Friday, July 18, 2014

My 7 Personal #SCBWI AusNZ 2014 Highlights

Catching up with distant friends (so many wonderful writers and illustrators hail from Perth) and making new ones. The 2014 Australian-New ZealandSCBWI Conference might just be the most inclusive place on earth.

The Illustrators Showcase. It was spectacular. I still have a severe case of artistic talent envy.

Professor Ernest Bond’s Session Going to the Common Core USA. I was impressed with how a list of ten conceptual points became concrete understandable points when paired with an analysis of an appropriate picture book. I even discovered one I have to have – Last Laughs Animal Epitaphs ( J. Patrick Lewis and Jane Yolande)  

Tania McCartney and Kathryn Otoshi’s session Getting into the Marketplace. Informative and heart-warming. Tanya is a one-woman dynamo whose unerring vision of herself as a writer/illustrator and dedication to achieving that dream was inspiring. Kathryn’s beautiful picture books and the wonderful success they have had in schools as anti-bullying resources was inspiring too. So that was the message for this session. Be inspired.

The Pitch Sessions. Where two good friends nailed it and each attracted an editor’s attention.

Performance Poetry by Stephen Whiteside. Stephen read a laugh-out-loud poem from his new book The Billy that Died with its Boots On

Book Launches. For the first year in my six years as an author I haven’t had a book to launch (family health issues) but I really enjoyed being part of someone else’s launch. I bought two books:

Crocand Platypus (Jackie Hosking and Marjorie Crosby-Fairall). This a rollicky read-along rhyme to the meter of The Owl and The Pussycat. It was a rollicky launch too! I’m going to give this signed book as a thank you gift to Balgownie Public School library when I visit later this month. Not only were they gracious when I cancelled three!! times due to family ill-health, but they re-booked me as soon as I resumed school visits. I appreciate the support.

Woodlands Whiskers: A New Pet (Gabriel Evans). This beautiful lift-the flap board book is the perfect gift for newest beautiful person in my family – Annabel Louise. I think it might just be her very first book. I’m sure when she’s a bit older she’ll love the mouse Gabriel Evans drew on the back.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Writing Process Blog Hop

One of the best things about the writing process is the writerly friends I have made along the way, so I am especially pleased to be tagged by Rebecca Newman, writer for children and editor of the wonderful Alphabet Soup blog where you can find book reviews and stories by young readers and writers.

On my one and only visit to Perth (I’m always secretly hoping someone will invite me to another festival there) we caught up for dinner, as Facebook friends always do when their paths eventually cross, and talked kid lit until very, very late.

Rebecca writes picture books and children's poetry. Her poem, Odd Socks, was recently published in The School MagazineCheck out her Writing Process Blog Hop post.
Rebecca Newman

So to the business of the day…

What am I working on?

My WIP is a magical realism young adult novel. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever written and I’ve been  working on it for four years. I wrote it in bits and pieces around the final three books in the Samurai Kids series and the severe illness of my youngest son and my own cancer treatment. It has not been an easy writing process.

And it has a protagonist with cancer. The playing field was different when I began to write it. Four years ago there were very few cancer novels and a year ago cancer certainly wasn’t on my personal horizon. This manuscript has truly tested me. I questioned whether there is still a place for it, given the recent spate of YA characters with cancer and I answered I think so. Magical realism makes it different. When I was diagnosed and things were grim there for a while, I questioned whether I could even write about cancer and again I answered I think so. I found that it helped me through some tough spots.
A main character: Source:unknown
How does my work differ from others in my genre? 

I am not sure my work has a genre. I write anything and everything – if words are involved, I want to be part of it. The majority of my work to date is middle grade historical fiction. Next year my first picture book will be released and my almost complete WIP is Young Adult. My next project is middle grade fantasy. I think I link ideas together differently, like writing historical fiction set in samurai Japan where the characters each have a disability.

Why do I write what I write?

Oh good, an easy question. I write what the characters tell me to write. If I don’t listen, and I tried it once, they plague me and prod me until I can’t sleep at night and am forced to get up at 2 am to write down their story.

How does my writing process work?

I believe writing is a habit and I write at least 500 words every day. Often they are rubbish and die a horrible death the next morning but usually the manuscript progresses. I write and edit as I go. I am always going back to start at the beginning again. I feel that keeps me in the zone as I move forward and incrementally improves what I’ve already written. I often write the last chapter after the first chapter because I am not a plotter, so I need to know the direction I am going in. It doesn’t usually change a great deal when I get there. I have to work very hard at the 67% mark because by then I know what happens all the way through to the end and I am eager to start something new and different.

