Masterclass F: Conquering the Slush Pile and Crafting Your Story with Diane Evans

Diane Evans – Publishing Director Big Sky Publishing along with, Allison Patterson – Author with Big Sky Publishing and publishing consultant, guide us along the path to publication.

Allison Paterson and Diane Evans

Allison Paterson and Diane Evans

This session was a smooth as they come, the presenters shared valuable information at a good pace and were clearly comfortable in each other’s presence making it a joy to attend.

Big Sky Publishing initially only published nonfiction and books for adults but over the last few years have introduced children’s books.

Diane Evans works across the board of books and all areas of the publishing business within Big Sky Publishing.

Alison Patterson has a teacher-librarian background and uses her knowledge of children to write for children of all ages from picture books to YA.

Big Sky Publishing has a interest in information books with strong messages and links to the Australian curriculum. Diane suggest that authors look for gaps in the market.

It is important for authors to see and position themselves as entrepreneurs.

Ask yourself why your book is different to the ones already on the market but do this right at the beginning.”

This is to save yourself work, if there is already something like it out on the market, it may be worthwhile focusing on another project.

“We are looking for authors to work with us on more than one book.” And from an international perspective are looking for books that can carry a series. Diane prefers authors to pitch her a series with strong selling points, and advises to include the first book and synopses for the next books in the series.

Allison used images from Ronald Dahl’s writing journal to look at where ideas come from. She also spoke about the importance of listening to the kids’ voices of ‘right now’ to find the ‘authenticity of the child’s voice.’

She talked about the importance of embedding fact in your story, even when writing fiction, and when writing historical fiction to stay a as truthful to the facts as you can.

“It is important to create a detailed backstory for you character, so that you know how a child will feel in any given situation.”

Diane stressed that publishers don’t have time to work on proposals with authors any more. A proposal these days needs to be polished and well researched as you usually only get one go at it.

Enthusiastic master class delegates learning the secrets to publication success

Enthusiastic master class delegates learning the secrets to publication success

Big Sky Publishing expects authors to do a lot of their own social media, do school visits and more. Publishers want to know what authors are doing from a networking perspective. It is important as an author to know what your strength is and to leverage it.

Phew. That was a lot to take in, but so invaluable. I can’t thank Diane and Allison enough for this session.

by Yvonne Mes


Masterclass A: Picture Books with Julia Marshall and Cathie Tasker

How do you keep your storytelling engaging, surprising, satisfying?

Early Tuesday morning, we along with a gaggle of excited conference delegates, gathered in the beautiful Mitchell Building of the State Library of NSW, excited, for a writers Masterclass with Cathie Tasker and Julia Marshall. What a wonderful and unique opportunity to get two experienced industry professionals in one room to talk about picture books.

Cathie Tasker has been a librarian, an editor at Scholastic Books, HarperCollins, Koala Books and now is a Creative Writing Teacher with the Writers Centre of NSW. I (Coral) have nothing but absolute love and respect for Cathie, who found me wading around in the slush pile about ten years ago, and gave me my ‘first break’ in publishing.

Julia Marshall is a New Zealand based publisher of Gecko Press, having just won best publisher of the year in 2018. With this dynamic duo in the room, we were all very excited to listen and learn.

After some introductory comments, Cathie led us through a reading and discussion of the classic picture book Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney and Anita Jeram. We considered its structure, positives and negatives and thought about it through an editor’s lens.

Each delegate sat and soaked up countless pearls of wisdom and insight from these ‘masters’ of writing. Cathie continued to speak about the importance of Structural Editing - the need to:

  • Read

  • Rest

  • Re-evaluate

  • Rinse and Repeat

We were reminded that the ‘first read’ is the most important; to read without distraction. We were encouraged to read our manuscripts as a child, and then as a parent. We were also encouraged to read our manuscripts as a publisher (from a marketability point of view) and then as an editor (to consider the amount / cost of work required).


