Friday, January 10, 2020

The need to be hopeful...

So, as much as it is dominating social media and msm and conversations everywhere, I'm not going to talk about the current state of the world. It is an existential nightmare and I intend to help where I can, but better minds than mine are highlighting the issues involved and I can't improve on that. What I can say is that creating beautiful things that help explain the world or give relief to people is still vital. Now more than ever. So I am trying to stay updated and informed.

When the world is a bonfire and you write for children there are extra challenges in reflecting their world back at them. They are growing up into this world and need hope and practical strategies to navigate their future. How do we explain things without freaking them out and giving them anxiety about what lies ahead. They need reassurance and advice. Leavened with fun and wit. And hope. So it's important that creators like you and me keep our own hope alive. Some days I'm not sure how to achieve this. At the grass roots we have so little control or power. Perhaps focusing on how we can help our audience is one way we can maintain hope and do our bit to contribute positively. 

I guess though that maintaining a hopeful front when you feel anything but, can be a bridge too far. Self care is paramount. This is where reading can be a good strategy. If children can find relief in literature, so can we, while simultaneously being reminded of the power words (and story) have to give us the support, tools, and ideas for surviving whatever is thrown at us, and the hope we need to keep going, including with the writing. Don't stop now people, the future needs us.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Annual stocktake ....

So here I am, at the end of the world year, looking back at what I got up to, what I achieved, and what I didn't achieve. And looking toward 2020, wondering what it might hold for me. A stocktake is always interesting and useful.

I had four school visits. This is lower than recent years, and most of my invitations came directly, rather than through second parties (this is a complete 180 on previous experiences). I guess this may be a reflection of my publishing hiatus. Perhaps this might change now I'm back on an upswing. But its hard to be certain. In many ways I feel like I'm starting over again. But I'm not a beginner anymore. It's a little weird.

I was involved in several conferences, one 'Speed Date the Author' event, was invited to give a talk, ran two week-long, creative writing camps for school students, and two day-long picture book writing workshops for adults. There were a couple of other small unpaid gigs, and I mentored another writer over the year. I'm very familiar with public speaking, feel comfortable creating content for these events, and feel as nervous as if I was giving my first talk ever, every time. Yay nerves, my constant companion these last 'many mumble' years.

I titivated a few larger projects but didn't complete any of them, and wrote three new short stories and seven new picture books (result!). One picture book manuscript from 2018 found a home this year, and is one of two that will be published next year. I have a bunch of irons in the fire, and don't expect any further results until next year. I had one book out this year, Time Machine & Other Stories, of which I am very proud. Yay!!

I was involved again in Fabostory which is such a great way to get young people writing (also very proud to be a part of this), will be judging a picture book writing competition again over the summer break (194 entries - yikes!), and I've blogged, reviewed books for a few different platforms, and written a few articles. I interviewed somebody this year too which was a first for me. You can teach an old dog after all.  I threw my hat in the ring for a bunch of things such as speaking opportunities, residencies, and the like, and can report that so far I have had zero success. Hmm, I'll probably stop doing that for a while until I've licked all my wounds, and then get back to it.

So not too much of a slack arse then. But definitely a different combo of things this year. The only thing a writer really has any control over is the content they create, and turning up. The rest is all in other people's hands, with a dash of luck thrown in. I don't think I'd do anything differently. What about you? What did you get up to?

So, next year. As always, tis mostly a mystery. It will involve lots of waiting (see comment above re: irons in the fire) and frequent shaking of the patience jar to activate the contents. I have my regular Picture Book Writing Workshop and Write Like an Author Camp gigs and I'm booked in for an event mid year. I have a new writing project I want to work on, but I have some pre-project doubts and uncertainties, so I'll be girding my loins to try jump those hurdles. And that's it. That's all there is on the menu. I don't feel too worried. That's how things usually look at this time of year. And I don't have any big plans or strategies for things I think I should do. One thing I have learnt over the last few years is the value of writing retreats. I think I will try to book at least one of those in for 2020. Whaddaya reckon, retreat buddies?

