Writer in Residence: Events, Book Clubs and Writing Clubs

All events and clubs are in the Lexicon Library, Dun Laoghaire

I’m delighted to be hosting a wide range of events, clubs and workshops for children, teens and adults during my residency. Here are the events from now until the end of the year.

I hope to see you at the dlr Lexicon very soon!

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXXsarah reading to a child


13th September (school day)

Roald Dahl Day for Schools – Celebrating 100 Years of a Master Storyteller

Events and workshops inspired by the work of Roald Dahl with Oisin McGann, Alan Nolan, Grainne Clear and Enda Reilly.

Booking: dlrlexiconlib@dlrcoco.ie


16th September (evening)


5pm to 7pm Story and art fun for all the family with Sarah Webb and Alan Nolan – no booking required.


Friday 16th September (school day)

Schools Events – Canada Day with Children’s Books Ireland

School events with award winning Canadian writers and illustrators, JonArno Lawson, Sydney Smith and Katherena Vernette. Find out how a book is made with our international guests.

Booking: dlrlexiconlib@dlrcoco.ie


Children’s Book Club

Age 9+

Max number: 15

1st Wed of every month: 7th Sept, 5th Oct, 9th Nov, 7th Dec

3.15pm to 4.30pm – Level 3 Meeting Room

BOOKING: dlrlexiconlib@dlrcoco.ie

Do you love reading? Would you like to chat about stories and characters with fellow young book lovers?  Whether you’re a Harry Potter fan, or eat up Judi Curtin or David Walliams books, this is the club for you! For our first meeting we’ll be talking about our favourite Roald Dahl book, in honour of his centenary on 13th September.


Children’s Writing Club

Age 9+

Max number: 15

Thursday 15th Sept, 29th Sept, 13th Oct, 10th Nov, 24th Nov, 8th Dec (last of the year)

3.15pm to 4.30pm

3.15pm to 4.30pm – Level 3 Meeting Room

BOOKING: dlrlexiconlib@dlrcoco.ie

Do you love writing stories and poems? Would you like to find out more about creating fantastic characters and gripping plots? Then this is the club for you!


Teen Creatives

Age 12+ (1st year students upwards)

Max – number 15

10am to 12pm       

Venue: Lexicon Lab on Level 3

17th Sept, 1st Oct, 22nd Oct, 12th Nov, 26th Nov, 10th Dec (last of the year)

BOOKING: dlrlexiconlib@dlrcoco.ie

 ‘To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.’ Joseph Chilton Pearce

Teen Creatives is for all teenagers who love to write and draw, and would like to learn how to create video blogs and edit movie clips. We will be talking about how stories work, writing, drawing, cartooning, making short movies and vlogs, and exploring the practical, behind the scenes side of the arts world, from hanging an art exhibition to curating a book festival.

Artists, writers and arts curators will be invited to talk to the group about their work, such as writer and cartoonist, Alan Nolan and award winning writer, Sheena Wilkinson.


Drop in Writing Clinic for Children and Teenagers 

Age: 8 to 18 years

Wednesday 28th Sept, 26th Oct, 30th Nov

3pm to 4pm

Writer in Residence Room, Level 5

Are you a young writer? Would you like our writer in residence, Sarah Webb to read your work and offer advice? Drop in to her writing clinic. No need to book.

Please bring a copy of your work for Sarah to read. Children under 12 must be accompanied by an adult.

Drop in Writing Clinic for Adults

Writer in Residence Room, Level 5

Wednesday 28th Sept, 26th Oct, 30th Nov

4pm to 5pm

Are you an adult who is writing for children or teenagers? Would you like some help and advice? Our writer in residence, Sarah Webb is hosting writing clinics for emerging children’s writers. No need to book.

Sarah is happy to read short extracts from manuscripts during the clinic. Please bring a print out of your work.

I’ve been writing full time for over twelve years now. In that time I’ve published number one bestselling novels for adults (Always the Bridesmaid) and children’s books that have been shortlisted for awards (Ask Amy Green series, Sally Go Round the Stars) but I’ve had book ideas turned down by my publishers and have started several novels that will never (and should never in most cases!) see the light of day.sally go

When books are turned down –rejected – it can be a real blow to your confidence but it’s part of every writer’s job to dream up new books. Some will work and others won’t. Other times the idea is good but the market isn’t strong enough to make it worthwhile for the publisher to take it on.

Award winning author, Sheena Wilkinson says the ‘standard story is of rejections and then the magic yes. But another story is after that. When you keep writing better books, have a track record of awards and good reviews, but not great sales, and then get rejections. I think people are less willing to talk about that. And perhaps less prepared for it.’ I agree, it can be tough and all professional writers experience it.

Sometimes we have to ‘reject’ our own work, and it takes guts to admit that the book we have been working on for months or even years isn’t good enough. About ten years ago I wrote a long 100k adult novel and I was gutted when I realised – after some honest feedback from a trusted industry friend – that I’d have to start again with a different idea.