I knew I was a writer when I finished my first manuscript. Before that I was forever starting grand projects and never finishing. I am also a believer in a shower as the magical solution to plot problems and the source of story ideas. Recently, I discovered Scrivener, so my writing process has become more organised. The only thing more fun than reading and writing is reading and writing technology.
Here are my tags. I have accidentally cheated a little – for someone who claims to love maths and find mathematical patterns in her writing, I've failed basic adding up. I have four tagees instead of three.
Jeffery Doherty
I met Jeffery Doherty at the Kids and YA festival at the NSW Writer’s Centre. Jeff is a talented writer and illustrator. When I created some interactive teacher resources to support my novel Polar Boy,  Jeff took one look at my artistic efforts and insisted on painted the pictures for my igloo building quiz. You can see his work here. I was privileged to be an early reader of Jeff’s 2014 debut novel “Paper Magic”, the empowering story of Marina, a girl in a wheelchair who finds strength and friends through magic origami paper. You can find Jeff and his blog here.
Michelle Morgan
Michelle Morgan is a former librarian, author and playwright who lives in my local area, although we only met recently at the Illawarra CBCA dinner. Michele’s first book, Racing the Moon, set in Sydney during the Depression, was published in 2014. It's on my desk to read. I've got some catching up as she recently completed the sequel. You can find Michelle’s blog here.
Peter Macinnis
I first met Peter Macinnis, although he didn’t meet me, when I reviewed one of his award-winning non-fiction books, The Backyard Naturalist. Peter writes science and history and often the two overlap. I have since acquired a personal collection of Peter’s books because he has a knack for making science accessible for young readers and me (who never paid any attention to science at school). I follow him around on Facebook because I find his posts interesting and often funny. There’s an inspiring amount of writerly detail on his website, so I recommend a visit there and to his blog.
Helen Armstrong

Helen Armstrong is another writer who lives not too far from me. I met Helen when were both presenters at the Sutherland Shire Writers Unleashed Festival. Helen is a lady of many talented hats (and a lot of energy!) – president of the Sutherland Fellowship of Australian Writers, scientist, writer of short stories ‘and the occasional outbreak of poetry’, and a lover of mythology, fantasy and satire. Helen will post on her blog hop on her Facebook page.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Long Weekend Reminiscing - Henry Lawson Festival of the Arts 2008

Tuesday morning and I'm sitting down to work after the long weekend. I have a quick check of Facebook first and discover last weekend Penelope Davie mentioned  that she had been to Henry Lawson Festival of the Arts at Grenfell and in the main street was a plaque  with my name on it. What a wonderful memory to start the week with. Thanks Penelope. I searched out the original blog post I did about how that came to be and enjoyed reminiscing so much I decided to repost it.

I've only ever reposted once before (special circumstances)  but recently I've been enjoying a series of reposts by Michael Gerard Bauer.  I missed them first time round so perhaps similarly someone else will enjoy my revisit here. You'll have to scroll down Michael's blog to find the reposts as they have inspired a spate of new new blog posts. I hope this repost works like that for me!!

Here goes:
Being a children’s author can be quite confronting. Embarrassing even. The questions some primary students ask range from jaw-dropping to ego shattering. And on other occasions they can make you feel like Master of the (Writing) Universe. I thought I’d blog about one of my MOTWU moments. I don’t want to mention the others!!!

Back in June 2008 I was guest of honour at the Henry Lawson Festival of the Arts in Grenfell. Grenfell is a tiny rural town in the central west of NSW, population 2200, the birthplace of Henry Lawson. The weekend long Festival is very prestigious. It’s the longest running arts festival in Australia and past guests of honour have included Patrick White, Di Morrissey and Thomas Keneally!

So how did I get this gig? Well, I’m not proud. I’m willing to admit I was the Guest of Honour to Be Named Later. Last Minute actually. TV actor Simon Westaway was the original choice and when he had to cancel, the rush was on to find someone arts-related who would come to no-airport Grenfell at extremely short notice. My sister, who lives on a small farm in the area, happened to mention me. Even if she wasn’t the best sister in the world this would have immediately earned her the dedication in Shaolin Tiger!‘My sister is an author,” she said. “And she visits here all the time.”

So there I was, pretending to be a famous person of literary note. Crowning the beauty queens. Cutting the ribbon. Keynote speaker at the dinner. Presenting trophies and medallions. Conducting TV interviews. Chatting with the writers from Underbelly who were accepting a scriptwriting award. Grenfell opened its heart to welcome me. I think the townspeople were sort of proud that I had a local connection. I might not have been the ilk of the previous guests yet I was an honorary ‘one of their own.”

But my really big moment was absolutely huge. It’s one of the highlights of my writing career. I was sitting on the official dais (trying to look official and literary!) watching the street parade. Around the corner came a local primary school all dressed up as my Samurai Kids. Banging gongs and waving swords and banners. They marched down the main street and when they reached the dais their teacher yelled “Stop”. “Yes Sensei,” they responded.Then they turned to face me and bowed, Japanese style.

