Sunday, September 2, 2018

Reposting: 'In Defence of the Picture Book'...

Over four years ago I penned this treatise on picture books and why they, and the writing of them, deserve more respect than they are generally given. This still seems topical so I thought I would give it another airing...

I would like to say a few words today in defence of the picture book. If children’s literature is frequently dismissed or ignored by the literary community in general, the picture book is perceived as the most insubstantial of them all. Yet a picture book is not ‘easy’ or ‘simple’ even when it is easy and/or simple to read. Sometimes, as with poetry, or sculpture, it is about what has been carved away, and how. It is the iceberg above the water. Do not underestimate what lies beneath.

In less than 1,000 words, often less than 500, the picture book is complete and, in its brevity, more satisfying than you might believe possible for so few words. How many novels demand frequent re-reading the way a picture book does. That is no accident. And despite the attendant dread a tired parent might first feel at hearing the phrase ‘read it again’, there is the resulting relief when the cunning composition of the picture book almost allows the story to tell itself. The task of re-reading is gently eased, and yet the benefits to the young audience are profound.

A good picture book provides a complete experience – a dawning of meaning and understanding, a burgeoning ownership of that revelation by its young audience, and most happily an emotional satisfaction that not every novel can claim to provide. And it can do this repeatedly for the same reader, not because the reader is too stupid to remember the punch line from the first time, but because the right words and right illustrations, when combined over around 14 double page spreads, cannot help but deliver the emotional and intellectual connections that guarantee to elicit a reader response. Just as chocolate tastes good every time – not just the first time. Never underestimate the power of a good picture book…. And yet so many writers and people in the wider community do this every day.

Too many adults who relish the layers of a good novel seem unwilling to delve into the depths of a good picture book. And yet they do have layers. Layers of meaning within the text, as well as skilled wordplay and an interesting, fun and sometimes challenging use of language. And the words can never be considered in isolation from the illustrations. These are, after all, picture books. On a raw level the illustrations might be considered simply as a pictorial assistant to decoding the text for new readers. But they can be so much more. Illustrations are also layered with subtext and meaning. In my own picture book The House That Went to Sea, the text addresses the central theme of a boy failing to connect with not only the wider world but also his own grandmother. As he begins to warm to her way of life the illustration depicts the grandmother and grandson opposite each other at the dinner table, their facial similarities mirroring each other in a classic display of familial inheritance and shared characteristics. This shared bond underpins the boy’s transformation during the course of the book.

While rhythm, and sometimes rhyme, (and sometimes cumulative text) can assist the reading experience and provide a framework on which a pre-literate child becomes an independent reader they also contribute to the pleasure of the experience, demonstrating the energy and potential of language, and building life-long lovers of words. Writers of adult literature should embrace the vehicle through which readers are born.
Illustrations too assist and enrich the experience through well thought out use and control of white space, directional flow, colour, tone, contrast, placement and style, and so much more. Wordless picture books demonstrate the ability of illustrations to ‘tell’ a story with subtlety and depth. Design too supports the other elements of a good picture book and contributes to its overall effectiveness. Picture books may look simple and easy, yet they are anything but.  

Perhaps in the end it is that they contain comparatively so few words and are all too often quicker to write than your average novel. As if the length of time it takes to write something is the only measure of its quality. “Oh you could write that in a day,” is the dismissive phrase employed to demonstrate the insufficiencies of a picture book text. How can it ever compete with a novel? Well, for a start, it is not designed to compete with a novel. It is a different kind of literature, and one that can certainly demonstrate a significant depth of quality and an undeniable importance in the literacy of our society.

I do not write picture book texts from some superficial part of my brain. I am assessing each word on its own merits, its meaning on its own and in context, its sound and rhythmic contribution and its ability to stand up among all the other words I am choosing. Where is the fun and the excitement in the language? How can I drag that potential reader away from some other demand on their time – something that asks less of them and so easily occupies and entertains them? How can I satisfy both adult and child as they share the experience of reading my story? Can I bring them closer together and find a way in to both their hearts and minds? My plotting is a combination of desired themes, credible journeys (whether literal or metaphorical), satisfying and meaningful resolutions and allusions to other childhood experiences of literature that will feed back on themselves as they connect meaning and story across a wider range of works for a richer understanding. Characters are of course child-centric and require that I separate myself from the adult I’ve become and return, not to the child I used to be but a child in the ‘now’ world that has changed immeasurably since my own youth. ‘Jump through hoops’ anyone? This type of writing clearly comes with its own challenges.

