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.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Book Review

Occasionally I get sent books for review. I've been reading most of my life and a significant proportion of the books I have read are books for young people. I have completed an English Lit degree and a diploma in Children's Literature and I also write, as you know. I think a lot about what makes a good book. I know my taste in books is different to other people's tastes, and I know readers have a range of needs and desires they want satisfied when they pick up a book. But ultimately I am always striving, as a writer and a reader, to make/find books that are, and do, more. The ones that surprise my tired brain in a good way.

The most successful picture books might appear simple but they contain multiple layers of meaning and avenues for exploration that can be peeled back and examined with successive readings. They prompt discussion with peers and parents, teachers, grandparents and others. A good picture book will say different things to readers at different ages, while connecting, entertaining and challenging them all. They leave the reader richer for having read them. The best ones linger long in the mind after you have closed the book. I know there are many fine picture books out there that don't achieve these things, but these are the things I am looking for when I pick one up. I want to fall in love and I am always ready to do so.

Review – A Kaleidoscope of Butterflies by Kate Hursthouse (Little Love, an imprint of Mary Egan Publishing, 2018)

I was sent a review copy of A Kaleidoscope of Butterflies and I was excited at the idea of this book. Collective nouns are a real pleasure trove for the creative mind. A sleuth of bears, a murder of crows, a gang of buffalo, a cauldron of bats and a pounce of cats. The list is thrilling and long. I couldn’t wait to see what Kate Hursthouse had done with this.

The quality of the book production is lovely and the pictures bold and vivid (the tiger illustration is great), with some cute characterisations and interesting application of geometric shapes.  Yet I desperately wanted the illustrations to riff more on the collective noun itself or for there to be some additional subtext or story telling in the pictures. One of the most effective in terms of the collective name is the kaleidoscope of butterflies, but many of the others felt rather inert and aimless. And while ‘herd’ appeared twice, it felt like some of the most fun collective nouns were missing. I also found a number of the pictures cluttered and the fonts very hard to read, especially where the text was in close proximity to, or tangled with, the illustrations and this will make things difficult for emerging readers. There was so much promise in the idea, but in the end this book hasn't quite got there.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Barriers to writing...

I have been applying some brain twirlings to the business of writing recently as you might imagine after my last post. Why is it easy sometimes and not others? How come the ideas that accumulate and assemble into rational plot lines and sentences in our heads sometimes refuse to fall into line on the page? And why do the same composed words give us joy one day and grief the next? Well I have no answers to any of those questions and I am willingly accepting any that you might offer, but in the meantime I thought I'd talk about a bunch of things that can interfere with our writing.

1) You aren't reading enough and aren't benefiting from the lessons you could be getting if only you read more books demonstrating how good plots, great characters, well composed sentences and expertly applied grammar look and work. Reading can also be inspiring and motivating. And I'm sorry, but if you don't read at all I'm not sure where your desire to be a writer can possibly come from.

2) You are reading too much and everything you read is light years better than anything you've been trying to write, and/or you are reading so much you run out of time to produce your own things. Too many books can overwhelm and demotivate you. It is a delicate balance and it may take a little while to strike it right. Being aware of the potential problem is a good place to start.

3) You aren't living your life. Seriously folks, having a life makes writing easier. Experiences provide raw material for future stories.Where else can you eavesdrop on the juicy conversation of others and find the people who will become the basis for the antagonist in your story who you will gleefully kill off in the most slow and gruesome fashion in your children's comic novel. And for a bonus 190,000 points, living your life will help you keep body and soul together when the writing is proving difficult and deflating. Hanging out with people you love is the best tonic.

4) You forget to feed your creative mind. Seriously, that thing does not work for free and cannot run on empty. And those sad desperate $20 fill ups that have you limping along will not result in the best work. And don't fill the tank with just anything or a constant diet of the same thing. Go watch, listen to, feel and take in, stuff you love, hate, want to analyse, and feel terrifyingly jealous of. All will inform your work in a positive way.