I stood and bowed too. And I bawled my eyes out. To be honest, I bawled my eyes out again writing this. It’s still such a vivid and emotional memory.There are many times when I am asked why I don’t write proper books. Books for adults or older readers. Well one day I might write those too but in writing for kids, I am totally fulfilled. I do write proper books. The people who ask that question don’t understand the craft of writing for children. And they certainly don’t understand how wonderful young readers can make their authors feel. It’s real magic.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A Word About Word Counts

I've heard it said you shouldn't count the words. Write what you want to. Let the story do the driving. Don't be distracted by the numbers. In a perfect Utopian literary world - and we all know there's no such thing - that might work for some. I always count the words. I think the key is to be aware of the word count but not to worry about it.

Sometimes that's not as easy as it sounds. While writing my first YA novel, I was aware the words were piling up much too quickly. Painfully aware because I was writing outside my comfort zone. But I kept going. I knew if I put the complete story on the page, I could edit out what didn't need to be there and still retain the structure. If I tried to adjust the pacing would be all wrong and this is a book where the chronology of change is important. I know my writing bad habits will make it easy to reduce the number of words. I write a lot of fluff and over fill that screams to be deleted the first time I redit.

Words counts are critical to me on a maintenance basis. They establish my writing habit. I write 500 words a day. Every day. I'm not a fast writer so sometimes even that's hard. When I'm talking about output I'm happy to include anything creative I write. Even this blog post. It's not about getting the story completed, its about muscle memory for good writing habits.

AR BookFinder: Samurai Kids #2: Owl Ninja
For the first draft I like to know where I'm going word count wise even though I don't let it dictate to me. I know when I begin to redraft I will inevitably cut and add large chunks so at this stage all I need to do is head in the right direction.

How do I know what a reasonable word count is? I ask the  books I love and respect, the ones I wish I had written and occasionally, one that I did! I look up the word counts of any of these books with similar genre and target readership on the AR Bookfinder site.To find the word count search by author or title and when the book is displayed, click on the tile for more details including the word count.

Samurai Kids #8: Black tengu
My book is magical realism so I've got some leeway. Fantasy novels are often twice the word count of realistic novels and at 90,000 (after 5 edits) I'm currently sitting in between. I can go either way and no doubt I will in both directions before I am happy.

I have strategies I use when I edit. Some of these raise the word count (like upping the conflict and mending plot holes) and some whittle it away (like removing adverbs,redundancy and extraneous, tightening description and deleting unnecessary dialogue). But I never focus on any particular one for the sake of word count.

Somehow in the end it ultimately all comes together. Except once. The last Samurai Kids book, Black Tengu, was too short. I suspect I was in too much of a hurry to tell Sensei's story and I left a big chunk of it inside my head. But that meant when I had to expand, the words all there ready and waiting. Fasted 4,000 words I ever wrote!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Why I Like Maths - A Visual Explanation - Enter the Mandelbrot

It’s about patterns, logic, beauty and infinity.  The best way to demonstrate this is with fractals and specifically The Mandelbrot Set discovered as recently as 1980. 

The Mandlebrot set is a pattern that’s self replicating and unique, its simple and its complex  and its beautiful. It seemingly goes on forever.

It’s been called the definition of infinity and the “thumbprint of God”. I’m inclined to think the latter is true as you don’t have to look very far in the physical world to find Mandlebrot designs – carved in stone on Indian temples, under the microscope, in the fronds of the weedy sea dragon – the list is as endless as a fractal.

I’m not very good at mathematical writing but the best way to explain it that I’ve found is an article by Dave Dewey Introduction to the Mandelbrot Set - A guide for people with little math experience.

 identical to the whole. In fact, the Mandelbrot set is infinitely complex. Yet the process of generating it is based on an extremely simple equation involving complex numbers.

Fractals are a lot of fun for kids and there are a number of free on-line generators such as Easy Fractal Generator and  Fractal Poster.

Another good place to go is You Tube where in a series of 6 videos science fiction author Arthur C Clarke introduces the Mandelbrot set

Mathematics, Magic and Mystery

I love maths. Specifically I love numbers the way some people feel about art, music and literature. I love words too and most of my friends and family understand that but very few understand my fascination with mathematics.

It’s all about patterns and the concept of infinity – the thrill of a proof that falls into place or knowing a problem has taken to its infinite end. I first discovered the patterns when I learned to count and realised I could just keep going. Numbers were infinite and because there was a pattern to the way they were incremented, I could count all day if I wanted to (and when I was 4 I thought that was heaps of fun).

