Why “How to Bee” is creating such a buzz – PLUS great writing tips

How to Bee, the new book for readers aged 8-12 by Bren MacDibble has been creating quite a buzz in bookstores, libraries and homes … and that’s no surprise.

Dealing with a contemporary concern, the extinction of bees, the main character, Peony has such a unique voice and fierce, determined personality that she quickly draws you into her story.

I’ll be telling you more about How to Bee and my thoughts on it later, but first, Bren MacDibble has some great writing tips based on how she created this wonderful book.

BREN’S TOP WRITING TIPS

1.  The setting for How to Bee was a future world that evolved over time via facts picked up from reading articles and attending cons and listening to people speak on food security. So my tip is pay attention to interesting things, and things that are important. Nothing is more important to us right now than climate change and food security, so why not set a book in a world that shows the effects of our current direction? Kids are not deaf and blind, they worry about things like this too. A book showing possible effects of bee loss can help them think about those fears in a non-threatening way.

2. How to Bee has a very direct plot line. It’s for 8 to 12 year olds and it is tightly focussed on what the main character wants, and she drives the plot like she’s got hold of a bulldozer and can’t reach the brake. The plot pretty much just goes forwards, with a couple of pauses to catch the reader up on how things got this way. So there’s a straight path through the story, keeping the reader following, even though it’s set in a complex world they’ve never seen before.

3. How to Bee is in first person so the voice of a 9 year old girl who’s never been to school a day in her life and only lived in an orchard, can never let up. She’s the narrator. It’s in her head. It’s in her dialogue, and it’s different to the dialogue of the people around her, except the other kids on the orchard. I can’t tell her story in my voice, I’m too old and have a different vocabulary. Her vocabulary is simple and full of slang, and shaped by the children around her. Find your protagonist’s real and honest voice and use it.

4.  Likewise, her point of view can never let up. Peony is determined and strong, but she is naive. There are things about her mother, or people she doesn’t know that she can’t hope to understand, and when she guesses, she’s often wrong, and that’s okay, because it’s honest. Don’t put adult thoughts in your protagonist’s head. Be honest.

5.  Thinking about everyone in a new world, and what they might value, can add surprising details that add colour to world-building. Like that all the orchard children are named after fruit and flowers because they are what’s precious in this new world. Likewise, for the very rich, life had not changed at all. They were able to insulate themselves and afford the rising food prices, whereas middle and low income people mortgaged their homes and quickly join the ranks of homeless poor. Of course neither of these things can be said from the point of view of a child narrator, but they are shown to a point and left to the observant reader to figure out. When Peony meets Esmeralda, one of the first things she says is, “What kind of name is that?” You or I might think Peony, Pomegranate, and Mangojoy are strange names but in this world, the name Peony thinks is strange is the old name of Esmeralda. There should be a logical flow-on to the whole world if values change.

WHY I LOVED “HOW TO BEE”

Peony lives with her sister and grandfather on a fruit farm outside the city. Real bees are extinct, and the quickest, bravest kids climb the fruit trees and pollinate the flowers by hand.

Sometimes bees get too big to be up in the branches, sometimes they fall and break their bones. This week both happened and Foreman said, ‘Tomorrow we’ll find two new bees.’

Peony’s greatest wish is to be one of them … but nothing is ever certain in her world.

In How to Bee, author Bren MacDibble has taken us so deeply into this world of the future, that as readers we feel we are truly part of it.

We desperately want things to work out for Peony, but when her mother takes her off to the city, we know there’s going to be trouble ahead.

In spite of her fierce dislike of living in the ‘urbs’, Peony forms a friendship with rich city girl Esmeralda that transforms both their lives.

Peony’s voice is so strong and unique that you can hear her in your head and picture her as if she were standing in front of you..

“I wrap my body around it like I am the tree and the tree is me, and hang on.”

There’s plenty of action in How to Bee, but it also has vulnerable sensitive moments that allow the reader to reflect on Peony and her situation and empathise with her story.

How to Bee is sad and poignant and joyous and life affirming all at once.

