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

Saturday, June 5, 2021

And the winner is ...

Tarantara!! The competition has closed and I have selected a winner. Clare Scott will receive a signed copy of My Elephant is Blue. It would be very cool to have the book in Te Reo! You weren't the only one to suggest this but you got in first with this most excellent idea. 

The book is launched, and has bravely gone forth into the world. It's a scary time for an author - I've talked about the book, reviewers have talked about the book (you can see some at Poetry Box here, at My Best Friends Are Books here and at What Book Next here) and now it's over to the readers and the book buyers. While our little book meet the moment and be embraced? 

Soon I'll be talking a bit more about my next book, Batkiwi (Scholastic NZ), illustrated by Izzy Joy Te Aho-White. This book is out July 1st and is a bit of a love letter to our native fauna and flora. I've always wanted to write a kiwi story and I'm thrilled Scholastic are publishing this. The illustrations are lush and beautiful and cute as anything. 

Being a writer is quite the roller coaster ride both in terms of the ups and downs of the faith you have in your own writing and the feast and famine of being published. I've had more than twenty years of this wild ride and I have not yet found any means of flattening the journey out. Right now I am in the unusual position of having three books out this year and it is quite the whirlwind with a touch of overwhelm. When you send things out you never know how it's going to go. One book was delayed from 2020 to this year, and I just wasn't expecting things to be so swift with the other two so here we are. And I'm so proud of all of them. I love writing picture books - there is so much poetry and refining and crafting involved - a balancing act to find the right ratios of word play, meaning and story, knowing all the while that ultimately illustrations will share the job of telling. I feel sad when picture books are dismissed or trivialised - I put so much into them and I know the illustrators do too. It is all too easy to forget that picture books contribute mightily to kick starting the career of a reader. That's where my love of reading began ...

I've had a bunch of questions running round my head recently ... and I am thinking about these as the basis of some future blog discussions. If you want to hear more about any of these let me know.

1) Is it problematic for children's writers to have adult opinions on social media? Is there a line that shouldn't be crossed?  

2) Are twitter book pitching opportunities evolving in to a less functional creature? (sub question - is writer twitter good or bad for us?) 

3) Do we influence boys' reading choices right from the get-go in unconscious ways? (Are we part of the problem?)

And if you have any questions you want me to add to the list please comment below.


Thursday, May 27, 2021

Win a copy of My Elephant is Blue ...

I was meaning to write this blog post and then found myself reading an essay by Rebecca Chace about her poet mother Jean Valentine, and then writing a poem in response instead. Go figure. 

Sorry I have been so absent. It has been a busy old time. I have had lots of things to write and do and organise although sadly, (for me) not so much creative writing of my own stories. I have a general policy of saying yes to things. Book adjacent events are an unpredictable thing so I know there will be plenty of quiet times down the track to balance out the busy times happening right now. If people are keen to have me visit their school or take part in a library event, or talk at length about writing/reading/books, I am IN! And sometimes all the invites come at once. This is how it goes and I am here for it. But when I am invited to do things, it's not just about doing the event. It also means preparing what I am going to say and sometimes creating material (handouts, powerpoints, exercises) to go with it. I take all these events very seriously. I want to do a good job. So I have been beavering away on lots of book adjacent things. And the occasional accidental poem. 

My latest picture book My Elephant is Blue is now out. Before it was even printed this wee story was wooing publishers overseas and it will be coming out in Germany, Italy, and China, and Spanish language rights have also just been sold. I have not had a book this translated before and it is très exciting. Fly little elephant, fly! 

Some lovely reviews have been coming in too (you can read one here or here ), and this Sunday we are officially launching the book at Time Out Bookshop in Mount Eden. Look at the lovely shop window they have created (swoon).

If you read this before Sunday and you want to come along - please DO! Here is the invite

And because I still have a bunch of book adjacent things to do I am going to run away and leave you with a competition to win a copy of My Elephant is Blue. To win a copy tell me in the comments (here on the blog, or on this post on facebook, or on twitter) which language you think the book should be translated into and I will pick my favourite answer. Entries close June 4th. 

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Writers don't 'weekend' like other people do

I've just come off a week of teaching creative writing to young people. It makes for a busy time and I usually feel pretty shattered by the end of it all - it's just the nature of the job. I told my SO I was going to take it easy over the weekend to let myself recharge and decompress. When I told him this morning that I was thinking I might start making a few lists about jobs I need to get done this month because I don't have so many gigs as I do in the following months, he just looked at me and said 'I thought you were taking the weekend off.'

Creative people don't have weekends like other people have weekends. Inspiration doesn't sign off on Saturday and Sunday and I don't go in to an office from Monday to Friday. Maybe it's actually my head that's my office and, as it happens, I am there all the time, 24/7. It is hard to switch off. I mean, look at me! I should be reading or bingeing something on Netflix but instead I am writing my blog. Especially cos it's a bit overdue.

