Wednesday, June 17, 2020

A picture book milestone ...

I heard back in March that Penguin wanted to publish my picture book story 'My Elephant is Blue'. The paperwork was to be sorted, and then ... we went into lockdown. But happy days, a little belatedly, we have reached the contract stage, which makes it very exciting and real and announceable. Yay!!!

The plan is for it to come out next year - I'll keep you posted as more information comes to hand. I cannot wait to hear who the illustrator will be - a pachyderm aficionado I hope. It'll be my tenth picture book which somehow feels like a bit of a milestone. I feel very lucky to still be here, doing this thing I love. After several years in the wilderness my current situation is surreal. The clocks are melting ...

Invitations and opportunities are coming in again for school visits and workshops too, and hopefully, if we remain in level one, I'll be conducting my Writing Children's Picture Books workshop at Selwyn College in Auckland on Saturday, 22nd August (and repeated on Sunday, September 20th). You can check out deets here. I've got a bit slack about my writing in recent weeks, and it's time to crack the WIP whip, so I'm off to work on a new story ... talk soon.


Thursday, June 4, 2020

It's been a bit of a week...

Well, it's been a bit of a week.

On June 1st my new picture book with illustrator, Nikki Slade Robinson, Sharing with Wolf (Scholastic NZ), was released and crikey it's exciting to have a new book out in the world. I was nervous about how it would go down with folk. It's a little different to the usual picture books - a little dark and dangerous and unexpected. But I'm really happy to say that so far, people have been saying really nice things.

Here are some reviews:-

https://www.nzbooklovers.co.nz/post/sharing-with-wolf-by-melinda-szymanik-and-nikki-slade-robinson

https://booktrailers4kidsandya.wordpress.com/2020/05/30/sharing-with-wolf-wickedly-funny-picture-book-from-melinda-szymanik-and-illustrated-by-nikki-slade-robinson-melszymanik-scholasticnz/?fbclid=IwAR2nS3SqoW0GxxBo-xT0sYb8Un4-mJ2mGnFPTdcEtaLUp5fbGvNKsuI_RMA

https://bobsbooksnz.wordpress.com/2020/05/23/sharing-with-wolf-by-melinda-szymanik-nikki-slade-robinson/?fbclid=IwAR3DxfYEH-QxsaX_b9o_tRB0_R1CZUcPM-XwgKH4H5MALIPZy1JKXNI9QG4

It's also been nerve wracking to release a book under the current circumstances. The corona virus pandemic has changed the way we do things and had economic impacts. There's been no physical launch party. I've been burbling on about the book on social media quite a bit and I hope people feel excited to meet it. Nikki and I made a little video talking a bit about making the book instead:-





The release of a new book is exciting enough, but on June 4th the finalists for the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults were announced and I am so, so happy to say my collection, Time Machine and other stories is a finalist for the Wright Family Foundation Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction. I am still pinching myself that this is real. Short story collections can find it hard to win people over so it is extremely thrilling that the judges have chosen it. Congratulations to all the other finalists, I will be arm wrestling you all for the prizes later. And commiserations to those who missed out this time. 

The finalists this year are:

Picture Book Award

Abigail and the Birth of the Sun, Matthew Cunningham, illustrated by sarah Wilkins (Penguin Random House)
How Māui Slowed the Sun, written and illustrated by Donovan Bixley (advised and translated by Dr Darryn Joseph and Keri Opai) (Upstart Press) 
Mini Whinny: Goody Four Shoes, Stacy Gregg, illustrated by Ruth Paul (Scholastic NZ)
Santa’s Worst Christmas, Pania Tahau-Hodges and Bryony Walker, illustrated by Isobel Joy Te Aho-White (Huia Publishers)
The Gobbledegook Book, Joy Cowley, illustrated by Giselle Clarkson (Gecko Press)   


Wright Family Foundation Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction

