Sunday, October 17, 2021

Entering the Storylines Awards? ...

Hello fair writer peeps, what's new? What's new for me is a grown up poem I wrote will be appearing in a grown up poetry anthology next year - this is a first for me and I am very, very excited and also slightly bewildered. Also I have written an educational resource for My Elephant is Blue which is now available in the menu at the top of this blog's landing page.  

I don't know if you've noticed but the Storylines writing awards close at the end of this month - October 31st - and hopefully some of you will be sending in entries, so you'll be polishing, revising, editing, tidying and putting the finishing flourishes on your manuscripts right now. I've been both an entrant (Joy Cowley and Tom Fitzgibbon) and a judge (Joy Cowley) and I can honestly say, hand on heart, these are wonderful competitions - worth entering, albeit nerve wracking and difficult to shortlist in, but they force you to finish a story, to polish it till it gleams, and to take a risk which is all part of how this business works. And every entry is read by the publishers involved. 

My tips, if you are planning to enter ...

1) When you have revised, checked spelling and got rid of all those darlings that aren't pulling their weight and making a solid contribution to your story as a whole, put your story away for a couple of days. Ideally the longer the better but clearly its getting down to the wire now so if you can look away from it for 48 hours it will help. It is amazing how mistakes or rough bits manage to hide themselves from our prying eyes when we have been checking, re-checking, and re-re-checking the same story for weeks on end. A wee break will bring them back to the surface and you will be a little more objective for one final read through.

2) Think - have I got the rhythm right? Many a fabulous story is ruined by an abrupt rhythm which spoils the reading experience. Does it flow smoothly or do you stumble and hiccup on some words or punctuation? If something makes you pause, even if you think it fits, see if you can rearrange it or smooth it out somehow. I find my gut is usually smarter than me at this point.

3) While your story is having a wee lie down in a darkened room, go and check the submission details and rules of engagement. Make a checklist and then do everything they have asked you to do. This is not the time to be a rule breaker. 

4) Note the required word counts on the entry forms. Are you in the right range? You really need to be. If you aren't, your story might not be ready. 

5) Number your pages. And I think it can be handy to put the title of your story in the header at the top of the page. If manuscripts get dropped or muddled by accident this should help every page find its rightful home again.

6) Covid means delays in mail deliveries - post early to ensure your manuscripts get there in time.

7) Have a strategy to get you through the long wait. Winners are announced at the Storylines Margaret Mahy Day which is usually end of March beginning of April. Join a band, knit a car, run away to the circus ... and work on a new story ... and if picture books are your thing then that new manuscript you are working on can be entered on the open submissions day that Scholastic hold on Valentine's Day.    

8) I never got anywhere when I entered the Tom Fitzgibbon. I entered the Joy Cowley maybe 4 or 5 times and got shortlisted twice I think - the stories that were shortlisted needed heaps more work. Don't despair if you don't win or shortlist - it is not the final word or the end of anything. It was a useful step for me to take no matter the outcome. I think entering helped familiarise my name with some folk. It certainly made me keep writing. 

Okay that's enough for now ... you really should be getting those stories ready ... talk soon ... and GOOD LUCK!!!

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

It's okay to make something terrible ...

 Auckland has made its way from level 4 lockdown to level 3. This still represents a lot of time at home and while this sounds like the perfect opportunity for writing creatively, I have to say I'm very stuck on that front. Instead I have been ruminating and contemplating about a bunch of stuff and it seemed like it might be a good plan to assemble all the musings here. 

1) So much of a writer's life is outside of their control. If you decide to seek traditional publication, will the story be accepted or rejected? It's not up to us. If accepted, will the book sell well, get appreciative reviews, make its way to other countries, other languages? Will it bestsell, win an award, receive harsh criticism, languish at the bottom of the bargain bin, get pulped? All of these things can send an author into raptures of delight and depths of despair. And we wait constantly for any and all of these things to happen. Our happiness or otherwise is in the hands of others who answer to needs and expectations unrelated to what drove us to write the thing we wrote. 

I can see you frowning (and not just over that last sentence).  

It is not healthy to put all your happiness in the hands of others I hear you say. And you are right. But the nature of this calling means that some of the things we covet most - our words in print, the success of our book - requires the participation of others and in a manner of their choosing. At least some of our happiness will be at the mercy of others. But it shouldn't all be.

