Friday, August 28, 2009

How to Judge Your Children's Book Idea


I was just checking out the new content at the Children's Book Insider ( and there was an interesting topic. "How To Judge Your Children's Book Idea" The article list five questions to ask yourself to test how strong your story idea actually is.

The Children's Book Insider is a wonderful resource for children's writers and well worth the few dollars a month membership to gain full access to the site. The site is American but it still has enough great content relevant to non US writers to make the cost worthwhile.

This is a timely article because at the moment, I am in the position of editing a completed manuscript and having a number of ideas simmering in my mind for my next work in progress. I'm not certain which one of the three candidates to concentrate on.

I have a Science Fiction story "Strangeway's Mind Ship" where the main character, Horatio Hornblower Strangeway is forced into the position of standing up for a group of alien and modified human cadets even though he knows it will tear apart his relationship with his best friend and make his life at the Liberty Space Service Academy miserable. To make matters worse, a terrible personal discovery about his namesake, leaves his father so ashamed he can no longer look Horatio in the eye.

I have a YA speculative thriller, "The Zoo" about Mira Sheridan, a fifteen year old a foster child just trying to blend in and be unnoticeable because she know just how different she is to other teens. On the first day at her new school she makes an enemy of the most popular girl in school. When a prank against her goes wrong during a field trip to the local zoo, Mira comes under the notice of an unscrupulous man from her past who believed she had died as a baby. He is determined to get her back or make her disappear to protect his secrets.

I also have an idea for a junior novel - possible series, "Witcher's Way - Red Ranger Gold." Ben Witcher is small, timid, afraid of the dark and clostrophobic. His class go on a camping trip to 'Bushranger Caves Adventure Camp' The kids are excited to learn about a real treasure rumoured to be hidden in the area but frightened by stories of the caves being haunted. When Ben's pet rat escapes inside the cave, Ben must find the courage to face his fears to find him. Ben discovers there are more dangerous things than ghosts when he stumbles across a family of serious treasure hunters who will stop at nothing to find the gold.

The questions the article put forward were:

1) Does the story excite you?

You will be working on the story for months are you excited enough about the idea to stay passionate about it.
2) Why do you want to write about this idea?
Is it something you want to write or are you writing it because you think it will appeal to publishers and reader? You need to write for yourself.
3) Is this the first idea to pop into your head?
Have you taken the time to let the idea develop? Have you expanded it with 'What if' questions?
4) Are you qualified to write about this idea?
Are you an expert in the subject or are you prepared to do the research necessary to do justice to the idea?
5) Are you writing a story or trying to send a message?
Having a message is fine but if you don't concentrate on story first, it can become condescending and preachy.
So, now I am going the run through the questions for each of these ideas and see which one comes out on top.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

What is Tersa? Competition

What is Tersa?

That is the question. Personally, I thought it was quite obvious and I'm actually a little worried about some of the opinions I have heard. It made me wonder if it was literally time to go back to the drawing board.

The sketch was done as an illustration of one of the characters in my YA novel manuscript ‘Eyes In The Dark’ and I was very pleased with the result. The picture was one that I showed at my ‘Bless the Beasts and the Children’ exhibition. During the evening, I overheard several people discussing the picture and they all had differing opinions as to what exactly Tersa is.

Frankly, it doesn’t leave an artist with a great feeling when people can’t figure out what the subject of their picture is. It’s not such a problem if you are an abstract artist but in art I like cows to look like cows and trees to look like trees and Tersa to look like … well Tersa.

So I have decided to run a little competition to get a consensus of what people think Tersa actually is.

The Prize
A signed, limited edition print of the picture with certificate of authenticity.

I will select two correct entries at random. The winners will be announced on the 1st of September and both will receive a prize.

So please, leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Sunday, August 9, 2009


Being fairly new to the blogging scene, I was quite surprised when I was asked to host children’s author, Sandy Fussell on the final leg of her blog tour. The tour is celebrating the release of her fifth book, Monkey Fist, the fourth instalment in the Samurai Kids series.

Sandy assures me she has absolutely no artistic talents but it amazes me how she can paint such vivid images on the pages of her books with just a few simple words. I flicked open Monkey Fist to a random page and this is one of the gems I found.

Edging away, the man frays into the fringe of the crowd. It folds around and over him. One moment he was there. And now he is gone.

Sandy’s books are rich with imagery and as a very visual reader, they are a dream to read. Being an illustrated novel makes it doubly so. That relationship between the writing of her books and the illustrations used in them is what I will be talking to Sandy about today.

Q1. Every author is different in their approach to the writing process. What comes first for you, plot or character?

