Meg McKinlay: You rock... and kinda suck.

Beautiful and brilliant.

Beautiful and brilliant.

I went to a writers’ workshop last weekend and it was mint, particularly the first couple of hours. I suspect an actual writer might not have got as much from it as an actual novice, but being the latter I was happy I made the hour-long drive. I was harbouring a very hairy hangover so expected the morning to be difficult regardless of where I was and what I was doing. Lucky for me the workshop was conveniently located next door to a coffee shop so I nursed a strong coffee for 30 seconds before downing it in 10 (it helped for 15).

The first session of the day was presented by Meg McKinlay and was the main reason I was there. I have always loved Meg’s work and since deciding to become a writer have chosen her career to covet.

I'm sure every artist has a painting they wished they had painted, every musician a song they wish they had composed, and every wannabe author a book they wish they had written. When Meg McKinlay wrote Ten Tiny Things and went on to have it illustrated by Kyle Hughes-Odgers aka Creepy, she officially wrote the children’s book I wish I had written. *bitchcow* sneeze.

I have seen Meg before but this was the first time I had heard her discuss her own writing. It was thoroughly disappointing, and a little sad, for me.  Her career appears to be based on talent, insight, hard work, passion and commitment. I was hoping to hear it was persistence and good luck, a miniscule amount of ability, and a hilarious mum blog. Damn it.

Meg got the group started with some writing exercises. If you have any interest in the area it is a fun activity to do. She gave some example of memories from her childhood, just a sentence or two that begun with ‘I remember…’. She got us to do the same.

‘I remember….’

‘I remember…’

This was mine:

‘I remember hating the colour brown.’

‘I remember hating the colour brown because I saw ‘Ben .I.’ written on the back of Ali .E’s door in brown paint.

‘I remember thinking Ali .E. had written ‘Ben .I.’ on the back of her door in poo.’

‘I remember hating Ben .I. because one time he headbutted me and I fell onto the school bags.’

‘I remember my mum saying I was never allowed to use the word 'hate'.’

See? Fun! Ok perhaps mine is not a great example. But try it and you might enjoy. There was no reason to connect all the ‘I remembers’ to one incident btw – they could be anything from any time in childhood – my head just went that way. The question was: is there a story in there? Could any memory from your childhood spark a novel plot? Later on we were asked to see if we could throw any kind of story together from what we had.

Meg then put up a couple of images, paintings by her sister in law (rising talented family theme), and asked us to write what we thought was happening before and after the image, and a summary of a related story. One of the lovely images is the first page of her website. Check it out if you want to have a go.

We were given a few minutes to write three opening sentences to this story. Then came the hard part: read out your three sentences to the group. GULP. Having never talked to anyone at any writing-related workshop I nearly passed out, woke up, crawled under the table and slithered toward the exit. Unfortunately that would have left me silently creeping along the ground in front of everyone and it was a good 5 metres of empty carpeted space between the tables and the electronically opening door.

‘Not feasible, will have to talk.’

nearly there...

nearly there...

I was relieved to hear some other first sentences that were as uninspired and unoriginal as mine, I was in safe, amateur hands. The painting was of a boy hugging/holding a tree on a wooden boat in the sea (the objective description). I managed to squeak out my offerings without the world going black or swallowing me up…

‘Milo watched the machines, and the men that worked them, whirrrrring, sawing, zzzrrrrrrring.’

‘He didn’t know where he would take it. He just knew it needed water, sunshine, and someone (like him) to protect it.’

‘Milo saw his mum shouting at him from the shore and Mitsy was barking ferociously, but he couldn’t hear a thing.’

…and the day went on.

If you have any interest in writing children’s books, or writing generally, I recommend a Meg workshop. She is humble and easy to listen to, and tells great tales of how her ideas develop. I sat with a good group of girls - two of whom were established bloggers and gave me much food-for-blogging-thought. I do wish I had the chutzpah to ask Meg my own questions (some of the 'questions' from the crowd were absurdly irrelevant):

Do you have vocab boundaries when you are writing kids novels (taking literacy levels into account), or do you just go for it and if the reader doesn’t know a word they can damn well look it up?

How long does it take you to have a hard copy book in your hand after you have sent the first (approved) manuscript to the publisher?

How many hours a week do you write? And a good question from one of the girls in our group - also too shy to ask - when do you write (as in times of day, she is a mum after all)?

Do you honestly even make a single penny profit from your books?

Here was my ‘story’ (for no particular audience or purpose, and with the coffee hit well and truly over) thrown together from the ‘I remember…’ sentences. I think we were given about 5 minutes to complete it.

I stared at the writing on the back of Ali E’s bedroom door. It was brown: watery, muddy brown. I thought it was poo. Did she write ‘Ben .I’ in poo on the back of her door? Is that even possible?

‘What is this?’ I asked Ali E.

‘It’s Ben .I,’ She replied, clearly having no idea what I was really asking.

‘But what did you write it with?’


I was relived to hear that. But I needed more. She was absently playing with the pink owl clock next to her bed. I stared at the horrid brown-ness for as long as I could stand it. I didn’t like brown. And I didn’t like Ben .I. One afternoon at school I was reluctantly involved in a game of kiss chasey. Ben .I tried to kiss me. I thought he smelled awful so I ran as fast as I could to the safety of the classroom. Unfortunately he was equally determined in his pursuit of me as I was in my escape from him, and he caught up to me as we round the corner. At that speed his kiss was more like a headbutt and it threw me into the row of schoolbags lying on the ground outside the classroom. I presented the scrape on my elbow to explain all the crying.

‘Why did you write it?’, I asked Ali E.

‘Because I love him.’

We were six.

image:lisa coutts

image:lisa coutts

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