Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Fuzzy Doodle soon...

It is less than a month to go until my new picture book is released. I am simultaneously excited and terrified. I hope y'all love it as much as I do. I am having a little soiree with illustrious illustrator Donovan Bixley to launch Fuzzy Doodle 3pm on June 12th at Timeout Bookstore in Mt Eden and I would love you all to come! And don't worry - I will remind you all closer to the time. I think I might run a bit of a competition to win a copy here on the blog soon too, so keep an eye out.

It is hard to describe what the book is about but I guess you might be wondering. Whenever I try to imagine what it means for the Universe to be infinite I find it difficult to comprehend. How can something go on forever? And how does a caterpillar transform into a butterfly within the tiny confines of a cocoon? The concept of metamorphosis is understandable on one hand but the practical application seems other-wordly. It's a bit like the process of writing or art. Where do ideas come from? How do we turn them into complex stories or paintings? I sometimes look at things I've written and thought 'where did that come from?'. There is always an element I can't explain. A certain kind of magic that is involved. These things are at the heart of this book. That is what it is about. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Girls won't spoil the story....

I read this terrific article and wanted to shout 'hallelujah, it's not just me!!' I have long thought that there is something inherently wrong in providing books strictly for boys, to boys. Books with boys as the central protagonist, doing 'boy' stuff in a world of adventure and action and mayhem. 'We need more books for boys,' goes the battle cry. Write something boys will like. And somehow that has included an absence of girls. WE have given girls cooties, in the stories we offer to boys. And books about girls? WE have deemed them toxic to boys. I think in our desperation to get boys reading we made it too much about gender, to our detriment. To society's detriment.  Because in doing so we gave them, between the lines, the message that reading about girls is uncool, and/or embarrassing, and/or unnecessary. And I think this doesn't help anyone. In fact it is has become harmful. Females make up more than half the world's population. How can it be a good idea to tell the other half that females aren't included in the cool stuff. That they can't be brave or resourceful, the problem solver or the hero (and that they don't have to behave like a boy to be any of those things). How can it be a good idea to tell boys that girls aren't even worth reading about. That they'll spoil the story. That they always need rescuing and will reward their rescuer. That they can't be interesting in their own right. Or on their own. We have shot ourselves in the foot and I am tired of hopping around. Stop trying to find a boy book for that boy to read. Just find them a good book. We need to change our posture and vocabulary when we talk about books with boys. We need to stop genderising covers and that goes for 'books for girls' as well - because what matters is what's between the covers. We need to read stories about girls to boys at every level. We need to show them that a story doesn't have to revolve around a boy to be a great read. They should read widely. Like so many girls do. And we need to do the same for diversity. I know this will take generations to change.  But we better start yesterday and stop digging the hole that we have dug so deep.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Reviewing reviews...

Writers block - I've read some excellent articles on this recently which I think address the more serious variety of writer's block and offer insight, advice, solutions and hope if you are locked in mortal combat with the creative side of your mind -  this one is good.

This post by Bernard Beckett on why NZ YA literature is or isn't used in our classrooms is an interesting read. Teachers are too stretched and understandably go for the easy option of (generally overseas) YA titles that have movie tie ins, have been dissected and reviewed ad nauseam on easy to find online sites and are proven winners. This makes it too easy to ignore some excellent local content which already suffers from an embarrassing level of neglect. This site Hooked on Books aims to redress some of the balance (awesome work people!!!) but we have a LONG way to go before we are even truly accepted let alone embraced. While I agree it is best to be positive about small gains I think we should expect more. Look what happened to NZ music when we were obliged to hear more of it.

And if you want an easy lesson on how to start a fight you need look no further than this article by Iain Sharp lamenting the apparently too cosy nature of book reviewing in this fair country. He's only commenting on adult literature here, because reviewing children's literature is an obscure movement that seems to operate on the same level as dark matter. However, for my purposes let's pretend children's literature is part of the reviewing discussion.

I guess I agree on some points. Sometimes reviews are just a blurb, or the synopsis, without commentary on the key elements by which we assess books. On the one hand this gives us no real clues as to the merits of the book but it IS a mention which (due to our lack of cultural embracing) is pure gold. I am thrilled when my books are mentioned (even just by title) by someone other than myself or a member of my family or circle of friends, in some public fashion. We should be a little sad that such small things excite us so much. Round ups, therefore, are a simultaneously good and bad thing.

