Monday, March 16, 2020

The picture book gospel according to me ...

A couple of weeks ago I had a pretty rubbish week. Rejections, failures on several fronts, and it was all a bit depressing. Then last week was a good week. Some good news about a submission, beautiful pics to look at for my next book Moon and Sun with Upstart Press, and some more good news for another family member. Now this week is just plain weird. I'm a bit 'all at sea', wondering if I'm doing enough in response to Covid 19, wondering how Covid 19 might affect me healthwise and book wise, wondering where this will all end, wondering if I dreamed last week's good fortune. And it's only Monday.

I'm an asthmatic with high blood pressure so I'm immunocompromised when it comes to an illness like Covid 19. I'm sticking at home as much as possible. You might think this is a great thing for a writer but all the developments happening around the world are making it difficult for me to focus on my writing. And I just finished the first draft of a new project and I'm not at all hopeful I've nailed it. I'm trying to read as much as possible. Especially as I have a few reviews to write. Maybe this is the time I finally make a dent in my tbr pile.

My good news about a submission (fingers crossed this isn't compromised) means there will be a tenth picture book by me published. I think I might have the hang of this picture book writing thing. I also recently judged a picture book writing competition. I have thoughts. Maybe if you have down time and want to use it writing picture books these thoughts might be helpful. Here are ten of them. Please note these are just my opinion rather than hard and fast rules.

1) There should always be a penguin.

2) Don't write at children, invite them in. Your story should make them feel centered (whether there are children in the story or not). They should be part of the fun - like a juvenile conspiracy. It should make them feel respected too.

3) Yes you can be too silly. Be restrained with your made up words too, although they do have their place. Some picture books that appear to be complete nonsense actually have an underlying sense or meaning or value. Roald Dahl and Spike Milligan are a lot harder to imitate than you might think.

4) Good picture books only look effortless, but make no mistake, the language has been carefully crafted. This is where our youngest readers learn to love words, stories, books. Give them great language and they'll be readers for life, and probably good at expressing themselves too. Don't stint on the words. Passive, monosyllabic writing should definitely be avoided.

5) If you are going for a more old fashioned style of story or storytelling, you are competing with all the classics which are already readily available, and have already stood the test of time and survived many previous book cullings. Old fashioned is a hard sell. Look forward, not backwards.

6) Make sure you are reading some recently published picture books. Read some prize winners. And some best sellers. Have a good think about why they are winners and/ or bestsellers, or just made the cut in general. And yes some published picture books defy explanation, but that is not what we are aiming for.

7) Find some recent books with writing you really, really like. Have a go at imitating their style and voice with some of your picture book ideas. The underlying goal is to move toward developing your own distinctive style and voice. This is also a good way to refresh your writing if you feel you are stagnating. I have definitely tried to incorporate some of the stylistic tendencies of some of my favourite writers over the years and I think this has made a significant difference.

8) Struggling for ideas? The natural world is a good place to start. What are hot topics for today's kiwi kids in the natural world? Some successful titles over the last few years have included natural disasters like oil spills and earthquakes, endangered species like the hector's dolphin and kakapo, also rainbows, fantails, and kiwis. Natural topics I have written about recently include the Moon, the Sun and the Rain.

9) There is nothing fresh about a fairy.

10) Don't think you can get away without a proper ending. That's cheating.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

How to Train Your Patience ...

2020 seemed rather unformed when it started back on January 1st, but I am happy to say things are beginning to take shape and give some structure to my year.

One of my picture books, Sharing with Wolf, (with the lovely and talented Nikki Slade Robinson and published by Scholastic) is off to the printers and oh-my-giddy-aunt, it has endpapers!! You know what that means!! :-) This book is set to take off on June 1st and tells the story of a lamb keen to rent a room at Wolf's place. It is very gratifying when you have tried to write something funny and you hear people laugh out loud as they read it. And there is humour and much more in the illustrations besides.

Look how delicious it is!! I can't wait to show it to you.

Illustrations are also coming along for Moon and Sun (illustrated by the amazing Malene Laugesen and to be published by Upstart Press). I have had a sneak peek and they are dreamy and divine and just right for a story of sibling rivalry and sisterly relations. This book could not be more different to Sharing with Wolf. Was it written by a different part of me? Maybe. You will need to judge for yourselves. I hope to give you a glimpse of this soon. It is all very exciting.