At school I discovered all sorts of different maths and once again there were patterns to formula, equations and proofs, infinite tendencies to infinity. The mind boggled when I first found out about imaginary and complex numbers. I was four all over again. The possibilities were endless.

At Uni I survived two years of Statistics by applying the patterns and most of the time it worked out right even if I hadn't learned the where and why. I late enrolled in a Maths degree but life got in the way of something I was doing for fun. As an adult maths constricted to become the tedious chore of juggling the budget and for a while the magic disappeared.

Mandlebrot - Mathematics Stack Exchange
Last month was, April 2014, was Maths Awareness Month (MAM), something I discovered thanks to Twitter (‪#‎MathAwarenessMonth‬). The theme for this year was Mathematics, Magic and Mystery, a tribute to mathematics writer Martin Gardner, “whose extensive writings introduced the public to hexaflexagons, polyominoes, John Conway’s Game of Life, Penrose tiles, the Mandelbrot set, and much more. “ ( ) 2014 is the centenary of his death.

During MAM, I was too preoccupied following up on the wonderful maths relating posts that were appearing in cyberspace to blog about them but I intend to do something about that beginning with The Mandelbrot Set, which is the best way I can find to explain why I like maths.

My Blogging Problem

My problem with blogging is it’s all in my head. I blog mentally all day – it’s a form of talking to myself without words. Because I am a writer those thoughts naturally organise themselves into prose.
It has taken me an embarrassing amount of time to work out why when I am full of ideas and observations, and I love to write, I am such a failure as a blogger. Having done the blog post in my head, I can’t be bothered writing it out. It’s old news to me.


Now that I have identified the problem, I’m going to make a better effort to empty out my head more regularly.

  • I am going to blog with renewed enthusiasm and purpose because:
  • I like to write and its good practice.
  • I love trawling the Internet for interesting things but I tend to forget them and the ideas they engender.
  • I like to share the things I find.

So I have set myself a challenge and given myself an ultimatum. If I do not blog at least once a week for the next four weeks I will delete my blog and never talk about blogging again!

Monday, March 10, 2014

An Excuse and a Repost: When a Series Ends

I looked at the date on my last blog post and its a very significant one - a week before my total thyroidectomy operation. I had an excellent surgeon but unfortunately there were complications and I hemorrhaged so had to have a second turn in theatre. Recovery took longer than I expected and it wasn't over then. My operation was to remedy swallowing difficulties because of right lobe nodules and the strong possibility the left lobe would cause the same  problems within a few years. After the pathology was done, cancer was found in the supposedly currently innocent left lobe. So I had radioactive iodine therapy and a week in isolation while I was "hot property".

I admit I enjoyed that week because I had time for lots of writing - no-one was allowed near me! I would have preferred a different reason of course but it was all good in the end as I am now cancer free, subject to a lifetime of annual testing for recurrence.

So that is my blogging excuse for the empty months and while I am not big on making excuses I think I had a good one this time.

To kick off a new year of better heath and blogging I am reposting a favourite piece I wrote for the now defunct Walker Book Walk-A-Book blog. I want this piece to have permanent home on the Internet because it lives in my heart every day. I never realised how it would feel when the Samurai Kids series ended. I knew the time had come but it still hurt to let go.

Even now, six months after the last book in the series was published, the Kids still talk to me.

When a Series Ends
I’m currently working on the last book in the Samurai Kids series. I feel a bit sad. Not because the series is ending. I know the timing for that is right. Samurai Kids opened doors for me as a writer, it won awards and brought me a flood of feedback from enthusiastic fans. The story – its journey and its telling -  feels complete.

So why am I sad? Because I know I’ll miss the Kids and I hate to think I’ll never hear their voices in my head again. They argue and fight all the time, but they are the best of friends and they like to gang up on me. They do as they please and have no respect for my role as the author.

Some adult readers have wondered at my choice of a modern tone for the 17th century Samurai Kids’ voices. I think that makes history more accessible to young readers. But to be honest it wasn’t my idea, that’s how the kids speak to me.

The stories grew out of my passion for ancient history, Japan and swordsmanship. I knew that to be a samurai, you had to born into a samurai family. And the children of a samurai family had no choices – it was their destiny to bear a sword. But everyone wanted to be an elite samurai so that part didn’t matter. Or did it? What if you wanted to be a samurai but weren’t very good at it? What if no amount of training would help because it wasn’t something you could change? What if you were born with one leg?

That’s when Niya, the one-legged narrator of the Samurai Kids series, first spoke to me. See for yourself, he said. So I went into my backyard and tucked up one leg. To my surprise I had assumed  the White Crane stance, a form common to a number of martial arts. That’s right, said Niya. I am the White Crane, really good at standing on one leg. Now give it a try and see what it’s like to be me.