Julia inspired us to leave room in our manuscripts not only for the illustrator but for the reader. “Children can leap with you if given the right ways.” Julia went on to talk about the ‘quiet child’ in the story and the importance of emotional core of the story. “The book is not complete until you have a reader.”

Julia then talked us through the picture book, That’s Not a Hippopotamus by Juliette MacIver and Sarah Davis. Julia showed some of Sarah Davis’ early sketches for the book, which gave insight into the process of matching illustration to text.

After giving us insight into page turners and the delight of onomatopoeia, it was then our turn to speak. Each delegate had been prompted to bring a 30 word pitch to a Picture Book Manuscript they had written. Based on the pitches, a few stories were chosen to read out aloud and then be discussed and dissected. This was done with honesty and respect, whereby not only the author benefited but every delegate in the room also gained insight and knowledge.

Cathie and Julia.jpg

We learnt there is a growing trend in Australia for picture books to only be 250 words in length, hence the importance of leaving room for the illustrator and allowing the reader to make leaps in story given the right words. We reminded again to make every word count.

Hearing Cathie and Julia’s comments on the manuscripts was fascinating as they had differing but equally insightful perspectives. Some of the general comments included the need to talk through the child in the book and make sure the voice is not too adult. Cathie also put her editing hat on to demonstrate how one of the manuscripts could be effectively cut back to focus on the core of the story.

Much wisdom was gained within the two-hour masterclass that morning, and each delegate left the room with more knowledge and confidence to tackle our manuscripts and produce even more creative and well written stories.

Congratulations to all those brave participants who had their work critiqued in front of the class, it was so lovely to hear all the unique story ideas being developed and quality words produced. The open sharing of words, ideas and viewpoints made this a fun and engaging workshop.

by Coral Vass and Sarah Wallace


Let's Talk Vision! Are Your Story Elements All Working Together? - Author Session

One of the joys of coming to a SCBWI Conference is the sheer amount of talent, knowledge and expertise on display. Session A “Let’s Talk Vision! Are your story elements all working together?” was no exception, providing a smorgasbord of delicious insights (and food analogies) for authors of any kind of story.

Chaired by picture book author Katrina McKelvey, the panel comprised of Linsay Knight, Head of Australian and New Zealand Publishing for Walker Books, Heather Curdie, Commissioning Editor for Penguin Random House Young Reader, Mary Verney, also from Penguin Random House Young Readers and Eve Tonelli, Senior Children’s Editor at HarperCollins.

The panel of publishers led by Katrina McKelvy

The panel of publishers led by Katrina McKelvy

Story elements apply from picture books all the way through to YA, but what exactly are they? Let’s see what the panel had to say.

Eve said it was anything you think you need to make your story cohesive. She said they were, “the ingredients for your story cake.” [I told you there were food analogies! KC]

Mary said each story you come to is different and you might have an emphasis on different aspects.

Heather said sometimes in your life, it’s all about people but a little bit about the setting. Other times it’s more about the setting. It’s the same with story.

Linsay said story elements are like the perfect risotto. [More food! KC] There’s the creator who knows what the recipe is and little by little is adding the ingredients. Little by little you put in different flavours and tiny bit of water. You’re seeing what’s happening and if it’s working. It takes time.


So, what exactly are the story elements? Katrina and the panel provided the following two lists:


  • Characters

  • Plot

  • Setting

  • Conflict/problem/climax

  • Resolution/solution


  • Theme

  • Tone

  • Point of View

  • Pacing

  • Style

  • Mood

  • Target Audience/Readership

With the terms defined, the question and answer format that followed provided the audience with a range of perspectives and a fabulous foundation for ensuring authors create a cohesive story. And because I don’t want you to miss a thing that was said, what follows reads more like a transcript that an article. But please note, all words attributed to panellists are not necessarily direct quotes but are this Roving Reporter’s interpretation of what was said.

QUESTION 1: In picture books do you like animal/creature main character or human?

LINSAY: It depends on the animal. I am currently working on 3 PBs that all star bears. Animals can give you that little bit of distance between the child and the not-child. There’s a lot you can explore using animals.