I begin with setting but that’s a result of the fact that I have given myself a thematic project - writing around the world in different countries at different times, following where my interest in ancient times takes me. Once I have chosen the setting, it is definitely character before plot. My characters talk to me and when I find out who they are I can imagine what sort of situations they would have got themselves in to and how they would have handled them. They create their own plot with just a little help from me.

Q2. The Samurai Kids books are in essence, historical novels. How have you kept the stories relevant to children today?

The time and place is historical but the stories are universal – about overcoming difficulty, meeting challenges, confronting villains and bullies and believing in yourself. Samurai and Ninja is a variation on the ever popular Cowboys and Indians, Cops and Robbers, Good Guys and Bad Guys - although in Samurai Kids some of the ninja are good. Everyone secretly wants to barrack for a ninja.

I have purposely combined eastern and modern expressions to create a sense of the recognisable but exotic. The two words of the series title are an example of this. I also take familiar idioms and sayings, giving them a Japanese twist like “flatter than a rice pancake.”

Q3. Your first novel, White Crane was released in 2008. We are only just over half way into 2009 and you have released Owl Ninja, Shaolin Tiger and now Monkey Fist in the Samurai Kids series, as well as your CBCA shortlisted book Polar Boy. I also have it on good authority there are also a number of other titles coming in the near future. This makes you a fairly prolific writer by any standards. How do you manage your writing schedule? In other words, can you run us through a day in the writing life of Sandy Fussell?

I am a very disciplined person and I work best with a schedule and a deadline. I think this comes from my professional training as a project manager. I’m also realistic about the time available to me. I am a wife and mother. I have a day job although I generally work from home. If I want to write I have to use those hours at the end of the day when everyone else is in bed (although I have learned not to use them to sound my Japanese gong when brainstorming onomatopoeias). My writing day begins at 10pm and ends at 1pm. I have set word count that I always write (calculated form the deadlines for the project I am working on) or a set number of pages to edit. I may not keep the work the next morning but I like to produce something on a daily basis. I shut my laptop down at the end of the Japanese hour of the Rat. It has an appropriate feel as not only was I born in the year of the Rat, but apparently rats make good writers. I hope so!

Q4. When you started to write the Samurai Kids books, did you have it in mind from the beginning that they would be illustrated novels or was that a decision originating from the publisher?

It was the publisher’s decision but I was very excited about it because… (see question 7)

Q5. Do you think the illustrations help young readers visualise the characters and action in the books?

I do. And I also feel with a historical novel it helps provide a more accurate picture in their mind. Not that the accuracy is important in itself but sometimes in not getting the right picture, some of the story loses its impact. When kids flick the pages of one of my books and see the illustrations, their faces light up. So younger readers themselves definitely feel illustrations enhance the reading process.

Q6. Rhian Nest-James is the illustrator for the books. What is the process of choosing an illustrator for a book?

In my experience, the author is not involved in the process. Children often ask me if Rhian and I worked on the book together as they usually think the words and pictures were created at the same time. While I have input regarding the historical accuracy of images, I am glad I don’t make the more artistic decisions. I am not a visual person and when the first folio of illustrations was complete I was pressed to admit which picture I didn’t like. Not only did it go on to prove a firm favourite with all the readers (I collect opinions at school visits and hardly anyone ever agrees with me), the illustration inspired two whole pages of text in the subsequent book, Owl Ninja! I have total trust in the team at Walker Books and in Rhian. I’m happy to leave the illustrations in their safe, capable hands and get on with what I do best –words.

Q7. When I write, I have a very clear image of my characters in my mind. How close has Rhian come to capturing your image of the Samurai Kids and Ky-Yaga?

I am often asked this question and the answer always surprises people. I had no mental pictures. I am not a visual person and part of my excitement about having the series illustrated, was being able to see what my characters looked like.

I see in words. I had heard musicians say they saw in sound but never an author say anything similar. Then one day I was in the crowd listening to Ursula Dubosarsky speak – and she said she didn’t see in pictures! I admire her work immensely and was thrilled at the thought we shared a similar perspective.

I do think though, I would have instinctively known if one of the pictures was not right.

Q8. How important do you believe the cover art is to the success of a book?

Very important. Initially I thought Samurai Kids would suit a manga style cover but Walker Books’ vision for the series had a more traditional and historic tone – while keeping the look and feel very modern. The cover is also very age independent – it appeals to both younger and older readers. This has proven to be a wise approach as many of the fans who write to me are boys in Year 7 and 8 and I know from my experience as a parent, this age group are very conscious of book covers.

Q.9 The covers of your Samurai Kids books have a very distinctive style. What was your reaction when you first saw Rhian’s covers?

