British author visits Hong Kong for KidsFest and to share storytelling advice

British author visits Hong Kong for KidsFest and to share storytelling advice

Gruffalo author Julia Donaldson says that, even with 160 titles to her name, she has sometimes struggled to tell her tales

British author Julia Donaldson's name may be synonymous with The Gruffalo - her best known tale marks its 15th birthday this year and has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide - but there is far more to her than the creature with terrible teeth in his terrible jaws. She has penned more than 160 books for children and teens, her creative works include novels and songs, and she often adapts her work to musicals and plays.

When Young Post spoke to the prolific writer - she was in Hong Kong briefly to meet her fans and watch her iconic Gruffalo take to the stage for a second time at the annual KidsFest - she generously imparted storytelling advice, and tips she has accumulated over the years on how to get published.

Donaldson loves poetry, especially that which rhymes. This devotion began with The Book of a Thousand Poems, a gift from her father for her fifth birthday. But rhyme and rhythm were everywhere during her childhood: everyone sang hymns during daily assemblies at school; songs and nursery rhymes on the radio were the best form of after-class entertainment.

"Poetry sunk into my skin," she says. She was hugely inspired by Edward Lear's whimsical verse The Owl and the Pussycat, and Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. And then there's the Shakespearean influence: at 12, she understudied for the fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream at London's famous Old Vic theatre.

So it's no surprise that rhyming poetry features heavily in her work. Poetry can be particularly memorable, but it must rhyme and scan, or have a rhythm that fits the words, to succeed. "Often you need to think about how to end [your lines]. In my head, I have all the possible beginnings of a word: sm, ch, fr … For example, 'hope' would go with 'cope', 'open' and 'mope'." (This ability to think up rhyming words is so natural, her family would refuse to play rhyming games with her because they didn't stand a chance of winning!)

But Donaldson warns if you're trying too hard to make rhymes work, there's a danger you won't say what you want to say. And all too often rhyming books drone on interminably. So her advice is to be concise and don't forget to actually communicate the message.

Although The Gruffalo, like most picture books, contains only around 700 words, she says she put a lot of thought into crafting the storyline.

"Often people think good style and characters are enough, but the plot is very important," she says. What she often does is give her characters a problem, and make the trouble get worse before it gets better. One of her golden rules for an enthralling story: "Don't let the character solve the problem too easily".

This approach paid off when she wrote her first novel, the less famous YA book Running on the Cracks, published in 2009, which is the book she is most proud of.

Like many writers, her literary career found her and not the other way around. She studied drama and French at Bristol University and was a teacher before one of her compositions, A Squash and a Squeeze, was made into a book. It's rare that a writer finds automatic success, so her advice for aspiring authors is to know which publisher publishes what; start by checking out The Writers' & Artists' Yearbook.

It's also a good idea to cast as wide a net as possible when sending out manuscripts, and to join a writers' group where your work will be criticised by peers. "One should get used to criticism," she says, "because it's easy to feel bruised."

Her final word of wisdom for authors-to-be? "Don't give up at the first hurdle." Donaldson often hits a wall when writing the ending - it happened with The Gruffalo and Running on the Cracks, and she might have given up if her son hadn't encouraged her to carry on.

"It is important to try to finish something … you're always going to run into difficulties," she says. "Even when you think it's rubbish ultimately, you'll have had some practice."

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Rhyme for a reason

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