Writing for Younger Children: The Genesis of Pepper Masalah

When I was six I wrote a story about a cat sitting on a mat. Those were the words I could safely spell but what I really wished was to write an exciting story with interesting words.

Writing for younger readers involves our best writing, interesting words, exciting plots with genuine characters and voice. You may say that’s the same for any age group and you would be correct. So what’s different? For younger readers you’ll also need a child (or animal) main character and a topic that children will be intrigued by. Hmm, take a cat and a storm.

One night on our farm a huge storm blew up and my black cat Harry disappeared. Maybe he was disorientated by the storm and the damage in its wake, for he never turned up. I pinned up posters: a photo of him squeezed into a basket, his huge yellow eyes staring into the camera, and above: Have you seen Harry? No one answered and I hope he’s having a good life in someone’s house.

People consoled me with their ‘lost cat’ stories. One said, ‘We couldn’t find our cat when we had to leave our holiday place and had to leave him behind. He came home fourteen months later. Apart from sore feet, he was fine.’ Fourteen months went by and Harry didn’t return. I read many stories online of cats who disappeared and reappeared. One sneaked onto a plane bound for France and because she was microchipped the airline was able to send her home.

All my previous cats were farm or rescue cats so I bought a cat that was born in a cattery. A beautiful black British Shorthair who thought he was a prince and had no idea he could go outside and get lost. My youngest daughter helped me name him Pepper Masalah. He was a spicy cat with great orange eyes and a purr like a generator. He loved carpets and so a story was born.

What if a black cat was sitting on a special carpet and a storm caused the branch of a huge olive tree to crash through the lounge room window? The wind whisked the carpet and cat outside and up in the air, seemingly flying on the wind. But what if the carpet had a heart and the wind had woken it? It wanted to find its master in Kashmir but it had been asleep for hundreds of years. Flying isn’t easy to get used to after being dormant for so long. The carpet would keep landing in the wrong place until it found its wings. And only Pepper Masalah could make it fly.

The children I told this story to during Bookweek loved it and ran to get the globe to see where Pepper and the carpet could land next. The MS went to some publishers but wasn’t accepted. When I told this to a class a student said, ‘You need a boy on the carpet. I’d like to read a story like that where I could fly.’ I rewrote Pepper Masalah and the Flying Carpet with a boy called Zamir who shared in the adventure. After this rewrite, the first publisher I sent it to, said, ‘Yes, we’re looking for stories like this.’

So you see, I really did manage to write a story about a cat sitting on a mat that has more interesting words. And this is what I learned through it all:

  1. That real life needs to be fictionised to work well in a story. Pepper Masalah is now a female cat in the story as there were too many incidences of the pronoun ‘he’.
  2. I had to be willing to change my original ideas.
  3. I asked the readership what they thought would make the story work better.
  4. To rewrite and never give up on a good story.
  5. To have confidence because what one publisher doesn’t need on their list may be a treasure to another one.

Pepper Masalah and the Flying Carpet, Book 1 due March 2023 at Wombat Books.

Beautiful illustrations by Jasmine Berry

Pre-order at https://wombatrhiza.com.au/pepper-masalah-and-the-flying-carpet/

Writing Flying Blind

A year or so ago I sent a copy of my out-of-print YA novel called The Last Virgin in Year 10 to Rhiza Edge to see if they’d republish. The publisher said to rewrite and update it, then they’d see. What transpired defies definition.

I quickly discovered that I couldn’t rewrite with the same character. She needed to change too much and the rewrite wasn’t working. It was like painting a new colour over a different one that was still wet – the colour wasn’t true. Thus, a new character arrived on the scene who could manage the text, plot, and its changes. Essie Pederick.

At first Essie is a person who is kind and easily manipulated. She has a new set of motivations, desires, goals and a new setting. I could tell she wasn’t a city girl like the previous character. Essie is a country girl living in a coastal town on the Yorke Peninsula. Liking swimming, music and dogs is probably the only similar attributes Essie shares with the previous character. Her motivations changed from navigating Year 10 and some mean girls, plus sexual and spiritual immaturity to rekindling a relationship with a workaholic dad and navigating a manipulating friendship which involved gaslighting. Thus, Essie grows from emotional immaturity to more maturity in navigating friendships and gaining spiritual insight. But it’s not an easy road to travel.