So maybe this is a good opportunity to remind ourselves about self care.

1) If you write fulltime, days off don't have to happen only on Saturdays and Sundays.

2) I have to admit, because I don't want to miss any inspirational ideas I don't mind if I leave the inspiration switched on. Sometimes it goes into sleep mode but I never switch it off completely. I have found it's worth the constant low drain on my energy to leave it this way.

3) Sometimes a rest just means no socialising. Large events with many people give me a people hangover. I only need a break from interacting. If I refuse your social request, it's not you, it's my current inability to people - normal transmission will be restored shortly.

4) I think the biggest problem for me is the guilt I feel if I'm not doing anything writing related. Because I don't work 9-5, Monday to Friday, I don't have a regular reliable income. Hence the need to keep creating and networking and promoting so that I do make the most of any opportunities that are lurking. And they can be lurking anywhere, anytime. Folk with regular jobs don't necessarily feel guilty about downtime. They know how to kick back on weekends and holidays. I have no idea how this is done. I guess if nothing else, acknowledging this is the case can be helpful. And don't feel guilty if you have your 'break' on a weekday (see 1).

5) While I fully endorse getting fresh air and exercise I have discovered my brain does not switch off from writing during these activities either. They are important but do not represent a break from work. And you should still do them.

6) Weirdly, a writer's retreat is the most restful thing I can think of (oh dear, there is no hope for me).

So ultimately there are no great recommendations for self care here - but maybe just an acknowledgement of the challenge our chosen profession presents. We do not weekend like other workers weekend. And perhaps one of the best things you can do is let your loved ones know that this is the case. Remember too - it is not unproductive to rest. Your work will suffer if you never step away from it. You need full batteries and and well stocked brains for tip top functioning. However you define self care, make sure you do it regularly.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

The publisher's secret handshake ...

Over the weekend I taught a day long workshop on Writing Children's Picture Books (at Selwyn Community Ed. - there's another one in August - you can check it out here) and early on in the day one participant mentioned that she felt the picture book publishing industry here was a closed shop.

One of the topics I had intended to address over the course of this year was 'the publisher's secret handshake' - the idea that it's who you know (and not what you write) that can make things happen. The idea that there is a shortcut to publication or that having some previous connection is all you need. I've been thinking about it a bit in light of that comment on the weekend so we may as well tackle it now.

If you are a keen picture book writer and you have not yet got a manuscript over the line and had a picture book published the industry can definitely feel like a closed shop. You see the same names cropping up on the book shop shelves. Publishers are only interested in publishing already published people. Why can't I get a toe in the door? Why did I receive another rejection?

Seeing the industry as a closed shop can help soften the blow of a rejection. It's not me, or my story, its that you already have to be on the inside to get published. If only I knew the secret handshake my book would be in shops by now. 

While I do think it's a tough industry to get into, and to stay in, I really don't believe it's a closed shop for the following reasons.   

1) Every published writer has a first book. I wasn't on the inside before my first picture book was published. I was definitely on the outside not knowing publishers and with no special connections (and I'm not exactly on the inside now either - I still submit manuscripts like I used to and get rejected more often than not). And every year I see first books come out and debut writers enter the scene.

2) Previously published authors may get published again because the work they did on their writing craft to get them to their first publishable manuscript has also probably benefited their subsequent manuscripts. I like to think the stories of mine that become books have been good enough to do so, not because the publisher recognises my name when my submission hits their inbox. The only influence my name might have is if readers have liked my previous books in sufficient numbers. But it's the story that won them over. And subsequent stories have to be up to the same standard.

3) Seasoned writers with many books to their name get rejected all the time. No amount of knowing the publisher or shaking their hands in a peculiar manner will make the publisher ignore the financial imperative inherent in trade publishing. Publishing is a business and the bottom line is, can they sell enough copies of this book to cover the cost of producing it and ensure the continuation of the business. No amount of love for your story will overcome that imperative. The business must pay its bills and they achieve this by selling sufficient units of their product. Nearly everything I have written has been on spec. With no guarantee that it will get published. Despite my publishing record I do not have a key to open the publishing door. My story must get there on its own merits.

4) The industry in New Zealand is not a big one. There are not as many picture book publishers here as there are in Australia, or the US or UK. Less new books are published annually and print runs are smaller. Our population wouldn't sustain more publishing houses, longer publishing lists or larger print runs. And the sad truth underlying this (probably in all countries, not just this one) is that there will always be more authors than there are publishing opportunities. It is a tough industry because it is finite. And it is tough for every writer. You are not alone in your struggles.

5) Some publishers that previously accepted unsolicited manuscripts have closed their doors to submissions. The key one here is Scholastic. Most of the other publishers remain open most of the time, sometimes with provisos. As the biggest publisher of picture books in New Zealand, Scholastic's changed stance might seem like it's made things a closed shop. However they have ensured there are alternate opportunities, primarily through the Storylines Joy Cowley Award and their Valentines Day submission window. And every year they publish wonderful first books by new people through those avenues.

