On getting ideas for stories

Because of popular request, I’m updating this blog that I had posted on my sherylgwyther4kids blog earlier this year. Thank you, Rachna Chhabria, my author friend from Bangalore, India for reminding me about it. Glad your writing students over there enjoyed my Double Trouble Game, Rachna.

Story ideas can pop into your head from lots of places: from almost forgotten memories, from over-heard conversations, from newspaper articles, from funny things you see people do, from history and even from the landscape itself. Or sometimes ideas can come from the wonderful world of WORDS.

Most of the time, writing a story can be just one plain, hard slog so if I’m looking for something to vary my day, I play a writing game/challenge. I call it the DOUBLE TROUBLE GAME. In this game, you have to pick two nouns from a list of unlikely ‘room-mates’ – naming words that do not go together. Like:

GOLDFISH  EARTHQUAKE
FROG  GUITAR
FEATHER  ROOM
FANG  BANANA

You get the idea? Now imagine the combination of two and ask yourself What if?

Like: What if you won a goldfish at the local fair – the ugliest, puniest goldfish you had ever seen. But you have to take it home because you feel sorry for it? What if that goldfish had the ability to sense an imminent earthquake? Yes, an earthquake-sensitive goldfish called Eric … all from the unlikely room-mates called GOLDFISH and EARTHQUAKE.

Before I wrote my book, Princess Clown, I chose two words from my DOUBLE TROUBLE list and asked, What if?
What if there was a princess who was different? What if she loved clowning and to make people laugh? What if she was the heir to the throne? What if she was in trouble because the last thing she wanted to be was a royal princess? What if her clowning tricks went terribly wrong? And before I could say ABCADABRA and ALLIBALOO, out popped Princess Belle and a story.

A first chapter book for 6-7 year-olds

Lots of other people have recognised how clever words can be, especially when you combine them together. Famous musicians do it all the time. Here are some of the most recognised names of rock bands words that are ‘unlikely room-mates’.

GUNS ‘N ROSES
LED ZEPPELIN
STONE ROSES
GREEN DAY
COLDPLAY (well, it could be 2 words)
PEARL JAM

Have fun using my Double Trouble Game! Write and tell me if you were able to come up with something that helped make your story happen! The only limit is your imagination.

If you would like to let others know about my Double Trouble Game List (and Triple Trouble Game), make sure  you credit my name and link to it as the author.

P.S. Want an extra challenge? Try three from my DOUBLE TROUBLE word list! Then it will be TRIPLE TROUBLE :)

Princess Clown is available from Blake Publishing, (ISBN 9781741646481)
And from educational supply retail outlets nationally.

‘Princess Clown’ is on her way

My newest story, Princess Clown is on its way. This chapter book for 7-8 year olds, will be used in classrooms as part of Blake Publishing‘s fiction series called Gigglers Blue.

They’re called chapter books because to young readers taking their first steps into the wonderful world of reading they look like the ‘real’ books older brothers and sisters read.

As you can tell from the Gigglers title, the eight books in the collection are designed to appeal to kids, to make them laugh and want to read.

I’m hoping kids will love reading Princess Clown as it snaps along with humour and its theme, follow your dream whatever the odds – although, for Princess Belle this passion almost ends in disaster.

Haven’t seen the complete book yet, but I’m sure Sian Naylor’s illustrations will sing with colour and movement. This particular front cover image doesn’t show where the grey bits are silver foil, so it will sparkle too – just like any story about a princess with a passion should!

Keep your eyes open for it at educational supplies shops nationwide, in libraries or online.

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Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…

Last year, Australian children’s authors joined many other Australian book-lovers to fight against the proposed lifting of Restrictions against Parallel Importation of books into this country. That fight was successful.

But now, there is another threat to Australian children’s books. And this is worse – because it comes from within and it is insidious.

Children’s books are gradually disappearing from the shelves of school libraries. Why? Because those libraries are in crisis. They are disappearing, along with trained Teacher-Librarians.

It has been going for over a decade. Education Departments of State and Federal Governments of both political persuasions have allowed the whittling away of resources, staffing and funding for over ten years.

Many school libraries have become Resource Centres full of computers and set up for teaching with desks, chairs and whiteboards – space that was once shelving for fiction collections.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Luddite. I use computers daily for research, communication and contact. Of course there is a place for computer research and writing in school libraries, but not at the expense of losing story books.

Some school principals say books can be bought as e-books so they throw out their collections. But there are many thousands of brilliantly-written books that cannot be replaced as e-books. Children will never have the chance to thrill, enjoy and learn about life from those fictional characters.

School-librarians are trained to teach and enthuse children about books and about reading. They are the ones who read book reviews. They know when great books are published. They have the skills to enthuse children and guide them in their book choice.

I have great respect for the trials of teaching Phys Ed, and yes, I know I am generalising here – but would your school’s Phys Ed teacher be comfortable recommending a book to your 15 year-old? I know our school’s PE teacher would have run a mile – the other way. But I have heard on the education grapevine that teachers are being seconded from other areas to cover the deliberate loss of the Teacher/Librarian.

Yes, I am a children’s author and yes, I have an ulterior motive in pushing this particular barrow. I love Australian children’s books to death, and I will do anything I can to promote them to Australian children, including my own (books, that is).

We authors owe a huge gratitude to Australian school librarians and public librarians – they are like the forward troops in any battle, the foot soldiers, and maybe the engineers. They prepare the ground by encouraging and enthusing children to read. They invite children’s authors into their schools to talk to children. They use their depleting funds to buy books. They have the skills to integrate literature into every subject area, even Phys. Ed.

Authors benefit from this, by book sales and from paid school and library visits. I encourage Australian children’s authors to write to their State and Federal Government’s Member of Parliament and their Education Ministers about the ever-decreasing funds for school libraries; and to question the lack of school Teacher-Librarians.

