Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Don't panic! What to do if you are addicted to hearing from publishers and agents ....

Some thoughts on being addicted to the publisher's/agent's response to your submissions:

1) Remember you cannot jinx a submission, unless of course you stalk, harass or insult a publisher or agent. So just NO stalking, harassing and insulting and you should be okay. And no superstitious worrying that you have somehow affected the result. If, after a reasonable time, you inquire after your submission, THIS WILL NOT JINX THE RESULT (unless you stalk, harass or insult). If it's a rejection, YOU DID NOT MAKE THAT HAPPEN with your behaviour. It is the story that has been rejected and there are many reasons why that might have happened, none of them related to anything you said or did while waiting for the response. However, if you inquire every five minutes (are we there yet? are we there yet? are we there yet? are we there yet?) then this may encourage a publisher to reject your work. Don't be THAT person.

2) Your obsession is a measure of how important being published is to you. Do you want it to be less important? No? Then don't worry - everyone is a little obsessed about something. Especially when it matters this much. Try use at least some of that energy for something productive. And remember to get some work/life balance.

3) This industry is, on the whole, excessively slow with its answers. Much, much slower than many many other industries. We cannot be surprised that we get hung up on refreshing our emails - few have to wait like we do. Cut yourself some slack. You are not required to agree with or enjoy the waiting. In fact, I would be more worried if it did not bother you. It is good to accept that this is normal though (as frustrating as it is). You are not being singled out for this torture - we all get to experience it.

4) The stakes are high - there is no shame in having a significant emotional investment.

What to do if you are addicted to the response.

1) Do nothing. Your addiction is a justifiable response to a unique set of circumstances - high stakes, slow turn around times, and long term emotional investment. Just remember this addiction only belongs to your writing life and should remain there.

2) Accept that the circumstances are normal and shared by many others. You are part of a tribe that regularly deals with this and I find that comforting. We can all be a bunch of weirdos hitting refresh together.

3) Don't fight it. Only treat the addiction if it is preventing you from engaging in everyday life. If you are still exercising, eating, sleeping and hanging out with those you love you will manage the addiction. If you are not engaging with everyday life turn off the computer and go and hug one of your favourite people, take a long walk, eat something good, and go to bed.

4) Just like being told to eat your veggies because people are starving is the most rubbish piece of advice that does not make your veggies more appealing, people telling you to get to work on the next project to distract you from the frequent email refreshing feels unhelpful. However, just as veggies still actually do have health benefits, working on the next project is a smart move with career benefits. Try to do this whenever you can manage it. If you can't manage it, its occasionally okay to do nothing. You'll get sick of it eventually, and sometimes doing nothing is exactly what the doctor ordered. And boredom can be a great motivator. Just don't get stuck in the nothing zone. Set a time limit on your 'do nothing' time and stick to it.

5) Smell the roses. Treat yourself. Organise some fun.

So in summary: don't panic. This is a survivable, liveable addiction. And if you think things are getting out of hand, chatting with someone who understands this world is a good place to start. If you do not already belong to one of the many cool writers' groups who hang out online and in real life, now is a good time to go join one. They are a bunch of lifesavers, and smarties and will help you get through :)

Monday, February 18, 2019

A picture book is like complicated origami ...

Things are heating up. I recently revisited some picture book manuscripts I've been working on, on and off, some for a few years, some six months or a bit less...

Some picture books turn up on your doorstep complete. They flop out on the page, beginning to end, as you tap away at the keyboard and apart from the 'always needed' editing/tweaking/titivating, they are good to go in a surprisingly short amount of time. I suspect these have been percolating away deep inside the old noodle for a while, like complicated origami pieces folding and unfolding, till they take their intended shape and then rise to the conscious zone ready to emerge acting like they always looked like that and aren't all covered in creases. My conscious always acts surprised, but those stories always have a whiff of the familiar.

