Top Ten Things That Make a Fifteen-Year-Old Girl Want to Read a Book (and Finish it)

A number of years ago, I started a series I called “Ten On…” where I asked young readers of a specific age what they liked to see in books (usually after bribing them with cupcakes). For example, for one post I interviewed a group of ten-year-old girls, and in another, I put thirteen-year-old boys under the spotlight. Each time, answers were collated and listed in order of importance to the group (sometimes after much debate between individuals).

I thought I’d revisit this concept by bringing together a group of readers in the middle of their young-adult years, a group starting to earn their own money – and wanting to spend it. So last week, I sat down with eight fifteen-year-old girls and asked them one question (well, two questions, depending on how you look at it) :

What makes you want to read a book (and actually finish it)?

Now all I can say about these girls is that they are astute, know what they want – and eat a lot of cupcakes.

Here are their top ten responses, counting down from tenth to first:

10. Action – not the type you see in a going-on-a-quest adventure (“They’re for young kids,” one said). More like the action you find in battle (“Girls like them too”) along with running-to-escape or hurrying-to-solve-a-problem scenarios.

9. Blurb – those words on the back of the book must be catchy and creative.

8. A strong supporting cast of characters – they must be “as interesting as the protagonist.” I LOVED this comment! Supporting characters must also have a pretty good reason to be in the story.

7. Title – like the blurb, the title must be catchy and creative. There was general consensus among the girls that too many books have similar – even the same – titles, which is confusing and boring.

6. Cover Page – needs to match the story (“There’s nothing worse than liking a cover but finding out it has nothing to do with the story.”) Realistic covers were preferred over animated/cartoon (“We’re not little kids.”)

5. Plot twists – this groups yearns for the unexpected (“I hate it when I guess what’s going to happen.”)

4. Identifiable settings – real-world settings are in. The number one choice of setting was the school environment, not boarding school but “regular school”, as one put it. Out-of-this-world or epic fantastical settings did not make the grade at all (see what I did there? 😉 )

3. Sixteen to eighteen-year-old protagonists – the protagonist should be no younger than twelve and no older than twenty. Sixteen to eighteen was the sweet spot, which fits in with the generally-accepted writing rule that readers tend to read a couple of years up. An interesting aside: When it came to the protagonist, no one had a preference for one gender over another. I wonder if a group of boys this age would feel the same???

2. Romance – ahh, the wish for love interests is kicking in with this age group, but also with a caveat: Any romance must be relevant to the story. (“No kissing just for the heck of it.”) Smart girls!

And (drum roll…) the top answer was:

1. Elements of fantasy – not what I was expecting, but the group was clear: They LOVE seeing fantasy elements in real-world settings in stories. Magic systems in OUR world are officially cool. “But what about contemporary stories?” I asked. Answers ran along the lines of, “We get enough of that at school”, “Contemporary can be boring”, “It’s okay but…” and one girl simply screwed up her nose and shook her head.

So for those saying YA fantasy is out with readers…um, maybe it’s not? Not if it’s set in our world, anyway.

An important point to remember: While this was a culturally-diverse group, it was very small in number. Only eight, in fact. But the responses are quite interesting, don’t you think?


Books Don’t Go From Author to Bookstore (as Explained by Diana Gabaldon)

I have to share these words from mega-successful author, Diana Gabaldon. As most of you would be aware, Diana is the hugely-talented acclaimed author of the Outlander series (among others). Her original classic Outlander novel was published thirty years, so I think it’s safe to say that Diana knows a thing or two or ten about the book publishing industry.

And as someone who is both a writer and bookseller, I wanted to share her words on how detailed (and time-consuming) the process is for a manuscript to go from author…to bookstore. I’ve chosen to share Diana’s words without any breaks in the bulk of her explanation, because that’s how I read it – barely taking a breath.

