with authors clawing back some of the income they’ve lost this semester and next, by not being able to get to schools. Talk with your teachers about what’s available. Booking agents like Children’s Bookshop (NSW), Speakers Ink (Queensland) and Booked Out (Victoria) have a list of amazing Australian authors available for Skype or Zoom visits. Many authors are offering free activities right now as well. Check out Lunch Doodles with Mo for starters.
5. Read with your kids
Well, this is an obvious one. But with so much home time on our hands, there is nothing like huddling around the proverbial fire, reading aloud to each other. I will never forget the author Kate Beasley talking about how she, her mum and sister read Harry Potter and other series aloud to each other all through her childhood and teenage years. No wonder she became such an accomplished author! Now, go forth, spark fires, and maybe even write yourself. After all, we might as well make the best of this!
Zanni Louise is the author of 16 books for kids, from picture books to junior fiction series. Her new books HUMAN KIND help kids talk about values and what’s important to them. Find out more about them here.Are you new here? Welcome to my blog! I’m Allison Tait, aka A.L. Tait, and I’m the author of two epic middle-grade adventure series, The Mapmaker Chronicles and The Ateban Cipher. If you’d love more writing advice for kids, check out my Creative Writing Quest, a 12-module online course with the Australian Writers’ Centre that takes kids, step-by-step, through the process of creative writing – from idea to producing an edited story. All the course details are here.
For some authors, writing a series is a lifelong-held dream. For others, like me, it’s something they stumble into and then flail about wildly hoping it will work out.
In an effort to help you avoid the flailing, I’ve invited Helen Scheuerer to visit.
Helen is a YA fantasy author, whose debut novel Heart of Mist was the bestselling first instalment in her trilogy, The Oremere Chronicles.
I first met Helen as the founding editor of Writer’s Edit, which is a deep resource for emerging writers, but she is now a fulltime author and a new prequel story collection to the trilogy, Dawn Of Mist, is out now!
Below, Helen Scheuerer shares five questions to ask yourself before embarking on the epic adventure of writing a series.
And Helen also kindly offers five bonus tips to help you through the process.
5 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Writing a Series
As someone who’s written a complete trilogy and has just started drafting a quartet, I’ve been reflecting a lot lately about what makes a great series. What I’ve learnt over the years is there’s a lot of groundwork that occurs before you even write the first sentence…
For me, it always starts with asking myself a number of questions. Questions that prompt me to consider whether or not my story is ready to be written, and indeed, if I’m actually ready to write it.
I want to share those questions with you today, to hopefully help you on your own way to writing an epic series…
1. Does my story warrant a series?
Before you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, there are a number of things you need to know about your story before launching into creating a series.
The most important of these factors is this: does your story warrant a series?
All too often, I see writers decide on writing a series before they’ve even considered the story. This is usually because series are often seen as more lucrative or popular…
However, as the author, your first and most important job is to do the story justice. There’s no point in stretching a narrative across multiple books if it doesn’t serve the story well.
Think about the books you loved that have been turned into three, even five film movie franchises… Weren’t you frustrated?
The same goes for books. If it doesn’t serve the story to have multiple novels, it’s your job to make that call.
2. Am I a reader of series?
In order to be an author of a series, you also have to be a dedicated reader of series. Familiarise yourself with the common and popular structures of the format, even if you’re only learning the rules to break them later.
I have learnt so much about how to structure and pace my novels by reading series by other authors. Structure and pacing are two of the core elements to any novel, but also to an overall epic series.
Without a firm grasp on these factors, you’ll find it very difficult to maintain any reader retention (having a reader commit to reading the second book after the first and so on).
Being an avid reader of the series format may also help you determine how many books your own series might warrant.
For some stories, a duology is more than enough, for other narratives, series can span upwards of ten books… Seeing numerous series in action can certainly help you to determine how many books your story might need to be told.
Another benefit to familiarising yourself with the format is having a greater understanding of what genres work well as series.
For example, fantasy books are generally expected to be a part of an ongoing series, whereas literary fiction books are more commonly standalone novels.
While writers don’t always need to conform to these conventions, it always helps to be aware of reader expectations.
3. Is my plot substantial enough for a series?
One of the main elements that ties a series together is the overarching plot that carries the characters (and reader) through multiple books. For example, in Harry Potter, the main plot is one of good vs evil: Harry’s ongoing battle to defeat Voldemort.
In each book, Harry battles with Voldemort in some form or another, but all seven books ultimately build up to the final war between good vs. evil.
