When did you first start writing?

harrietI have always written stories and poems, ever since I was old enough to know how to write them down. I could read before I went to school, and our house was always full of stories and books, so it seemed natural to write my own.

I used to make up poems in my head when I was riding my bike to school (two miles on dirt roads, three on music lesson days). Then when I got home I'd write them down in exercise books.

With my mother’s encouragement, I sent off poems to competitions all through school. My first poem was published in The Age newspaper in a section called ‘Junior Age’ when I was about eight. They paid me 17 shillings and sixpence for it! It seemed like a fortune to a kid from the country.


What was the first book you had published?

My first book was a teenage romance in the Dolly Fiction series, called Hot Licks. It was about a girl who plays guitar in a rock band.

Where do you get your ideas from?

Most of my books are based on real things that happened to me. For example, Freeing Billy (an Aussie Nibble) is about two kids who rescue a dog who is starving. This really happened to me – there was a dog being kept in a back yard at the end of my street. He was never taken out for walks, or fed much, and got thinner and thinner, until he pushed himself out under the gate to play with us.

I wrote about a pig that stumbled into my tent while camping on the Murray in another book (Errol the Peril). And my Nannies books are based on my own experiences when I was working as a nanny for a rich family. Once I have an idea based on a memory, I change things. I add in extra details, and change the characters. I think up new names for my characters. I might change the setting as well. And I always change the ending. So the story might start with a really simple idea – like, I was riding to school this morning. Then I add in new stuff – I was riding to school when a football bounced in front of me and I fell off my bike. And I was taken to hospital by ambulance. And in the next bed was a strange little old lady, who looked just like a witch ...

What is the weirdest place you’ve been when you’ve thought up an idea for a story?

Ideas often come to me when I’m out walking or riding my bike. Once I was walking home from the tram stop and I saw one of those student desks with a map on the top of it. I kept thinking about it and by the time I got home, the whole story was clear in my head! (The Map Table). Sometimes I get good ideas when I’m in the shower or washing the dishes! I think ideas pop into your brain when you’re not thinking too hard about a story. The trick is to write the idea down before you forget it.

Do you have a time limit on writing books?

This is called a deadline! Publishers let you know when they need the book by, and you have to write it by then. The worst deadline I have ever had was when I had five weeks to write a 30 000 word novel based on the TV show Heartbreak High. I worked for about 10 hours every day of the week! Some books I write very quickly (in about 3 days). But most take much longer. Usually I’m working on more than one book at once.

How many books have you written?

Besides novels and picture books, I have written lots of tiny ‘beginner’ books for kids who are learning to read, and also lots of chapter books and non-fiction books. Altogether, well over 200 books.

Which of your books is your favourite?

A picture book called Musical Harriet. It’s about a little girl who wants to play the trombone but her arms are too short. It was made into a TV show by the ABC. It was great to see my story acted out by real actors! I also loved Craig Smith’s illustrations. He’s illustrated a few other books for me since then. Lucky me!

Which were your favourite books when you were a kid?

When I was younger I loved books by Noel Streatfeild, such as Ballet Shoes and White Boots.

I also loved books by Ivan Southall and read everything I could find. Many years later I interviewed him for a magazine article and he made me a toasted cheese sandwich! I felt very honoured.

I still love the poems of C J Dennis and A A Milne.

How many drafts do you do?

For a longish book, at least six or seven. But I usually try to fix things up as I’m writing. Some people are agonisers (fiddle around with their writing to get it perfect before they go on to the next bit) and others are splurgers (write out the whole first draft quickly to get the storyline down, then come back and fix things up). I’m an agoniser.

If it's a poem or a picture book, there will be many more drafts, but I might only change a word or two each time. I need to let these 'sit' for a lot longer before I'm happy with them. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with an idea for a new change. It helps to have a pen and paper on my bedside table – otherwise I'd forget what it was.

What do you do if you get stuck while writing a story?

This usually means you haven’t spent enough time thinking or daydreaming about where your story is heading, or what your characters might do next. Usually I just turn off completely and go for a walk with my dogs, or go out into the garden and do some weeding. I try not to think about the story at all. However, when I come back in, the problem has usually resolved itself.

Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?

Read as much as you can, in all styles and genres. Write as much as you can, in all styles and genres, until you find your own unique ‘voice’.

For more practical ideas, check out my Links for Young Writers on the Links page.

Have you won any awards?

* Bunyip School of Dancing Ballet Prize when I was five.

* Pakenham Gazette Literary Contest: First prize, Poetry when I was 15.

* Log Competition, First Prize Senior Writing Section when I was 16.

* The Map Table: Mary Grant Bruce Story Award for Children’s Literature (1992)

* Time Flies: Mary Grant Bruce Story Award for Children’s Literature (1993)

* Musical Harriet: CBCA Notable Book (1996)

* Rock Raps – Five Decades of Popular Music: CBCA Notable Book (1998)

* Spinouts Bronze (co-editor with Paul Collins): Aurealis Convenors’ Award for Speculative Fiction (2000)

* Doodledum Dancing: Honour Book in Early Childhood Section of CBCA Awards (2007); nominated for the Lower Primary category of the Speech Pathology Australia Book of the Year Awards

* Bed Tails: CBCA Notable Book (2010); nominated for the Lower Primary category of the Speech Pathology Australia Book of the Year Awards

Do you ever use a pen name?

I have two pen names for different sorts of books but I’m not going to tell you what they are!

What is your working day like?

Wake up … euhh … too dark … too cold … roll over and blissfully enjoy another hour’s sleep.

Stumble into bathroom. Avoid mirror. Phone rings. Too early. Can’t speak yet. Let answering machine take message. Probably a publisher wanting to know where last week’s deadline is. Cringe.

Get dressed in same clothes as yesterday. Socks crawl out from under bed and miraculously jump onto feet. Remove cat from ankle.

Stumble into kitchen. Cat still attached to ankle. Feed cat.

Look hopefully in fridge. No milk. Cancel inspired idea of making Crepes Suzette. Drink black tea and eat toast and Vegemite.

Read newspaper. Ignore plaintive howls from dogs wanting to come inside and eat toast crusts.

Read more of newspaper. Ignore phone.

Play with cat.

Put Dettol on scratches.

Stumble into study. Sit down at desk. Ignore phone. Turn on computer. Get up and let in dogs before neighbours complain.

Check email. Answer all email messages, even the ones trying to sell me something. Send out more messages.

Open file of current writing project.

Stare balefully out window. Cut fingernails. Clean bath. Clean shower. Cut lawn with nail scissors. Play frisbee with dogs on lawn.

Ring up all my friends. Organise lunch for next week. And the week after.

Look at last paragraph of current project. Change a word. Print it out. Change another word.

Play with cat. Play with dogs in a separate room from cat. Make lunch. Read incredibly fascinating article on back of newspaper used to throw out vegetable peelings.

Resist overwhelming temptation to watch daytime soaps. Sit down at desk. Type a paragraph. Delete it. Check postbox. Refuse to open anything that looks like a rejected manuscript.

Look hopefully in biscuit tin. Make mental note to do grocery shopping soon.

Lock all animals outside. Sit down at desk. Ignore phone. Type furiously for two hours. Edit five short stories and six articles. Check three batches of illustrations. Look up Aztec monuments in Mexico on the Net. Type furiously for another four hours.

Yell at noisy neighbours. Order pizza. Eat pizza. Type furiously for another five hours. Eat cat. Eat dogs.

Bed. Zzzzzzzzzz …