From Hook to Book

My Tribe (SCBWI Australia East/NZ)

Der Arme Poet

Writing is such a solitary endeavour. Of course, we writers/illustrators/creators are no longer isolated or starving in a garret as in years or centuries past. (Forgive the aside, but is it only me who perceives ‘starving in a garret’ as somewhat romantic when transported to 20th century Paris? I could happily go hungry in such company as F. Scott-Fitzgerald, Stein, Hemingway.)

Alas, in reality, I like my food/wine and comfort too much to suffer such deprivation. But I do look to the company of like-minded hearts and creative souls.

Writers/Illustrators are a tribe, co-joined by our aspirations and drive to create and share our stories. We want readers to thrill and thrall to our tales and to see our work in print. Often it can be a long road to publication and the initial marks of ink, publishers’ cruel rebuffs. So we look to our peers to commiserate, communicate, collaborate and coalesce. What better way than at a writers’ conference?

syd-conf-logo300pxI am privileged to be part of the warm and welcoming team of SCBWI Australia East/NZ and to serve as Assistant Co-ordinator of SCBWI Vic. Every two years we gather under the banner of the bi-annual conference in Sydney and mentorship of Regional Advisor, Susanne Gervay. The warm, funny, all embracing Susanne inspires all to believe their publication dream is possible. Of course, adding in a little luck, perseverance, industry savvy, research and a measure of talent.scbwi-crew

The 2016 SCBWI Australia East Conference was a fantastic gathering of the tribe in September at the Menzies Hotel in Sydney and a great chance to catch up with friends and peers and meet many new members attending. It was brilliant too, post-conference, to hear of all the wonderful outcomes in contracts, representation and requests that came out of SCBWI 2016.

scbwi-vic-crewFantastic, detailed conference reports by Dimity Powell and her roving reporters plus lots of pics can be found on the SCBWI blog. But here are a few tips and tweets from the conference: Be poignant. Bestow ideas. Don’t give up the day job. Never risk starvation. Unless you’re in Paris, sharing a garret with F Scott-Fitzgerald. Pre Daisy days, of course!




The Value of Conferences – CYA

CYA dinnerI can’t believe it’s been weeks since I attended the fantastic CYA Conference in Brisbane. I’ve been head-down ever since, following up on manuscript advice received during my two publisher assessment sessions and giving social media a narrow gaze.CYA 2016

Chris Bell CYA 2016 Highly CommendedI was really excited in the weeks prior to the conference to be shortlisted in the 2016 CYA Writing and Illustrating Competition – published author category. It was fantastic that I was already booked in to attend the conference and so I was there to receive a “Highly Commended” award for my middle-grade eco-fic novel Strange Creatures from the judge, Scholastic Australia publisher, Clare Hallifax. I was extra pleased with my HC as there was only one overall winner (congratulations Facebook buddy, Karen Collum), but no placings in this highly competitive category.

It was a great boost to see this 19000-word story that I wrote several years ago with the intention of making it book one in a trilogy appreciated and acknowledged. I’ve always loved the characters and the setting and thought I had not perhaps given it fair exposure at the time as it always seemed an awkward word-count. So I worked on it some more and entered it into CYA and it was really terrific to see it awarded in the competition. I look forward to reading the initial judging reports, which give the added bonus of feedback to entrants in the CYA competition.CYA 2016 Highly commended

During the conference I had two really positive and informative meetings with publishers regarding my YA historical novel and received some great advice. 1. Begin in setting and introduce character’s day-to-day life 2. Use less language of the time.

The first suggestion initially surprised me because I’d always been taught – in kid lit – begin with action. But during the conversations (which offered very similar advice) I came to realise that, with my character’s world and time being quite foreign to the reader, to begin in drama gave the reader no chance to come to know or care about the characters before the initial dramatic interaction and danger. Invaluable advice and well worth paying for. This is one the value of critique and manuscript assessment sessions offered to attendees of conferences and seminars.

Both publishers are keen to see the reworked manuscript, so it’s back to work for me.




Photo credit: Peter Allert

My New Favourite Thing

Move over notebooks. I think I’ve just found my new favourite thing – for a writer.

Apple pencil:pro I feel a bit odd gushing about a gadget in this terribly material age, but my new favourite thing is a fantastic tool of trade – a shiny new iPad Pro (the small 9.7 inch version). It’s a big step up from my poor, struggling, constantly crashing, five-year-old iPad 2. Though I remember being as excited as a kid with a new toy at Christmas the year I got it too. But the new one has features I didn’t even dream of back then, but have been longing for now for quite awhile. Top of my list – an actual pen-like stylus. So for me the best part of my new iPad is actually the optional extra – and most brilliant tool – the Apple pencil. (Is it wrong to gush over a pencil?!)