This is certainly a massive theme to explore, however, in amongst that, are also numerous other subplots: Harry’s challenges on the Quidditch pitch, Harry’s budding feelings for Cho and Harry’s entry into the Triwizard Tournament… (and we’ve barely scratched the surface there).
Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, when it comes to writing series, it helps to know where you’re going (if only roughly).
The best way to map this out is to determine what and where the climaxes are, both in each book and in the overall series. Even though a book may be part of a series, it should still have its own climax points and should still be a self-contained narrative, or you risk disappointing readers.
This all comes down to whether or not your plot and subplots are substantial enough. Plus, knowing the general outline of your books and your overarching series will help you avoid the dreaded second book syndrome.
4. Are my characters developed enough?
Alongside a riveting plot, the main reason readers commit to reading a series of novels is because of the characters.
Readers emotionally invest in the protagonists and the cast of characters they’ve come to love because not only has an author created a well-rounded, realistic character but also because they have also provided constant character development throughout the overarching story of their series.
Characters, both main and secondary, face challenges and undergo significant changes throughout the course of each book, as well as the overall series.
As an author, you need to ask yourself how developed your own characters are. Can their arcs sustain the course of several books? What journeys do they undergo? Is there enough potential to explore who they are, and who they might become? Are they being challenged enough?
Your characters need to be developed enough that you can reveal their backstories and secrets gradually, creating curiosity in the reader. The longer the developmental arc of your characters, the more intrigued readers will be.
One of the benefits of a series is that there’s also room to introduce new characters throughout. New characters can revitalise momentum and also create additional conflict with your main cast.
5. Am I ready to write a series?
I’m not going to sugarcoat it for you… Writing any book is hard, writing a series is perhaps even more challenging.
Brainstorming, outlining, drafting, rewriting, rounds of alpha/beta feedback and editing all have their own unique difficulties and you will need to do these for every book you write.
It’s important to know the challenges you’re going to face before committing to writing a whole series.
However, only you can know if you’re ready or not to start.
5 Bonus Tips for Writing a Series
•Keep a “series bible” – a document that keeps track of all the details about your world and characters. You’ll definitely need this as a reference point throughout the writing process.
•Keep a spreadsheet or document where you can jot down ideas for future books – not all your amazing ideas should be crammed into Book #1!
•Give each book its own main event to prevent a stagnant middle book in your series and make each book standalone (to a certain extent).
•Weave story threads and breadcrumbs throughout each book which you can gradually bring together as the series comes to a close.
• Create reveals within each book, ensuring the reader is rewarded each time they choose to continue reading
Claire’s latest novel Haywire is set in 1939 in the NSW town of Hay.
It’s about 14-year-old Tom, whose family runs the local bakery, and Max Gruber, nearly 14, who is interred and shipped to Australia, ending up in Hay.
When the two boys meet, they become friends, and find their lives influenced by a far-away conflict in Europe.
It sounds exciting, doesn’t it? But when you’re writing about a particular period in history, it’s important to get the details right.
Here, Claire Saxby outlines her five top tips for ‘time travelling’ to the past.
How to time travel to the past
When I was writing my novel Haywire, I did lots of research about what it was like to live in 1939-1940, when the story is set.
I wanted to know what would have been the same, and what was different. I wanted to know about the houses and the clothes, the food and what the streets looked like.
One tricky question I had when writing Haywire was, ‘How did they make toast?’ (Answer: they used a pan on the stove top). It’s these details that help the reader dive into our story worlds. I found my answers in lots of places.
So how can you find those details for your stories? Strap yourself in and lets go time-travelling!
Tip 1. Look at old photos
Do you have family photo albums? Are they just your close family or are there also albums of your grandparents or their grandparents? Look at their haircuts. Look at the clothes they’re wearing. They’re so different!
If you’re lucky there’ll be some ‘action’ photos. Maybe someone is riding a bike, or a horse. Maybe they’re at a picnic, or swimming at a beach, or on a holiday. Check these photos for background details. What can you see that’s different to now?
Look out for cars. Making stories is about imagining what might happen, what could happen. Imagine sitting in a car from the past. What would the seats feel like? What would the engine sound like? Would you be in the back seat, or the driver’s seat? Now, there’s a story. Where would you go?
Tip 2. Things were different in the past
Food was much simpler, with only a few different vegetables. Hardly anyone ate pasta or rice – can you believe it?
The toilet was outside. There was no air-conditioning inside (except windows). Most houses had a fireplace. There was no television. The radio was bigger than a television. There were no pop-up toasters. How would you cook toast?