In other news, I was approached by an Auckland Council Community Group to run some creative writing workshops for intermediate and high school aged students and this is now all on at Te Oro: Music and Arts Centre for Young People in Glen Innes. There will be five 90 minute workshops covering different aspects of writing, run weekly on Mondays at 5pm, starting March 2nd. I'll be running the course again in May as well. You can check out details here

And I am now the New Zealand Soc. of Authors representative on the Book Awards Trust. I'm also working on a new junior fiction project which is a very different form to anything I've written before. Please hold caller, while my old brain works out these new tricks. Crikey, folks, it's all go in the muppet labs.

I still have manuscripts out with some publishers both here and overseas and as always I remain hopeful of a good outcome from someone. I mean, why submit if you don't have hope, eh? The challenge, as always, is to keep the career alive. You might point out that I had a book out last year and I am about to have two books out this year, but I would then remind you that publishers are working two years ahead and whatever is accepted now is unlikely to be out until 2022 (or maybe even later). And an acceptance, if it happens, may still be months away or perhaps even years. Or it just might not happen and whatever I am working on now needs to be finished and polished before it too can begin to try its luck out there, rinse and repeat. Training your patience is one of the best things you can do for yourself as an author. So, how do you train your patience?

1) Your patience will function better if it has deadlines to work to. Always ask when a response/result can be expected and keep your patience informed. Although once deadlines have come and gone I have nothing for you and all bets are off 

2) Your patience can sometimes be talked down with a mantra of rational reasons for delays, silences and deadline blowouts. Memorise this mantra

3) Distraction is a useful tool that will help your patience remain up to the task. I find frequently shouting 'over there' and pointing into the distance can keep your patience disoriented enough to perform twice as well as it thinks it can

4) Reward your patience regularly. Your patience will work harder for you if it feels loved and respected. 

5) That ugly relation impatience is always lurking, trying to muscle in on the action. Be vigilant. A good treatment for impatience is to give it something else to do - for example, when will my basil seeds sprout?

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Why I changed my mind about trying to get to Bologna

The past few weeks have been a little busy. I ran a Write Like an Author camp for school students last week at Ponsonby Intermediate School, and the week before I had the opportunity over several days to meet with some Chinese publishing representatives. They were here on a whirlwind visit and it was just by chance I became involved. It was nerve wracking, not least because every culture has its own etiquette for conducting business, and I wanted to get off on the right foot. Enormous thanks to fabulous fellow author Maureen Crisp, who metaphorically held my hand, gave me some great info and shored me up when I wavered over the two days. I'd learnt a lot by the end of that week, and had many subsequent thoughts about international publishing deals and book fairs.

Last year I had been considering a trip to the 2020 Bologna Book Fair (in conjunction with some other travel we were planning). I have my short story collection from last year, and two picture books coming out this year which I had thought would be at this fair (they're both a little delayed so it might be 2021 before they make it to Italy). I thought I could support those books, and tick the BBF off my bucket list. And I was still wrankled by the comment an Australian agent had made at a children's writing conference I'd been at in 2009 - that taking an author to a book fair was like taking a cow to an abattoir. I talked to several folk experienced in the ways of the BBF about the whys and wherefores, and emailed a Bologna contact that I'd got from one of my publishers.

Our travel plans changed. But that happened after I'd already dismissed Bologna as a destination for me. And here's why, although I disagree with the Ozzie agents notion/rubbish joke, I think a traditionally published author like me going to a book fair is not the best use of my resources. My thoughts and opinions on this are my own, but they are an objective response to what I have observed and been advised.

1) For book fairs, generally, you must be in a position to sell the rights for your work. Otherwise you can't do business there, or support your books (this is just not an arena you can support your books in -  publishers and agents are not there to talk to authors, they are there to recoup their investments - this is probably where the abattoir comment comes close), you are just an observer. 

2) For book fairs, generally your work must already be in published form in one territory, and you are looking to sell rights for other territories. Agents and publishers might be able to sell a manuscript at a book fair, but the odds of an (unknown outside your own region) author doing so, I imagine, would be very slim.

3) If you are an author and/or illustrator, you will only be in a position to sell the rights to your already published work if you are self-publishing, or if you have kept all those rights back in your arrangement with a traditional publisher (uncommon), or have had them returned

4) They may like your content, but the unusual design/format which helped your book stand out in the local market may make it difficult for them to take your already published work on

5) You may feel your content is universal, or at the least, general, but cultural differences and topics/themes of interest vary hugely, impacting on your ability to be picked up in other territories. For example, the differences in the role of parents in picture book stories in New Zealand compared with in China, are vast. 

6) One other way to attend a book fair, like the one in Bologna, is as a speaker. But your international currency needs to be sufficient, and you need good public speaking experience and a spot of good luck to get this kind of gig. And it is difficult to say how much this would help my books. 

