Creating Creative Writers - an Overview

As if participating in the One Day SCBWI Sydney Conference was not enough, I was fortunate to be included in the auxiliary conference aimed specifically for proficient teachers with the objective of providing them with a unique educational experience with some of Australia’s finest children’s book creators - Creating Creative Writers PD Conference.


The SCBWI presenters lineup read like a who’s who of Australian Kid Lit industry’s royalty and those sessions I sat in on were rich oceans of informative, insider tips and tricks designed to enlighten teachers and librarians and equip them with better, engaging, real-life methods with which to teach the art of story telling to children.

The day, opened by Susanne Gervay, was primly organised into four separate sessions, each focusing on a particular area of creativity.

Session 1: Creating Super Storytellers

Deborah Abela led the discussion with Sandy Fussell, Yvette Poshoglian and Tim Harris on how to inspire, motivate and develop super storytellers in the classroom. The focus for this session was narrative writing and authors shared individual practices in the process of creating their own narratives and also their experiences with work-shopping with students in schools. Aspects of narrative writing explored included:

  • narrative structure and plotting

  • creating strong and believable characters

  • effective genre writing

  • vocabulary and word choice

  • the use of online visual resources to inspire and the importance of the editing process.

Sandy Fussell, Tim Harris and Yvette Poshoglian

Sandy Fussell, Tim Harris and Yvette Poshoglian

Sandy’s use of Minecraft to stir imagination and develop story plots is not only contemporary but buckets of fun.

Tim Harris encouraged us to ‘live mark’, to cease being the passive observer when it comes to promoting creativity in kids. He reminded educators to never overwhelm children when trying to get them to fix things, to simply aim at one thing to improve their writing at a time. The notion of ‘colouring in your story using language’ really appeals to this author, also.

Yvette Poshoglian suggested characters and genre as springboards to creative writing whilst Deb Abela reminded us to remind kids that;

If they can make trouble, they can write it because writing a good story is all about making trouble!

The session ended with two lively readings from soon-to-be-released books by Katrina McKelvey (No Baths Week) and Candice Lemon-Scott (Eco Rangers: Pelican in Peril)

Session 2: Creating Fascinating Factual Texts

Sue Whiting then led experts in the area of creative nonfiction, Stephanie Owen Reeder, Gina Newton, Claire Saxby and Corinne Fenton through discussions on the challenges of researching and writing engaging informative texts.The panel explored the notion of how “creative” one can be when writing nonfiction or informative texts, i.e. where creativity comes into the process? And also how students can make facts/research their own, the importance of using multiple sources, and the use of “perspective” and “borrowed voice”. Panelists provided teachers with ideas for research techniques and activities designed to motivate teachers and students alike and enable teachers to facilitate quality student research and guide students through the process of creating fascinating and original informative texts.

Corinne Fenton read her newly released picture book A Cat Called Finn for the first time. Image credit to Corrine Fenton

Corinne Fenton read her newly released picture book A Cat Called Finn for the first time. Image credit to Corrine Fenton

Session 3: Creating Passionate Poets

Discussing the trials and tribulations of trying to enthuse kids to read, write and enjoy poetry was tackled by Jodie Wells-Slowgrove and her panel of passionate children’s poets: Sally Murphy, Libby Hathorn, Meredith Costain and Lesley Gibbes.

The panel debated whether poetry should be analysed, discussed the importance of reading poetry aloud and how explored how to encourage students to dig deep and write poetry with emotional truth. Sharing their vast experience with writing, performing and work-shopping poetry with students, the poets provided teachers with a myriad of practical ideas for infecting students with the poetry bug and for the development of specific skills, such as using rhythm, alliteration, simile, cadence, metaphor and word play.

Poetry presenter dynamo and author, Alexa Moses read from the poetry anthology, A Boat of Stars.

Exceptional poets: Sally Murphy, Libby Hathorn, Meredith Costain, and Lesley Gibbs

Exceptional poets: Sally Murphy, Libby Hathorn, Meredith Costain, and Lesley Gibbs

Session 4:  Creating Vibrant Visual Narratives

Any session on illustration always intrigues me as a picture book author. James Foley and his panel of four award-winning illustrators, Sarah Davis, Liz Anelli and Marjorie Crosby-Fairall, discussed the process of children’s book illustration, focusing on visual literacy and the construction of visual narratives.

The panelists discussed their differing processes, tied by a common language – but rather than using words and sentences, their language uses the visual elements of colour, line, shape, body language, facial expression, typography, light and shadow, scale, and composition and in the case of Liz, stamps made from random objects!

Attendees learnt first hand how creativity can be expressed and how tone and mood can be altered simply by changing the thickness of a line.


Sue Whiting followed this revealing session with a reading from her latest picture book, Beware the Deep Dark Forest, then yours truly wound up the day with a reading of At The End of Holyrood Lane, each book depicting the various nuances of illustration and symbolism referred to earlier.

