Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Why New Zealand literature deserves your support...

New Zealand literature is a necessary thing...

My parents were immigrants. World War 2 pushed them out of their home country Poland and brought them, via a truly circuitous route, to New Zealand. I was born here about seven years after their arrival.

My Polish heritage informed so much of my early life. The food we ate, the people we socialised with, the traditional folk dancing I learned, the national costume I owned and sometimes wore. To my regret, I didn't learn the language. In my tender years I didn't appreciate the value of doing so. I found it hard. And I eagerly embraced the language of my peers (I love the English language. We are always doing gymnastics together). But at school I enjoyed having this exotic Eastern European background. I was the only Polish kid in class. It felt special. So I wore it with pride.

I was a booky kid. I read a lot in school right from the beginning. I hung out at libraries all the time. The Lion,The Witch and The Wardrobe (although I started with The Silver Chair after picking up the hardback for a bargain price at a school fair), The Famous Five, Paddington Bear, The Moomintrolls, Baron Munchausen, The Moon in the Cloud, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Little House on the Prairie, Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, The Hardy Boys, The Hobbit, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Flambards, The Outsiders, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Dark is Rising, Fairy Tales, The Odyssey, Robin Hood, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and many, many, many more. Are you sensing a theme to my reading yet?

The only New Zealand literature I was exposed to as a child was what the School Journal provided. There was no Margaret Mahy or Joy Cowley, Maurice Gee, Fleur Beale or David Hill back then. I read one short story by Witi Ihimaera and didn't understand it at all, because it was a single drop in a vast ocean of the European and US literary heritage I was consuming in vast quantities.

It became difficult to sustain the atmosphere of Polishness as we all grew up. We had to get on with our Kiwi lives. We didn't forget but wore it more on the inside than the outside. And the pre-war Poland of my parent's experience was unreachable, existing in memory but no longer in reality. And my empathy and understanding of people and the world learned through books filtered everything through a foreign lens. What is it to be a New Zealander? I'm still figuring it out. I can't help always feeling a restlessness that can't be answered, predicated as it is on a nostalgia for a lost heritage that can never be recovered, and a literary education built on cultures to which I can never belong.

If you want New Zealand children to understand their own culture, to feel it in their bones, then it must be provided to them in their literature. It helps ground them, makes them feel strong in their roots, connects them to this place and to each other. It reflects their experience back at them, reinforcing its value. We must embrace our own literature. It is a tremendous gift that must be protected and encouraged. We can't just measure it as a product with sales, because its impact is lifelong, far reaching and life changing. It needs to be everywhere and we need to pay it way more respect then it gets now.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Book Review: Annual....

I was recently sent a copy of Gecko's 2016 Annual so I thought I'd do a bit of a review. It's a bold new step for Gecko, to produce an Annual: a collection of different writing, games, comic strips, poetry, activities and art for the intermediate/young teen reader. I remember owning and enjoying one or two annuals in my own childhood, but nowadays they seem to only be associated with teen boy bands, British icons like Beano and Rupert, or sports teams. There hasn't been anything available that is particularly kiwi that I can recall and as a gap was perceived in reading needs in this age group, Gecko responded with this very handsome book. It was with great interest and curiosity that I dived in between the pages.

I have to say it is rather beautiful, and every care has gone into making something that looks and feels cool and attractive, but is also hard wearing and long lasting.

So, to the contents. There are short stories, comic strips, poetry and essays of varying sizes by writers new and familiar. Names like Bernard Beckett, Barbara Else, Sarah Laing and Steve Braunias alongside Paul Beavis, Whiti Hereaka, Giselle Clarkson and Kirsten McDougall. There are things to do, games, things to make, differences to spot, a play, music, and quirky collected things. It is a superb selection. The writing is smart and assured. Stories examine themes such as family, relationships, finding your own place, growing up and being real. The art work is varied, often fun and always inspiring. I can see children with an artistic bent having a go at some of the tasks, but also trying to imitate some of the styles seen here.

(this artwork by Gavin Mouldey)

There is a really useful guide to visual storytelling. There is humour (poor Bad Luck Zebra) and a funny board game (whatever you do don't land on the square where you accidentally see Grandma naked!). I didn't like everything that was in there, but I think that is to be expected. There is a wide enough variety of theme and style to appeal to a good range of readers. With sophisticated writing, and all of it with an underlying ideas-driven and artistic vibe, this book is for the hungry, confident reader, and I think it will bend and stretch and entertain them in all sorts of good ways.

