Sunday, February 22, 2015

Life is like a box of chocolates, without the chocolate identification card ...

So I had a weird kind of summer hibernation where my writer's metabolism slowed right down in the languid seasonal heat - I guess maybe the equatorial folk would call that a siesta. Semantics aside, it seemed an involuntary response to everything that was going on and that had gone before, and in the end had a bit of a therapeutic quality. I feel (mostly) ready for 2015 and a new book project is tugging appealingly at my subconscious and conscious mind. A plot has taken shape and now I am getting to know my main protagonist a bit better. He is a little elusive and while in the past my key characters have often rocked up to the page fully formed and ready to go, I am having to set my chisel to the stone to pick this boy out of the marble. Hah, maybe I should call him David :)

And after looking somewhat empty after the hurly burly of 2014, the old schedule is starting to get interesting. Life is what happens while you are making other plans. After challenging my poor family and pushing them to the limit with my wilful independence (a.k.a. the Children's Writer's Residency in Dunedin) last year, I rashly applied for another residency for this year. I thought it a long shot, but my six months away had made me brave/foolhardy, and I tossed my hat in the ring with a wild project (the one with 'David' in it) that I thought they would either love or hate. They seem to have been in the 'loved it' camp as I will now be based out of The Pah Homestead in Hillsborough when I take up the University of Otago Wallace Residency for three months starting in March. I can't wait to get writing on the new project. I am thanking my lucky stars and bribing my family relentlessly to keep their affection.

I'm also doing a talk at the next SCBWI NZ meeting on March 21st (more details soon), and then in April I'm off to Wanaka for a week as part of the Festival of Colour, where I'll be taking part in a Speed Date the Author morning, a True Stories Told Live event, and assorted other authory visits. Most exciting, and what a wonderful time to be in such a beautiful part of the world.

My SO and I have booked a holiday away for September (yay!!!) and when we return I'll be off to Wellington for the Bi-annual National Children's Writers and Illustrators Conference - Tinderbox 2015 - for the first weekend of October (email for info and updates if you are interested in attending).

A few other exciting potential engagements are being discussed. It's all been a bit surprising (apart from the holiday which we have been planning since late last year). Take note universe, these are the kinds of surprises I like. Anyways, I'm off to dig David out of a to you later.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Money is a confusing subject for writers ...

Money is a confusing subject for writers. As I covered in my last post, the average earnings on a single title aren't the stuff luxury dreams are built on. Most of my writing income comes from book related things rather than the books themselves. I am not complaining. I love writing books. And talking about books. And writing. And I did my research - I figured out pretty quickly that I was unlikely to make my fortune this way. I knew what I was in for and I went and did it anyway. But that doesn't mean I agree with how writing is valued. And it is somewhat awkward when the normal sector of the community who head off to their 9 to 5 jobs for at least minimum wage, and then usually plus some, try to understand why you do what you do, knowing what you know, about the likely going rate. As Sara Baume explains here ( " gradually, society has made me feel foolish for devoting myself so fervently to a career so unlikely to earn me any money. " ),  often they don't get it (thank you to Maureen Crisp for this very juicy link).

And here in New Zealand, with a seriously modest population that can never drive large print runs, a tyranny of distance that strangles the most thoughtful marketing and promotional campaigns, and as publishers have tightened their belts, or upped sticks and retreated to the shores of our larger neighbour Australia, margins have become tighter than most.

Despite all this we do still have writers here who earn enough from their book sales alone to buy their own coffees. But they are a small percentage of the writing community. I read recently of an overseas study which calculated that the majority of writers (including both independently and traditionally published) had an average annual income of $500 from their books. That is a sobering result.