7) It's expensive to get and stay there, which must be weighed against any benefits accrued to me as an author, through sales of rights and/or books. I have a number of skills, but selling is not amongst these. It is better (and significantly less costly), for me to pass this task to someone with these skills, with a track record of successful sales, for those rights under my control. Bologna is a trade fair for publishers and agents - a marketplace for trading rights for publishing and translations. Everyone there has paid a lot of money to be there, and they want to recoup their investment by buying rights they can make money out of, and selling rights to other territories. Selling rights is nothing like submitting a manuscript. Here it is likely your books will sell better without you.

Friday, January 10, 2020

The need to be hopeful...

So, as much as it is dominating social media and msm and conversations everywhere, I'm not going to talk about the current state of the world. It is an existential nightmare and I intend to help where I can, but better minds than mine are highlighting the issues involved and I can't improve on that. What I can say is that creating beautiful things that help explain the world or give relief to people is still vital. Now more than ever. So I am trying to stay updated and informed.

When the world is a bonfire and you write for children there are extra challenges in reflecting their world back at them. They are growing up into this world and need hope and practical strategies to navigate their future. How do we explain things without freaking them out and giving them anxiety about what lies ahead. They need reassurance and advice. Leavened with fun and wit. And hope. So it's important that creators like you and me keep our own hope alive. Some days I'm not sure how to achieve this. At the grass roots we have so little control or power. Perhaps focusing on how we can help our audience is one way we can maintain hope and do our bit to contribute positively. 

I guess though that maintaining a hopeful front when you feel anything but, can be a bridge too far. Self care is paramount. This is where reading can be a good strategy. If children can find relief in literature, so can we, while simultaneously being reminded of the power words (and story) have to give us the support, tools, and ideas for surviving whatever is thrown at us, and the hope we need to keep going, including with the writing. Don't stop now people, the future needs us.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Annual stocktake ....

So here I am, at the end of the world year, looking back at what I got up to, what I achieved, and what I didn't achieve. And looking toward 2020, wondering what it might hold for me. A stocktake is always interesting and useful.

I had four school visits. This is lower than recent years, and most of my invitations came directly, rather than through second parties (this is a complete 180 on previous experiences). I guess this may be a reflection of my publishing hiatus. Perhaps this might change now I'm back on an upswing. But its hard to be certain. In many ways I feel like I'm starting over again. But I'm not a beginner anymore. It's a little weird.

I was involved in several conferences, one 'Speed Date the Author' event, was invited to give a talk, ran two week-long, creative writing camps for school students, and two day-long picture book writing workshops for adults. There were a couple of other small unpaid gigs, and I mentored another writer over the year. I'm very familiar with public speaking, feel comfortable creating content for these events, and feel as nervous as if I was giving my first talk ever, every time. Yay nerves, my constant companion these last 'many mumble' years.

I titivated a few larger projects but didn't complete any of them, and wrote three new short stories and seven new picture books (result!). One picture book manuscript from 2018 found a home this year, and is one of two that will be published next year. I have a bunch of irons in the fire, and don't expect any further results until next year. I had one book out this year, Time Machine & Other Stories, of which I am very proud. Yay!!

I was involved again in Fabostory which is such a great way to get young people writing (also very proud to be a part of this), will be judging a picture book writing competition again over the summer break (194 entries - yikes!), and I've blogged, reviewed books for a few different platforms, and written a few articles. I interviewed somebody this year too which was a first for me. You can teach an old dog after all.  I threw my hat in the ring for a bunch of things such as speaking opportunities, residencies, and the like, and can report that so far I have had zero success. Hmm, I'll probably stop doing that for a while until I've licked all my wounds, and then get back to it.

So not too much of a slack arse then. But definitely a different combo of things this year. The only thing a writer really has any control over is the content they create, and turning up. The rest is all in other people's hands, with a dash of luck thrown in. I don't think I'd do anything differently. What about you? What did you get up to?

So, next year. As always, tis mostly a mystery. It will involve lots of waiting (see comment above re: irons in the fire) and frequent shaking of the patience jar to activate the contents. I have my regular Picture Book Writing Workshop and Write Like an Author Camp gigs and I'm booked in for an event mid year. I have a new writing project I want to work on, but I have some pre-project doubts and uncertainties, so I'll be girding my loins to try jump those hurdles. And that's it. That's all there is on the menu. I don't feel too worried. That's how things usually look at this time of year. And I don't have any big plans or strategies for things I think I should do. One thing I have learnt over the last few years is the value of writing retreats. I think I will try to book at least one of those in for 2020. Whaddaya reckon, retreat buddies?