Obviously there will be other aspects in your life that bring you happiness and over which you have control. But you should also have some things like this within your creative existence. What makes you happy in this realm? 

For me?

I love the feeling when a story comes together and works like it should. When you write The End and you think, 'Yes, that's it! How handsome are you!'

I love the feeling of having a fragment of an idea and you sit down to write and it all (and more) pours out unexpectedly but satisfyingly.

I love the feeling of a hot new idea. No matter where it goes and if it turns into a full story, the frisson of excitement when you first grasp that dazzling spark is so delicious.

I love the feeling of sending a story out on submission. When I hit send and I think 'good luck little buddy, fare you well'. All the potential possibilities as it makes its way out in the world.  

I love talking with other writers, sharing our hopes, dreams, disappointments and dreads. I love not having to explain how things work in the writing world because we all speak the same language. I love the shared understanding and the camaraderie. I love the trust I feel that my fellow scribes will cheer me on when the news is good, and support me when I'm down.

I love making a conscious effort to fill my mind with fun and interesting experiences, especially when something catches alight in my mind and I am inspired.   

I love writing anything, once I get going and the words are coming together, and I feel that hum ... which kind of brings me to my second contemplation. It's okay to be dissatisfied by what you've written ...  

2) Being stuck is not a good time. I feel ill-at-ease when I am not writing. It's like having a broken leg when you're an athlete and all you can do is lie around when you are itching to be active. Wanting all that you write to be good can be a fly in the ointment - a part of what keeps you stalled. I came across the most wonderful tweet the other day which managed to give me permission to unstick myself a little. It's okay to make something terrible. It's a step on the pathway to making good things.

Bianca Stone
One big stupid (understandable) human problem is looking for shortcuts, when literally the end results are only truly achievable by the relentless, *almost* unbearable work. Terrible poems, humiliating conversations, reckoning,'s brutal, but glorious to live.

So perhaps wrestling with some written things which are refusing to obey you is the step you need to be taking now. Not everything will work. Not every idea becomes the desired object. And sometimes the only way to find a solution, is to try, try and try again. Do the work. Muddle through. It's okay to make a crap thing. Sometimes seeing the crapness is a way to get past it. Sometimes you just need to get it out of your system. 

This tweet felt particularly pertinent because I have been sporadically writing some grown up poetry - not so much because I have big ambitions to be a writer of grown up poems, but more because the ideas that have turned up have had mature themes or demand a mature approach. It is a very different form and at times it feels like trying to speak a new language when I don't know all the words. But I feel like I have things to say and this is the way to say these things. A few of my efforts have worked (and made me happy - see 1) but I have had more misses than hits. Maybe being terrible at it isn't the worst thing. Maybe not doing it at all is the worst. 

 3) A local philistine has been on twitter the last few days moaning about the arts in New Zealand and the government's funding support for them. The arts (according to said philistine) are a luxury, a frivolous indulgence. Its not a real job. Its just lazy people not doing anything worthwhile or productive and just farting around with fringe ideas while avoiding getting a 'real' job. Critics forget how creative minds are responsible for their tv entertainment that preserved their sanity during lockdown, that Netflix movie, that amazing podcast, that comedy set that made them laugh so hard they cried, the songs they listen to on the way to work or while they're exercising, the books that grow their children's minds and teach them the fundamental skills of reading and writing and being human. And the artwork that is a part of it all. All the creative minds involved in product design, fashion, hairdressing, jewellery, watch making, mobile phones and so on ... All the every day things we take for granted that look and work best because a creative mind got involved. And the ideas we debate and discuss in fiction that illuminate our lives and contribute to the way we shape society. Just imagine your life without all that and then get back to me about the necessity of the arts. Sheesh. 

4) There is also a persisting line of thinking that children's books are an inferior art form. I think about this a lot, and feel immensely frustrated that people are so wrong about children's literature. I have discussed it before on this blog here, and here, and former UK Children's Laureate Lauren Child touches on it here. I'll be very interested to see her manifesto and will post it here when/if I can.  

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Does your picture book manuscript tick these boxes? ...