We work hard at what we do, whether it's writing and polishing our manuscripts, or preparing and delivering talks, workshops or readings. We often go the extra mile - dressing up for appearances, making handouts and bookmarks, giving prizes from our own resources in competitions of our own devising, or judging those devised by others. We mentor, teach and share. And underneath it all we are slowly taught that there is little money in this industry. Slowly our sense of the value of what we do is muddied or eroded. What should a manuscript be worth? Is it $6000 all up? I feel a little ill when I see million dollar advances for celebrity titles, or some hot, young debuting writer. Is their writing really 167 times (or more depending on the currency - don't talk to me about £1,000,000 advances) better than my writing? Maybe. Maybe not. How can I tell? I know publishing is a business, and advances and royalties represent what income a company anticipates making and/or actual sales. Is this the only measure of a book's value? Should we be paid by the word? Well probably not because writers take many different routes to get to the same length manuscript, whether going through twenty drafts and labouring over each individual word, or knocking out 50,000 words a month, nanowrimo style, whether we are supported by an agent or editor or doing all the writing, rewriting and editing ourselves. Should we be paid by the length of time taken, or the sweat generated while we worked? It's all a bit confusing. What ARE we worth? Are we further away from understanding what a reasonable value is, than ever before? And that's just for our writing. What are we worth for all the other writing related tasks that we do.

And if folk question our sanity for choosing a career that doesn't pay, do they then extend this to thinking that this IS what we are worth?

We have debated the difficulties of being asked to do gigs for nothing. Many organisations, schools and other institutions understand the importance of paying writers a fee for events they participate in. But there is a worrying trend for unpaid gigs. Doing jobs for free creates an unhealthy and unrealistic expectation that undermines the ability of other authors to charge. Why pay someone when you can find someone else who will do it for free? Yet we put a lot of thought and effort into our presentations. It seems fair to be remunerated. And what if writers are financially supported by family or some other form of patronage. Should they do all their gigs for free? Or not at all? Is their value different again?  For me one of the biggest arguments against doing something for free is that often the people inviting you to speak aren't working for free. They justifiably expect fair recompense for the work they perform, and it would seem only reasonable for us to expect the same. If they are voluntary workers than I am happy to be voluntary too, but that isn't always the case. I appreciate that so many organisations are strapped for cash, but they must also appreciate that that is also true of so many of the authors they are inviting to work for free. I believe part of the difficulty is that we have no real clear understanding of what we are worth, whether for our writing, or for other writing related tasks. How can we negotiate payment when we are so unsure ourselves. The waters have just been getting muddier and muddier. We are being taught to expect less. And that we can't rely on income from our writing. And the wider community seems to have a different understanding of how we work, and what and how we are paid and it seems impossible to bridge this divide of understanding. It would be a travesty if in the future the only people who could afford to write were those with independent means. Money is a confusing subject for writers.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Where the wild things grow ...

Should I talk about Eleanor Catton? Everyone else has been, and then some.  I don't know that I could add much to the conversation. Still, I have been thinking about it quite a lot. I think our politics have more in common than not, but whether I agree with her or don't, she should be able to express her views about her home country without fear of retribution. She's raised issues it would be useful to debate in a wider forum, but she was effectively told to shut up and called a traitor, which gives the lie to our recent top polling as a socially progressive nation. And telling her that she should stick to her writing and leave political comments to others is patronising and a few other things that I will let you draw your own conclusions about. It's a shame that the name calling might sweep the issues under the rug.

Catton called out a lack of support for arts and culture here. Yet she's received money and accolades and adoration nation-wide, as people have readily pointed out. But folks she's received these things because she is deserving of them. And if she's had $50,000 worth of support over several years as she's risen in prominence, this is not exactly living the high life and it's important to realise this is not what writers generally receive either. For every writer who receives some financial manifestation of support or encouragement there are many more who never get anything.

Most creative writers work on spec. We spend hours on a manuscript with no guarantee of income for that invested time. Yes, we could try something with an hourly rate, and actually, most do. Many writers have 9 to 5 jobs or do other casual work to bring money in, whether teaching, editing, or running workshops etc... I also, where possible, do paid work that utilizes my writing skills. If I am successful here in New Zealand with a novel, which might have taken me 1 to 2 years to write, I get, at most, royalties of $2 per book (often less if the book is sold through book clubs or special deals) with a print run of between 2,000 and 3,000. So I might, if I am lucky, receive up to, but most likely less than, $6,000 (half if it's a picture book as I share the royalties with the illustrator). And this will be over several years. Any advance I am paid for writing a book that gets published is not additional to any royalties paid on sales but must first be earned out from those sales. And I'm not pumping out ten books at a time. Even if I did there are no guarantees that all would be accepted for publication. It's not 'easy' money. We aren't greedy. And what we do isn't indulgence.