5) You listen too much to your inner voice when its on a downer. Man that thing can be a complete bummer that makes you wonder what the hell you are doing. It can be a broken record with a broken message. Tell yourself the message is boring, or even better, wrong. Graft in some positive mantras. Or listen to yourself give someone else some good advice and then use it too.

6) You give more weight to the negative voices of others than you do to the positive ones. This a classic. The negative feedback just seems so much more believable because it chimes in with what our inner voice has been telling us. Here is one of the reasons you need to deal to your inner voice. And remember if you choose to believe the criticisms, then you must also believe the compliments. They are no less worthy of your trust.

7) You don't eat properly, get enough sleep or get any exercise. You either treat your body like a temple, or a public toilet. Now think about what each of those might produce.

Things that don't matter

a) having the perfect place to write. Writing is conveniently portable and transferable. You can do it just about anywhere although I hear pen ink freezes in Antarctica. If you are delaying writing while you look for the right place, you are not writing.

b) having that world changing story idea. There are no new ideas, and even if that isn't true, waiting for something that no one has ever thought of before in thousands of years of civilization and written expression will stop you honing your craft, so, if and when that idea appears, you won't be skilled enough to write it. Of course if your world changing idea appears immediately I don't want to talk to you

c) believing there is some insight or secret that will make all the difference in finding writing success. 'Lots of writing' is the only secret I've discovered that works so far, in twenty years of writing experience. Do some writing while you wait

Monday, April 16, 2018

Keeping my head in the game...

I have been working a lot over recent times on keeping my head in the game. Being a writer has never been an easy road and without a doubt it has become a lot harder over the last few years. I'm a bit of a slow learner because it has taken me a while to see that doing things the way I've done them in the past in terms of submissions and queries and revising is no longer working. In my defense my methods were previously never 100% effective because publishing, so it took me a while to see change might be needed, and, also in my defense, I have been trying a range of new things, and with the creeping pace of publishing nothing is an obvious failure until you've given it a decent go. This might mean waiting a year or more. Sometimes under different circumstances they wouldn't be a failure, so then there is a debate over hanging in there with that thing versus shelving it and pushing on. It doesn't help that there is a wide range of complicating variables over which you have no control in the publishing world. Publishers come and go. Staff within a publishing house come, go and move up, down and sideways. Trends happen, timing is a thing, and sometimes it is not your friend (although at other moments it can be everything). Sometimes global political and economic fluctuations remove the rug from under us. This is all an enormous challenge/hurdle at the best of times, and these are not the best of times. Feedback is generally a half formed thing (if it is given at all) and is not always clear with a single meaning. We are trained to read between lines and cannot stop ourselves from doing it. Sometimes they are just cushioning the no and meaning should not be ascribed despite it looking like it should be. Sometimes the thing you think you need to fix is not the thing that needs fixing at all. It is a guessing game. And not just for the writer.

So, what am I doing now? I'm currently looking for strategies on how to resurface my self encouraging mantras that have been wearing thin over time. Something like electroplating, cos another coat of varnish just won't cut the mustard anymore. 

I'm sticking with the traditional publishing route for the moment. As fraught as it is, I know where my strengths lie and I know not everything I write can handle the rigours of appearing in book form.  For better or worse I prefer to take my chances with the traditional.

I'm looking at previously unexplored publishers and how to reach them. Submitting overseas is notoriously difficult but worth a try. I am researching opportunities and their relative worth: conferences with pitching sessions, workshops and competitions. I am also reinvestigating trying to find an agent. If one took me on this would electroplate my mantras and expose my work to a wider range of publishers. 

Taking action of any kind is a good thing. Stewing in ones own juices, especially when the water hasn't been changed for months is a sure fire way to get some noxious, stagnant water-borne disease. From time to time you should update the plan.  

And I'm choosing not to change the way I write. This may sound counter-intuitive but I am not unhappy with the way I approach stories. I like what I'm producing. I will however keep pushing myself to create better things. Hopefully the world will come back round to meet me.