And through it all I am looking for the spark, the magic, which lifts the story from the sum of all its parts to something greater. It might not take weeks or months or years to write the first draft of a less than 1000 word picture book but I am drawing on years of thought, experience, learning and my own extensive knowledge of books (picture and otherwise). And for every draft that ‘works’ there are many that stumble at the first idea, the first sentence, the first draft, the second draft, and even sometimes the final draft. For every ‘hit’, there may be a crowd of ‘misses’. I have had picture books that took ten years to go from conception to birth because they required a level of understanding and experience that I needed to acquire before I could make them everything they deserved to be. We are not picture book factories churning out duplicate texts. We are trying to create something fresh that will switch on a child's love of reading.There is nothing simple about this process if you are doing it right. It is made to look effortless (and this is part of our clever plan) and so many have fallen into the trap of believing this to be the case.

And once you have created a first draft that you believe might work, well then, you’ve barely begun. Because the first draft then gets, for all its relative brevity, more attention than 1000 words of a novel might get. Every word is tested, tasted and reassessed. Does it pull its weight? Is it the best word for the job? Does it play well with its mates? Does it shine? Can it be further polished? Should it be let go. If you add the demands of rhyme, expect to spend the greater part of your time tweaking and titivating and massaging things to fit and flow and remain meaningful. And sing. And underneath all the writing should be a consciousness that there shall be illustrations if this is accepted by a publisher. Will this story work over the format of a 32 page book? Are some pages going to be too text heavy. Will the illustrations vary sufficiently from spread to spread? Is there enough leeway for the illustrator to add more layers, to add extra magic, to read between the lines? Will they see what I see when I contemplate my story?

Picture book creators feel the weight of their task keenly. Creating readers is a significant contribution to the world and every little bit helps. I do not sniff at that. And neither should you.

(Note: Should you choose to print all or part of this post, re-post or use this material in any other way, please acknowledge me as its author, and where appropriate, provide a link to the original blog post. Thank you :) )

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Why you should let your intuition get involved in your writing...

I gave a workshop yesterday on 'Writing Picture Books'. I always try to provide a broad range of information. Everything from the function of a picture book, and some ground rules for writing the text, to how to lay out your manuscript and who is currently open to submissions. There are writing exercises and plenty of opportunity for questions. Some of it is necessarily vague because there aren't always easy answers - where do you get ideas from, and what exactly is 'voice.' And how I do things won't always work for other people. You have to find the process that works best for you, and that will involve trial and error. It can be hard to push through when the things you are trying aren't working. But perseverance really is the key. I find reading my favourite picture book texts can help me keep going. They remind me what I'm aiming for and refresh my memory on the techniques and parameters involved. And they are lovely things which delight me. If you are committed to writing picture books and don't have any favourites, then your first task is to go out and find some. Seriously people, don't write them if you do not know them well enough to have favourites.

Once you get in to the writing, it can sometimes be hard to see the wood for the trees. And it can be nigh on impossible to stand back and be dispassionate about something you are pouring body and soul into. If you are committed to writing picture books, your body and soul will be required. The most successful picture books are built on body and soul. You can feel them through the pages and they will reach out and hold your heart and mind as you read.

Anyways, I digress. One of the tools I use often, which makes a real difference to my writing, is intuition. You may not recognize it at first. It takes some practice to use it effectively, and some folk will need to build it up with some exercise and training. One of the ways I discovered the value of my own intuition was how, without necessarily knowing why, I would pause time and again over a particular sentence in my work. The sentence may have made sense, and been grammatically functional, but my intuition had spotted what my conscious mind was resisting. That sentence didn't serve the purpose it needed to serve, or, perhaps didn't even belong. Sometimes paragraphs or whole sections aren't working or aren't even necessary. Maybe they don't fit with the tone or voice of the rest of the story. You know which ones they are. You keep coming back to them. They look fine and you spent ages titivating and refining them. You're not sure why you keep stopping at this particular spot in your story. But by now your intuition is jumping up and down waving its arms going, 'See! See! This bit here!! Your story will be better off without it!'