And here we go…

As my husband often remarks, “’FINISHED’ is a relative term to a writer.” This is true! I thought y’all might be interested in just what happens to a book after the writer is “finished” writing the manuscript: (NB: This is the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP). When there’s a tight Production schedule—such as there was for MOBY and THE OUTLANDISH COMPANION, Volume 2–a lot of these steps can be done concurrently, rather than sequentially, and a few repetitive steps may be skipped. But by and large, this is how it works.)

Books don’t go directly from the author to the bookstore. Books go from the author to the editor, who reads the manuscript, discusses the manuscript with the author, and suggests minor (we hope) revisions that may improve the bookB. The book goes back to the author, who re-reads the manuscript considers the editor’s comments, and makes whatever revisions, amendments, or clarifications seem right. The book goes back to the editor, who reads it again, asks any questions that seem necessary, and sends it to the copy-editor. This is a person whose thankless job is to read the manuscript one…word…at…a…time, find typos or errors in grammar, punctuation, or continuity (one heck of a job, considering the size not only of the individual books, but of the overall series), apply “house style” to things like numbers (e.g., do we write “two” or “2”?), and write queries to the author regarding anything questionable, whereupon the book comes back to the author—yes, again— who re-reads the manuscript answers the copy-editor’s queries, and alters anything that the copy-editor has changed that the author disagrees with, and adds things inspired by the copy-editor’s comments that seem like a good idea. After which, the author sends it back to the editor—yes, again!—who re-re-reads it, checks that all the copy-editor’s queries have been answered, and sends it to the typesetter (aka compositor, these days), who sets the manuscript in type, according to the format laid out by the book designer, who decides on the layout of the pages (margins, gutters, headers or footers, page number placement), chooses a suitable and attractive typeface, decides on the size of the font, leading and kerning, chooses or commissions any incidental artwork (endpapers, maps, dingbats—these are the little gizmos that divide chunks of text, but that aren’t chapter or section headings)—or, for something like the OC, a ton of miscellaneous illustrations, photographs, etc. that decorate or punctuate the text, designs chapter and section headings, with artwork, and consults with the (NB: people always want to know how many pages the book will be. This depends entirely on the book designer’s decisions, so there’s no telling ahead of time. The font, leading, kerning (leading and kerning are, respectively, the amount of space between lines and between letters) and page layout will all affect how many words fit on a page.) Then there’s the cover artist, who (reasonably enough) designs or draws or paints or Photoshops the cover art (this often happens earlier in the process, but I put it here for convenience), which is then sent to the printer, who prints the dust-jackets—which include not only the cover art and the author’s photograph and bio, but also “flap copy,” which may be written by either the editor or the author (I usually write my own), but is then usually messed about with by the marketing department, whose thankless task it is to try to figure out how best to sell a book that can’t reasonably be described in terms of any known genre, to which end, they try to provide seductive and appealing cover copy to the book (which the author normally approves. I usually insist on writing it myself), compose advertisements for the book (author usually sees and approves these—or at least I normally do), decide where such advertisements might be most effective (periodicals, newspapers, book-review sections, radio, TV, Facebook, Web), try to think up novel and entertaining means of promotion, such as having the author appear on a cooking show to demonstrate recipes for unusual foods mentioned in the book, kill a pigeon in Times Square and examine the entrails in order to determine the most advantageous publishing date for the book. OK. The manuscript itself comes back from the typesetter, is looked at (again) by the editor, and sent back to the author (again!), who anxiously proof-reads the galleys (these are the typeset sheets of the book; they look just like the printed book’s pages, but are not bound. (NB: of recent years, galleys are often provided in electronic form)), because this is the very last chance to change anything. Meanwhile (somewhere in here, recording begins on the audiobook, which is normally released at the same time as the hardcover. Ideally, the narrator is given a version of the manuscript that’s pretty close to the ultimate printed form, but they may get earlier or partial versions from which to prepare their performance (choosing accents and pacing for different characters, for instance).)) A number of copies of the galley-proofs are bound—in very cheap covers—and sent to (NB: This is SOP, but we haven’t been doing it for the last few books, owing to the fact that the book itself is coming out on the heels of production; there’s no time to distribute ARCs (Advanced Reading Copies).) (NB: These days, it’s often PDF’s, though paper ARCs are still used, too.)) The Reviewers, i.e., the bound galleys (or PDF’s) are sent (by the marketing people, the editor, and/or the author) to the book editors of all major newspapers and periodicals, blogs, website, and to any specialty publication to whom this book might possibly appeal, in hopes of getting preliminary reviews, from which cover quotes can be culled, and/or drumming up name recognition and excitement prior to publication. Frankly, they don’t always bother with this step with my books, because they are in a rush to get them into bookstores, and it takes several months’ lead-time to get reviews sufficiently prior to publication that they can be quoted on the cover. With luck, the author finds 99.99% of all errors in the galleys (you’re never going to find all of them; the process is asymptotic—vide the typo in the very last line of MOBY…), and returns the corrected manuscript (for the last time, [pant, puff, gasp, wheeze]) to the editor, who sends it to (the ebook coding happens somewhere in here) the printer, who prints lots of copies (“the print-run” means how many copies) of the “guts” of the book—the actual inside text—are printed. These are then shipped to the bindery, where the guts are bound into their covers, equipped with dust-jackets, and shipped to the distributors. There are a number of companies—Amazon is the largest, but there are a number of smaller ones, and the large publishing houses have their own warehouse facilities, too—whose business is shipping, distributing, and warehousing books. Arrangements are made in this phase for ebook distribution through retailers like Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million, etc..) and bookstores, but bookstores can only house a limited number of books. Therefore, they draw on distributors’ warehouses to resupply a title that’s selling briskly, because it takes much longer to order directly from the publisher. And at this point, [sigh]…the book finally reaches you, the reader.