Our stories are part of our culture. They reflect and shape who we are as a people. They help us stand tall on the international stage. They influenced the development of people like Catton, and Lorde, whose triumphs we have rightly applauded and shared as a nation. We liked their success.The fruits of their creative labours are admired as sophisticated and fresh by overseas critics. Our culture contributed. Lets make sure we don't throttle or starve that culture. If anything we should invest more in it to create and influence more fresh and innovative thinking amongst our future generations. Still, I know I'm likely to be preaching to the choir with this. And I do worry that we might no longer be talking about increasing funding and support, but doing all we can to maintain the little we have.

And that tall poppy thing? We have an uncomfortable relationship with success. It's not just a New Zealand phenomenon and I confess I admire those who behave with restraint and humility and wish I was more like them. I grew up in this kind of environment where we like our heroes to be humble.  Does the point exist at which there is a right balance of pride and modesty? Where we can talk about our achievements without being thought of as bragging. Some middle ground between Sally Field and Kanye West perhaps? I think a more troubling thing is a sense of entitlement. It's an unattractive quality in any industry - whether it's writing, politics, big business or radio hosts.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Stepping up to the plate ...

Book sales were perky last year, both here in New Zealand, and round the world. This good news is a sweet note to be starting the year on. And children's and young adults books are doing particularly well. Yeehah! This makes me keen for writing.

In contrast to last year I have few fixed events in 2015. In fact I currently have only one speaking engagement booked in. Last year was jam packed and super exciting, but I have to say I feel just as excited about this somewhat quieter year. And there are a few tasty carrots dangling in the distance. My SO and I are having a bit of a trip away later in the year. Far away. To new places. Very exciting. And then I will come home just in time for the Bi-annual Children's Writers and Illustrators Conference. This year the Conference will be in Wellington over the first weekend of October. A conference like this is gold: for networking, for sharing information, tips, and issues, for exploring the new and catching up with old friends. I'll post further details as they come to hand.

I still have some older projects that I want to work on, and one or two new ones to get started with. I also need to get back in to a more regular blogging habit. I want to do lots of reading and take in art, theatre and movies.

So ... the plan for the year is to

1) Complete at least two long projects (novels) - either new or existing
2) Attend the conference
3) Read 46 books (already declared as my Goodreads challenge) and write a review of each one
4) Write at least one new picture book manuscript
5)Create a publishing plan for every completed manuscript (existing and new) which notes the publishing avenues I will pursue for each.
6) Put those plans in to action for each manuscript
7) Blog at least once a week
8) Contribute as much as possible to the task of creating a New Zealand Children's Laureate
9) Do that thing I've forgotten that I also want to do
10) Do some other really cool stuff

Putting these things in print is a good way of guilting me in to action on them. So what about you guys? What are you stepping up to the plate to do this year ...?

Saturday, January 10, 2015

There are no short-cuts to mushrooms...

I have been hanging around in this book business for quite some time now. More than 15 years of writing, submitting, up-skilling, network building, and thinking about process, books, publishing and how everything works and fits together. The playing field refuses to stay the same so I know I will never be at a point where I can stop learning.  But I keep meeting or hearing of people who ask nothing about the industry before jumping in with boots on - they are the 'I want to invent this really cool thing called a wheel' or 'I don't need to know about your wheel: my wheel will be much rounder' brigade. Or I meet or hear of people who want to take short cuts. Who want an easier route. Who know there is some sure fire formula for success. The 'What's the secret to writing a great book?', 'If I (or my publisher) say I'm the next big thing', 'I just need to use these sure fire methods for increasing my readership/ word-count/ book sales/insert desired outcome here' group.