Some parts of the plot are similar but any kept text had to be rewritten to be seen through Essie’s perspective. She still gets a crush on a sporty cool guy but there is much more interaction to show her crush is real. I know about 15-year-old girls having crushes. I was 15 too. The people she interacts with become different also because they are relating to another girl. Essie’s family life is more exposed and although the original story was also a type of coming-of-age story of learning who you are, Flying Blind explores how to know who you are.

Flying Blind also explores gaslighting and friendship abuse or manipulation. Chloe, another new character, is not a mean girl so much as a girl with a personality disorder. I also have had experience with this sort of behaviour not knowing at the time what it was called. My encouraging daughter, who is full of ideas, suggested young people need to be able to tell the difference between good friends and those who just need to control you.

Chloe is gaslighting Essie right from the beginning. First, she grooms Essie, is nice to her and gives her a top to wear, then after a few weeks starts cutting her down, and only gives her intermittent ‘kindness’ or attention so that Essie is always on tenterhooks wondering what she has done wrong. Gaslighting (whether Chloe realises she’s doing it or not) always aims to diminish the other person, even to make them feel paranoid and confused. Essie becomes very confused about Chloe’s friendship and is always trying to make it work, because of Chloe’s deliberate interest in her in the beginning and her intermittent kindness. It’s an insidious thing to do to someone and is usually the basis of a lot of domestic abuse between couples. Believe it or not, a person gaslights another to keep them from leaving; ruining the person’s self-confidence so that they need the gaslighter for affirmation and affection. The person thus becomes controlled by the gaslighter. There are many books written about this now, so readers will be able to do their own research. If you think this may be happening to you or a friend, do ask a counsellor at school or your parent about what to do.

Process

Probably I should have started with a blank page, but there were some plot points I wanted to keep but I rewrote all scenes with Essie’s perspective. I know I deleted most of the original scenes and words and wrote a lot of new ones. Flying Blind is 10,000 words longer than the original. I wrote new material for the early chapters. Gave more scenes to Essie’s little sister and her father. A lot of the new material shows Chloe’s behaviour and how it is affecting Essie and making her anxious. Even with some similar plot points the story became reconstructed. It was fresh, different. It proved something to me that I had always told my students: it is the character who makes the story what it is. Put a new character into a story and the story will change.

Writing Flying Blind has felt like writing a new book using some plot ideas that I’d thought of previously. The structural edit picked up anything I’d left in that didn’t suit Essie. It’s been a rewarding experience. But what is a book like this called? It’s too changed to be a new edition, a rewrite, an update or a re-creation. It’s still the same form so it’s not a remake. Is it an adaption, a reconstruction? Or is it inspired by the previous book? What do you think?

Flying Blind is the coming-of-age story of musical 15-year-old Essie becoming herself and surviving the effects of an abusive friendship in high school. It will be released in February 2022.

A Review of Fozia and the Quest of Prince Zal by Min Kalleske

When I picked up ‘Fozia and the Quest of Prince Zal’, I did not know what to expect. Rosanne Hawke’s book held a lot of surprises. I also learnt quite a lot about Pakistan while reading this book.

I enjoyed reading ‘Fozia and the Quest of Prince Zal’.

Fozia, the main character, is a courageous, caring girl, and the other characters are fascinating and credible. Fozia’s brand new family were welcoming and kind-hearted, especially the children who wanted to hear Fozia’s story of Prince Zal.

The plot of the book is remarkably exciting. Fozia’s fairy-tale of Zal includes many fantasy elements, such as a flying carpet, a talking leopard, and the quest itself. Later we find a link between the story and Fozia’s life. As Zal, in Fozia’s story, is looking for his sister, Fozia is looking for her family after the 2010 Pakistani flood, which resulted from heavy monsoonal rain and slaughtered over 1781 people.

