Monday, May 6, 2019

Writing Short Stories for Children: Part One ...

Let's talk children's short stories. Partly because I have a collection coming out in August!! The Time Machine and Other Stories by Moi (Ahoy) - swoon - I am so excited!!! Partly because they are the thing I have most had published ( thirteen over the years in anthologies and educational journals and magazines, and soon five previously unseen stories will be getting their 'moment' in the collection) so I feel like I have the measure of how to write them, and partly because last weekend I wrote two new ones - one organically and one requested and I found the resulting difference in process surprising in a couple of ways.

Short stories used to be a good way to kick off a children's writing career in this country. A way to get seen and known, and a way to hone and reveal one's craft. For a brief period in the 2000's we were really lucky that a couple of publishers produced trade anthologies. Random House in particular put out maybe five or six themed collections by assorted authors, and Scholastic did a couple of their own. But usually, having some stories published in The School Journal in New Zealand was the time-honoured way for a writer to gain some respected publishing credits. It is still possible to do this now but both The School Journal here, and The School Magazine in Australia have changed the way they do things and it can be harder to get a look in. The desired topics are also now prescribed in advance. Great, if you can write to request/ a brief, but not so good if your main approach is to write organically.

In the beginning I didn't actually 'get' short stories for years, and wasn't too good at writing them either, until I did my English Lit degree. The Writing for Children paper unlocked my understanding. But a degree is not the only way in - there are many ways to develop the knack for writing them. Getting the hang of writing long form or picture books will help but it is fair to say that short stories are their own beast and require a somewhat different approach. Not all novelists are short story writers and vice versa.

Remembering back to when I was a young thing wanting to write, and observing today's children with the same ambition, it seems obvious that the novel is very seductive and we all reach to write something we are not yet ready to write (although there are always exceptions). Few youngsters start with the short story, but that would be an ideal first step to gaining the requisite skills in imagining a brief and very manageable story arc and pinning it to a character who can still change over the course of that arc without needing the depth of development a novel requires. Short stories also train you to vary the text between narrative, dialogue and action. In fact with children's short stories being, well, short, there isn't always a lot of space to indulge in narrative.  Things must happen in 'short' order. The commitment required to produce a short story compared with a novel is far more easily met. Wrangling a single plot arc with only a few briefly developed characters is far more achievable. Its a very good place to start.

And myself? Well I hadn't written any new short stories for a couple of years. Not until the weekend just gone. I go through little bursts with this form. Sometimes I need to do it to remind myself I can still write them. Sometimes I need to do it to remind myself I can still write at all. They are encouraging, and fun, and satisfying. Three very starry qualities. Anyways at the end of last week two things happened. I had an idea for a short story resurface. One I'd mulled over in the past without any real sense of how the story would play out. But this time I felt the urge to actually sit down and see where things led. The other thing that happened was a long phone call with the editor of my short story collection who suggested I write a particular story for inclusion in the book. I agreed with the rationale and could see the potential in the story. But my inclination is to avoid requested/meeting-a-brief type projects. Almost everything I write is on spec, written organically as an idea takes hold and I let things unfold without restriction or expectation. Yes it means my time and efforts might be for nothing if the story I produce goes unwanted but the only person I have to please is myself. And if I send it off to a publisher and they say no, at least I am still pleased and satisfied by what I wrote. With a commission, you are trying to please someone else from the get go. The possibility of failure is exponentially greater and is harder to ignore. It's no fun disappointing someone else.

So, because I had this story I promised to write, I wrote the one that I wanted to write instead. I'd noodled around with it in my mind for about 24 hours and then I got to work. Within a day (Friday), it was done. Was it any good? I couldn't be sure. But I'd pleased myself. It made me laugh (subtle chuckles) and it resolved as I'd hoped. Result! But now I couldn't avoid the requested story. And a tight turn around on this had been asked for. So I sat down with the notes Id made during my chat with the editor and got cracking. It made my head hurt. Not because I didn't know what to write, but purely because I was going to be judged on whether I could achieve this specified goal. And the pressure to not stuff up sat like an albatross on my shoulder. So many of the other stories that will appear in the collection have been published previously. Scrutinised, weighed and accepted by strangers, so I knew they were good enough, and I had their seal of approval to prove it. But this one was straight out of my noggin, tested only by me. I finished it on Saturday. And I sent it off to the editor before my doubts and misgivings could take over. Before any one else could read it and give me feedback. For good measure I chucked in the other story as well. That one's about snot, but in a very understated way. And dear reader, they were very well received and will both be in the collection. I talked with my SO about the experience and he gently chided me for saying I can't do commissioned work. He had a point, but honestly, my gut still resolutely tells me I can't. And the difference in process for writing the two stories? - the mental hurdle I furnished myself with for the second one, and the headache it gave me. I much prefer the organic process but I have to remind myself I can also meet a brief if necessary - I have to stand firm and overrule my gut, which doesn't know everything. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies, putting the stumbling blocks in place to stop ourselves completing, or even attempting, new work. Frank Herbert was right - 'fear' really is the mind killer, and we need to find a way to step around it. Also, I'd just like to quickly note I don't usually write short stories this fast. That was a shock. I don't know how that happened (maybe having such a dreadfully tight deadline). It probably won't happen again. Maybe fear can be a cattle prod too :)

Anyways, I think in my next post I'm going to talk a bit about the how of writing short stories. I just have to go and work out how I do it first :) Talk soon.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

The writers of the future...