Peony deals with some difficult realities in How to Bee, but many children have hardship in their lives. Some will relate, others will gain greater understanding by sharing Peony’s journey. All will admire her resilience.

How to Bee is a story of love and hope. It’s about the things you can’t choose in your life, and the choices you can make.

It’s impossible not to fall in love with Peony. With her grit and determination, her hard edges, her courage and her capacity to love.

How to Bee is a great read for anyone who likes strong, unique characters, an original plot and a story world that’s so real and fascinating that you want to stay in it.

How to Bee is published by Allen & Unwin.

MAKE YOUR CHARACTERS MOVE – TUESDAY WRITING TIP

I started my scribing life as a playwright creating murder comedies like The Body in the Buggy Room and Up The Creek. It was something I did for fun. I joined an amateur theatre group and I learned all about stage direction, what the audience could see and how much the actors really  needed to know.

But thanks to two writerly friends I recently realised that you need to toss the stage direction out the window when you’re writing a novel – you need to immerse yourself in the scene.

Alison Reynolds, author of the very popular Ranger In Danger series and many other great reads and Bren MacDibble author of numerous compelling books and short stories for children and young adults both had some invaluable advice for me.

Alison said:

I wanted the scene with black roots to be more menacing and I’ve marked other scenes where I’ve wanted more drama.

When I looked back at the scenes Alison was talking about, I could see what she meant. I had put people in places instead of allowing them to go there of their own free will – to find their own way to react to what was happening around them. These scenes were static – they lacked emotion, they lacked realism, they lacked drama and they lacked spark.

Bren said,

Descriptions on the move as the characters interact with the landscapes, rooms, building may need to be focussed on as well as watching that the stage direction doesn’t overwhelm the narrative or become robotic.

They were both right. You need to let your characters make their own moves and inhabit the world you have created for them.

WHAT NOT TO DO – FROM AN EARLIER DRAFT

To show you what I mean, here’s an example of  a static scene – even though the characters are moving, it’s forced and not dynamic enough – not enough emotion and tension for the scene.

Dad looks at me miserably “That’s just what I’m afraid of. You don’t see what he’s doing to you – to all of us. It has to stop somewhere. He has to start taking responsibility for his actions.”

Mum tries to side step past him. “We are responsible for his actions. It’s what we let happen that caused this.”

Dad moves to the side. “Go then. Just go. But if you leave now, don’t bother coming back.”

HOW I REWROTE IT

Dad has just about stirred the bottom out of his coffee cup. He lifts it to his mouth and peers at me through the steam. “That’s what I’m afraid of. You don’t see what he’s doing to you – to all of us.”

The oven timer rings. Mum slams or hand on it and the ringing stops, but the vibrations still echo through the room. Dad stands next to me while I take my pizza out of the oven. It looks cooked but I don’t feel like eating it now.

“Shit!’ I burn my finger on the tray and just about drop the pizza on Dad’s foot.

“Sarah!” Mum jangles the car keys in her hand.

Dad takes the pizza from me and puts it on the sink. I run my finger under the cold tape and Dad turns to Mum. “See what Ed does to this family.”

“This wasn’t Ed’s fault, Dad. I burnt myself.”

Dad takes the pizza cutter from the drawer and starts slicing,  just about cuts a hole in the tray. “This business with Ed has to stop somewhere. He has to take responsibility for his actions.”

Mum slams a plate on the bench next to Dad. “But we’re responsible for this! We’re the ones who let it happen.”

Let what happen? I keep running my finger under the cold tap, try to stop the pain.

Dad slides the sawed pizza onto the plate and slams it down hard on the kitchen table. He points to the door. “Go then, just go,” he yells at Mum. “But if you leave now, don’t bother coming back.”

In this new scene I tried to incorporate more of what you would expect to be going on during the conversation – the background stuff – the sort of detail that helps put the reader into the scene and make it more real.

Thanks Alison and Bren for your help.

I hope that sharing this with my blog readers might have helped you too.

Happy writing:)

Dee

MEET BREN MACDIBBLE – Writer of quirky original stories for kids and teens

Today’s big news!

