Vashti Farrer writes a marvellous mixture of zany tales, punchy plays, playful poems and intriguing articles. Her works have appeared in The School Magazine for almost 20 years, charming year after year of readers. We asked Vashti to let us into a few of the secrets to her success.
A broad question to start with: why do you write for young readers? I enjoy writing for both kids and adults, partly because I get a different reaction from each. I find it great fun to write a story for adults, then look at it from a different character's point of view and rewrite the story for kids. That happened with 'The Widow Hegarty's Goat' which started off as an adult story, then became a kids' story and finally became a play for kids.
Do you write using a computer? Yes I do, and I find it useful for moving paragraphs and checking spelling, but I'm just as happy writing short stories with an old-fashioned pen and paper. I don't have a laptop, so when I'm on holiday I always use a pen and paper.
Where do your ideas for your works of fiction come from? Anywhere and everywhere. Dreams (I've woken up with ideas for stories in my head) newspaper snippets and articles, pictures and photographs, old sayings, objects, overheard conversations (Shhhh! Don't tell anyone!). Any of these can spark an idea for a story.
Do you start with plot, character or something else? Some authors spend a lot of time planning their plot first. Others write mini-biographies of their characters to get to know them. For me, once I decide to put a character in particular situation with a problem to solve or a dilemma to fix, I have to get that character's "voice" fixed in my head. This means writing the beginning over and over again, until the "voice" sounds "right". Once I've done that I can write the rest of the story. This isn't as important for short stories in School Magazine, but it is for longer books where I have to be with the character from cover to cover.
You often use animal characters in your stories. Why? Who doesn't like animals? I don't think of them as "dumb" creatures. Okay, maybe they don't think like us but anyone who's owned a cat or dog knows that it can be angry or happy and you see their faces change. (Well, maybe not goldfish)
Can you briefly describe the writing process when you are writing a story? Different stories present different problems in how to write them and even the simplest story may require some research - anything from looking up something on the net to phoning an expert to ask a question (I've always found people willing to help) Do you write many drafts? Again this varies. The first historical novel I wrote 'Escape to Eaglehawk' went through nine drafts. The second 'Eureka Gold' took only two and I wrote 40000 words in 18 days. I went over the first three chapters on 'Ned's Kang-u-roo' about twenty times before I could start writing the rest. For my latest book 'Sydney Harbour Bridge', the publisher wanted only two minor changes.
Illustration by Andrew Joyner from
Vashti Farrer's play 'The Widow
Hegarty's Goat' (Touchdown 6 2012).
Do you seek feedback or input from anyone else? Not usually for the writing or the story, I let the editor tell me what works and what doesn't, but when I'm writing about things I'm not sure of I ask for opinions. For the Bridge book I asked my husband to comment on the parts dealing with the Depression (he's an economist) and my 15 year old grand daughter to tell me if she thought kids would like it.
Can you compare this process with the way you write a nonfiction article? They're totally different. You don't need a "voice" but you do need to have your research done and to have some idea of the order you'll put them in - It's a bit like writing a school essay or an exam.
You write plays, poems, stories and articles for The School Magazine. How do you choose the genre to explore an idea? Most ideas suggest the kind of story and who the character telling it will be, but sometimes this doesn't work and I have to decide if another character could tell it better. Sometimes if this doesn't work either, I'll use the same idea in a poem. I'm writing an adult book at the moment that started off as historical fiction but didn't work so it's now non-fiction. When I turn a story into a play, its usually because the original story had a lot of dialogue so converting it was easy.
Illustration by Lesley Vamos from Vashti
Farrer's play 'The Sweetapples' Swimming
Pool' (Touchdown 4 2012).
Do you have any tips or words of advice for young writers? Yes READ. Read as much as you can - print books or e-books, to get some idea of how writers convey their ideas. You may not like the way they describe something, or you may think it's wonderful, but the more you read the more you'll gain a sense of what works and what doesn't.