Sunday, June 26, 2016

Keepin' busy...

I have been in the thrilling eye of a school visiting/author event whirlwind for a wee while but this is now quietening down and I seem to have popped out the other side. Big shout outs to the most fabulous Orakei Primary, Parnell District School, Northcote Primary, Mission Heights Primary and Milford Primary Schools who, I have discovered, all love books just as much as I do. I have also spoken with teacher trainees about using NZ children's books in the classroom, launched my new picture book and run a day long picture book writing workshop for adult writers. If you missed out on the Picture Book Writing workshop and would like to attend, I will be conducting another one on November 5th - details are here. Just havin' a lil hibernate now while the winter weather is extra rubbish and the school term runs down to school holidays. I will be back in to the swing of things come August. As always, despite the fact that I am in the teaching role for all these events, I always learn new things about public speaking and author visits.

1) Protect your throat. Talking a lot can put a big strain on it. Gargles, throat lozenges and rest where possible. And keep hydrated folks.

2) Wear layers because visit environments range significantly in warmth, especially in the recent unpredictable Auckland weather. Being too cold or too hot is very distracting.

3) Add ten minutes travel time on to the longest amount of time you think it'll take you to get to your destination. Be ready to hit the ground running.

4) Always pack some chocolate in your lunchbox - best mid visit boost ever. And a serviette or wipes - chocolate smears on your cardy look awkward.

5) My book earrings are worth their weight in gold. I have two or three ice-breaking props or items of clothing/jewellery and always have an ice-breaking opening line or two to warm both me and the children up and get us chatting.

6) Don't forget to take your visitor sticker off afterwards....

Meanwhile I can also report Fuzzy Doodle has had the loveliest delivery into the world. People have been saying some very kind things and you can read some early reviews  here at the My Best Friends Are Books Blog, and  here at the Booksellers NZ blog. I think the launch went well, many thanks to the brilliant Time Out Bookstore who hosted the event and all the wonderful folk who came and celebrated Fuzzy with me, and bought the book. Fuzzy has been feeling the love and loves you all right back. Here I am on signing duties on the day (photo credit - Sue Copsey).

I also made some origami butterflies with young guests (photo credit - Halina Szymanik)

And in an exciting development Fuzzy made the New Zealand Nielsen Bestseller List squeaking in at number ten on the NZ Children's and Teens bestsellers for the week ending June 11, and climbing to No. 8 for the week ending June 18. This is a first for me and I am extremely thrilled. Woohoo!!

Monday, June 6, 2016

and the book give away winner is.......

It is time to announce the winner of my book give-away.

Frogmella, the envelope please......

table top drumroll.............

...All the entries were fabtabulous. I love the heady magic of a good opening line and you all reminded me of some wonderful beginnings, but there can only be one... Maureen I could not help but agree about the game-changing nature of the Harry Potter canon, and that opening line of the first book does indeed draw us in before we are even aware we have been hooked. What deliciousness followed. You are my give away winner. A copy of Fuzzy Doodle will be on its way to you shortly.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Eventually, a reply...

I was pretty shocked and dismayed by a recent article that appeared in The Spinoff, defending the new initiative, the Academy of New Zealand Literature. The Academy seeks to support and promote New Zealand Literature here and overseas. The article was a reaction to some of the 'less than rosy' responses to the launch of the academy. I was shocked that children's authors were deemed 'the worst' of those responding, and dismissed as 'easily ignored.' Maybe it was meant as a joke, although it didn't feel funny at the time. At least the part about us discussing the initiative was true. We weren't happy there were no dedicated children's writers included in the 100 strong membership of the academy. I would have said that was a compliment to the academy - that we saw its value and appreciated what it might do for authors. I would have thought discussing this amongst ourselves where we sought to understand, rationalise and move forward would have been an understandable thing to do. But it came off sounding more like we had been throwing entrails in a cauldron while we concocted some curse against those working hard to create this new endeavour. In truth a large part of our discussion ending up referencing superheroes, capes, masks and wearing our undies on the outside. Someone asked whether you could wear a poncho instead of a cape (the consensus was yes). We're writers and illustrators. We're not new to rejection. We're also human.

In the moment when I read the article there seemed no response I could make that would not reinforce the writer's opinion of our group. I felt hurt and angry and all the words that sprung to mind were fairly loaded. We were exhorted not to 'fight' by others. We often say nothing because of fear. It's a small town. And times are hard. Yet if we always say nothing maybe we are 'easily ignored.' And none of these are 'fighting' words.

Most of all I'm sorry that this might deepen the divide between adult and children's writers. That's a real shame. We're not the enemy.

