Saturday, July 13, 2019

2019 Writing Children's Picture Books Workshop

Arghhh!! My eyeballs, my eyeballs! I have been editing ma short stories for the last few weeks, and now proof reading! Anyone for fried brains? Yet, all too soon it will be too late. The book will be off to the printers and those words and all that punctuation will be set in ink on those pages permanently. Publishing is so yin and yang. So exciting and terrifying, so energising and exhausting. And the book isn't even out yet.

Once the t's are crossed and the i's are dotted I will be gearing up for my Writing Children's Picture Books Workshop with Selwyn Community Education. On Sunday 18th August this year, it runs from 10am to 4pm at Selwyn College in Kohimarama. You can check it out, and register, here. Looks like there might not be too many places left, so get in quick if you're keen.

And just in case you are new to my blog and me - here is a little background information in case you were wondering how I came to run this course. I have written many picture book stories over the last twenty years. Some of them have won awards and been nominated for others. I have experienced rejections and acceptances and I know that having books previously published is no guarantee of having things published in the future. I have submitted with an agent and without. I have picture book number 8 and number 9 coming out early next year. Sharing with Wolf with Scholastic NZ, illustrated by Nikki Slade Robinson, and Moon and Sun with Upstart Press, illustrated by Malene Laugesen. They are very different books. One is dark and funny, and the other gentle and heartfelt. Just this past summer I was a judge for the 2019 Storylines Joy Cowley Award and having made my way through all 158 manuscripts, I have some feedback for future submitters. I'll be talking about this during the workshop. Submissions for the 2020 Storylines Joy Cowley Award close October 31st so you'll have time to polish up your manuscript before you need to send it off.

Friday, July 5, 2019

'Time Machine and Other Stories'

Publishing has a slightly strange trajectory. No smooth parabolic arc here, no sirree. It is more like some terrifying mountain range that only the most foolhardy attempt. You write your stunning work(s) of genius (small, slightly bumpy but upward rise), and once polished and primped, send it off to publisher(s). At this point your arc might continue up (small, almost imperceptible gradient), or it may crash and burn. A publisher says yes and your internal arc soars, but really, outwardly, it just hiccups along with mostly slow, gradual, but occasional step-like upward movements. Contract sent? Take a step up. If it's a picture book, illustrator confirmed, it's a step up. Then you almost forget you have a book coming out (but not really because all the key dates are burned into our brains), and the arc is more plateau at this point. "My book?" you reply to polite enquiries, "Oh, yes. The book. It's something, something, some time distant," and you wave at the air in front of you, as if the publication date is somewhere out there visible if they look hard enough. Then suddenly edits are sent (giant leap for mankind!), a cover is decided upon, release dates and launches become a thing and finally this project looks like a book and you can see the midnight ink beyond the stratosphere approaching rapidly. And the stars are shining. And your heart skips a beat because the book is more than you imagined it could be.

Well here we are folks. And I am so proud and excited. Time Machine and Other Stories by yours truly is coming out August 11th. There are thirteen previously published short stories that have been gathered together here in one handy-dandy tome. There are an additional six new stories, one of which is a novella that I heart so much that it partly drove the determination to make this collection happen. I thought these stories were pretty good before but editor Mary McCallum from The Cuba Press has really made them sing and shine. I cannot wait to share them with you.

Published by Ahoy (an imprint of The Cuba Press), with cover and internal artwork by the very talented Theo Macdonald. Out August 11th. Launch details coming soon to a blog near you.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Why you shouldn't give up writing...

Was it only me that hadn't realised why the bigger (international) publishers take longer to respond to submissions? Why I can get an answer in less than 24 hours from a small independent versus a six month + wait from one of the two big names in children's books still here in New Zealand. Of course there are always exceptions to this trend, but when you have a team of two in a small outfit, or the sole publisher/editor makes all the final decisions, then it can happen pretty quickly. Whether it's a yes or a no. Bigger publishers have more people involved in the decisions and gather more intel before they make 'em. It puts things in perspective. It doesn't make me happier about the long waits, but it does give me the rationale for why it might be so.