I accepted Niya’s challenge. I did a flying one-legged karate kick and landed flat on my face. I had found the first lines to Niya’s story.

I scissor kick high as I can and land on my left foot. I haven’t got another one. My name is Niya Moto and I’m the only one-legged samurai kid in Japan. Usually I miss my foot and land on my backside. Or flat on my face in the dirt.
I’m not good at exercises, but I’m great at standing on one leg. Raising my arms over my head, I pretend I am the great White Crane. ‘Look at me,’ the crane screeches across the training ground. ‘Look at him,’ the valley echoes.

Niya laughed at me sprawled on the ground. Then he began to tell me about his friends -  Mikko, Yoshi, Nezume, Kyoko and Taji – and how they all struggled to become samurai despite their disabilities. He told me about their teacher - wise, eccentric Sensei Ki-Yaga, once a legendary warrior. A man who saw their strengths and ignored their weaknesses and taught them the power of working together. Or gently rapped them over the ears with his travelling staff if they didn’t pay enough attention.

Niya confided to me that he thought Kyoko was really pretty. And that sometimes he could hear Sensei talking inside his head. Sensei would talk inside my head too. He would whisper oddly-slanted words of wisdom to make me laugh. Put it in the book, he would say. I’m really very funny. I often didn’t get to write what I wanted to. The kids had their own ideas. I wouldn’t say that. I’m much too brave, Mikko would insist. He’s right you know, Yoshi would agree. Kyoko would get cranky with me if I didn’t let her win all the wrestling matches. I’m a better samurai than those boys. Taji would patiently make suggestions, a blind kid who showed me a different way to look at things.

And when I tried to take them on a journey to India, they refused to go. They had traveled to China, Korea and Cambodia, and now they wanted to go home. That’s when I knew it was time to write the last book. The Kids want to make sure that I get this book right. Even now they’re banding together to convince me I need an epilogue. So readers will know what happened to us. And they want to make sure I reveal Sensei’s secret the way they think is best. They admire him heaps but even more importantly, they love him a lot.

As I type, I can still hear Niya’s voice. Do you think I would ever go away? What about writing a sequel? What about a series all about me? I’m going to be a teacher, just like Sensei. There’ll be a new generation of Samurai Kids. My kids. He sighs. It won’t be the same you know. The golden age of the samurai has come to an end. But I’ve got some ideas. Really big ideas…

For an author, imagination has a way of blurring into reality. Who are you calling not real? the Kids demand to know. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

A is for Asimov and Aldiss

I was thinking about authors that begin with the letter A (as you do!) and the same day read an article about the first science fiction book (believed to be ancient Roman for those interested) and I started to think about Isaac Asimov and the first science fiction book I read. It was I, Robot.

My reading relationship with Asimov began and ended in my first year of high  school. I was a country kid and the pickings in my primary school library and the town library were very slim. But my high school had an almost brand new library with more books than I had ever seen before. I did what any mathematical mind might do when confronted with that - I started at A. When I got to Asimov,I adopted a dual approach. I read every Asimov novel or short story I could find and then moved on to other science fiction, while still working my way through A.

The relationship didn't last because someone returned Helliconia Spring by Brian Aldiss and as I was still on the A shelf I went back to read it. It was a different sort of science fiction, in fact it was science fantasy. For my entire school life it was my genre of choice. I am a much wider reader now, but it is still my comfort zone.

I can't remember anything about I, Robot or even the Foundation series, which for many years was on my list of favourite reads. I even bought my own copies but I don't have them anymore either. There are more books in my life than bookshelves so ultimately Asimov had to go. I found the books a good home - a friend had a house where almost every wall was a built-in floor to ceiling bookcase and every book was science fiction.

While I can't remember the stories, I still remember the feeling of having something new and wonderful to read. That's easy to remember, because it still happens all the time.

PS I still have the Helliconia series and am thinking I might start rereading it tonight.

PPS Other authors that begin with A that I like - Margaret Atwood and Jean Auel (except for the last book in the Earth Children series - one of the only two books I couldn't finish despite waiting ten years for it!). Confession -  I am not a Jane Austen fan (*ducks while many friends throw books at my head*)

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Birthday Books

These are my birthday books.

These are the reasons I chose them:

Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan -  It was CBCA Book of the Year for Older Readers but that's not why I chose it (although that would have been good enough to influence me). I read Tender Morsels last year and it really engaged my brain. Not many books make me concentrate hard when I read. Usually I find myself reading exponentially faster because I am excited to know what happens in the end. Unfortunately this sometimes interferes with my enjoyment - it's over all too soon. Tender Morsels made me think. And if I got ahead of myself I would quickly realise I had missed something. I like that. It was one of my favourite reads of 2012. I was hoping Sea Hearts would treat me similarly. I say "was" because I've read it now and I was not disappointed. I liked it even more than Tender Morsels.

