Category Archives: Writing Tips

Writing tips for authors and students.

FIVE TOP TIPS from Inside the Publishing House

At the end of October I attended the Emerging Writers Festival event ‘Inside the publishing house’ at Hachette, Sydney. It was the week of Halloween and they had cool decorations and a table full of lollies!
hachette halloween 2

But even more importantly, we all got something to take away – and I’m not talking about the free book on everyone’s seat (I got one of the books in the photo – Favel Parrett’s When The Night Comes) but the generous people at Hachette (and their authors) gave all of us emerging writers practical advice to apply to our own publishing journey. I have condensed the take home messages to five top hints that struck me most:

  1. Know and support your industry – LIVE kids books – work in a bookshop, review, buy kids books. Robert Watkins said “It’s offensive to think you will earn a salary from an industry you do not support.” – buy and read Australian books. The publishing industry in Australia is passionate about supporting Aussie talent and sharing Aussie voices – they want to see that you are too. Having worked in a bookshop is POWERFUL point on your resume.
  1. Refine your craft – belong to a critique group – don’t submit until at least 2-3 Independent (ie NOT family and friends) people have given feedback – If you can’t handle supportive critique in this forum, you won’t handle the publishing process.
  1. Write widely, submit everywhere – “cream rises to the top” you will get noticed.
  1. Be brave, be bold, be tenacious (and patient) on your publishing pathway. 
  1. The manuscript is only a part of the story – it may grab the publisher’s attention and they will champion it, but for it to be accepted the entire company needs to see potential ie they need to be convinced that they can market the book – that there is a hook to connect the book with buyers and an author that can engage with readers.

hachette halloween 1

I am working on a detailed article on “How to get your work read by publishers” based on the panel discussions from this event at Hachette which will be published in  Buzz Words magazine on the 15th of February – so keep your eye out for it!

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Five totally awesome things to include when writing your story

  1. Theme – children’s picture books have one strong theme. This is one insight or concept or viewpoint. Keep it positive, especially if a social problem as you want your reader to know how to deal with it.
  2. Plot – conflict involving the main character. This conflict can be internal or external and it needs to be resolved. The character learns through the process. (The lesson learnt is the theme!) Make sure there are events and action, not internal musings.
  3. Story structure – jump right in! Start later than you meant to and finish promptly. Keep it simple and avoid flashbacks. Are there a number of scenes? Is it told in the first person or the third person? Does it have a single point of view? Time – is it past or present?
  4. Character – someone the reader identifies with. Top age of the intended readership. Have one telling detail as an identifier.
  5. Style and tone – simple, direct, avoiding chunks of narration. If younger audience, embrace poetic devices (rhythm, repetition, alliteration) Don’t be cute, sweet, sentimental or condescending.

Kate receiving 'The Lost Calf' (1) copy

The magic from children’s picture books is fully realised when you read them aloud. You will certainly instinctively find that anything is missing from your story if you do so!

Now go and write – and read…




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Where DO ideas come from? Tips for kids…

Emma Mactaggart Ideas

And tips for adults searching for their inner child!

‘I just can’t think of a good idea…’

I want to tell you right now, you have thousands of ideas already in your head and it just a matter of letting them land on the piece of paper in front of you!

You are looking at me, pleading for help! It is so tricky to come up with an idea on demand, on the spot, when there are so many other fun things to think of.

Well, actually – write down those fun things. Answer the question – what do you want to do this weekend if you are allowed to do ANYTHING!

  1. You are sitting there, chewing the tip of your pencil! All you can think about was the very funny thing your friend said at lunchtime.

Right! Write down that funny thing! Fill in what happened before and what happened afterwards.

  1. You are so distracted. The boys beside you in the classroom said some really mean words and you feel like crying.

OK – so write it down. Now describe those boys (make them smelly animals!) and describe what happened afterwards when you told them to be nice!

  1. Your teachers says, ‘Hello? Are you here?’ because you are so distracted you have missed the school bell ringing and the classroom is empty!