Recently I’ve been asked am I still writing for adults (my last novel, The Memory Box came out in 2013) and the answer is a resounding yes, absolutely. I’ve been working on a new novel for almost three years now. I’ve rewritten it many, many times (seven? eight? nine? I’ve lost count!).

The working title is The Boathouse at Summercove and it’s partly set in 1934 and is quite different to my previous novels. I’ve never worked so hard or enjoyed writing for adults so much. It’s been a fantastic challenge. And kudos to my amazing agent, Peta who has been tirelessly working on it with me and cheering me on from the sidelines. I’m determined to repay all her time, energy and expertise by putting my heart and soul into the rewriting.

I’ve also been teaching creative writing in the Irish Writers Centre which I adore. I can tell instantly which writers will make it to publication and is not always the best writers (although beautiful writing is of course a bonus). It’s the women and men who are determined to see the book through, who take feedback on board, who are happy to rewrite and who will keep rewriting with the dogged determination you need to get a book up to scratch for submission.

I’m working with one particular writer at the moment who is good humoured, hard working and incredibly funny, on paper and in person. And I know her book will be published as she is determined to make it happen and is willing to put the work in. She has that vital quality, resilience, the ability to bounce back.

To have a successful writing career you need self-belief, energy, dedication and above all, resilience. The skin of a rhino also helps!

If you have been turned down, if you’ve faced rejection after rejection, remember this – you only need to find one person who loves your work, one editor who believes in you. One.

There will be many speed bumps along the way but you are not alone. Every writer has faced rejection. All writers get turned down. Don’t believe me? Read on, my friend. And a huge thank you to all the writers who shared their stories with me via Facebook.

Yours in writing,


Rejection Tales

Sarah Webb

My first book, Kids Can Cook was turned down by most of the Irish publishers – O’Brien Press, Gill and Macmillan, Mercier, Poolbeg – before finding a home at the small but wonderful Children’s Press. Sadly they are no longer in existence but it paved the way for future books and I will always be grateful to the editor, Reena Dardis for taking a chance on me.

Philip Ardagh

Philip Ardagh

Philip Ardagh

When I was in my early twenties, I sent many an unsolicited manuscript or sample chapters to publishers. On most occasions, I received variations on the standard rejection letter but it was much harder when they asked to see more, which I then sent them, and THEN they rejected it. And, in the pre-e-mail era, when sending a manuscript involved brown envelopes and trips to the Post Office, the time between sending in work and receiving a response seemed unbearably long. I received most encouragement from Joanna Goldsworthy at Gollancz who, over the years, wrote me a number of encouraging letters on a manual typewriter and surprising small pieces of headed paper. She praised what I’d written, explained why it wasn’t quite working for her, and always asked to see what I came up with next. Looking back, I wish I’d been more profuse in my thanks for her time. And what did I learn from all this rejection? Not to be in a hurry to send out a new piece of writing; to let it ferment, even when I thought it done, and to come back to it with a new set of eyes. But what I learned most of all was that I wasn’t going to let rejection stop me on my path to publication. I’m pretty sure I was born a writer and that, over years of writing, I’ve become a better one, but rejection showed me that I was determined to become a published one. Over 100 books later, I’m still going.

ER Murray
book of learning 1

The Book of Learning was rejected so many times I shelved it and wrote something else, believing it was the book that got me my agent. After finishing Caramel Hearts, I reread TBOL & still believed in it. Both books went on submission, and both books got signed. Belief, timing, and determination are key.

Oisin McGann

I was turned down by eight or nine agents in the UK at the start (I didn’t even get as far as the publishers), but as an illustrator, I was already used to hearing ‘no’ and just moving on to the next job. As Philip says, most of them were standard rejection letters. One woman in Curtis Brown took an early interest in the first draft of ‘The Harvest Tide Project’, which to be fair, was in a very unrefined state, and gave me some helpful advice, but then turned it down after I’d refined it.

Oisin McGann

Oisin McGann

I finally signed five contracts with the O’Brien Press without an agent – two Mad Grandad books and three novels – after pitching for some illustration work from them and then writing the MG books because they had nothing for me to illustrate – they liked one of the styles I worked in. Thirty-five books later, written and illustrated, with numerous publishers and I still get rejections sometimes. I never take it personally.

Dave Rudden

Twenty five agents said no to Knights of the Borrowed Dark (now a bestseller  in Ireland – Sarah) before one said yes! I was actually rereading the letters this morning. No horror stories – most were form, with a couple more in-depth. Actually still waiting for a couple to respond but that was three years ago so… I think it was probably a no…knights of the borrowed

Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick

Back in the day when you sent physical mock-ups of picture book manuscripts to publishers I remember the postman brought me four parcels in three days. He thought it was my birthday and wondered why I had such a puss on me… I had just spent an encouraging two weeks visiting publishers in London with 4 different book ideas and now they were arriving back, no after no after no. 4 parcels returned = 16 rejections in 3 days… Three of the books did eventually get published years (and many more rewrites and rejections) later. And, yes, I still get rejections.

Judi Curtin

This all sounds so familiar. My first novel was rejected multiple times, and was only published after I’d written and published another one. Even after the success of Alice and Eva, I’ve had a number of rejections . Still hurts but not at all as bad as when I was starting out.