Pureheart by Cassandra Golds. A Cassandra Golds book changes the colour of my day. Time spent between the pages makes the real world a little more ethereal and magical - not necessarily softer but certainly sharper and more sensefully aware. (Yes, Sensefully. I made that up because there is no word I know that fits better). I've read lots of reviews for Pureheart and I am intrigued. Even if I hadn't read all Cassandra's other titles, I would still have chosen it.

The Wishbird by Gabrielle Wang. I've only read one of Gabrielle's books, Little Paradise. The others are on my To read List. I can see from the glowing reviews I've read of The Wishbird that while I enjoyed Little Paradise, this is a lot different and I'm going to enjoy it even more. I admire the creative space inside Gabrielle's head. I know all about that because I read her blog all the time.

The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth. I'm a fan of historical fiction and Kate's previous release, Bitter Greens, was another of my best reads of 2012. I love fairy tales so this is history especially for me. I am fascinated by the research she does because as a writer, that's one of my favourite parts of the process.

Lastly, the book I didn't choose. Armed with a very definite list and instructions "not to swap one for anything else" my other half added a book of his own choosing. He doesn't read MG or YA but he knows me well enough to get it really right .

Looking for Alaska by John Green. I'm almost embarrassed to admit I haven't read a single John Green book. So many books and so little money. I always wanted to.  And now I can.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

When the Blogosphere Speaks, I Listen

I love it when the blogosphere speaks to me personally. Over on my good friend Di Bate's blog Writing for Children, author Sherryl Clark is writing a post for me. Not that Sherryl knows that!

The post is called When Writers Resign. It talks about the ups and downs of this writing life and why most writers keep writing  through them all because ultimately we need to create. It also talks about how, like with any other job, we really can can resign if we want to.

I have been heading further and further out into the writing wilderness for the last three years. I didn't choose for life to go that way. My youngest son became very sick with symptoms that no-one could fully explain. Everything fell in the 'diagnosis by exclusion' bucket and there's no effective for those. Some things helped but the things that constrained his life were always there. And so was I. All day and often multiple times through the night. My days were a round of specialists, medication, painkillers, home schooling and hot water bottles. Half way through I got sick too. It was hard to write with a life like that.

I'm much better now and in recent weeks my son has seen the first improvement ever. I am gradually inching my way back from the wilderness. I always had a lifeline. The Samurai Kids series had its own momentum, there were always books to be written and in the worst of times I still managed two. The last one, Black Tengu, was released on September 1 and I'm proud to say its the best of them all.

But at the same time I decided to make it even harder to walk out of the wilderness. I shot myself in the foot. I started a new manuscript. One outside my comfort zone. One that was hard to write.  But it was a story I loved and a story I believed in. I kept going. For a few weeks recently I wondered if I was in the middle of what Sherryl refers to as the story that just won't work and has to be abandoned years later.

Image from
But again the blogosphere spoke to me. Over at is a post "Hand in Hand, Writers Share Advice in Notes on Their Own Hands. It's an April 2013 post but it's been waiting there for me. First up is Neil Gaiman, an author whose writing I not only admire but whose writing about writing always strikes me with its truth. There were three points on Neil's hand. Number 2 was for me. Finish things.

I should have known this. I'd already been told. I'd even filed the wisdom away. Neil Gaiman's 8 Rules for Writing.

There's a lot of editing and rewriting involved with my current manuscript, but I'm getting closer to the finish. And I feel good.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

In Praise of Pencils

I always work with a pencil. Not just any pencil. A 2B pencil, sharpened to the finest point possible, with a one of those rubbers that fit on the top. I go through packets of those - bright purple, grreen, yellow and  blue - they're still easy to lose.

For me, the fixation started in my programming days. It was easier to manually debug code with a pencil and then when I started to write fiction, it was somehow more creative to edit a hard copy with a pencil or to write out pieces in long hand before typing.

Recently #2 son and I cleaned out the stationary boxes. There were two in his room crammed full of pens, pencils, textas, erasers, pencil sharpeners, liquid paper glue and all sorts of novelty stationery stuff. Pens with reindeer, Disney toys, ninja turtles and a crocodile. The goal was to dispose of most of them.

It is incredibly hard to get rid of stationery! One box remains but I think most of the other box made its way into my office.

We were surprised at how many different types of pencils we had and decided to google what sort of gradations of graphite they came in. How soft can a pencil be? How hard?

I discovered I am not alone in my fixation with pencils. Pencils even have their own blog thanks to Studio 502. Lots of interesting stuff there including all sorts of pencils to buy. I particularly like the Pencil Artist of the Week feature.

You can find Studio 502 (alias on Facebook and Pinterest . Check out their board on Pencil Crafts.

