Ep 11 Tablet magazines, fake Twitter followers, awesome writing blogs, the difference between goals and dreams and author Alexa Moses

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In Episode 11 of So you want to be a writer, we ask if you are reading tablet magazines, we discuss the periodic table of storytelling, fake twitter followers, the difference between goals and dreams, the top 10 blogs for writers, how to write a blog post in 15 minutes or less, Writer in Residence tween author Alexa Moses, our Working Writer's Tip, our Web Pick and more!

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Show Notes

The Brief: ABC's new app

“The Periodic Table of Storytelling” Reveals the Elements of Telling a Good Story

Four in five of mayor’s Twitter followers fake

Goals vs. Dreams

How to write a blog post in 15 minutes or less

Fibro Q&A


Alexa MosesWriter in Residence

Alexa Moses is a journalist, screenwriter and author of the Jenna Bookallil-Brown series about Ancient Egypt for tweens. She talks with us about writing children's fiction, plotting versus pantsing, and how to write history without sounding like a textbook.

Working Writer's Tip

Connecting and Networking

Web Pick

Start writing with Hubitus (yet to be launched)

Pink Fibro Bookclub

Writers’ Centre Facebook

You’ll find your hosts at
Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo

Australian Writers’ Centre



Alexa Moses is a journalist, novelist and screenwriter for children’s television. Her new novel for tweens, Talk like an Ancient Egyptian is the second in her series about Jenna Bookallil-Brown, an Australian exchange student who finds herself in ancient Egypt.
Hello, Alexa! Thank you so much for talking to us today.
Hi, Allison. Thank you so much for having me.
Exchange students and ancient Egypt, like, was this one of those ideas that just came to you out of the blue, like, “Hello, I need to write this book…”?
Not really. I was in Europe for the first time, I’m in my 20s and I remember an evening the sun was setting and I was one of the last people in a very famous, very famous museum, which is over the Palatine Hill, where the forum is The Roman Forum, and I sort of walked onto the balcony, looked out and saw in the dusk all of the ruins of The Roman Forum, which is where the city used to be, the heart of the city. Like Pitt St Mall in Sydney, I suppose.
There was a meowing next to me, and I jumped, and I was by myself, and there was a cat, and I’m thinking ‘arrrgh'. In Rome there’s a lot of street cats roaming around. And I, for a second, thought that I could go back in time, I really truly believed that in that 30 seconds that I could transform myself back to the Roman empire. And, I thought, “Oh, Rome,” you know, “I’ve read a lot about Rome. What about Egypt? I don’t know much about Egypt.” So I started transporting the story to a different time.
OK, so this is a story idea that you’ve had for quite awhile?
Yeah, I had had it since I was in my 20s, it was just in the back of my head. I had not actually worked on it seriously, and then I started reading about Egypt when I had my first child, and I was in the throws of staying up all night. I listened to lectures about Egypt and I got so hooked on Egypt.
How long ago was that? When did you sort of start seriously getting into this?
Probably five years ago.
All right. There’s a lot of history in this, how much research was involved? And how did you stop yourself from blurting out everything you knew and sounding like a textbook? That’s often a problem, like when you know a lot you don’t have to put necessarily every single thing that you know in the book, am I right?
You’re right. I didn’t know a lot, I think that’s part of it.
No, I did do a lot of research, but I think when you’re writing a story you let the story take you. The research is just background, it’s stuff that I read because I was interested in it. Nobody wants to know all of the details, I just told the story and then when there were gaps I just went back and extra researched and filled them in. Although I love Egypt, you know, a lot of it wasn’t relevant, I didn’t expect it to be.
I’m quite a plotter, I plot my stories. I’m a television writer, too, it’s the same thing, I plot my stories. By the time I sit down to write I know I know I’m not going to be padding it with research.
Why did you write for tweens? What made you decide that was the right market for this story?
I don’t know, that’s a good question. I think I wanted a 12 to 13-year-old. I think it’s a brash, difficult, innocence, lovely, terrible age, and I just thought that’s where it fit in.
That’s a really good question. I couldn’t imagine a 10-year-old going on an exchange by themselves; 15-year-old — that’s a little bit more emotionally complicated. I wanted an adventure story, so I thought 12-13 was a sweet spot for this.
OK. What do you like most about it? Like, what did you enjoy most about writing the series? What are you liking? Is it the humor? Is it, as you say, the age — that sort of innocence and brashness that you get? What is it that you like most?
Yes, it’s kind of the age and the character. I love being able to set something in ancient Egypt, which people think is very po-faced, which it’s not. Egypt was like a bacchanalian feast. They were very vain, worldly, intelligent, witty kind of people, they were very modern in a lot of ways. And, I loved writing a brash modern character in this world, which was a lot like her and a not a lot like her at the same time. It was just funny, and it was easy to be funny.
OK, so how did the first book, Slave Girl, come to be published? Did you sell it as a series from the start? Or is it kind of developing as you go?
That’s a good question. No, I sold them as a series. I wrote the first book with the thought of it being two or three book series, and I basically pitched it to a publisher through a friend of mine, who’s also a publisher, she gave it to them to read a couple of chapters and they loved it. The publisher came straight back to me, and I don’t even have an agent at this stage, offered me a contract, so then I had to go and find an agent that would be able to deal with this.