What ho, fellow writers, readers, assorted friends and family members - how goes it? I am in Limboland also known as Level 4 lockdown in Auckland. We are in week 4 of level 4, and at this point it feels likely the level will be extended a bit longer - and while I'm here to do the work required of me (staying home, wearing a mask when out and about, being vaccinated) because I have no interest in endangering anyone, my brain feels a little curdled by it all. 

I have daily goals. Get a few chores done, achieve at least one work related task, get a little exercise and then do whatever it takes to keep mind and soul together. I am running out of work related tasks though, and because tradition dictates that I leave the hardest jobs till last I am finding it extra challenging to complete the last few things and meet those daily goals. This is compounded by the fact that the last few things on the to-do list are self imposed. I don't HAVE to do them, but I just thought they would be a good idea. And I am very unsatisfied by my efforts at the moment so the tasks and I are languishing and giving each other the stink eye.

None of it is helped by the fact that my usual schedule is generally quite varied so even though it looks like much hasn't changed for me I am down to doing only around 2 things out of my usual 8 or 9. It IS doing my head in even if it looks easy and unstressful. Also I am currently operating in a vacuum - all the interactions I would normally be having with publishers and librarians and schools and organisations like Read NZ are down to a trickle. I don't like it. I feel disconnected, and I spend half my day willing missives to arrive. And of course they won't so it's all a bit futile. This is the usual lot of a writer dialled up to 'extreme.' 

Anyways, I thought it might be useful to talk about one of the potential topics for discussion that I mentioned a while back, especially as entries for the Storylines Joy Cowley Award close at the end of next month and if you are going to enter it's a good time right now to be gussying up your manuscript. There is nothing surprising or new in what I'm about to say but it's a good checklist and bears repeating IMHO. 

What your plot cannot live without ...

Your picture book plot needs:-

1) Structure: Is the story orderly? Does it have a beginning, middle AND end? If you introduce an idea or dilemma, is everything explained or resolved by the end? Is there logic to the events that unfold? Does it make sense? And have you avoided resolution by convenience (as in 'I have this magic gizmo that restores everything to how it was before', or 'it was all a dream' )?

2) Something interesting: is the topic/theme at the centre of your plot interesting? Is it fun for the target audience? Or relevant to their concerns? Or stage of development? Is it something they want to know about or understand? Bonus points if the topic/theme is also interesting for the potential intermediary who might be sharing the book with children such as parents/grandparents/teachers/librarians. Is there space/opportunity to take the topic/theme further? Does the plot open doors for discussion or further reading? 

3) Something different: have we heard it all before? Has this subject already been explored a thousand times? You can get away with an old topic/theme if your writing is super fresh or your point of view is unexpected or original. But the bottom line is, what makes your story stand out from all the others? Why this version?

4) Totally for/about the kids: children don't want an adult perspective on a topic. Are children centered in the story, or alternatively, is the approach one which speaks directly to them? This is a book primarily for young readers - where are they in the story?

D) Something satisfying: does your plot resolve in a satisfactory way? Will it stand up to multiple reads because the punch line/resolution never gets old? Do you feel good when you get to the end of the story?

E) Respect for the words: Is the language dynamic? Does it respect the young readers thirst for new vocabulary and ways of combining? Is the writing rhythmical? Is language used actively, and attractively? Is it surprising, rich, quirky? And I don't mean making up new words, whether for the sake of a rhyme, or for fun. Good new words are way harder to pull off than many think.

F) Room for the illustrator: A picture book is a shared venture (unless you are both author and illustrator). What have you left unsaid for the illustrator to explore? What can they add, tease out or finesse? Where is their chance to show themselves?

Sure, there are picture books on the bookshop shelf that don't fulfil all these criteria, but I reckon the more of these you can say yes to, the better your chances of having your manuscript accepted for publication. 

I hope wherever you are, in whatever stage/level of lockdown you are in, you are finding a way to keep your body and soul together and your creative mind happy. Our current circumstances mean we might need to find new ways to do this. Surprising, interesting ways ... Maybe that's a topic for next time ... Talk again soon ...


Thursday, August 26, 2021

In honour of a day honouring poetry ...

