Michele Clark McConnochie is a Christchurch-based children’s author with over 25 years’ experience in education. She teaches creative writing and is a freelance features writer for local newspapers. Her trilogy, The Strange Sagas of Sabrina Summers, was first published via Createspace, but the first book, the Uncooperative Flying Carpet, was recently picked up by Morgan James Kids.
Welcome Michele, and thank you for joining us today to answer a few questions.
Firstly, can you tell us a little about the Sabrina Summers series?
It’s a middle-grade trilogy which, although each book has serious messages for readers, is designed to be funny and engaging. Sabrina Summers and her friends are accidentally sent to a strange and mysterious land where they find that being traditional fairy-tale characters is really no fun at all. The books follow a traditional quest format but turn fairytales inside out. Once the magic objects are found, a battle ensues with the kingdom of Dralfynia at stake. Along the way there is treachery and betrayal, and the traditional happy ending where a character becomes a ruler is given a very 21st century twist. I want children to think for themselves and learn to take responsibility for what they do, but to enjoy themselves at the same time.
I have also seen that your series has been released in a special dyslexic-friendly format. Are you able to tell us a little about the difference in style, and how that is helpful to the reader?
I contacted the Dyslexia Foundation of NZ. They recommended dyslexie font and I bought a publisher’s licence from them. As well as using that font, the books are on cream paper and have a ragged, not straight, right-hand margin. I also deliberately used short chapters with cliffhangers to encourage reluctant readers.
You’ve also put a lot of thought into creating additional resources for the readers, such as teaching notes. Any advice to other middle-grade authors who might want to include some of their own? Does it help to be a teacher?
Well, all teachers pinch ideas from other teachers, so take a look at other author’s websites and see what looks like a good match (David Walliams and Roald Dahl both have tons of resources). You don’t need to be a teacher, just be creative. I was going to link my worksheets to the national curricula of the UK and NZ, but it was quite complicated to do both.
When your third book was released, you held a book launch, which I attended. Do you feel book launches are important? How much planning and organisation is required to make it successful?
I absolutely think they are important, even though many authors are introverts and dread public speaking! I launched at the NZ Society of Author’s Book Buzz, and they’re happy to give you a platform with another couple of authors and organise the room booking etc, but I also launched at a local library, after running a Canterbury-wide children’s story and drawing competition. Helen Mongillo was incredibly generous and did heaps of the organising, and arranged for Gavin Bishop, Heather McQuillan and Bob Docherty to be the judges. I got entries from around Canterbury, it was heaps of fun, but I found it was a ‘loss leader’ and a lot of work. It’s easier if you work with someone else (a friend is a photographer and we talked about a joint launch/exhibition but the audiences were too different), and it helps if you have a gimmick such as a raffle or food. Basically, ask for help – the Guild seems incredibly supportive!
Any tips on inviting in new readers to introduce to your series?
Because I write for children, I’ve tried getting my books on the catalogue for Scholastic (they said ‘no’) and I’ve done some teaching in schools and donated the dyslexia-friendly copy of my books to the dyslexia foundation which did lead to publicity and sales. Copies were donated to libraries in the UK (thanks Mum) and here and again, both led to sales. AllbooksNZ are great to use for schools and libraries, I think Scorpio have a publication and if they stock your books, they’ll include it (but I haven’t got that far yet).
What other sorts of promotion and marketing have you done for your books?
I’ve done some Facebook advertising, have a blog (which I hardly ever do) and have my Twitter and Instagram accounts linked to Facebook. Sending copies to be reviewed is good, but I think you have to be a ‘dripping tap’ and keep on getting yourself out there to maintain, or extend, the shelf-life of your book.
Can you tell us a bit about your publishing deal?