And, intuition, if you let it, will tell you when something is finished. Complete. Ready to face the world. At first your conscious mind will override your intuition and tell you something is ready when it isn't. I know I've sent things out too early. Your conscious mind always thinks it knows best. Tosser. But experience will strengthen your intuition. Just relax and let it speak. And you should listen.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Be your own fish kettle...

My mind is a bit of a holey sieve right now. I had a big creative burst which kicked off with me writing a junior novel last year over May - October, and then a flurry of new picture books over the first six months of this year. Now I am an empty vessel again, although I am plodding along with an old project currently backtracking to get an asthma inhalor into the shorts pocket of my main character in the first half of the book so he can whip it out to help another character in the second half. Fun and games. Really, this creativity thing just has a mind of its own and a complete lack of discipline. Sometimes I think I'd like it to get its act together, but fear what things would look like if it did. Weirdly I think (at least for me), the 'fits and starts' school of writing has its merits. I write when I've a mind to, don't beat myself up on the days where the word count does not budge an inch, and give myself plenty of opportunities to read and recharge the creative battery in a variety of ways (oh and earn some actual money doing visits and workshops etc., as well). I've come up with some interesting stuff this way and occasionally, in the past, publishers have agreed. Some folk write every day and are immensely disciplined and it works beautifully for them, but I am a completely different kettle of fish. However over the last few years, as the goal of publication has been a bit of a slippery sucker, I have begun to wonder if I should empty my kettle and do some fish rearranging. Well, unsurprisingly, my process has proven pretty stubborn. And when I look at the things I have written in the last 15 months I am not unhappy with them. That's a good place to start as a writer - satisfying your own expectations and desires as a reader.

Still, satisfying oneself is only part of the aim, and chasing the mighty publishing goal never changes. If you thought getting published was the only hurdle to clear, staying published is apparently an endless supply of them. Each time you jump one, the next one is being raised off in the distance. Welcome to the publication race for life. You have to keep running. Don't lose your rhythm or forget to watch where you are going. Seriously, it's never a dull moment. 

Anyways,  it appears I have successfully jumped a few hurdles cleanly, and a few of my more recent projects are to be books (there is even a wolf in one of them!!!! - a long held ambition), so there is a brief stretch of clear track ahead. Yahoo!! Those fish can rest easy in their kettle - I won't be bothering them, at least for a wee while.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Do you want to write children's picture books? Do I have a deal for you...

I am really excited to be delivering my full day 'Writing Children's Picture Books' Workshop again on Saturday August 18, from 10am-4pm, as part of Selwyn Community Education at Selwyn College in Kohimarama, Auckland. I'll be telling participants everything I know about picture books: about writing them, about finding an illustrator, about the picture book audience, about what to put in and what to leave out, about preparing and submitting your work for publication, about the children's writing community in New Zealand and a whole bunch of other useful stuff which will help you in your journey to becoming a picture book writer. You can register here. Feel free to ask me questions about the course in the comments section below.

If you are wondering why I am running this course - I've had seven picture books published over the last 12 years (see my booklist in the menu above), several of which have been finalists and award winners, including my most recent, Fuzzy Doodle, (illustrated by Donovan Bixley) which was shortlisted for both the Russell Clark Illustration Award and the Picture Book Award at the 2017 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, was a 2017 Storylines Notable Book and is a 2018 White Raven Book as selected by the International Youth Library in Germany. Fuzzy Doodle has also been published in Australia and in twelve countries across Asia. I also write junior and YA fiction as well as children's short stories, and have a BA in English Literature and a Diploma in Children's Literature. I have successfully delivered this course over the previous two years and I love writing, and reading, children's picture books. I hope you'll come along.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

2018 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults

Just in case you haven't seen them anywhere else, for your reading pleasure, here are all the finalists in the 2018 NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults

Picture Book Finalists

Granny McFlitter The Champion Knitter, written by Heather Haylock, illustrated by Lael Chisolm (Puffin NZ)

I am Jellyfish, written and illustrated by Ruth Paul (Puffin NZ)

That's Not the Monster We Ordered, written by Richard Fairgray and Terry Jones, illustrated by Richard Fairgray (Puffin NZ)

The Gift Horse, written by Sophie Siers, illustrated by Katherine White (Millwood Press)