Now I know how illustrators must feel with a brand new tablet to add to their toolbox.

I’ve long edited manuscripts on-the-go, on trains, in cafes, waiting in waiting-rooms, using an ordinary stylus in the Goodnotes app. I’m still using Goodnotes (though I’m sure there are heaps of other equally great editing/note software apps out there too). The difference now is that using the Apple pencil with the iPad Pro is that I can rest my palm on the screen without making unwanted marks or erasing edits accidentally.

Apple pencilAll I have to do is PDF the manuscript on the desktop first and email it to myself on the iPad. When I receive the email, I just transfer the doc to Goodnotes and away I go. Of course, I can still type edits into the document too, or use an alternative stylus or even my fingertip. But I love that Apple pencil replicates a pen with the same feel and the same fine point that, so far, other styli don’t provide. Now I end up with a far more legible document that I don’t have to waste time trying to decipher. The program highlighter is great for marking up words, paras to rejig later too.

Sadly, neither the pencil nor the new technology improves my scrawly handwriting at all, but at least it’s more readable. And I seem to have room on the page now to write heaps more.

IMG_5305I love too how, in the ordinary Apple Notes app, I can handwrite, draw, highlight, use colour for emphasis (or fun). It even has a ruler. (See the elegant straight line in my pic.) I can also print, copy, text, email, save images etc from Notes. (Could you do that before?)

And in the middle of the night, when I think of an idea, brilliant new title or must-do tomorrow, I love how I can now write it down using the backlight and even my fingertip to write if I don’t want to bother with the pencil. It doesn’t improve the quality of those ‘gems’ of the wee hours, but it’s much easier to capture them at least – just in case.

Even though noone will ever see them, I’m also having a lot of fun playing with the pencil in ‘Paint’ too, creating images and playing with shapes and colours. More disappear than are saved, but it’s lots of fun and non-threatening for a non-drawer like me.

I do think the pencil is the real joy and new favourite thing for me, as much as the iPad, because it’s not only great for print-free editing, but it’s inspiring my creativity in other ways too.

Libraries Rule for Research

As a writer of historical fiction, many an hour I’ve spent to great result in the State Library of Victoria, PROV and various local and overseas’ libraries. So it was dismaying for me to read a recent blog post on research, on a major, international writing website, that alleged researching your novel in a library is an “old school” approach. Excusez moi!

Old School research!Many research rarities can only be found in physical libraries, especially unpublished manuscripts, obscure, old and out-of-print books, pamphlets, annuals etc. It is often in these that true gems can be found – through authentic, first-hand accounts and records, in the language and tone of the era. Many such items that I’ve utilised in my research cannot be bought or found online. So for me, Libraries Rule for Research. (Of course, Wikipedia, Trove and the internet are invaluable resources, and usually my first point of reference, and often the way I source some hard to find references. But it’s madness to count out the usually necessary attendance in a bricks and mortar library required for certain aspects of research.)

IMG_3515My first YA historical novel idea originated while rummaging in an antiquarian bookshop, where I turned up a small volume that had been published as a result of a much longer PhD written in the 50s. The moment I opened it, I thought, ‘there’s a story here’.

Chris Bell NLASo it was one of the highlights of my research and writing life recently to visit the National Library of Australia in Canberra on a fact finding/checking mission and finally have the chance to view the full manuscript of that original PhD. A copy, yes, but the text in its entirety. Oh, the prickles of anticipation as I carefully leafed through the precious pages. I know the place of subject so well in my mind, it almost came to life in front of me.

What an amazing place is our National Library! One of inestimable resources within its totally 21st century, digital age, tech savvy environs, and a fabulous example of research the modern way. I pre-ordered all my materials online from Melbourne on the Sunday and arrived on the Tuesday to find them all ready and waiting for me. I then had opportunity to source further material for two other novels and access and download several academic papers and articles I’d not seen or known of previously through the database.

I wondered if it was just me who felt a buzz of expectation in the air, despite the quiet of the surroundings and studious attitude of my fellow readers. I don’t think so from the avid looks on the faces poring over piles of books, magazines and exciting packets of papers. Still it did not equal the hum in the Special Collections room where readers and researchers dipped into cardboard boxes offering up manuscripts, maps, collections of letters and all kinds of ephemera – present and past. (Yes, I was guilty of a little sticky-beaking on my way past – strictly in the name of research for this post, of course!)

