It is that shiny, tinselly, reflective time of year when I look back over the preceding 11 and a half months and go, 'What the...'. It would be no exaggeration to say that this year has had more than its fair share of the unexpected. Most of the surprises have been happy ones but there have been a few shocks, frustrations and disappointments as well. Whether good or bad, it has been full on and I must say I feel ready for a bit of a lie down over the summer break. Although I won't be lying down too long as I am doing a talk on junior fiction to some Writing for Children university students in early January and giving some writing workshops at Selwyn College in the second half of January (more on that later in this post) and I have some workshop/talk notes to finesse. Oh, and I am one of the authors exhibiting 'What Lies Beneath' my most recent book in an Exhibition we are putting on at the National Library in Parnell beginning in January. Oh....
So 2013, I have embraced you and sucked the marrow out of you. However I feel like I am still digesting you. I don't know what to think about half the things that have transpired. I am hoping to have a handle on it all by mid 2014. If only things would slow down a little and give me time to catch up....
So my philosophical brain twirlings that have emerged from 2013....
- Don't put stuff off until a better time comes along. The time is now! Enrol, submit, apply, enter, participate! Just do it. Everything, especially in the world of publishing (whether trad or self) takes time. If you start now you will be ready by the time things are actually happening.
- the internet is designed to overwhelm you and suck you in. When I was a kid (bleat) I got a weekly magazine for girls and I could pull out the poster of my favourite boy band (I could tell you who they were but then I'd have to kill you - lets just say tartan was involved) and stick it on my wall. Now I can keep a 24 hour watch on my current obsession, and have a pseudo conversation via twitter when I am not googling their next project. No it isn't healthy. The internet is like a best friend that is a cross between the Bitch in Apartment 23 and Single White Female. Use it, but don't let it use you.
- Say yes to everything, but lock yourself away from time to time so no one can ask you to do something.
- Each year make sure you take on at least one thing you didn't think you could do. This year I wrote a story in rhyme. Next year I am moving to Dunedin for six months. Sucking the marrow folks.
- I have seen a lot of phoenix's rising out of some very deep ashes this year. I have been dead impressed listening to folk talk about the nuts and bolts of the publishing process and discussing the cost effectiveness of taking a particular route with printing, etc.... They've taught themselves how it all works and how to make things happen. The tools are out there. People are sharing information. You know the saying - when you are given lemons...
-doing the step before does not always prepare you for the step that comes next, both in terms of writing and all the associated stuff that goes with it. Bit like raising children really. Just when you've sussed the baby stage, they become a toddler. And when you've finally learned how to wrangle the toddler they morph into a pre-schooler. Each time you begin again figuring out the demands of the age stage and the strategies for growing them successfully to the next. At no point do you arrive at the resting-on-your-laurels stage. That is a myth created by advertising companies
- I have come to the conclusion I want to be a champion for NZ Children's literature. It deserves more attention than it gets
It's good to take stock of the year that's been. It's good to set some goals for the year ahead. Sometimes this can be a little like setting New Year's resolutions which I don't think I ever manage to keep, but organising your thoughts into groups of things you would like to do at least clarifies where you see yourself heading and can help you identify what you might need to do to get there. Want to submit something for the Tom Fitzgibbon or Joy Cowley Awards? They close October 31st so aim to polish that manuscript well in advance. Want to go to Storyline's Margaret Mahy Day (end of March, beginning of April) or Family Day (August 31st in Auckland) then pencil these in to your calendar now. If you want to take Massey's Writing for Children paper (Albany Campus) you will need to enrol for the 2014/2015 summer semester. And if you fancy taking any of the writing or publishing courses at Selwyn College in January you can check out the info here.
Go make plans - be bold and pick something fabulous to do that scares you - and get your marrow spoon ready for 2014
In response to the University of Kent's woeful attitude toward children's literature and sadly a few other disparaging and dismissive comments on the subject, and the recent dismissal of the experienced and well regarded children's book reviewer, Amanda Craig, at the Times in the UK, Keren David posted about the persistent problem at An Awfully Big Blog Adventure. And then there was thison Nicola Morgan's blog. The Times wasn't interested in the letter regarding Miss Craig with over 420 signatories (many of them award winning children's authors and illustrators).