Yes, it’s very exciting. Having self-published, I was a bit reluctant to hand over the reins to a traditional publisher and, although I did contact a number of agents in the UK as well as a couple of publishers in the US (who all rejected me), Morgan James Kids was a perfect fit. Their background was in old-fashioned ‘vanity publishing’ and they still offer a similar service for their non-fiction books, but they recently branched out into children’s books. They take 12 new publications a year and the copyright remains with the author. We work together for marketing (they get the books on shelves in the US and UK and I have books for sale via my website), and their authors are treated as equal partners, which is fantastic. I have input all the way through the re-editing, book design and cover process, and in return, they ask authors to ‘put some skin in the game’ by taking a number of books at cost and selling them to generate buzz. I approached them, heard nothing for a while then got an initial email. That was followed up with a phone call with their fiction acquisitions editor before the book went to their reading committee to be voted on. The reason for the call is they want to make sure they are dealing with authors who also have a sensible, commercial approach and are prepared to go out and do school visits etc. They have agreed to publish book one of the Strange Sagas of Sabrina Summers, The Uncooperative Flying Carpet and that is released early 2018.
And finally, what other projects are you working on now?
I’m still chipping away at a travel book, working titled Big Boots, based on a trip I took last July and August to sites associated with classic children’s books such as the actual Pooh Corner and Secret Garden, and for light relief, I’m developing a book of short stories based on the background characters from the Strange Sagas of Sabrina Summers.
Thank you for your time, Michele.
And if you wish to read her books, or learn more about Michele Clark McConnochie, please check out her website: http://mcmauthor.com
We have compiled a selection of local and national opportunities for authors. Please note that these are not Guild-affiliated, for further information, please refer to the links provided.
SpecFicNZ is seeking submissions to a new anthology titled, Te Kōrero Ahi Kā, an unthemed anthology that will showcase the best work from members of the SpecFicNZ organisation of writers, poets, artists, and creatives.
You need to be a member of SpecFic NZ to enter, you can join or renew here.
Submissions close: 31 October 2017.
New Zealand Society of Authors are running the Heritage Book & Writing Awards, with two categories open for unpublished authors: poetry and short prose. The theme is “Finding Our Way.” Authors are encouraged to approach the theme broadly.
Each short-form category awards a prize of $200 for first place.
There is a $15 entry fee.
Submissions Close: 15 August 2017
For more information, please visit their website.
William Taylor Memorial Heartland Short Story Competition is being held for 2017. Monetary prizes of $300, $75 and $50 respectively will be awarded.
Entries should be fiction in any genre and be up to 1,000 words in length.
There is a $10 entry fee.
Submissions close: 30 September 2017
The Storylines Awards are hosted annually, with three categories for unpublished authors of children’s fiction. These awards come with an offer of publication from well-renowned Australasian publishers for the winning entrant.
Tessa Duder Award: for teenage/young adult fiction.
Tom Fitzgibbon Award: for middle grade readers (7-11 years)
Joy Cowley Award: for a picture book manuscript
Please note: an entry fee applies.
Submissions close: 31 October 2017
Pantsers write “by the seat of their pants”, not following a set structure but letting the story take them on a wild, sometimes chaotic, journey. It is also known as “Discovery Writing”.
Plotters plan out the novel in advance, sometimes in meticulous detail, setting out the story’s structure and following it from beginning to end.
Which of the two are you? Is one way better than another? While I would never dictate how anyone should write, it is true that each method has its pros and its cons, and also that many writers tend to fit somewhere between the two.
Here are some tips and tricks our members shared during our Monday night discussion:
- It helps to know where the story begins, and have some idea of how it will end.
- Consider your plot points to be “signposts” designed to move the plot in the right direction.
- Be flexible: if characters, or the plot, behaves in an unexpected manner, be prepared to move these signposts.
- Use the first draft of your discovery written novel to determine the structure of the second draft.
- Many writers (especially those that are also dedicated readers) will find themselves subconsciously following the traditional story structure.
What are you? A plotter? A Pantser? Or a hybrid?
Do you have any tips and tricks of your own?
Share them with us on Twitter: @chchwriters or comment here!
We are also happy to take suggestions for our Monthly themes!
What is a blurb?
A blurb is a brief description of your story, a text-based advertisement to attract a future reader. It either appears on the back cover or inside the front cover on a printed book, or is the second piece of information you will find on a website (after the cover and the title).
Why is it important?
