Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Cooking the books...

 I've been watching Masterchef Australia 2022 Fans vs Faves. I'm playing catch up with the scheduled programming but I'm now up to the last few episodes; the sharp end, if you will. I like watching programmes that feature creativity, especially competitive, challenge-based creativity. Even though this isn't how I create. It interests me how the competitors respond to critique and advice, and the things/the thought processes that underlie their creations. Clearly technique is crucial. If you don't know the steps to take to make a certain element then you just can't produce it.  Although a strange ingredient a cook has never used before isn't a deal breaker. How does it taste? What is the texture and do the qualities or components mean it will cook like a starchy vegetable or a low fat protein? If you know the rules, the science of cooking, you can make educated guesses/decisions about how to treat anything new.  Invention comes with making unexpected pairings, whether its savoury and sweet, or using foreign ingredients in local dishes. Or elevating something familiar. How do you update a classic? In the end though it's about making something people enjoy eating. Technique and quality ingredients aren't enough if the resulting flavour isn't enjoyable and the balance is out.

In the episode I watched today one of the contestants, now in the final four (from a starting group of twenty four) said he'd felt insecure about his cooking ambitions amongst his fire fighter workmates in the firehouse. Coming to the Masterchef kitchen had changed him irrevocably. There he'd met others who felt as passionately about food as he did. As inspired and excited about what was possible. Finally he'd met his tribe, and his skills and ideas and thinking about food came on in leaps and bounds and from a rudimentary understanding of food he now found himself in the top four. Using techniques, ingredients and combinations he would never have imagined using before he joined. Interacting with your peers and/or your heroes will challenge your thinking about your craft. It will encourage you and inspire you. It will introduce you to new things and broaden your outlook. Hanging out with other folk who also feel passionate about their craft is good for you. It's good for them too.  

And watching Masterchef can be good for your writing

Saturday, July 23, 2022

There are No Moa, e hoa ...

 I was so excited a few days ago to see the final internals and covers for my next picture book There are No Moa e hoa/ Kua Kore he Moa, e hoa (Scholastic, Māori translation by Pānia Papa) coming out this November. Just as with BatKiwi/ Ko PekaKiwi, Isobel Joy Te Aho-White has done a wonderful job with the illustrations, and I am so happy to say she will also be illustrating my next book with Scholastic, Sun Shower, coming out in 2023. 

I am a little obsessed with the cute little Tuatara at the centre of this sequel to BatKiwi, and she is so beautifully captured in the artwork. I can't wait for you to meet her. The colours are lush and cool, and there are many extra details across the pages for all those observant wee readers, and a few laughs for the grown ups. 

Last weekend I took part in the 2022 Storylines Hui for Children's Writers and Illustrators and I came away feeling energised and uplifted. I didn't realise how much I'd been missing the opportunity to meet and chat with my tribe in person and it was marvelous. No one understands the trials and tribulations of being a children's writer better than another children's writer. I pitched some picture book manuscripts to a publisher I have never worked with before. The Pitch Slams at the Auckland Hui are always a fast and furious event - just 3 to 4 minutes to get your summary across, but that can be enough. There were lots of authors and illustrators pitching and I really hope some contracts get signed as a result. 

There were some wonderful keynote speeches, panel talks and workshops, and underlying it all a love of the transformative power of words and the importance of story and books to help, nurture and grow young people. Despite the challenges of the last few years everyone's passion for books was un-waning and after immersing myself in this all weekend I felt encouraged, supported and inspired.

August looms and its going to be a busy month. I have a poem coming out in takahē 105 which makes me very happy. I am still finding my way with poetry so an acceptance is hugely encouragingI am taking a half day workshop on writing short stories for young people on Sunday 7th August - you can check out details here. I will be away in Southland with the Storylines Tour crew in the middle of the month - Invercargill here we come!! The week before I'll be attending the NZ Children's and Young Adults Book Awards in Wellington, and towards the end of the month I will be running my Writing Picture Books full day workshop on Saturday 27th August (details here) and reading BatKiwi (and maybe There are No Moa, e hoa too!!) on Sunday 28th at the Auckland Writers Festival. Maybe I will see you there! In September I will be having a long lie in and we have a bit of a holiday planned for October. And then it will be November already and time for a book launch!!

Monday, June 20, 2022

Writing the dreaded synopsis ...

I thought it might be useful to talk about how to write a synopsis. Or how I think they should be written anyway. I've read quite a few in my time and they have demonstrated that many people don't really know how they are meant to work. 

