Tuesday, 2 September 2014


More than two years ago I finished the first draft of my 9th novel and handed three chapters over to my agent. She hated it. Picked holes in just about every paragraph. Didn’t think my characters were convincing. Thought some of my research was suspect. And generally couldn’t find anything good to say about it. I put up all sorts of arguments for it being a first draft etc etc but after she had torn it apart, the thought of fixing it was just too daunting. So the story was buried.

I knew it was a good idea and once I could stand back from all the criticism, I felt there was a kernel there that still needed to be told. But I was far too demoralized to dig deep and find the right way of telling it. After a couple of years of being involved with picture books, I recently took it out again. My son, who has had some success with an 'about to be published' first novel and a film deal, asked the burning question: what is the story about?

I rambled on and on. I was floundering.

There was the problem! I had no idea. I couldn’t be succinct enough to say what my story was about. So if I couldn’t sell my story to my agent, or even my own son, how was I going to whet the appetite of an editor or more importantly readers out there?

Anyone who listens to a premise, must be able to see the entire book unfolding in his mind. A premise has few words but must hit hard. It has to be emotionally intriguing. It has to mean something to the person hearing the idea for the first time. But it's not just a tool to use to sell a story to an editor, it's for the writer to keep crystalised in his head as he works. The little nugget from which all else springs. Nicola Morgan has written reams about writing premises but I had somehow fallen into the lazy trap of thinking because I write organically (pantster???), my premise could be equally organic.

Wrong! Basically a premise needs a compelling hero, a compelling bad guy and a compelling need or goal we as humans can identify with. Put this in a single sentence or at the most two and make it compelling enough to capture a stranger’s attention and to keep the writer focused on the kernel of the story.

What is the story about? My son’s question drew me up sharp. I couldn’t tell him in a few succinct sentences. But the moment I began to formulate and define the premise, like magic, the conflicts were brought more sharply into focus, my protagonist gained stature and I could make the bad guy just a bit more out of reach of my hero’s ability to defeat him.

So writing a good premise is a great step in the right direction. Ask yourself is this story about someone:
I can identify with
I can learn from
I have a compelling reason to follow
I believe deserves to win
Has weaknesses that are overcome in the end (the hero's arc)
Has stakes that are primal and ring true?

Now as I’m picking up on my story again, I’m visualizing a short and hugely dramatic first image and then I’m going into the beats of the story like they do in film-scripts. What is the right way to pace this story? I’m even writing out index cards and am putting them up on a cork-board. And having read Lari Don’s recent blogpost on ABBA where she writes: I know that I’m just discovering the story, not finding the perfect way of telling it first time around. And I know that it takes a lot of work to make that original mess of scribbled ideas into a book, I’ve realized that keeping track of the beats in a story is far easier if you’ve already written the first draft. Heaven forbid I would ever have to work out the beats in a story I hadn’t drafted first.

Now after the premise and that riveting first image and the initial set-up of time, place and characters, what is the catalyst? The moment of no turning back? Crossing the threshold? The door of no return? Should I go? Dare I go? I’m talking about me… not my hero! And for those of you who recognise some of the above – yes, I have read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat and yes I think both he, my son and my agent have hopefully saved my manuscript.

And finally as an aside, I don’t believe my research is suspect – my notebooks are full of distracting and time-wasting detail that help me 'play' and doodle my way through the story. 

twitter: @dihofmeyr
Dianne Hofmeyr's most recent picture book Zeraffa Giraffa published by Frances Lincoln, is illustrated by Jane Ray and has been translated into 6 languages other than English. Her previous picture book The Name of the Tree is Bojabi, also published by Frances Lincoln and illustrated by Piet Grobler, was nominated for the 2014 Kate Greenaway.

Monday, 1 September 2014


It’s the start of the new academic year. 
It's a time for change. 

September is the month when lots of teenagers in the UK move on, leaving home for college or gap years or other adventures.

The growing-up may have felt, at times, like very long years, so rejoice now that change has arrived at last

Rejoice, for a moment, in what you’re losing.   All those late arrivals and sudden slam-door exits, the too-much too-loud music or grunts-plus-earphones; the washing machine full of dirty clothes; the presence of unknown bodies sleeping on living room floors and sofas; the big screens and small screens constantly flickering with fascinating stuff, and more.

Aha! Soon you’ll be nostalgic for bathrooms stacked with more grooming products than can be daubed on one person in a lifetime, Even so, it will also feel very good to reclaim some of the space that you knew was once there. 

However, before it’s too late, be aware of what you will be losing too. Especially  if you’re a freelance loner working from home. The person who is probably your most valuable technical resource is leaving. Not only will all that precious and vital energy disappear - and no, I'm not joking! - but so will all their random knowledge, skills and fluency with all things technical. 