Because, after the potential reader has admired your cover and clever title, they want to know what the book is about. If your blurb does not entice them, then they’re going to put it back on the shelf, or move on to the next option.
How can I write a compelling blurb?
- Keep it short, generally between 100-150 characters.
- Write in third person, present tense (generally, however, exceptions may apply).
- Be true to your genre and use words that cater to your audience. ie: If you are writing a romance, your blurb shouldn’t make it sound like a thriller.
- Your first sentence has to hook the reader, most easily done by getting them interested in the character or intrigued by the setting.
- Once the attention has been gained, it must be maintained. One easy way to do this is by following the basic formula below:
A. the main character (generally including one defining feature).
Here are some examples randomly selected from my book case.
- Nine-year old Bruno has a lot of things on his mind.
- When the 5,000-year-old djinni Bartimaeus is summoned by Nathaniel, a young magician’s apprentice…
- Pi Patel, a God-loving boy and the son of a zookeeper has a fervent love of stories…
OR: the setting
- London is on the move again.
- Angelfield House stands abandoned and forgotten.
- In a ruined and hostile landscape, in a future few have been unlucky enough to survive…
With the character, you are seeking a way to connect with the reader, establishing the main protagonist as someone they wish to learn more about, and with the setting you are establishing a mystery: ie: is London literally moving? (yes, yes it is). You are endeavouring to engage with the reader and hook them in.
Tip: When trying to decide whether to focus on character or setting, ask yourself: which is more interesting? If unsure, write both and ask your friends/writing buddies/random strangers which they prefer.
Follow up with:
B. The problem
What goes wrong?
Tip: This is likely to be connected to the inciting incident of your story: it is the situation that takes your character from their previously predictable and reliable life and plunges them into the plot.
- Alas, the ship sinks – and Pi finds himself in a lifeboat, his only companions a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra and a 450-pound Bengal tiger.
And connect this with your protagonist and the actions he (or she) will have to take:
- Soon the tiger has dispatched all but Pi. Can Pi and the tiger find their way to land?
You must end with mystery – don’t spoil the end!
Tip: Although many blurbs do end with a question, if the answer is simply “yes” then your blurb may have more power if, instead, the reader is made aware of the cost to the protagonist should they fail, or the price they will have to pay to succeed.
C. The Mood
Finally, many blurbs choose to conclude with a final paragraph conveying the Mood and indicating the intended genre or audience. Here, if you have not previously, the setting can be mentioned.
- Set in a modern-day London controlled by magicians, this hilarious, electrifying thriller will enthral readers of all ages.
Tip: Whilst it may seem logical (and is perfectly permissible) to start with the mood, you do run the risk of the reader going “oh, it’s a thriller, I don’t read thrillers” and proceed no further. Also, some readers may read the first sentence and the final paragraph before determining whether to read the middle.
What about Non-fiction?
Non-fiction blurbs are very diverse, depending on the genre.
- Memoirs and biographies can be written in much the same way as fiction blurbs.
- Manuals or guides for specialised topics can begin with:
- the author and their credentials (third person, present tense).
- with a series of questions (second person).
- by informing you (the reader) why you might like this book (second person).
Important things to note about writing non-fiction blurbs:
- Reach out to your intended audience and make your premise clear.
- Demonstrate that you know what you’re talking about (list credentials/give an example).
- Include testimonials if you have them. Of not, it won’t hurt to get some!
Tip: If you can make an outrageous, but substantiated claim, then that is a great way to attract the reader’s attention. However, never lie or mislead your reader!
I intend to publish traditionally; do I still need a blurb?
Whilst it is true that, if traditionally published through a reputable publishing house, it is unlikely you will be writing your own blurb, first you have to get that publishing contract! Therefore, you still need a brief and enticing advertisement for your book.
Tip: Read a lot of blurbs before writing your own! Pick some randomly from your bookshelf or the library (or browse Amazon) and look at the structure. Try to determine what makes you pick them up or put them back. Specifically target books written in the same genre as yours: what do they have in common with each other, what are the differences? Are some more compelling than others?