Quirky and extremely talented sci-fi/speculative fiction writer Bren MacDibble has dropped in for a chat.

I asked her a few questions about her life, life on earth – and life elsewhere!

1. Bren, how long have you been a writer?

My first book was accepted for publication in 1999. So I guess I’ve just hit a decade of officially being a writer. I’d written stories for a year or so as a teenager and travel logs and things since then, but 1999 was the year I focussed all my attention on children’s writing and it paid off towards the end of that year. I was very lucky.

2. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

When I was fourteen I wanted to be a writer, but when you’re fourteen it’s pretty common to want to be anything other than fourteen. So I was a lot of things before I wanted to be a writer again.

3. Where do you get your ideas from?

I guess mainly from reading or talking to kids or watching documentaries about the future. The documentaries are fact, but I like to explore what something means to people and their lives.

4. Why do you like to write stories from ‘out of this world’?

I like to write stories no one has written before. So they really have to be in places no one has been before, encountering things no one has met before. I also like to explore the future. No one has been there before… well not in real life.

5. Would you like to live on another planet?

I’d give it serious thought if the offer came up.

6. If so, which one and why?

I’d like to live on the Mars base, or maybe the moon base or the International Space Station (even though it would mean hundreds of bad-hair days), but I’m sure there’s an undiscovered planet out there that looks a bit like Fiji that would be even more fun to live on. Why? Because new things are exciting and it would be important to mankind and they’ll need someone along that can point out all the oddities of life in a new place. I’m very good at oddities.

7. A lot of your stories feature animals (sometimes weird ones). What is your favourite animal?

Weird ones? A cat with a tail problem, evil mice, a pet dragon, a dozen aliens… those aren’t weird are they? You know, humans are the weirdest animals of them all. I like sheep best. I had 14 pet sheep when I was a kid and I loved them. You know they recognise each other by face and they recognise different humans by face too. They can remember up to 50 faces. So when a sheep looks and you and recognises you, it really feels like they’re your friend.

8. Are you a clone? Do you know anyone who is? (Besides Bella Wang)

Did sheep make you think of that question? I look a lot like my Aunty so I’m a little suspicious but I don’t think I’m really a clone. I know three people who have an identical twin. They’re natural clones, you know. I’ve met a few Komodo dragons too, they have a little secret way to clone themselves when times are tough, so I’ve probably met a lot of clones. I don’t think I’ve met any humans that have been cloned yet. I’m sure someone somewhere is trying it.

9. What are you writing at the moment?

I’m writing a novel about a girl who is sent with her family to colonise a new planet. She is a typical “plugged in” teenager and is cryogenically frozen for most of the journey. When she wakes up on the new planet, there is nothing there and she is overwhelmed with the isolation of it, and angry. To make matters worse, Earth has aged 50 years since she left. All her friends have grown up so even if she could get in contact with them, she wouldn’t know what to say. Then strange things start happening. She tells her tale in the form of a blog. In the 50 years she was away a lot has changed on Earth, the technology spike has happened and everything is ruled by computers. The girl’s childhood friend is now 65 and is part of the rescue team sent to find the original colonists, when they get to the planet, they find the colony intact but no sign of the colonists. Then they find the blog. The story is told by the older friend rediscovering the younger one through her blog. Two people whose stories are completely intertwined despite being separated by colosal distance and many years. It’s a Young Adult story, but quite an odd, complex one in terms of layout and the things that happen. Essentially it’s about a need to connect to other people. I think it would make a good screenplay too as there are only four sets. Some movie-maker’s budget would love this novel.

Bren, thanks for taking time away from  your cryogenically frozen teenager to drop in.

Make sure you check out Bren’s works at http://www.macdibble.com

Bren is also the  web designer extraordinaire who created and put together my website at www.deescribe.com.au

P.S. I caught up with the talented and dedicated staff at Walker Books Australia last week, and was lucky enough to get a look at the fantastic covers for my new YA book, ‘Letters to Leonardo’, coming out in July. More about that later.