#Tumeke!, Michael Petherick (Massey University Press)
Lizard’s Tale, Weng Wai Chan (Text Publishing)
Miniwings Book 6 Moonlight the Unicorn’s High Tea Hiccup, Sally Sutton, illustrated by Kirsten Richards (Scholastic NZ)
Prince of Ponies, Stacy Gregg (HarperCollins Publishers)
Time Machine and other stories, Melinda Szymanik (The Cuba Press)


Young Adult Fiction Award

Afakasi woman, Lani Wendt Young (OneTree House)
Aspiring, Damien Wilkins (Massey University Press)
The History Speech, Mark Sweet (Huia Publishers)
Ursa, Tina Shaw (Walker Books Australia)
Wynter’s Thief, Sherryl Jordan (OneTree House)


Elsie Locke Award for Non-Fiction

Kuwi & Friends Māori Picture Dictionary, written and illustrated by Kat Quin, translated by Pānia Papa (Illustrated Publishing)
Mophead, Selina Tusitala Marsh (Auckland University Press)
Te Tiriti o Waitangi / The Treaty of Waitangi, Ross Calman and Mark Derby, illustrated by Toby Morris, translated by Piripi Walker (Lift Education)
The Adventures of Tupaia, Courtney Sina Meredith, illustrated by Mat Tait (Allen & Unwin, in partnership with Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum)
Three Kiwi Tales, Janet Hunt (Massey University Press)


Russell Clark Award for Illustration

Dozer the Fire Cat, illustrated by Jenny Cooper, written by Robyn Prokop (Scholastic NZ)
Santa’s Worst Christmas, illustrated by Isobel Joy Te Aho-White, written by Pania Tahau-Hodges and Bryony Walker (Huia Publishers)
Song of the River, illustrated by Kimberly Andrews, written by Joy Cowley (Gecko Press)
The Adventures of Tupaia, illustrated by Mat Tait, written by Courtney Sina Meredith (Allen & Unwin, in partnership with Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum)
Wildlife of Aotearoa, illustrated and written by Gavin Bishop (Penguin Random House)


Wright Family Foundation Te Kura Pounamu Award for books written completely in te reo Māori     
Arapū Toi, Moira Wairama, illustrated by Austin Whincup (Baggage Books)
Ko Flit, te Tīrairaka, me ngā Hēki Muna, written and illustrated by Kat Quin, translated by Ngaere Roberts (Scholastic NZ)
Ngā Hoa Hoihoi o Kuwi,    written and illustrated by Kat Quin, translated by Pānia Papa (Illustrated Publishing)
Te Kirihimete i Whakakorea, Pania Tahau-Hodges  and Bryony Walker, illustrated by Isobel Joy Te Aho-White, translated by Kawata Teepa (Huia Publishers)
Tio Tiamu, Kurahau, illustrated by Laya Mutton-Rogers (Huia Publishers)


Best First Book Award

Michael Petherick for #Tumeke! (Massey University Press)
Weng Wai Chan for Lizard’s Tale (Text Publishing)
Isobel Joy Te Aho-White (illustrator) for Santa’s Worst Christmas, written by Pania Tahau-Hodges and Bryony Walker (Huia Publishers)
Belinda O’Keefe for The Day the Plants Fought Back, illustrated by Richard Hoit (Scholastic NZ)
Laya Mutton-Rogers (illustrator) for The Smelly Giant, written by Kurahau (Huia Publishers)

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Some writing techniques for picture books ...



The most successful picture books IMHO have two key elements: 1) a strong (surprising) story, and 2) they are written in a strong (surprising) way.

You can have a terrific story but if the writing is dull, pedestrian and flat, it’ll be a lacklustre read. Of course you can have zippy energetic prose but if the story is clichéd, or pointless, you’ll also find it that much harder to win over your audience.

So, what techniques are the best to employ in a picture book?
ALL OF THEM!!
All techniques can be used in stories for small people.
But not all of them necessarily in the same story. If you overwork everything with lots of techniques, the story itself may very well be lost. Fit the techniques to the story you are writing.
So many of these techniques are teaching tools for the young emergent reader. Rich text with techniques that facilitate acquisition of reading, expand vocabulary and develop a healthy regard and respect for words and their properties and elasticity.