And the majority of reviews are a bit of a love fest, but then an absence of any mention at all in the places where book reviews hang out can be rebuke enough. As my mother always says, "if you can't say something nice don't say anything at all." And clearly I wasn't the only one in NZ raised this way. We would rather spend our time talking about things we do like, than things we don't. And this is especially true in a country as small as this one. Our tribe is too small. Too close. We avoid confrontation. We don't wish to offend. This doesn't mean our reviews are bad, just highly curated. And, nice isn't always nice. Sincerity, or lack thereof is detectable. Having some overseas reviewers involved might be a good thing but New Zealanders know their own literature best. Goodreads, of course, is immune to all of this and very educational on the subject of reviewing, partly because its structure encourages reviews of everything you have read, and partly because it's an international boundary-less site where people seem to eschew any kind of filter on their comments. If they feel angry about any aspect of your book, whether real or imagined, they feel a duty to let you know. Some of the most insightful reviews I have read have been on Goodreads.  And some of the nastiest.

And everyone has an agenda. Writer Elizabeth George (in an article published in our own Herald Canvas magazine some years ago) said reviewers were looking to their own careers when they write reviews, and the content should be judged on this basis. She made her comments about big name overseas reviewers so are her comments relevant here? Should they be? or is it better if they aren't? I think reviews anywhere can reveal as much about the reviewer as they do about the book.

I've had my fair share of reviews. Some have just repeated the synopsis and made no real comment on the qualities of the story. Some have been insightful criticisms both positive and negative. Some have just been mean-spirited. Some referenced things which weren't in the books. Some seemed to be written by people who hadn't even read my book but felt compelled to comment anywho. And the advised practice (which I agree with) is that authors never respond to reviews, so errors (or misreadings) in reviews go unchecked. If authors can't respond, how much licence is it okay for reviewers to have (and please don't review that sentence, it's a bit rubbish although the content is still meaningful and relevant). We have no right of reply and must take our medicine. Reviewers should keep that in mind.

So are we gutless reviewers? For my own books I hope for honesty and erudite insights. For the books I wish to read I want a feel for the book, the style and quality of the prose, the complexity of the themes and plot. How satisfying is the ending (but no spoilers). When I review books on Goodreads I believe that what I don't say has as much weight as what I do say. You can easily tell when I think something is a must read. And if you have agreed with my past assessments my reviews will be more useful to you. I know who to trust as a reviewer. A reviewing history carries a lot of weight with me.

It's crucial to remember too that reviewers in the media don't necessarily have control over how much they can write, the format in which their reviews appear (round ups), or sometimes even the books they are able to review. They do what they can within the constraints of the current environment.

In the end, the same book can receive scathing reviews and adoring ones. I look at the kinds of comments made and depending on the language used, the issues noted, and the tone of the piece I get a fair idea of whether a book is for me or not. A nasty review isn't necessarily the kiss of death. Sometimes it is the opposite. Give us some credit for being able to read between the lines (cos that's what good readers do) - a review isn't the last and only word.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

My personal relationship with self promotion

I read this blog post on self promotion with great interest. And then its follow up. I felt like the author and I were kindred spirits.

My greatest joy as a writer has been discovering that a complete stranger has selected my book from amongst a shop's curated wares, read it and enjoyed it. When someone I don't know says 'this is my child's favourite book,' about something I have written, I want to cry tears of happiness. I thought my heart would burst when one young reader told me she identified with the central character in one of my novels and said reading about him had made her feel better about her own situation. This is what I want for my books. It's why I write.

And it's why I am rubbish at the direct kind of 'self promotion.' I do blog, and have a presence on facebook and twitter and instagram. But I find it eye-poppingly difficult to actually tell you to buy my book. The moment we build a connection on social media or in real life, you can no longer be the unbiased reader. And I struggle mightily to believe any nice things you might say about my books, no matter how sincere you are (strangely I will believe you if you say something negative about my stories - my brain is a weird place). And that connection might also make you say 'yes' when you were actually thinking 'no'. And it might mean you can no longer just see me as a creative person who writes books, because you might wonder if I am also just seeing you as a potential purchaser. That's just awkward. I want us to be friends.

I also know the direct sell approach doesn't work on me. It's involuntary. I glaze over. No matter how good the product might be. This is how my nature is wired. I blame my genes, and possibly also coffee and olives and organic peanut butter. We may never know.