Looking back at my last post (on overthinking) I don't really have many further survival strategies. At this time of year the most obvious one is to remind yourself that you have worked hard over the year (do a stocktake to remind yourself what you got up to), and it's important to take a proper holiday. Go relax over your favourite things to do, with your favourite people. Breathe deep and empty your mind. Recharge the batteries, read some books and smell the roses. If creating content is the thing we can control, we need to take care of our creativity. Ask yourself, what can you do for yours?

And last but by no means least, here is a really interesting insight on the topic of diversity and acknowledging our own blindspots when writing, by literary agent Janet Reid

Saturday, November 23, 2019

We should talk about overthinking ...

I suspect I am like many other writers, sweating a lot about what publishers are thinking and doing with my submissions, or what is happening in the great abyss that a contracted work falls in to before it emerges many months later as a published book. We tend to be overthinkers. It comes with the territory. Honestly when your job centres on extensive brain noodling to create meaningful, believable and rational plots and characters, it is hard to shuck off this intensive thinking. We start to apply it to EVERYTHING. We are gap fillers, using our empathic skills to scrutinse and prognosticate on what others are thinking and feeling, about us and our work. We follow trains of thought into tunnels and out the other side. We stop at the most unexpected stations, and sometimes we get out where we shouldn't.

If we write full time it means we have more of this overthinking time. We don't want to be obsessed about how long that submission is taking and what it might mean. We don't really want to imagine all the possible implications of that long silence following our enquiry. We're just made that way. That's why we're writers. Its a pretty rubbish side effect of the job. You can suggest 'keeping busy' all you like but keeping busy for a writer just means more thinking time. Daydreaming, considering, wondering,  obessessing, crying into our coffee ....

And then you add in social media. And as a writer it can be a useful tool in the drive to raise one's profile, broaden visibility, and help with branding  and book sales. People tell you to avoid it, or spend less time on it, and sure it can be a vast rabbit hole that has all the qualities of a gravity well. But it's not the time wasting concerns that do my head in. Its the fact that if you join the writing community on any/many platforms (because that is what writers do), it is a constant reminder of the achievements and successes of others. Have enough followers/friends and you can sprint from grateful, excited post to grateful, excited post about book launches, festival invitations, award wins, film deals and bestselling statuses which only serves as a contrast to your own current stalled position in the wilderness. Of course the relentless positivity is not some skewing of an overabundance of good things happening to everyone else except you, its just a normal pattern of people mostly sharing the good news and keeping mostly schtum about the crap things, or an absence of tweets about an absence of progress in their careers, or whatever. Be part of a big enough group of mostly writers and the normal occurence of good news can't help but look top heavy It just seems like everything is happening to everyone else except you, but its not true. It's an artificial effect.

Of course when you combine the two - overthinking and everyone else is clearly doing way better than me - it can become downright unhealthy. So what to do to maintain sanity?

1 - buy some jigsaws/books of sudoku/code crackers. A most excellent way to keep the brain too busy for random thoughts. If you need to switch off, do some puzzles. Reading is great, and important for writers, but you need to find things unrelated to writing to truly switch off.
2 - make sure you follow people on twitter/facebook/instagram who aren't writers to get some balance. I recommend squidthegriff on instagram and endless screaming (@infinite_scream) and @JamesBlunt on twitter.
3 - remember none of it is real. It is our minds working over time and the false evidence of social media. (however, should your worst prognostications turn out to be true remember a) most of your prognostications weren't, and b) confirmation can be liberating, allowing you to process it and move on)
4 - have a strategy for when you feel yourself slipping down the slide of obsessiveness. This strategy might include knitting or baking, exercise, and looking at cat pics/videos. Telling a writer friend can help but can also intensify the obsessiveness - have a list of people you can approach who will listen carefully, give you a wee slap and provide a rational explanation for whatever thought process you are having.

Hmm - I'll keep thinking on this. I think the list of helpful tips should be longer so I'll be trying to add to it in the coming days.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

A week of words, warmth and wisdom ...

It is Monday November 11 here in New Zealand and I am reporting to you live from my bed at 10.22am.

It has been quite a week.