Then there are some stories that resist. Or their shape is not just a matter of twelve folds in a particular order and you're done. Or maybe they have to be seen to be realised? They appear as a blistering idea that fills your entire head space and you have no choice but to turn it out on the page already and see what it is. And what might be done with it. And there might be an obvious resolution carrot dangling but no matter how much you trot towards it, it remains tauntingly out of reach. Or there really seems no way to achieve that paper crane with a round piece of paper. And sometimes you thought the answer was a crane but really it is a butterfly and you must unfold and refold many times until you get there. And sometimes, sometimes your ambition has leapt ahead and the rest of you hasn't quite caught up yet and waiting patiently is the only answer. This is why, no matter how fragmentary a picture book idea might be, I never throw them away or give up on them. It took around ten years for The Song of Kauri to find its final form and that was a good lesson for me.

So, over the last month I have unexpectedly wrapped up a couple more picture book texts and I feel pretty happy with the results. And the most interesting thing to me is that I didn't return to those manuscripts because some penny had dropped about how to resolve them, I just kept coming back to them because I had faith that the ideas were worth something and maybe this time I'd fold the story the right away to make the crane (or the bear or the dragon as the case may be). I wasn't expecting to complete them in this round of revisions, but apparently their time had come.

Of course, sometimes the shape looks finished and you send something out on submission, but it's almost yet not quite right, and it is the agent or the publisher who makes the final fold to reveal the perfect form. Last week I rewrote the second half of a pb manuscript at a publisher's suggestion and by crikey I like it much better now. Luckily so do they. The story is the same same but different. In this case, the final fold was out of my reach and I needed a fresh pair of expert hands to point it out. I hope it gets to be a book. It would be cool to show you what I first thought the story should be, what it ended up as, and the journey it took between the two points. Of course the bit I can tell you now is I believed there was a good story inside that first idea.

So, points to take away?

1) Each picture book story has its own writing journey. It might be that no two are alike for you and you will get along better if you don't expect them to be.
2) Don't throw anything away that at some point you believed was a great idea.
3) Don't wait for some plot revelation to get you to return to those manuscripts. Regular revisiting is a good idea, even if you sometimes make no progress/go backwards.
4) How do you know when the story is ready for submission? The moment of true certainty never arrives. Trust your instinct and send it out when you think/feel it is ready. Sometimes the next pair of hands that hold your story are the only ones that can make that final fold for the perfect shape.
5) Don't worry if a story is taking an inordinate amount of time. As always, remember this lark is a long game ...

Note: Last time I wrote about being addicted to the 'yes' and just in case you are interested in this, I hope to return to this topic with some tools to help manage this issue in future posts. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Are writers addicted?

Addiction is never a good thing. People can fall prey to alcohol and drug addictions, gaming, gambling, food, and even social media. When you consume your choice of addictive substance your brain rewards you with a squirt of happy. If you want more happy squirts you must consume more of the addictive substance which provides it. And as time passes more substance is required to achieve those squirts. The cycle can be all consuming, and hard, and often painful, to exit from. I'm not speaking from personal experience. Well, okay maybe a little with social media. But actually ....

... is it possible to become addicted to response from publishers? Yeses to a submission produce a huge surge of elation. And every subsequent interaction around your soon to be publication also gives you a little happy squirt. And then it's reviews and reactions and mentions in the media. More squirts. Even rejections, while giving you a squirt of misery also take on a compulsive aspect. There is something satisfying about ripping off the band-aid. Folk joke about the constant refreshing of their inbox as they wait for replies from the agents and/or publishers they've submitted to.  While we wait and refresh, we obsess about what is happening in the publisher's or agent's office. Have they even read what we sent them? Is it going to committee? Why is it taking so long? I have to keep throwing my hat in the ring to keep my chances of publication alive. I have to keep published to stay relevant. These things are bad enough without having the need for a fix thrown in. If writing is our sole occupation, our main distractions are talking about our work with others, either students or colleagues, or working on more stories to submit. The cycle is endless. And suddenly that 100 rejections thing might not be such a good idea after all. It'll feed that addiction. And while some addictions are definitely worse than others, no addiction is ever a good thing.

Are we addicted to replies from publishers/agents? And if we are how do we stay in the business and not get caught up in the addictive cycle of needing the reply. Of that need for a fix. In an industry where they come few and far between.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The submission ambition that works best for you ...