Gordon Smith

I wrote my first novel when I was eighteen, a really gory horror novel called Asylum, about angels that ate people. I was so utterly convinced that this novel was going to make me a millionaire that I stopped working on my A-levels, and consequently failed them (I had to stay in school an extra year). At the same time I was doing my exams, I sent this novel to three publishers, because I knew that one of them would offer me a million pounds to publish my book. I mean, I was so sure of it that I didn’t even really check to see if they even published horror. Anyway, at the same time I got my exam results back I started to get rejection letters that were actually pretty harsh (“what is wrong with you?”). It was a pretty gruesome book… I was so devastated that I actually stopped writing for SEVEN YEARS. It never occurred to me to send it to another publisher, to keep trying, or maybe to just write something else. I thought I had failed. It taught me the most important lesson in life, never give up–a lesson I sadly only learned at the end of those seven years. It also taught me that even your failures are vital, because that book that I thought was a failure was a hugely important part of my writing life. It was the first novel I’d ever completed, it taught me that I had it in me to actually finish a story. I learned so much from the experience, even if I didn’t acknowledge it at the time. I know now that those stories I wrote as a teenager, the ones that never got published, which I thought had failed me, were actually the building blocks of the success I have today. If I hadn’t laid the foundations as a teenager, I wouldn’t be able to write the books I do now!

Liz Nugent

After the first 19 rejections of Unravelling Oliver, I asked my agent not to tell me until she sold it. My mum stopped reading books in protest. (Liz’s book went on to be a huge bestseller in Ireland – Sarah)

Roisin Meaney

My first two books were published without a single rejection: the first won a write a bestseller competition that Tivoli was running and the prize was a two book deal. I then wrote a third book, feeling like God’s gift to readers – and just as I got to the end of it, Tivoli (who had verbally agreed to take it) went out of business. My agent then did the rounds of Irish publishers, and to a man (and woman) they rejected it. I was gutted: rejection feels like a vicious thump in the belly – but it was a very valuable lesson, and it put manners on me. After my wounds had been thoroughly licked I chanced writing another book, and this was picked up by Hachette, who were Hodder Headline at the time. But I’ve never taken publishing deals for granted since. And the rejected book? It was years before I was able to press the delete key and consign it to a literary grave!

Jo Cotterill

Jo Cotterill

Jo Cotterill

Back before I was published, I wrote a story about a knight. It was 6000 words long and, I thought, aimed at the 6-9 market. I’d done my research, you see, read the Writer’s & Artist’s Yearbook cover to cover, and I knew enough to know I needed to age band my own submissions. I was very, very fond of this story. It made me laugh and it made my family laugh, and so I had high hopes that it might find a home. It was turned down everywhere – with one exception. An editor at Bloomsbury thought it might work better as a picture book. Of course I was prepared to try to do this, even though I wasn’t sure it would work. I cut down the story to just over 1000 words and sent it off to the editor. It took a long time for her to reply – perhaps four months. And then she wasn’t sure. I tried pruning it still further (back then, picture books could be longer than publishers like now) and re-sent. Again, I waited for a response. I can’t remember how many times I re-wrote and re-submitted. After a year of doing this, I finally got up the courage to ask the editor if she was actually going to accept the book or not. She still ‘wasn’t sure’. But by now I’d been working on it for over a year, with no contract, and I was fed up. I said if she couldn’t offer a contract, I would withdraw and try my luck elsewhere. My bluff was called. She apologised for not being able to offer a contract, but said she still didn’t think it was ‘strong enough’.

It’s about fifteen years later and I still haven’t sold the book. I’d love to one day. I submitted it to a publisher of early readers last year and although they liked it, they ‘already had a book about knights’.

But I learned a lot about the publishing process, about how authors sometimes bend over backwards to please a publisher in order to get that desperately-wanted contract and about the awful feeling of nausea when it doesn’t come. I also learned that books often have a particular ‘shape’: I don’t think this story would ever work as a picture book and as a more experienced writer now, I can see why. The humour comes from the language and the context, which would have been too pruned in a picture book.

I am very grateful to that editor, even though I felt I’d been left dangling for months on end, and she finally rejected the story. The whole experience taught me that patience was going to be the most valuable asset in my publishing career – and it still is!

Mary Murphy

I don’t mind straightforward rejection, when a publisher says ‘This is nice, but not for us’. (And I don’t even try to read between the lines on that.)

But I had two rejections that stand out for me as having more impact. Both were rejected at the acquisitions stage. Both happened within the last four years.

Both were with publishers that showed interest in my work, and who asked for specific developments on an idea I had sent them. We co-operated over months. In both cases the design/editorial team invested a lot in the project, and so did I.

One rejection was because the publisher was publishing a similar title by a better-known author. The other was because the editorial team felt the book would only work if I did a series of about 4 (and I agreed). The acquisitions felt that was too big a risk, as I had not worked with them before – but also saw it would not work to do a one-off title.