I also enjoyed learning about Pakistan. Learning about the differences between Fozia’s life and life here is stunning, especially the parts about the brick kiln and having to carry water from a river. I also really liked how the Urdu words were placed in the English sentences. The first time an Urdu phrase is said, Rosanne mentions the meaning, yet whenever it is mentioned again, the meaning is not there, which helped me pick up some Urdu. This occurred during the course of the book.

To sum up everything that has been stated so far, this book was overall very entertaining and enjoyable. The book indicates that tragedies happen in life. I recommend this book for tweens, or the upper primary level, yet everyone can read this astounding story. This book is about Fozia’s devotion to her family, Zal and Fozia’s strength of character, their refusal to give up, and the power of stories. Fozia’s tale is extraordinarily popular among her peers. Rosanne Hawke obviously demonstrates the power of storytelling with this book.

I loved the book a lot, but maybe it could have had more of a ‘sizzling start’ to hook the reader in.

Year 6 student, Min Kalleske talking about Fozia and the Quest of Prince Zal

Do You Enjoy Structural Edits?

What I learned from the structural edit of Fozia and the Quest of Prince Zal

My new book is a children’s novel set in Pakistan after the huge flood of 2010. It’s called Fozia and the Quest of Prince Zal and is the third in my flood series. The first is Kelsey and the Quest of the Porcelain Doll; the second is Jehan and the Quest of the Lost Dog. The main characters always have a quest and Fozia’s quest is to find someone from her family alive. Prince Zal’s quest in the story Fozia tells is to find his sister who is lost in a magical jungle where a rogue leopard prowls.

When the structural edit of Fozia first came it looked daunting – twelve pages of mostly encouragement for the great story and what I did well and then some excellent constructive suggestions to give Fozia more agency, to tighten the plot and let the narrative flow more freely. This involved switching the third and first chapters around which caused major rewriting of the first four chapters. The editor was right of course. The first thing she said about the beginning chapter I had wondered about myself but not done anything about it.

Also, there is a secret Fozia keeps which the other characters don’t know but I thought it would be fine if the reader knows early on since it’s obvious to me. The editor suggested it would be more fun for younger readers if they could work this secret out for themselves and she’s right. I should have thought of that myself. That involved more rewriting.

The story that Fozia tells within the wider story about Prince Zal is her story or she hopes it will be, and I wanted to put in as many characters from Pakistani folktales since these were the stories she was told. But the editor gently wrote that maybe there are too many characters and perhaps the story could relate even more to Fozia’s own life. That involved removing a character altogether, the serpent, since she repeated speech that other characters said. This often happens in folktales but is not needed in a novel.

Another chapter had a problem I’d told students never to do: it didn’t move the plot along. It just covered material I thought needed to be known. After reading the structural edit report I managed to delete this info or put it elsewhere. On reading this chapter immediately after finishing the first draft I thought I should rewrite it as the tension dipped and it wasn’t a good place in the novel to dip. Yet I never rewrote it as it sounded better each time I read it. This is a danger when we are so close to our work.

In my journal I wrote about the structural edit report: This looks intimidating but step by step I’ll do this with the Lord’s help. The Daughter of Nomads structural edit looked impossible when I first saw the many colourful Track changes, but bit by bit I managed, especially with the support of a hard copy of the MS sent by the publisher.

I learn things during every edit; usually I don’t forget but often there are new things to learn because each book is different. At times a certain editor will see more than others do. I’m blessed to know one of those. So, this is mainly what I learned.