Did my first gig of the year Thursday last week. Reading to children at an Auckland Libraries, 'Dare to Explore' event, at Three Kings. And what an excellent way to kick things off. It was a warm sunny day. The children were in to it. I was into it. And books were at the heart of it all. Bliss!! :)

I have done no writing over the holiday break. This wasn't the plan but I ended up having a couple of unexpected trips out of Auckland to hang out with family and crikey, where did the time go? Some things are still in limbo too with the Christmas close down and I don't have the heart to move on until I know what's what. Aaand I've been doing a lot of reading (for a variety of reasons, some of which aren't self imposed and can't be put off) and as much as it is crucial to read when you are a writer, it has eaten in to my writing time. It's all grist to the mill though, and when some of the 'reading projects' are over in the next month or two I should be able to slip back into my usual routine. I hope so. I always feel a little lost when I'm not writing. Although I don't think being a little lost is always necessarily a bad thing. It's good to be hungry to write...

I have been thinking more about the 100 rejections thing. Towards the end of last year I lowered my sights to a more manageable 50 rejections but I'm thinking that even this is going to be a bit of a challenge for 2019. Which publishers, what residencies and other opportunities can I apply to this year? Unless I have new material I can't resend things to the same folk who've already seen that ms. Unless I have new projects ready to go I can't apply for this years residencies. But if I'm so busy applying and submitting when do I find time to write? And what is realistic to apply for? New Zealand is a small place. How far afield can I reasonably send/apply for things? Ergo, there is a limit to the list. So I may need to revise things down again. On the flip side I think keeping at this takes an emotional toll as well. How much time can you spend researching possibilities, crafting appropriate submissions, get your hopes up, wait impatiently longer than you thought you would have to and then receive the rejection (or as is the case so often these days, pass the deadline when they say they will respond by if they are interested, and wonder for ages afterwards how hard and fast that deadline is) and by crikey it isn't healthy. The benefit, of course, is meant to be that the more you submit/apply the more chances you have of a yes. But there is a cost, and I think its exponential rather than incremental and should not be overlooked. There needs to be a balance, so it might take a while to find out the submission ambition that works best for you. Look after yourselves people.

I have also been thinking on the perennial question about multiple submissions. Should you submit your ms to more than one publisher at a time? In a world where writers submit to agents first (not so much New Zealand although there is a whiff that we are heading more and more in this direction) this isn't an issue. I think in general agents accept you will be approaching more than one agent at a time. But in the distant past it was deemed the polite thing to send your ms to one publisher at a time. They were investing their time, expertise and effort in considering your manuscript. If others were also looking and saying 'yes' first then their time could have been wasted. When it takes 3 or 4 months for a response - okay. But, as a general rule of thumb, most publishers tend to take longer than they advise on their websites. It might be 6, 8, 9 or more than 12 months. Please respect your own time as well folks. Over the years I have also realised that most publishers here in NZ have particular tastes and publishing niches. Yes there is a risk that more than one publisher will want the same ms, but it is probably lower than you think. And (and this is a big and), what if your manuscript is about to hit a trend? The trends we see are coming at the end point of one to two years lead time on an accepted ms (which might have taken 6 months to a year to be considered and accepted). That one to three years lead time can be swallowed up by one publisher looking at your work who then says no and the trend sails by without you. I think multiple submissions are okay. If a publisher asks that you submit only to them, decide on their suitability for your project. If they rate high then it might be worth the risk of a single submission to them first before moving on to others. If they rate low, send to them last. And if you are only submitting to one publisher before consigning a work to the bottom drawer and starting on a new project you are doing this wrong. See above comment about tastes and niches. And remember, should you have two publishers interested, be polite and professional - the bottom line is that your ms finds the best home.

Well I suspect I've ranted enough for one day. I have an appointment to get to and I bet you have work you should be doing too. Happy writing people.     

Monday, December 3, 2018

It's Elve o'clock, have you got your tinsel on? ...

Somehow the clock is broken and this year ran fast. In a surprise twist that I (and only I) did not see coming it is Christmonth already! Also known as Tinsel Time and elve o'clock. At this time of year the shadow is permanently over the yard arm and we look back bewilderedly at the last eleven months and ask what the hell happened, and squint ahead fearfully at the year threatening to jump out and ambush us before we are any where near ready for it.