Tip 3. Things were just the same
I know what I just said, but this is also true. Some things don’t change.
Tom, in my story, has two brothers and two sisters. His older brothers teach him how to climb trees and play cricket. His older sister helps him with maths. He gives his younger sister shoulder rides and teaches her to climb trees. He doesn’t love homework. The family all eat dinner together.
Tom does the same sorts of things you might do today.
Think about the things you do with your family. Would you be able to do them in the time-travelled past? What might you do instead?
Tip 4: Talk to your family
Everyone. Your parents, aunties and uncles, grandparents, even the neighbours.
Some of them might tell you that time travel is impossible, but just you get them started – you’ll soon be time-travelling all over the place, back to their childhoods!
Ask an aunty or uncle about what your parents were like when they were your age. They’ll soon be introducing you to someone you could never have imagined.
Who could jump the highest?
Who had the best excuse for not tidying their room or helping in the kitchen?
Who was the last to finish dinner?
Who was the best at spitting cherry pips?
You’ll be amazed!
Tip 5: When you’re planning your story, think about WHEN it happens
Let’s say your story problem is about losing a ball.
If you set your story in your backyard today, it will be different to if the story happened yesterday.
Maybe it was windy yesterday and the ball flew over the fence into the backyard of grumpy neighbour, whereas today the ball goes through the window. Oh-oh!
What if you time-travelled back 50 years? Was your house even built then? Perhaps there were no houses near where you are. What was there? Trees? Bushes? So now your character has to find their ball in the bush.
Or maybe it’s millions of years ago and the lost ball is picked up by a dinosaur!
Okay so we’d have to time-travel a long time to meet a dinosaur. But why not?
In writing Haywire, I based my story on something that really happened during WWII and I had to stay as close to the truth as I could (so no dinosaurs).
But you don’t. You can write about anything and include anything you want to.
Time-travelling to the past might be the start of your greatest adventure. Give it a go!
Are you new here? Welcome to my blog! I’m Allison Tait, aka A.L. Tait, and I’m the author of two epic middle-grade adventure series, The Mapmaker Chronicles and The Ateban Cipher. You can find out more about me here, and more about my books here.
If you’d like more writing tips and advice, why not check out my online creative writing course for kids 9-14! You’ll find it here.
I get very excited every time I receive a new post for the Writing For Kids series because I learn something new from every post.
They might be writing tips aimed at kids, but they’re actually brilliant for writers of any age. After all, these are writing tips from some of Australia’s top children’s authors!
This week, Sue Whiting is taking time out from launching her brand-new book – The Book Of Chance – to share her 5 best tips for creating a page-turning story. If you’ve ever read any of Sue’s work – from picture books, through middle-grade fiction, to YA stories – you’ll know that these are tips worth reading.
5 top tips for creating a page-turning story
Don’t you love a book that keeps you up late at night? Turning the pages quickly, heart pumping and eyes flying across the page? I certainly do.
When I write, this is what I’m aiming for too – a thrilling, page-turning story, full of nail-biting suspense. One to keep my readers up late at night to find out what is going to happen next.
So here are my top tips for creating these page-turning stories.
1. MAKE YOUR READERS CARE
In order for readers to keep turning the pages and go on a story journey with your characters, readers must firstly CARE about them. Deeply.
They must worry for them. They must empathise with them. And the best way to achieve this is to show how your characters are FEELING and what they are THINKING.
These insights into the hearts and minds of your characters are all-important, if you want your readers to care.
2. BE A MEANIE
Writing stories is the one time in your life when you get to be a big bad meanie.
In fact, if you want your readers to turn the pages, you HAVE to be MEAN. It is your DUTY as the boss of your story.
After all, stories are all about characters getting into trouble (and getting out of trouble). So YOU are responsible. It is up to you to create that trouble – big trouble – trouble that will make your readers fret and frown and twist their hands with worry.
So be MEAN to your characters and make their lives as DIFFICULT as possible.
3. UP THE STAKES
As the boss of your story, it is important that you know what your characters want – to find a lost friend, to catch the bad guy, to discover the miracle cure etc.
It is also important that the CONSEQUENCES if your characters are unsuccessful are HUGE: DIRE, DISASTROUS, DEVASTATING.
So as well as being mean, you must make the STAKES HIGH. This will ensure a thrilling story, where your readers’ hearts will be pounding, and you will have them worrying all the more – and, yes, you guessed it, turning those pages quickly.