Writers are well aware of the unique nature of the industry they work in. The usually glacial pace of response and production. The way we hold all our emotions in check because we are always protecting ourselves from potential disappointments. The work we do to keep ourselves moving forward, to keep writing on spec, and sending things out when the odds of publication and success are against us. The ephemeral high of getting a yes that dissolves in your hands as you try to grasp it more tightly (just like that raccoon with the marshmallow). This isn't a sob story, but a reminder that we do a lot of work that is emotional and cognitive. It isn't visible, but it is exhausting. If you weren't sure why you felt so tired after a long day of hovering over your inbox, and adding three new words to your work in progress, now you know why.

For the very long time it took between acceptances for me in recent years, it was a real challenge to keep my spirits up and stay hopeful. Desperation is unattractive and I had to look for new strategies to stop myself wallowing in failure and disappointment and believe that my career wasn't over. I gave in a few times but my inner writer refused to lie down and die. What I did instead was try a bunch of strategies.

1) If your submission isn't getting any traction/interest, you need to be working on something new. Yes this is hard, especially when you had a lot of faith in the last thing you wrote. It was so good, why does no one like it? How do I start again? The bottom line is that having only one egg to put in the baskets is asking one book to keep holding up your whole career on its own. It needs help to share the load. Give it some friends. You're a writer. Let your creative mind accept new ideas. Believe that the next story is out there, just waiting for you to be ready to receive it.

2) Don't put all your eggs in one basket. Where else can you send your work? Who haven't you tried before? Maybe now is a good time to find an agent. Or try further afield. Or write in a different genre.

3) Don't just submit your work more widely. Apply for things too. Residencies, grants, new opportunities for old work. Having several short stories published in my wilderness years showed me my work could still be relevant and desirable. I worked towards 100 rejections and while I had to eventually pare this back to something more manageable, it did actually pay off. It changed my thinking so I was working on more eggs for more baskets which ultimately is a much better model to achieve a result. And it kept me creating. It can be too easy to get out of the habit if you allow yourself to. Keep writing. You're a writer.

4) Do other writing related work. This can be challenging if you feel your writerly relevance slipping into the past. Your name does slowly drop off the book world radar when you don't have any recent titles out, and gigs can be harder to come by, but they will help you remind folks who you are and that you still have something to say. Attend events so people know you are still here and still writing. And you never know what might come of that chat by the drinks table. Oh, and of course keep writing as well.

5) Read. Read for pleasure. Catch up on all the books you were putting off. Its not skiving, or indulgent, its research and it's good for you.

6) Stay in touch with the writing community. A- it's a reminder that everyone is in this tough environment, not just you, and B - if you still want to be a part of it, you need to turn up. It can be extremely hard when it seems like everyone is getting published but you, but the truth is that isn't what is happening and everyone is just muddling through, doing their best to carve out their careers in a challenging environment. This is your tribe and they still want you to be there.

We live in difficult times, publishing-wise, and it is essential to remember it is not you, it is the industry. The hoops are smaller and further apart, and jumping through them requires fitness and effort and persistence. Don't give up because you are despondent. Denying your writing ambitions won't fix that feeling. Only give up if you find something you want to do more. And just remember, I will always be here to nag you into continuing.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

The 2019 Finalists for the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults...

It's that special day of the year when the finalists for the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults are announced!  I apologise in advance for my lack of macrons on the Maori words. I hope to resolve this shortly.

This is a wonderful selection of terrific books, and I have read and loved many of them.  I have my personal favourites, but I urge you to go out and read (and where possible, buy) these books and make up your own minds.We are right to be proud of the breadth and quality of the children's books we produce in this country. There are some real stunners here. Winners will be announced in August. And now ... drum roll please........