Now our online group has moved on to discussing the importance of breaking regularly from constant sitting to avoid blood clots - a serious issue for serious writers. We're talking about the LoveOzYa campaign, and about a similar promotional poster campaign that one of our group has been driving here in New Zealand. We talk about a lot of things that might help us. Sometimes we moan and groan, and get a bit feisty. Feel free to throw the first stone at us if you never do this. Anyways, our demonic cabal of cauldron stirrers is now on hiatus as we focus on our key obsessions of writing and illustrating, and the secondary ones of profile, promotion and marketing. I hope the Academy springs forward in leaps and bounds and is able at some near future point to bring children's writers and illustrators on board. In the meantime we will continue to look to each other for support and promotion.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Win a book - Fuzzy Doodle Competition....

Exciting times people, exciting times!! June is but a blink away and with it will come the new book. To that end I think IT IS TIME FOR A COMPETITION!!!

Are you ready? Really? Are you sure? Okay. Quite sure? Just testing. No, no, I can tell you're sure.


By the way...

I got asked to run a workshop on writing picture books. I'm doing it soon at Selwyn College Community Education. It's a day long course 10am to 4pm on Sunday June 19. The fee is $120 inc GST. I'm going to tell people everything I know. Plus some extra stuff. All on picture books. They're so hot right now.

You can find details here.

It'll be fun.

I promise.

Well then.

Till next time.


Sorry, what?

I forgot something?

I forgot to tell you how to win the competition?

The competition.


So. To win a signed copy of Fuzzy Doodle:

One of my favourite first lines is from Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz - 'When the doorbell rings at 3 in the morning, it's never good news.'  I want you to tell me your favourite opening line in a book and why you think it's the best. Post it in the comments here on the blog. I will pick the one I like the best. Competition closes on Friday June 3rd at 5pm.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Fuzzy Doodle soon...

It is less than a month to go until my new picture book is released. I am simultaneously excited and terrified. I hope y'all love it as much as I do. I am having a little soiree with illustrious illustrator Donovan Bixley to launch Fuzzy Doodle 3pm on June 12th at Timeout Bookstore in Mt Eden and I would love you all to come! And don't worry - I will remind you all closer to the time. I think I might run a bit of a competition to win a copy here on the blog soon too, so keep an eye out.

It is hard to describe what the book is about but I guess you might be wondering. Whenever I try to imagine what it means for the Universe to be infinite I find it difficult to comprehend. How can something go on forever? And how does a caterpillar transform into a butterfly within the tiny confines of a cocoon? The concept of metamorphosis is understandable on one hand but the practical application seems other-wordly. It's a bit like the process of writing or art. Where do ideas come from? How do we turn them into complex stories or paintings? I sometimes look at things I've written and thought 'where did that come from?'. There is always an element I can't explain. A certain kind of magic that is involved. These things are at the heart of this book. That is what it is about. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Girls won't spoil the story....

I read this terrific article and wanted to shout 'hallelujah, it's not just me!!' I have long thought that there is something inherently wrong in providing books strictly for boys, to boys. Books with boys as the central protagonist, doing 'boy' stuff in a world of adventure and action and mayhem. 'We need more books for boys,' goes the battle cry. Write something boys will like. And somehow that has included an absence of girls. WE have given girls cooties, in the stories we offer to boys. And books about girls? WE have deemed them toxic to boys. I think in our desperation to get boys reading we made it too much about gender, to our detriment. To society's detriment.  Because in doing so we gave them, between the lines, the message that reading about girls is uncool, and/or embarrassing, and/or unnecessary. And I think this doesn't help anyone. In fact it is has become harmful. Females make up more than half the world's population. How can it be a good idea to tell the other half that females aren't included in the cool stuff. That they can't be brave or resourceful, the problem solver or the hero (and that they don't have to behave like a boy to be any of those things). How can it be a good idea to tell boys that girls aren't even worth reading about. That they'll spoil the story. That they always need rescuing and will reward their rescuer. That they can't be interesting in their own right. Or on their own. We have shot ourselves in the foot and I am tired of hopping around. Stop trying to find a boy book for that boy to read. Just find them a good book. We need to change our posture and vocabulary when we talk about books with boys. We need to stop genderising covers and that goes for 'books for girls' as well - because what matters is what's between the covers. We need to read stories about girls to boys at every level. We need to show them that a story doesn't have to revolve around a boy to be a great read. They should read widely. Like so many girls do. And we need to do the same for diversity. I know this will take generations to change.  But we better start yesterday and stop digging the hole that we have dug so deep.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Reviewing reviews...