 It's New Zealand Poetry Day today!! All sorts of things were planned but we are in Level 4 Lockdown (the strongest type of lockdown) so things have gone online. In honour of a day honouring poetry I thought I'd share some of my own poetry online, too. 

The first poem, Fancy, is one for children. I wrote this years ago when some friends were visiting one bright sunny day and their youngest was getting a bit close to the lavender bush which had a few bees hovering around it. This poem appears in A Treasury of New Zealand Poems for Children (ed. Paula Green, Random House, 2014).


Don’t pick the flowers

the bees might follow you home

the cows will come for the buttercups

forget themselves

and eat your grass

leaving little half moons in the mud

that remind you

of Milky Way nights

and cream and honey on your porridge in the morning

The second poem, The Meaning of Life, is for grown ups. It appeared on Paula Green's NZ Poetry Shelf blog June 21st this year (which you can check out here). 

The Meaning of Life

I am not here

I am here

I am not here to ask why I am here

I am here to find answers

I am not here for you

I am here for me

I am not here to demand meaning

or faith

in anything except myself

I am here the only thing I can be sure of

and here I am not so sure

When I am no longer here

the Earth may show as little

or as much care

as if

I was never here

And last but not least, here are some New Zealand writers for young people (including moi) reading some poems they love in celebration of this wonderful art form, on Paula Green's Poetry Box (A New Zealand poetry page for children) with some great poetry writing challenges for children included. Click here.


Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Well that took an unexpected turn ...

Hi there ('waves') - long time no see. Between having not a lot to say and many things to do I have not blogged for a long time but I suddenly find myself stuck in a motel room in the deep south (Invercargill) in level four lockdown, in limbo while I wait for the right time this evening to head to the airport and catch a plane home to Auckland. So I thought I'd write a post and fill you in on my latest adventures ...

A week ago I was setting off on a ten day odyssey. First down to Wellington for one night to attend the New Zealand Childrens and Young Adults Book Awards (NZCYA) in my role as NZSA representative on the Book Awards Trust. What a lovely warm, positive event it was, full of collegiality, community and joy. It was fantastic to see all the different groups that love and support children's and young adult literature come together to celebrate the cream of the book crop. I returned home the next day, packing and repacking so I could leave early the next morning with my SO/Personal Patron of the Arts to drive down to Hamilton. I visited Southwell School and had a fun morning talking creative writing with some of their Year 7s. We got the chance to visit Hamilton Gardens in the afternoon once the rain had shifted and if you are ever in that part of New Zealand I encourage you to check out this fabulous free treat. It's like the tardis in there with something new and unexpected around every corner. And you don't have to be a gardener to appreciate what this place has to offer.

On Saturday I shared a morning event with fellow writer Karen McMillan, talking about our books, creative writing for children, ideas and imagination. In the afternoon I ran a workshop on writing Fiction for Children for 26 participants

and then it was back in the car to return home. 

The following morning I flew to Invercargill to start a Storylines Tour of schools in Southland with a crew of 3 other authors (Sue Copsey, Kate De Goldi and Pauline Smith), and a mum and dad to take care of us, driver Peter and expert wrangler Rosemary. Our school visits on Monday and Tuesday went really well. The schools were welcoming, and the students were engaged and beautifully behaved. We visited bigger schools in town and smaller schools in more rural areas. At my first visit on Tuesday morning I spoke to 296 students ranging from new entrants to year 8, and my last visit of the day was a shared chat with the entire school (six students) at Glenham. 

(My fellow author Sue Copsey is not checking social media but is taking a photo of the students as we take a closer look at one of the illustrations in The Were-Nana).

(The gang's all here [almost] - Me, Sue, Rosemary Tisdall, Pauline Smith and Kate De Goldi at the last supper on Tuesday night, with Peter Mercer taking the photo).

It already felt like we were making an impact. And then in the afternoon there was a reported case of covid in the community in Auckland. At dinner we received the alert - level 4 lockdown across the country. Flights home were hastily rearranged as we shared our last meal together, our tour ended prematurely, just as we were hitting our stride. 