Looking back at my last post (on overthinking) I don't really have many further survival strategies. At this time of year the most obvious one is to remind yourself that you have worked hard over the year (do a stocktake to remind yourself what you got up to), and it's important to take a proper holiday. Go relax over your favourite things to do, with your favourite people. Breathe deep and empty your mind. Recharge the batteries, read some books and smell the roses. If creating content is the thing we can control, we need to take care of our creativity. Ask yourself, what can you do for yours?

And last but by no means least, here is a really interesting insight on the topic of diversity and acknowledging our own blindspots when writing, by literary agent Janet Reid

Saturday, November 23, 2019

We should talk about overthinking ...

I suspect I am like many other writers, sweating a lot about what publishers are thinking and doing with my submissions, or what is happening in the great abyss that a contracted work falls in to before it emerges many months later as a published book. We tend to be overthinkers. It comes with the territory. Honestly when your job centres on extensive brain noodling to create meaningful, believable and rational plots and characters, it is hard to shuck off this intensive thinking. We start to apply it to EVERYTHING. We are gap fillers, using our empathic skills to scrutinse and prognosticate on what others are thinking and feeling, about us and our work. We follow trains of thought into tunnels and out the other side. We stop at the most unexpected stations, and sometimes we get out where we shouldn't.

If we write full time it means we have more of this overthinking time. We don't want to be obsessed about how long that submission is taking and what it might mean. We don't really want to imagine all the possible implications of that long silence following our enquiry. We're just made that way. That's why we're writers. Its a pretty rubbish side effect of the job. You can suggest 'keeping busy' all you like but keeping busy for a writer just means more thinking time. Daydreaming, considering, wondering,  obessessing, crying into our coffee ....

And then you add in social media. And as a writer it can be a useful tool in the drive to raise one's profile, broaden visibility, and help with branding  and book sales. People tell you to avoid it, or spend less time on it, and sure it can be a vast rabbit hole that has all the qualities of a gravity well. But it's not the time wasting concerns that do my head in. Its the fact that if you join the writing community on any/many platforms (because that is what writers do), it is a constant reminder of the achievements and successes of others. Have enough followers/friends and you can sprint from grateful, excited post to grateful, excited post about book launches, festival invitations, award wins, film deals and bestselling statuses which only serves as a contrast to your own current stalled position in the wilderness. Of course the relentless positivity is not some skewing of an overabundance of good things happening to everyone else except you, its just a normal pattern of people mostly sharing the good news and keeping mostly schtum about the crap things, or an absence of tweets about an absence of progress in their careers, or whatever. Be part of a big enough group of mostly writers and the normal occurence of good news can't help but look top heavy It just seems like everything is happening to everyone else except you, but its not true. It's an artificial effect.

Of course when you combine the two - overthinking and everyone else is clearly doing way better than me - it can become downright unhealthy. So what to do to maintain sanity?

1 - buy some jigsaws/books of sudoku/code crackers. A most excellent way to keep the brain too busy for random thoughts. If you need to switch off, do some puzzles. Reading is great, and important for writers, but you need to find things unrelated to writing to truly switch off.
2 - make sure you follow people on twitter/facebook/instagram who aren't writers to get some balance. I recommend squidthegriff on instagram and endless screaming (@infinite_scream) and @JamesBlunt on twitter.
3 - remember none of it is real. It is our minds working over time and the false evidence of social media. (however, should your worst prognostications turn out to be true remember a) most of your prognostications weren't, and b) confirmation can be liberating, allowing you to process it and move on)
4 - have a strategy for when you feel yourself slipping down the slide of obsessiveness. This strategy might include knitting or baking, exercise, and looking at cat pics/videos. Telling a writer friend can help but can also intensify the obsessiveness - have a list of people you can approach who will listen carefully, give you a wee slap and provide a rational explanation for whatever thought process you are having.

Hmm - I'll keep thinking on this. I think the list of helpful tips should be longer so I'll be trying to add to it in the coming days.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

A week of words, warmth and wisdom ...

It is Monday November 11 here in New Zealand and I am reporting to you live from my bed at 10.22am.

It has been quite a week.

Last Tuesday I flew from Auckland to Dunedin with fellow writer Maria Gill. We were met at the airport by Fifi Colston: writer, illustrater, wearable arts creator and Wellingtonian, who'd flown down earlier in the day. Later in the week we would be presenting various sessions at the Wild Imaginings Children's Writers and Illustrators Hui, but Maria and Fifi had thought schools might be interested in having some out of town authors visit preceding the Hui, and had invited me to join them.