6) If your manuscript is dazzling and does not compete with another book of theirs (because why would they sabotage their own product), a publisher will say yes. That is it. Write good stories. Polish them till they gleam, and then find every opportunity you can and try every one. And if that story doesn't find a publisher, write another one. Viewing the industry as a closed shop can limit your own growth as a writer. If you feel that the only thing stopping you getting published is outside forces you can forget that the written content you are trying to find a home for is 100% under your control. That written content is what the publisher cares about. Keep working on your craft, keep trying new things, keep an eye out for new opportunities. And yes it's true that great manuscripts can be passed over but it is rare for this to keep happening if you keep putting fab saleable stories out there.

Note: yes there are celebrity authors who don't fit this narrative. There will always be celebrity authors. Don't let them distract you from making great art that a publisher can't resist.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

I write picture books but I cannot draw. What should I do??...

[Disclaimer: This is a post for picture book writers who are seeking traditional publication. If you are intending to self publish, you WILL need to find an illustrator.]

I thought I would tackle another of the topics I listed on the blog at the end of last year. WHAT YOU NEED TO CONSIDER ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATIONS FOR A PICTURE BOOK WHEN YOU ARE NOT AN ILLUSTRATOR.

A common mistake I have come across over all the years I have been writing picture books, is picture book authors without any illustrative skills, desperate to find an illustrator. They believe that they need to take this step before submitting their manuscript to a publisher.

I have insufficient artistic skills to illustrate my books. I am a writer. My skill is with words. So far I have had eleven picture book stories picked up for publication.  And I have some advice for you if you are worried that you cannot illustrate the picture book text you have just written and you have no idea where to start to find someone to draw the pictures for you.

You do not need to do anything about it.

Your job as a writer is to create a compelling picture book story. That is ALL you need to do. You do not need to find an illustrator before you submit your story anywhere. In fact, apart from a couple of circumstances, publishers would prefer you left the job of finding an illustrator to them. No, really! Especially when you are starting out, it is unlikely you will know, or know of, the illustrators working in the picture book business anyway. The people who DO know them are publishers. Or they know how to find them, much better than you do. Publishers are also way more skilled and experienced when it comes to matching the right illustrative style with your story. And this is really important when it comes to making your story shine.

So don't worry about finding an illustrator. You do NOT need to do this (unless you are self publishing - see above). 

However ... HOWEVER ... you do need to think about the pictures when you are writing your story. Because the bottom line is, a picture book has both pictures and words. And they are both crucial to making a successful picture book (except for wordless picture books which are a separate diabolically crafty thing which make me redundant and I am not going to mention those again in this post). So, what should you be thinking about as you write your brilliant text?

1) The illustrations need to vary from page to page in order to engage the reader. Your text needs to require a change in the pictures. So, is there action moving the story along or some other form of variation going on (changing emotions, seasons, new characters, interactions with different characters). And has your pagination of the text supported this? (Don't forget to have an even spread of text across your pages - if you have heaps more words on one page versus the next to enable the pictures to be different from page to page, you might want to rethink your text a little).

2)  Will the pictures inspired by your story be appealing to the target audience? Will they be relatable, cute, informative, exciting, surprising? 

3) Is there room for an illustrator to add in extra content? (The answer you want here is YES). Don't forget, you don't need to spell everything out with words e.g., hair colour, if it can be shown in the illustrations. Educational texts might include more of these words so emergent readers can connect the word with what it represents, but this can be relaxed somewhat in a trade picture book. Illustrations can tease out layers of meaning and add texture to the story in their own right. So don't feel the need to explain everything :-)

4) Is your twist/theme/concept/action illustratable? Can it be depicted? Is it physically possible? Will it look like what its meant to look like? My next picture book, My Elephant is Blue, created some real challenges for the illustrator, with several pages requiring the elephant to be in a particular pose/position. Luckily she resolved the issue beautifully but it's important to remember our grand plans can't always be properly depicted. Don't just plan for pictures to be different from page to page, make sure there is actually a picture that can go with those words.

5) Be open to things looking different to how you thought they would. Be open to the idea that you might not be the best person to advise on or control how the artwork looks. We are not always the best judge of how things should appear illustratively. My skill is with words. The only times we get involved in directing the illustrations, are when meaning is at stake, or we need something in the illustration to make the text work (something that must be seen but not mentioned). To this end, I will add in illustration notes if I want something to be in the pictures that I haven't written. But I don't say anything else, and will only give information about style and illustrative detail, if asked. I never want to influence the illustrator unless they want me to. And I am always open to ideas, advice and suggestions. It's a leap of faith, but I have to say, this has worked out pretty well for me so far. I know I become part of a team when a picture book text is accepted. And every member of that team wants the book to succeed.