Telling Tales and Writing Stories

Telling tales is very different to writing stories.  And I’m not talking about tittle-tattle about others. I’m talking about telling folktales vs writing original fiction. I guess I knew this sub-consciously – but when I did an intermediate course in Storytelling with Ben Haggerty, the point came home, the other shoe dropped, the penny dropped and the realization hit me. Apologies, force of habit, addiction, obsession to repeat every key word three times – because that was one of the things we learnt in the course.

As a storyteller who is just starting out, whose first language is not English, even though I think in English, there are a number of things to master and mastery of storytelling comes only from telling more stories – perhaps badly to start with and then slowly getting better and better at it. Like any skill, practice makes perfect and perfection is a dream.

Seated between an experienced storyteller on one side and a puppeteer on the other, I opened myself up to a new experience in the two day workshop. I had rediscovered storytelling recently and I was overjoyed to find out that it not only complements my vocation in children’s books very well but also helps me to write better.

Like in improv classes, Ben’s classes always have a warm-up session. Not for the body but for the mind. But it is also physical – it involves feet-tapping and head-scratching. It is all about thinking on your feet and that means you have to be on your feet.


So what are the things I took away from this two-day workshop that would make me a better storyteller in more ways than one?



Spoken language that varies

I talk a lot- at work, in pubs and buses and trains. I live alone and I also stay quiet for long periods of time either reading or watching others talk in real life or on TV.

talkingBut talking to friends in pubs and parties is quite different to cultivating the spoken language – that is enriched with words that sound good and are varied enough to ensure the listener doesn’t go to sleep.




If I want to tell a story about an animal, referring to it as the animal throughout the story might be boring. So the storyteller has to insert beast, creature to substitute for the word animal.

That’s what the synonym game allows you to do. It helps you practice different words for the same meaning quickly and in a hurry. That’s how you’d need it when you tell stories.

As a writer I can look up a thesaurus, dictionary and even edit it many times. As a storyteller I am here and now. The word needs to come into my head quickly. So I need to cultivate my memory to auto-associate and come up with other words I could spontaneously use.

 Spoken language that is rich

Spoken language is like performance poetry. If you want the lull the reader into the story then the language has to be lyrical where required. It needs to have the fluidity of the words, the lithe and grace of a cat.

Ben taught us to play alliteration games. Where each storyteller would say a sentence in alliteration. The made-up story was surreal – but the task of coming up with alliterations heated up our brains.

The trick is to keep practicing it all the time, so that when you begin to tell a story, the brain can pull the words together that are now used to alliterate.

dictionarySimilarly we did rhyming exercises. These are not elaborate poetic rhymes. We made up rhymes as we walked a story through our circle. We never made sense. We rhymed a bag of rice with a pair of dice. We rhymed flowers with lovers. But the purpose is – to learn to think of rhymes for often repeated sounds. The trick is to learn the spontaneity of producing rhymes – even if that sounds like an oxymoron.

Ben did warn us though – we want to be better storytellers, not bad poets. The aim is not to create rhyming stories on the go, but have a rhythm and a lilt to the spoken language so that the words don’t jar, the lines don’t end in jagged edges and the listener is not jolted out of the story with bad rhyme.

Pace and rhythm, tone and overtones.

We learnt to tell stories very fast to a wall. We told stories to each other in normal pace. We walked as we talked and we told stories standing up.

Sometimes when the time was limited we ended up telling the story fast. But then Ben taught us that cutting description is better than telling the story fast – because a story is not a race.

kamakurabuddhaWe stood like statues made of stone(see, I am using alliteration) and used our voice to tell the story. We then tried to show emotions in our face and gestures in our hands to emphasise the tone.




How did this affect my writing?

As I writer I’ve now learnt to look at a story from a different lens.

When I read a folktale that I want to learn and tell to others, I am thinking of how to pace this story when I write. I am constantly evaluating them to see if they’d fit the format of a picture book and whether a child would like to read a story.

I am also reading these folktales, adventure tales and wonder tales  to find out what sustains them. How did they last this long? What are the components of such a story? Where is the rise and fall in action? How does it keep the listener enthralled? How did travel so far and wide and so long?

