Thursday, April 9, 2015


something to read, wot I have written (unedited) ...

Crocodile Dreaming - Part One

The teacher took Joseph Miller to the zoo. In fact she took the whole class, including Joe, who was the second smallest student. It would have been better to be the smallest, but that position was filled by Martha Eggleton, who was not only short, but also blond and dimpled. Everyone felt protective towards Martha. Joe had red hair, and more freckles than ‘you could shake a stick at’ as Granny Miller liked to say. Joe didn’t get how a shaking stick was a way to measure anything but Granny used it quite a lot. He also had teeth that refused to sit neatly in a straight row, and wore glasses because otherwise the words on the board looked like wet weetbix. His classmates found all these things impossible to ignore. Maybe if Joe played sports, things would be different. But he didn’t, and they weren’t. He wasn’t really the right shape for sports.

Joe liked the idea of going to the zoo. Animals seemed much less complicated than people. His Mum and Dad took him once but they were busy people and hadn’t managed to fit in another visit yet. He tried to hide his excitement in the week leading up to the visit. The other boys in his class found other people’s excitement annoying. At least that’s how they found Joe’s excitement.

It was cloudy the day of the trip. Ms Terry said this was perfect zoo visiting weather. Sunshine made animals sleepy and want to hide away in their dens in the shade. Joe stayed on the bus till all the other students were off as he often tripped over other peoples legs. But when he finally emerged he sniffed the earthy combination of animal fragrances and smiled.
“Hurry up Joseph,” Ms Terry called. “Stop dawdling.”
The animals didn’t disappoint.
“Miss, aren’t flamingos meant to be pink?” Harry Tanner asked as he hung over the railing at their enclosure.
“They’re grey because of the food they eat,” Joe said. “When they’ve eaten enough shrimps and stuff they’ll change colour and be pink.”
“Quite so, Joseph,” Ms Terry said tartly.
“Yes Joseph, quite so,” Harry parroted.

It was a small mistake, laughing at Harry when the llama spit at him. Everyone laughed at Joe when Harry spat at him at school, and frankly Joe didn’t see the difference. But apparently there was one because Harry let him have it while no one was looking during morning tea break beside the band rotunda. Harry’s friends egged him on.
Joe tried not to cry, but his nose hurt.
“What’s all this?” asked Ms Terry when she finally noticed.
“They’re crocodile tears Miss. They’re not real. I didn’t do anything,” Harry said in his own defence, out of habit, even though Joe had said nothing.
Joe didn’t bother mentioning that crocodiles did actually cry real tears. And that it had nothing to do with pretending they felt sad when they didn’t.

The crack in the left hand lens of his glasses made the animals look mysterious; especially the crocodile, already a little sinister, eyeing Joe from under half closed lids, through the vapour of the climate-controlled Reptile House. Half submerged in murky water, the animal floated perfectly still. Its knobbly, patterned hide made Joe think of dragons, and the knights who fought them. Magnificent teeth, curving and pointed and long, sat outside the crocodile’s lips in a predatory grin. Who could really tell what simmered below the calm and silent surface? Only a low railing separated the pond and its grassy surrounds from the visitors.
“This is boring,” Harry declared. “Crocodiles never do anything. And they’re ugly.” He smiled at Martha who flashed a dimple back. “Let’s go see the lions.” Everyone was slowly filing out, students pushing and shoving in their impatience. It might have been an accident. Who could tell in the end? But Harry’s elbow caught Joe in the back as he leaned over the fence. Joe found himself falling forward, watched closely by those crocodile eyes.  He landed on the edge of the pond, his hands in the water. What was that beneath his hand? He grasped at it.
Laughter erupted behind him. Joe wasn’t quite sure how being in danger was funny.
As quickly as he’d fallen in, the crocodile keeper yanked him out, pulling him up by the back of his shirt. The crocodile had not moved. Even though that’s what they usually did when food fell down right in front of them. How odd.
“You should never climb into an enclosure,” the keeper warned. “Crocodiles are killers.”
There seemed little point in Joe saying he’d been pushed.
“Yes,” he said instead. And, “Thank you.” But already the keeper was moving off to attend to his next task. The room had emptied. Joe opened his palm out and looked down at the crocodile tooth, large and hard and yellowed. He popped it in his pocket and glanced at the crocodile.
“Thanks for not eating me,” he said.
The crocodile blinked, a slow single tear sliding down its cheek. Joe said, “Bye,” and hurried off to find Ms Terry and the others.

Sunday, March 29, 2015


Well what a week it has been. We've had such super exciting cricket with the tail end of the 2015 Cricket World Cup. I've been so impressed by the Black Caps, both for their cricketing and their sportsmanship, and was thrilled they won their way into the final against Australia. They made it easy for us to love them and want them to do well. Win or lose, they are a remarkable bunch of guys.

