Right story, wrong format. Why it’s important to be true to the story.

Today in my morning pages I had an ah-ha moment. Man, it was a long time coming. Sometimes I’m astonished by how blinkered I can be.

But once I had the realisation, I thought, I have to share this with the duckies!

And while we’re at it, for those of you who haven’t heard me quack about morning pages a quick explanation:

The idea for morning pages comes from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. You write three foolscap pages, stream of consciousness, every morning before you doing anything else. (Except make a cup of tea. Ahem.)  It is NOT ‘writing’. There is nothing formalised about it except that you have to do three pages. Two will never do.

I’ve been doing morning pages for years. I’ll talk more about the benefits in another post. For now though, back to the story.

Today (apart from whinging about my sore neck and angsting about the new Q&Q video) this is what I scribbled about:

I have this picture book manuscript that I wrote years ago. Every now and then it resurfaces and I play with it. Sadly, however, it’s never fruitful. I always end up tucking it away, downhearted and frustrated.

I’ve never been able to make this one work.

Meanwhile, over the past few years I’ve been drawing a certain character in my sketchbook.

Over and over he keeps popping up. I love him but I cannot access his story.

This little guy is a phantom. He’s just a drawing, a few words, a frosty setting and that’s it.

He talks to the moon. He rides a horse. It’s not much to go on…

He’s losing patience with me.

Today during my morning pages, I was thinking about Aussie Bites.

This was a wonderful series of illustrated chapter books that Penguin Australia produced for years.

Many Australian authors and illustrators cut their teeth on Aussie Bites (Unfortunate metaphor. Sorry).

In any case,  I had three published and one (stinker) rejected.

When the series ended, many of us shed a tear. Stand-alone chapter books are difficult to market and rarely see the light of day. The Aussie Bites series was the best and most successful vehicle for such stories.

All the books were lovingly produced and of high quality (it was competitive, oh yes, a coveted gig).

So, this week someone wrote to tell me how much they were enjoying Haggis McGregor and the Night of the Skull Moon.

This was a Bite I did with Gus Gordon years ago.

We had a ball. I still remember discussing the skeleton bride’s dress with Gus. He wanted short sleeves. I wanted long.

He won.

I’m glad.



The  book was even shortlisted for an Aurealis Award, a rare thing indeed for a ‘series book’ (for some reason they are often dismissed as having no literary merit, which is sad, and not true).

Spurred on by the enthusiastic reader mail, I pulled out Haggis McGregor and re-read it.

I was shocked. I really enjoyed it. I laughed out loud! Often! I teared up, too.

Haggis made me remember just how much fun it was to plot and plan and write this kind of book.

And it was this that lead to the ah-ha moment.

Finally! Are you glancing at your wristwatch?

Get to the point, Jen.

Here’s the thing:

The picture book I’ve been wrestling with for years is NOT a picture book!

And the little boy who keeps popping up in my sketchbook? He’s from the world of that picture book that is not a picture book. But he’s been waiting for dodo brain (yours truly) to get it.

Do you see where I’m headed?

What I have to do is merge it all— the fraudulent picture book, the sketchbook boy, the frosty world—and write an illustrated chapter book!


I have to forget there’s ‘no market’ for these books and just get moving and write the story.

Why should the market ever, EVER limit our creative expression?


Stephen King says stories exist like dinosaur skeletons in the ground. Buried in their entirety.

Seamus Heaney uses a similar metaphor in one of his glorious poems.

Either way, authors find stories and gently excavate them. That’s our job.

This story, the one I’ve been trying to squish into 500 words, doesn’t exist in that format.

I need the HUGE playing field of 7,000 – 13,000 words.

I might find that I need more words. And if I do, I’ll use the buggers!

What a revelation. I’ve started excavating already. It’s so exciting!

Perhaps you’re grappling with a story that’s problematic?

That won’t cooperate.

That seems to have good bones (couldn’t resist) but is nonetheless stuck or clunky.

One of the privileges of writing for children is that we have a huge array of formats to play with.

We mustn’t forget this.

When we get inspired, when we meet a character or stumble into an exhilarating setting, we mustn’t lock ourselves into one vision—the one we think SHOULD work.

Or worse still, the one we think will pay the most.

We need to be more respectful of what’s coming through.

We need to have the patience to find the real story, then go about honouring that truth.

That’s when we find authenticity, originality and flow.

That’s when we become true storytellers.