Last Tuesday I flew from Auckland to Dunedin with fellow writer Maria Gill. We were met at the airport by Fifi Colston: writer, illustrater, wearable arts creator and Wellingtonian, who'd flown down earlier in the day. Later in the week we would be presenting various sessions at the Wild Imaginings Children's Writers and Illustrators Hui, but Maria and Fifi had thought schools might be interested in having some out of town authors visit preceding the Hui, and had invited me to join them.

Bright and early Wednesday morning we set off for Oamaru to take part in a Speed Date the author/illustrator event, with 82 students from schools in the district. We'd run with a historical theme and Fifi and Maria dressed up for the occasion. The day was enormous fun (many thanks to all those involved in making the event such a success, especially Fiona Kerr, children's librarian at Waitaki District Libraries, and Kathryn Carmody at ReadNZ Te Pou Murarmura). We had car trouble though, so our highly anticipated dinner date at Fleur's Place in Moeraki had to be cancelled. Grrrrrr.


Maria, Me! and Fifi (selfie by Fifi).

Thursday we were back in Dunedin, and Maria and I had school visits. I was hosted by North East Valley Normal School for the morning and what a great school they are, doing wonderful things to build a love of books and reading in their students.

Friday, Maria and I checked out the Challenging the Deep exhibition at the Otago Museum which was quite amazing, while Fifi had a school visit. Then it was back to the computer for some final content construction and preparation for our Hui presentations, and then off to the Opening Ceremony.

The Hui was wonderful.  Lots of talk. Lots of meeting old friends, and making new ones, forging connections and building relationships. I was a panellist for a discussion on reviewing for the first breakout session and we had a great round table chat about the topic with the attending delegates. My takeaway was that as traditional reviewing channels contract and decline, we need to make the most of the new reviewing forums popping up online, and grow their reach and their reputation. We have to focus on making the most of the new possibilities, rather than wasting time on lamenting the loss of the old.

Kate De Goldi's keynote chat with illustrating marvel, David Elliot, was a joy, followed by a fascinating discussion about different routes to market with a panel of 3 publishers (Mary McCallum at Makaro/The Cuba Press, Anoushka Jones of Exisle/EK Publishing, and Sophie Siers at Millwood Press), and best selling author Stacy Gregg, chaired by writer/agent Chris Else. It was great to hear the speakers talk about their title sales across a range of territories. The second breakout session with Stacy Gregg provided a solid framework for constructing compelling novels. With 25 novels to her name, Stacy knows her stuff.

I'd been tying myself in knots for several weeks trying to prepare my talk for the afternoon keynote that I was to be involved in - Pathways to Imagination. It's tricky writing for an audience that ranges from novices to experienced award winners. In the end I opted for covering as many bases as possible and touching on a reminder about the limits of our imagination. We can be inventive but cannot create something out of nothing. Our imagination must draw on our experience and knowledge, and risks arise when we try to write beyond these. We have to respect our own limits, and more importantly, respect the reader. I was really touched by the hui delegates who came up to me afterwards to tell me how much they'd enjoyed the talk.

The Conference dinner was a blast. Previous University of Otago College of Education Creative New Zealand Children's Writers in Residence (of which I am one) spoke about their experiences during their residencies, over the course of the evening . That's us below - from left: the 2020 resident, Elena De Roo, Leonie Agnew (2013), Me! (2014), Kyle Mewburn (2011), Fifi Colston (2019), Robyn Belton (with Jennifer Beck 2015), and Karen Trebilcock (2010). 2002 resident, Sandy McKay, who also spoke is missing from the photo.

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During my spot, when I remembered to mention my 'getting locked in/small-lady fence gymnastics' adventure, I completely forgot to talk about the friendships formed with the other University fellows during my residency, in particular the Mozart fellow, Jeremy Mayall. Jeremy was keen to work collaboratively and composed music to accompany my picture book The Song of Kauri, released while I was in Dunedin. It was a very special and treasured experience, which a day of heightened preparedness had driven from my mind.