There is an astounding amount of information available online, and in books on writing and publishing. If you are thinking of trying to get a book published don't wait until it is finished before you find out the requirements of the category/genre you are writing in: how to present and submit your work: who to submit it to: what is expected of you as an author and/or illustrator: how to go it alone if self-publishing is your preference, and the help you will need to do this: anything else at all about the book industry. Reading a best-selling and/or award winning novel/picture book does not qualify you as an expert in what is involved. It really pays to check out how that book got to end up in your hands. And there are screeds of information available. I spent years accumulating a boat load of knowledge about this industry, but it is all at my fingertips these days if I have any questions. It is at your fingertips too. There is no excuse for not knowing. Do your homework peeps.

And I have never met a real short-cut. I believe having success is likely to be because of good luck and good management. That whizz-bang technique you applied at the same time is very possibly a red herring unrelated to your outcome.

I reckon lasting success is the result of:
1) Hard work - writing is hard work. Nothing is perfect first time and must be sharpened and polished into the diamond that people will want to buy and read. It takes months and years. 'Instant success' is often the result of years of work behind the scenes, or a one-off.
2) Practice - all my writing over the years has made me a better writer. And I think more writing will make me a better writer in the future.
3) Persistence - this is what I want to do. So I will keep working at it, keep trying, keep challenging myself, within the vagaries of the publishing world
4) Patience - I don't have much and it has been hard work to be patient when things have taken a long time or expectations have had to be shifted or re-imagined. But there is no way around having to use it.
5) Becoming an active, participating member of the writing community. Give where you can and appreciate when people give back to you. My book friends have kept me from being a 'Jack' and helped me to be 'Rose'. I would do the same for them.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

I've been reading...

You might have been wondering where I've been. My dad passed away on the First of December. While not unexpected, it has been a sad time for my family. There have been a few other unwanted challenges as well this month for us and at times I have been focusing on the words of others as a comforting distraction. Below are some reviews of the books I have read recently.

Monkey Boy by Donovan Bixley (Scholastic, 2014). 4 stars - Action and adventure on the high seas with young powder monkey Jimmy Grimholt, freshly recruited into the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars. While at first vulnerable and naive, with the help of some unexpected allies and a very special talent Jimmy faces danger head on. This book is not for the squeamish, with plenty of blood, guts and toilet humour, but Bixley's well timed inclusion of graphic novel elements provides an effective change from sections of text, adds drama and detail, and keeps the pace zipping along. The narrative is a little slow to find its rhythm at first, but is a terrific read when it hits its straps.  A ripping read

Hunter by Joy Cowley (2004). 5 stars - Spare, fast paced and satisfying. Cowley deftly imagines and handles NZ history, seamlessly and believably presenting customs and habits of  the Maori people in 1805. In 2005 young teenager Jordan and her two little brothers are in a plane crash in a light aircraft that veers off course trying to avoid a storm. Hurt and alone, in an isolated part of New Zealand's rugged South Island they must fend for themselves and keep their hopes alive that help will come. Yet when help does come, it initially arrives most unexpectedly from the past. From Hunter, a psychic young Maori slave on a Moa hunt in 1805.  The adventure is a little predictable but well managed and for the most part, rewarding. Some words are a bit dated for the 2005 setting  ('Hipsters'?).  Recommended.

Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater (2014). 4.5 stars - following on from the breathless second part of Stievater's Raven Cycle series (The Dream Thieves), we pick up with Blue, Gansey, Adam, Ronan and Noah six months after Maura disappeared into Cabeswater. There are new threats and old enemies to deal with, as well as another quest. As ever, Stiefvater's writing is lush and lyrical with sentences that sweep you up in their arms like long lost lovers, and paragraphs you want to save for sharing or future reference. The characters are intriguing and well drawn in a good amount of detail. The plot did get a bit squirrelly at times and the book ends on somewhat of a cliffhanger with the final installment a year away, but I will be lining up to get my hands on it as soon as it is available.