Writers block - I've read some excellent articles on this recently which I think address the more serious variety of writer's block and offer insight, advice, solutions and hope if you are locked in mortal combat with the creative side of your mind -  this one is good.

This post by Bernard Beckett on why NZ YA literature is or isn't used in our classrooms is an interesting read. Teachers are too stretched and understandably go for the easy option of (generally overseas) YA titles that have movie tie ins, have been dissected and reviewed ad nauseam on easy to find online sites and are proven winners. This makes it too easy to ignore some excellent local content which already suffers from an embarrassing level of neglect. This site Hooked on Books aims to redress some of the balance (awesome work people!!!) but we have a LONG way to go before we are even truly accepted let alone embraced. While I agree it is best to be positive about small gains I think we should expect more. Look what happened to NZ music when we were obliged to hear more of it.

And if you want an easy lesson on how to start a fight you need look no further than this article by Iain Sharp lamenting the apparently too cosy nature of book reviewing in this fair country. He's only commenting on adult literature here, because reviewing children's literature is an obscure movement that seems to operate on the same level as dark matter. However, for my purposes let's pretend children's literature is part of the reviewing discussion.

I guess I agree on some points. Sometimes reviews are just a blurb, or the synopsis, without commentary on the key elements by which we assess books. On the one hand this gives us no real clues as to the merits of the book but it IS a mention which (due to our lack of cultural embracing) is pure gold. I am thrilled when my books are mentioned (even just by title) by someone other than myself or a member of my family or circle of friends, in some public fashion. We should be a little sad that such small things excite us so much. Round ups, therefore, are a simultaneously good and bad thing.

And the majority of reviews are a bit of a love fest, but then an absence of any mention at all in the places where book reviews hang out can be rebuke enough. As my mother always says, "if you can't say something nice don't say anything at all." And clearly I wasn't the only one in NZ raised this way. We would rather spend our time talking about things we do like, than things we don't. And this is especially true in a country as small as this one. Our tribe is too small. Too close. We avoid confrontation. We don't wish to offend. This doesn't mean our reviews are bad, just highly curated. And, nice isn't always nice. Sincerity, or lack thereof is detectable. Having some overseas reviewers involved might be a good thing but New Zealanders know their own literature best. Goodreads, of course, is immune to all of this and very educational on the subject of reviewing, partly because its structure encourages reviews of everything you have read, and partly because it's an international boundary-less site where people seem to eschew any kind of filter on their comments. If they feel angry about any aspect of your book, whether real or imagined, they feel a duty to let you know. Some of the most insightful reviews I have read have been on Goodreads.  And some of the nastiest.

And everyone has an agenda. Writer Elizabeth George (in an article published in our own Herald Canvas magazine some years ago) said reviewers were looking to their own careers when they write reviews, and the content should be judged on this basis. She made her comments about big name overseas reviewers so are her comments relevant here? Should they be? or is it better if they aren't? I think reviews anywhere can reveal as much about the reviewer as they do about the book.

I've had my fair share of reviews. Some have just repeated the synopsis and made no real comment on the qualities of the story. Some have been insightful criticisms both positive and negative. Some have just been mean-spirited. Some referenced things which weren't in the books. Some seemed to be written by people who hadn't even read my book but felt compelled to comment anywho. And the advised practice (which I agree with) is that authors never respond to reviews, so errors (or misreadings) in reviews go unchecked. If authors can't respond, how much licence is it okay for reviewers to have (and please don't review that sentence, it's a bit rubbish although the content is still meaningful and relevant). We have no right of reply and must take our medicine. Reviewers should keep that in mind.

So are we gutless reviewers? For my own books I hope for honesty and erudite insights. For the books I wish to read I want a feel for the book, the style and quality of the prose, the complexity of the themes and plot. How satisfying is the ending (but no spoilers). When I review books on Goodreads I believe that what I don't say has as much weight as what I do say. You can easily tell when I think something is a must read. And if you have agreed with my past assessments my reviews will be more useful to you. I know who to trust as a reviewer. A reviewing history carries a lot of weight with me.

It's crucial to remember too that reviewers in the media don't necessarily have control over how much they can write, the format in which their reviews appear (round ups), or sometimes even the books they are able to review. They do what they can within the constraints of the current environment.

In the end, the same book can receive scathing reviews and adoring ones. I look at the kinds of comments made and depending on the language used, the issues noted, and the tone of the piece I get a fair idea of whether a book is for me or not. A nasty review isn't necessarily the kiss of death. Sometimes it is the opposite. Give us some credit for being able to read between the lines (cos that's what good readers do) - a review isn't the last and only word.