What I do know is that I want to pour my heart and soul in to my books and then let them speak for themselves. I want them calling to readers with their own voice that I carefully crafted with love and hard work. That is the job I want to do. Not self promotion. Not selling. Writing.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Some brain twirlings on being a mid-career writer

Chuck Wendig recently blogged about mid-career writing. Tis an interesting read (although the faint-hearted should avert their eyes cos there are swears and sexy bits) and it got me to thinking. Cos I guess that's where I am at now. Mid career that is. I'm certainly no longer a beginner and I hope, hope, hope I am not at the end (at least not an end that isn't prescribed by me). So anyways, humour me, and let's say I'm a mid career writer.

Mid-career - you jumped in, you've done a few lengths and touched the end of the pool each time, and you are still swimming.

Mid-career means you have been published. How doesn't matter if your books have been bought and reviewed positively by people who don't know you, and some folk outside your family and your writing circle know your name.

At mid-career point, theoretically, you probably know a fair bit about the craft of writing. About rules of grammar, and the way words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters are ordered. You have a handle on plot and character development and understand why it's important your character has an arc as well as your plot having one. You know what voice, tone and style are. And the difference between 'show' and 'tell' and why that difference matters. You are probably still in two minds (or maybe three) about how many adverbs are too many. And if you are me you have given up caring about the correct use of commas and how many times you've used the word 'just' knowing that an editor won't hold it against you for too long after you've bought them that second cocktail.

But you don't have all the answers. You've realised there is always more to learn, and envelopes that can still be expanded and pushed. It's a journey with a destination you are never likely to reach, but that's not a bad thing. It is harder to find writing courses that are pitched for mid-career folk. You know the fundamentals and you've developed your own habits and style which are individualised to you. If you have been published several times or more you are doing enough right and it isn't always easy to pinpoint what you now need to add to your writing repertoire. I try and reach towards more ambitious projects, grander ideas that force me to try new things. And I am always reading which still remains one of the best schools of writing. And I keep working on my books.

Chuck talks about checking your direction, and making career plans. He acknowledges the difficulties of making plans in an industry where the individual (author) has so little control. But I agree it's smart to check what your desires are and to write and act accordingly. And these things need to be updated on the regular because you will continue to discover things about the industry and you will probably continue to evolve as a writer. Whether your goals are seriously ambitious and your plans structured and aggressive, or you decide you are going to see where fate takes you and you keep things simple, what you choose to do will affect your outcomes. Just remember, choosing to do nothing is also a plan. Whatever else you do, keep working on your books.

There are potential perks to being a mid-career author. It's not all a big mystery anymore (although at times you still wish it was more like a fairy-tale) and you know other writers and some industry professionals. You are a card-carrying member of your tribe and this feels like a warm hug. You are familiar with the process and have found a few shortcuts, even if the process is ultimately still sometimes difficult. It's a bit like running a hurdles race. You are pretty good at getting over the hurdles now after considerable practice, but sometimes your shoe catches and you eat asphalt. Sadly reaching this point has also not necessarily provided you with any security or certainty. While YOU have changed, the publishing industry, at its heart, remains fundamentally the same. The majority of mid-careerists still get rejected and don't get automatic invitations to schools, festivals and other events. But now you know not to take it personally. Keep working on your books.

I like what Wendig says about marketing and promotion. Who you are and how you behave in the real world and on social media will, in the long run, have an impact that goes beyond any structured promotion. And the final word on whether people continue to buy your books is their content. Keep writing and work hard on making it something you are proud of. That is the thing you do have control over.

Some mantra for the mid-careerist:

Things will probably stay the same more than they change
It's not just you, they are like that with everyone
You know more than you think you do
Keep working on your books

Monday, January 11, 2016

Our literary underpinnings

I came back from our trip to Europe and the UK last September filled with a difficult kind of jealousy that time will not remedy. I love the country of my birth in so many ways, but I cannot help craving, especially deep down in my creative soul, the long rich past that is so visible everywhere you go over there. The tumultuous centuries old histories, the long slow burning cultural evolution that is revered and celebrated in public galleries, theatres, monuments and artworks. The roads, footpaths, parks and buildings sing with the voices of all those who have passed over, under, by and through them. Our country is so young by comparison and we are in many respects still finding our way.

When I read this article that compares the children's literature of the US with that of the UK, concluding that the British tell better children's stories because their story telling culture is rooted in fairy tales and make believe, I began to wonder what this might say about the underpinnings of our children's literature here in New Zealand.