And we do hope you like it when you get it—because we’re sure God went to a lot of trouble to make it for you.

So there you have it. THAT’S why is takes sooo long for the next book in that series you’re hankering to read, to hit the bookshelves. Please don’t take it out on booksellers.

I think I’ll go lie down now.


Write for Free? I’d Like to Decide That for Myself, Thank You.

UPDATE: I’m pleased to report that the article that was republished without my consent has now been removed from the offending website.


Before I turned my attention to novels, I had a fairly successful freelance gig writing for magazines. I wrote short fiction and some pretty personal non-fiction, which I sent out for sale. At times, I was also commissioned to write feature articles on predetermined topics. Things were kind of sweet…until hard times hit the magazine industry and the work slowed to a bare trickle.

I remember receiving an email one day from a regular client. It read, We value your work but due to the current downturn, we are unable to continue to pay for it. Saying that, we hope you continue to submit to us because of the valuable exposure it will give you. Or something along those lines.

Exposure. Like none of my previous paid work did that? Like anything I now write for free will suddenly put my name up in lights?

Um, thanks but no thanks.

That was a number of years ago and I haven’t submitted to them since. I haven’t given them much thought either. Until today, when I found out they have published my work on their website:

  • Without my consent. No one approached me to ask for permission.
  • Without rights. They only ever had the right to publish the piece in question once, in one print edition of their magazine. Which they did, like I said, years ago.
  • Without any further monetary payment to me. Not a cent. Yet they are using their website as a means to make money, through advertising revenue.

Now there are times when I write for free, for example, for blog posts (like this one); in emails, tweets, Facebook and Instagram posts; for non-profits and charity events; in diary entries, love letters…you get my drift. Writing that I don’t intend to make money from.

But if my writing will be used by someone to help make money for them, I expect to be paid for it – Okay, I know social media sites make money from ads but I use their platforms to make friends, build community, etcetera, so I see them as providing something to me in return.

What I’m trying to say is that if a magazine or other publisher wants to use what you have written to help them make money, they SHOULD pay you for the right to use it. And if you do sell them the right to use your work, they should only do what that right specifically says they are entitled to do.