And just for the record, great things have been achieved in pencil, even outside the art world. John Steinbeck used as many as 60 cedar pencils every day. Roald Dahl used only pencils with yellow casing to write his books. He had 6 sharpened pencils ready at the beginning of each day and only when all 6 pencils became unusable did he resharpen them. Finally, Thomas Edison was so keen on working in pencil, he had his own especially made!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

This Review Sold Me a Book

I don't often buy a book based solely on a review. For me, usually it's word or mouth or the recommendation of a friend, and then I might search out reviews before I buy.

But I still read lots of reviews (and write a few too!) and yesterday I read one on the Readings web site that had me adding the book to my shopping cart immediately.

Here is the full review by bookseller Deborah Crabtree for The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness and here is the extract that sealed my purchase!

Love and loss are central to The Crane Wife, as is art and greed and the power of story. There is a truth to Ness’s writing even amid the strangeness of the world he creates, and such artistry and sensitivity to his storytelling that I longed to stay in that world well after the novel ended and I will return to it again. This book will break hearts.

I want to read the book (desperately) and I want to write reviews like that (just as desperately!)

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Books I Bagged at the South Coast Lifeline Book Fair

I finally made it to the South Coast Lifeline Book Fair and was amazed at what I found. Not only is it well organised, the variety of titles available surprised me. Of course I headed straight for the Young Adult and Pre-Teen sections.

I found lots of recent releases, merchandising related books, classic works and wonderful Australian titles by friends, colleagues and heroes. Many of the books were in as new condition. For our underfunded public school libraries, the Book Fair would be a good place to source additional titles. I saw many past CBCA and other award winners waiting for a second home.

So what did I buy?

A Bridge to Wiseman's Cove by James Malony -  A CBCA Book of the Year for Older Readers in 1997. One I had always intended to read. (And now I have!)

Letters from the Inside by John Marsden - another one on my long term list.

The Starthorn Tree by Kate Forsyth - I've been reading all Kate's later work and the cover was too magical to resist.

Two iconic Australian works of fiction:
 People of the Book - Geraldine Brooks

That Deadman Dance - Kim Scott

And two non-fiction for future research and historical fiction ideas -

The Year China Discovered the World - Gaven Menzies (1421!)

The Viking World - James Graeme Campbell.

All for $31. It's win-win. Some wonderful books get a second wind and Lifeline raises much needed funds for its essential services.

So if you love books, try and make it to a Lifeline Book Fair. If you live in the Illawarra the next South Coast Book Fair is in October. Here is a list of other dates and locations.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Next Big Thing

The Next Big Thing is a chain of book and author recommendations.Richard Harland tagged me on his blog and now it's my turn. Check out the books by the people I tagged at the end of this post
What is the [working] title of your next book?

Black Tengu, the eighth and final title in the Samurai Kids series.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

The first book in the series, White Crane, was published in 2008. I had written it as a stand-alone novel but my publisher, Walker Books Australia, felt it would make a good series. I had to go back through White Crane looking for something that I could use as the arc for a series. I found a throwaway comment that Sensei had once made a terrible mistake. I had originally only included this because I did not want the wise, eccentric teacher to be perfect but it was destined for greater things and grew to become the link that ran through the whole series and is finally resolved in this last book.

What genre does your book fall under?

The Samurai Kids series is historical fiction, set in the mid-17th century when the golden age of the samurai was drawing to a close.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I am not sure how to answer this. It might require clever costuming as the main character has one leg, another boy has one arm – each character has a difficulty to overcome although this is not always physical. I’m sure there is a film company and actors out there who could meet the challenge. Maybe it would be an anime film so perhaps I should choose voices...

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

In the harsh snow lands of Ezo, the Samurai Kids must find a way to help Sensei Kiyaga face the terrible secret from his past.

 Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

The series is published by Walker Books Australia and I am represented by Pippa Masson of Curtis Brown.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

It took longer to write this last book than any other in the series. The first draft took six months but there are many redrafts still ahead. I am found it a challenge to draft as I am not a plotter. I just write the stories my characterstell me. But in this book I had to follow the plotline I had spent seven prior books preparing. I did not find it easy but am happy with it.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

The Samurai Kids series is often compared by reviewers to John Flanagan’s Rangers Apprentice and Brotherband series. I find this a wonderful compliment and wouldn’t want to suggest anything else!

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I was thinking about what it would be like to be a samurai – as lovers of ancient history like me do! I knew that if you were born into a samurai family you had no choice but to serve. I began to wonder what it would be like for a boy (or a girl, there is one girl samurai in my books) who wasn’t very good at their lessons. And what if they weren’t very good because of something that wasn’t their fault. Like being born with one leg. That’s when my one-legged narrator, Niya, first spoke to me. “Give it a go,” he said. So I went down into my backyard, tucked up one leg and karate kicked. I found the beginning of my story. “My name is Niya Moto and I am the only one-legged samurai kid in Japan. Famous for falling flat on my face in the dirt.”