Rhythm – please use this in EVERY story (picture book or not) you write. Rhythm is a non-negotiable requirement. Great rhythm is almost invisible but makes your story a pleasure to read both silently to yourself and even more so out loud.
Rhyme – I’ve written about rhyme before. This is from my piece on the Storylines website:
‘Should you write in rhyme? It’s such a compelling idea to do this. Rhyming stories are very seductive. They are fun to read and can help with the acquisition of reading skills. But rhyme is not always the right form for a story. And it is very hard to do well. And it is not essential for a picture book. For the ten picture book manuscripts I’ve had accepted for publication, only one has been written with some rhyme in it. Writing in prose has not stopped me getting published. It is not the only language technique that can elevate your story. However, if you do choose to write in rhyme, remember the key rules to successful rhyming. First, of course, is the rhyme itself, the sound-alike words that usually end each line, or every second line (there are a few permutations). Rhyme can also be found internally (mid-line).

The biggest problems when it comes to rhyming are the use of old-fashioned or dated words, made-up words, using words that require an unconventional or incorrect pronunciation to make them rhyme, odd syntax to make the rhyming word fall at the end of the line, or the use of an odd word that doesn’t fit with the tone or style of the rest of the story. They often interrupt the flow of reading and confuse readers. If you are relying on one of these types of words, it would be better to find a different rhyming pair.

The second key aspect for a successful rhyming story is rhythm. It has equal importance with rhyme, and its role should not be underestimated. It won’t matter if your rhyming is genius if the rhythm is off. Rhythm is a matter of syllables and stresses. You don’t have to be a slave to counting syllables, and having the same number in each line, but you do need to generate a smooth repeating pattern or tempo. The stressed syllable in each word will also have an impact on the rhythm. The stresses must also fit a pattern, for example Te DA te DA te DA te DA. If a stress naturally falls on the first syllable of a word, but your pattern requires that it falls on the second or third syllable, you CANNOT use that word. We do not say econOMy, we say eCONomy. Anyone coming fresh to your story will assume every word should be pronounced the conventional way. If you have altered the stressed syllable there is no way a reader can know that, and they will struggle to read your story.

A great test to see if your story works is to get someone who hasn’t seen it before (and hasn’t heard you reading it aloud) to read it aloud to you. If they struggle, or even hesitate at any point, you will know the rhythm isn’t quite right yet. Check out books by expert rhymers like Lynley Dodd and Juliette MacIver in local bookshops and libraries. These writers are skilled practitioners who spend months refining their rhythm and rhyme before submitting their stories. Study the patterns they use.’

It’s easier to get this wrong than it is to get it right. So to summarise, common problems include
-          Bad scansion – the number of syllables in a line is out of step with the count in other lines. Can someone unfamiliar with your story read it aloud in a natural fluent manner? Or do they pause and make adjustments, or stumble.
-          Inconsistent rhyme – do your stanzas follow a consistent rhyme and rhythm pattern? abab four line or ababcc etc… Any switches to a different pattern must be for effect and not convenience.
-         Awkward word use to allow rhyme – if you pick a word that doesn’t fit in with your other words (e.g. it’s old fashioned, awkward contraction, adult vocabulary) just to make the rhyme work, this can be a problem
-          Sacrificing meaning for the rhyme

As I tend to not use rhyme, I instead focus more on other techniques to make my prose sing. One of the joys of writing for children is making them fall in love with words. Using fun and interesting language will help you achieve this. You’re probably already familiar with the following techniques. I learnt them all at school and doubled down on them at University. But it never hurts to be reminded of these, and how they work. 


Alliteration – starting consecutive words with the same letter. This is easy to over use so keep a tight rein on this technique.
This line from my book The Were-Nana has both alliteration and assonance – Stella Rosa had never met Nanan Lupin before, but she knew her voice sounded horribly hollow and hard to understand when she spoke on the phone. The lovely thing about this is when reading it aloud, the words ‘horribly hollow’ sound as ghastly as their meaning.

