Saturday, May 14, 2022

Barking up the right tree ...

 When I do picture book manuscript assessments, one of the questions I am often asked (whether literally or subliminally) is whether the manuscript is publishable. Sometimes I think it is, and sometimes it isn't. A yes is helpful information to the extent that the writer is on the right track with how they are approaching picture book writing and whether they might be 'close' or not. However it bears no relationship to whether the manuscript will actually be accepted and published. There are many reasons why a perfectly publishable text might be declined.

1) The publisher has something similar in their catalogue of current titles. And this might mean similar themes, and/or similar plot, similar title, similar main character, similar manner in which a story is told.

2) The story is really well told but it brings nothing new to an idea that has been seen before. I have seen this in competitions, assessments and elsewhere and it is a good sign for a writer (the writing is of good quality) yet feels like frustration for them - all you can do is keep working on more stories till the required freshness is found.

3) It doesn't fit with the publishers usual kind of story - they might prefer more philosophical, less philosophical, more humour, less humour, slapstick, dark, light, rhyming, prose, creative non fiction, no non-fiction, self help, local stories, international stories etc... Make sure you look at what they've put out over the last few years - would your story fit in their line-up?

4) It just isn't the commissioning editor's cup of tea. Or others in the publishing team don't agree with the editor, even if the editor loves the story. I've had this happen to me but the book has been accepted by a different publisher. Taste is always a factor. Not good or bad taste, just different taste.

5) It might be charming, touching, moving and lyrical but the perceived market is just too small to make the book viable. They want the book to pay for itself and it needs enough buyers to do that.

6) The timing is wrong - either a) the trend is seen to be over, (publishers don't always make the right call on trends - Scholastic US were in the process of winding down their fantasy publishing and then the Harry Potter books turned up - but these are uncommon events). Trends tend to go in cycles though so it might be worth holding on to your story and trying it again in future. Or b) the topic is either no longer hot, or is still too hot yet. You cannot provide a comforting resolution for a real life crisis if the crisis is not yet resolved in real life. Or it's just too soon and feelings are still raw. 

7) It's too risky with a debut author. A known author might tip the balance with sales. Sometimes however being a previously unpublished author can work in your favour.

8) No obvious reason that the editor can put their finger on - it just wasn't for them. I think a level of excitement must be reached and they can only know that when they feel it. Accepting books is not a mathematical science. 

9) some combo of two or more of the above

And this is why it can be hard to tell a new writer where they are going wrong. Sometimes they aren't going wrong. I will do everything I can to help you ease out any kinks or wrong turnings in your story telling (although there are times when it is tricky to put one's finger on exactly where the problem might lie), and I will try and show you the thinking behind why some words or styles work better than others. But sadly some great stories will never make it into a book. Sometimes there will be nothing to fix, there will be nothing you can change that will change the outcome. But I guess it is good to know if you are barking up the right tree.   

Saturday, April 30, 2022

The shine will return ...

In June I'm running a creative writing workshop for young people as part of the 2022 Featherston Booktown Karukatea Festival on Sunday the 12th at 1pm. You can check out this year's programme here. It's my first time being a part of this iconic Featherston event and I'm really looking forward to it. Book Festivals are a love song to literature and it's always a huge buzz to immerse yourself in all things book. I'm hoping I'll get to visit some local schools in the preceding week too - fingers crossed.

In July I'm giving a picture book writing masterclass as part of the Storylines Children's Writers and Illustrators Hui to be held in Auckland. You can check out their programme here. I love hanging out with other writers and illustrators, it's really energising, and reassuring, and grounding - an opportunity to talk as much shop as I can handle, to feel the warmth and generosity of this lovely community I am a part of. But there will also be lots of fantastic sessions to attend, publishers to pitch your work to, and new connections to be made. The Hui is open to everyone, no matter where you are in your children's literature journey - I hope you can come along.

In the meantime I continue to try and work on my own stories and provide assessments of other peoples. Bad news, rejections and the like, can really do a number on our creativity sometimes. Our writing bones can feel broken. It's okay to step back, bandage yourself up and give yourself time to heal. But it's also important to remember that manuscript acceptances and other measures we might have of success aren't the best means for keeping ourselves in good spirits as we keep the writer's path. Anything for which you cannot control the outcome might be immensely satisfying when it does turn out like you hoped, but can be crushing when it doesn't. And the satisfaction, if the news is good, isn't sustained. So, make a list of the things over which you do have control that bring you joy. They don't need to be flash or 'big' or important things. Just things that you value that will reliably put a smile on your face. And if you lose your way check out the list and make sure you are doing at least some of the things on it. Most of all be kind (to yourself) and don't panic if you are feeling a bit lacklustre. The shine will return.    