If we, as writers, don’t expect to be treated as professionals, no one else will see us as professionals. Treat yourself as one, and don’t let others treat you as anything less.

As for the piece that’s been republished without my permission, I’ve sent the company a kind but firm request to remove it from their website.

I’ll let you know how it goes.


Do you write for free, and have you ever regretted it?

Has your work ever been used without your consent, and did you do anything about it?

How I Became a #MGWave’r

It’s been a pretty crazy year, but one thing that helped keep me sane was #MGWaves. What is #MGWaves, I hear you ask? Let’s start at the beginning…

I’m an Australian writer who believes you only live once. Which is why I do things like this:

I’m also an Australian writer whose publishing success to date has mainly consisted of a series of short stories and feature articles I wrote over a number of years for an Australian parenting magazine (if you don’t include the writing of annual reports, press releases, and technical reports that I did for government…) Anyway, when the magazine’s income dried up, my income from the magazine also vanished.

Not to worry, what I really wanted to do was write for Younger Me, not for parents. So I wrote a young adult novel which I queried. It received multiple partial and full requests, but…after two years of trying, no agent.

Not to worry, what I really REALLY wanted to do was write for Younger Younger Me. Middle Grade Me (middle grade is, after all, my sweet spot). It just took me a while to muster up the courage to try. When I found this courage, I wrote a novel about a chatterbox twelve-year-old who must rob a casino using an unusual (ahem!) skill, in order to save his little sister. I was thrilled when it received runner-up this year in the WritingNSW Varuna Fellowship. More on that here. In the meantime, let’s move on.

On a high from my runner-up award, I submitted to Pitch Wars and guess what! I WON! Well, I wasn’t selected as a mentee but I still won.

Let me explain.

Through one of the many ways that one finds things in the writing community (AKA Twitter), I joined a chat group of Pitch Wars middle grade applicants. The group was called Magnificent MG and like all things that turn out to be magnificent, I did NOT expect this group to be so…magnificent. Here was a group of wonderful writers that really understood my need to write middle grade. They got me. They also like Zoom.

Over the last few chatty zoomy months, through the highs and lows of writing, critiquing, querying, applying, and more writing, we’ve become closer than the plethora of middle grade books on my crammed bookshelf. We’ve shared highs and lows, and more than a few pics of dogs, cats, cooking, and kids. Our writing endeavours have rippled out into the world, gathering momentum to become waves. Naturally, this led to a change in name for the group.

Welcome to #MGWaves!

(As an aside, I’m also now in a Facebook group that, like #MGWaves, offers so much it’s a writer’s Christmas. It’s early days for me with this particular group, but I hope to give back as much as I can once 2021 kicks in. Because let’s face it, we are all paddling through the life we choose as writers in the best way we can.)

So what is the real point of this post? It’s to tell you to go out and find YOUR community. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, to ask for help. Keep showing up, keep putting yourself out there. Many writers will have the same fears, concerns, and hopes as you. And they’ll be nice. You never know, you might even form a group with a hashtag name!

I am grateful to have met mine, and to be riding the writing waves with them. Who knows where it will take us?

Interested to know more? Comment below. And while you’re at it, check out some of the amazing #MGWave’rs I’m proud to call my friends:

Malia Maunakea

Jennifer Mattern

Anushi Mehta

Daria Pipkin

Thushanthi Ponweera

Beth Gawlik

Susan Leigh Needham

Maureen Mirabito

Taylor Kemper

Sabrina Vienneau

When the Big 5 Become 4 (3, 2, 1). Where to From Here?

This week’s decision of Bertelsmann, the parent company of Penguin Random House, to buy Simon and Schuster sent alarm bells ringing through the book publishing world. The deal, due to be completed in 2021, will combine the world’s biggest trade publisher with the world’s third.

Penguin Random House CEO, Markus Dohle, is quoted in a letter to employees, saying that the decision marks a “good day for books, book publishing, and reading.”

Umm, really?