Grab your pen – write down that daydream – quickly, now, before you forget what distracted you in the first place.

  1. Finally, you were getting ready for sport on Saturday and you felt that funny feeling in your tummy, nervousness! You had a flash, a great idea of how you were going to deal with it…

Yes, you are onto this now – WRITE IT DOWN.

Every experience you have, good or bad, can be the base ingredient for a story. And the only difference between a story and a flash of an idea – it is written down.

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My best, worst feedback.

I am a writer. I love writing. Am I any good? I don’t know.

When I began writing I craved feedback. I wanted to find out whether my writing was good enough to go the next step or an enjoyable past time.

I attended a Writer’s Workshop in Port Hedland hoping no-one I knew attended.  The presenter, the lovely, talented Marlish Glorie, (author of Sea Dog Hotel and The Bookshop on Jacaranda Street), saw potential. It was the confidence I needed to continue my writing for others. I submitted my first Picture Book manuscript to Kids Book Review competition and waited.

The email came back, I wasn’t a winner but the feedback was good, better than I expected. The assessor even wrote LOVED in capital letters.


This was it, I am a writer, I am going to write. I wrote articles to magazines, wrote about electrical goods, submitted to any competition I could find, joined many online writing networks as a regular contributor, began a Facebook page, Twitter account, Instagram and Pinterest. I wrote about anything and everything, no focus, no goal I just wrote.

A year later I submitted again to Kids Book Review, if I received 38.5 out of 50 last time then surely with all the writing I had been doing I would have improved. I neglected to think about the manuscript I had sent in didn’t have the year of passion, commitment and thought placed into it like the previous year’s.

This is when my reality check came in. After again the waiting, the feedback was ready. I felt like I had received a big, fat, red cross. Of course, the assessors at Kids Book Review did not put a cross on the page, but the feedback was honest, accurate and the worst I had received.


I thought long and hard. It was my wake up call.

I learnt to be a writer you need to be, focussed, passionate, committed, thick skinned, and proud.

I became focussed, I spent a lot of time deciding why I wanted to write and what I wanted to achieve from my writing. I only kept writing networks which met my goal and personality.

I stay committed to my writing goal, not allowing myself to be side-tracked by online writing opportunities.

I have become thick-skinned (well sort of) I found an editor who was honest and whom I respected. I continually research, learn and write to improve my skills.

I have pride in my work, knowing that whenever I publish anything, even the 140 characters on twitter, it is to the best of my current ability.

Am I a good writer? Who really knows.

Am I a passionate writer with a clear focus on my goal, ‘Developing children’s reading and writing skills, through stages not ages?’ Yes.

Have you ever received feedback which made you stop and think? Feel free to share below, the good the bad and the brutal.




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10 tips for getting the books out of the garage!

You have already achieved the most extraordinary thing – you have written AND illustrated your own picture book. You finally have that perfect gem!

Did you know over 80% of Americans want to write a book? Did you now over 150,000 titles were added last month to Amazon? It is a challenge now to let other people know your book is ready to fall into their eager hands.

If you want to generate an income from your book, you can do these simple things to help sales:

  1. Pick which format (eBook or print) and confirm the file extension by searching your own website or the Amazon sites for your book.
  2. Copy this url LINK
  3. Determine a ‘call to action’ – for example ‘Down load your copy today’ or ‘Buy a print copy and I would love to sign it for you’ or ‘The 100th share and I will give you a copy…
  4. Share this LINK with your world, along with the image of the book cover
    • by posting it on FACEBOOK
    • emailing the LINK
    • instagram the LINK
  5. Or use your book cover as an image on a postcard and send an invitation to purchase your book to EVERYONE – the old fashioned snail mail!
  6. Make and copy a book mark, with your book cover and a ‘call to action’
  7. You geo local bookstore will often have a  ‘local author’ section! They happily stock the books on commission.
  8. Design and make your own flyer and include a headshot photo of yourself and write about you as the author – which is an awesome way to promote your books, especially if you have a number of titles! Take this everywhere you offer to read your book!
  9. For example – to the local library and offer to read the book to children in the school holidays.
  10. Or, finally, offer to read the book to the kindergarten at your children’s school – after all, this was where the whole journey possibly started!