Bright and early Wednesday morning we set off for Oamaru to take part in a Speed Date the author/illustrator event, with 82 students from schools in the district. We'd run with a historical theme and Fifi and Maria dressed up for the occasion. The day was enormous fun (many thanks to all those involved in making the event such a success, especially Fiona Kerr, children's librarian at Waitaki District Libraries, and Kathryn Carmody at ReadNZ Te Pou Murarmura). We had car trouble though, so our highly anticipated dinner date at Fleur's Place in Moeraki had to be cancelled. Grrrrrr.


Maria, Me! and Fifi.

Thursday we were back in Dunedin, and Maria and I had school visits. I was hosted by North East Valley Normal School for the morning and what a great school they are, doing wonderful things to build a love of books and reading in their students.

Friday, Maria and I checked out the Challenging the Deep exhibition at the Otago Museum which was quite amazing, while Fifi had a school visit. Then it was back to the computer for some final content construction and preparation for our Hui presentations, and then off to the Opening Ceremony.

The Hui was wonderful.  Lots of talk. Lots of meeting old friends, and making new ones, forging connections and building relationships. I was a panellist for a discussion on reviewing for the first breakout session and we had a great round table chat about the topic with the attending delegates. My takeaway was that as traditional reviewing channels contract and decline, we need to make the most of the new reviewing forums popping up online, and grow their reach and their reputation. We have to focus on making the most of the new possibilities, rather than wasting time on lamenting the loss of the old.

Kate De Goldi's keynote chat with illustrating marvel, David Elliot, was a joy, followed by a fascinating discussion about different routes to market with a panel of 3 publishers (Mary McCallum at Makaro/The Cuba Press, Anoushka Jones of Exisle/EK Publishing, and Sophie Siers at Millwood Press), and best selling author Stacy Gregg, chaired by writer/agent Chris Else. It was great to hear the speakers talk about their title sales across a range of territories. The second breakout session with Stacy Gregg provided a solid framework for constructing compelling novels. With 25 novels to her name, Stacy knows her stuff.

I'd been tying myself in knots for several weeks trying to prepare my talk for the afternoon keynote that I was to be involved in - Pathways to Imagination. It's tricky writing for an audience that ranges from novices to experienced award winners. In the end I opted for covering as many bases as possible and touching on a reminder about the limits of our imagination. We can be inventive but cannot create something out of nothing. Our imagination must draw on our experience and knowledge, and risks arise when we try to write beyond these. We have to respect our own limits, and more importantly, respect the reader. I was really touched by the hui delegates who came up to me afterwards to tell me how much they'd enjoyed the talk.

The Conference dinner was a blast. Previous University of Otago College of Education Creative New Zealand Children's Writers in Residence (of which I am one) spoke about their experiences during their residencies, over the course of the evening . That's us below - from left: the 2020 resident, Elena De Roo, Leonie Agnew (2013), Me! (2014), Kyle Mewburn (2011), Fifi Colston (2019), Robyn Belton (with Jennifer Beck 2015), and Karen Trebilcock (2010). 2002 resident, Sandy McKay, who also spoke is missing from the photo.

Image may contain: 7 people, people smiling, people standing

During my spot, when I remembered to mention my 'getting locked in/small-lady fence gymnastics' adventure, I completely forgot to talk about the friendships formed with the other University fellows during my residency, in particular the Mozart fellow, Jeremy Mayall. Jeremy was keen to work collaboratively and composed music to accompany my picture book The Song of Kauri, released while I was in Dunedin. It was a very special and treasured experience, which a day of heightened preparedness had driven from my mind.

Next morning kicked off with a fabulous keynote by the incredible Wendy Pye, whose tireless work and creative thinking takes tools for reading acquisition all around the world to people who would otherwise not get the opportunity. Next I attended junior fiction series author Swapna Haddow's, breakout session on writing series. This was a terrific primer on constructing a series, and after a mini epiphany mid-session, I came away fizzing with a potential idea. The post lunch keynote was a fascinating insight into the process of two very different authors, Stacy Gregg and Rachael Craw, who were interviewed by Kate De Goldi. The session was a great reminder that there is never just one way to write a fantastic book. Unfortunately we had to dash away before the final keynote and farewell in order to catch planes home, but we'd had an amazing time. I tip my hat to the organisers for this rip roaringly successful event. I will be down there in a shot if they do it again.