Encouraging the young wordsmith

Dear Mr Peg, 11 year-old A is forever filling up notebooks with stories she has written. Are there any tools or apps we can use to encourage tweens to keep on writing? Thanks, Risky Business.

Dear Risky Business,

Thanks for your question. It’s excellent that Miss A is shaping as a spinner of yarns. As you know well, storytelling is a skill for life. I can’t think of any job where the ability to connect with people and communicate clearly isn’t a massive advantage. From where I’m sitting, (oddly enough, in a parked car, in a narrow, one-way street near a hockey ground, where someone just called me a strange man… OK, maybe a tale for another day…) these are vital skills to encourage.

Like Miss A, I was an early bloomer as a writer. I have exercise books filled with primary school tales of superheroes, explorers and magic. Then there are the excruciating, angst-ridden adolescent-era diaries, and the gnarled notebooks containing tertiary level crimes against poetry. Decades later, the ideas are captured in electronic notes and, hopefully, the maturity is honed, but the ideas still flow freely.

So what can you do to keep Miss A writing?

#1 Read, read, read
I know you’re already onto this but aim to read with/to Miss A daily. Every book is a lesson in writing and an invitation to imitate and improve. I’m grateful to my parents for giving me this advantage.

When Miss A finishes a piece of writing, encourage her to read it aloud. This is one of the best ways for her to learn about punctuation, language and dialogue. We want to train her ears to hear what works and what needs work. Even if you don’t like everything she’s written, pick something you did enjoy (an image, a character, a sentence…) and praise it.

#2 Train the storytelling muscles
Just as you might throw random times tables questions at the kids to improve their multiplication skills, toss questions at Miss A to feed her imagination. ‘What are those people doing over here? Why? What might they do next?’

Use art works or stories in the news to get started. Why do you think a 12 year-old-boy wanted to drive across Australia?

Take a line from a song and ask Miss A to build a story around it. For example, there’s a Paul Kelly song that says, “I’ve done all the dumb things’. What dumb things did the person do and why?

If you can’t keep up with Miss A’s appetite for ideas, search the Apple AppStore for ‘prompts’. There are plenty of options, including some tailored for young writers. You could also try this website with child-friendly jump-starts.

#3 Go for gold
Google writing competitions for Miss A’s age bracket. They’re not easy to find but they’re out there and they offer cash prizes, opportunities to be published (sometimes) and, best of all, a chance to build confidence and writing fitness. Try libraries, local councils, schools and writing groups. Even supermarket competitions that call for an answer in 25 words or less can be exercises in disciplined creativity.

If she wants to develop endurance and spend a month on one story, there’s a youth edition of National Novel Writing Month (or Nanowrimo).

#4 Find her tribe
As Miss A gets older, there are writing communities to explore. Apps like Wattpad and Tablo are for people who write and want to link with willing readers who consume and comment on their material. I’ve been researching these options since I received your question and I wouldn’t want my 11-year-old hanging out here yet. Not unless she’s into erotic fan fiction about boy band members…

But if she’s willing to travel south for a school holiday workshop, I would highly recommend the 100 Story Building.

And when she’s a little older, you could check out these options:

About Us

http://www.teenink.com/fiction/

http://www.voiceworksmag.com.au/

#5 Be boring parents
It’s easier said than done in a busy household but try to create opportunities for Miss A to find time and space to listen to her imagination. Actively seek silence or give her a nook to retreat to. Boredom can be beneficial. It gives an active mind a reason to go solo and find its own adventures.

Help her to be resilient, too. I’m sure you’re already on to this but she’s going to need this quality to survive as a creative soul. Because writing is a matter of taste and tastebuds differ from reader to reader. Everyone is a potential critic and the WWW and social media are overpopulated with cowardly trolls.

Even away from these toxic influences, confidence dips, soars and disappears for long stints. She’ll need lots of love to help her find her way back to trusting her storytelling instincts. But when she gets back there, it will feel sensational.

Sorry I took so long to answer. And good luck.