P1030047 Conscription voteI found an unexpected treasure trove myself, sharing my PhD manuscript box: a bounty of letters, cards and periodicals belonging to a politician from the exact era of my current WIP. Imagine my delight when I brought them out and found letters dated 1916, written by a politician discussing the conscription referendum. A serendipitous bounty!

Pandora archiveSo after falling a little in love with the NLA, I was extra delighted to have been asked, just the week before my visit, if I would permit the NLA’s PANDORA Web Archive to archive my blog From Hook to Book for posterity.

“PANDORA, Australia’s Web Archive, is a growing collection of Australian online publications, established initially by the National Library of Australia in 1996, and now built in collaboration with nine other Australian libraries and cultural collecting organisations.”

The name, PANDORA, is an acronym for: Preserving and Accessing Networked Documentary Resources of Australia.

I feel particularly honoured to have From Hook to Book included in the archive, considering Pandora state in their manifesto, they “select those (websites) that they consider are of significance and to have long-term research value”.

So now it’s time to return to a more regular blogging schedule – inspired – after taking time-out over recent months to prioritise my WIP. I can’t let posterity down.


New Year / New Edition/s

Roller-Coaster Ride new coverWhat better way to start the New Year than with a new edition of an old book baby! Just before Christmas, I was delighted to receive the new Cengage Learning multicultural version of my 2001 title Roller-Coaster Ride, re-illustrated by Samantha Asri to set the story in the Middle East for early Arabic readers.

I was surprised to find only a couple of words had been changed in the text: the main character’s name has changed from Rosie to Yasmin; hot dogs have become shawarmas (an Arabic meat dish cooked on a spit and served on a plate, or in a wrap etc.) and Asri’s vibrant illustrations portray Middle Eastern dress and an updated, ultra-modern theme park. Otherwise the book is pretty much as originally published.Rollercoaster Ride

I thought the best time to share this new version was when I was also launching a new edition of moi. You know, New Year’s resolutions and all that. Okay, it’s only one week into 2016, but so far, I’m on track to a new, improved version of Chris Bell writer. A fitter, slimmer, less creaky version! Well, I’m hoping so anyway.

Roller-Coaster Ride French editionToo many hours at the desk last year resulted in way too many sessions at the physiotherapist trying to straighten out the kinks and creaks and knead some very stiff, un-cooperative, lower back muscles back to their natural state. (Though I’m beginning to wonder if that state has permanently altered.) My own fault! Even though I stand up at my stand-up desk (at times) and regularly get up to make an obligatory cup of tea, I still can’t unpretzel this body. I admit though when I’m in the writing moment, the cup of tea goes cold, the sun shifts in the sky and all else is forgotten. It’s then the neck resorts to angle stupida and correct typing posture slumps into compaction mode.

Chris Bell on bike 2016

So time for a drastic author makeover, thanks to Santa, who brought me a brand new bike for Christmas. (Isn’t it gorgeous?) Yay! It’s fantastic fun too. Nothing compares with the wind in your face and thrill of zooming down the road. (Downhill is the only way I can zoom – yet!) But, oohh, it’s such hard work on the way home. Certain muscles are being dragged screaming to the party and complain bitterly of a hang-over the next day. But onwards I go, rewriting the book on Chris, determined to wrestle this reluctant body into healthy compliance. Oh, there’s plans  for other radical edits too. i.e. swimming. In an actual swimming cossy even! Pilates – an ongoing redraft. (I love it.) But foremost, less wine, less chocolate and desk snacking, more exercise in general and more awareness of the world beyond the desk.

Hello, 2016. Let the new regime rule. Now where’s my Fitbit?



Story Sparks!

A first kiss in a park, so many years ago…

Memories are infinite and some we don’t share. Others may be transient or we think gone. Until a prompt restores them and they return vividly – kindly, harshly, surprisingly, horrifyingly, romantically. Not necessarily for real or true – after all they were so long ago.

P1020554 Simmone Howell Workshop Chris BellCreativity of thought can come spasmodically or constantly to creatives. Often a whiff, a sniff, a song, a colour, a hint of weather and we’re off – into imagination. Other times we fear the launchpad of those smells, sounds, vivid recalls will never return.

P1020564 Simmone HowellUnless… inspired by a gathering of like minds at SCBWI Vic’s Creativity Workshop and author/facilitator Simmone Howell. Simmone opened a floodgate of memories for me. Particularly in our final session on childhood memory. Not an illustrator, by any stretch, I created a visual map of my childhood – the Saturday afternoon Mr Whippy treats, the make-believe of two sisters creating older personas and the long forgotten Jenny Bigger. An epic James Bond drive-in fest accompanying a dad who had no son as yet to share such masculine movies. (Loved them!) An illicit ciggie in the park, playing truant from Sunday Mass. Sandy sandwiches and a back sticking to the sweaty seat of a station wagon, counting the colours of cars on the way to Chelsea beach. There seemed more colours back then.