Having a synopsis for your book is very handy. It is a tool you can use for a variety of purposes. A good synopsis written before you get started can help you complete the writing of your manuscript. And a synopsis is not set in stone. It is not the bible on which you have sworn the lives of your children. If your story changes you can adjust it accordingly. And once the manuscript is done you can use the synopsis to help pitch/talk about your story, find a publisher and promote your story. If nothing else it is a handy dandy summary of your story that demonstrates to yourself and others that you have an appropriate structure, that there is a coherent plot, underlying themes, that your key characters have realistic motivations and challenges, and that you have a satisfying ending. Writing a synopsis can show you where there might be gaps or problems with your plot so you can go back and fix them before you submit your manuscript to a publisher. 

A synopsis needs to summarise your story. Ideally it also conveys something of the voice and tone of your work. 

Follow the direction of the story in the order in which you have written it and summarise it as neatly as you can. Each chapter might become one to three sentences? A synopsis should also help the editor/publisher/judge answer a series of questions. What kind of story is it? (Horror, lit fic, crime, romance, magic realism, sci fi etc...) Who is/are your main character(s) and where is the story set? What is the problem to be solved, the goal to be achieved by the main character(s) or the great question at the heart of the story? And what is at stake if they don't solve or achieve or answer it? What steps do(es) the main character(s) take to solve or achieve their problem/goal and what stands in their way. What do they obtain and/or learn along the way and which key folk assist them? How is the problem solved or the goal achieved or the question answered? To what do our hero(es) return? Does your synopsis do this?

You should include the ending of your story. It might feel like a spoiler but an editor/publisher wants to see at first glance that your story is a cohesive whole with a satisfying denouement. You might want to save the 'ending' for when they read the manuscript but they may not read the manuscript if they think the novel is without a good ending. Reading a full manuscript is a big investment of time.  When I see a synopsis with the ending/conclusion/solution left off I wonder if the author is hedging their bets, or hasn't been sure which way to go or has been unable to end their story. If it's just that they don't know how to write a synopsis, a publisher won't know this. And they might assume the former is true.
You don't want background or why you wrote your story in your synopsis. The synopsis is a summary of your story, in the style in which you have written it. Nothing more and nothing less. You need enough detail so the summary makes sense, but not so much that it ends up looking more like your manuscript than a brief run down of events. Some publishing houses want your summary to be 300 words or less. Others are happy with two pages (or sometimes more). If they want a synopsis included with your submission they will tell you what form it needs to take. Summarise your story and include the flavour of your telling of it. That is all. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

A little something for you ...

I am busy with other things - working on some poetry for submission, preparing content for some talks and workshops I'm doing soon, and I'm on a selection panel reading over 84 submissions, so in the meantime here is something I prepared earlier for your reading enjoyment - a short story, Rich Pickings, from my collection Time Machine and Other Stories (Ahoy! [Cuba Press], 2019). And there are teaching notes on this story (page 11) here.

Rich Pickings 

You might think it strange, how no one noticed. Although a few centimetres a day isn’t that obvious, at least to begin with. I mean, bamboo grows heaps faster – over 30 centimetres a day in the right conditions. But this wasn’t bamboo.

It was Jess that first spotted what was happening.

“Has someone been watering the cactus in the hallway?” she asked as she wandered into the kitchen one Monday morning.

“Oh my goodness,” Mum said. “I forgot to water the plants. Again.” She turned to her husband. “You’re meant to remind me.”

“And who’s meant to remind me to remind you?” Dad replied with a smile.

“Well somebody must have done something, cos it’s grown a fair bit,” Jess said pulling the fridge door open. “Who ate the last yoghurt?” she grumbled.

Izzy said nothing, shrinking a little further down in the lounge chair just beyond where the kitchen opened out into the sitting room, carefully placing the teaspoon into the empty pottle in her lap. She sniffed as quietly as she could, before silently picking her nose.

“I’ll have to water everything tonight, when I get home,” Mum said. “Don’t let me forget.”

“Sure thing,” Dad said, before tipping his head back to drain the last of his coffee.

“Well the cactus doesn’t need it,” Jess said closing the fridge door with a thunk.

And then they forgot about it.


Mum remembered the watering on Wednesday, making her way round the aspidistra, the African violets, the mother-in-law’s tongues, and the peace lily, with a soda bottle filled with water. She finally reached the hallway after a quick refill in the bathroom.

“Is that normal?” she asked.

Dad emerged from behind his computer in the study, his eyebrows rising at the sight of the cactus. “When did you buy that?” he asked.

“I didn’t,” Mum said.