I think what was difficult about these rejections was the exhaustion. I felt unable to go further with the ideas, or to approach another publisher – I had spent my energy/creative budget already.

My approach now is to say no to development work without a development fee. Publishing is changing, it’s common for editors not to have acquisitions power. So I protect myself from acquisitions and sales by asking for a development fee, which means the editorial team need to investigate the reality more thoroughly because they have to do some accounts and form-filling. So far, so good.

Hello, January. I’ve been expecting you. I’m currently in the middle of several projects – a proposal for a new children’s series (writing good proposals takes a long time – I’ll blog about it soon as it’s vital to get your proposal right), the first book in that new series, a book about whales and dolphins (non fiction), writing the text for my book festival brochure (Mountains to Sea dlr Book Festival in March), and researching a new novel for adults.

My New Children's Novel, Out in March 2016

My New Children’s Novel, Out in March 2016

I find starting projects the easy part, it’s hitting the half way mark that I find most difficult. So here are some words for those of you who are mid way through a project and need some motivation.

Many writers get to around 40k or 50k words and then they hit a wall (novels for adults tend to be around 80k to 100k depending on the genre). They say ‘There is so much more to write, so much more work involved, I don’t think I can do this.’ It’s important to note that all writers have off days or weeks, published or unpublished, and it’s important to develop a ‘writing habit’ if you want to finish a whole book. As Clare Dowling says in her excellent writing tips (below) ‘writing is a craft and the best way to learn it is to practice.’

But how do you stay motivated?

All writers find writing a book tough going. I often hit a difficult patch roughly half way through a book, knowing that I still have a lot of work ahead of me. It’s perfectly normal to feel a bit overwhelmed at any stage of the writing process. You are writing a book after all. And if you are a huge reader like me, you have a responsibility to both yourself and the future reader to produce something worthwhile, something special, something original.

Woody Allan once said that ‘90% of success is just showing up’. And for writers, showing up at the page day after day, week after week is vital. For some, the effort proves too much, and the book never gets finished.

Here are some of my favourite quotes about motivation and staying the course:

The mere habit of writing, of constantly keeping at it, of never giving up, ultimately teaches you how to write. Gabriel Fielding

The only certainty about writing and trying to be a writer is that it has to be done, not dreamed of or planned and never written, or talked about, but simply written; it’s a dreadful, awful fact that writing is like any other work. Janet Frame

The way to write a book is to actually write a book. Anne Enright

And I particularly like this one, also by Anne Enright:

Remember if you sit at your desk for 15 or 20 years every day it changes you. It just does. It may not improve your temper but it fixes something else. It makes you more free.

She is quite right, it does change you. It does make you more free.

If you’re finding writing difficult and need some encouragement, here are some suggestions:

1/ Keep a writing diary

My Diary Collection 1986 to 2015

My Diary Collection 1986 to 2015

Every time you’ve finished writing, jot down how many words you’ve managed and how you feel your work is progressing. If you respond well to deadlines, keep deadlines. For example: Monday – write 500 words, Tuesday – finish Chapter Two. If you’ve stuck to your deadlines reward yourself with some television or a bar of chocolate.

2/ Attend writing workshops, readings and talks

Many libraries host regular events for writers. Check your local library for details. I love hearing other writers read their work or talk about their work, and I always learn something valuable or that makes me think. It’s a real treat to be around fellow book lovers too.

3/ Read books about writing:

On Writing by Stephen King

Inspiring and full of good advice – worth buying

The Right to Write by Julia Cameron

One of the best books about being a writer and living a writer’s life I’ve ever found. Succinct, direct and truthful, a book I come back to over and over again if I’m in need of a little writerly pick me up.

4/ Pencil in some internet free days. I check my social media accounts on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. I spend one hour on each of these days writing blogs/content for posts, reading and commenting on other people’s posts and replying to my messages. That’s three hours a week. I check in after working hours too, but I don’t waste my writing time online. Perhaps you could set yourself some internet ‘rules’ too.

If your writing has come to a standstill and you need some practical assistance the following might help:

1/ Ask for advice and/or encouragement from a respected friend or work colleague; someone who loves reading and who will give you an honest but kind opinion. Explain that you need honest feedback, but ask them to be kind. If you don’t know anyone suitable, see number 3.

2/ Join a writers’ group

Many libraries host regular writers’ groups. These are not for everyone, but many writers swear by them. Many published writers are in writing groups, others have writing friends who they talk to about their work and any problems they are having. I have several writer friends and they are a Godsend. Writing can be a lonely old business, and having someone to talk to who understands is very important. Seek out fellow writers on the internet or in person.

3/ Contact a writer’s advisory service

For a professional opinion on your work, the following advisory services are recommended – www.cornerstones.co.uk/  and www.inkwellwriters.ie

Inkwell are based in Ireland, Cornerstones in the UK and both are excellent, well respected professionally run organisations.

On the Practical Side of Things

Even if you don’t feel like writing try to do something writing related: research, editing, making notes. Sometimes you may be simply too mentally tired or out of sorts to write, never force yourself, take a break and come back to it the following day instead. Try to approach the page with optimism and enthusiasm, not dread! Sometimes you will have to talk yourself into a positive frame of mind, but you’re a writer – you are smart, creative and powerful. If you can create a whole world on paper, you can certainly cajole yourself into a bit of writing.