P1020558 Simmone Howell ParticipantsMost importantly I found a way into an upcoming scene and tricky turning point in my new YA novel, as well as an enjoyable and inspiring gathering of like-minds and creators in SCBWI. Who said writing/illustrating is a solitary occupation? It can be positively inspirational in a room crowded with like-minds and scintillating story sparks.

The Art of Story and the Narrative Game

A few months ago, on the hottest day of summer, myself and five other fearless writers gathered in an (unairconditioned) artist space in Mornington to participate in a documentary with a difference. The Art of Story gives an inside view into the creation of stories and the stories behind the stories.

The Art of Story and the Narrative GameThe initial six episodes feature novelists, publishers, editors, TV writers, filmmakers, cinema proprietors, actors and others involved in bringing story into our lives through different media.

My involvement was participating in a writing workshop scenario with other experienced workshoppers where we discussed the value and process of workshopping, dispelling some of the associated fears and sharing a few hints and the many benefits of workshopping gleaned through our collective experience.

Despite some initial apprehension, on my part, never having been in front of a television camera before, it proved a fantastic experience. The diverse range of writers and personalities in our group made for some insightful viewpoints and approaches – ones many writers will relate to.

The Art of Story promises to be a valuable insight into the creation of story, the highs and lows and view from the writer’s desk to the publisher’s to the filmaker’s.

Series One is currently being screened on Channel 31 on Mondays 6.30p.m. and Tuesdays 4p.m. Each episode is also available on Catch Up C31 website for two weeks (the Wednesday after screening).

For those who missed episode one, here’s the link:

The Art of Story and the Narrative Game is produced by Nathan King and David Muir.

Writer Meets Research

IMG_7909 Ribblehead Viaduct croppedFrom the instant the wheels of the London train began to cross the twenty-four arches of the Ribblehead viaduct, it seemed everything Mary had ever known fell behind and no one seemed even to care. Every thud served a stab to her heart like each span were crumbling, blocking her way back. When they reached the far side of the bridge, it struck her that every moment passing instantly becomes a memory. Worse, she became only a memory to it too and all trace of the reality either side knew—gone.

It seems a lifetime ago since I first wrote those words into my adult historical novel. They spoke of a place I’d never seen, but one I had a great affinity for through both my characters’ journey south from Glasgow to London early in 1914 and following in the footsteps of, or close to, my grandmother and great-grandparents when they journeyed to Australia, just prior to World War One, from their tiny pit village in Scotland to the Wonthaggi State Coal Mine in Australia.

That journey is the impetus for my novel. Though the plot and characters are entirely fictitious, it is a small nod to my forebears and my heritage. A story born of whispers when I first visited the reconstructed State Coal Mine site in Wonthaggi back in 2008.

P1010591 Yorkshire DalesmanSo it was my utter thrill to return to Scotland recently and take the steam rail journey on the Yorkshire Dalesman from Skipton to Carlisle and cross the Ribblehead Viaduct and see for myself this amazing landscape and piece of history. The views, I suspect, are not so very different from the vista a century ago when my family travelled the same rails.

P1010611 Yorkshire DalesWe were lucky to experience a fabulous blue sky day and witness the etchings of clouds on the hillsides and valley floors. I wasn’t the only one catching flitters of coal grit and straining for a look (photo opp) out the window. Our fellow travellers appeared seized with a like excitement and thrill. For me it held a deeply personal resonance and I found my eyes prickling at the double whammy of life meeting art, and the timeliness. I’m sure my ancestors experienced an even greater excitement, perhaps fear, heading for a new land, rather than a delicious bistro lunch and glass of vino.

The viaduct was built between 1870 to 1874 by over one-hundred navvies (manual labourers) who set up camps and shanty towns on the land around the site, which is now a scheduled archaeological monument. Over one-hundred men died during in its construction through accidents and illness and lie alongside an equal number of their women and children in nearby cemeteries.

The viaduct is 400 metres long and sits 32 metres at its highest point. It is breathtaking to see and a credit to the workmanship and hardship endured by those who built it. And to those who dared travel its breadth and beyond.

P1010559 Chris Bell Yorkshire DalesmanOnce again it reminded me of the courage and exertions of our forebears and how very, very lucky I am to all these years later to have had the opportunity to experience the same journey and tiny part of the history for myself.

