5 tips from Dame Lynley Dodd for aspiring writers

Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy. Just saying those words wraps me in a familiar warmth. I’ve always been in awe of Lynley Dodd’s effortless rhyme and gorgeous illustrations. I mean, what’s not to love about that scruffy little dog with the impossible legs and his diverse collection of friends?

Cover of Hairy Maclary Book
The first Hairy Maclary tale

Of course it’s not every day you get to meet such an iconic figure in literature, so the opportunity to attend a masterclass with Dame Lynley Dodd and hear her share her processes and struggles as a creative (yes, she has them too) was fantastic.

Lynley’s insights for aspiring children’s authors were both helpful and heartening. Here’s the top five that spoke to me the most:

#1 Keep an ideas notebook

Lynley showed us her rather battered (read: well-loved) notebook together with a manila folder of newspaper clippings, sketches and other inspiration.

It doesn’t really matter how you organise it, as long as you keep it with you always and write your ideas down. The middle of the night or while you’re walking is no exception! The ‘birth’ of Hairy Maclary was first sketched on a shopping list pad — a tiny sketch, with the words “One morning at nine, on the way to the park, went Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy”. It’s hard to imagine this phenomenon was once just an idea sketched on a shopping list pad. But it’s worth remembering all great ideas have humble beginnings.

It was to be another four years before this idea was turned into the Hairy Maclary we know and love today!

#2 Play with language

Lynley confesses to occasionally going through the dictionary and writing down any juicy, silly words she loves the sound of. ‘Footle’ and ‘hob-nobbing’ are a couple of examples. She disagrees with the critics who sometimes say she uses language that’s too advanced for children. But when a toddler tells her parents off for “making a cacophony”, you know this thought is ill founded. Lynley says lovely language and teaching our children new words is so important — there’s no need to ‘dumb it down’.

#3 Rhyme is harder than you think

Don’t be fooled — writing in rhyme is hard. It takes a lot more than just rhyming the last word of a line. It’s the rhythm that’s so important and it must have perfect scansion. Lynley always tests her rhyme for its ‘singability’. If a line just won’t quite work, it’s gone, even if she loves it. Dr Seuss, one of Lynley’s favourite authors, once told her never to get wedded to a good line. In other words, kill your darlings. We all know it, but in rhyme this is even more important.

There are other subtle things to consider when choosing words for rhyme too, such as their suitability for an international market. Many picture book publishers will be thinking about how easy your work would be to market overseas. The word ‘ute’ might be basic vocab for Australians and Kiwis, but Americans would be left scratching their heads. In Lynley’s latest book, Scarface Claw, Hold Tight, the word ‘ute’ had to be replaced with ‘truck.’ Too bad if ute had been used as a rhyming word! (Kiwis will of course be happy that ‘dairy’ survived the cut rather than ‘corner shop’ — just doesn’t have the same ring, does it!).

Accents — the way we pronounce a word in our own region, as well as where the emphasis naturally falls in a line — can also be problematic. Rhyme needs to be robust if it has any hope of travelling outside our own borders, and as Lynley puts it, you have to make it sound like you’ve tossed off the rhyme without any effort at all.

The selfie set at the Redcliffe Art Gallery
The ‘selfie set’ at the Redcliffe Art Gallery

#4 Structure and plot

A strong story line that’s simple and clear is Lynley’s advice here. The story must fit the 32-page picture book format, not be overly complicated, and wind up comfortably in the space allowed.

As both author and illustrator, Lynley says both elements come together in an A, B, A, B pattern — ‘A’ being text, and ‘B’ being the illustrations. When she’s first plotting out the book, she’ll consider both elements and how they might work in a picture book format — every illustration must have a single action happening but the images need to be varied and interesting.

Lynley always starts with a synopsis so she knows what’s going to happen in the story. This helps her with planning both illustrations and text as she usually knows the action, but not necessarily the language.

She’ll also run the synopsis by her publisher to see if they agree it’s a good idea before she proceeds too far with it.

#5 It doesn’t get easier

This one kind of surprised me. I thought that someone who, let’s face it, makes writing these stories look like she’s just “tossed off the rhyme with no effort at all”, would find the whole process rather easy. But Lynley faces just the same challenges all writers face — finding exactly the right words, not quite being happy with a line, not enough happening to go with a picture, too much happening to go with a picture, having to cull favourite lines because they just don’t work.

Lynley says she does up to 25 drafts of a book before she’s happy enough to show it to anyone. As a perfectionist, she’ll keep it to herself until it’s close to what we as readers actually see.

And then there’s the challenges that come with the artwork — paint drying too quickly, paper stock changing, colour reproduction not quite right, making sure everything in the illustration is correct and can’t be misinterpreted and, as in her latest book, making sure the drivers are wearing seatbelts!

Penelope Jackson, Dame Lynley Dodd and Lyn Halliday
Tauranga trio: Penelope Jackson (left) and Dame Lynley Dodd (centre) with me (right) at the Redcliffe Art Gallery, just after Lynley’s masterclass

The talk Lynley delivered at the Redcliffe Cultural Centre was both delightful and inspiring — she even read to us from her latest book, Scarface Claw, Hold Tight, and wow, can she do an impressive cat yowl!

But it was during the small group masterclass, held at the Redcliffe Art Gallery, where Lynley really shared her wisdom and insights into her process — pure gold for any aspiring children’s author. I feel immensely privileged to have had this opportunity.