The Longest Breakfast, written by Jenny Bornholdt, illustrated by Sarah Wilkins (Gecko Press)

Junior Fiction Finalists

Lyla: Through My Eyes, written by Fleur Beale (Allen and Unwin)

The Thunderbolt Pony, written by Stacy Gregg (Harper Collins)

How to Bee, written by Bren MacDibble (Allen and Unwin)

My New Zealand Story: Dawn Raid, written by Pauline Vaeluaga Smith (Scholastic NZ)

How NOT to Stop a Kidnap Plot, written by Suzanne Main (Scholastic NZ)

Young Adult Finalists

Because Everything is Right but Everything is Wrong, written by Erin Donohue (Escalator Press)

Catch Me When You Fall, written by Eileen Merriman (Penguin NZ)

The Traitor and the Thief, written by Gareth Ward (Walker Books Australia)

In the Dark Spaces, written by Cally Black (Hardie Grant Egmont)

Sticking with Pigs, written by Mary-Anne Scott (One Tree House)

Non Fiction Finalists

Aotearoa: The New Zealand Story, written and illustrated by Gavin Bishop (Puffin NZ)

Explore! Aotearoa, written by Bronwen Wall, illustrated by Kimberley Andrews (Kennett Brothers)

New Zealand's Great White Sharks, written by Alison Ballance (Potton and Burton)

Sky High: Jean Batten's Incredible Flying Adventures, written by David Hill, illustrated by Phoebe Morris (Puffin NZ)

The New Zealand Wars, written by Philippa Werry (New Holland)

Illustration Award Finalists

I am Jellyfish, illustrated by Ruth Paul (Puffin NZ)

Bobby, the Littlest War Hero, illustrated by Jenny Cooper (Puffin NZ)

Giants, Trolls, Witches, Beasts, illustrated by Craig Phillips (Allen and Unwin)

Abel Tasman: Mapping the Southern Lands, illustrated by Marco Ivancic (Scholastic NZ)

Sky High: Jean Batten's Incredible Flying Adventures, illustrated by Phoebe Morris (Puffin NZ)

Te Kura Pounamu Te Reo Maori Finalists

Hineahuone, written and illustrated by Xoe Hall, translated by Sian Montgomery-Neutze (Teacher Talk)

Te Tamaiti me te Aihe, written and illustrated by Robyn Kahukiwa, translated by Kiwa Hammond (Little Island Press)

Tu Meke Tui, written by Malcolm Clarke, illustrated by Hayley King, translated by Evelyn Tobin (Little Love, Mary Egan Publishing)

Best First Book Award

Because Everything is Right but Everything is Wrong, written by Erin Donohue (Escalator Press)

Into the White, written by Joanna Grochowicz (Allen and Unwin)

My New Zealand Story: Dawn Raid, written by Pauline Vaeluaga Smith (Scholastic NZ)

Pieces of You, written by Eileen Merriman (Penguin NZ)

The Traitor and the Thief, written by Gareth Ward (Walker Books Australia)

There are lots of wonderful books here. For more in depth commentary and information (as I rewrote this all by hand and it took me ages so I am all out of opinions and descriptions and comprehensive award titles and accompanying cover thumbnails right now :) ) you can check out The Sapling and The Book Awards Trust

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Writing for children is not the poor relation of writing for adults

I think it's fair to say that children's writing is often seen as inferior to writing for adults. Many children's writers can tell you about the times they've been asked when they are going to write a proper book, a grown up one, for 'real' people. Children are viewed as incomplete adults in need of a lesser (or incomplete) literature. But age based immaturity does not = simple. That's just patronising, and rude.

On occasion I've told myself that I just prefer reading books for children and that is why I write them, but then I remember I've read and continue to read plenty of books written for grown ups - classic literature, literary prize winners, crime novels, thrillers, romance and more - and often enjoyed them and sometimes adored them. So it's not that that sways me to write for children.

The truth is I think writing is a vocation, a calling, a compulsion, or a curse if you like. I have a need to write that is not bound by rational thought or reason. If I try to escape it, it sticks a story worm in my head while whispering 'gotcha.' I write stories for children because these are the ideas that come to me and where my skills seem to lie. I don't ever remember a moment when I consciously chose to write for a younger audience over some other group. I just did. I think the die was cast when the curse was thrown. I think maybe writers for adults are the same. To ascribe some superiority to something you didn't choose seems a bit on the nose.