It was a class of 32 for the Write Like an Author Camp (devised by author Brian Falkner) that I taught at Remuera Intermediate last week (from April 15th to 18th) - 33 on the Monday when we had one extra booked for the junior day. They were a terrific bunch of students (average age 12), approaching everything with gusto and taking everything in like super soaking one way sponges. There were a mysterious couple of lads who never answered at roll call or put up their hands to answer questions, like a pair of stealthy ninjas - there but not there - except that one did fill in a feedback form and both their certificates were gone at the end of the final day so I feel fairly confident they weren't a complete figment of my imagination. In class we covered the elements of story, character, and suspense, narrative, dialogue and action, and a lot more. We played games and they won points for their teams. I read some of the amazing stories they were working on and couldn't help but admire their burgeoning skills. They seemed to have a good time and the majority of them are keen to do more courses in the future, which is a great sign. I wish there'd been camps like this when I was their age - I would have jumped at the chance to participate in something that would have fed into my obsession with reading and writing so well. I wonder whether I would have admitted my writing ambitions earlier, and kicked off my career sooner? But my only regret now? That I was so very focused on teaching last week, that I did not stop to enjoy their company as much as I should have. What a lovely group of smart, switched-on kids. I wish them every bit of luck with their writing in the future and hope we get to meet again.

Tomorrow's writers: Remuera Intermediate WLAA course April 2019

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Success is a moving target...

Success is a moving target.

Before I had anything I'd written published, getting something (anything?) published was my measure of success. And before I was published it seemed to me that this was the only foot in the door I needed. Once I was published I would be on the 'success road' where publishers knew my name, gave considering my work priority over unpublished writers, and called me to chat about ideas. Lol. There's a fantasy musical in there somewhere.

Of course, I soon discovered that staying published was the next goal, and the challenge, surprisingly, was greater than the hurdle of getting that first thing published. Who knew? (Apparently everyone but me).

Then came the secret desire to be shortlisted for an award. And to win something. People say awards are a bit of a lottery, but I can't lie about finding them desirable. I regret this desire regularly but I can't help myself. I am working on being at peace with this.

I didn't expect the win when it came. Children's Choice at the 2009 NZ Post Children's Book Awards for my picture book with Sarah Anderson, The Were-Nana. Yes I did look shocked. It rates as one of my happiest moments in my writing life. But it didn't open doors the way I thought it might. I think there have been ripples of results from this, but somehow I'd assumed waves were the normal outcome. I've gratefully received a few other nods over the years although I haven't won a category or the big prize at the NZ Book awards so I don't know whether these have greater door opening capacity or not. I suspect asking someone who has won would give mixed answers. There are so many variables that influence how success looks for that winning author/book.

Success has meant a lot of different things along the way. Some small and some big. And it's a constant readjustment, and sometimes a complete recalculation. Sometimes publication success has been elusive and results have been focused on invitations to speak, or tour, or present. Or the chance to write uninterrupted. Or completing a story. Or writing more than 50 words in a day.

Success right now is still very much about staying published. For a career writer this measure is a constant. What are my other current measures? I'll let you know if they come to pass. Sometimes I worry if something big happened that it would be overwhelming and I wouldn't handle that success well. I am however, willing to test this out. Lol. I mean, who would say no to some big kind of writing success. Of course, there's the fact that what qualifies as a success in my opinion might be of no importance to someone else. You have to make your own measures.

I'd recommend keeping them realistic too. It's okay to have tiers of success to aim for. Like Bronze, Silver and Gold. Of course the higher up you aim, the better your chances of reaching a higher goal, but don't make that success unreachable. I'd also recommend always regularly renewing what you consider success means to you. The world, and the book world, are constantly shifting and evolving. You need to shift and evolve with them. Remember too that the success you planned for might have surprising, unexpected outcomes. And it is even possible these outcomes can be negative. Success can sometimes end up being little more than a big fat learning experience. It pays to get adept at finding the silver linings. And perhaps most importantly (especially because I suck at this), learn how to enjoy any success that comes your way. Stop and smell that rose. Water it. And polish it occasionally. It's beneficial to remember the good things along the way because sometimes the next good thing you hoped for doesn't happen. And sometimes the only success you need is that you are still here, still writing, still being hopeful.

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.