Mural photo by Tim Pegler
Keep your eyes open for inspiration

Dark nights and black swans

The reputation management team at a major public relations team is speaking to 2016:

Public relations minion: “You want honesty? That’s un… Look, you need to turn things around. Immediately. It’s December 28 so you have under four days to generate positive social media so people remember you… somewhat more fondly. Because, let’s be frank, things are dire. You need to donate $omething. $ave a species. Re$cue a kid from a burning building. Anything that can boo$t your brand. Otherwi$e you’re not going to like how the historians document your time in charge.”

2016: “Seriously? Look at all the other years – any year you like. We’re all the same. Some grim stuff, some shocks, the odd giggle and plenty of cats doing cute shit in front of cameras. I’m no different.”

Minion: “Err, people have short memories. This is why it’s particularly important you make the most of the few days you have left. I mean, your reputation index is … deplorable. When people talk about you it’s all terrorism, racism, Rickman, refugees, Trump, Brexit, Bowie, the Barrier Reef, Prince, Omran Dagneesh, Trump, Cohen, Syria, Trump… If you’re going to claw back ratings, it has to be now. For goodness sake, you even took Muhammad Ali, Princess Leia and Carol Brady.”

2016: “Oh breathe. You angst-ridden Gen Xers with your conflicted consciences, you shit me to tears. You’re just having a panic attack because you finally realised you’re mortal and you’re not in charge. The old, the angry and the afraid have the numbers and they are changing things, whether you like it or not. Everyone has to die some time, even celebrities. The Barrier Reef has been under the weather for years and, hell, you find me any 12-month period without war. You mark my words, I’m no worse than my predecessors. I might even be better. Search ‘underdogs 2016’ and see what you find. Then go ask a Footscray fan what kind of year I am…”  

Hello readers. Thanks for allowing me that little indulgence. I started this post wanting to talk about where I’m at with my writing, found it uncomfortable, and then switched to an easier task — compiling my list of memorable things I’ve been viewing, reading and listening to in 2016. That job done, I sat back and looked at the titles and was surprised by the themes. Wow. So much death and darkness. That made me rethink the year that’s almost gone and that led to, well, thank you for persisting.

The seven year itch

As far as my writing is going, it isn’t, really. I’m working full-time on an interesting and challenging project. There has’t been much creative energy left for anything else.

I don’t want this to be a whinge but my failure to balance this part of my life is eating away at me. Five Parts Dead was released in late 2010, about 6.5 years ago. In YA fiction land that’s a lifetime; my original teen readers are mostly adults now.

I do have a draft manuscript but it needs time and toil before I can show it to you. I don’t know when this will be possible.

On the upside, I’ve watched one good friend swim through years of troubled waters to launch an excellent novel. And I’ve been honoured to read a couple of drafts of what is going to be a superb novel, launching early in 2017. So good things are still happening in writing land. I might be AWOL but I’ll find my way back.


A bumpy ride

Any long-term readers of this blog will know I cycle to keep myself fit and sane. This year I had a couple of big crashes in quick succession, thankfully doing no significant damage other than a couple of cracked ribs. I was back riding soon afterwards (somewhat gingerly) and, on one of my night rides, almost got knocked off by an angry black swan.

A big black swan on a black night. A narrow miss. I’m going to take that as an omen. Sometimes dark times are around the corner but that doesn’t mean we should live in fear. We can swerve, adjust our course, refocus and keep moving forward.


Here’s what I’ve been reading/watching/listening to in 2016:

Listening: Songs from the Road; You Want it Darker (Leonard Cohen), Ascenseur pour l’echafaud (Miles Davis), Florasongs; The King is Dead (The Decemberists), Reclaim Australia (AB Original), Oh Canada (Missy Higgins)

Reading: The Bone Sparrow (Zana Fraillon), Words in Deep Blue (Cath Crowley), Nona & Me (Clare Atkins), The Sad Book (Michael Rosen), The Walking Dead (Robert Kirkman), The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons (Matthew Meyer)

Rereading: Tales of the Otori (Lian Hearn), Y: The Last Man (Brian K Vaughan), Civil War (Mark Millar et. al.)