Out now at good bookstores

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

What I have been up to....

Hello there

Boy, August was full on. I became involved in a special project involving half a dozen full day visits to a South Auckland school teaching creative writing and a love of books and reading. I had my first visits in the last week of July and did the remaining visits over August. It has been a wonderful experience visiting at Panama Road School. The students are enthusiastic, affectionate and keen. I hope my love of books and writing has infected them.

I headed down to Wellington in the second week for the NZ Children's and Young Adults Book Awards. We announced and celebrated the wonderful winners on a wild, wet and windy Wellington Night at the Circa Theatre. Ten days later a host of international delegates descended on Auckland for the 2016 IBBY congress and for four days we discussed, celebrated and examined children's literature from around the world and it's crucial role in bridging cultural divides and bringing us all closer together. I got so much out of it. I attended sessions with the wonderful Australian Children's laureate Leigh Hobbes, and amazing novelist Markus Zusak. I chatted with writery friends from round the country and the world. I loved hearing about initiatives from other countries, about writers and illustrators I had not come across before, about the desire for more diversity in our children's literature

I was comforted by the fact we are all looking for solutions to the same issues. I loved the passion for the potential children's literature has to heal rifts, and to unite us globally. It was exciting to see aspects of our own country through the eyes of others. The whole thing was very thought provoking....and inspiring. And I found myself thinking about the possibility of attending future IBBY Congresses in other countries. On Sunday the IBBY Congress segued into the Storylines Festival and I got to take part in the Auckland Family Day. I met some lovely fans, made origami butterflies with lots of children and talked about turning ideas into books.

I imagined 2016 was going to be a quiet year with few engagements. I thought I would be twiddling my thumbs but the year just keeps on surprising me. In a few weeks I'm heading down to Christchurch to take part in a few events organised around our What Lies Beneath Exhibition of Children's Books by New Zealand authors themed around World War 1 and 2. This exhibition has been touring around New Zealand libraries and is spending the month of September in Christchurch. I'll post up more details soon. In November I am giving another workshop on Writing Picture Books with Selwyn Community Education. The days inbetween are slowly filling up too. Who knows what might happen next?

Monday, July 18, 2016

Getting through the mid career doldrums, even if you only have a teaspoon to row with...

Woohoo - another short story is to get its moment in the sun. I am so pleased to have something new picked up. It is with an educational publisher and I have no clues about when it will come out - sometimes those things can take some years (my previous record was around 6 years between acceptance and publication). I am doing a little happy dance - it has been a little while since I last had a story (of any kind) accepted. I have had droughts before and they are never fun. As I quoted in my last post - it's a whole lot harder to stay published than to get published. For those of you still trying to break in this can seem counter-intuitive. Surely once you are 'in' you know the secret of how to achieve an acceptance. Except the secret isn't really a secret. It's producing a well enough written story that a publisher can see the merits and the potential profitability of. You don't need an introduction, or to 'know' someone. There's no special handshake or password. In the beginning, I just kept sending my stories in, and working on new ones until one stuck. No secrets. Now, I do the same. Sending stories in, working on new ones, hoping like crazy. Persistence really is a useful quality in this business. And even then, when your story is good and smart and saleable it might still fall into that bottomless crack that exists between 'same, same, but different', 'one out of the box' or 'just before the crest of a trend'. And there is always the publisher's box to be ticked which has no definition, they just know it when the see it, and no they can't explain what that means. No secrets, some magic. Rinse and repeat.

So you've succeeded a few times and you are slowly understanding how things work and getting the hang of this business. How can this make things harder? This seems like an advantage, and of course, to a certain extent it is because it streamlines the process of submission. But it doesn't make them say yes in any different ways, or more often than they did before. In the mean time trends are shifting and changing, and the economies of countries are contracting or contracting. Publishers may want to invest in your next book but their money must be spent as wisely as possible to enable their business to continue and there just may be less of it to spend on everything, because trends, global financial stuff, changing platforms, latest thing, and most probably all of the above. If your last book didn't sell as well as they wanted then that will have an impact on whether they take your next book. Even if they really want your next book. And you've honed your voice and style and that shines through in all of your stories and is that what people want, or don't want, is it tired or is that how the fans you do have know you best and is what they wait impatiently for. And do the publishers want more of that or are they searching for new voices?  And yet in amongst all of this you are changing too. All the things you've written previously have shaped and influenced what you are writing now. And personal things happening in your private life are affecting you too. Books you are reading, world events, life events, aging, families growing or contracting, sadness, happiness, other stuff you do to keep the wolf from the door, or the labrador, cos like you know they eat a lot and are endlessly hungry. You are a long way from your debut you, and you know stuff and that isn't always helpful to your writing.