Have fun!

Kate receiving 'The Lost Calf' (1) copy



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You have the right to see your words in print! Step Ten…

10. Print and Perform

The words and the pictures are done. You know the output – eBook and or print – and you have already put a great deal of thought into your book launch and hopefully, beyond.

Printing a book is a stage requiring your focus for a moment. The single determinant is your budget. How much are you prepared to outlay right now? It could take years to recover the costs unless you are working on sales full time, so make sure it is either unallocated funds in your budget or you can afford the outgoing with the incoming return effectively on the ‘drip’.

It is useful to have already sought quotes from various printers, both locally and overseas. (I am assuming you are reading this entire document at first sitting, then going back to set one!) For local printers, I strongly recommend sourcing from your own immediate backyard. The shipping costs for books can be astronomical simply because of weight. For overseas printers, buyer beware! Once the books have left the factory and are loaded on a ship, there is no way to return the product if it is faulty. An agent is useful to say the least.

Aside from a printer, a graphic designer is your true friend at the moment! If they are worth their weight in gold, they will be able to take over the conversation with the printers to ensure the internal pages are set up correctly to accommodate ‘bleed’ and the cover is a separate document. You will have to specify paper stock, binding method and soft or hard cover. Don’t panic about any of this – simply ask questions if you don’t understand a question or a request for information. All the printers and graphic designers I have ever worked with have been amazingly patient with a ‘newbie’.

The graphic designer will also set up all the pages and text as you wish. This includes the imprint page, cover and blurb at the back. Be prepared! I suggest setting up a DropBox file (or other file sharing tool) and add a folder with illustrations – scanned or photographed to the highest possible quality. A second folder with a sample of the imprint page, including business logos, photos, ISBN and copyright qualification statement AND your storyboard! Finally, add a third folder with a copy of the manuscript. This file sharing will be invaluable as your designer will be able to upload a PDF draft of your book in construction for you to approve!

And then the file goes to the printer – and you wait…

And wait…

And wait…

Not time to rest on your laurels though – this is the PERFECT time to do a tonne of administration stuff to get organised. Think of yourself now as marketing and PR manager! Remember you had to finalise plans for the book launch? The book release venue has been contacted again to confirm your intentions and you are shopping any moment now for the catering. How about now writing press releases to send to media outlets? You can have teacher resources considered and a social media platform you have been priming for the launch. Remember your SWOT analysis though? You have already decided your skills and weaknesses and these will heavily influence your plans at this point.

Step 10.

Let’s jump right to the point when the books arrive…

You have planned for this moment! I can nearly picture you crying as you hold your book in your hands. It is incredible, overwhelming, exciting, intimidating and humbling. A cacophony of emotion and you’ve earnt every one of them.

Well, You did it! 


You are a published author. I told you that you could do this.

Who knows what glorious things await you after this point…


Have fun!

YHTR Step Ten

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The Rise and Rise of Shelly Unwin Part 3

Today is the last interview with Shelly Unwin in which we look at some of the ‘nuts and bolts’ of her steps to her publishing dream. They include practical advice for anyone who is interested in getting published.

The things that impress me loud and clear from your story, Shelly are:

  1. although these books are only a very recent thing for you to be working on, the process of having written other things over several years (despite rejections and setbacks) helped you bring these ideas together at the right time.
  2. Having good networks and an understanding of the industry also developed over time and brought you into contact with the right people at the right time.Shelly 1.3

You’ve mentioned a few key steps in this process about building up networks and putting yourself in the right place at the right time. Can you comment further on these?

Faber Academy and “Stack of courses”

From the moment I decided that I wanted to be a children’s author I have been on a steady stream of courses. I went into writing fairly ignorant to the level of craft involved in writing a great picture book or children’s book. My first course, Writing Picture Books, with Cathie Tasker at the AWC really set me off on the right track, but I was still thirsty for more and have taken courses with the ASA, the NSW Writers Centre, the Australian Writers Centre and the Faber Academy. All of which have proved invaluable.