I don't expect all the grown up writers to know all about children's literature as well as adult literature (although it is possible to keep up with what's happening in both areas, I certainly give it a go). However it does seem very rude when sweeping generalisations are made about such a wide range of literature without actually cracking the spine on any examples, yet somehow the commentators are still qualified to talk as if knowledgeable on the subject. And if they are widely read in children's books are they saying that the adult experience is always going to be a better topic? Or that emotional, spiritual or any kind of personal or social growth or change is more worthy if experienced by an adult? The comment 'JK Rowling is now trying to write proper books for grown-ups...' unfortunately does seem to be a common attitude held by many readers/writers/studiers of adult literature towards the creators of literature for children. Should I accept this idea that my books aren't 'proper' books? Or that writing a book for children does not require any effort or sophisticated thinking? That I am taking it 'easy'?Or that my effort is worth less? Or I am a lesser kind of adult? Why so defensive? Maybe it's the constant belittling. Or the bewildered reaction that appears when it is suggested that writing for children is also literature. I am so disappointed that writers would do this to other writers. I am disappointed that this kind of thoughtless dismissiveness is delivered so easily. There are wonderful supportive and encouraging exceptions but sadly I think they prove the rule. I would apologise that I appear disrespectful towards writers of, or academics in, adult literature but I've been wading through so much blithe disrespect recently some of it has tried to cling to me. I am shaking it off. It really stinks.
Some people genuinely believe that children's literature can never qualify as good literature. I feel bad for them. Kent University thought it was okay to say this - teachers at the Centre for Creative Writing "love great literature and don't see any reason why our students should not aspire to produce it … We love writing that is full of ideas, but that is also playful, funny and affecting. You won't write mass-market thrillers or children's fiction on our programmes." I think they were truly surprised that other folk didn't agree with them and brushed off the complaints about their position on children's literature with a few jokes. Eventually they apologised but I couldn't help feeling they weren't entirely sure what had just happened. A book for children is simple to write and simple to read. Move along. Nothing to see here people. And folk commenting on the article didn't get it either - lol at all the butthurt Dan Brown and Harry Potter readers on CiF crying because someone pointed out they are reading childish unchallenging books said letusberealistic. I don't think letusberealistic (or Kent University) is reading children's books properly, or the right ones. But Frip's comment - A lot of people read for pleasure - not to be challenged. I am one of them. My work is challenging -I want entertainment when I read. Why does a book have to challenge you? which appears to be an attempt to support children's books is not much better. Many children's books from YA novels to picture books contain big ideas. Complex themes and issues are put forward in a highly distilled format (no mean feat) that explores, explains and enlightens sometimes in less than 1000 words. Sometimes in less than 500 words. In a way that a very young mind can take it on board and move forward toward adulthood with that knowledge understood and absorbed. These books are challenging and entertaining. Plenty of adult books cannot do both. I'm not going to dispute that there are some rubbish children's books out there with little thought or effort put in to them. With cliched, tired or empty themes or stories that revolve around a one note joke. But there are many children's books that easily qualify as good writing. Surely good writing or a good book is not determined by it's genre. My biggest surprise is that adult fans of adult literature believe they never read a good book until they read an adult book. Maybe they had difficult childhoods that they would rather block out or deny. How easily they forget that it is probably only good children's books that got them through those challenging years.
It would not be an overstatement, I think, to say that this year has been somewhat busy. Now that I have handed in my final assignment, launched my latest book While You Are Sleeping (with a purpose built cake of course)
and agreed with the editor on some last text changes for next year's picture book I have been kicking back just a little (here lunching with some terrific writery pals - Maria Gill, Victoria Azaro, Elena de Roo and with Jane Bloomfield behind the camera).
Somehow this year, while Christmas is on the same date in the same week that it always is, I can't help feeling that everyone has already started their end of year wind down. And that includes me. It seems oddly early and normally this would worry me as I don't like the usual wind down timings and struggle with not having the access to people, businesses and processes that I enjoy having the rest of the year (although I am sure they need their rest from me :) But I feel like I have sucked the marrow out of 2013. On the whole it has been a good year. I am content to wind down with the rest of the world and potter away at my current projects. What has happened to me??? Maybe I am growing up. I hope not.
I am trying to be a bit more zen about things anyways. Being on social media brings people in regular contact with a whole raft of problems, crises and issues and makes the world seem as if it is in a permanent state of exploding, imploding or falling apart. I often feel angry or wound up about all the injustices and while the concerns are important and taking action is worthwhile, existing in a constant state of feeling over-wound can't be healthy. So I'm trying to pick my battles, think of proactive things I can do to contribute to positive change and trying to throw off the associated stress. A current frustration is the lack of respect shown to children's literature within the local literary scene. I have lamented in the past that children's literature seems like the poor relation of adult fiction in New Zealand. Sometimes I think maybe I'm overstating things, or being too sensitive. My mistake. Apparently it is no relation at all. All too often anecdotal evidence demonstrates that I am not nearly sensitive enough. Our children's literary community is very strong in New Zealand. Children's fiction publications in New Zealand would surely outnumber adult fiction every year (adult/general non fiction I suspect would dominate all other categories). We are producing quality material. Folk might say our persistent inability to sell overseas is indicative of not quite making the mark in comparison to foreign books. But if you consider that the business end of publishing and distribution often wants to see the success of a title before taking it on elsewhere and we can never hope to demonstrate the desirable kinds of numbers in a population of 4 and a half million people or interest from a sophisticated yet still too small television or film industry, do we face impossible odds? And while our wines, our indigenous culture, our take on fashion and hobbits seem desirably exotic, this surprisingly does not extend to our children's literature. And when opportunities for introducing our work to a bigger market arise, despite the relative size of our children's writing community and that the resulting publications are a significant proportion of all annual publications here, we continue to be grossly under-represented at international events. We don't get seen at these events, or feted, or promoted. No wonder the rest of the world is unaware of us. Folk are generally unaware of us here. I know some sectors are very good at knowing us and supporting us but other sectors, who might also make a significant long term difference for us, don't share this approach. I do not want to just be grumpy about this. I like to think there might be a solution to this problem. Maybe the summer hiatus will provide me with some good thinking time.