The 2015 LIANZA Children's Book Award finalists were announced on the 23rd, and it was rather fab to have my book with illustrator Dominique Ford, The Song of Kauri, long-listed in two categories: for the Russell Clark Award for Illustration (yay Dominique - those illustrations are breathtaking), and for the Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction (the only picture book included - crikey). We didn't make the shortlists -  there are just so many great books coming out of New Zealand - congratulations to all those who did and good luck for the big announcement of the winners in June.

Russell Clark Illustration Award Finalists
  • Marmaduke Duck on the Wide Blue Seas - illus. Sarah Davis – Scholastic
  • Jim’s Letters - illus. Jenny Cooper – Penguin Random House
  • Have you seen a monster?, - Raymond McGrath – Penguin Random House
  • So Many Wonderfuls, - Tina Matthews – Walker Books
  • Mrs Mo's Monster, - Paul Beavis – Gecko Press
Bye,Bye, Bye - illus. Stephanie Junovich
Go Home Flash - Ruth Paul
Moonman - Ned Barraud
The Song of Kauri - Illus. Dominique Ford
I Am Not A Worm - Scott Tulloch

LIANZA Young Adult Finalists
  •  I am Rebecca, by Fleur Beale – Penguin Random House
  • The Red Suitcase, by Jill Harris – Makaro Press
  • Singing Home the Whale, by Mandy Hager – Penguin Random House
  • Recon Team Angel: Vengeance, by Brian Falkner – Walker Books
  • Night Vision, by Ella West – Allen and Unwin
Kiwis At War - Susan Brocker
Spark - Rachael Craw
The Bow - Catherine Mayo
Awakening - Natalie King
Unworthy - Joanne Armstrong
Magic and Makutu - David Hair

Elsie Locke Nonfiction Finalists
  • The Book of Hat, by Harriet Rowland – Makaro Press
  • A New Zealand Nature Journal, by Sandra Morris – Walker Books
  • Maori Art for Kids, by Julie Noanoa and Norm Heke - Potton and Burton Publishing
  • Mōtītī Blue and the Oil Spill: A Story from the Rena Disaster, by Debbie McCauley – Mauao Publishing
  • New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame: 25 Kiwi Champions, by Maria Gill and Marco Ivancic – New Holland
Under the Ocean - Gillian Candler, illus. Ned Barraud
Offloading With Sonny Bill - David Riley
Ghoulish Getups - Fifi Colston
Loves Me Not: How To Keep Relationships Safe - Lesly Elliott
Taratoa and the Code of Conduct - Debbie McCauley
One Girl, One Dream - Laura Dekker

Esther Glen Junior Fiction Finalists
  • Monkey Boy, by Donovan Bixley – Scholastic
  • The Volume of Possible Endings (A Tale of Fontania), by Barbara Else – Gecko
  • Conrad Cooper's Last Stand, by Leonie Agnew - Penguin
  • Trouble in Time, by Adele Broadbent – Scholastic
  • Letterbox Cat, by Paula Green – Scholastic
The Song of Kauri - Melinda Szymanik, illus. Dominique Ford
The Deadly Sky - David Hill
Island of Lost Horses - Stacey Gregg
Dappled Annie and the Tigrish - Mary McCallum
The Night of the Perigee Moon - Juliet Jacka

Te Kura Pounamu (Te Reo Māori) Finalists
  • Nga Kī, by Sacha Cotter, Josh Morgan and Kawata Teepa - Huia
  • Hui E!, by various authors - Huia
  • Tūtewehi, by Fred Te Maro - HuiaKimihia by Te Mihinga Komene and Scott Pearson - Huia
  • An early Te Reo Reading Book Series, by Carolyn Collis - Summer Rose Books
And last but by no means least,yesterday was the Storylines International Children's Book Day and Storylines Awards Presentation. I was really pleased to receive a 2015 Storylines Notable Book Award for The Song of Kauri. And so happy to finally meet the book's illustrator Dominique. What's more, the illustrator for my next picture book was there too, and we had a bit of a chat about some things he is planning. I cannot wait to see what he comes up with. I got to chat with other writery and illustratory friends - always an excellent thing. And missed chatting with others and am now kicking myself over that. Congratulations to all the other Notable Book Awardees. Congratulations to Suzanne Main on the launch of her 2014 Tom Fitzgibbon Award winning book How I Alienated my Grandma - such an awesome read!, to Tom Moffatt, this year's Tom Fitzgibbon winner, and Joy Halloran-Davidson, the 2015 Joy Cowely Award winner.