4. SLOWLY DOES IT
This might sound contradictory. I don’t mean make your story slow; what I mean is that you should try to keep a few SECRETS and SURPRISES up your sleeve, a few unexpected TWISTS and TURNS that you REVEAL slowly throughout the story.
These unexpected twists and surprises slotted in at just the right moment, when your readers least expect them, will make them think, Uh-oh. I didn’t see that coming. I need to read the next chapter now!
5. PUT THE TRUTH INTO YOUR LIE
Telling stories is very similar to telling lies. And the best way to tell a lie is to make sure it is as close as possible to the truth.
The same goes for stories.
If you want your readers to keep turning those pages, then you need to make your story CONVINCING. And the way to achieve that is to pepper in as much TRUTH – specific details, authentic emotions – as you can in order to make your story, no matter how fantastical, CREDIBLE and BELIEVABLE.
This is a sure way to hook your readers and to keep them reading.
Happy writing everyone!
Sue Whiting has written many books in a variety of genres: fiction and nonfiction, picture books through to YA. Her latest book is The Book Of Chance, for middle-grade readers, out now through Walker Books Australia.
It’s a very beautiful book, illustrated by Jess Racklyeft, which manages to tell a complex and emotional story within the picture book format (no mean feat!). All the feels in this one, which is aimed at readers 7+.
It’s also a very personal story for Kate, who is the great-granddaughter of Alice Ross-King.
Today, Kate has popped in to share her writing tips for kids who might be wondering just where ideas for stories come from…
Where To Find Ideas (They Might Be Closer Than You Think)
“I’d like to write stories, but I don’t really have any ideas.” Sound familiar?
This was me, age 10. And age 12. And age 28. Right up until my thirties I believed that I couldn’t be a writer because I didn’t have any good ideas. But here’s the thing: it turns out that good ideas can be anywhere.
In fact, some of the best ideas can be a lot closer to home than you think.
There was a famous war hero in my own family – a hero who was a woman at a time when heroes (at least according to the history books) were mostly men – but I didn’t have any good ideas for writing stories.
I know what you’re thinking: “This is all great for you, but what if I don’t have an actual war hero in my family?” I get it, but hear me out.
My first question is: have you ever asked? Speak to the oldest members of your family and you might be surprised at the stories they have to tell.
Secondly, it’s not really about that. The thing about families is that for the most part, they’re kind of weird. Families are where people let out all their best (sometimes), worst (often) and weirdest (if you’re lucky) behaviour.
If you have a big family, it’s also likely to be full of people you might not meet in other parts of life.
That uncle who writes angry letters to the local paper and then reads them all out in chronological order over Christmas lunch? Put him in a story.
Your second cousin who won $10,000 playing the flute through her nose at a talent quest? A writer’s dream.
So bring out the family album (check out the 1980s section if you’d like a good laugh) and get creating.
Tip 2: Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story
So you’ve been to your aunt’s best friend’s son’s bar mitzvah and you’ve come home full of great ideas. My next tip is: don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.
While using a real event as a story starter is a great way to get the creative juices flowing, remember that you’re free to embellish any way you like. This works particularly well for embarrassing events that happened to you.
Change a few details, name the main character after your least favourite cousin and nobody will ever know where you got the inspiration.
And if you’ve trawled your entire family history and the most exciting thing anyone ever did was mix a red sock in with a load of white sheets, then this rule goes double.
Is there a lizard living at the bottom of your backyard? What if it was a 1 metre long goanna and it snuck into your brother’s room while he was asleep?
Is there a gum tree behind your house? What if it was 100 metres high? What might you find at the top?
Think about all the things you did today and apply a bit of “what if?”. Then sit down and write about it.
Tip 3: Tune into your feelings
Don’t forget that stories don’t have to be exciting.
“What?” I hear you say.
Okay, but listen.
Stories need to be interesting. They need to make people want to turn the pages. But they don’t need to involve car chases, monsters or even one metre long goannas.
One of my favourite children’s book series is Beverly Cleary’s ‘Ramona‘ books. These books are about kids living ordinary lives – going to school, arguing with their families, making friends. No dragons, no aliens, no criminal gangs.
But Beverly Cleary is one of the USA’s most famous children’s authors. Why? Because the people who read her books understand exactly what Ramona and her friends are feeling on every page.
Have you ever wanted something really badly, and didn’t get it?
Have you ever wished you could be just like the popular kids in school?
Have you ever felt embarrassed or sad or scared?
If you can write about that and write it honestly, you will have written one of the best types of stories of all.