That lens gives me an insight into what makes a story a classic. I can look at my own stories and see if I have enough action, am I pacing it right? If I tell my own story, would I have the same flow of rising action?

So when I am writing a new picture book or even a chapter book, I’m thinking about telling it. I am trying to see if my stories will stand the telling for 30 minutes. Will it bore the audience? Do I have too much detail? Do I have very little happening?

This conscious evaluation from a storyteller’s viewpoint has greatly enhanced the writing. I’m not wallowing in descriptive mud a lot. I’m not filling space with words, I want to write a story that I can tell without people dying of boredom. I do not want to be the first person who is jailed for murder by storytelling.JAIL_BARS

And I am reading/telling my own picture books in story-time in libraries and schools. And I can see which books work and which one does not. I can see which one has lent itself to lots of interactive fun and which one is less playful.

Now I think when I finish a picture book I’ll try and tell it to an audience. My editing is going to be more from telling than from reading and that I think is a great improvement of my craft. And if I am working on a chapter book I’m going to read it to kids to see if it reading aloud causes squirms or squeals.

Some of us are bravely venturing into the world and telling stories. I’ll be telling stories both from my books and folktales in many venues over the coming months. Please check this page for details.

I’m also blogging folktales that I love on my story site. Click here for free stories to read. storytrain






If you want to find out more about Ben’s storytelling courses, please visit


Mosquitos, snake charmers and the story spirit – My writing process Blog Tour

The never-serious, hiliariously funny Andrew Weale asked me if I would follow in his footsteps on the blog tour. You know what? I said yes, but I realized there were no footsteps on the Internet and I had to follow mouse-clicks. Did cats know that? Imagine all the cats chasing the mouse-clicks looking for real mouse and finding me?

What am I working on?


I’m always working on more than one thing. I have the attention span of a mosquito. That sounds horrible, I don’t bite people. I have the attention span of a butterfly. That’s better – maybe a pretty monarch butterfly. I love butterflies – that’s why I wrote As I Watch. Don’t cry mosquito, I love you too. You have bitten me so many times when I was growing up. I’d never forget you. 

Anyway, I’m working on a picture book about a naughty monkey called Mandy. She gets all her friends into trouble and I think I’m going to call the book Jungle Splatter and the name of the jungle is – are you ready for this? This word is hard to say – but no matter, the bravest and the ones with the longest tongues can surely say this – Jamboree Jungle.

I’m also working on another forest. Not really. I am not a woodcutter or a forest ranger or a monkey myself. I’m working on a story about another forest about a character you would have never read about. There’s some weeing in this book and some sniffing. If you wee and sniff, Uck!

But the one book I’ve been working on for ages and ages and ages – like from the Ice Age till now (that’s why there’s a puddle under my table!!) is a chapter book about Aurora Watts. She’s this smart junior inventor (how cool, she has her own lab coat with her initials AW, actually it’s her Dad’s, his initials are also AW) who get a super-power. Ssssh, don’t tell anyone. No one is supposed to know yet. Oh wait, she loves crisps too. Her best friend and the best athlete in the whole world Jessie Scully knows about all her secrets, this one too. But no one else. Definitely not their arch-enemy Beatrice Beasley or her side-kick Floosie Fenchurch. You just have to wait for the book to come out to find out more.


When is it coming out, you ask? Who knows! I need to find someone who likes the book so much they’d publish it and then they’d tell someone in China to print it and then they’d ship it all the way back here to Britain and then we can put it on the bookshelves.


How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I think….zzzzzzz……..

Wake up…….

Oh sorry, nodded off just there.

I think my books are different because there’s a little bit of me in my books. Jamboree Jungle (I just love saying that word), is filled with animals from India. A tiger and a crocodile and of course an elephant. You have to read the book to find out which one is me!

In Balu’s Basket, the boy is nice to everyone and most

Balu's Basket Eng-Tamil F.pmd

importantly he goes home to Grandma in the end. I was like that – I used to wander around the street I grew up in (those days you could do that, and everyone knew which house I was at). And then I’d always go back home to Grandma for dinner and a story. She told me lots of stories.


In a Dollop of Ghee and a Pot of Wisdom, the stories are from home. I heard these growing up. I wanted to tell the stories to others.