I grew up on children's stories from both the US and UK, reading Tolkien and Cooper, Garner, Lewis and Aiken, but also Le Guin and Ingalls Wilder, EB White, Alcott and nearby neighbour L.M. Montgomery, as did many of my peers. Here in New Zealand we have a rich Maori mythology to draw on, but our history is ultimately too youthful and still dominated by the pragmatic. It's that number-eight wire, can-do attitude. In my childhood I had little in the way of local literature to read and so, of course, much of my literary diet was imported from countries that saw the world very differently from what I was able to observe out my window. But that sounds about right for an emerging nation looking to Europe and the UK, as well as to the Pacific, Asia and the New World.

On what do I now base my own writing for children? Do I lean toward the fantastic and enchanted, or the realistic derring-do? Or do I fall somewhere in between or find new and unique ground? I recently sent some samples of my work to some US agents and realised when looking over what I'd sent, that my word choice and phrasing leant towards the British. I'd used the phrase 'let him have it' when talking about an episode of bullying, which on reflection seems very English to me. And there were other examples of a UK kind of sensibility in my writing. I like magic and fairy tales, mythology and fantasy, swords and pixie dust and the supernatural. But there is plenty of realism in my writing and contemporary issues informing my work too. Yet I can't forget that our contemporary issues have a particularly New Zealand spin on them.

Many of my stories are a blend of the real and the magic. New Zealand's most famous children's author, Margaret Mahy, made a highly regarded art of writing magic-realism but I don't think I'm trying to emulate her. I think this is just the result of those widely varying outside influences. I love incorporating fairy tale elements and qualities in my shorter stories and picture books. Yet, like many New Zealand Children's writers, some of my novels tend towards the realistic, whether contemporary or historical. Our fantasy often harks back toward the European or British, with vague settings that don't really feel local and mystical elements that draw on a range of cultures. Although of course there are exceptions where fantasy sits seamlessly inside a NZ setting and at times incorporates Maori mythology.

I guess the best question might be, does it really matter? The writer of the article believed the British wrote better children's stories but perhaps that depends what you are searching for in your reading experience. As a young reader I found much to like in both kinds of stories, and I guess the different kinds of stories met different needs. There is a place for both in a young person's reading diet.

As much as I love and yearn for the cultural and historical heritage of Europe and the UK, I have grown up here. And perhaps both of those things belong in my writing. Even the longing

Monday, December 21, 2015

Just keep swimming...

So I'm hanging in there with the whole twitter thing at the moment, although I've not had much success with twitter pitching. In some respects I am sticking with it because I am a little in love with hashtags. If facebook posts can lack nuance, twitter makes up for this in spades with the hashtag concept. And the 140 character limit is excellent mental gymnastics and enormous fun to experiment with. The 'how to say more with less' lesson is almost better than sudoku. Twitter is craft and craftiness all in one, and a chance to meet a whole new tribe of people from around the globe.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, three boxes of books, submitted for the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults (please let there be an acronym), arrived this past week. All sorts of goodness lay therein and I have already been making myself acquainted with the contents and started reading, digesting, and judging.

And I have finally signed off on the content for the next picture book, Fuzzy Doodle, checked out the cover art (HB and PB - be still my beating heart), and received print run info. Every step closer generates another little frisson of excitement and I cannot wait to show you how it looks. It has all taken a bit longer than expected cos reasons so I probably won't be able to give you a peek till 2016. Soz about this.

I also got my first school booking for 2016 which was a bit of a buzz. Next year is slowly taking shape and it's a pretty cool shape so far.

And because it's the end of the year here is a handy dandy list for you to take away and digest