Also, TEST your blurb, write several attempts, share them on a writers’ forum or with your friends, get feedback and make alterations accordingly.
Favourite first (or last) sentence in a blurb?
Share them with us on Twitter: @chchwriters or comment here!
We are also happy to take suggestions for our Monthly themes!
Why is research important?
- Research adds authenticity:
- Details are important: Maybe not all of your readers will notice, but someone, somewhere will, and they may be ruthless!
- To avoid making embarrassing mistakes
- Research can lead to new ideas, or help your story take flight in an unexpected direction.
- Research is fun!
When is research important?
Research is extremely important in historic novels, as you do not want to incorporate anachronisms, and if your contemporary novel is set in a real-world location, then you should familiarise yourself with its general layout and major landmarks.
It is especially important to undertake research if you are writing about cultures (ie: ethnicity, religion, social economic, etc) that you are unfamiliar with, for if you make a mistake, it could highly offend someone – and in this day of social media, readers can be ruthless.
In fantasy and (some) science fiction, you have an element of flexibility*, and readers are generally happy to suspend their disbelief a certain amount, but the most convincing stories are those in which the fiction is grounded, at least somewhat, in fact. For example, a common error in fantasy novels, is to use horses like all-purpose vehicles. In science fiction, especially hard science fiction, a solid grounding in science is required.
In dystopic or post-apocalyptic novels, adding in the remains of well-known landmarks can really add extra impact (ie: the original “Planet of the Apes”)
(* but your setting still needs to follow, and remain consistent to, a set structure of rules.)
How much research should I do?
Research can be a slippery slope. The more you learn, the more interesting it can become and you must figure out how much of it to keep. Libbie Hawker (author of “Take Off Your Pants!”) recommends writing first, then researching to fill in the gaps. This means that you will only be researching that which is relevant to the plot. But what if your topic is so fascinating that you just can’t stop researching it? And you just want to learn more? Well, that’s fine too, however…
How much of what I discover should I include in my story?
The iceberg theory applies here too. The answer is: as much as is necessary to the plot and the characters. No more. Sure, you may have learned a plethora of fascinating facts, but if they’re not advancing or enhancing the story, then you shouldn’t share them with your readers. Sorry. If it’s that fascinating, then add an appendix!
Anything additional that you learn will remain in your subconscious, and may reveal itself later, in another story or idea. So nothing learned is truly wasted.
There is also the risk that you may become so hung-up in your research that it becomes a form of procrastination – there can be a fine line between too much and not enough.
How do I go about researching my novel?
- Google and Wikipedia are really good for quick authenticity checks and basic details. However, be aware that not everything you read on the internet is true!
- Google Earth is a great resource for those who set their stories in real world places that they’ve never visited. Need to plot a car chase through Copenhagen? Well, street view will help.
- Visit the location: Road trip time! Take photographs and notes. Observe using all five senses, what scents do you notice? What sounds do you hear? All such details add to the authenticity of your settings. Just remember not to overdo it!
- Talk to people: your friends, family – people are generally happy to share their knowledge. This is also useful if you want to find out how it feels to, say, have a dislocated shoulder, if you’ve never done it yourself, you probably know someone who has. If you don’t know anyone personally, you can take it to Facebook or various discussion forums (such as the NaNoWriMo Reference Desk).
- Be Aware: if you are researching a controversial or opinion-based topic, speaking to just one expert can lead to bias. Seek to research as broadly as possible, then use what you learn to determine how your character thinks/behaves.
- the library: still relevant.
- YouTube: planning a fight scene but you’ve never wielded a sword in your life? Well, you can probably find footage of someone who has.
- Experts: Historians, scientists, educators, cultural leaders, police detectives, the Citizens Advice Bureau. Organise an interview, and write out a list of questions. As above, seeking from multiple sources can reduce bias.
- Personal Experience: Your character needs to ride a horse? Well, ride a horse! Volunteer your services. Take pottery classes. Try archery. Join the SCA… Not only can physically experiencing the activity yourself truly enhance the story, it could also lead to a new hobby or passion.
Research is important to maintain the authenticity of your tale and keep the reader engaged.