Never use ‘I’m too busy’ as an excuse. Your house will probably be less tidy and sometimes the dishes will sit in the sink for the evening, but these are the sacrifices a writer has to make!

Once you’ve set your writing time aside try to sit down at your desk regularly so your story will stay fresh in your mind. If you can’t write every day, think about your characters and your plot when you can. Agatha Christie once said she did her best plotting while washing the dishes.

Try to write at a desk or table in a well lit and if possible quiet area. Buy yourself nice notebooks and coloured pens – these small things make writing more of a pleasure.

If possible get your hands on a computer. Typing directly onto a computer takes a while to get used to but it makes writing and most especially editing so much less painful – plus you have spell check!

How long does it take to write a book?

The old expression ‘how long is a piece of string’ springs to mind. Each writer is different. Popular fiction writers are often contracted to write a book a year. If you can manage to write 2,000 words a week for example, it will take you just under a year to write a whole book. Try to find a writing pace that suits you and your lifestyle.

The honest fact? I can’t motivate you to write. No-one can do that but yourself. If you want to write badly enough, you will find the time and the energy.

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

Tips on Staying Motivated by Clare Dowling

1/ Get into the habit of writing. This doesn’t mean you have to knock out a thousand words of a novel a day; it can be emails, letters to friends, or a description of your cat. Writing is a craft and the best way to learn it is to practise.

2/ Get yourself a proper writing space. Some people can write a book on the kitchen table amongst the dinner dishes but most of us can’t. It really helps if you have a special place for writing and when you arrive at it, your brain clicks into writing mode.

3/ Don’t wait for genius to strike. It probably won’t, and you’ll achieve tonnes more if you spent your time practising your writing, developing interesting characters, and thinking hard about what you’d really like to say. Most successful writers aren’t published because brilliant ideas visit them on a daily basis, but because they work very hard and stay motivated.

4/ Read, read, read. We can all learn from other authors’ work – how they construct a plot, how characters are effectively drawn; how they manage to make a scene in a supermarket the most memorable you’ve read all year. Don’t be afraid that you’re going to copy their style; you won’t. But you might find that that you learn lots of new techniques that will lift your own writing up a level.

See the writing.ie article I contributed to here.

Martina Devlin and Kate Beaufoy will be talking about writing and their new books at What Lies Beneath Readers’ Day on Saturday 7th November in the new Lexicon Library in Dun Laoghaire. To mark the occasion, I asked them for their top three writing tips.

Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

1/ Write early in the day, as soon as you rise. It doesn’t have to be a 6am writing spurt, but it does have to be first thing by your body clock.
3/ Take care with your characters, even minor ones, if you want readers to go on a journey with them. They need not all be likeable. But their actions should have an internal logic, or make sense to readers.
3/ Leave a note to yourself where you meant to take the story next at the end of a writing session. It’s amazing how much we forget, even in the space of a day.

Kate Beaufoy

1/ Try converting chunks of your text into a different font. That way you can read it with new, more objective eyes, and you’ll spot things you may not have noticed otherwise.

2/ Don’t advertise the fact that you’re writing a novel; you’ll regret it every time someone asks you how it’s going.

3/ Find one or two readers whom you can trust to be straight with you in the nicest possible way. NEVER petition Facebook friends to read your work.
Hear more from Kate and Martina about their books and how they write at What Lies Beneath Reader and Writers Day – Sat 7th November. Lexicon Library, Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin  Book here. Or ring 01 231 2929 12pm to 5pm
Kate Beaufoy

Kate Beaufoy

What Lies Beneath

If you’re passionate about books and love talking to other book lovers, this is the day for you. Find out how bestselling UK author, Freya North and Irish bestseller, Patricia Scanlan got their first breaks; hear how Kate Beaufoy and Kate Kerrigan researched their latest historic novels; listen to Sinead Moriarty and Claudia Carroll talk about their favourite books; discover the inspiration behind Sinead Crowley, Martina Devlin and Marita Conlon McKenna’s new novels; and hear Sinead Gleeson talk about the wealth of short story talent in Ireland, past and present, with Lia Mills and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne. A stimulating and thought-provoking day for all readers and writers. Book here. 

Patricia Scanlan

Patricia Scanlan

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I was doing some intense thinking about picture books last night. My writing class asked me why I’m not keen on rhyming picture books and I didn’t have a coherent answer for them. But I do now!

Some of My Picture Book Collection

Some of My Picture Book Collection

When I got home I read dozens of rhyming and non rhyming pictures books. Every month I am sent review copies of all the new titles (and proofs or early reading copies) by the various Irish and UK publishers, and I read ALL the picture books and as many of the novels as I can. So I get a great overview of what’s going on in the world of children’s books. (Aside – when I was the children’s book buyer at Waterstone’s and then Eason’s I saw the covers and titles of up to 8k children’s books a year. Booksellers are a font of knowledge when it comes to children’s books, trends, titles, covers etc. I’m proud to say I still work with booksellers, as a consultant with Dubray Books.)