That’s one of the reasons I have started telling stories orally too. Check out my story website at


The new book that’s coming out Farmer Falgu Goes On a Trip has lots of India in it too – dancers, a snake-charmer and an old man playing music. 

image descriptionIsn’t it strange that many people still think India has lots of snake-charmers walking around with their baskets? Because tourists think that, lots of snake-charmers do walk around with their old and tired snakes even in the capital city of New Delhi. How do I know? I’ve seen them.

image description

Farmer Falgu Book 2 will be

released later this year too. This time Farmer Falgu goes to Market. Not the super-market. The farmer’s market. But he has a lot of problems on the way.

How does your writing process work?

Not sure if it  works very well yet. I’m still learning. Need some more tweaking I think. Otherwise there would be a long list of publishers knocking on my door, demanding more books.


Wait, there’s someone at the door. Is it a publisher?

No! It was just the story spirit, she’s coming inside from her morning stroll. She knocks on the window if they’re closed. She decided to go out because you see, I’m writing this blog and not a story. So she kind of wandered off. 

Because I’m a mosquito, sorry a butterfly, I sit on ideas like butterflies sit on flowers and then go to the next one. I have special notebooks – can’t write in any notebook I find. Can’t use any random pens I’m afraid. No danger of me stealing pens or notebooks – if I did , I would know exactly which shop I want to steal from. But then I’d be arrested. Of course then I’d have a lot of time to write, because I won’t have anything else to do.

I jot down ideas in many many places. I have a notepad hanging in the shower. Yes, shower. Doesn’t it get wet? Of course it does. Well, it might stay dry if I never took a shower. But then I would stink so much that the queue of publishers outside my door might run for their lives. So yes, I do shower every day (okay most days), and if I think of a bright idea in the shower, I note it down there. It was a birthday present from my darling sister who has a darling son (who is my nephew, who is yet to chew on my books, yet to read my books I mean).

I have a notebook in my bag all the time. I have a software in my phone, my ipad and on the internet which are all connected and I write ideas down in my phone or my ipad depending on which is closest to grab.

I wake up really really early in the morning when it’s dark. I like to surprise the sun and say Boo! when he comes comes out. I feel as if I am alone in the world at that time. The trains are still an hour apart (trains, you ask! Yeah, I live by the side of a railroad track, next to the first ever train-station built in London, which is no longer a station, just a plaque now.)Spa_Road_railway_station_1836

If I am working on a picture book, I write my idea down. Then I try to figure out if there’s enough of a story, then I try to do a storyboard. I can’t draw at all. Not even a straight line to save my life. If I’m taken hostage and if the man with the gun says “Draw a straight line and I’ll let you go,” I couldn’t do it. So let’s just make sure I don’t get into hostage situations with a man with a gun who wants me to draw.

I have a lovely online critique group who read my stories once they are ready to be shared with others. Then I revise, revise and revise. Who said grownups don’t have to revise? It’s not just for kids with exams. Writers revise all the time.

When I think the story’s ready to go out, I make sure it’s got its coat and hat on, it’s still nippy out there and send it off to publishers. Yeah, you see, if the queue of publishers were standing outside, I don’t have to send the story out in a coat and a hat. But alas, they haven’t still discovered my genius. They are queueing up somewhere else I’m sure. We are good at queueing here in Britain, aren’t we? Where I come from (which is India), queues are silly. We just jostle and jump, push and shove and somehow get what we want. And you know what I’d be totally happy if editors, publishers and agents want to jostle and jump, push and shove at my door. I’d give them all a story, no fighting required.

The thing about writing is – I have to do it so I don’t go crazy. Okay, fair point. So I don’t go crazier! I have always written I think – right from when I was 13 or 14. Before that I was telling stories, making them up. You can read all about it here. But I’d be homeless if I just did my writing and nothing else, especially with no queue outside. And hungry and a bit grumpy. Trust me, you’d be grumpy if you were homeless, hungry and with no money to buy the special notebook that costs ten quid.