If you’d like a small taste of a similar journey crossing the viaduct, please check out the Youtube video below.


Baggage limit? But there are books to buy!

Bartrums Hay-on-WyeHow can a travelling author be given a baggage weight limit when there are books to buy? Lots of books. Plus lots of amazing new book shops to visit, not to mention literary museums and quirky stationery shops! And when one location turns out to be the very setting and inspiration the author was searching for, complete with printed histories, background info and individual (published) stories…

P1000641 Chris Hay on Wye

Eek, the conundrum! Especially when said author has a small domestic flight from Belfast to Inverness that insists on only 20kgs of baggage and a stop off first, in Hay-on-Wye – national book town of Wales – where every second shop is book related – plus they have the incredible Bartrums & Co Stationers. How was I possibly going to gain less than 3 kgs before flying?


Of course, I couldn’t leave Hay-on-Wye empty handed and I picked up several books including two novels The Miniaturist and The Little Paris Bookshop at the wonderful Richard Booth’s Bookshop. I know I could get both of these novels at home, but I do have to say it, books are cheaper in the UK – even applying the horrifying June 2015 exchange rate of the Aussie dollar to GBP. Here The Miniaturist sells in the three majors I checked for A$19.99. I paid £7.99 (equiv approx. $16.00). The Little Paris Bookshop sells in Australia for $29.99 and I paid £12.99 (equiv approx. $26.00).

Isn’t it good when one can make an almost reasonable excuse for one’s passions (read obsessions)?

Admittedly, I did have to add 67 euros postage in Ireland to post my purchases and paper paraphernalia back to Oz pre domestic flight. But by then I’d also found my potential story setting and acquired a lot more accompanying research literature besides, so the novels didn’t substantially affect the 7 kilo cost.

Books bought os

The hoard pictured above is the greater majority of my book and literature purchases this trip, bar a couple lent out already. Alas, most of it purchased pre domestic flight! Hence the hefty postage charge.

It doesn’t include all the associated brochures, maps and sight-seeing site literature one picks up along the tourist trail. I can’t believe how much paper stuff I discarded. Tourism sure takes a hefty chomp out of the world’s tree population. In fact, I think I think it should be mandatory that every castle, museum, place of interest, provide recycle bins at exits for visitors to dump printed paraphernalia. Most tourists probably bin it before stepping back on the plane anyway. Except writers, of course, who often want to study the minutiae later, on the look out for that elusive idea, word, name, inspiration that they may have missed whilst taking in the vista. Or while saving their concentration for climbing and descending the multiple x multiple stairs UK/Europe insist upon to earn your rite of passage!

Yet I could’ve bought so much more, especially post small domestic flight.

P1020477 Chris Bell Foyles LondonFoyles in London, is reader heaven. I practically had to be dragged out of the place. I was incredibly well controlled though, as I wouldn’t buy anything I could buy at home once back in England. But the range in Foyles, spread over four levels, is incredible. I was possibly too overawed to even think much about purchasing. I was also too busy plotting how could I move to Charing Cross Road, work there/write there. At least for a year or two!

Book buying is almost always as much part of my holiday pleasure as reading. I’m not sure if I should be worried that I spent more time buying books while away than actually reading them.

Young Writer Comps and Opportunities

Prize Winner - image by www.lumaxart.comCalling all young writers, playwrights and poets! While I’ve been gallivanting around the UK, these past few weeks, heaps of regular and new young writers’ competitions and opportunities have opened up. Some are closing soon.

So flex those writing muscles and get your entries in fast. (Only if they’ve been buffed and polished and proofed, of course.) You’ll find further details and some great new resources on my Young Writers’ Resources page, such as details of three KSP residential places in WA, The John Marsden and Scribe Non-fiction Prizes, plus lots more comp details, events and happenings.

All fabulous opportunities to get your writing in front of judges, publishers and selection panels and there’s some not insignificant cash prizes on offer too.

So get those stories and poems in fast for the comps closing soon.

Some tips for success:

  • Follow submission guidelines (exactly)
  • Redraft, redraft, redraft
  • Read your work aloud to pick up jars and jolts and to check for rhythm
  • Vary your sentence structure
  • Be strenuous at spell-checking and proofreading
  • Give your work a few weeks “air time” (you’ll pick up things you never noticed when you go back to it after a break)
  • Flick off that fear goblin nagging on your shoulder. If you’ve put in the work – it’s ready. Repeat – flick and submit.

If you know of any writing opportunities or competitions for young writers, not listed on the YWR page, I’d love you to leave me the details in a comment or email me the link. Thnx. And Good luck!

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