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Is holding books at arms length like some slightly squiffy and unnatural artefact actively bad for us?...

In my last post I wittered on about the absence of New Zealand books from our regular cultural conversations here in New Zealand. Actually I should have extended that discussion to a lack of interest in celebrating books in general. Not long after I wrote the post, a report came out talking about the poor state of literacy skills in our fifteen year olds. As the report says - 

        a staggering 35.4% - over a third of fifteen-year-olds – struggle to read and write.

The link to the report is here

There has been subsequent discussion, including on television news, about what educators need to do to fix this. But I can't help wondering, if books were just a normal part of our everyday conversation, especially in the media, if drawing attention to them wasn't so fraught and awkward because there just isn't a perceived angle that apparently justifies our interest like there is with sport, would our literacy levels be better? Is holding books at arms length like some slightly squiffy and unnatural artefact actively bad for us? I think it is bad for us. I think it's bad for the upcoming generations. We need to include a celebration of books in our wider daily conversations. So many studies have proven the wide ranging benefits of reading, not just for our children in school, but for all of us for the duration of our lives. If we know this to be true, why don't we talk more about books? It can't just be down to the educators who are already working incredibly hard - society at large also needs to take some responsibility for this. We need to get over ourselves and this aversion we have. Our children need us to.

Why don't we have book clubs on regular TV like they do in the US and UK, or a 'book of the week' segment on The Project. We get movie reviews and interviews with actors of upcoming films, we sometimes get box office top titles for the week, so why not a NZ bestseller top five in Fiction, non fiction and children's. NZ music was transformed by mandated attention and celebrating our NZ literature could have an even bigger impact. We tut-tut at research that says our children are struggling but think the solution lies with someone else. It is everyone's problem and we need to change the conversation.  

In other news, I am thrilled to say I have signed a contract with Scholastic for a sequel to BatKiwi - again to be illustrated by the wonderful Isobel Joy Te Aho-White, and hopefully out this year in time for Christmas. This is my first ever picture book sequel and it was fun working with Bat and Kiwi again. I have seen a first rough by fab illustrator Vasanti Unka for our book, I'm Dark coming out with Penguin RH next year, and whoo-wee! its perfect. I am so excited to see how the whole thing looks. Also, the Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2022 (including a poem by yours truly) was launched, and has been reviewed by Erica Stretton, and blow me down, I get a mention. It's all a bit much so I am off for a bit of a lie down. Talk soon.      


Wednesday, March 16, 2022

We can't keep doing the same things and expect a different outcome ...

Someone posted an article about the difficulties of selling New Zealand literature to New Zealanders the other day and it has had me thinking ...

They were looking at how well Australian literature sells in Australia and asked why are we so different. The massive differences in economies of scale must help in Australia. A population of 26 million is a much bigger opportunity for publishers and the bigger the print run the cheaper it is to 'publish' the book. But this only changes the total number of books sold. It can't account for the different ratios of NZ adult fiction accounting for 5% of fiction sales here and Australian adult fiction 30% of sales in Australia.

I wonder how this translates for children's fiction (won't someone think of the children)? We never seem to appear in the top ten overall children's sales here although adult fiction sometimes does. We don't tend to get mentioned in articles like this either. Some years back someone mentioned that local children's books, made up about 16 or 17% of children's book sales while local non-fiction (presumably adult) accounted for around 30% of sales (I think). I wonder if this is still the case. Are these numbers good, bad or indifferent? They don't feel super great. I wonder what the relevant comparable stats are in Australia (thanks to Leonie Agnew for letting me know Australian children's books make up 45% of children's books sales). They certainly seem to celebrate their children's writers more but this must be easier in a bigger population. Each state seems to have a dedicated children's book festival. They have a national book week with many schools participating. We can't replicate that here with our much smaller population. Everything must show a return for investors, it can't just be mandated for a long game return. We all lament how NZ national book month never took off like music month did. We seemed to lack the resolve to push through from forcing folk to focus on our ghettoised literary products when there was no tangible rewards for doing so, to achieve a genuine change in culture that would have made our local books a force to be reckoned with. Can we try again? I think the current environment would not be in our favour. But if not now, then when?

I ran a workshop on picture book writing last weekend and asked the class if anyone could name a book by me. I have eleven picture books published - three of them out just last year, as well as a bunch of other publications. No one could and I didn't feel insulted by this result. I guess it was more of a resigned kind of feeling - it is a challenge to have any kind of profile with the general populace. When I held up one of my books a few minutes later one person mentioned they'd read that book just the week before. But clearly there was no cut through with my name. I asked each student to name their favourite picture book. I don't recall a New Zealand author being named. There was Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler and Dr Seuss and Eric Carle. A couple struggled to name a picture book.