Assonance – this is kind of a riff on alliteration, using words (consecutive or in close proximity) that begin with (or include) the same or similar sounding syllables. They can have either, the same vowel and different consonants, e.g. hells bells, or different vowels within similar consonants e.g. flipped, flopped, lapped.

e.g. The Nursery Rhyme
A diller, a dollar,
A ten o'clock scholar,
What makes you come so soon?
You used to come at ten o'clock,
And now you come at noon.

Or
She sells sea shells
By the sea shore

Onomatopoeia – children are the ideal audience for this technique, and this is a great way to get littlies participating in the reading process. Words that replicate a sound – boom, honk kapow, pitter pit pat, ratta-tat-tat. Practitioners who ace this are Sally Sutton (Ambulance, Ambulance), and Elena De Roo (The Rain Train). Make sure you give appropriate attention to getting the ‘sound’ right. Certain words will work better for different age groups, so remember to target your audience appropriately too.  

Personification – helping to give personality to things that are inanimate. The Song of Kauri does this on several levels: Years passed, and Kauri grew tall and vigorous. At first he lived alone in the valley. He spoke with the Earth, but the great Earth was busy with its own concerns.’ and ‘The rain came down to embrace Kauri, but the Sun soon dragged it back into the sky to make clouds to wrap itself in. This is helpful to get the reader to identify and connect with a non-human, maybe even a non-biological character, to enable dialogue and emotions.

Metaphor – a comparison using two unrelated things, giving a new perspective to something familiar, e.g. in The Song of Kauri, instead of describing diggers and backhoes doing roadworks: Monsters made of dark night, belching smoke, carved scars across the land..

Simile – a comparison using ‘like’ or ‘as’.

Repetition/cumulative text – repetition is an awesome learning tool in picture books. It can take several forms:
     The same line or refrain repeated, either on the same page or separated by one or more pages
     A repeating structure. For example in The Were-Nana, Simon describes his nana to his impressionable little sister over several pages –

“She has whiskers,” Simon said, as they pulled out of the driveway. “They scratch your skin when she hugs you.”

“She has long, sharp fingernails …” he said, as they drove along the motorway, “ … like claws. They dig into you when she pulls you close.”

“And don’t think for one minute she’ll be arriving on a plane. She rides a witch’s broom that she borrows from her witch friends.”

This trio of descriptions creates a rising tension, to which the sister then reacts with a fearful outburst. The repeating format facilitates the rhythm and also follows the rule of three (see below). The descriptors provided (whiskers, fingernails and witch friends) are also themselves repeated several times later in the story by the little sister. She has comprehensively swallowed her brother’s ‘fake news’ and her repetition – “She’s a were-nana,” (…) Her friends are witches and she has a hairy face and claws on her hands” gives more power to the words both in her mind and in the mind of the reader. Repetition is a powerful tool.

Cumulative text works a little differently and is valuable in the acquisition of reading, providing text which an emergent reader can easily predict and follow along with. It’s great for creating a sing-a-long too, e.g. I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, Wonky Donkey

Puns/Word play – A fantastic way to show young readers the fun and joy to be had with words. I can’t think of any specific local examples off the top of my head right now but will do my best to remedy this as soon as possible J

Neologisms – inventing new words can be enormous fun. Most don’t pass into regular use but they can work brilliantly in a picture book. They still have to make sense in the context of the story, though, and I would avoid making them too nonsensical or reliant on base humour. The two I’ve managed so far are the were-nana (from the picture book of the same title), like a were-wolf but oh so different. And sheepnotist (as in, a sheep performing hypnotism - I guess this also qualifies as wordplay) from my latest picture book Sharing with Wolf.

Rule of 3 – three is truly a magical number. Repetition reinforces an idea, helping it to stick in our minds and repeating it three times works well, giving us a good chance of recalling it while not becoming dull or annoying. Grouping things in threes (bits of information, clues, actions, descriptors, etc) can also help things stick, making them all easier to remember, providing a framework for that recall (I know there are three things).  In my own writing I have found it often occurs organically. I was raised on books that used the power of three and so utilise the same rule when writing myself without consciously attempting to do so. Fairy tales are easy examples of the rule – The Three Little Pigs, the Grimm Fairy tale The Three Brothers, Andersen’s Clumsy Hans and so on.