Picture Book Award Finalists

Mini Whinny: Happy Birthday to Me (Scholastic NZ)
Written by Stacy Gregg, illustrated by Ruth Paul

The Bomb (Huia)
Written by Sacha Cotter, illustrated by Josh Morgan

Puffin the Architect (Penguin Random House)
Written and illustrated by Kimberly Andrews

Things in the Sea Are Touching Me (Scholastic NZ)
Written by Linda Jane Keegan, illustrated by Minky Stapleton

Who Stole the Rainbow (Penguin Random House)
Written and illustrated by Vasanti Unka

Wright Family Foundation Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction

Search for a Kiwi Killer (Torea Press)
by Des Hunt

Whetu Toa and the Magician (Huia)
by Steph Makutu, illustrated by Katherine Hall

The Dog Runner (Allen and Unwin)
by Bren MacDibble

The Mapmakers' Race (Gecko Press)
by Eirlys Hunter, illustrated by Kirsten Slade

The Telegram (Pipi Press)
by Philippa Werry

Young Adult Fiction Award

Ash Arising (Penguin Random House)
by Mandy Hager

The Rift (Walker Books)
by Rachael Craw

Legacy (Huia)
by Whiti Hereaka

Children of the Furnace (The Copy Press)
by Brin Murray

Invisibly Breathing (Penguin Random House)
by Eileen Merriman

Elsie Locke Award for Non Fiction

New Zealand's Backyard Beasts (Potton and Burton)
Written and illustrated by Ned Barraud

Art-tastic (Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna O Waiwhetu)
by Sarah Pepperle

Go Girl: A Storybook of Epic NZ Women (Penguin Random House)
Edited by Barbara Else

Whose Home is This? (Potton and Burton)
Written by Gillian Candler, illustrated by Fraser Williamson

Ko Mauao te Maunga: Legend of Mauao
Written by Debbie McCauley and Debbie Tipuna, translated by Tamati Waaka

The Russell Clark Award for Illustration

Cook's Cook: The Cook Who Cooked for Captain Cook (Gecko Press)
Illustrations by Gavin Bishop

Oink (Gecko Press)
Illustrations by David Elliot

The Bomb (Huia)
Illustrations by Josh Morgan

Puffin the Architect (Penguin Random House)
Illustrations by Kimberley Andrews

Helen and the Go-Go Ninjas (penguin Random House)
Illustrations by Ant Sang

Best First Book Award

Bullseye Bella (Scholastic NZ)
by James Guthrie

Art-tastic (Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna O Waiwhetu)
by Sarah Pepperle

Children of the Furnace (The Copy Press)
by Brin Murray

Slice of Heaven (Makaro Press)
by Des O'Leary

The Stolen Stars of Matariki (Scholastic NZ)
Written by Miriama Kamo, illustrated by Zac Waipara

Wright Family Foundation Te Kura Pounamu Award for Te Reo Maori

Nga Whetu Matariki i Whanakotia (Scholastic NZ)
Written by Miriama Kamo, illustrated by Zac Waipara, translated by Ngaere Roberts

Te Haka e Tanerore (Mauri Tu)
Written by Reina Kahukiwa and Robyn Kahukiwa, translated by Kiwa Hammond

Te Hinga Ake a Maui i Te Ika Whenua (Upstart Press)
Written and illustrated by Donovan Bixley, translated by Darren Joseph (cultural adviser) and Keri Opai

Full list and book details can be found here

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Writing Short Stories for Children: Part Two ...

Getting the hang of writing short stories has a bunch of benefits: helping the writer master technique and structure, the ability to work within a limited word count encouraging efficient, economic writing, experimentation with the 'twist,' and also just being enormous fun and an extremely satisfying thing to do. It is NOT essential to be able to write them if you prefer other forms, but if you do want to get to grips with this form, here are some thoughts and tips.

1) Short stories often spring from a single dilemma or wish. Or a single quirky object, interest, obsession, event or comment (e.g. museums are boring, a boy finds it hard to sit still, what happens if you never tidy the mess in your room, a football can break down language barriers)
2) Keep it single/simple. Too complex an idea or problem needs time and space to resolve.
3) Simple doesn't necessarily mean un-layered or basic. Short stories can still have themes and complex meanings
4) Technique can be transformative: metaphor, motifs, symbolism, imagery can double the value of your words.  Sometimes technique is everything/ is the story.
5) Setting can be a character
6) Character development is limited in a short story but your MC can still be changed by the events of the story
7) If it's a journey story, it won't be a short one.
8) A short story is a lovely place to explore the domestic and everyday. They can reveal depth and interest in what people expect to be the mundane
9) Don't try too hard for meaning. There is nowhere to hide and it is easy for the writer's hand to show in a short story. An obvious author in the text suggests your idea isn't quite ready or right for this format. You'll know when it's working.
10) Humour is a very desirable but not essential element, and does not need to be obvious. 