Jen xo



19 Replies to “Right story, wrong format. Why it’s important to be true to the story.”

  1. Thanks! I couldn’t agree more about those little chapter books. I never did a Bite, but at the invitation of the lovely Penny Matthews, I did do a Nibble and had just had another one approved, but not contracted, when the series folded. Ouch!! But still I have more than one much-loved story and character buzzing around and begging to be a chapter book. Conversely, I once wrote a chapter book that was always meant to be a picture book. Thank you so much for those reassuring words of wisdom, you are absolutely right. Now we need someone to start a new series of illustrated chapter books 🙂

    1. That’s so interesting, AP! Yes, it was a sad day in Aussie publishing when it folded. Like the final episode of The Sullivans. End of an era. Ha! And to think you had the delightful Penny? Penny edited Haggis and Norman (another of mine). So wonderful to work with. A dream. Good luck with your next venture, AP. Stick with it. Something will pop again, a new outlet, I’m sure. 🙂

  2. Jen. Thank you so much. I too have a misplaced character who is waiting forme to tell his story in s format that is well, probably never going to we the light of day. But having been creatively graced with his story, how can I let it wither? It’s a great story just maybe not a saleable one. But I’m a storyteller not a used car salesperson ( God love them
    all) and I must needs serve my story. It’s good to feel one is not alone!

    1. Omg Ellie, you are so not alone! Just stick with it and let it unfold as it wants to. (as you are so wisely doing). Plus we never EVER know what’s around the corner in terms of publishing trends.

  3. Very relevant title for this article. A story or a character does need to find it’s own ‘shape’. Your concept is also the reason our just released ‘Hijabi Girl’ is a junior, illustrated chapter book, but it started out as a picture book proposal.

  4. You are right about Aussie Bites. Anything between a 500 word Picture Book and a 10,000 word chapter book seems to be no man’s land as far as publishers are concerned. I have a 1500 word story that has been accepted by magazines, but will never see the light of day as a book as it doesn’t fit in to any publishers’ guidelines. I’ve tried making it shorter, but it reads better as a 1500 word story. Some stories are meant to be the length they are!

    Joanne Pummer

    1. Absolutely, Joanne. It’s definitely better to leave a story be, than to try to force it into some shape that wrecks it. Besides, every story we write whether it’s published or not hones our skills. So it’s all good. 😉

  5. I completely agree. For years I tried to write picture books, only to find I’m more of a chapter book kind of girl. Oh, and there IS a market for illustrated chapter books. I have a son who needed these when he was learning to read, he picked up reading really quickly and we can’t keep up with him. I have a nephew on the same path. It’s hard finding books for them. Unfortunately a lot of publishers don’t cater for young readers who read beyond their reading age and these books are really needed… (From a mum who still has trouble finding books for her son to read!)

    1. Oh yes indeed, Melissa. There is a market for CBs, but probably not as stand-alones. The poor little things get lost. What they need is a series to coat-tail on. Bites was perfect. I hope Puffin do another one soon! ANd i do understand re the advanced reader thing. It’s so difficult for publishers to meet everyone’s needs. (Now, there’s a gap in the market some canny writers could fill) 😉

  6. Thanks for this great post, Jen. I am grappling with this very thing at the moment, albeit a very different kind of story (I think!) I can see my main characters, and a hot, dusty town, but I don’t know if its in the past or the present, if it’s a fictitious or real place. I don’t know if it’s a linear narrative, or told through journals or letters, in first or third person. All I know for certain is this is a story that really wants me to tell it. I’m trying to avoid the temptation to ‘just write it’ while I wait for it to come to me so I can painstakingly ‘excavate’ it.
    BTW my kids loved those Aussie Bites.

    1. Tania, that is brilliant. I so get it! I can’t tell you how often this has happened to me. Tensy Farlow and the Home for Mislaid Children was an incredibly wild ride. Especially as i wanted it to be a little chapter book. But it insisted on being this big gothic novel. It’s hilarious when I look back and consider how naive I was when the idea first came to me. Little did I know… LOL.
      I know you will find the right format for your story. Although if it were me i’d probably just start writing around that central image. To stretch the archaeology metaphor, all that doesn’t go in the final book is just the excavation dirt.
      Good luck, Tania, whatever you decide to do! 😉

  7. Great post, Jen. And is that the coolest palaeontologist photo ever? So sad about the Aussie Bites… But I think of those fabulous Gibblewort the Goblin books by Victor Kelleher. Are they longer than bites? We loved them SO much.

    1. Oh! I don’t know about those goblin books, I must look them up. Thanks for the tip, Judy. PS Glad you enjoyed the post! PPS Gus has skeletons totally sorted. Although, he had to work hard on the horse. Just so it didn’t look too scary. Horse skeletons are majorly creepy! 😉 xo

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