So what conclusion did I come to after my late night read? A large number of rhyming picture books are all about concept (love, ABC, 123, colour) and it’s hard to get emotion and conflict into even the best of them.Yes, yes I know Julia Donaldson manages to pack her books with emotion (and others do too – Madeline, Millions of Cats, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes etc) but she is one in a million. Non-rhyming picture books are all about story, character and emotion.

Spread from Owl Babies

Spread from Owl Babies

I like books that squeeze my heart, books full of emotion and power. Owl Babies, Where the Wild Things Are, Lost and Found, The Heart and the Bottle, Monster Mama (see below for details).monster mamma

I hate insipid, badly rhyming picture books about loving your mummy (who is also a teddy dressed in human clothing). Managing to make the last words on each line rhyme does not magically turn a writer into a poet. The whole line has to sing.

And for the record here are my all time top 10 favourite picture books (not the best books, or the ones that have won the most awards, the ones I love the most). Books I could not live without:

1/ Where the Wild Things Are – Maurice Sendak

Is there a better picture book?

2/ Owl Babies by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Patrick Benson

Love it – and it has my name in it!

3/ Lost and Found – Oliver Jeffers

Oliver Jeffers

Oliver Jeffers

Oliver is exceptional. One of the greatest picture book talents Ireland has ever produced.

4/ Busy Busy World – Richard Scarry

My childhood is embedded in this book.

5/ The Elephant and the Bad Baby by Elfrida Vipont, illustrated by Raymond Briggs

Loved it as a child, love it now.

6/ The Red Tree –  Shaun Tan

From The Red Tree

From The Red Tree

The illustrations make me shiver, they’re so good. I also love Rules of Summer. All his work in fact.

7/ Monster Mama by Liz Rosenberg, illustrated by Stephen Gammell

Incredible book about a mother and her son, bullying and the power of love.

8/ Alfie Gets in First – Shirley Hughes

Best writer for toddlers ever. Her domestic scenes sing with love.

9/ Peter’s Chair – Ezra Jack Keats

Exceptional picture book from 1967 about sibling rivalry. I was read it first when my sister was born and it’s stayed with me all that time.

10/ Fighting it out for the last slot – I can’t choose. There so many amazing picture book makers. Jon Klassen is my pick for today. I Want My Hat Back. But I also adore Dr Suess (who doesn’t?), although may of his books are more illustrated books than picture books (maybe Richard Scarry’s too?). A topic for another day. And for pure illustration, Lizbeth Zwerger all the way. Journey by Aaron Becker is pretty special too (wordless picture book). So many pretty books …

A Spread from Journey

A Spread from Journey

Better get back to the writing! I’ll leave you with this: award winning picture book maker, Marie Louise Fitzpatrick talking a lot of sense about picture books that rhyme:

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

I love writing dialogue and it’s only taken me fifteen years to nail it. My first novel was called Three Times a Lady and it was published in 2000. The dialogue is riddled with unnecessary dialogue tags and adverbs.

She said lovingly, he said angrily, he demanded furiously, she retorted with a snort – it’s all in there! My first novels were definitely my ‘learner novels’ but I’m still I’m very proud of them.

These days my dialogue is much tighter and I’ve dropped the adverbs. I’m not alone. In an interview, Gabriel García Márquez once said: ‘Before ‘Chronicle of a Death Foretold there are many (adverbs). In ‘Chronicle’ there is one. After that, in ‘Love’ there are none.’

Why does dialogue matter? Here’s a short extract from Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King (an excellent book):

What’s the first thing editors look for when they begin reading a fiction submission? Several editors we know have answered that question the same way: ‘The first thing I do is find a scene with some dialogue. If the dialogue doesn’t work, the manuscript gets bounced. If it’s good, I start reading.’

Top 10 Tips for Writing Dialogue

1/ Dialogue must have a purpose. It must reveal character, move the plot along and build tension. And above all it must be interesting.

2/ Dialogue tags

She said/he said is almost invisible when read on the page. The eye skims over it. It does not skim over she replied, he retorted, she answered. Use other verbs sparingly in dialogue.

3/ Adverbs

Nor does the eye skim over:

She said sadly, while gazing at him adoringly.

He snarled angrily (back to this one in a second).

Use adverbs sparingly. Show how your character is saying something (or feeling) using your dialogue.

You may notice in older books that more adverbs are used – see the Alice in Wonderland extract below for eg.

4/ Back to the snarling. You cannot snarl a sentence. You cannot laugh or giggle a sentence.

NO – ‘You are the worst person I’ve ever met in the whole world,’ he snarled.

YES – ‘You’re a nasty piece of work,’ he said.

5/ Be consistent.

Don’t use:

Sarah said

Ms Webb said

And my amazing teacher said all on the same page.

6/ More than 3 or 4 people in a conversation can be difficult, one on one is much easier to follow for the reader (and easier to write).