“It’s Izzy’s, isn’t it? Jess said wandering along from her bedroom to see what was going on. “The one she bought a year ago at the school fair?”

“But that was just a little nub. Thumb sized. Without arms,” Mum said. “I thought it was dead.”

It looked like a little person now. If that person was green and covered in little white prickles, and was the height of a ruler.

“Maybe cacti have growth spurts,” Dad said. “Maybe we have the perfect cacti raising environment.”  

“Well it doesn’t look like it needs any watering,” Mum said tipping some of the soda bottles contents into the pot plants on either side of the cactus, bookends of sweet but straggly little pansies.

“Maybe we should buy more, if they grow like that without water. That’s so low maintenance. And I wouldn’t have to remember to remind you to water the plants.” Dad grinned at his own cleverness and slid back behind his computer.

And then they forgot about it.

Later that evening Izzy ambled along the hall from her bedroom at the front of the house, to the kitchen at the back. She was thirsty, unlike the cactus. And as she passed the pot plants on the book shelf she dropped a little rolled up greenish ball held between her first finger and thumb onto the soil the cactus sat in.


On Sunday, Dad stood in the hallway scratching his head.

“Not as low maintenance as I thought,” he said to his wife who stood beside him also gazing at the cactus now two rulers tall and as fat as a doughnut, the glazed pot it sat in cracked from top to bottom, a scattering of soil like a reflection of the crack, on the top surface of the book case.

“Hmmm,” Mum said, a frown digging down her forehead. “Should we be worried?”

“It’s just a plant,” Dad said uncertainly. “A cactus. It can’t keep growing forever without water. Can it?”

“I’ll repot it,” Mum said.

“Use a bucket,” Jess suggested. “And best put it on the floor. Just to be safe.”

Izzy sniffed loudly.

“Get a tissue, why don’t you sweetheart,” Mum said.

“Bad for the environment,” Izzy said. “Anyway, don’t worry. I don’t really need one. And she looked at her fair-bought cactus with a sly smile.

But the others forgot about it.


On Monday evening Mum hung her jacket on the coat rack as she swung in the front door, and hummed her way down the hall.

“Hi my honeys, I’m home,” she called.

In the kitchen dad chopped onions, sniffing and wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. Jess grated cheese at the table and Izzy sat hunched over her homework on the other side.

“I love that new coat rack,” Mum said to Dad. “Did you get that today?”

“We don’t have a coat rack,” Dad said looking up from his chopping, tears streaming down his face.

“That’s the cactus,” said Jess. “It’s grown again.”

Mum’s face dropped, turning pale with a hint of green. Then the colour flooded back and she pressed her lips together firmly.

“Well,” she said. “As I don’t know who’s going to hit the roof first, me or the cactus, I think it’s time that plant moved out.”

“Lucky Jess suggested putting it in the bucket. It’ll take all of us to move it now though,” Dad said, glad for an excuse to move away from the chopped onions.  

And it did.

Strangely the cactus stopped growing outside.

“Maybe it’s too cold?” Dad wondered.

“Or too wet,” Jess offered.

Izzy just smiled to herself.


“Hey,” Jess said one Monday morning as she ventured into the kitchen, “Have you seen those pansies on the book case? It’s happening again. This time they’re climbing the walls.”


The End

Melinda Szymanik

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Barking up the right tree ...

 When I do picture book manuscript assessments, one of the questions I am often asked (whether literally or subliminally) is whether the manuscript is publishable. Sometimes I think it is, and sometimes it isn't. A yes is helpful information to the extent that the writer is on the right track with how they are approaching picture book writing and whether they might be 'close' or not. However it bears no relationship to whether the manuscript will actually be accepted and published. There are many reasons why a perfectly publishable text might be declined.

1) The publisher has something similar in their catalogue of current titles. And this might mean similar themes, and/or similar plot, similar title, similar main character, similar manner in which a story is told.

2) The story is really well told but it brings nothing new to an idea that has been seen before. I have seen this in competitions, assessments and elsewhere and it is a good sign for a writer (the writing is of good quality) yet feels like frustration for them - all you can do is keep working on more stories till the required freshness is found.

3) It doesn't fit with the publishers usual kind of story - they might prefer more philosophical, less philosophical, more humour, less humour, slapstick, dark, light, rhyming, prose, creative non fiction, no non-fiction, self help, local stories, international stories etc... Make sure you look at what they've put out over the last few years - would your story fit in their line-up?

4) It just isn't the commissioning editor's cup of tea. Or others in the publishing team don't agree with the editor, even if the editor loves the story. I've had this happen to me but the book has been accepted by a different publisher. Taste is always a factor. Not good or bad taste, just different taste.