Session 4 Creating Vibrant Visual Narrative  (7).JPG

It truly was a packed day filled with praise from over 100 attendees for its smooth facilitation and phenomenal content not to mention the value and relevance of the stimulating readings.

by Dimity Powell (Head Roving Reporter SCBWI 2019 Conference)


Masterclass C: Writing Great Dialogue with Zoe Walton

How to take your MG and YA dialogue to the next level

Zoe Walton’s practical masterclass on Writing Great Dialogue provided an excellent opportunity to learn, reflect and ultimately improve our dialogue writing skills. Zoe mentioned that the dialogue in a story is often one of the first things that makes a book stand out to a publisher.

Zoe Walton with some of her favourite examples of books with great dialogue

Zoe Walton with some of her favourite examples of books with great dialogue

Zoe’s top tips for writing great dialogue:

  • Punctuation is important. Revision of basic punctuation rules and styles were addressed regarding attribution tags, when to use a full stop versus a comma.

  • Currently, publishers generally prefer simple attribution tags as they essentially disappear and don’t intrude upon the story. For example, ‘said’ is most preferred, but also ‘asked’ ‘replied’ etc.

  • Zoe recommended the book Self-editing for fiction writers and discussed the preference for strong verbs, and few/no adverbs.

  • You don’t always need a dialogue tag, as long as the context clearly indicates who is speaking, however, it may be preferable to use especially with younger readers who are still learning the conventions of language.

  • Use beats (actions to break up dialogue) effectively – to illuminate your story, control pacing, show context and who is doing what. Don’t overuse or insert irrelevant actions and keep consistent (e.g. if remove hat early in the dialogue, remember to pick it up on the way out)

  • Find a balance between simple dialogue tags, no tags and beats.

  • Search your writing for your bad habits in beats – e.g. actions you frequently overuse for your characters, such as everyone nods or shrugs or sighs or has many ways of smiling or you always talk about what people’s eyes are doing.


The purposes of dialogue include to reveal character and show intention in all our scenes. However, dialogue is not real speech, it is designed to give the illusion of real speech. Real speech has all sorts of filler words, half-finished sentences, interruptions, etc. Also, people don’t always say what they mean, or they lie. Use the things we do in real life speech, but wisely and sparingly, so that it sounds real (not like a pre-memorised speech). When writing dialogue, ask yourself:

  • How can dialogue inform character and plot?

  • What characters say (or don’t say) and how they say it tells a lot about them

  • Can use dialogue to foreshadow, throw red herrings, propel plot, build suspense, precipitate the climax, etc.

  • Authenticity

  • Dialogue needs to be authentic to the character, e.g. age, era, socio-economic class, education level, etc

  • What does the character like or dislike?

  • What do they eat, wear, do, etc?

  • Aim to write dialogue that shows a rounded character, e.g. not just bossy or formal etc, different elements just like in a real person.

When revising your dialogue, ask yourself:

  • Would this character say this?

  • Would a teen or child say this?

Zoe also recommended another book called The Magic Words by Cheryl Klein.

Zoe getting class members to ‘speak easy’ aka write dialogue

Zoe getting class members to ‘speak easy’ aka write dialogue


There were many opportunities to practise skills during the masterclass. For example, attendees were asked to consider their protagonist and how they would have learned the language they use:

  • What was the environment and household like that they grew up in?

  • What is their favourite book, band, movie, song on the radio?

  • Who do they hang out with – e.g. peers, adults, younger kids?

  • Do they have distinct characteristics from their influences?

  • What do they like to do? Remember characters like people, have multiple aspects, e.g. do they run marathons but also hide chocolate in the cupboard?

  • Remember, your characters likes and dislikes will inform their dialogue.

Now create two columns:

  1. in column 1, list things about your character (from the questions above and more)

  2. in column 2, write some dialogue they might say that stems from the point in column 1.

Final tips

  • Don’t overuse accents

  • In general, don’t use odd phonetic spelling for a character’s dialogue – it can confuse younger readers and not always be interpreted as you intend

  • Find words or phrases that are different from how other characters speak.

  • Remember, the same character will act and speak a bit differently when they are with different people (e.g. with parent, friend, teacher)

  • Be wary of using slang and do not use stereotypical language, e.g. if someone has English as a second language, do not use language that could be seen as insulting, in fact they may be more likely to have a formal manner of speaking depending on how and where they learnt English.

  • When displaying a character’s thoughts, either keep in normal font or in italics, never in quotation marks.

  • Be very aware to never use racist, sexist or ableist language (e.g. words like crazy, dumb, idiot, etc).

  • Make sure your characters are unique individuals, not stereotypes. Never portray characters in a way that may be harmful to readers.

  • Avoid info-dumps – weave back story in or remove it.

Zoe recommended another book called The Art of Editing.

The masterclass concluded with a reminder to listen to conversations all around us and some advice based on the work of Joseph Conrad: every word must carry the story forward, and it must be carried faster and faster and more intensely.

by Cherri Ryan


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