Support organisations like Friends of The Hub – Campaign for Quality School Libraries in Australia. This site provides sample protest letters which you can adjust to suit your State.

My home town, Brisbane, will host the INTERNATIONAL SCHOOL LIBRARY CONFERENCE on 27th September – 1st October 2010.  It is jointly hosted by the School Library Association of Queensland and the International Association of School Librarianship. Brisbane children’s authors will also be involved.

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the agony and the ecstasy – a.k.a. submitting a story

It feels strange to finally send off a story to publishers – especially a story that I can link to Geoffrey Rush (in an odd way). This manuscript is something I’ve worked on for many years – part of me fears for its future, part of me rejoices in the fact it’s now on its own, under the glare of lights. And the eyes of editors. (I blogged about this story four years ago – you’ll need to read through the original one to see the ending though).

FEBRUARY 10 2010 Several weeks ago, I completed the final re-write of my Australian Society of Authors Mentorship novel, Sweet Adversity. It has been a fantastic experience – from learning more on the craft of writing from my mentor, Sally Rippin, to researching the Great Depression in Australia, to putting the final polish to a story that inched its way into my life like a stray child.

Mostly, it has been a labour of love over seven years. But there have also been times when the manuscript annoyed the hell out of me. Then it sat in the naughty chair in the corner, out of sight, out of mind. When the plotting got too difficult, I let other stories slip into its place as the ‘Work-in-Progress’. It sat there on the shelf, glaring at me for months, but then offering possibilities of plot-solving and pushing the characters further than I had before.

It tantalised me every time I saw an article about Shakespeare, or recognised a quote from one of his plays (you may have guessed from the title, it owes more than a little allegiance to The Bard). Like Macbeth, the cockatiel in my story, Shakespeare’s magical mixture of spoken aloud words in his Plays have also captivated me.

My subversion to William Shakespeare happened when I was a student at a country high school in regional Queensland in the late 1960s. One day, a troupe of travelling Shakespearean actors arrived in town on the train. We students sat on hard seats under that hot, tin roof – pesky and smelly and ready to dismiss it as a waste of time when the actors began The Merchant of Venice. By the end of Act 1 you could have heard a pin drop on the bare boards of the Town Hall. I found out years later that one of those actors was the young Geoffrey Rush.

There is another reason I was determined to complete this story with its travelling actors and Shakespearean-quoting cockatiel and a runaway girl. I have a family link to that mostly unknown part of Australian history – the travelling actors who brought live drama to outback towns.

Three generations ago, Lavinia Margaret McAlpine, and her father, Daniel travelled through northern New South Wales in the late 1880s, in an acting troupe. They didn’t confine themselves to Shakespeare – they also put on plays by demand. Like Ten Nights on a Bar-Room Floor. Maybe it was the local chapter of the Anti-Alcohol Society who paid them to do this play?

There are other hand-me-down stories of Lavinia’s life – and a couple of them have inspired events in my story. I could tell you more, but it will have to wait – for the day Sweet Adversity finally meets a publisher who will fall in love with it.

FEBRUARY 26 2014 The Sweet Adversity work-in-progress was awarded a SCBWI International Work-of-Outstanding-Promise grant in September 2013. I’m using the money to travel to the National Library in Canberra to continue research in the best place in Australia to find out more of the Great Depression’s affect upon children.

I’ll never give up on this story. I owe it to the indomitable Lavinia Margaret McAlpine and Geoffrey Rush not to.

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David Almond’s ‘Skellig’ … a review

There’s a book that keeps disappearing from its spot on the A-J shelves of our local high school library.

A small novel that somehow has been smuggled through the security bars at the library exit. It’s had to be replaced at least three times.

So why this particular book? Is it the beautifully designed cover in tones of blue, white, black and fawn shafts of light and movement? Or maybe the Celtic lure of its title, or the intriguing blurb on the back cover? Or is it the magic of the story itself?

Skellig (1998) was British author, David Almond’s first story for children. It’s written in first person viewpoint of a young boy, Michael who is unhappy when his family moves to a ramshackle house in a new neighbourhood.

Michael’s parents are distracted because his new baby sister is gravely ill and this adds to his feelings of isolation and loneliness. But then he meets the unusual Mina, home-schooled and a loner, a girl who quotes William Blake and knows everything there is to know about birds.

Their lives change forever when Michael wanders into the derelict shed in his back yard and discovers under the rubbish, a crumpled, shrivelled creature that could be human or beast or both:

‘I thought he was dead. He was sitting with his legs stretched out, and his head tipped back against the wall. He was covered in dust and webs like everything else and his face was thin and pale. Dead bluebottles were scattered on his hair and shoulders. I shone the torch on his white face and his black suit.’

Michael confides in Mina and they move the strange creature into a safe place. As the barely alive part-human/bird/angel responds to Michael’s gentle care both he and Mina are drawn into the wonder that is Skellig.

This brilliant novel has won many awards, both UK and international. It’s also been made into a play and this year a movie was made from the story.

David Almond said once that he wanted ‘to write for a readership whose minds are still fluid and flexible, readers who are able to easily mix reality and imagination’. But you don’t need to be a child to be captivated by the story of Skellig. His skill as a writer is evident in this thought-provoking, haunting tale of friendship, love, life and death – a book to own and treasure. Just like all of Almond’s books.

Not that long ago I checked the shelf again in The Gap High School library … and yes, the copy of Skellig had disappeared. No, I’m not the culprit!

Other books by David Almond include Kit’s Wilderness, Heaven Eyes, Secret Heart, The Fire Eaters, Counting Stars, and Kate, the Cat and the Moon, Clay.

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