 You don't control it. It's how your vocation, your compulsion, has manifested itself. Some writers can write for both adults and children but they are the exception, not the rule, and their vocation has been generous (and to imply this means writing either is easy seems a little disingenuous). And I think some writers who do both are clearly better at one over the other and they have strayed from their calling. And some writers who attempt a particular kind of book because it must be easier than their other preferred form usually demonstrate why this is patently not true.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The ephemerality of ideas ...

I am often asked where I get my ideas from. And I think a lot about what my answer should be. Giving a truthful answer can feel a lot like telling you how to herd cats or how to hold on to a live eel, or draw a picture of something in constant motion. The moment an idea comes to life can so often take little more than a split second. Not all of the contributing elements are visible or obvious, and even though you have hold of the idea in that instant, it may not fully reveal itself until you've worked through it. So the answer is complex and often incomplete. And the way it works for me may not be exactly the way it works for you. It is a magic trick, a sleight of hand, with fluid rules

But with all that said, here are some thoughts on getting ideas that might be helpful

1. Ideas NEVER come when they're called. They prefer to sneak up on you when you're least expecting them, and I swear, sometimes they seem to work very hard to do it when it is most inconvenient for you. So I don't go and 'get' ideas, I just happen to be there when they turn up ... looking for a host. And part of my host responsibility is being relaxed and open. The harder you search for ideas the more elusive they can be. And if you look at them directly they will vanish, so a sideways glance is always best.

2. Less than 30% of all my ideas become a successful story. Less than 30% of those stories are published. Those odds don't sound fab. But a lot of what appear to be great ideas in the beginning often just fizzle away to nothing under scrutiny. I think this is completely normal and it doesn't cause me any concern. And I reckon truly good ideas are uncommon. If you think about the books you've read where you've really been wowed by the idea behind it you won't be talking about hundreds of books. Great ideas don't turn up every day. They're not meant to. Crikey that would be exhausting. Don't panic if you are not floating in a veritable sea of hot ideas - no one is. And don't worry if not every one of your ideas works out. Ideas that don't work out can have two issues - 1) they were never going to work because they've already been done to death/the plot just won't work/despite your best efforts it's really only half an idea/etc... or 2) you are not yet ready to write this idea in which case you keep everything you have already written on it and keep busy on other projects until you can do it justice.

3. The best ideas are born from things that you find fun, surprising, intriguing and/or thought provoking. When I said your mind needs to be relaxed and open, I certainly didn't want to imply it should be empty. Ideas cannot spark inside a vacuum. Read, watch, experience things you enjoy, that matter to you, that make your brain skip and soar and crave. From serious news articles to memes and youtube clips, everything becomes grist to the mill.  A little heart melting video of a chicken running to greet a beloved human was the spark for my most recent picture book story. But it was a throw away comment on a friend's facebook post containing a photo of a chicken that truly set the wheels in motion. Now I must wait to see if this idea that made it to the 30% that turn in to complete stories, makes it through to the next round of stories that become books.

4. There is no rhyme, reason, pattern or sequence to any of this. I can go months without a new idea although I am continually trying potential ones on to see if something develops. It is important to not get anxious about not finding something good to write about. As mentioned above those ideas inevitably turn up when you get busy with other stuff.

5. Don't panic if at first your idea does not seem to be whole. When I get an idea for a book it often initially appears as the tip of an iceberg, with a raging (but hard to justify) confidence that the rest of the ice is there under the water. The act of writing it down will usually tease the rest of it out. Sometimes it needs to be lured or enticed. Chocolate and compliments (yes you ARE a beautiful idea) work best.

6. While most of my ideas coalesce in an instant (even if I don't immediately have a grasp on all aspects), there are occasionally some which are slow burners, where something intriguing that I can't quite put my finger on keeps tumbling slow motion through my mind. The fact that I can't shake these thoughts reminds me to give them some space and freedom and to pay attention from time to time to see if they have ripened. There is no telling how long the slow burn might take. It can be weeks, months or even years and should not be rushed.

7. If you want to write, you will get ideas. It is important to believe that this is true because there is no reason why self fulfilling prophecies can't also be positive ones. If you embrace writing and keep your mind well stocked, be confident that the ideas are out there, waiting for you.