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Muselings November 2008

An Interview with Margot Finke



Readers of this column may have noticed the name has reverted to Muselings. This reflects my focus on children's writing, although columns will still have information to benefit all writers. My new website,  hosts my Book Chook blog, with children's book reviews, advice for parents and snippets for writers.


This month's Muselings column is an interview with Margot Finke. Margot is well-known in children's writing circles. Her Musings column is found at Harold Underdown's Purple Crayon site ( where it offers guidance to people getting started in the children's publishing world. At Margot's own site,, writers will discover a wealth of information, including helpful articles about the craft of writing, Margot's own books for children, and her editorial services. Her blog  offers fun, up-to-date writing news, and the odd rant.


I was lucky enough to be part of Margot's workshop at the recent Muse Online Conference. I decided to find out more about this talented and generous writer. Read on to share Margot's insights and discover  what she offers other writers:


Susan: Margot, you've lived in the US for many years now, but you're an Aussie by birth. Did you have any problems adapting to your new country? 


Margot: I am an Aussie who has lived in Oregon, with my husband and three kids, for almost thirty years. We came here when the youngest was only three.  When we met in Australia, I owned a pet store that sold tropical fish. Alan, originally from New York, had a Wholesale Fish Farm business.  I was his first customer.


After we married and had 3 children, we visited his parents, and traveled in the US.  One day, traveling by rented car through the Arizona desert, so like similar Outback areas in Queensland where I grew up, I had a sudden epiphany. This could be the Outback I knew so well.  I discovered it didn't matter where you lived - one lump of desert is much the same as another.  Home is truly where the heart is. My heart was happy wherever our family  lived.


Alan went to college in Oregon, and he always wanted to settle somewhere in that state. We sold our businesses, packed our bags, flew to Oregon. Of course there were small problems.  Similar things went by unfamiliar names.  I searched the supermarket up-and-down for icing sugar, rice bubbles, paw-paw, TOD, and cornflour.  Turns out I should have been looking for: confectionary sugar, Rice Krispies, papaya, orange soda, and cornstarch.  


Our eldest was just twelve, and headed for high school.  She was desperate to fit in and not look or sound different. Clothes we could manage, but the Aussie twang took her all of a month to dispose of.  She was not yet out of the woods.  Food was not the only thing known by a different name in the USA.  She will never live down the day she raised her hand in class, and asked to borrow a "rubber!"  Of course here you call them erasers.  


Susan: You've written "Musings" for a number of years, beginning with Jan Fields and her website, and then with the Purple Crayon hosting it for the last five years. What changes have you noticed in the writing scene during that time?


Margot: Interesting you should ask.  I began serious writing about 12 years ago, the day my youngest left for college, and I finally had the time to BE serious about my writing. Computers were not in many households, but I wanted one. As soon as I kinda mastered it (do we ever?), I found the Children's Writers list. At that time, it had about 12 members. The internet hosted a tight-knit group of writing pioneers in those days.  Many of the wonderful online writers who nurtured me then are now successful and well published. And the CW list has now ballooned into an international membership of about 3,000 members.


However, it was far easier then to become published.  Most publishers accepted and read complete manuscripts. The turn-around time they promised could actually be relied upon. Unfortunately, I had a lot to learn, a lot to rewrite, and a lot to master, before I had my first book published. As soon as I felt ready to send out a manuscript to earn its keep, big changes began to blow through the publishing world. Huge takeovers of old and established firms by overseas conglomerates and others rattled publishing to its foundations.


Computers also changed the way people set up manuscripts, and wrote them. Suddenly, publishers found they had slush piles a mountain goat couldn't climb. And sadly, most of what made up those slush piles was rubbish. The computer age made everyone feel they could write a book.  It was easy - right?


The publishing houses laid off venerable and experienced editors because the Conglomerates who owned many of them wanted black in their bottom line, not red. Sentences weren't the only things being tightened!


Many of the freed editors became agents, or began small publishing houses of their own. They had years of experience, and great contacts in the business. Yet through all this turmoil, the manuscripts I critiqued, first for free, and later for a fee, all had the same problems.  A huge percentage of new writers had no idea of basic grammar, let alone the principles of planning a plot or crafting rich characters.  Concepts like tight writing, voice, POV, and information weaving were beyond them. 


To this day, with all the wonderful websites and books on how to write, newcomers send me manuscripts with the same problems I saw a decade ago. Guess I shouldn't complain - this is what keeps me in the Manuscript Critique Business. I have to say though, that when a client really "gets" it, I am thrilled. I love to see rewrites as tight as Granny's new girdle, with active and powerful verbs, and tension that ratchets up in every chapter. 


I received so much guidance and help from those early CW list members.  Passing on that guidance, and seeing writers bloom, is a huge bonus for me.


Susan: I know you have strong beliefs about the importance of perfect rhyme in children's picture books, Margot. Why is that?


Margot: For me, hearing bad rhyme is akin to squeaky chalk on a chalk board. Ahaaaaa!!   Rhyme and meter come easy to me.  When they handed out the rhyme and meter gene, I snuck in and double-dipped!  When they handed out the math gene, I was under the bed looking for the matches, as my dear Mum used to say. 