AKA time for a wee stock-take of 2018 and some prognosticating over 2019.

So, in review:

- I was honoured to participate in my third year of the Otahuhu Project, a magnificent programme operating in a cluster of deserving South Auckland schools, bringing authors and students together to work on writing skills and a love of books. Long may this project reign.
- I visited lots of other schools and had a real blast - thank you to all the schools who invited me and the NZ Book Council who bring authors, illustrators and students together in the best possible way.
- I attended my first ever KidsLitQuiz World Final and associated celebrations, and oh my goodness it is just the best to have your reading habits outshone by smart, witty, engaged intermediate age students from all round the world. It was a real privilege to be a part of this.
- I was disappointed to find that one of my favourite stories I have written could not find a home. I'm still pushing on, but it's sown a few seeds of doubt about the story and my writing skills.
- But then a picture book has been accepted (see you in 2019/2020, little book!) so all is not lost.
- and I am working together with the Ahoy imprint (of the Cuba Press) on bringing out a collection of my short stories which I have always wanted to do. More news on this soon I hope
- there may be other book news shortly - fingers crossed - watch this space...
- I assisted on, and then ran, a 'Write Like an Author Camp' over the October school holidays. This was a new experience for me and I learnt some new skills and unearthed a few latent ones.
- I got invited on a couple of writing retreats on Waiheke Island with some very good writer friends. These were wonderful - a good  way to refresh your writing mojo, grow your writing project, and talk shop.
- I became part of the Storylines (an organisation I have belonged to for many, many years and benefited from in many, many ways) Management Committee and I'm really pleased to be able to contribute to such a hardworking organisation with some truly great goals.
- a kind person (to whom I am extremely grateful) made a wikipedia page about me which you can see here. This is quite a thrill!!
- we put our house on the market - results are currently mixed - no one has bought it yet but it has never looked tidier :)
- I achieved 25 rejections, three acceptances, and 8 submissions/applications are still in play.

Looking back on it all, I realise I had forgotten some of these things (and I suspect there are some things still missing from this list) and in the grand scheme it has not been too bad a year at all. Getting and staying published is still proving challenging but my writing career is still alive and I give thanks and raise a glass to that.

And in 2019?

- Hopefully a book, maybe even two, will be launched.
- Hopefully my current project will be completed - I estimate another four months of work on this.
- A new game plan for finding a publisher for my much loved manuscript.
- Maybe moving house, if we sell the current one.
- Attendance at at least one writers retreat
- aiming for 50 rejections. 

The rest I have no control over. While an unfilled dance card is always a little daunting, as a writer I always have some incomplete projects to fall back on and keep me out of too much mischief and there will always be new ideas that spring up as well. And if my thumbs are threatening to twiddle there are plenty of good books I haven't yet read to get on with.

What about you guys? What are your 2018 highlights? And what are your most ambitious plans for 2019?

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Probably just a metaphor ...


Things have been busy.... I have been involved in writing camps for young people (an awesome idea for any budding young writers in the family aged between 9 and 14 years) and I went on a wee writing retreat on Waiheke Island and now we are in the throes of trying to sell our house. We have been here quite a while and we rather love it, but 'rational brain' (who has been full of good advice over the years) says it's time to move on. Our children are pretty much big people now and our needs are different. We aren't planning to move far but its probably a good time for a change. Selling a house is quite a demanding thing - there's far too much cleaning for my tastes. And then there's all the other stuff. 'Open homes' start this coming weekend and I guess posts will still be a bit irregular until we have popped out the other end of the process, with or without our sanity intact, as the case may be. You can have fun guessing which it is when we get there :)

Apart from the retreat (a highly recommended activity which can be fitted to any budget, the keys to a successful one being a location which is not your home, and swapping your family for your writing compadres), I have, perhaps understandably, done very little writing over the last few months. My dabbles have involved some editing and revision of a few picture books, and a lot of wrangling for submissions. Those things can take quite a bit of work. I'm quietly pleased at how my brain slips into picture book edit mode quite effortlessly now, but submissions, queries, covering letters, synopses etc... are quite a complex crafty thing. In some respects I feel like each one requires a small subtle re-invention of the wheel. After a while you can get fairly polished at wheel re-inventing, but each submission must still be tailor-made and requires concentration, effort and time. Ironically, after a while, writing a novel feels easier.