Here is the full Notable Books List for 2015:-

Notable Books List 2015

The 2015 list is for books published in 2014. 
Storylines Notable Picture Books List 2015
Books for children and/ or young adult where the narrative is carried equally by pictures and story
  • Blackie the Fisher Cat by Janet Pereira, illustrated by Gabriella Klepatski (Craig Potton Publishing).
  • Have You Seen a Monster by Raymond McGrath (Penguin).
  • Jim’s Letters by Glyn Harper, illustrated by Jenny Cooper (Penguin).
  • Kakapo Dance by Helen Taylor (Penguin).
  • I Am Not A Worm by Scott Tulloch (Scholastic).
  • The Song of Kauri by Melinda Szymanik, illustrated by Dominique Ford (Scholastic).
  • The Anzac Puppy by Peter Millett, illustrated by Trish Bowles (Scholastic).
  • My New Zealand ABC Book by James Brown (Te Papa Tongarewa, Museum of NZ).
  • My New Zealand Colours Book by James Brown (Te Papa Tongarewa, Museum of NZ).
  • Construction by Sally Sutton, illustrated by Brian Lovelock (Walker Books)

Storylines Notable Junior Fiction List 2015
Fiction suitable for primary and intermediate-aged children.
  • The Volume of Possible Endings by Barbara Else (Gecko Press).
  • Island of Lost Horses by Stacy Gregg (HarperCollins).
  • Conrad Cooper’s Last Stand by Leonie Agnew (Penguin).
  • Teddy One Eye: The Autobiography of a Teddy Bear by Gavin Bishop (Random House).
  • MNZS: Harbour Bridge by Philippa Werry (Scholastic).
  • Monkey Boy by Donovan Bixley (Scholastic).
  • Trouble in Time by Adele Broadbent (Scholastic).
  • The Name at the End of the Ladder by Elena De Roo (Walker Books).
  • Ophelia Wild, Deadly Detective by Elena De Roo ( Walker Books).
Storylines Notable Young Adult Fiction List 2015
Fiction suitable for upper intermediate and secondary school students.
  • While We Run by Karen Healey (Allen & Unwin).
  • Speed Of Light by Joy Cowley (Gecko Press).
  • I Am Rebecca by Fleur Beale (Random House).
  • Singing Home The Whale by Mandy Hager (Random House).
  • Spark by Rachael Craw (Walker Books).
Storylines Notable Non-Fiction List 2015
For authoritative, well-designed information books accessible to children and young adults.
  • A Little ABC Book by Jenny Palmer (Beatnik Publishing).
  • Maori Art for Kids by Julie Noanoa, illustrated by Norm Heke (Craig Potton Publishing).
  • Under The Ocean: Explore & Discover NZ’s Sealife by Gillian Candler, illustrated by Ned Barraud (Craig Potton Publishing).
  • The Book of Hat by Harriet Rowland (Makaro Press).
  • New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame: 25 Kiwi Champions by Maria Gill, illustrated by Marco Ivancic (New Holland Publishers).
  • A Treasury of NZ Poems edited by Paula Green, illustrated by Jenny Cooper (Random House).
  • Ghoulish Get-Ups by Fifi Colston (Scholastic).
  • The Letterbox Cat & Other Poems by Paula Green, illustrated by Myles Lawford (Scholastic).
  • Piggy Pasta & More Food with Attitude by Rebecca Woolfall and Suzi Tait-Bradly (Scholastic).
  • A New Zealand Nature Journal by Sandra Morris (Walker Books)

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Tricksy Business of Novel Writing ...

I am loving hanging out at the Pah Homestead - it is a stunning oasis surrounded by suburbia, with views and art and lush greenness and creative vibes. I have the loveliest space to work in and zero distractions. And there is a cafe right beneath me if I need fuel or refreshment. I am already cracking on with the new project which is very exciting. And somewhat surprising.

Before I wrote my first complete novel, Jack the Viking, back in 2005/2006 I was riddled with a lot of assumptions about how writers and publishing worked. I wish I'd written them down because they would give me a jolly good chuckle now. They shared little in common with reality. One revolved around the notion that once I'd written my first novel all subsequent novels would be easy to write because I would 'know' how to do it. Hahahahahahahaha - no.

Another was the idea that you started at the start and worked your way through to the end.

And you completed a first draft, then reworked the story through however many drafts it needed till it was the polished gem it had to be for submission.

And that you could treat it like a daily job. 9 to 5.


And if you think there is one right way to write a novel STOP. You are wrong! But hang on, actually, in a way, you are also right.

Arghhh - tricksy business!!

The truth is...

There are many different ways to write a novel. Planning it in great detail, chapter by chapter. Or starting with the flash of an idea and just seeing where it leads you. Working in a linear fashion from start to finish, starting at the end and working backwards, or shifting around constantly filling in bits all over the place. If none of these is how you are doing it, that's Ok. The way that is working for you is the right way.