Meter in a rhyming verse is like singing in key.  Some come by it naturally.  Others have to sweat blood to get it right.  The lyrical flow of a beautifully crafted verse is a joy to read. 


If you want to understand the workings of smooth flowing meter, you can't beat two articles by author Dori Chaconas:  


Read her delightful books as well.  My "Musings" column has several articles on writing rhyme and meter:


Here are two verses from Rattlesnake Jam:


The way to Gran’s heart was through rattlers galore -

Making rattler jam bubble, ‘til it flowed on the floor.

With her gummiest grin, Gran would peel, slice and dice,

While Pa dreamt of rattler – served up on white rice.


Drop in chunky slices, stir well with a spoon.

Add mysterious spices! Gran hummed a wild tune.

Pa watched as she chopped, and she seasoned and stirred.

The aroma was such it could almost be heard!


Susan:  Can you tell us a little about the process of writing Rattlesnake Jam?


Margot: Like most of my wild ideas, R.J. came to me in the dead of night. The moment I rest my tired bones on a bed, my eyes fly open, and my mind churns new ideas. If I don't put it all on paper fast, by morning it's gone.  On top of that, I can never sleep until the thoughts are safe on paper.  Soooo, I sneak into the bathroom, where I keep large supplies of paper and pencils, hoping not to wake my not-so-imaginative husband. Once the words are down, I can crawl back to bed and sleep. 


I wanted to write something for boys, especially reluctant readers. Earlier in my life, as a teacher's aid, I found boys did not read much. Yet if they found a book with fun, action, excitement, and a yuck factor or two thrown in, they loved reading. On top of that, our son had also been a reluctant reader. The Hardy Boys cured him.


Kevin Scott Collier does a fantastic job of illustrations that hook kid interest from the get-go. I love how he did Gran and Pa - and his rattler is a hoot.  Rattlesnake Jam is reluctant reader friendly, mate!


Susan: You offered a workshop for writers at the recent Muse Online Conference. What was the aim of that workshop? Was it successful? 


Margot: Yes, this is the second year I've hosted a workshop for the Muse Online Writing Conference.  2008 was a huge success. I had almost 150 sign up for my workshop and chat sessions on "How to HOOK an Editor." I was stunned.  How would I cope? For 7 days I typed flat out, answering questions, and offering suggestions and comments on the dozens of first pages, full PBs, and first chapters they sent me. Whew!  My fingers were worn to the nub!  


The Internet is a powerful aid to writers.  This year's conference had people from many countries join together to learn and share.  They were mentored, encouraged, and set on the right path, by presenters who offered their time and talents to help other writers. And it was free!


All thanks to Lea Schizas, the mastermind behind it.


For me, it was encouraging to see these writers quickly grasp where they went wrong, and what was needed. They now had the insight to rewrite their text in a way that DID offer a great hook into their story.  Then we dealt with the need for hooks at a chapter's end, weaving in a flow of backstory and clues that would keep their readers reading. The daily instant chat sessions ranged far and wide. When it ended, I was happy to receive many an appreciative "thank you."


Susan: You also offer editorial services to writers. Can you tell us a little about that? What are some common problems you see in writers' manuscripts?


Margot: This is an area I love. I try to keep my fees affordable, offering an honest evaluation, along with comments, suggestions, and examples to show what I mean.


Here are some problems I come across:


* Waffling on: I tell them waffles are for breakfast - not for writing.

* Constant use of weak verbs: walked, looked, hit etc

* A lack of focus: plot wanders down side tracks.

* Using 10 ho-hum words, when 5 more powerful ones would do a better job.

* Forgetting that the illustrator deals with the details (PB)

* Not using Word or another thesaurus to choose powerful verbs and evocative adjectives.

* No hook into the story on the first page.

* No hooks at the end of most chapters.

* Not thinking out-of-the-box: It's all been written before. Find a new way to tell an old story.


Susan: You're a multipublished author, Margot, as well as an editor. What advice do you have for those who would like to see their children's writing published?


Margot: The best advice I can offer is that writers must realize the rules of the game.


* Publishing is a business: they want books that earn out their advances, and go on to make the publishing house a fat profit.

* Know the basic writing rules, have talent, and stick with it for as long as it takes - sometimes years.

* Join a critique group that specializes in the age you write for.  Make sure there are one or two published/ advanced writers you can learn from.

* Join online writing lists, SCBWI, and network like mad.

* Study the many wonderful websites and blogs list members have. Many are chock-full of great hints and writing wisdom.

* Read! Read! Read!  This gives you a feel for how the experts do it.

* Rewrite, rework, tweak.  Turn that story inside-out if necessary.

* Keep this in mind: Success is 80% hard work and sticking to it, 5% talent, 10% sending the right book, at the right time, to the right publisher, and 5% luck!


Of course, if you're a pop star or a famous actor, scrap all my advice, and enjoy your huge advance!


Susan: Thanks Margot, there's so much helpful advice here for writers.


Margot: Thank you Susan, for giving me the opportunity to rant on about how I see writing for children today.


Margot's Rattlesnake Jam is available from Guardian Angel Publishing,

Barnes and Noble, Amazon and Target. For an autographed copy, go to Margot's web site:  


Find Margot's rhyming series about US and Australian animals at