I looked up other people's advice on writing short stories before attempting this post and was interested to see that most were vague and/or broad tips. It is hard to pin down some practical rules that will give you the desired result. There is always an indefinable something in any writing advice, and just like other forms, short stories require a dab of magic to really sing. Playing around with the format is probably one of the best ways in. And my super duper best advice is to practice with very short formats. Start with up to six words. Then try 50 word stories. It is very doable to write a complete and satisfying short story in 50 words or less. Doing so teaches you what is needed and what isn't. And gives you a handle on the patterns that work. Remember many jokes we retell work on this basis. A complete story with a punchline in a short format.

Here is an example that I wrote some years ago for a radio contest. I was very new to writing at the time but you get the idea. And my story was included in a book of the most successful competition entries.

"Do you like my cranberry pumpkin chocolate blancmange?"
"Oh yes, honey, it's lovely."
"It's my best recipe. I make it all the time."
"You look a little green. Are you OK?"
"I think I'm getting the flu."
It must be love, he thought, as he headed to the bathroom.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Writing Short Stories for Children: Part One ...

Let's talk children's short stories. Partly because I have a collection coming out in August!! The Time Machine and Other Stories by Moi (Ahoy) - swoon - I am so excited!!! Partly because they are the thing I have most had published ( thirteen over the years in anthologies and educational journals and magazines, and soon five previously unseen stories will be getting their 'moment' in the collection) so I feel like I have the measure of how to write them, and partly because last weekend I wrote two new ones - one organically and one requested and I found the resulting difference in process surprising in a couple of ways.

Short stories used to be a good way to kick off a children's writing career in this country. A way to get seen and known, and a way to hone and reveal one's craft. For a brief period in the 2000's we were really lucky that a couple of publishers produced trade anthologies. Random House in particular put out maybe five or six themed collections by assorted authors, and Scholastic did a couple of their own. But usually, having some stories published in The School Journal in New Zealand was the time-honoured way for a writer to gain some respected publishing credits. It is still possible to do this now but both The School Journal here, and The School Magazine in Australia have changed the way they do things and it can be harder to get a look in. The desired topics are also now prescribed in advance. Great, if you can write to request/ a brief, but not so good if your main approach is to write organically.

In the beginning I didn't actually 'get' short stories for years, and wasn't too good at writing them either, until I did my English Lit degree. The Writing for Children paper unlocked my understanding. But a degree is not the only way in - there are many ways to develop the knack for writing them. Getting the hang of writing long form or picture books will help but it is fair to say that short stories are their own beast and require a somewhat different approach. Not all novelists are short story writers and vice versa.

Remembering back to when I was a young thing wanting to write, and observing today's children with the same ambition, it seems obvious that the novel is very seductive and we all reach to write something we are not yet ready to write (although there are always exceptions). Few youngsters start with the short story, but that would be an ideal first step to gaining the requisite skills in imagining a brief and very manageable story arc and pinning it to a character who can still change over the course of that arc without needing the depth of development a novel requires. Short stories also train you to vary the text between narrative, dialogue and action. In fact with children's short stories being, well, short, there isn't always a lot of space to indulge in narrative.  Things must happen in 'short' order. The commitment required to produce a short story compared with a novel is far more easily met. Wrangling a single plot arc with only a few briefly developed characters is far more achievable. Its a very good place to start.

