One of the best things about being a writer is receiving letters Ė mostly emails now Ė from readers.

Many contain a list of questions.

Here are some of the questions Iíve been asked.

 What do you do for inspiration?

This is another way of asking the most popular question: Where do you get your ideas? Perhaps the question should be How do you get the ideas out of your head? Because thatís what inspiration is Ė getting the idea out of your head.

 Ideas come from everything we do and see and hear and experience. I might see a strange man walking down the street, and I wonder where heís going, where he lives, why heís carrying a bunch of roses; is someone sick or is he in love? A story is beginning... Thatís how I got the idea for Rockhopper. I saw an old man walking down The Corso in Manly, and he stirred a lot of questions in my mind. It stayed in my head for a long time, and the story I wrote ended up being nothing like my feelings when I saw that man.

 I hear children talking on the train and oh, yes, I listen. ĎI hate Mr Jenkins,í says a schoolgirl. Why, I wonder? What has this girl done wrong? Perhaps she...

So hereís another story!

  Reading is one of the best ways to trigger ideas. You donít copy the authorís story, but his/her words stir your own imagination. Without reading, we could not become writers.

 Ideas often come to me when I least expect them. Sometimes they flit away before I can write them down, and they never come back. But some are so powerful that they canít escape. They stay in my head. Thatís where everything we see, hear and read goes; inside our heads. Thereís a store of ideas in there, and the trick is to get them out. When we do, we call it inspiration.

 So how do we get so-called inspiration?

There are two magic words authors talk about all the time. Thereís even a book called What If. Yes, those are the two magic words: What if!

 What if gets a story started. It changes fact into fiction, the truth into something more exciting. Let me give you an example:

Weíre in the classroom and Iím giving a talk and youíre sitting on the floor and itís raining outside. This is not very interesting. I donít want you to write a story telling me all this. But what if the rain doesnít stop! What if the principal comes to tell us no-one is allowed outside. The rain gets heavier, water fills the playground and floods the streets. Keep the what ifs going! What if the school is isolated by the flood ... what if we are all together overnight. How do we get on together now?

Or: on your way to school this morning you saw a truck broken down. It was an ordinary truck, so you forgot about it. But what if it was a circus truck. What if the elephant escaped. What if it careered down the street and crashed through the school gate. What if... The story is now up to you.

 That truck might sit in your head for a long time before you work it into a story. I saw remains of Archibald Mosmanís old whaling station in Mosman, and it took me 25 years before I got the idea out in the right shape, and it became Splashback.  

Thereís something important here. You donít have to stick to the truth. Almost always, itís better if you donít. You can tell lies in a story and you wonít get into trouble. Howís that!

 How do you start your stories?

I think the beginning is most important. I donít like long introductions Ė like youíre telling me what youíre going to tell me. Readers arenít stupid. They donít need beginnings or endings explained.

 Jump right in! Try to grab our interest in the first line. You can look at a story the way you might swim across a river. Donít be like me, and put one foot in, then another, and stand for a while before taking another step. Jump right in, and start swimming. This is the good part. Swimming across the middle is not as exciting. You must keep sight of the bank on the other side, and keep going. Work your way through the middle. Then, when youíre nearly there, end it as quickly as you can. Another spurt, and youíre there. The story is over. End it quickly once you reach the bank. Donít dawdle.

What about endings?

This can be the hardest part of a story. It doesnít have to be a happily ever after story. It can have an ending that makes us cry, or even leaves us wondering. But it must not lead us to think ĎSo what? Why did I read that?í

 We have to think about our endings. Sometimes it helps to look back to the beginning. Does the ending tie in with our opening sentence or paragraph? Have I answered the question posed there? I really like it when the final sentence has an echo of the beginning. The story has shape. Itís like a circle in my mind.

 If you do have a happy ending, you wouldnít say they lived happily ever after. Or even use the word happy. There are many ways of showing happiness without telling us someone is happy. Sometimes a smile or laugh is enough.

 That leads me on to words. Words are a writerís tools, so use them wisely. I collect words like some people collect stamps or coins or footy cards. Words can show how we feel often by their sound as well as their meaning, so always use the best word you can find. I have lists of sound words; cards of HAPPY words and SAD words and my favourite WET words. Isnít it stronger to say water gurgled in the gutters than to say it was raining! So try gurgle, gush, galoshes, spurt, slush and oh, lots more. There are HARD words on my list and SOFT words (murmur, thistle, cinnamon, feather.)

You can collect words too, for yourself or for the class. Then select a happy word to help give your story a good ending.  

Do you put yourself in your stories?

Never. But thatís almost a lie, because thereís a bit of me in most of my characters. They donít look like me or speak like me, but often they feel like me. How can I know, truly, how other people feel about things that happen to them. I only know how I would feel, and I remember how I felt as a child about small things, especially when I did the wrong thing. Feelings donít change. So I do give my characters many of my own feelings. I even became a mouse for a while when I was writing about Magnus.

 What aspect of your work is most enjoyable?

Apart from meeting or hearing from readers, I enjoy working with the editor. This is the time when the book comes together and you get it as perfect as it can be. 

 What advice would you give to children who want to write?

Donít think itís good just because you have written it. First drafts are rarely good enough. Great writers sometimes rewrite their novels twenty or more times.

 Read your story and look for places where you could use a better word.

 Check that you havenít used the same word too many times.

 Try to make us recognize your characters by the way they speak as well as the way they look. Give them quirky habits or expressions.

 Donít write the way you think you should write. Write in a way that seems natural to you. Sometimes it helps to write as if you were talking to or writing a letter to a friend.

Donít feel you have to stick to the truth. Use your imagination.

 And never give up.  

Are there things you donít like in other peopleís stories?

 Oh, dear! Letís just say I hope this helps you with your own writing.

 Things I donít like:

 Iíve read too many stories that open with One day...

This is a lazy beginning, and means nothing to the reader; everything must happen one day. Once is just as bad. These beginnings are a hangover from the old-fashioned Once upon a time. Why not be more exact! Was it yesterday or this morning or perhaps a sunny afternoon last autumn?

 Iím not keen, either on Hi, Iím Emma as an opening line. Sometimes these stories go on to tell me: Iím ten, and my best friend is Jodie. So what!

Iíd rather an opening like this: Jodie was my best friend Ė till yesterday. Here we have a problem right away and we want to read on, to find out what happens. The story will hold our interest from the start.

 I donít like a lot of ordinary words that clutter up the text and slow down the action. Look at your story and see where you could cut words without changing the meaning. You wonít miss those words once theyíve gone, and your story will move more quickly.

 That brings me to one of my favourite quotes. Sir Winston Churchill wrote: Iím sorry this is such a long letter. I didnít have time to write a short one.

 I bet somewhere on your pages youíve used one or more of the following words. I call them clutterwords.

 very / just / even / that / as usual / would / was / then / now / suddenly

 If you cut these words, in most places you wonít miss them. And your work will be crisper. Yes, itís more difficult to be simple and clear than it is to be complicated. Thatís what Churchill was saying.

So take your time, and cut, cut, cut.

More tips coming. Visit again soon!


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