Monday, December 3, 2018

It's Elve o'clock, have you got your tinsel on? ...

Somehow the clock is broken and this year ran fast. In a surprise twist that I (and only I) did not see coming it is Christmonth already! Also known as Tinsel Time and elve o'clock. At this time of year the shadow is permanently over the yard arm and we look back bewilderedly at the last eleven months and ask what the hell happened, and squint ahead fearfully at the year threatening to jump out and ambush us before we are any where near ready for it.

AKA time for a wee stock-take of 2018 and some prognosticating over 2019.

So, in review:

- I was honoured to participate in my third year of the Otahuhu Project, a magnificent programme operating in a cluster of deserving South Auckland schools, bringing authors and students together to work on writing skills and a love of books. Long may this project reign.
- I visited lots of other schools and had a real blast - thank you to all the schools who invited me and the NZ Book Council who bring authors, illustrators and students together in the best possible way.
- I attended my first ever KidsLitQuiz World Final and associated celebrations, and oh my goodness it is just the best to have your reading habits outshone by smart, witty, engaged intermediate age students from all round the world. It was a real privilege to be a part of this.
- I was disappointed to find that one of my favourite stories I have written could not find a home. I'm still pushing on, but it's sown a few seeds of doubt about the story and my writing skills.
- But then a picture book has been accepted (see you in 2019/2020, little book!) so all is not lost.
- and I am working together with the Ahoy imprint (of the Cuba Press) on bringing out a collection of my short stories which I have always wanted to do. More news on this soon I hope
- there may be other book news shortly - fingers crossed - watch this space...
- I assisted on, and then ran, a 'Write Like an Author Camp' over the October school holidays. This was a new experience for me and I learnt some new skills and unearthed a few latent ones.
- I got invited on a couple of writing retreats on Waiheke Island with some very good writer friends. These were wonderful - a good  way to refresh your writing mojo, grow your writing project, and talk shop.
- I became part of the Storylines (an organisation I have belonged to for many, many years and benefited from in many, many ways) Management Committee and I'm really pleased to be able to contribute to such a hardworking organisation with some truly great goals.
- a kind person (to whom I am extremely grateful) made a wikipedia page about me which you can see here. This is quite a thrill!!
- we put our house on the market - results are currently mixed - no one has bought it yet but it has never looked tidier :)
- I achieved 25 rejections, three acceptances, and 8 submissions/applications are still in play.

Looking back on it all, I realise I had forgotten some of these things (and I suspect there are some things still missing from this list) and in the grand scheme it has not been too bad a year at all. Getting and staying published is still proving challenging but my writing career is still alive and I give thanks and raise a glass to that.

And in 2019?

- Hopefully a book, maybe even two, will be launched.
- Hopefully my current project will be completed - I estimate another four months of work on this.
- A new game plan for finding a publisher for my much loved manuscript.
- Maybe moving house, if we sell the current one.
- Attendance at at least one writers retreat
- aiming for 50 rejections. 

The rest I have no control over. While an unfilled dance card is always a little daunting, as a writer I always have some incomplete projects to fall back on and keep me out of too much mischief and there will always be new ideas that spring up as well. And if my thumbs are threatening to twiddle there are plenty of good books I haven't yet read to get on with.

What about you guys? What are your 2018 highlights? And what are your most ambitious plans for 2019?

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Probably just a metaphor ...


Things have been busy.... I have been involved in writing camps for young people (an awesome idea for any budding young writers in the family aged between 9 and 14 years) and I went on a wee writing retreat on Waiheke Island and now we are in the throes of trying to sell our house. We have been here quite a while and we rather love it, but 'rational brain' (who has been full of good advice over the years) says it's time to move on. Our children are pretty much big people now and our needs are different. We aren't planning to move far but its probably a good time for a change. Selling a house is quite a demanding thing - there's far too much cleaning for my tastes. And then there's all the other stuff. 'Open homes' start this coming weekend and I guess posts will still be a bit irregular until we have popped out the other end of the process, with or without our sanity intact, as the case may be. You can have fun guessing which it is when we get there :)

Apart from the retreat (a highly recommended activity which can be fitted to any budget, the keys to a successful one being a location which is not your home, and swapping your family for your writing compadres), I have, perhaps understandably, done very little writing over the last few months. My dabbles have involved some editing and revision of a few picture books, and a lot of wrangling for submissions. Those things can take quite a bit of work. I'm quietly pleased at how my brain slips into picture book edit mode quite effortlessly now, but submissions, queries, covering letters, synopses etc... are quite a complex crafty thing. In some respects I feel like each one requires a small subtle re-invention of the wheel. After a while you can get fairly polished at wheel re-inventing, but each submission must still be tailor-made and requires concentration, effort and time. Ironically, after a while, writing a novel feels easier.

I am still subscribing (despite the inherent pains of doing so) to the notion of aiming for 100 rejections this year. I am only just realising (doh) that the pathway to this actually involves 100 submissions. And should (by a law of averages, or miracles, or sod's law or whatever) any responses be positive, then clearly more than 100 submissions are required. So far I've probably achieved around 40 submissions and we are getting near the end of the year (18 rejections and counting - my oldest submission is ten days away from being a year old - there have been two acceptances and some nice feedback). 100 sounds like a full time job (okay, so to a certain extent it's probably just a metaphor), but then there is also life and all the things that that requires of you, including throwing in some paid employment which can be very time hungry. It can be a bit of a challenge to fit the writing in (why retreats become all the more important). Still, if you want to remain in this game fresh content must be continually produced. The tricky part is correctly assessing when to stop submitting (flogging) a particular manuscript and when to get to work on something new. I have absolutely no advice on this except you should keep submitting longer than you think you should and start working on something new earlier than you were planning - yes, Escher would definitely approve of this statement. The longer I remain an author the more I believe following your intuition to be the best rule of thumb. And leaping a lot (of the faith kind) - be bolder than you think you are capable of - that particular philosophy has had more good results than bad over the years. Anyways - I hope to keep in touch with you all more than I have been of late. I'm keen to tell you about some of my more recent bold moves, whether they have paid off or not and what I've learned. Talk soon!

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