It was fortuitous, it was lucky. Like I said, the idea itself, it hits a history angle, which is educational, people like that, publishers like that, schools like that, and yet it’s funny. It seems easier to sell when things are funny.
Yeah, funny is good.
I don’t think you win awards for funny, let’s be honest.
I think you might win awards for funny, you never know. There might be a whole new funny award at some point. We can only hope.
I don’t think so, honestly, in Australia, but maybe you do. I think funny is easy. People like funny, who doesn’t want to be entertained, frankly?
Who doesn’t?
That’s how I write, so there’s no other way for me to do it.
Are the Jenna books your first attempts at writing novels, or have there been others?
I have written novels — oh my gosh! And they were funny too, funnily enough. I won a Varuna HarperCollins Scholarship in 2008, I think it was, maybe 2007, for a book which I wrote for adults, which was a comedy, which didn’t get published in the end, but I didn’t work on it. And I wrote a book called The Journos as well afterwards. So, I wrote two other novels and they’re both comedies, again. So, similar and I haven’t got the other book published, they’re just still sitting here, and I do need to look at them again, I haven’t looked at them for ages, I’ve been too busy with these books.
There you go, it might be time to dust them off.
I know! But, we’ve all got those — don’t we? Those manuscripts just sitting there, thinking, “Oh, I’ve got to fix this, and I’ve got to fix that…” It’s a lot of work, you know…
Yeah, “I’ll just concentrate on what I’m doing right now, I think that might work better.”
Is it a difficult transition to go, like because your kind of day job is screenwriting for kids, so is writing novels a whole different world? Like, is it a difficult transition? Or does it build on what you already know? How does it work for you that way?
I get asked that question a lot and it’s an interesting question. I don’t think it’s that different, I think story is story. I think one of the maybe unsung crafts I’d say of the screenwriters — screenwriters are really good at story. Television writers know that they have to fill — even if it’s 22 minutes, you know? That’s a good 30 or 40-page script. I wrote 11-minuters for animation often, and that’s about a 16-page script. You’ve got to have something happening in the story moving forward in every single scene.
There’s no dead air, there’s no time for people to think and stare at a wall. That skill you learn, where you know that you’ve got to fill that screen and you’ve got to get the story moving is so useful for writing fiction, particularly children’s fiction. Children have a shorter attention span than adults, or are supposed to anyway. They like a story to move. When I sit down and write a book I spend a lot more time by myself than I would when I write television, which is more collaborative. I go in and I plot with a script producer and other writers, for example, plot episodes for TV, and then I go off and I write them myself.
When I’m writing a book I sit and plot it myself, and I write every single word and that takes a long time, it’s typically months and months. But, I like that too. It’s just different, although the story process is pretty much the same, but getting the story right is always one of those things that I do before I start writing, every time.
Round ballpark figures, how long does it take you to write a book like Talk like an Ancient Egyptian? Like, is it a year, is it six months — like how long is it, from start to finish?
I will say, I’ve already got the idea, which I’ve had, I’ve got the characters… that takes a couple of years, usually, the background. World-building, I call it. Coming up with characters and new ideas, while I’m learning something else, I’ll be mucking around on the idea. But, when I sit down to it, then the plotting will take me about a month, at least. And I’ll love the characters and I’ll hear their voices before I start plotting, I’ll have to know who they are, kind of what they want, where I’m going and then I’ll plot. Plotting takes me at least a month, maybe more, and then the actual writing, that will be six months, I’d say, even seven or eight, depending on how slow I am or what else I’m doing, how much I’m working. I just try to write 1,000 words every time I sit down, it doesn’t always happen, if I sit down five days a week I should get 5,000 words out of that week.
Other people write faster than me, but I must say I don’t need to revise as much because my plot is quite set, does that make sense?
Yeah, so you do the work upfront rather than redrafting and redrafting and redrafting like other writers do. Everybody works in different ways, I think that’s the most interesting thing about talking to a whole range of different writers is that you realize that there’s not one way to do this, it’s about finding the right way for you.
I got bad for a long time, because I do redraft a couple of times, but I don’t do — a lot of people talk about 20 drafts, that doesn’t happen for me. By the time that I’ve got to the story and I’m writing it, it has to be pretty well locked down. I can change things, alter somewhat, but the overall thrust should be the same. This is probably because this is how I write television. In television there’s not time to redraft and redraft and redraft. You get two drafts, you get a scene breakdown, which is kind of a bang, bang, bang, this happens, this happens, first draft, second draft, and that’s it, you’re out. Because it’s got to go on television, so you have a certain amount of time, a couple of weeks to do it. So, that’s just how I learned how to write, I think it’s how I learnt.
In a way I think it would be nice to sit down and write a sprawling novel and have to go back and fix it, but I’m not sure how to do that. How do you just start writing about nothing? I don’t know how to do that. How to start writing, like I’m not, like, a writer like that. I guess I’m a bit obsessive compulsive, and I need a plan.
