The Writing Life… it’s not all about the writing

Most people get a huge shock when you hit them with the facts – no, we don’t expect to ever earn enough royalty from our writing/ illustrating to rival JK Rowling. It’s more the case of what JK Rowling spends on her pet cat. Yearly.

Luckily, we don’t do it for money (alone)! 

Most of us have to supplement our income visiting schools and libraries, promoting reading, writing and heaven’s above, even our own books. The good side is, it’s fun! Sometimes stressful, but fun all the same.

I’ve asked author, Sue Lawson (on the occasion of the launch of her new book, Forget me not) to answers some in-depth questions about hitting the author appearance trail and how she copes with the bumps and hollows of these author gigs. 

Sue Lawson, Australian author

Welcome north of the border, Sue! I’ve got some specific questions that would interest practising authors…..

1. When you have a class group, do you plan the writing activities around your novels?

When I run straight author talks, I discuss how I come up with ideas and the writing process. It’s during these sessions that I focus on my novels.

For the workshops, I use my experiences to illustrate what I am teaching. For example, when showing students a way to capture ideas, I’ll show them my planning book with the original mind map that kicked off the story, or if we’re doing dialogue, I might show a piece of editing where I have changed a slab of text to dialogue and explain why.  I think kids become very sick of ‘in my book.’ ‘When I was writing…’

Instead I focus on books I’ve read and loved like David Metzenthen’s Black Water, Karen Tayleur’s Six or Julia Lawrinson’s Bye Beautiful for older readers and Michael Gerard Bauer’s Just A Dog or Glenda Millard’s Kingdom of Silk series for younger readers. Doing this also helps to encourage kids to read.

2. Do teachers tell you what they want you to impart?

Generally teachers will tell me what they want me to focus on before I arrive. I would much rather work on what the school sees the students as needing, rather than me come in and focus say on characters when the kids really need help with dialogue. The teachers give me the topic and I design activities around this. It’s best to stick to one area, as an hour goes very quickly, particularly when you have the kids writing and sharing their work.

3.  What type of activities do you find most useful?

That’s a tough one – the success of the activity depends on the group. I love working on character and dialogue and use pictures I’ve collected to help inspire the students. Asking the kids to share is a powerful way to teach – once the kids know you are going to be positive they fall over themselves to read, which gives you an opportunity to impart all kinds of incidental information. ‘I love how you named that character straight way.’ ‘Fantastic start – you’re straight into the problem.’ Etc.

 The best tip I can give is to ask the teacher about the students’ needs and listen to what they say. You’ll pick up all kinds of hints. While you are setting up the visit, bounce around ideas and listen to the reaction from the organiser – you’ll know straight away if your idea is a winner.

Many thanks, Sue. I’m sure these insights will be helpful to lots of us JK Rowling-cat-feed-earning authors (and illustrators)  


4 thoughts on “The Writing Life… it’s not all about the writing

  1. Thank you Sue – I appreciate your time and candour. I’m fascinated also though, by your ‘planning book’. I think I read elsewhere that you have a planning book for each book you write.

    Would you mind expanding on that. What you put into it; how you find it useful in schools etc?

    I always have an ‘Ideas Book’ on the go, and I jot down everything in this from a line that might turn into a story, to a funny piece of dialogue that slips into my head – to actual story ideas. But I have just one and it’s jumbled and not dedicated to a particular book.

    Do you mind sharing your ‘planning book’ ideas and uses?

    Thanks you!

  2. Thanks Helen – it’s so rewarding to watch the confidence grow in kids! Pleasure Peter – you’re right, budgets are tight, so I like to make sure the schools get than their money’s worth!
    Thanks for your thoughts guys.

  3. Many thanks for sharing this with us, Sue. With budgets getting tighter to pay visiting creators, it’s certainly essential to deliver the learning outcomes sought by the school – plus it’s nice to give a little bit extra. Recently my talks most often asked for are on ‘The History of Books’, and for $5 a 1920’s Randoph Caldecott post card can be purchased on eBay to give to the school to start their own historical collection, without breaking the bank.

  4. A good interview. Sue, I like the way you plan your school activities around the students’ needs, and that you always take the positive approach with student feedback. So important. All the best with the release of your new book.

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