I am still subscribing (despite the inherent pains of doing so) to the notion of aiming for 100 rejections this year. I am only just realising (doh) that the pathway to this actually involves 100 submissions. And should (by a law of averages, or miracles, or sod's law or whatever) any responses be positive, then clearly more than 100 submissions are required. So far I've probably achieved around 40 submissions and we are getting near the end of the year (18 rejections and counting - my oldest submission is ten days away from being a year old - there have been two acceptances and some nice feedback). 100 sounds like a full time job (okay, so to a certain extent it's probably just a metaphor), but then there is also life and all the things that that requires of you, including throwing in some paid employment which can be very time hungry. It can be a bit of a challenge to fit the writing in (why retreats become all the more important). Still, if you want to remain in this game fresh content must be continually produced. The tricky part is correctly assessing when to stop submitting (flogging) a particular manuscript and when to get to work on something new. I have absolutely no advice on this except you should keep submitting longer than you think you should and start working on something new earlier than you were planning - yes, Escher would definitely approve of this statement. The longer I remain an author the more I believe following your intuition to be the best rule of thumb. And leaping a lot (of the faith kind) - be bolder than you think you are capable of - that particular philosophy has had more good results than bad over the years. Anyways - I hope to keep in touch with you all more than I have been of late. I'm keen to tell you about some of my more recent bold moves, whether they have paid off or not and what I've learned. Talk soon!

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Reposting: 'In Defence of the Picture Book'...

Over four years ago I penned this treatise on picture books and why they, and the writing of them, deserve more respect than they are generally given. This still seems topical so I thought I would give it another airing...

I would like to say a few words today in defence of the picture book. If children’s literature is frequently dismissed or ignored by the literary community in general, the picture book is perceived as the most insubstantial of them all. Yet a picture book is not ‘easy’ or ‘simple’ even when it is easy and/or simple to read. Sometimes, as with poetry, or sculpture, it is about what has been carved away, and how. It is the iceberg above the water. Do not underestimate what lies beneath.

In less than 1,000 words, often less than 500, the picture book is complete and, in its brevity, more satisfying than you might believe possible for so few words. How many novels demand frequent re-reading the way a picture book does. That is no accident. And despite the attendant dread a tired parent might first feel at hearing the phrase ‘read it again’, there is the resulting relief when the cunning composition of the picture book almost allows the story to tell itself. The task of re-reading is gently eased, and yet the benefits to the young audience are profound.

A good picture book provides a complete experience – a dawning of meaning and understanding, a burgeoning ownership of that revelation by its young audience, and most happily an emotional satisfaction that not every novel can claim to provide. And it can do this repeatedly for the same reader, not because the reader is too stupid to remember the punch line from the first time, but because the right words and right illustrations, when combined over around 14 double page spreads, cannot help but deliver the emotional and intellectual connections that guarantee to elicit a reader response. Just as chocolate tastes good every time – not just the first time. Never underestimate the power of a good picture book…. And yet so many writers and people in the wider community do this every day.

Too many adults who relish the layers of a good novel seem unwilling to delve into the depths of a good picture book. And yet they do have layers. Layers of meaning within the text, as well as skilled wordplay and an interesting, fun and sometimes challenging use of language. And the words can never be considered in isolation from the illustrations. These are, after all, picture books. On a raw level the illustrations might be considered simply as a pictorial assistant to decoding the text for new readers. But they can be so much more. Illustrations are also layered with subtext and meaning. In my own picture book The House That Went to Sea, the text addresses the central theme of a boy failing to connect with not only the wider world but also his own grandmother. As he begins to warm to her way of life the illustration depicts the grandmother and grandson opposite each other at the dinner table, their facial similarities mirroring each other in a classic display of familial inheritance and shared characteristics. This shared bond underpins the boy’s transformation during the course of the book.