I love them. They are a truly visually stunning package. I probably shouldn’t admit to a favourite but I like the cover of Shaolin Tiger best. Burnt orange is the perfect colour for a story set in a Shaolin monastery (where the monks where orange robes) and the figure with the sword between his teeth is very striking. But then again purple is my favourite colour and when I was a kid I always wanted to be a ninja, so I like the Owl Ninja cover a lot too.

Q.10 I understand with children’s picture books, many illustrators dislike authors passing on their ideas or directions when it comes to the illustrations for the book. In your experience is it similar for illustrated novels or is there more interaction between the author and illustrator?

I don’t want to contribute illustration ideas. I know where my skills lie and they don’t extend to anything graphical. I can’t even colour co-ordinate furniture. Or my wardrobe. I enjoy seeing the pictures as a finished product. It’s like getting a special present. I do however happily provide input on how a sword is held, city defence layouts or hairstyles. History is my comfort zone. I have a strong trust in my editor and my illustrator’s feel for the story. Rhian Nest-James does a wonderful job of bringing my words to life. I never feel excluded from the process and have been consulted about possible choices of pictures for chapter and headings. But I gladly leave the artwork decisions to those who know best.

Q11. How important is the relationship between the author and the illustrator in the success of the book?

I don’t think the two roles need to work physically close together. The collaboration could be successful even if the two parties were on either sides of the world. I think what is more important is how the illustrator relates to the text. Can they take the story and bring it to life in a meaningful way? Rhian does exactly this with Samurai Kids. I love the authentic traditional Japanese ink element of her drawings. The illustrations are readily accessible to the wide reading age of the series’ readers – seen as neither too young or too old.

Rhian and I keep in email contact. She is not only a talented illustrator but a wonderful person with a quirky sense of humour. There is an interview with her on the Samurai Kids website.

Q12. Finally, if there is one piece of advice you wish someone had given you when you first started writing. What would it be?

I think I was fortunate to have excellent advice from the very beginning. I am indebted to my mentor Di Bates, who guided me through so many decisions. One of the key elements of her advice was to be active in the writing community. She told me: if you want to write, be professional about it from the start. So I went to seminars, assessments, conferences, workshops and I wrote every day. I am a prolific writer and can always be found playing with words.

After I had been writing for a year, Di sent me an email that said: it is time to stop writing anything and everything and decide what it is you want to be known for when you look back in ten years. And that’s how I came to write historical fiction. I still have that email taped up in front of the desk where I write. It continues to give me direction and never fails to inspire me.

Thank you Sandy, it was a pleasure to be part of your tour.

Now, if you have been following Sandy's blog tour or just reading this interview and are still wondering if you should go out and buy a copy of Monkey Fist? Do yourself a favour, buy the entire Samurai Kids series.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Sandy Fussell's Monkey Fist Blog Tour

It is now day four of Sandy's blog tour celebrating the release of 'Monkey Fist' her fourth book in the Saumrai Kids series.

I have been following the tour each day and have discovered a great deal about how Sandy writes, her inspiration for the series, her research methodology and some intriguing insights into the characters she has created for the series, especially the narrator character Niya who dropped by on Monday for an interview with poet and children’s author, Dale Harcombe.

I am looking forward to hosting Sandy on Monday the 10th when I will talk to her about the wonderful artwork in the books and working with an illustrator.

The remainder of the tour links are listed below.

Wednesday 5/8/09
Tales I Tell – Storyteller and author Mabel Kaplan interviews me about how my interest in Japanese and Chinese history has influenced the series. Mabel uncovers the meaning of Monkey Fist.

Thursday 6/8/09
Sally Murphy’s Writing For Children Blog – I will be visiting Sally Murphy (author of many books for children including the verse novel, Pearl Verses the World) to talk about book promotion and how to harness cyber resources.

Friday 7/8/09
Writing Children’s Book with Robyn Opie – I will be visiting Robyn Opie, author of more than 75 books including "How to Write a Great Children's Book" and the novel “Black Baron”. I will be discussing Zen and the Art of Writing for Children – my view on why the series has been so successful.

Saturday 8/8/09
Alphabet Soup – Magazine editor Rebecca Newman will be interviewing me about my research techniques and asking questions to discover whether all that historical research is really any fun

Sunday 9/8/09
The Book Chook – Writer, reviewer and children’s literature advocate Sue Stephenson will be interviewing me about how my children’s reading experiences have influenced my writing

Monday 10/08/09
Words and Pictures – Writer and artist Jefferey E Doherty will be interviewing me about writing illustrated novels – the artwork, graphics and working with an illustrator.