And myself? Well I hadn't written any new short stories for a couple of years. Not until the weekend just gone. I go through little bursts with this form. Sometimes I need to do it to remind myself I can still write them. Sometimes I need to do it to remind myself I can still write at all. They are encouraging, and fun, and satisfying. Three very starry qualities. Anyways at the end of last week two things happened. I had an idea for a short story resurface. One I'd mulled over in the past without any real sense of how the story would play out. But this time I felt the urge to actually sit down and see where things led. The other thing that happened was a long phone call with the editor of my short story collection who suggested I write a particular story for inclusion in the book. I agreed with the rationale and could see the potential in the story. But my inclination is to avoid requested/meeting-a-brief type projects. Almost everything I write is on spec, written organically as an idea takes hold and I let things unfold without restriction or expectation. Yes it means my time and efforts might be for nothing if the story I produce goes unwanted but the only person I have to please is myself. And if I send it off to a publisher and they say no, at least I am still pleased and satisfied by what I wrote. With a commission, you are trying to please someone else from the get go. The possibility of failure is exponentially greater and is harder to ignore. It's no fun disappointing someone else.

So, because I had this story I promised to write, I wrote the one that I wanted to write instead. I'd noodled around with it in my mind for about 24 hours and then I got to work. Within a day (Friday), it was done. Was it any good? I couldn't be sure. But I'd pleased myself. It made me laugh (subtle chuckles) and it resolved as I'd hoped. Result! But now I couldn't avoid the requested story. And a tight turn around on this had been asked for. So I sat down with the notes Id made during my chat with the editor and got cracking. It made my head hurt. Not because I didn't know what to write, but purely because I was going to be judged on whether I could achieve this specified goal. And the pressure to not stuff up sat like an albatross on my shoulder. So many of the other stories that will appear in the collection have been published previously. Scrutinised, weighed and accepted by strangers, so I knew they were good enough, and I had their seal of approval to prove it. But this one was straight out of my noggin, tested only by me. I finished it on Saturday. And I sent it off to the editor before my doubts and misgivings could take over. Before any one else could read it and give me feedback. For good measure I chucked in the other story as well. That one's about snot, but in a very understated way. And dear reader, they were very well received and will both be in the collection. I talked with my SO about the experience and he gently chided me for saying I can't do commissioned work. He had a point, but honestly, my gut still resolutely tells me I can't. And the difference in process for writing the two stories? - the mental hurdle I furnished myself with for the second one, and the headache it gave me. I much prefer the organic process but I have to remind myself I can also meet a brief if necessary - I have to stand firm and overrule my gut, which doesn't know everything. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies, putting the stumbling blocks in place to stop ourselves completing, or even attempting, new work. Frank Herbert was right - 'fear' really is the mind killer, and we need to find a way to step around it. Also, I'd just like to quickly note I don't usually write short stories this fast. That was a shock. I don't know how that happened (maybe having such a dreadfully tight deadline). It probably won't happen again. Maybe fear can be a cattle prod too :)

Anyways, I think in my next post I'm going to talk a bit about the how of writing short stories. I just have to go and work out how I do it first :) Talk soon.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

The writers of the future...

It was a class of 32 for the Write Like an Author Camp (devised by author Brian Falkner) that I taught at Remuera Intermediate last week (from April 15th to 18th) - 33 on the Monday when we had one extra booked for the junior day. They were a terrific bunch of students (average age 12), approaching everything with gusto and taking everything in like super soaking one way sponges. There were a mysterious couple of lads who never answered at roll call or put up their hands to answer questions, like a pair of stealthy ninjas - there but not there - except that one did fill in a feedback form and both their certificates were gone at the end of the final day so I feel fairly confident they weren't a complete figment of my imagination. In class we covered the elements of story, character, and suspense, narrative, dialogue and action, and a lot more. We played games and they won points for their teams. I read some of the amazing stories they were working on and couldn't help but admire their burgeoning skills. They seemed to have a good time and the majority of them are keen to do more courses in the future, which is a great sign. I wish there'd been camps like this when I was their age - I would have jumped at the chance to participate in something that would have fed into my obsession with reading and writing so well. I wonder whether I would have admitted my writing ambitions earlier, and kicked off my career sooner? But my only regret now? That I was so very focused on teaching last week, that I did not stop to enjoy their company as much as I should have. What a lovely group of smart, switched-on kids. I wish them every bit of luck with their writing in the future and hope we get to meet again.

Tomorrow's writers: Remuera Intermediate WLAA course April 2019