And of course the fear of never getting published, or not being good enough just surreptitiously transforms into imposter syndrome, or an advanced form of self doubt. It never goes away. It is stubborn and pernicious - damn it.

So, what do you do?

The only thing you can do, if you want to advance from mid careerist to established writer. You utilise all that change and growth and labrador drool and keep banging away at the keyboard. And you stick all of that experience in your stories and your writing. And you smack yourself if you say 'I've reached my peak' or 'I know I'm never going to be better than this' because how the hell do you know (unless you are truly clairvoyant but honestly I still don't think that is the final word). You push, because apparently people who tell themselves they can do better, often do. And you remind yourself that fear is something you have previously successfully overcome or ignored long enough to achieve good shit in the past, so you are clearly capable of doing so again in the future. And if something doesn't work you try something different cos that's what you used to do, and how you got published in the first place. And you remind yourself that good ideas have always arrived at their own pace and there's no reason why that should change now just because you're older and wiser.

And then you realise that it is a whole lot harder to stay published than to get published, and you've been staying published up till now and there's no reason why that shouldn't continue if you give yourself half a chance, and that deserves a bloody good pat on the back and some chocolate and maybe a little bit of confetti. No secret, just magic.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Some magpie behaviour...

A friend recently had some toxic blow-back from a book review she posted. The author took exception to this person's view of the book and got in touch personally several times to express their disapproval. This is incredibly poor form, and behaviour that won't win you any friends long term. People tend to remember when you tore a strip off them, and not in a good way. And if reviewers are trying to get a rise out of you, then rising to the bait is achieving their ends not yours. Truly, the best policy is to never respond. Writer Maggie Stiefvater has a classy attitude to reviews good and bad, that takes the sting out of the one star ones and and demonstrates why getting some negative response can actually be desirable.

And underling Maggie's point, agent Janet Reid (and friend) had this to say

Jessica Snell picked up the thread on book reviews (and how readers find books) with this:
Although many of the books I read are ones I've heard of via word-of-mouth (mostly from my brother and my mom, honestly; I know and trust their taste), I probably find most of my books via book reviews.

And the thing is, those book reviews don't have to be positive. Sometimes the reviewer doesn't like the book, but if she's a good reviewer, she'll say *why* she doesn't like it, and I'll know whether or not that reason would be a deal-breaker for *me*. Sometimes I know I'd like the book for the very reason the reviewer hated it, and I'll go ahead and pick it up.

So, I guess what I'm saying is: dear authors, don't be too discouraged by bad reviews. Well-written bad reviews might get you just as many readers as the good ones.

Very very true. One of our sayings back in my publicity days was "Get reviews. Good or bad, doesn't matter."

Now it's even more important because any mention of a book increases its discoverability.

Janet Reid has also made a few good comments that resonated with me, on a range of other issues. The first is about marketing your books. It's a long game folks. Of course all authors think their own book is an incredible work of heartbreaking genius, and even if they are making an objective assessment and are right, no self respecting reader is going to take that on face value. They want to hear it from someone they trust who has no vested interest in the sale/purchase of the book.

And then there's the one about when publishers give off warning signals  that the ship isn't quite so ship shape. Number 6 especially gave me pause - Publishing is Broken; We're Going to Fix It.  Confidence is a good quality in a entrepreneur. So is iron clad optimism.  Hubris is not.  Someone who tells you they're going to fix an industry they've never worked in is textbook hubris . I recognized this one...I'd heard it before and that hadn't worked out so well then either. If someone says this to you, wait to see their fix in action before jumping on board. Do your homework people. Ms Reid's blog is a good place to start.

And last but not least this one - perhaps the most sobering of all my links today - which pretty much concludes with  'Bottom line: it's a whole lot harder to stay published than to get published'. That's a hurdle (or dark long corridor of hurdles) that you can't imagine when you are working so hard on breaking in, but it's a reality for a significant proportion of all writers, and an issue that many mid-career writers grapple with. Getting published isn't a lifetime pass in to the publishing world, or a guarantee of future publication. More on this I think next time.....

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Fuzzy Doodle is HERE!!...

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.