EVE: If you use an animal you’re much more universal. There’s a strong argument for using animals in picture books because of this. They’re cute! If you choose to use an Australian animal it often travels well and is well received overseas. The decision on what animals to use may be made by the author or publisher or illustrator.

LINSAY – In three books that I’m working on, the author made the decision on the type of animal. The creature does often have its own personality. Keep in mind that the US has Australian animals as part of syllabus. [Good to know! KC]

QUESTION 2: How does author make sure their voice suits the age of their character and that it’s consistent?

HEATHER: If you’re going to know your audience you have to mix with them. I you’re writing for 10 year olds then listen to 10 year olds. Listen to their dialogue, what expressions they use and watch the games that they play. Immerse yourself in their world to some extent. Seek out the many famous books for those particular age groups that are best sellers. They’re the ones to read. Look really carefully at their plot. Look really carefully at their dialogue. Be careful using colloquialisms and slang because they go in and out of fashion so fast that they can become yesterday very quickly. If you want it to be universal and perennial, make it about things kids want to do.

MARY: Put your writing away for a while and come back to it and things might jump out at you. Having a fresh eye afterwards might throw up something that doesn’t fit for that world.

QUESTION 3: Have any of you ever asked an author to change the gender of the main character?

EVE: One famous author intentionally wrote a picture book where gender wasn’t specified however due to unconscious bias, people will assume characters are male unless you say otherwise. After a discussion, the author chose to write many characters overtly female to overcome those biases. Otherwise, these are not normally the conversation that we have. We assume the author knows the character well and who they want them to be.

MARY: I can’t think of that situation like that involving the main character, however I am aware of what’s happening around central character and ensuring there’s diversity in supporting cast.

EVE: We need to think about the larger diversity conversation around the cast of characters. It is important to include diversity because this is our world as a culture and community.

QUESTION 4: Name a character you adore and why.

LINSAY: My two favourite childhood characters were Ratty from Wind in the Willows, and Eeyore. Who doesn’t love a character who spends a long time putting a balloon in and out of a box? I also love Max Remy (Deb Abela), Alice Miranda (Jacqueline Harvey), Nanny Piggins (R.A. Spratt) and Elizabella (Zoe Norton Lodge). They are all strong women, they all do things, they all change the world. They all make me feel I want to go back to my childhood and be those women all over again.

HEATHER: It is an impossible question. I am a little bit of a passionate fantasy reader. My childhood was full of imaginative play and fantasy. The character I chose was Lyra Belacqua from His Dark Materials (Philip Pullman). She’s strong, she’s independent, she’s brave. She’s naïve and she makes mistakes that have huge consequences, then works hard and puts her life on the line to fix those. She plays havoc with the adult world. Children love it when this happens, when the main character is a child, the villain is an adult, and the child prevails. What’s not to like about someone who can fool a giant polar bear king?

MARY: Right at this moment my favourite character is Canteen Carol from Mr Bambuckle’s Remarkables (Tim Harris) because in just 2.5 pages, you manage to get every piece of information that you need about this character.

EVE: Book Radley from To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee). It was the first book I read as a child where I stood back and thought about how well it was written. The art, the craft in that character, in that book, has always stayed with me.

Linsay, Heather and Mary

Linsay, Heather and Mary

QUESTION 5: When it comes to plot, how can an author make sure a second half of a manuscript is as strong as the first?

LINSAY: This is essential, the story has got to keep on moving. A lot of this is about pacing. You have a crescendo and you have another one in the second half. It’s like a piece of music. It needs pacing and the action needs to keep on going. We need surprises in the second half. It works well when a big reveal comes and we get lulled and think it’s all over, then we are surprised again. We need character twists where in the first half we think a character is nice and sweet and then in the second half we find out they have a dark soul. It’s good when plot points are resolved but the way they are resolved is so essential. Sometimes a weak resolution can let down the whole book.