With the consolidation and cost-cutting that will invariably come, this decision means there will be less imprints (and publishing staff), leading to a shrinking catalogue of titles. As if it wasn’t hard enough already, opportunities for debut authors will also become that much harder, and agents will also have a harder time achieving favourable deals for writers – or any deal at all.

Monopolies impact culture. Monopolies favour trends over diversity.

Now more than ever, we need to support small presses and indie publishers. Now more than ever, we need to fight for a healthy publishing industry.

It is up to all of us, as consumers.


The Excitement of the Unexpected Runner Up

Hi all,

I’m thrilled to bits to announce that my quirky middle grade manuscript has been selected as Runner Up in the 2020 Writing NSW Varuna Fellowship. I can hardly believe it (and my bumbling blabbermouth MC has not stopped talking about it in my head)!

Photo by Pixabay on

A HUGE thank you to the judges, Writing NSW, Text Publishing and the Varuna Writers’ House for the opportunity this award brings.

Click here if you are interested in learning more about the fellowship, including the winners, my fellow runner up (who happens to be a writer friend of mine so double the celebration!) and the highly commended.

Massive congrats to them all and I can’t wait to read their work one day!


A Big Weekend is Coming!

Hi all,

one of the only good things to come out of lockdown has been the surge in online writing/book events, making them easier to access for those of us who don’t live in major cities. And this weekend’s event by Australian radio station, ABC Radio National, is gearing up to be great!

ABC Radio National

The Big Weekend of Books is entirely devoted to conversations about reading, writing and (of course) books with best-selling authors from around the world, including Elizabeth Gilbert, Hilary Mantel, Trent Dalton, and 2019 Booker Prize winner, Bernardine Evaristo.

Click here for the event program and how to check it out, on air or online.

Will be worth a listen.




Should Your Novel Catch a Virus? To Write or Not to Write Covid-19 Into Your Book

You’re in the middle of writing a novel, set in the first half of 2020. You’ve outlined your plot, developed comprehensive character sketches, and weaved together compelling story and character arcs. First (or second or tenth) draft is done, edits have been made. Things are looking good.

book on linen sheets
Photo by Daria Shevtsova on

Then the Covid-19 pandemic strikes. Do you:

a) continue on with your existing story, as is, or

b) modify it, to some degree, to include the pandemic and its horrific fallout?

This question came up yesterday during an online author event I attended – the author’s book is set in March 2020. I don’t believe it made any difference to the book in question, but there are other stories where it might.

It’s safe to say there are many novels being written, as well as some recently published, that are set in 2020. And some of these novels use prevailing political and social conditions to help drive the story, almost as a character. Given books published, or due to be published, in 2020 were written one, two, even five years ago, there is no way their writers knew back then what would transpire, come 2020. But it may affect the authenticity of some of their stories.

So I suppose my answer to the question above is: it depends on the story.

While my middle grade manuscript is set in present day, there is nothing in it that specifically says it is set in 2020. Also, I’m not prepared to tinker with my manuscript to include the pandemic, when the pandemic holds no relevance to the inciting incident, progress, or outcome of my story. To be honest, I’m not sure middle-graders want to be reminded of Covid-19 while reading stories that are supposed to be escapist in nature and (hopefully) funny. I know I wouldn’t at that age (will we want to be reminded of it at any age)?

However, I do wonder how many writers are considering changes to their work to include what has become the most defining event for humanity (so far) this century.

Time will tell.


How Covid-19 Will Change (Make That, Has Changed) Book Publishing

Hi all,

Quite by chance this morning, I came across a Los Angeles Times article from a month ago. It mirrored a conversation I had last night with a fellow writer and, although it’s a month old, I’m sharing this article now as it still provides relevant (and unsettling) thoughts on where the book publishing industry is headed: How the coronavirus will change book publishing: now and forever.


I believe things will get better, in terms of the pandemic anyway. I’m not so sure when it comes to book publishing.