7/ Ellipses (. . . ) mean the sentence is tailing off

When someone stops abruptly or is interrupted you use a dash –

8/ Name before noun (generally)

Sarah said, not said Sarah

In older books, you will notice more said Sarahs – but in modern books, it’s mostly Sarah saids – if in doubt read the dialogue out loud to yourself and see which works best.

9/ Good dialogue is not realistic. It is a smarter, more dramatic version of real speech.

10/ Every one of your characters should speak differently.

Give them favourite words or phrases.

Are they articulate or shy?

Good dialogue shows the reader what your characters are like. Take this piece from Alice in Wonderland for example:

‘Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?’ said the March Hare.

‘Exactly so,’ said Alice.

‘Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.

‘I do,’ Alice hastily replied. ‘At least – at least I mean what I say – that’s the same thing, you know.’

‘Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. ‘You might as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’

Here the reader learns that the March Hare and the Mad Hatter are pernickety when it comes to language and riddles, and Alice is thoughtful and polite.

Your characters come alive when they speak – work on your dialogue and your book will sing.

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

I’ve posted a dialogue exercise below for you to try.

Dialogue Exercise – correct the following:

(Adapted from one of my early books, Always the Bridesmaid)

The paranoia all started to kick in when my seventeen-year-old sister Suzi came home from Australia last December with Matt in tow, a boy she’d picked up while travelling in Australia. I thought things couldn’t get any worse. I was wrong.

“Suzi, have you told Mum and Dad about Matt?” I demanded anxiously as we were loading my Golf with the bags in the airport car park. Matt had kindly offered to get rid of the baggage trolley.

“About what?” she asked quickly.

“About Matt,” I replied. “Do they know he’s come to live in Dublin?” She certainly hadn’t told me and I’d got rather a shock when I’d seen the whole six-foot-something of him coming through the arrivals gate with his arm draped over my sister’s shoulders.

“Not exactly,” she giggled nervously. “But they’ll love him and there’s loads of room in the house and . . . ”

“The house,” I interrupted, trying to keep my voice level. “You and Matt are planning to live at home?”

“Well, we want to save for a house and I’m sure Mum and Dad won’t mind,” Suzi responded.

“Right, a house,” I muttered darkly.

“Do you think it’ll be a problem?” Suzi asked anxiously, biting her lip. She was clearly nervous.

“No,” I lied. “They’re so excited about having you home, I’m sure they won’t mind.”

Suzi nudged me. Matt was smiling at her across the car’s roof.

“Let’s go!” Suzi exclaimed excitedly. “I can’t wait to introduce you to my parents, Matt. They’re going to love you,” she added lovingly.

I rolled my eyes. My darling sister was so naïve.

 Dialogue Answer (Suggested answer only – you may have a different version)

 Here I have cut out many of the adverbs and unnecessary dialogue tags, and added some tension towards the end.

The paranoia all started to kick in when my seventeen-year-old sister Suzi came home from Australia last December with Matt in tow, a boy she’d picked up while travelling in Australia. I thought things couldn’t get any worse. I was wrong.

“Suzi, have you told Mum and Dad about Matt?” I asked my little sister as we were loading my Golf with the bags in the airport car park. Suzis’s new boyfriend, Matt had kindly offered to get rid of the baggage trolley.

“About what?”

“About Matt. Do they know he’s come to live in Dublin?” She certainly hadn’t told me and I’d got rather a shock when I’d seen the whole six-foot-something of him coming through the arrivals gate with his arm draped over my sister’s shoulders.

“Not exactly.” She giggled nervously. “But they’ll love him and there’s loads of room in the house and-“

“The house?” I tried to keep my voice level. “You and Matt are planning to live at home?”

“Well, we want to save for a house and I’m sure Mum and Dad won’t mind.”

“A house, right,” I muttered under my breath.

“Do you think it’ll be a problem?” Suzi started biting at her lower lip.

I stared at her. Was she deranged? “You’re seventeen, Suzi. What do you think?”

Suzi wasn’t listening to me. Matt was smiling at her across the car’s roof. She’d always been a sucker for a handsome face. She smiled back at him. The pair of them made my stomach turn. Bloody men! Oh, he’s smiling now all right, dear sister, but he hasn’t met Mum yet. Just you wait.

“Let’s go!” Suzi said, “I can’t wait to introduce you to my parents, Matt. They’re going to love you.” She was still gazing at him adoringly.

I rolled my eyes. My darling sister was so naïve.

I’ve been teaching a course on writing for children at the Irish Writers’ Centre. I love teaching and the class is one of the highlights of my week – two hours spent in the company of like minded people who all love children’s books as much as I do.

Me Reading a Picture Book to a Child

Me Reading a Picture Book to a Child

Last week we looked at picture books. As two of the class were sick I promised I’d give them some notes. I’m sharing them here in case they are useful to you also.

Writing picture books has been described as writing ‘haiku for aliens’. It’s definitely closer to writing poetry than anything else.

A lot of people think ‘Hey, I could write a picture book. Bang out a story about a teddy bear or a talking rabbit, get my mate to draw some pictures and bingo!’ But they are so wrong. Picture books are the hardest books of all to write. Every word matters. Every single line has to move the story along. Every page turn has to be a cliff hanger. Easy? No way, José!lost and found cover

 What is a picture book?

