Why did you choose to write children’s fiction, rather than other sorts of fiction?
I’ve always been a writer. In my twenties I scribbled down stories that were freakishly similar to those I’d enjoyed as a child. Stories filled with adventure and a touch of fantasy – stories that triggered my imagination and transported me to another place. I suspect that’s why I was drawn to children’s fiction. Subconsciously I wanted to replicate those feelings, for myself and for another generation of children.
The synopsis of your latest book, Arnie Avery, is: “What could be worse than fighting Jacko? Being in trouble at school? Your friends deserting you? Your family acting like a bunch of aliens? Lately, nothing’s going right for Arnie. Then one day everything changes…” Could you give us an overview of the process you went through writing Arnie Avery?
Arnie Avery was completely unplanned. It evolved over many years, but the initial inspiration came from a visit to the local pool with my children. I spotted four teenagers splashing around and their characters were so intriguing, I was driven to write about them. I brainstormed a few ideas for a conflict, but I didn’t know where the story would lead. Every twist was a surprise. Somewhere around the fifth draft I realised that Arnie had a brother, and from there a deeper side of the story developed. That’s when I knew I had something special.
You have written: “Ideas come from many places. Once my daughter found a broken hula hoop. That’s how I came to write Tilly’s Treasure. Sometimes ideas come from watching children and listening to conversations. Other ideas come from holidays I’ve been on, or watching the news, or things I read.” How do you know when you’ve got a good idea that you will write into a book?
That’s not an easy question to answer, but I’ll try. If I’m excited about an idea, that’s usually a good sign. I think excitement equals energy, and you need a lot of energy to bring a story to fruition. Another indicator is when I stumble on something that stirs my emotions. I once heard a news item about a musician who lost the use of his hand after being attacked by an intruder. Then later, a complete stranger read of his plight and he was compelled to build a one-handed instrument so the musician could play again. That story touched me deeply and although I know the idea has potential, I’m not ready to write about it. My subconscious needs to work on it, to blend it with other ideas and reshape it before I can call it mine.
You have listed some of your favourite books as The Miraculaous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate Di Camillo, The Two Gorillas by Ursula Dubosarsky, and The Silver Donkey by Sonya Hartnett. What makes these stories work so well for you?
These books appeal for different reasons. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane is memorable for its loveable, unique characters and its depth of emotion. The Silver Donkey has earned a special place on my bookshelf for its originality and contrast in storytelling. All of Ursula Dubosarsky’s chapter books (The Two Gorillas included) are outstanding. Her wit, and her way of seeing the world from a children’s perspective is admirable.
You have advised fiction writers: “Ask yourself: what is the problem in the story? This could be anything from “being stuck on an asteroid” to “being bullied at school.” Once you know your story problem, it’s your job to make it hard for your character to find a solution.” What is the key to providing entertaining obstacles for your character(s) before a solution is arrived at?
Most of my stories are character driven, so for me, the key to providing entertaining obstacles is for them to develop naturally through the character. By that I mean, when we know our character well, we know how to challenge them specifically. In Arnie Avery, the protagonist is a small, awkward thirteen year old. It seemed obvious to set the school bully against him, and it also followed that he’d fear what his peers would think. The obstacles need to grow in intensity, and the protagonist’s reaction to them should be believable.
You have advised: “Make your characters unique. Watching movies like Shrek can help. Notice how different Shrek is from Donkey and Prince Charming. They don’t just look different, they speak and behave differently too.” What is another story which you think has a good mix of characters and what makes these characters work so well together in the story?
The Unfinished Angel by Sharon Creech is another good example. The two main characters are an angel and young girl. The angel is thoughtful and a touch confused, he doesn’t like change and he has a very unique way with words – so unique, we’d know it was him talking without dialogue tags. In contrast, Zola is a vibrant, forceful young girl. It’s this contrast that makes them work so well together. Their differences cause conflict, and this eventually leads to the growth of each character.
What is the most important piece of advice you would like to give for new fiction writers?
Write in your own voice. One of the things I notice when children are asked to write a narrative, is that the writing often lacks voice or personality. Yet when children write for themselves, in a diary for example, their writing is flavoured with a special quality – unique patterns of speech, perspective, emotion. Some people call this ‘voice’ and it is what we should strive for in our own writing.
You have a new picture book called Tell Me a Story coming up. What can you tell us about Tell Me a Story and any other fiction projects you might have coming up?
Tell Me a Story grew from my experience of motherhood. I noticed how all children love hearing stories about themselves…particularly stories about things they did as a baby. Tell Me a Story is a book about growing independence, and it’s the kind of story to be shared with a small child in your lap. I’m also working on another picture book called The Perfect Pup, which is a playful text about a pup that learns the importance of choosing the right family.
More on Sue Walker and her fiction can be found at www.suewalkerauthor.com.