New Zealanders do read. We are big library users. But so much of what is read is not local content although I know our books are in the libraries. I know there is room for improvement in what we produce. I know our local literature can do so much better when it comes to representation. I think the call for this is loud and clear and changes are happening albeit slowly. The article talked about how our literature is seen as gloomy, depressing and dark and research has backed this up. But this is a perception rather than a reality and is not so relevant for children's literature anyways. Did we ask New Zealand children why they don't pick up local titles? I think too that there is an element of cultural cringe and our own literature is always judged more critically because of this. It's us, just this little infant country existing at the fringe of the civilized world that will always be wishing we could be as cool as our older siblings abroad. I think this does us a massive disservice. We do create good books here but somehow the overseas offerings always appear more sophisticated. We always expect more of ourselves - you must run twice as fast to keep pace with everyone else. International books often come with bigger marketing budgets and sales sweeteners. How can we compete?

There are factors against us - a smaller population and economies of scale, a resistant population, a lack of will amongst those who might make a difference (the media, commercial and political entities), a still emerging cultural identity. I know there are amazing groups that work incredibly hard to have New Zealand creators seen in schools, to create events and festivals that celebrate literature, and booksellers who stock and promote us to their customers, but this isn't changing the playing field. We can't keep doing the same things and expect a different outcome. I don't know what the answer is, I only know it needs to be something no one has ever seen before. Something dramatic and surprising. Something game changing. Maybe even shocking. I hope it happens soon ... 

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Learning a new skill ...

Most writers will tell you how having a project on the go, especially if there is a deadline, results in a lot of household chores getting done. We are world class procrastinators who would rather vacuum, make beds or wash dishes than write 1000 words, or 500 words, or 50 words, or 5. This truism, this time honoured tradition, is a source of (bitter) humour amongst us. And despite being aware of this we seem powerless to act against it.

Well folks, hold on to your hats, I have discovered a way to beat this! The trick is (are you ready??) to have a task to do (especially if it has a deadline) that is even harder to do than your writing project. Your writing then becomes the chore you do to procrastinate from the other thing. Of course you will all already have recognised the flaws in this plan, but for a short while it worked for me - for two happy days I actually added around 1500 words to my WIP and it was lovely. 

There is so much going on locally and internationally that is worrying, terrifying, stressful and exhausting that in addition to some top order procrastination, I am also in a constant search for distraction. Looking for things to occupy my mind in a safe way. Jigsaws, sudoku, and code-crackers are extremely comforting to me in times like these and I secretly hope they contribute to keeping the creative part of my brain nimble enough for those times when I return to making new stories. But part of me is also thinking I need a distraction that is actively challenging my creativity. When things aren't crazy, don't we all have goals and ambitions that we are working towards? I know when the world is being so unpredictable it can be too hard to think about creating, learning or adding extra challenges beyond the one of getting through the day with our sanity intact. And even this feels out of reach some days. But as time has passed I have been conscious of an itch that definitely wants scratching. Puzzles aren't enough after two years - my brain wants a different kind of exercise. Maybe puddling about in a new world is just what I need. 

To that end I'm trying to further my poetry writing skills for both adult and children's poetry. I've often made small incursions into this field of creativity, but never really stayed long enough to make much progress. Now I'm keen to improve this aspect of my writing. So far I'm trusting my gut, and my ear, and the results are not all bad. But I need to do more. And right now I feel a bit frustrated by the process. There is too much staring at a blank screen going on. Ideas come at odd moments, and while the raw form of the poem does pour out quite quickly and then it's the somewhat slower journey of massaging out the discordant wrong bits, I feel thwarted by my ambivalent, uncooperative subconscious and the haphazard way it doles out ideas. I need ways to warm up, and maybe ways to organise my thoughts so I spend less time just flailing about. Secretly this is probably how my process will always remain with lots of flailing and disorganised thinking. I guess if I manage to produce more poems I will feel less affronted by my own undisciplined inner brain twirlings but we are a long way from that point. Anyways I sent away for an instructional book by Mary Oliver. Wish me luck. Deep down I know that if I exercise my poetry writing muscle enough it will become a little easier but exercise is work and I am very lazy, and writing poetry is HARD. I've heard too that reading and writing poetry is very good for one's picture book writing skills which would be a win-win. For now I'm trying to keep expectations low cos adding pressure right now seems like a bad call. If nothing else, poetry feels like an appropriate response to the times we live in. It's something I've always wanted to explore more. I'm giving it a go. What are you doing to keep your brain limber? Are you trying to learn something new too? 