re School Visits and Talks
1) Be someone who is good to work with. It is a pretty awesome compliment to get invited back somewhere because they enjoyed working with you/ having you in their school the first time. Schools and expectations do vary widely, so I have learned to be adaptable
2) Add value - for me it's about thinking what creative writing skill(s) I can demonstrate to the age group in the time available. Sometimes it's revealing a cool aspect about books/reading they might not have considered before. I ALWAYS try and send my audience away with more than they arrived with
3) Value your own expertise, the time you put in to preparation, and the day or so it takes to recover afterwards. Talking and interacting and thinking on my feet with a large group of strangers often gives me a serious people hangover. I've come to respect this and give myself space, when possible, between engagements.
4) Be yourself. Seriously! Being yourself is exhausting enough - being someone else is just insane. And don't try to use whatever schtick someone else uses as part of their talk. Find the things that work in with your own set of skills. But don't be a schtick-free zone either. Over the years I have assembled a set of strategies, a range of talks with exercises that cover different aspects of creative writing, set examples to illustrate my points, and some jokiness. I am always looking at ways to enhance what I already have and ways of identifying what works best with which crowd. I try to use 20 minute chunks where possible to reflect the average attention span...
5) Don't beat yourself up if it doesn't go well. I don't always get it right. Sometimes I misread the crowd or I'm the last session at the end of a long day, or my audience is different to what I expected or it's widely ranging mixed age groups which means it's near impossible to cater to everyone in the group. I can feel the flatness when things aren't working and sometimes I'm able to effect a change that works. Don't give up. Sometimes the audience is quiet and unresponsive and the organiser will turn around at the end of the session and say 'I've never seen them so animated,'  You don't know what their normal is. And sometimes the understanding and digestion of your material is invisible to you. If you have come in with the aim of adding value, chances are high that you have.
6) Take care of yourself. Not too much self-flagellation, and treating yourself to a bit of a reward afterwards is always good. I usually save the wine and the chocolate till I get home though ;)

re Hanging in there
Like the object in your rear view mirror, the realities of the publishing world are often nothing like you anticipated. This becomes interesting when you try to shoe horn all the plans you made based on your expectations, into the real unfolding of events. And like the price of a house for sale, no one really wants to give you a specifics on what your time, skills and efforts are worth least you use this information against them at a later date. Clarity on the subject is like the elusive word on the tip of your tongue. Add to all this the seesawing fortunes of books over the last 7 years, the 2008 financial slump, the rise of e-books, and the retrenchment of various publishers and general undervaluing of arts and culture in this fair country and no one would blame you for feeling a bit glum about it all. So how do you keep body and soul together in the face of all of this?

1) Find your tribe and become a part of it. When 'nothing' is happening for you, your tribal membership will remind you who you are and why you do this. You will appreciate that the difficulties of the industry are not yours alone but are shared by us all. You will have access to information and understanding, knowledge, advice and camaraderie. That is the good oil right there.

2) Be a whale shark and keep going, cos otherwise there will be no fresh water over your gills and you will die. Seriously, you either keep going or you don't. Opportunities lurk in the weirdest places and like to jump out and yell surprise when you are least expecting it. If you stop, then those opportunities will never get their chance. If you would like to keep being a writer, then keep being a writer. Sometimes it will seem like there is no prize for keeping going. Those are the times when you batten down the hatches, wear down the gilt on any previous prizes, provide your own rewards for hanging in there and eat into those carefully stored reserves of hope you laid down in the good times. Make sure you put aside some hope when you have that excess of it.

3) Investigate other people's art - read, go to art galleries, movies, binge watch a well written/crafted tv series. Or try your hand at a different discipline or learn a new skill. Wine making and cooking with chocolate are excellent choices here. You should always keep your creative soul well-stocked, but sometimes it's extra nice to have a good wallow. And exploring something you haven't tried before is especially good in dark times, cos that shiny fresh newness of something completely different can rub off.

4)  Don't fall into the trap of thinking you have to change what you do, or the way you do it because you must have been doing it wrong if nothing is happening. If you feel it's wrong, then change by all means. Or if you have always wanted to branch out or try different styles or genre then this can be the perfect time to do it. But if you feel that what you write and the way you write it says what you want to say, stick with it. When things go awry or just don't go at all, staying true to yourself is more important than ever.

5) Be ambitious - keep pushing at the forward edge of your work. Explore more, dare more, experiment more. Cos, man that stuff can be so exciting, energising and motivating. And chances are you might push through to something brilliant

re A New Year

1) Avoid the same old, same old - plan for something creatively fun, like going to a new show, exhibition, or festival. Or organise a writer's weekend away, or book in for a class or workshop.

2) Give yourself a deadline on one work. Be realistic, plan towards it, and then achieve it. Reward yourself when you make your deadline. Make a plan for what you will do with the finished work (and I mean an edited polished finished work, not the first draft), whether it is entering it in a competition, submitting it to an agent or publisher or getting it professionally edited, booktracking it or making it available yourself as an e-book or printed version.

3) Try entering or applying for something. Whether your application or entry is successful or not, entering and applying is a good thing to practice and a great skill to have under your belt.

And in late breaking news, the publisher has said I can share a pic from teh new book so here is a sneak peek from Fuzzy Doodle with artwork by the most illustrious Donovan Bixley.