Next morning kicked off with a fabulous keynote by the incredible Wendy Pye, whose tireless work and creative thinking takes tools for reading acquisition all around the world to people who would otherwise not get the opportunity. Next I attended junior fiction series author Swapna Haddow's, breakout session on writing series. This was a terrific primer on constructing a series, and after a mini epiphany mid-session, I came away fizzing with a potential idea. The post lunch keynote was a fascinating insight into the process of two very different authors, Stacy Gregg and Rachael Craw, who were interviewed by Kate De Goldi. The session was a great reminder that there is never just one way to write a fantastic book. Unfortunately we had to dash away before the final keynote and farewell in order to catch planes home, but we'd had an amazing time. I tip my hat to the organisers for this rip roaringly successful event. I will be down there in a shot if they do it again.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Can you write too much....?

Over the last four and a bit months I've written five new picture books (four in the last six weeks). In addition to that I've reworked the ending of another. Twice. I've not been this productive with pbs ever before. But I'm not working on any longer stories - it's just a switch of genre focus for me at the moment. In the past I've averaged a couple of picture books a year, so this current output represents quite a shift in my writing life. And it's mostly organic. The last story was written to try and meet a brief but the rest were responses to ideas that just popped up unbidden in my head. I'm not sure why there's been this wee flood. I feel really happy when I'm massaging these ideas into a working picture book text. And then a bit bereft when I'm done and I'm casting around for another idea. And I rather like the things I'm producing. But I worry that this is too many pbs. Can you flood the market with too many of one person's ms? Do I need to slow down on the pb production? I mean, its not like you'd want to dismiss or set aside a strong idea. I guess the bottom line is how much I have enjoyed the writing. It would be crazy to resist that, right? Its a big part of why we're writers, right? But after thinking maybe I should slow down, and deciding a few days ago not to write any stories for the rest of October, I had a plot breakthrough on an old pb idea yesterday. And I've made a start on it. Crikey, I think I might need a spreadsheet.

In other news I've had some nice reviews come in for Time Machine and Other Stories, here, here, here and there. And I've had some lovely comments from teachers and librarians. Like this one about one of my favourite stories from the collection ...

 And I got to visit the schools (Balmoral School and Kohia Terrace School) of the two winners (Edward Mulholland and Nadia Hall) of the colouring-in competition we ran leading up to the launch of the book. I presented a copy to each winner and their school library. Thank you to both schools for having me. I really enjoyed my visits!

Here I am with winner Edward Mulholland from Balmoral School.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

The meaning of Fuzzy Doodle - the Arts as a Bridge to Literacy ...

I spent time in Christchurch last week. I'd been invited down to talk a little bit about the new book, Time Machine and Other Stories, during the social evening event at the 2019 National Conference of the NZ Literacy Association. I was also invited to read my book, Fuzzy Doodle, to all the delegates as part of the evening's entertainment, as The Arts as a Bridge to Literacy was the theme of the conference. And I'd successfully pitched a daytime programme workshop proposal to the conference organisers on Readers as Superheroes. Most delegates were teachers and this is the first time I'd spoken to teachers about reading and literacy rather than creative writing so I was a little nervous going in to my session, but happily the response was a positive one. I sat in on the key note speeches and one of the other workshops on the day of my presentations, and came away with some cool insights on imaginative play, and practical ways to raise the writing skills of intermediate students. I met some wonderful teachers and a librarian or two (if you are in Christchurch you must check out TÅ«ranga - the fabulous new library in the city centre), and I felt very energised by the whole experience.

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(Photo credit - Mary McCallum).

Here is the speech that accompanied my reading of Fuzzy Doodle.

"People often ask how we produce our particular art form. 'How did you write that book?' Part of the process always feels unexplainable. It's difficult to understand or describe. Like trying to understand how the universe is infinite, or how a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly. Where do ideas come from? How do we turn them into a whole story?

As the story advances both pictures and words become more complex and sophisticated - just as understanding and ideas grow and mature, as we grow and mature. The story, like creativity, is layered. It can be read on a purely fundamental level, as the story of the caterpillar to butterfly life cycle. There are also resonances with the familiar text of The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. And yet, this is also about the more impenetrable process of how we make art. Clearly we must absorb elements of the world around us - here Fuzzy eats words and pictures - in order to transform this sustenance through the creative process - into a work of art. Whether that's a book, or a painting, a musical composition, choreographed dance or other forms.