It would be fair to say I'm feeling pretty disappointed we can't see this through. These things are months in the planning with the four authors carefully scheduled across 31 schools and several thousand students. Driving times and talk times are carefully calculated and there are also the logistics of flights and accommodation for everyone involved.  These things can't be helped and I'm glad we got through two full days and met some wonderful children. I hope we made a difference. I certainly feel like the children have changed me...

So now I'm sitting in a motel room waiting for midday to turn into late afternoon taking the slow road with packing my suitcase. It is a weird time. I have everything crossed that this quick, hard response means the virus doesn't get the chance to get too far. I know these things get worse before they get better but swift, decisive action has been taken and I will be doing my part. Stay safe people, do all the things (mask, scan, distancing, hand washing and get tested if you feel unwell) and see you on the other side soon. I have other things to tell you ... 

Saturday, July 17, 2021

The message writers most need to hear (and a competition) ...

My new picture book BatKiwi had a lovely soft launch yesterday at St Helier's Community Library, thanks to the generous invitation and fab skills of librarian Pip Blake, the support of Abby Haverkamp from publisher Scholastic NZ and Peter from Paper Plus Booksellers, and an appreciative wonderful audience of children and their grown ups who braved some pretty atrocious weather to come out and share a love of books and reading.


It is always a thrill to see people, especially new readers, warming to a story and wanting to have it for themselves, to take it home and re-read it.  And it was just the loveliest to have one young girl come up to me afterwards and tell me that she loved my story and that I must keep doing what I'm doing. This is the message writers most need to hear sometimes. It's easy to get caught up in the continuing drive to stay published, and sell books, and be reviewed and be shortlisted but the bottom line is we want most of all for our books to be read by the people we wrote them for. For them to love our stories and discover all the things we put in there especially for them. This is why I became a writer. Because I remember so, so well the way I felt reading my favourite books when I was their age. The magic and wonder when I realised what words were capable of and how they could affect me. And the thrill of working out all the threads, and meanings and layers and easter eggs an author had laced their story with, as if I was the first one to know, to realise, to work it out. That is the power of words. So when the going gets tough it is wonderful to be reminded what makes this job so important and so rewarding and why it is worth perservering with. And I'd like to say thank you to that young girl (Caitlin) from the bottom of my heart.

And I have a copy of BatKiwi, and a copy of the Te Reo edition, Ko PekaKiwi to give away. Tell me who your favourite superhero is, and what it is you like/admire most about them, either in the comments here, or on the facebook or twitter posting of this blogpost, and I will pick my favourite answer. Please let me know which version of the book you would like. Competition closes 25th July at 5pm and I will aim to announce the winner that evening. 

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

A Hero is Born ...

Today!!! It's today!!! Our new picture book Batkiwi is out today!! This book was a lot of fun to write and Isobel Joy Te Aho-White's illustrations capture it all perfectly. Many thanks to Scholastic NZ for doing a Te Reo translation and for making both books such lovely products.

It has everything - action, pathos, humour, heroism and happiness. If you don't believe me you can check out this super duper review on Radio Kidnappers by ace reviewer Lou from Wardini Books.

I had it in my mind for a long time that I wanted to write a story about a kiwi. Its New Zealand's national bird, with so many qualities that reflect New Zealand's own culture and uniqueness. However my mind is a disobedient, feckless thing that generally ignores my wishes and does whatever it feels like. Cue several years of no decent kiwi-centered story coming to mind. Of course once the word batkiwi popped into my head I thought things would change, but cue another few years of no decent kiwi-centered story coming to mind. I guess things were percolating in my subconscious after all though because eventually an idea began to take shape and as is usually the case once the heart of the story turned up the body of it quickly followed. It took a while to tweak it all into place. I've talked about it before, but it always bears repeating - patience is a necessary quality for a writer. I work best when I allow the story to develop organically and let the mental engineering take it's time to create a fully functioning story, so here we are. 

Lots of other native fauna insisted I include them in the story and it makes me very happy to see New Zealand's own natural environment reflected in the book. I will be reading the book at St Helier's Community Library on July 17th at 10am and there will be books available for purchase and signing if you are in that neck of the woods. I will also be doing a giveaway of a signed copy soon on this blog, so keep an eye out.

I hope young readers take heart from the book and the layers of ideas get discovered anew everytime the book is opened. Fly high little Batkiwi - with love, from one of your creators xxx