It’s an interesting thing because I have writer friends who have spreadsheets and who will plot out every single paragraph practically before they even begin to write. And then I’ve got others who will start with a first sentence and come up with 90,000 words based on that. That points to what I was saying, I think it’s a matter of working out what works best for you, sometimes that takes a few books to even get to thrust of, doesn’t it? How you write and how you work…
I wish I could just sit down and do that. That seems — gosh, it seems awfully artistic and kind of cool. I don’t need the spreadsheet, but I need one page with points on it. Doesn’t that sound great though? You could just wander… but I’m not like that. I’m pretty neat in life, I like things to be organized, I like things a certain way, and I’m the same with my books. So, one day I might try.
That will be an interesting experiment.
When you get the blank page and you stare at it you think, “Well, what am I going to do next?” Like, I don’t know how people do that. What happens next? I’d be, “Oh my god, what happens… what happens… oh my god, I don’t know!” Whereas I can go “Yeah I know what happens next,” you know.
You like funny, your writing is very bright and you’ve said even your adult novels were funny, and yet you have on your website that you have thing for maudlin pop music, so I’m wondering is there, like, a deep, dark adult novel in there waiting to get out do you think? Or not?
Probably not. I think people overestimate how funny people who write comedy and who write funny things are, in real life I’m not that I would not say. I’m quite sarcastic, I’m probably a little bit, you know, self-depreciating, the typical writers’ ego, fragile and massive. I don’t think I’m actually that funny. I don’t think — even my adult novels, they’re funny. They’re dark — some of them are a bit dark funny, but not really. I just don’t think it’s in me — I wish it was! But, I’m not that person, you know?
You’re in a pretty crowded market there, the children’s book world is fairly popular spot. How do you stand out? Is the platform important? How do you put your head above the pack?
I’ve spent a long time thinking about this, I’m not even sure what ‘platform’ means in terms of children’s fiction. I think that’s kind of a non-fiction thing. The history has helped because it’s specific it’s educational, and that’s just lucky because I wanted to write the history, it wasn’t something I thought about in that kind of — in any sense of the marketing or branding.
I really think — and this is going to sound like I’m being very sentimental, but I really think that you have to just write the best book that you can write. That’s all you can do when it comes to fiction. You can think about what’s a great idea and what might sell, but a good book sales, you know? In the end if it’s a really book I think it will sell, I do believe that, actually. I think you’ll find your market. And I know that everyone says that, but I don’t see any other way. If I really wanted to keep the market I’d be thinking about writing in a very slow emotional teenage novel — lot’s of different things that I can’t write, it’s just not in me.
Vampires, for example.
Well, yeah. I think they’re past now. I think we want something more realistic and gritty. I don’t think I’m that writer either.
Just write well. Just make it so that you would want to read it. That’s the only advice I have. I mean you tell me are platforms for a fiction writer? I don’t know that that’s so important as platforms for non-fiction writer.
That’s a conversation that would take an entire hour of podcast in itself, but it’s very true. When you have a specific topic, and you are an expert in that topic and you can speak regularly on that topic, and you can do all of those sorts of things, then, yes, a platform is a much more obvious thing. For fiction writers it is much more difficult. I think what fiction writers are trying to do is build word of mouth, and that’s a very amorphous being.
But, as I said, we would need two hours to have that conversation.
On the subject of let’s write the best possible book we can, have you got three top tips for anyone who wants to write for children, for tweens, for teens, that sort of area? 
Yes. First would be think about your characters, obviously, but your story. Don’t underestimate the power of something happening. It doesn’t have to be just plot, plot, plot. It’s all very well to just have characters sitting around, but you need to think about how they reveal themselves through what they do.
Character is action — you’re talking about drama. Drama is vital to any good story. I think particularly for middle grade, the upper middle grade, teens you want to be thinking about drama and things happening, you know?
Secondly for teens and tweens, I think you have to have an ability to remember what it was like at that age, how you felt. I think people gravitate towards a certain age. I’m not sure why, maybe emotional — everyone says this, “I’m 12 years old,” or whatnot. But, you find where your sweet spot is, and you’ve got to try to remember that age. If you can’t remember what it felt like to be like that, or what the challenges were and take those challenges seriously instead of mocking them, it’s easy to, the 15-year-old girl, for example. You can’t really write for that age group, I would suggest.
And the last thing would be just to, you know, and this is what all writers will tell you, you just sit down and write. There’s nothing glamorous about it. No, you sit there with your cup of tea, staring at your computer, just moaning some days, just make yourself do it. Just force yourself through it. Sometimes it really sucks and it’s no fun, but you’ve just got to do it. If you want to finish the book, finish the book.
Truer words were never spoken — “Finish the book” is my favorite line for anyone that says to me, “I really want to be a writer.” I’m like, “Well, finish the book.”
That’s right. It doesn’t matter how you do it, you know? Cartwheels if you have to, just do it, I don’t care.
Thank you so much for talking to us today, Alexa. Where can our listeners find out more about you and your books?
Go to my website at www.alexamoses.com and you can buy them at any good bookstore, my books, at the moment.
Fantastic. Thank you so much, talk to you later.
Thank you, Allison.
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