"How/where do you get your ideas?" is one of the most common questions I get asked. Ideas are everywhere and yet are more elusive than strange quarks/fairies/dark matter/Nessie/insert mythical creature here. How do you catch an idea? (This post applies more to picture books and poetry - I'll explore short story and novel ideas in the future)
I am always thinking about possible story ideas. I liken this, especially for potential picture book ideas, to trying to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together. Usually this requires a lot of time and effort and if you are lucky you might generate one or two little sparks and if you are very, very lucky a spark might fall on the driest part of your kindling or a patch of scrunched up newspaper with sufficient oxygen around it to start a fire. Fire = story. I try an awful lot of story ideas out in my head that never spark in to anything. They are too familiar, cliched, obvious, try-hard, preachy, superficial, empty or just downright dumb and are summarily discarded. Or the idea is intriguing and solid but I just don't know what to do with it. That kind I fill out as much as possible and keep for when I am ready to write them (this is how my next book The Song of Kauri was written and from first idea to final version was maybe around ten years with not much going on inbetween - I had to grow, as a writer, in to the idea ). But the best ideas are matches with a handy strike plate. Not a spark but an instant generous flame (watch out though - cup your hands around that flame, as unexpected and/or strong gusts of wind will blow it out). So where are the matches kept and how do we get them?
In a recent post I mentioned being inspired by the speech of a stuttering schoolboy and the result was my poem Eagle. The driving fragment of thought was 'I own the air' associated with the idea of 'birds' which came into my head after hearing the words (in separate sentences) own, birds and air. And while the resulting poem might not shake up the poetry world or win any prizes, the way it came about does say something about ideas. As I listened to the boy's speech the first time, while I appreciated the magic of what was happening to him I didn't hear what he actually said, I heard 'I own the air'. And this phrase was like a key that unlocked a larger idea about the relationship between birds and the medium they fly in.
I am watching, reading, thinking, observing (different to watching) and listening all the time. I read and watch widely from rubbish to academic material. This seems to make matches turn up more often. And by constantly trying on new ideas, and trying to get idea fires started I recognize when it's a match and not a twig or a knife or a pencil or a carrot. I know Neil Gaiman goes to the Idea Shop in Bognor Regis for his ideas. I'm not sure exactly how my brain goes from A (air, bird, own) to B (I own the air) - it's not a big leap but it came with useful baggage - but I think its important to feed your mind regularly and practice turning ideas into stories until you find one that works. Like a muscle, the more you exercise this process, the fitter it gets. This doesn't mean I get more ideas than the next person, it just means I know what they are when they show up. And then the hard work of turning the ideas into stories begins. How/where do you get your ideas?
Some folk think writing for children is somehow easier than writing for adults. I tend to think they have forgotten that writers for adults have more in common with their audience and in truth might often be considered to be writing for someone who is essentially themselves. Writing for an audience from whose company you were separated some decades previous adds a certain degree of difficulty. Factor in that childhood now is a very different kettle of fish from what it used to be and you add another degree or 30 - when I was a child I rode around the nearby cul de sac with the other neighbourhood kids till after dark, and went all sorts of places on my own recognisance. There was no internet. No cellphones. No playstations. It is not overstating it to say that times and childhood have changed considerably and irrevocably. The gap to be bridged between childhood and adulthood, between then and now, requires a special kind of engineering. That children's writers make it look easy, is not because it is. It is because they have some unique skills.
So what habits and qualities facilitate the development of these skills?
1) Read children's books.
2) Be in touch with the child you were
3) Be in touch with the child you still have inside you now.
4) No lecturing, hectoring, badgering and preaching unless you are a lecturer, Hector, badger or preacher, and even then, don't do it.
5) Don't be afraid for your audience
6) Don't be reckless with your audience
7) Be smart
8) Be silly
9) Be honest
10) Be respectful
11) work hard
If you think these things are easy, you are doing them wrong. And there are no shortcuts.