While rhythm, and sometimes rhyme, (and sometimes cumulative text) can assist the reading experience and provide a framework on which a pre-literate child becomes an independent reader they also contribute to the pleasure of the experience, demonstrating the energy and potential of language, and building life-long lovers of words. Writers of adult literature should embrace the vehicle through which readers are born.
Illustrations too assist and enrich the experience through well thought out use and control of white space, directional flow, colour, tone, contrast, placement and style, and so much more. Wordless picture books demonstrate the ability of illustrations to ‘tell’ a story with subtlety and depth. Design too supports the other elements of a good picture book and contributes to its overall effectiveness. Picture books may look simple and easy, yet they are anything but.  

Perhaps in the end it is that they contain comparatively so few words and are all too often quicker to write than your average novel. As if the length of time it takes to write something is the only measure of its quality. “Oh you could write that in a day,” is the dismissive phrase employed to demonstrate the insufficiencies of a picture book text. How can it ever compete with a novel? Well, for a start, it is not designed to compete with a novel. It is a different kind of literature, and one that can certainly demonstrate a significant depth of quality and an undeniable importance in the literacy of our society.

I do not write picture book texts from some superficial part of my brain. I am assessing each word on its own merits, its meaning on its own and in context, its sound and rhythmic contribution and its ability to stand up among all the other words I am choosing. Where is the fun and the excitement in the language? How can I drag that potential reader away from some other demand on their time – something that asks less of them and so easily occupies and entertains them? How can I satisfy both adult and child as they share the experience of reading my story? Can I bring them closer together and find a way in to both their hearts and minds? My plotting is a combination of desired themes, credible journeys (whether literal or metaphorical), satisfying and meaningful resolutions and allusions to other childhood experiences of literature that will feed back on themselves as they connect meaning and story across a wider range of works for a richer understanding. Characters are of course child-centric and require that I separate myself from the adult I’ve become and return, not to the child I used to be but a child in the ‘now’ world that has changed immeasurably since my own youth. ‘Jump through hoops’ anyone? This type of writing clearly comes with its own challenges.

And through it all I am looking for the spark, the magic, which lifts the story from the sum of all its parts to something greater. It might not take weeks or months or years to write the first draft of a less than 1000 word picture book but I am drawing on years of thought, experience, learning and my own extensive knowledge of books (picture and otherwise). And for every draft that ‘works’ there are many that stumble at the first idea, the first sentence, the first draft, the second draft, and even sometimes the final draft. For every ‘hit’, there may be a crowd of ‘misses’. I have had picture books that took ten years to go from conception to birth because they required a level of understanding and experience that I needed to acquire before I could make them everything they deserved to be. We are not picture book factories churning out duplicate texts. We are trying to create something fresh that will switch on a child's love of reading.There is nothing simple about this process if you are doing it right. It is made to look effortless (and this is part of our clever plan) and so many have fallen into the trap of believing this to be the case.

And once you have created a first draft that you believe might work, well then, you’ve barely begun. Because the first draft then gets, for all its relative brevity, more attention than 1000 words of a novel might get. Every word is tested, tasted and reassessed. Does it pull its weight? Is it the best word for the job? Does it play well with its mates? Does it shine? Can it be further polished? Should it be let go. If you add the demands of rhyme, expect to spend the greater part of your time tweaking and titivating and massaging things to fit and flow and remain meaningful. And sing. And underneath all the writing should be a consciousness that there shall be illustrations if this is accepted by a publisher. Will this story work over the format of a 32 page book? Are some pages going to be too text heavy. Will the illustrations vary sufficiently from spread to spread? Is there enough leeway for the illustrator to add more layers, to add extra magic, to read between the lines? Will they see what I see when I contemplate my story?

Picture book creators feel the weight of their task keenly. Creating readers is a significant contribution to the world and every little bit helps. I do not sniff at that. And neither should you.

(Note: Should you choose to print all or part of this post, re-post or use this material in any other way, please acknowledge me as its author, and where appropriate, provide a link to the original blog post. Thank you :) )