I work in a bank, they pay me money for going in everyday and doing things they want me to do – like counting money, you ask? Whoa! Nope. They don’t let me anywhere near the money. I’ve been working in banks for 15 years now and I have never seen a bundle of cash or a chest full of money or a vault. I’m sure it’s somewhere but they wouldn’t show it to me. What I do is a bit more complicated than counting money. But then counting money would get complicated once it reaches 10,00,000 because I can’t count after 1 million. But I think if you work in a bank as a counter (not like a kitchen counter), counter of cash, then I’m sure they want you to be able to count beyond a million. Like what is 284848237472727171737373737. I don’t know. I have never had so much money that I needed to count it.

Anyway because I work in a bank during the day, yeah sometimes during the night, I have to write when I can. That means early in the morning, weekends, holidays (even during Christmas). I don’t write in the evenings. I can’t. My brain doesn’t work. Evenings are for reading, arranging my pencils, touching my new notebooks and smelling them, waiting for publisher or agent to call. Evenings are for meeting friends and going to shows.

Who’s on next?

Enough about me, you say. Fair enough. The next person on this blog tour is so unlike me. Don’t get ahead of yourself. She’s not normal either. While I’m terrified of animals, she’s a regular Dr. DoLittle. Sally Poyton was brought up in Oxfordshire in a home with menagerie of animals with everything from pigeons and parrots, to iguanas and goats.  Sally studied Art and Related Arts at University College Chichester, after graduation she worked as a professional artist; her works is in public and private collections around the country. Sally now lives in the rolling Chilterns with her family, and two mad Springbatts. (Sorry to interrupt, what is a sprintbatt?)  Sally started writing when her children were small; she has been honorary mentioned in the Undiscovered Voices Anthony 2012 and has made The Times / Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition longlist twice; in 2013 and 2014! For fun she volunteers at an Indy bookshop. Queue up here to read her blog. She’d tell you all about it.


Blurb Therapy for your Books

“Dexter already knows everything there is to know about kindergarten. His big sister Jessie, went there too, and she’s told him all about it. So Dexter is not scared. Not even a little bit. Nope. Not at all. But his stuffed dog, Rufus, is scared. Actually he’s terrified.”

This blurb on the jacket of the hardcover “Kindergarten Rocks!” sets the scene, the tone and the characters of the story. It introduces the reader to what the book is all about and defines the essence of what comes between the sheets.

Who is the first reader of your story? Even before the darling spouse, the resourceful critique group and the wicked editor – you are the first reader of your book. Then you deserve a blurb as much as the book lovers in this universe – right from a grandma who picks it up as a gift to the alert school librarian who puts it through a rigorous test.

What is a blurb?

Blurb refers to the powerful paragraph written by an editor about the book she sends out to face the cynical world. Blurbs draw a reader in as much as the cover does. Blurbs give a glimpse of the treat in store and keep the reader just a bit guessing on the happenings.

Blurbs tease, baring just enough to dare the reader to peek and holding back so that the reader would take the book home. Blurbs don’t give the story away; they enhance the excitement, promising a jolly good read.

Try this exercise. Pick any book that you have read already. Put on the editor’s cap. Write a blurb to sell the book.

What are the characteristics of a good blurb?

Short and succinct: No one wants to read a critical analysis of the book on the jacket flap. Nor do they want to read an uninformative one-liner. The blurb should be short enough to fit into a jacket flap and meaty enough to help readers judge the book.

Everyone heads out the door, even little Bitty, who follows her big brothers and sisters to school. In class, Bitty stays busy with math, reading and snack time. But when Mama comes for her, the youngest student finds that she is most happy to return home.
School by Emily Arnold McCully

Essence: The blurb should bring out the essence and theme of the story in the blurb. What is the story about? New school jitters or a new step-parent or schoolyard bullies? What is the book all about?

Everyone knows the jumble of feelings that go through a child’s head as the first day of school approaches – especially if it’s the first day at a new school.

Will they like me? Will I make new friends? What if I don’t like it? These are questions Sarah Jane Hartwell asks herself as she tries to build up enough courage to embrace her new school.
Blurb from First Day Jitters by Julie Dannenberg.


Hook: Blurbs should hook the reader in and lead him into a maze of characters, themes and exciting scenarios. It should grab the reader’s attention and force them to feel passionate about the story within the covers.


Stanley Yelnats is under a curse. A curse that began with his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing great-great-grandfather and has since followed generations of Yelnats. Now Stanley is unjustly sent to a boys’ detention centre, Camp Green Lake, where the boys build character by spending all day, every day, digging holes exactly five feet wide and five feet deep. There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. But there are an awful lot of holes.