What else about the book might pique the reader's interest?

I think this question is best answered in terms of the series. The group of characters is unusual, the time of swords and battles is exciting, there is a strong focus on a range of martial arts, the children travel across Japan, China, Korea and Cambodia and the Zen humour is quirky. In short, most readers tell me it’s very different to any other books they’ve read.

Here are the authors I'd like to introduce, and who you can follow next Wednesday, when they answer the same questions...

 George Ivanoff



Wednesday, October 24, 2012

My Favourite Blog Posts - How Facebook Changed My Life by Cassandra Golds

I like Facebook but am often called upon to defend why. This post is from one of my favourite Australian authors, Cassandra Golds (who wrote one of my all time favourite books - The Three Loves of Persimmon), and explains it much better than I ever could.

I often do speaking sessions about social media for writers and I always include a slide with quotes from Cassandra's post on it.

Here are some of my favourite excerpts:

People say that Facebook is superficial. The truth is that everybody approaches Facebook in a different way. Part of the fascination lies in the differences...

Some people post links to reviews or to articles on subjects they find interesting: I love this! Many people, including myself, share music videos from YouTube. How delightful it can be to be reminded of a long-forgotten song, or to discover that a Facebook friend has similar musical taste!
Some write progress reports on the novel they are writing ...

You have only to say something a little fragile on Facebook, or even to be absent for a while, to attract well-wishes, warm support, queries about your welfare and even personal offers of help. I have found it an immensely supportive community. And if you share an achievement — the publication of a book, for example, or a good review, you are showered with encouragement and affirmation.

There is also a lot of talk about cats and other furry animals...

In short, I haven't had so much fun in years. And I have never felt less alone.

I don't necessarily like everything about Facebook. I don't want play games or participate in survey-type quizzes. But sometimes I change my mind. One of the things I didn't initially like was the posting of birthday greetings. It just didn't seem to have the same sincerity as a card or a phone call. But then a funny thing happened - I had a birthday!!! The list of birthday messages made me smile - and I thoroughly enjoyed reading them. I realised that not only was it a good idea - it mattered to me after all.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Tech Stuff for Writers - Postcron revisited

A friend read my post about Postcron and pointed out that Facebook allows you to schedule posts, so why would she use PostCron?

Two reasons - Facebook only allows scheduling for Pages. With Postcron, you can schedule posts for Pages and your timeline.

Better interface - If you have more than one Page, Facebook shows future scheduled posts separately on each page. With Postcron the information is all in one place, neatly organised under tabs.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Sandy Writes - The Detail is a Google

Source: jpellgen
I'm happy with my first paragraph. A bell tolls ominously over the snow. It sketches the setting with a light touch and it has the Samurai Kids feeling nervous and afraid. The reader knows something terrible is in the air.
But as I read through my words for the tenth time - and yes there will be many more readings. I revise like Tolkien. I read once that the reason it took him so long to write - was partly because his works were so long and detailed - but partly because every time he got a little bit further along, he went back to the start and revised all over again.

I do that too. It makes for slow going but it works for me. I am an almost non-existent plotter and although I may have a very firm idea, the middle parts of the story are usually quite bare when I begin. So I need to revise iteratively and continually to maintain continuity as the story develops organically.

Source: bthomso
As I am reading my first paragraph again, it occurs to me for the first time, that perhaps my Kids are too far way from the bell they are hearing. How far does the toll of a bell reach? Who can tell me that? I grew up in Camden about 2km as the crow flies from St John's church. We could often hear the bells.

But can I be further than 2 km away? Would sound travel a greater distance over the flatlands? Would snow absorb any sound? And what sort of bell was it anyway - in 17th century Japan?

So I type into Google: How far does a bell toll? One of the suggestions specifies time and place - the equivalent of pre-industrial early medieval Europe. It's a reasonable match. The link takes me to a forum. Some people comment from English villages about the bells they hear every day. Another takes a comment from Wikipedia about the bells of St Mary-le-bow and calculates the distance to the villages mentioned.

One person describes how flatlands amplify sound. Another tells the tale of a 12th century monastery resited because its bells were confused with those of another 2 km down a winding valley. Someone even explains the physics behind why an older bell rings louder over distance than today's bells.

Everything I needed to know was there. I figure given the landscape and the time of the bell I can safely set the distance between my kids and the castle anywhere from 2km to 4km. I don't need to be exact. I just need to be realistic.

Here is the link to the discussion on bells. Everything an armchair author needs to know!