Watching: Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Deadpool, The Walking Dead, Vikings, My Scientology Movie, Game of Thrones

I’ve got to say I loved watching the Western Bulldogs (my ‘second team’) win the AFL Grand Final but my favourite sporting moment came from an athlete who finished last in his event at the Olympic Games. He had something to say and he did it in a joyous way. I hope joy regularly pierces the clouds in your lives in 2017.

Winning, even when you place last

Winning middle fiction

By popular demand, here’s a list of fiction suitable for keen upper primary and lower secondary school readers.

My caveat is that no list caters to all tastes or abilities. I’m also a firm believer that the right book finds its perfect reader; please explore libraries and bookstores (slowly) and see what catches the eye.

This list is skewed so that it starts with titles suitable for younger readers and progresses to more mature books – YA fiction suitable for younger readers.

I know of numerous other middle fiction novels that come highly recommended – John Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice series is a good example. That said, I’m confining this catalogue to books/series I’ve read all or part of. Feedback is welcome. I hope the young reader in your life finds hours of escapism here.

Film tie-in Coraline cover
Film tie-in Coraline cover

Novels:

Star Wars Academy (series) – Jeffrey Brown
Diary of a Wimpy Kid (series) – Jeff Kinney
Staying Alive in Year 5 – John Marsden
The Samurai Kids (series) – Sandy Fussell
The Greatest Blogger in the World – Andrew McDonald
Nicholas (series) – Rene Goscinny
Chess Nuts – Julia Lawrinson
The Detachable Boy – Scot Gardner
The OK Team (series) – Nick Place
Odd & the Frost Giants – Neil Gaiman
Wildwood – Colin Meloy
Sadako & the Thousand Paper Cranes – Eleanor Coerr
Matilda – Roald Dahl (and James & the Giant Peach, etc.)
The Invention of Hugo Cabret – Brian Selznick
The Billionaire’s Curse (series) – Richard Newsome
Percy Jackson (series) – Rick Riordan
The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman
A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness
The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien
The Lab – Jack Heath
A Series of Unfortunate Events (series) – Lemony Snicket
The Spiderwick Chronicles (series) – Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black
Wonder – RJ Palacio
Tomorrow When the War Began (series) – John Marsden
Coraline – Neil Gaiman
Harry Potter (series) – JK Rowling
The Lord of the Rings trilogy – JRR Tolkien
Skulduggery Pleasant (series) – Derek Landy
Two Wolves – Tristan Bancks
Counting by 7s – Holly Goldberg Sloan
Taronga – Victor Kelleher
Blaze of Glory (series) – Michael Pryor
Zeroes (new series) – Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan & Deborah Biancotti
Skellig – David Almond
I am Number Four (series) – Pittacus Lore
Vulture’s Gate – Kirsty Murray
The Princess Bride – William Goldman
The Spook’s Apprentice (series) – Joseph Delaney
Contest – Matthew Reilly
The Rider – Tim Krabbe
Alex Rider (series) – Anthony Horowitz
The Hunger Games (series) – Suzanne Collins
So Much to Tell You – John Marsden
Blood Ninja – Nick Lake
The Underdog (series) – Markus Zusak
Cherub (series) – Robert Muchamore
Every Breathe (series) – Ellie Marney
Illuminae (new series) – Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

Graphic novels and comics:

Tintin (series) – Herge
Rapunzel’s Revenge – Shannon Hale
Calamity Jack – Shannon Hale
Asterix (series) – Goscinny & Uderzo
Calvin & Hobbes (series) – Bill Watterson
Drama – Raina Telgemeier
Sisters – Raina Telgemeier
Artemis Fowl (series) – Eoin Colfer (also available as novels)
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (manga) – Hayao Miyazaki
Joe the Barbarian – Grant Morrison
Yowamushi Pedal (manga series) – Watanabe Wataru
Guardians of the Galaxy (series) – Brian Michael Bendis
Marvel Civil War (series) – Mark Millar

Tim Pegler's author odyssey