Cherish that first time you write The End. And every subsequent time as well. Celebrate it. Because each time will be an achievement of a significant magnitude. Completing a novel will indeed teach you an awful lot about the novel writing process. Trouble is, it changes us as well. I don't want to do the same thing I did last time. I want to push myself and try harder and be more ambitious. I want to try and explore more challenging topics. I want to be a better writer. Always. I hope each novel improves on the one before. But they are never easy.

I wish I could write a predetermined number of words every day. 1000 sounds nice. How easy it would be to plan my life. Make a writing habit, people say. Just sit down at the desk and start typing they say. It's all about discipline. Hah. If only my brain obeyed my wishes. If only the rest of my life would stay uncomplicated, with a good night's sleep every night, without crises and unexpected demands, surprises and disappointments and things that occupy your conscious unbidden like a protest group on a sit in. It's hard work creating something completely new out of your imagination. Some days are good days with lots of lovely words flowing freely. Other days are best forgotten. At least I know I am capable of completing a project and, like eating an elephant (metaphorically of course), it is best achieved one bite at a time. I might not make the story longer every day but at least I try to make it better.

It has been a novel experience with the new project. Up till now my previous stories have been told in linear order, start to finish. This time ideas are popping up from different parts of the story. I jot everything down and then type it in where I think it belongs best. I can cut and paste later if need be. It is a little discomforting because to a certain extent my brain likes order. But the beginning is resisting arrest and I could easily get stuck there. And my mind is leaping ahead. Why not follow it and see where it goes? I am willing to accept that this way, as odd as it is for me, might produce a finished product equally well, so it makes sense to give in to it. I have a loose framework in mind for the plot, so I will just have to make sure every part is in place when I am done. Piece of cake. Hmmm.

And drafts. In the past I have drafted and redrafted as I've gone along. My first complete draft has been massaged and titivated as I've gone along. It makes me slower but then I end up with a product closer to a final version. Swings and roundabouts I suppose. It works for me so I will keep doing it that way. Unless I change my mind and do it a different way because that seems right at the time. I never say never. The aim is to complete a manuscript I am happy with. How I get there is open to change.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The question of talent - just don't ask...

Updated - cos I felt like it :-)

The interweb blew up a bit last week when this came out - a somewhat grumpy and cathartic outpouring from ex-MFA tutor Ryan Boudinot, to which our fave Terrible Mind Chuck Wendig nearly exploded when responding (here). He had obviously been doing some deep breathing before posting again here on the subject, although it is still fairly ranty and at times confused. More recently there was this from Laura Miller. At some point in all these articles they each make some good points. And they all get a little tetchy at others.

All this frothing and invective got me wondering about the issue of 'talent'. We wouldn't question that some natural ability lies behind the careers of people like Mozart, Johnny Cash, Picasso, Da Vinci, Jonah Lomu, or Roger Federer. These people had/have talent. Sure they all worked their butts off to perfect their skills but no amount of practice would ever push me up to their level of ability. They have something I don't have which cannot be obtained through effort. Yet somehow we can't so easily apply this same thinking to writers. Is writing different? And if so, why? All I'd like to say is Gaiman, Le Guin, Mahy - you get the idea. Folks, I believe the creative area of writing is not mutually exclusive of talent. But I also think there is no creative area more divided about what we believe is evidence of natural ability.

Here are some points about talent I believe are worth considering

1) Talent does not equal success
2) There is no simple measurement for talent in writing. It is not a publishing contract, book sales, awards, 5 star reviews, or most likes on your facebook fan page. 50 Shades of Grey has nearly 430,000 5 star reviews. I rest my case.
3) People can have talent and not use it or walk away from it, or squander it
4) People can have limited or no talent and achieve great results. See above
5) Ten people will say you are talented. The next ten will say you aren't. Who is right? Might they both be right? (or both wrong?)
6) Talent might not be evident at the start. Talent might be latent, needing passion and effort (or some other trigger) to allow it to manifest itself
7) Working hard at what you are passionate about will result in improvement
8) Persevering when the going gets tough may be the single most important predictor of success
9) If you are obsessing about whether you have talent or not you are not focusing on the right things (such as numbers 7 and 8 above).
10) The more passionate we are about what we love to do, the harder it is to be objective about it

I have some natural abilities. I can cook well. I can empathise. I am good at loving my family. Dancing. Spelling. Finding lost things. These are some things I am naturally good at. But I got better at all of them with practice and experience. Am I a talented writer? I don't know, and I don't want to ask the question cos my writing is important to me and I would care TOO MUCH about the answer. If talent is there, it will be there no matter what I do or think or say about it. And if it isn't, would I let that information stop me in my tracks? If the answer would derail me, I do not want to ask it, or dwell on it. Better to just get on with the writing.  The only way forward for me is to be passionate, practice lots, and persevere when the going gets tough. Is talent necessary? I think that's probably the wrong question.

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.