  1. Check the main character has enough agency. Since Kelsey appears also in this book, I gave her some lines and actions that should have been Fozia’s. It’s Fozia’s story after all, and I don’t think Kelsey suffers. Remember whose story it is and let that person sort it out.
  2. When I think a chapter sounds thin or doesn’t move the plot along, cut it immediately and write another or put in a note straight away to rewrite later. After reading it six times it can sound decent because it becomes familiar. That’s why we need clever people with fresh eyes to read our work. Note to self: act on that first impression.
  3. By all means think of plot ideas and write them up but they are not set in stone – cut and write new ones if they’re not moving the story forward or are repetitive. Note to self: delete and salvage.
  4. I need to be clear with timelines too. It was fine in my head but it didn’t translate on to the page, so I made a new time line in my Daybook. It only took a few inserted references to show how long after the flood Fozia had been living with Jehan’s family. This particular flood took a longer time than usual to subside, so adding that comment helped too.
  5. After the first structural edit draft, it worked well to print off the MS without markup to check that it was sounding okay. It’s too easy to miss things with the comments and Track changes on the page. It made me feel I was still ‘in charge’ of the story, not the Track changes.

Fozia and the Quest of Prince Zal will be released on 30th March 2021 by University of Queensland Press.

The First Page Test

The tertiary institution where I lecture in Writing for Children & YA has asked me to compile my lecture notes and study guides as a writing book that can be used in classes. My students have asked for a part memoir, part ‘how to’ with personal anecdotes. I’ll post snippets and thoughts about the process in this online writing journal. Here’s one about that first page. Continue reading The First Page Test

Using Cornish Legends: revisiting Wolfchild

My middle grade novel Wolfchild is based on the Cornish legend of the Lost Land of Lyonnesse. Lyonnesse was the name given by romantic poets to the stretch of land between Western Cornwall and the present day Scilly Isles. It was previously called Lethowsow by the Cornish. Charles Thomas in his book, Exploration of a Drowned Landscape, describes the record in the Saxon Chronicle which states that in the year 1099 there was a high tide which flooded villages in Southern England and goes on to suggest that many researchers believe this may have also flooded the stretch of land between Land’s End and the Scilly Islands leaving only the peaks showing. Trevelyan on his white steed was the last man to reach the coast of Cornwall alive and the Trevelyan family still have on their coat of arms a white horse emerging from the sea. This research intrigued me and not only because my maiden name is Trevilyan.

In Wolfchild it is 1099, and twelve-year-old Morwenna lives with her family in Lethowsow. Raw is a runaway serf who must stay hidden for a year and a day to become free, or he will be executed. He hides in a cave in the high places believed to be Arthur’s resting place. The weather at this time is merciless. The previous year had been one of famine and this year will be little different. In the evenings around the fire, stories are told. Morwenna’s uncle is a fisherman; he can see the changing weather patterns and has a few theories about it. Towards the end he warns the family to flee before it is too late.

The novel is imbued with Cornish atmosphere, the sea and weather, the people’s love of storytelling, Morwenna’s singing and feyness, the mix of superstition and religion. Cornish superstitions are included: ‘Red sky this morning,’ Eselda says when she knows bad weather is coming. When Cadan has stiff joints, Morwenna tells him ‘Eselda would fry you a toad’s liver’. Raw and Morwenna relate the legend of Drystan and Eselt, the familiar story of Tristan and Isolde.

Author and Reviewer Karen Brooks wrote in the ABR (2003): The reader is drawn into the mythic and real world of the ninth [sic] century. The burgeoning Christian faith, blended with mystic paganism, is beautifully drawn and captures the essence of the austere world of Morwenna and her family.

The story takes its structure from the passing of the year and I gained insight from Lacey & Danziger’s The Year 1000. The lives of the medieval Cornish were ruled by the calendar, as were those of the Anglo-Saxons. There have been many interpretations of Lyonnesse ranging from Malory’s epic and poets such as Tennyson and Hardy, to modern fantasy novels about beautiful warrior women, yet Wolfchild shows Lethowsow the way I imagine a medieval Cornwall would have been, based on historian Elliott-Binns’ research and Charles Thomas’s of the drowned land.

Yet it seems it will take a while before the world accepts the recognition of Cornwall as a national minority group apart from England: despite all this Cornishness displayed in Wolfchild, one reviewer described the novel as ‘an intriguing mix of English folklore and medieval history’.

Its exciting Wolfchild will be republished this year with a new look.

See some pics on Pinterest that inspired Wolfchild