From the moment that door closes, you will be relying on your own knowledge - and how does that stand up right now, all by itself? 

I have no precious teen tech around right now. I have no handy geek or wizard who can help me with the latest social media trends, no person who can explain how to do the things I want to do, or the thing I don't know I should know about.

I don’t sit there bleating (even if this post may seem so.)
I ask, I enquire, I go to the on-line videos and follow the simple steps. I google for answers, try things out and solve problems.  

But, but, but . . . so often I find a gap where an essential bit of information should be.

Yes, the screen can show me “this” but what about the “that” that goes with it? The missing link that takes such hours to discover, the reason behind x or y? I 'd really like to borrow a socialised techno-wise human being for a week or three, please. Aaagh!

Maybe you are lucky? Maybe you are young yourself or you work outside home and have easy access, not only to training but to the casual wisdom of facts being passed on and gadgets explained.

If not, be warned.
If you work at your writing at home, alone, from now on you’ll be battling with new media and new work at the same time, and there's not many hours to go round.  

Be nice to your nerds while you’ve got them. Today is the first of September. You’ve got about two weeks to download all they know.

Penny Dolan

Sunday, 31 August 2014


Today - the 31st August - we are delighted  to have a Guest Illustrator Post from Patrice Aggs..

Patrice Aggs writes and illustrates children's books. Her latest is Yi Er San, My First Chinese Nursery Rhymes (Frances Lincoln). Right now she's obsessed with kids' comics, and is about to begin her 4th adventure series for The Phoenix. 

Welcome, Patrice!

Thank you - and hello to everyone at An Awfully Big Blog Adventure! 

Let's start a bit of action:

Cut whom? I hear you ask. 

Betty and Susan, who along with brother Tom were the star cast of Ginn Basic Readers in the 1950s and 60s.

If you grew up in the American elementary school system these three were your first reading buddies.

Even if you were an urban black child, Tom, Betty and Susan represented the correct template for the outside world. By the early 1960s, it was surely time for these guys to be hobbled.

Enter Bob and Nancy. They were black children, and were neat, tidy and acceptable. Of course they slid seamlessly into the comfortable world Tom, Betty and Susan lived in.  Never mind that Bob and Nancy probably went to quite separate schools and lived in quite separate neighbourhoods from their white pals.

In Ginn Readerland they were always just around the corner when somebody wanted to ‘see Bunny ride’. Where was this weird part of America in which Nancy cavorted with white kids on ponies wearing cowboy hats? It made no sense to us black city kids.

The imagery was clearly aimed at suburban white children, to soften them up for the possible introduction, sometime in the future, of black classmates or neighbours.

Look! There’s Bob and Nancy! They’re almost just like us, you know…
It made no sense to us. But did it need to? The world of schoolbooks was always one of unreality, as was much of what went on in the classroom. Black kids who grew up in 1950s America finished their daily Pledge of Allegiance with the phrase “with liberty and justice for all – but me.” We were already aware that we were outsiders. Whenever a person of colour appeared in a drawing there were black sticks or crosshatched lines all over their faces. So schoolbook characters being unreal aliens was pretty much what we had come to expect. 

Did these characters need to reflect the real world in order for us to learn to read? No. Were we damaged by being deprived of visual evidence of our existence? Maybe, maybe not. It was a step forward to see ourselves realistically portrayed, but it was also really boring. Nancy’s hairdo is spot on for 1960, and yes, she’s in colour-matched Sears Roebuck playclothes. But she and Bob came along too late. We already knew fictional characters were fundamentally bizarre and different from us. Luckily, that made the world of reading really exciting.

There were benefits to knowing all about unreal aliens. My friends and I devoured the E. Nesbit books found in our superb local library. Mind you, we’d have devoured anything that wasn’t Tom or Betty or Susan. Nowadays I am often asked how on earth we managed to ‘relate’ to stories about Edwardian children. How could we possibly understand norfolks, florins, cook-generals , fire irons or nursery fenders?

Very easily, as it turned out. Challenging language with mysterious references was what we were used to. No, we couldn’t have explained stone gingerbeer bottles or something called ‘shape’ that people had for dessert. But pinafored children in the Kentish Town Road were agreeably exotic, and no more peculiar than Nancy in a cowboy hat.

The real pity is that the exchange of exotic words and images couldn’t work the other way round. In a time-travel sequence it would be fun to test out the strength of writing around unfamiliar vocabulary. What would an English child in 1906 have thought of our own black Americanisms?
Okay, do y’all know what she’s talking about?