A picture book is an illustrated book for young children of age 18 months to about 5 or 6 (or 44 – I love picture books!). There are usually colour illustrations on every page and the story is told through the words and pictures.

 Why do they have to be brilliant?

Unlike novels for older children, picture books are read over and over again. Not only do you have to appeal to children, you also have to appeal to adults – parents, teachers, librarians. They are the ones reading Busy, Busy World or Where The Wild Things Are hundreds of times!

 How long should a picture book be?

Between 150 and 600 words. Ideally 400 to 500 words. Of course, if you’re the next Shaun Tan or Lauren Child, a publisher may make an exception.

Shaun Tan's Work

Shaun Tan’s Work

 How many pages?

The average picture book has 32 pages – count them!

This is broken down into 24 pages of text and illustration or 12 double page spreads (sometimes slightly more if the end papers are used).

Again, if you are Oliver Jeffers, you may get away with a longer story, but if it’s your first book, it’s best to stick to the norm.

 Do I need to be an artist too?

No. Publishers have plenty of great illustrators on their books. They are looking for strong, original picture book texts.lost and found

 Where do I start?

I would suggest starting with your own childhood – as this is what will make your story different. For example:

Is there a favourite toy you had as a child? Did it ever get lost? (Dogger by Shirley Hughes is a great example of a lost toy story)

Was there a favourite place you loved to go as a child? Did you have a tree house? A Wendy house? A special dressing up box?

Don’t be afraid of using strong emotion in your text – Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers is about loneliness and friendship; The Heart and the Bottle is about love and loss.heart and bottle

What about universal stories? You could write about one of the following in a new or original way:

Overcoming the Monster – Little Red Riding Hood

Rags to Riches – Cinderella

Rebirth – The Very Hungry Caterpillar

The Quest – Lost and Found

Voyage and Return; Comedy; even Tragedy (Not Now, Bernard by David McKee).

You could rewrite an old fairy tale in a clever way or an Irish myth or legend.

Think warmth, humour, family, love and universal themes.

Good luck with your mini masterpieces!

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

 Some Recommended Picture Books

Oliver Jeffers – Lost and Found and The Heart and the Bottle

Lauren Child – Clarice Bean, That’s Me

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendakwhere the wild things are

Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems

Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems

The Red Tree by Shaun Tan

If you’d like more information on writing picture books try:

How To Write a Children’s Picture Book by Andrea Shavick or Writing with Pictures by Uri Shelevitzwriting with pictures

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On the first day of the Children’s Book Festival in Ireland, I though I’d post this list – dos and don’ts for school and library visits:book festival image 2013

1/ Do have a glass or bottle of water ready for the author.

2/ Do make sure they get fed at the relevant times – lunch is always good!

3/ If they are staying over, put them up in the hotel/guesthouse that you would choose to stay in – warm, quiet and clean. Remember some of your authors may need to write in the evenings – so do take this into consideration – a tiny room without a desk is a no no.

4/ Please don’t expect them to drive 50 or 60 miles between events – remember many authors are city slickers and more used to trains and buses.

5/ Think about the logistics and what’s best for the author – it might be a better use of their time to base them in the main library rather than slepping them all over the county.

6/ Send them directions to your school or library that are easy to follow and accurate – they do not need to go on a wild goose chase just before their event.

7/ Make sure the person at the desk/in reception knows an author is coming and greets them with a smile. Not a ‘Who? Sorry, don’t know anything about that. Wait here until I get someone.’ (More common than you might think.)

8/ Make an effort with posters – these can be ordered from the author’s publisher in advance – or at the very least type welcome and the author’s name on a sheet of paper and stick it to the front door. Make the author feel wanted – authors are sensitive souls, be kind.

9/ A follow up email/letter to say thanks for visiting is always nice.

10/ Do try to have the author’s books in stock – they will look for them on the shelves!

11/ If the author asks for 5th and 6th class girls, don’t give them 1st class boys – there is a reason for their request. And make sure the school understands this and doesn’t turn up with every child from JI to 6th class. It is a huge advantage – to both the writer and the children – if the children have read the author’s books in advance. At the very least they should know a/ who the author is and b/what books they write.

12/ Where possible, give the writer a large audience. Writers like talking to lots of children. Unless it’s a workshop – one class max for workshops. When in doubt, ask the writer – how many children do you like at your sessions?

Some of the brilliant things libraries and schools have done for me recently:

Made lovely welcome posters.

One school had a group of children who had read my books welcome me at reception and take me to the school hall where I was speaking. Usually it’s a teacher – so this was a nice touch.

In one school in Athy the mothers and teachers made cakes and came to welcome me, along with their children. This also happened in Griffeen Valley Educate Together School where the teachers and parents are very keen on reading.

Alexandra School library provided six copies of Amy Green, Teen Agony Queen for the girls to win on the day of the visit. Afterwards the students gave me a book token and a box of chocolates. Plus a follow up thank you card. Gold star to Alexandra School!