With many bookshops closed (and no guarantee of them reopening), with book tours and writer festivals cancelled, with publishers deferring new releases and book printing adversely affected, the industry is currently on semi-hold.

Since early March, Publishers Weekly has been compiling a list of cancellations, closures, policy changes and more. For an industry long regarded as slow to act, this list shows how the book publishing industry is reacting to survive.

Much of this list refers primarily to the US industry, the dominant force of the book publishing world. However, Australia’s industry is by no means immune from this crisis. In fact, given the much smaller size of our industry, we may be far greater affected than our northern hemisphere counterparts.

Seven years ago, my regular magazine writing gig all but dried up when hard times fell on that industry. I fear this is far worse. The struggles the book publishing industry faces are huge.

The Australian Publishers Association has compiled a list of regularly updated information on resources to help Australia’s industry weather the viral storm.

But is it enough?

It’s not hard to imagine publishers, especially small and independent publishers, closing their doors for good. It’s also not hard to work out which global publisher is most likely to be the one left standing when the dust finally settles. Any guess who that will be?



While the Manuscript’s Away, the Author Will Play

So earlier this month, my middle grade manuscript winged its cyber way to my editor for a critique on the good, the bad, and the ugly. You know, what works, what doesn’t work. Why. Big picture stuff.

Time away from writing ain’t necessarily a bad thing

It was a good time to send it. I’d had enough.

Enough of reading the same words over and over.

Enough of second-guessing plot, characterisation, story arcs and character arcs, world-building, dialogue, pacing…The list goes on.

Beta readers had previously given feedback. Most I took on, some I didn’t.

I’d edited and edited and edited.

And still, my story didn’t feel quite right. The “big picture” didn’t feel quite right and me, being a detail-focused person, needed help to find out why.

So off it went and I’ve been waiting – well, no I haven’t. At the end of the month, I hope to have suggestions and direction for the best way forward but in the meantime, I’ve been doing loads of other things, like:

  • remembering I have a family – the humans (and dog) who’ve put up with my absences behind a closed office door, my often-incoherent rambling/complaining about my manuscript at the dinner table, my early morning cursing in front of my laptop (better than an alarm clock, I hear). At least it’s school holidays here at the moment, giving me ample time to make it up to them. 😊

  • remembering I have other interests – I’ve cheered my favourite tennis player, Rafael Nadal, at the ATP Cup, and burst into spouse-embarrassing song and dance at an Elton John Farewell Yellow Brick Road concert.
  • Books Whisper Duology
    Whisper duology

    binge-reading. Okay, I never actually gave up reading while writing, I just read a waaay lot less. Now I’m devouring books like the end of the world is near. From Lynette Noni’s Whisper duology to Maggie Stiefvator’s Sinner (companion novel to her Shiver Trilogy), and others in between. Absolute bliss.

  • binge-watching. Movies at the cinemas, movies on Netflix, series on Netflix (still not sure whether I love or only like The Witcher). Basically, I watched all those shows I’d avoided while gearing up for critique submission. Again, absolute bliss.
  • Pink Mini Roses
    My garden in bloom

    gardening. My patch of the world has been a tad neglected of late (like my family), but is now showing signs of recovery with tender-loving attention (like my family). If only we had oodles more rain (for the garden, not my family).

  • And then there’s my work as a bookseller. I’ve doubled my weekly shifts this year (from one day to two – with the occasional third shift thrown in)! I do love talking to the book-buying community, it’s like a special secret club. And let’s face it, there’s nothing like seeing all those new releases come in to remind you how far you (potentially) need to go to join them. 😏

So there you have it. The above isn’t a complete list, but I don’t want to hold you up any longer.

Do I miss my manuscript? Sort of. Okay, when I think about it I do, especially my characters. They’re like old friends. I like to think they’re off on a trip, hopefully with tales to tell and insights to share when they return.

And I’ll welcome them with open arms when they do (and also with a little trepidation). 😉

Wish me luck!


Have you ever had a critique of your writing work?

If so, how has it helped you (or not)?