You mention attending a SCWBI conference. What other associations do you belong to?

Most of them I think! The ASA (Australian Society of Authors), The CBCA (Children’s Book Council of Australia), The NSW Writers’ Centre. I like to get to as many industry events as possible. I also follow a whole host of Facebook based writing groups.

Also something I found very useful early on was the 12X12 Picture Book challenge, run by Julie Headland in the US. I only signed up once but it made me commit to writing one new picture book draft every month- many of them were written on the 30th of the month! As a new writer I found this challenge helpful for getting the creative juices flowing and it also made me start thinking critically about which ideas might work in the market and which to leave at first draft. It also provided the opportunity to submit one picture book manuscript a month to a US agent and some, not all, provided feedback. I’d highly recommend it for writers starting out.

Editor consult Sutherland Writing Festival

Firstly I need to mention my amazing critique group here, because if it wasn’t for them I may well not have found out about the opportunities to have editor consultations at conferences. These are amazing one on one sessions, that you pay extra for, and generally an editor, or publisher gives you feedback on one or sometimes two of your manuscripts. These sessions not only give you insight into how the professionals are seeing your work, but it also opens the door to submissions into otherwise closed publishing houses. They also enable you to start to build all-important relationships with editors and publishers, and understand the different tastes of each publishing house.

Literary Speed dating

I gave this a miss the year before when I first heard about it, because I found the idea too daunting. Five minutes standing in front of a publisher trying to pitch an idea –gahhh! But then I attended the ASA Pitch Perfect course and it gave me the tools and the confidence to give it a go. And I’m SO glad I did. This is where I not only got my series in front of two other publishers, but I also met my agent. The event wasn’t nearly as scary as I was expecting either. All of the publishers were very warm and encouraging and all of the attendees were feeling the same nervous excitement, so there was quite a nice buzz to the event.

Have you ever ‘pitched’ at a conference – how did that go? What was it like?

I have! It was scary. I get nervous speaking in front of adults, especially when it’s something I’m passionate about. I had my name pulled out of the hat (I had put it in there) to pitch at the NSW Writers Festival. I had learnt my pitch so that I could deliver it with out reading, but when it came to it I chickened out and read from my notes. I was quite disappointed in myself. The feedback on my first page (it was for my Young Adult novel) was encouraging though, and I met quite a few new people afterwards who came to congratulate me, so it was well worth doing, and I worked the editors feedback into my next draft.

How have these things helped? Did they always go as planned?

Everything helps. I think even if things go awry there is always a valuable lesson. For example one of the publishers that I was hoping to see at the speed dating didn’t turn up, so I was only able to pitch my series to two publishers. I thought about going home, but I persuaded myself to pitch my YA novel, which I hadn’t worked on in a while. I thought I’d done such a bad job of pitching it the first time that I decided I had to try again. So I pitched it to Alex, my now Agent. She loved the premise and was so encouraging, that I then asked if she would consider representing a picture book author. She said she had one picture book author that she worked with, I told her about my series and left her with a hard copy of the whole series. She followed me on twitter that night, and I had an excited feeling in my gut that things were headed in the right direction. I could easily have gone home and missed out!  My take away from this experience; in an industry where chances to talk to the right people are few and far between, never pass up an opportunity.

Thank you Shelly for your generosity in participating in these interviews over the past months and sharing your experiences with us. I have certainly found wisdom and encouragement for my writing journey.

Find Shelly Unwin here:

Find Debra Tidball here:


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You have the right to see your words in print! Step Nine

Illustration Process YHTR Blog Emma Mactaggart

9. Illustrate

I know I could illustrate a book if I chose to! Confidence for this comes from understanding that everyone can draw. Everyone. It is a universal skill and it is learnt. Those who are amazing illustrators do one thing I don’t – practice, practice, practice. For this reason alone, I now outsource and choose to commission an illustrator to prepare illustrations, which I then purchase. With a contractual agreement in place, I own the rights to use the images though the copyright remains that of the illustrator. I offset the cost of the illustrations through book sales, exhibitions and sale of the original illustrations once the book has been printed and speaking about this entire process in workshops and presentations! For me – it is worth it because I am not prepared to put in the time!