MARY: Give yourself time to revise that second half. Often it feels like the first half has been worked and worked and worked and the end is a bit rushed. Enjoy the process and allow yourself the room to enjoy revising the second half as well as the first half.

QUESTION 6: How is the development of the character effectively woven into the plot?

EVE: There is no magic bullet. I hate to the be the bearer of bad news but it comes down to craft. It might not require 10,000 hours of deliberate practise…but it probably will. Do it, do it again, read in your genre, fail. You absolutely need to read in your genre. You just have to have the craft.

HEATHER: Through the character’s experiences and conflicts they often challenge their beliefs and feelings. This can be done with dialogue, inner thoughts and the reputation of the character as voiced by others. Peripheral characters can add to your character by giving you an idea of what they’re like. This can then give you a good idea of what other people feel about them. Think about their appearance, facial expression, the way they dress. So many things can add to a character that come from the setting. In Chapter 1 of Our Australian Girl: Meet Pearlie (by Gabrielle Wang) we learn so many things about her in just a few paragraphs. Show don’t tell. It’s a combination of development of character and plot at the same time.

QUESTION 7: How does an author make sure the climax of their story is satisfying and not rushed?

MARY: It’s about taking your time and knowing where you’re going with the story and the character. It’s important to tie up all your loose ends, not rush the ending and make sure the central characters’ central journey has been tied up nicely.

QUESTION 8: Can you leave a question unanswered in book 1 to set up book 2?

MARY: Yes, but you have to satisfy the reader of Book 1 in every other way except that one thing.

HEATHER: Every single book in a good series has its own story arc. If you took the surprise/loose end out it would still be a complete story on its own. Readers need to be satisfied by the story in that book alone. In MG and YA the secret is to make sure there’s always those little climaxes building up and up to the major climax so you have people on tenterhooks right up until the big battle.

QUESTION 9: Do you always need conflict in a picture book, especially for the preschool age group?

LINSAY: There doesn’t have to be conflict but there has to be something resolved. In the story arc there has to be a reason to drive the story forward. Something has to be important enough to be resolved, for example when something is lost. Picture books need to be beautifully conceived and the pacing has to be great, but there doesn’t always have to be conflict.

QUESTION 10: How do you put a theme in a picture book without being preachy?

EVE: You know preachy when you see it. If you start with the story, the story should come first and then you can see there’s an idea of belonging etc. But if you start with a blank page about a topic like belonging it doesn’t work. By doing that you’re setting out to teach which is not really writing fiction. Know what you’re writing and what your intention is. Kids needs to identify with the character so characterisation and the things that happen need to be integral to the story. Pick something really amazing. Cherry pick the best you can find. Learn how other people have done it and read great books multiple times.

QUESTION 11: Can you give three tips on making all these elements work together?

EVE: I’m only going to give one. Voice. Get the voice right because sometimes that is more important than plot. If you nail the voice, the plot will come. Work out what is actually interesting to your audience and start from a place of authenticity.


  1. Love what you’re writing about it and feel passionate about it.

  2. Trust yourself, listen to your gut

  3. Take your time


  1. Make every word/plot turn count. Don’t use words that aren’t needed. Every word counts

  2. We need characters who – like it says in His Dark Material – “are as funny and vulnerable and as emotionally muddled as the boy and girl next door”.

LINSAY: It’s all about poetry, all about poetry of the story. It’s about beautiful word choice, rhythm and waiting to breathe.

Wow. How’s that for a feast of gems for you fossick through? But wait, there’s more! Katrina went on to list a range of podcasts, groups and websites that might be helpful for authors.

Tania McCartney – The Happy Book podcast

Just Write For Kids website

Creative Kids Tales website

Jen Storer’s The Duck Pond Facebook Group

One More Page podcast

Ladybirds who Write Facebook Group

Middle Grade Mavens podcast

Now that you’ve got the low-down on story elements from industry experts and tips on how to incorporate them into you writing, off you go and get to it! Happy writing.

by Karen Collum