But it also recognizes that we all start at a very basic level - the scribble, the doodle, the scratchings on the page. And as the book says, which is the message we really want children to hear, is that, Great things from little scribbles grow! Every child is creative. And if we feed them right on arts and ideas, they will produce amazing things."


Next week I am taking a holiday programme, teaching creative writing to school students at Sancta Maria College. This is one of a series of 'Write Like an Author Camps' created by author Brian Falkner that run around the country throughout the year. You can check these camps out here.  Next month I'll be taking part in the Wild Imaginings Hui in Dunedin, (details here). I'm looking forward to celebrating and talking nonstop about writing and books, and to networking with my tribe from all around New Zealand.

In writing news, I have completed all the manuscripts for the three picture book ideas I was working on. They came to me in a rush, and the writing flowed, and over a couple of months I have written The End times 3. Now I am bereft of picture book ideas and despite the fact that I have written many picture books over the years, at this stage I always feel like I will never get another picture book idea EVER again. Logic would slap me upside the head and say experience shows you how WRONG that is, and yet my brain is like, 'Nup, that's it, no more, NADA, Zilch, NEVER again.' Brain, why do you do this to me?! I guess this would be a good time to have a little writing vacation, cos three picture books over two months is a pretty good (slightly hectic) result, but there is always the nagging thought that we are only as good as our last publication and if momentum is not maintained on new material then the world IS flat and I am about to fall off the side of it into oblivion. So there's that. And there is also the distressing truth that finishing a manuscript comes with no guarantee of publication. I am in the perpetual spin cycle/wringer phase that is the washing machine of being a writer. No wonder I feel so dizzy all the time. Should anything find a home, I will let you know.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

This uninvited enquirer thinks excruciation should be a word...

I am a bit stuck in limbo again at the moment. I have been circling for days round the theme/thesis for a new blog post but have been finding it difficult to land. I guess I'm at the running out of fuel stage so here I am about to write about nothing in particular, because it's either come down on purpose, or crash and burn.

So ... those limbo times. A new book is out there (yay!! go Time Machine & Other Stories) trying to worm its way into the hearts of new readers and find its place in the world. There is little to say at this point about how it will fare (if wishes were bestsellers, writers would thrive). It is a special kind of torture. Also, I am some months away from the build up for my two new picture books so there is nothing much I can do yet to help them along. This is a touch frustrating, but that's just how it is.

I have not been idle. I have been chipping away at a trio of new picture book ideas. The first is close (if not all the way) to completion, and the other two are coming along. I am quietly shocked at the progress I am making (who am I, and what have I done with the usual lazy-arse feet dragger?). I am also revisiting an old middle grade novel (over 29k words long already) with a view to wrangling it in to shape sufficient for submission. This is proving a much harder task. Sigh. I've been looking at some of the material I have already written for this project and think, actually, that's pretty good, which then intimidates me with the idea that I won't be able to match it now.

And I am dabbling in some 100 rejections activity, putting my name forward for things and making some official submissions to things like residencies. Putting my name forward for things uninvited is unpleasantly awkward. Do other people do this? Or am I the only embarrassing, pushy woman in town. Deep down I want to be invited without having to be all up in people's grilles, to get involved organically because of all my stunning works of genius (lol), not because I've begged them to think of me. It is anathema to my semi-reclusive, totally organic soul. But with the gap I had between published books I came to realise that I was going to have to do something to avoid total invisibility in the booky-sphere. Of course, all my efforts may still come to nowt. Which would be a jolly poor reward for the excruciation of willfully marketing and promoting myself. And because I have enquired rather than made a submission, there is no indication of when there might be results. Or if I will be advised at all. I may remain invisible. Time will tell. If anything comes to fruition I will let you know. But even if nothing comes of all my overtures, maybe you, dear reader, might be emboldened to put yourself forward for something that you might have wanted to try out for, but had been too shy to. Because I would feel far less awkward if I knew other people were also enquiring uninvited after opportunities. We can be awkward together! And how thrilling it would be if you succeeded!!