I am often asked where do you ‘find’ an illustrator? There is a magical source (which I have banned myself from because it is so distractingly beautiful!) called ‘The Style File’ where illustrators show their digital folios. I also suggest people go to their local university / tafe (if they offer graphic design or visual arts courses) and make sure you attend the end-of-year exhibition. Sing up for fabulous subscription eZines like Pass It On (profiles an illustrator each week). Of course, and a perfectly wonderful thing to do, is to go the National Gallery of Victoria and check out the Bunyips and Dragons exhibition…

You can approach any living illustrator and commission them to do illustrations for your book! Be brave, ask, and see how you go.

One fabulous hot tip if you are accepting the help from your lovely next door neighbour… Ask them for one sample and scan it. Make sure the image is a quality that can be reproduced. Often, a water colour, or a pencil image looks brilliant to the eye, but once scanned, seems to disappear!


Have fun!


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You have the right to see your words in print! Step Eight

YHTR Emma Mactaggart

8. Design

You are on your road to being a published author, and the best way of processing your ‘to do’ list from this point on is to think like a publisher. Determine in advance how you wish your book to present in the market place. Is it just an eBook on Amazon? Is it printed locally or overseas? Is it hard cover or paperback? It is going to be everything – including being an app and available on iTunes. The technology is there, right there in front of you. The determinant is your budget. How much money is allocated to the production of the book? Like everything in life, if you do the work and research and product development yourself, you spend your time and not so much money. If you outsource the whole process, you pay someone else to use their time on your project. Economics 101!

Spend time looking at other books. I can guarantee the book you are holding in your hand right now has had numerous printing quotes prepared for it; it has been weighed and the distribution costs associated with a carton weight / container weight has been factored in; the cost for the purchaser to send the book as a gift has been recognized (does the book fit a large envelope therefore attract the lowest postage fee?)

Did you want this same book to be an eBook? Was it a simple conversion? Do you have to outsource this process or are you prepared to spend the time understanding programs like Kindle Book Creator and the Amazon way? Did you want the book to become a truly enhanced experience, therefore a different product borne of your printed book?

And once you have determined all of this, can you translate it for the graphic designer – or are you setting up the book using Adobe InDesign or equivalent program?

Yes, this all takes time – but you want the best product to go to market don’t you? If you want it in the bookshelves in a bricks and mortar bookstore – it has to look as though it belongs there!


Have fun!

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You have the right to see your words in print! Step Seven

6. Edit

There is no way around this. By now, you have completely fallen in love with what you have created. (I was so tempted to write, ‘as you would a child’ and you can’t see the blemishes – but I don’t really want the possible feedback about psychology 101!)

Every time a family member or dearest friend reads it, they will look through rose-coloured glasses and tell you how fabulous you are and how clever you are proving to be! They are right.

You have, of course, followed some conventions of writing, haven’t you? You have already checked the punctuation, spelling and grammar is appropriate. The page layout is pertinent and you are lulling your reader into a state of comfort by allowing recognition of something familiar. ‘Ah, this indeed is a children’s picture book!’

Take a breath. Now, think… Without this emotional attachment, possibly (actually, it is highly likely) you may have been given some feedback of use? A word singled out that may strike a discordant note in your otherwise mellifluous manuscript? A query raised about a slight lack of credibility via the actions or intent of your main character? Questions raised rather than answered in response to your choice of location and time frame for an event? Has every single word earned its place? Does the language sound fluid and melodic? Does it make you feel like crying when you read it?

Outsource the editing and don’t spare any expense. It really is a black and white moment with no shades of grey! Editing is possibly the single identifier of work of quality. Lack of editing is symbolic of irreverence for your reader – they deserve the very best having invested their time and money into your work!


Have fun!


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