Yup you guessed it – the first para of the blurb of Sachar’s Holes.

Lead: Just as much the blurb reveals, it should also be mysterious. Never give out the ending. Make sure to raise questions in the minds of the reader. We want the reader to find out what happened to the character that has been portrayed in the blurb.

It doesn’t take long for Stanley to realize there’s more than character improvement going on at Camp Green Lake. The boys are digging holes because the warden is looking for something. But what could be buried under a dried-up lake? Stanley tries todig up the truth in this inventive and darkly humorous tale of crime and punishment – and redemption.

The second para of the blurb of Holes.

Positive reflection: The last couple of lines or the second paragraph of a blurb should reflect on the writer and influence of her personal experience in the story, the language and the target audience.

Take one disarmingly engaging protagonist and put her in the company of a tenderly rendered canine and you’ve got yourself a recipe for the best kind of down-home literary treat. Kate DiCamillo’s voice in Because of Winn Dixie should carry from the steamy sultry pockets of Florida clear across the miles to enchant young readers everywhere.
Karen Hesse on Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo

Told with deceptive simplicity, this is the provocative story of a boy who experiences something incredible and undertakes something impossible. In the telling it questions every value we have taken for granted and reexamines our most deeply held beliefs.

Blurb for The Giver by Lois Lowry

 Another exercise to blurb your brain

Put on the reviewer’s cap. Write one paragraph about the same book discussing its merits and demerits and end with a recommendation. All within 200 words.

So what’s in it for a writer?  If blurbs are written by editors, why is the writer bothered? Isn’t it the job of the editor and her marketing team, to sell the book?

As hooks in cover letters

When Becky catches a cold and has to stay home from kindergarten, Grandmas Rosalie and Sophie come over to take care of her. Becky’s grandmas love her very much, but they can’t agree on anything! Grandma Rosalie treats Becky’s cold with hot tea, but Grandma Sophie is sure orange juice is best. Grandma Sophie sings a soothing song, but Grandma Rosalie wants to tell Becky a story. Using wise lessons learned from her kindergarten teacher—including “TAKE TURNS, PLEASE!” and “REMEMBER TO SHARE!”—Becky helps her grandmas to get along and understand that there’s always enough love to go around.

That’s the blurb from Pamela Mayer’s The Grandma Cure. But doesn’t it sound like the opening of a covering letter? Doesn’t it sound like sales pitch at a conference? Isn’t it just the right description of the book in a paragraph?

Blurbs are useful tools to pitch your book or sell your story. It helps the editor to understand the theme of the book and also the main issues tackled inside. But it doesn’t give the story away, encouraging the editor to read the submission attached to the cover letter.

Try this at home! Pick a manuscript that has been coming back like a boomerang. Write a 100-word blurb selling it to the editor of a suitable magazine.

Blurbs can also be useful when you don’t have enough to put as past sales in the cover letter. You summarise the submission for the editors, helping them to figure out if the topic is right for them or not. Just like in a bookshop, you browse the blurbs on different books and pick the one right for you, an editor can read through the different blurbs to find out which one is right for her publishing house.

As a synopsis tool

Imagine what it would say on the jacket flap of the hardcover edition of your book. Imagine how book reviews will present your book. Write down the essence of your book in two paragraphs. If you cannot condense the theme of your book into a jacket flap, it is going to be tough selling the book to an agent or an editor and then eventually to a reader.

Crunching the Blurb One-line Summary

Open one of your favorite books – go the copyrights page. Do you see a one-line summary? How does that help? Librarians often order books not by looking at covers and jacket flaps – mostly by reading the summary in their online catalogs. It can help you understand what’s important in your story and what’s not. It helps you focus your energies on the main part of the story and prevents you from adding flab to the manuscript.

One last word

When you attempt blurbs or one-line summaries on your manuscript, very often you will face a situation where you don’t know what to say. That doesn’t always mean you are not good at writing blurbs. It might mean the theme of your book is elusive. The passions and the core of the book have not been dealt with enough clarity.

Share here if you  have favourite blurbs and if you are struggling to write one for your books.