There are other techniques. I will have a go at assembling some more, but if you have any questions, or comments or disagreements on what I've talked about above, or suggestions for other techniques to discuss, let me know in the comments below!

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Tips for surviving the zombie apocalypse ...

The next topic with the most votes was using language techniques in picture books. But having talked about voice last time I thought it might be nice to mix things up a little. Techniques will be a fairly large and more serious topic, so I thought I'd tackle topic number three this time and go back to techniques next time.

So, surviving the zombie apocalypse. 'Hang on,' I hear you say, 'this crisis is zombie free.' Stop right there. Back the truck up. And listen...

1. Watch out for crowds carrying pitchforks. While it might be that they are just recreating 'American Gothic' for the Getty Challenge, it pays to remember there is only one pitchfork required for that picture. Never throw out your McDonald's Cheeseburger wrappers. These can be folded around wads of that spare toilet paper you are bound to have, and thrown on the front lawn to distract the crowds while you make your getaway. Unfortunately you still can't go too far and will have to come back sooner rather than later ...

2. Dont be concerned about people turning up at your front door with unnaturally pale faces. They are more likely to be amateur bakers who clearly have not adhered to the, 'don't touch your face,' rule, rather than vampires or the covidly ill. It may pay to keep your curtains closed and the lights off though, as in all likelihood they are there to ask if they can borrow some yeast. For starters, you can't 'borrow' yeast. They won't be giving it back. They'll be incorporating it into a baked product you are unlikely to be able to, or want, to share. Protect those precious, smelly grains for your own harking-back-to-home-economics experimentations with dough. Unfortunately they are unlikely to believe that you are not home anyway, despite the lights and curtains. It's not like you can go anywhere. However that unrisen rock you are calling bread can be lobbed through the front window at those prospective yeast stealers.

3. And ... shhhhhhh ... don't tell anyone .... but ... actually ... we're the zombies. I certainly feel brain dead most days. We're constantly hungry, shuffling around, looking a bit unkempt, moaning unintelligibly, bleary-eyed, awake day and night.... Sound familiar? Yup. It's us. And that red stain on my chin? It isn't the blood of my victims, its just a little red wine that managed to escape on the way to my mouth ... honest.

The good news is that we don't tend to cannibalise our own so we don't need any zombie fighting tips. We just need to fight the boredom, the lack of willpower, the existential angst, and the poor clothing and dining choices we are currently making every day. But that's a blog post for another day ...

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Creating a distinct voice in your picture books ...

If you are writing picture books it is important not to neglect 'voice', the unique personality of your story-telling that provides the meat on the bones of your tale, and forms the connective tissue between the story and the reader. Voice is what delights us, adds depth to the story and elevates it to a 'must read'.

Folk often say there are no new stories, only new ways of telling them, and a big part of the telling is the voice you choose to use. Voice helps you stand out with publishers and readers. It brings a story to life, animating it beyond just a collection of familiar words. A strong voice will draw readers in - sure, not all will have a taste for every style of voice but if you consider your favourite picture book writers - Lauren Child, Oliver Jeffers, Dr Seuss, Mo Willems, Margaret Mahy, John Burningham - all have a distinctive voice that colours all their stories and has given them a loyal readership.

How is voice achieved? Primarily through reading a lot of picture books and seeing how the best writers achieve it and then practicing a lot with your own stories. It doesn't have to be heavily applied, it just needs to be there.

Technically though it's about:

1) Word choice - what is the 'character' of the words you've selected to tell your story with? Look for the extraordinary, but aim for minor surprise rather than shock. We are going for 'the road less travelled' rather than potentially having your reader get lost. Don't push down (baby talk), pull up (with words that are a little ahead of where your reader is at) - don't forget the pictures will help with meaning. You want little explosions of pleasant surprise, using words that add layers and depth to your themes and meaning. Use words that tie in with the techniques you are employing - the assonance, alliteration, rhythm etc...

