Marianne Musgrove’s Terrific Writing Tips

Today, I’m thrilled to welcome Marianne Musgrove back to DeeScribe Writing. Marianne has generously agreed to share some of her fabulous tips on writing.

Marianne Musgrove is an award winning author of such titles as The Worry Tree and Don’t Breathe a Word. She is also a descendant of King Henry VIII’s librarian so books are in her blood!

She is touring the blogosphere to celebrate the release of her latest book, The Beginner’s Guide to Revenge – a funny, moving tale of two teenagers who dabble in the art of revenge only to discover it may not be as sweet as they first imagined.

Making the Most of Metaphors – by Marianne Musgrove

Before I had a book contract, I had a dream one night that I was sitting in a publisher’s office. The publisher leaned forward and said, ‘So, Marianne, how much do you want this?’. My response was to remove my right arm and place it on the desk between us. Apparently, I was willing to give my right arm to be an author!

This dream goes to show how deep metaphors run in the psyche of we humans. They help us understand ourselves and others, and for this reason, metaphors are one of the most useful implements in a writer’s toolbox. Used well, they deepen the meaning of a simple story, exploring ideas, characters’ motives and feelings. Over-used, they render a story forced and awkward. Under-used, the story remains one-dimensional.

Tip 1: Consider the age of your audience

Children don’t develop the ability to understand concepts until around the age of twelve. For this reason, relying on metaphors to convey the meaning of your story will go over the heads of younger readers. While it’s great to use metaphors, make sure the plot stands on its own merit.

Tip 2: First person versus third person

If you’re writing your story in first person, the age of the character will determine the degree of sophistication of their metaphors. If your character is young and you’re keen to use complex images, consider writing in the third person. That said …

Tip 3: The exception to the rule

In my new book, The Beginner’s Guide to Revenge, I’ve used the metaphor of ANZAC Day to explore the themes of conflict, forgiveness, and letting go of the past. The story switches between the first person perspectives of two thirteen year olds, Romola and Sebastian. Even though these characters are unaware of the significance of the ANZAC Day metaphor, the reader is able to draw similarities between the ANZACs and the conflict in the private lives of the characters.

Tip 4: Less is more

I suffer from excessive metaphoritis. Once it comes time to edit, I comb through my manuscript and note how many metaphors I’ve use in any given scene, usually cutting back the number. Try not to have more than one per paragraph. Metaphors should support and enrich the story, not the other way round.

Tip 5: Keeping track

After the first draft, I get out my coloured post-it notes and assign a different colour for each major metaphor. I stick the relevant post-it on the corresponding plot card wherever I’ve mentioned said metaphor. The post-its give me a sense of how spaced out the references are. If there’re all grouped together at the beginning, I revisit the manuscript and amend accordingly.

Images bring a story to life. Use them wisely and well!

— Marianne Musgrove


Today I’m pleased to welcome Children’s author, Marianne Musgrove to DeeScribe Writing.

Marianne is a former social worker who writes fantastic books for children about real life issues. Real issues can be difficult to incorporate in children’s books – they can’t be preachy, but they can’t be taken too lightly either.

Marianne seems to have found just the right balance and today, she has generously agreed to share some of her tips with us.


By Marianne Musgrove.

Bullying, abuse, racism, disability, depression, war, divorce, death. These are the kinds of issues cropping up in modern children’s writing (and that’s just the picture books!).

As a former social worker, my own books, aimed at six to twelve year olds, cover such topics as anxiety, dementia and the nature of truth. The question for me is not so much should we be writing about such subjects as how?

The Preachiness Test

Kids are canny. They’ll tune out before you can say, ‘And the moral to the story is …’ so ask yourself this question: why is this scene/chapter/character here? If your answer is to teach the reader something, there’s a possibility you’re being preachy.

Each scene needs to either move the story forward or reveal something about a character. Do yours?

My latest book, Lucy the Lie Detector, is about a seven year old girl trying to figure out the nature of truth and lies. What do you do when someone gets a horrible haircut and asks you what you think? And what about those times Dad buys you an ice-cream then says, ‘Don’t tell your mother.’?

Writing a book about lying without metaphorically shaking a finger at the reader was a challenge. I tried to show the complexities of lying (white lies versus lying for gain versus pretending), but I didn’t want to cop out and avoid the moral issues either. Telling the truth is complicated and lying breaks trust.

The most important thing, I decided, was to tell a rollicking good story first and explore the issues second.

The Age Appropriateness Test

Wondering if your experimental picture book, Judy the Giraffe: Serial Killer, is a goer?

Think of your book’s target audience then imagine how a child that age would feel after reading certain scenes. It’s desirable to engage the reader emotionally but you don’t want to traumatise them.

Treatment is the key so if you still want to write about a particular topic, consider dwelling less on the heavy aspects of the story, eg. Margaret Wild’s Let the Celebrations Begin! is a picture book about the Holocaust that never mentions the concentration camp itself, instead focusing on the women prisoners sewing toys for the children.

The Values Test

Adopt the role of impartial observer. What are the main messages and values contained in your story? Is this really what you want to say?

Some years ago, there was quite an uproar when Margaret Clark wrote a YA novel called Care Factor Zero in which the main character commits suicide, carrying a message, many argued, of hopelessness. In my view, children’s books should always be infused with hope.

Yes, there can be great sadness in life, but even in the worst of situations, there is always hope (and that’s one of my values). The point here is that your book may contain unintended messages so look closely.

Suggested reading:

The Naming of Tishkin Silk by Glenda Millard (death of a baby sibling/post natal depression)

The Arrival by Shaun Tan (refugees)

Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox (dementia)

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (Asberger’s Syndrome)

Mahalia by Joanne Horniman (teenage single dad)

— Marianne Musgrove Author of

  1. The Worry Tree
  2. Don’t Breathe a Word
  3. Lucy the Good
  4. Lucy the Lie Detector

(All with Random House Australia.)

Thanks for dropping in, Marianne, and for your fantastic tips.

You can find out more about Marianne and her work at

Next week on our Tuesday Writing Tips segment we’re going to be looking at How Writing Competitions Hone Your Writing Skills.