Monday, February 14, 2022

Behaving badly ...

How we all feeling people? I can't lie - between covid and protests and linespeople repairing power lines post-Cyclone Dovi in the wee small hours of the night, the mood is a bit subdued.

Hanging out on twitter, while it can be distressing at times, is a good way to get updates on goings-on both here and overseas and to gauge the temperature of things. And there are always interesting posts that cover some things in depth providing insights and elucidation, to counter the toxic or inflammatory words of others. I find small doses are best. Recently though I noted a couple of unconnected posts that were commenting on a similar issue that surprised me. One was an agent responding to a submission they'd received that opened with a not so veiled criticism of that agent. The other was a person who has created an online children's writing community (out of the pure goodness of their heart) with the object of providing help, support and opportunity for new writers, reporting that they had received disgruntled emails from writers disappointed not to have made a competition longlist. The person had not even been involved in judging the entries, although it would have been no excuse for this kind of response if they had.

Writing for publication is a long game. Being polite and professional is essential as you navigate the choppy waters of this business. I have seen folk behave badly and get away with it but this is the exception, and people remember.  And being rude, disrespectful or aggressive is just a very weird response for a writer. Our key job is to understand the meaning and effect of our word choices. We work hard to shape text in a way that conveys what we want it to say. So why, oh why would you say or write something that will make the recipient (who may hold your publishing fate in their hands), upset, or insulted or angry? The only result you will get, as far as I can tell, is to make it easier for the rest of us who are polite and professional. I guess lashing out might briefly salve whatever hurt you might be feeling but this behaviour is most likely to only damage your chances further in future.

It's totally understandable to feel hurt and/or disappointed by a rejection. I've had my share and they sting like blazes. The heart-hurt that goes along with the dashing of a hope or dream is dreadful and over the years I've assembled a few strategies to help me through these times. Sometimes I soothe myself with cake, chocolate and wine. Sometimes it's the indulgent purchase of something unnecessary. Sometimes I say rude words or go for a very vigorous walk, and sometimes I complain bitterly to my nearest and dearest. Occasionally it's all of those things. Find a strategy that works for you that doesn't involve burning any bridges.

Biting your tongue is just another way of 'killing your darlings', and it will make your work stronger. And if you think saying something rude or critical in an email or on social media is going to be read as witty or cute, or commanding and impressive, you may be in the wrong business.

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Your magic spells are welcome ...

This is my third go at writing this blog post. I began in early January and have ditched both earlier versions. Fingers crossed that third time's the charm. Bit like writing a book really eh?

Early in January we said farewell to our middle child who has emigrated to the UK. She's found a flat (moved in yesterday) and is now working on employment with a few interviews (some in person, some online) already under her belt. I asked her this morning how she was settling in and she said she was off across the road shortly for a pub quiz with the flat-mates and I felt a little jealous. It's deep mid winter there (not jealous of that although she loves the cold weather), but I do love a fun pub quiz with good people on a cold night. Eldest (resident in LA) has just had time away in Mexico City which looked wonderful, and youngest is currently indulging us by remaining at home. The kids are all right. 

And me? I've been dividing my time recently between reading, assessing other people's writing and dabbling with my own. With fewer in-person engagements likely over the next wee while I'm hoping to carve out more time for bigger projects. So far I've revised a picture book ms, and written around two thirds of a new one, so zero progress on the longer works. I feel like I have a bit of a hoodoo on me around long form fiction at the moment and need to find a way to lift the curse. Your magic spells are welcomed. I do have a few big ideas swirling round in my head though - fingers crossed one of them comes in to land. 

In the meantime there has been more news for my favourite little pachyderm. Taiwan has now also signed up to publish My Elephant is Blue. I'm trying to keep my expectations realistic about what this and the earlier deals might mean for the book. I do love that people in other countries will be reading our story. I hope they like it. I'll keep you posted on how things work out. One thing I will say at this point is that I did nothing different with the writing or submitting of the stories that have received overseas offers of publication. I sent them off to NZ publishers who agreed to take them on and those publishers have subsequently succeeded in obtaining these overseas sales (Blue does also have an agent working on her behalf). I didn't anticipate any of this when I wrote those manuscripts. I certainly didn't write with that eventuality in mind. I just wrote the best story I could and that is always the bottom line for me. 

In near future news, I'm running my Picture Book Writing Workshop again this year in March and August (information on the courses can be found HERE). I'm always adding to my knowledge base on picture book writing and I love sharing everything I've learnt with keen writers - my goal is to help you achieve your writing dreams by giving you as much information, and advice and as many tools as I can. I hope I see you there.