Every Breath by Ellie Marney (2013). 4 stars - Great read, good pace, well written. It tends towards the schmaltzy in places, as it's essentially a romance, and the detective work is on the light side, but this book is most enjoyable, with plenty going on, some chilling villains and a few good thrills along the way.

Every Word by Ellie Marney (2014). 3.5 stars - There were things I really liked about the book and other aspects, not so much. The criminal activity is more complex (good), and the violence nasty and more frequent than I think is healthy (bad). The romance is still hot and heavy and I would have preferred it dialled back a notch. On the whole a pretty good read though and I'll be checking out the third book when it is out in 2015.

Half Bad by Sally Green (2014). 5 stars - Half Bad - rather good. The writing in this first in a trilogy is polished and tight in this urban fantasy where witches live privately side by side with regular folk. Ongoing concerns amongst white witches about the threat posed by black witches comes to a head as young half code (white witch mother, black witch father), Nathan, heads toward his 17th birthday when he will receive his magical powers. Classic themes of what really makes people good or evil, nature vs. nurture, and how people justify their cruelty to others, wrapped in a well thought out package.  I was reminded a little of the Demon's Lexicon series by Sarah Rees Brennan (in a good way). Sometimes main character Nathan thinks a little more maturely than his age would suggest and I had to keep reminding myself how old he was meant to be. But I like where this is heading and have high hopes that the solution will be way smarter and more satisfying than how the BBC's Sherlock jumping off the roof was sorted.

Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen by Dylan Horrocks (2014). 5 stars - Magic indeed. We follow Sam Zabel through this comic adventure as he suffers a crisis of artistic conscience. Falling into a vintage comic of a famed fictional NZ comic artist, Sam explores the attitudes of the past as he searches for answers to questions about his own future, personally and creatively. 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

You don't scare me, December....

My cold is gone, the assignments marked and returned, fabo judged, and paid work completed. I have set the wheels in motion for where to send my returned manuscripts next. Possibilities are by no means exhausted. I aim to straddle that wobbly fence-line that marks where the paddock of realism meets the field of optimism. It is precarious but not impossible. And new work needs creating. If the earlier works don't grab the publishers then I will require other work to submit. Not indie publishing, I hear you muse? Not with picture books. I cannot produce the kind of end product I would want. It is important to keep faith with my own aims and intentions. (Tip#1. Decide on the goal and then make sure subsequent decisions support this goal). It is important to acknowledge the skills I don't have, along with the ones I do. So, onward ... (Tip #2. Always make a plan for what to do next. Staring for too long at the result you didn't want is unhealthy. And Tip #3. If the commas you add to your sentence for meaning look awkward, it means you should reorder/rewrite the sentence).

And with the Christmas/Holiday season wind-down about to crank into high gear it is time to give thanks for the year that is drawing to a close and consider the possibilities of 2015. (Tip#4. Always celebrate the good stuff, irrespective of the size or shape of it).

For a change I don't have a university paper I am planning to enrol for next year, which is simultaneously a relief and somewhat horrifying. Sure stretching my brain around assignment questions has made it hurt sometimes, but finding answers is exciting and satisfying. Fact is I have completed my Diploma in Children's Literature so I should probably stop with the papers. I guess if nothing else the bank balance will be the cost of a paper better off next year (Tip#5 - there is often a silver lining - always check for one, and if you see it, acknowledge and enjoy it).

After the thrilling whirlwind of the residency, the festivals, workshops and school visits of this year, the anticipated relative quiet of next year is welcome and scary. The old ego will have to rein it in a bit but that will be offset by a leisurely pace that will allow more time for navel gazing (Tip#6 don't underestimate the importance of navel gazing for writers. Our navels are often where we find our best ideas - please note this is not to be confused with novel gazing which is something else entirely). The freedom to read whatever I want is deliciously appealing. And the idea of finishing off a few writing projects in 2015 is also a satisfying one. I love writing the End. Right, well, I think that's 2015 sussed. Okay December, I think I am ready for you.