Sometimes it is not the words themselves that surprise, but the unexpected way they are used. Repetition can also be very effective, especially when unexpected. Repetition does not have to be immediate either, potentially having more impact a page or two later in the story.

2) Sentence length - this influences the pace and rhythm of your story. Is your story jaunty, dreamy, melancholic, intense? It can be cool to vary the sentence length in a repeating pattern. Different sentence lengths can be used with different characters, or different events within the story. The pagination also has a role to play here - think of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are.

3) Rhythm - like voice, rhythm is an essential component of all good picture book stories. It should have an effortless flow so the reader, or the reader-out-louder is naturally drawn through the story, subconciously anticipating the next word... I've always found the best test of this is getting someone new to the story to read it out loud to you. 

4) Tone - this is mostly about the flavour of the words supporting the mood of the story. Is your story funny? Or scary? Your word choice and sentence length need to support this. But also is your story conversational or a bit more formal? Is it old fashioned or full of contemporary idiom and contractions? Does it break the fourth wall? (Check out Mo Willems, We Are In a Book, and Oliver Jeffers' Lost and Found). Does it have an accent? (Read Cicada by Shaun Tan for effective use of an accent).

Please note: Voice is not sufficient on its own to carry a book. Nothing can 'stand in' for a great story - you need both!

If you are struggling with the concept of 'voice' a good book to read is Anthony Browne's, Voices in the Park which literally gives voice to four different characters over the course of the story. 

Also if you need examples of some of the things I've mentioned or you have question - let me know in the comments section below!! I hope this is helpful :-)


Monday, April 13, 2020

And my manuscript assessment competition winner is ...

Crikey that was interesting. I am heartened to see all my suggested topics get a request so I'll work my way through them all beginning with the most requested to the least. And no one correctly guessed my favourite Harry Potter movie. The correct answer is Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Dolores Umbridge is a terrific villain and her detention punishment is breathtakingly clever and nasty. I love Luna Lovegood and Dumbledore's Army and how Harry and Dumbledore are finally vindicated. Anyways ... a number of you did pick my second favourite, Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban, so I put all your names in a hat and the winner is ......

....  AB who commented here on the blog. Woohoo! Congratulations! AB, if you contact me at melinda@tale-spin.com, we can make arrangements for the assessment.

And in the next few days I'm going to talk a little on the most requested topic - developing a distinct voice in your picture book writing. So stay tuned!!!

Talk to you soon!

Sunday, April 5, 2020

A manuscript assessment competition for picture book writers ...

I've started this post several times and abandoned all the different iterations. None feel right for the current zeitgeist and if you folk are feeling anything like I am, being creative right now is a bit of a struggle. I should be revising something I finished a while back but I can't bring myself to open the document, and although I have been puttering along with a new picture book idea (which feels exciting), it is super slow progress. Usually by now I would have had it done and through several revisions. These are strange times.

It's hard to feel creative when we are all in a kind of limbo. My creative space is full of other people, their noises and interactions. There are worries, and I can't help but wonder how the world in general, and the publishing landscape in particular, might look when lockdown rules are finally relaxed. We can't know until we get there. Limbo.

So, anyways, I thought, like those 'pick a path' books we used to love, I'd ask you, dear reader, what sorts of things you might like me to talk about. Should I discuss...

1) How to develop a distinct picture book voice?
2) The good language techniques you should use (and the bad ones you shouldn't use) in picture books?
3) Survival techniques for the zombie apocalypse a.k.a. keeping your chin up while you still have one
4) or a topic of your choosing ...

And also I am running a competition. I will provide one free picture book manuscript assessment (usually $125) to the person who correctly guesses which is my favourite Harry Potter movie. Two entries only per person. All guesses in the comments here, on facebook or twitter will be accepted. This competition closes at 5pm on Easter Monday. All correct guesses will go into the hat and the winner will be picked by a random family member currently in lockdown with me. If no one guesses correctly, I will ask a new question. If no one enters I will cry myself to sleep after eating all the easter eggs :-)