5) It might be charming, touching, moving and lyrical but the perceived market is just too small to make the book viable. They want the book to pay for itself and it needs enough buyers to do that.

6) The timing is wrong - either a) the trend is seen to be over, (publishers don't always make the right call on trends - Scholastic US were in the process of winding down their fantasy publishing and then the Harry Potter books turned up - but these are uncommon events). Trends tend to go in cycles though so it might be worth holding on to your story and trying it again in future. Or b) the topic is either no longer hot, or is still too hot yet. You cannot provide a comforting resolution for a real life crisis if the crisis is not yet resolved in real life. Or it's just too soon and feelings are still raw. 

7) It's too risky with a debut author. A known author might tip the balance with sales. Sometimes however being a previously unpublished author can work in your favour.

8) No obvious reason that the editor can put their finger on - it just wasn't for them. I think a level of excitement must be reached and they can only know that when they feel it. Accepting books is not a mathematical science. 

9) some combo of two or more of the above

And this is why it can be hard to tell a new writer where they are going wrong. Sometimes they aren't going wrong. I will do everything I can to help you ease out any kinks or wrong turnings in your story telling (although there are times when it is tricky to put one's finger on exactly where the problem might lie), and I will try and show you the thinking behind why some words or styles work better than others. But sadly some great stories will never make it into a book. Sometimes there will be nothing to fix, there will be nothing you can change that will change the outcome. But I guess it is good to know if you are barking up the right tree.   

Saturday, April 30, 2022

The shine will return ...

In June I'm running a creative writing workshop for young people as part of the 2022 Featherston Booktown Karukatea Festival on Sunday the 12th at 1pm. You can check out this year's programme here. It's my first time being a part of this iconic Featherston event and I'm really looking forward to it. Book Festivals are a love song to literature and it's always a huge buzz to immerse yourself in all things book. I'm hoping I'll get to visit some local schools in the preceding week too - fingers crossed.

In July I'm giving a picture book writing masterclass as part of the Storylines Children's Writers and Illustrators Hui to be held in Auckland. You can check out their programme here. I love hanging out with other writers and illustrators, it's really energising, and reassuring, and grounding - an opportunity to talk as much shop as I can handle, to feel the warmth and generosity of this lovely community I am a part of. But there will also be lots of fantastic sessions to attend, publishers to pitch your work to, and new connections to be made. The Hui is open to everyone, no matter where you are in your children's literature journey - I hope you can come along.

In the meantime I continue to try and work on my own stories and provide assessments of other peoples. Bad news, rejections and the like, can really do a number on our creativity sometimes. Our writing bones can feel broken. It's okay to step back, bandage yourself up and give yourself time to heal. But it's also important to remember that manuscript acceptances and other measures we might have of success aren't the best means for keeping ourselves in good spirits as we keep the writer's path. Anything for which you cannot control the outcome might be immensely satisfying when it does turn out like you hoped, but can be crushing when it doesn't. And the satisfaction, if the news is good, isn't sustained. So, make a list of the things over which you do have control that bring you joy. They don't need to be flash or 'big' or important things. Just things that you value that will reliably put a smile on your face. And if you lose your way check out the list and make sure you are doing at least some of the things on it. Most of all be kind (to yourself) and don't panic if you are feeling a bit lacklustre. The shine will return.    

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Is holding books at arms length like some slightly squiffy and unnatural artefact actively bad for us?...

In my last post I wittered on about the absence of New Zealand books from our regular cultural conversations here in New Zealand. Actually I should have extended that discussion to a lack of interest in celebrating books in general. Not long after I wrote the post, a report came out talking about the poor state of literacy skills in our fifteen year olds. As the report says - 

        a staggering 35.4% - over a third of fifteen-year-olds – struggle to read and write.

The link to the report is here

There has been subsequent discussion, including on television news, about what educators need to do to fix this. But I can't help wondering, if books were just a normal part of our everyday conversation, especially in the media, if drawing attention to them wasn't so fraught and awkward because there just isn't a perceived angle that apparently justifies our interest like there is with sport, would our literacy levels be better? Is holding books at arms length like some slightly squiffy and unnatural artefact actively bad for us? I think it is bad for us. I think it's bad for the upcoming generations. We need to include a celebration of books in our wider daily conversations. So many studies have proven the wide ranging benefits of reading, not just for our children in school, but for all of us for the duration of our lives. If we know this to be true, why don't we talk more about books? It can't just be down to the educators who are already working incredibly hard - society at large also needs to take some responsibility for this. We need to get over ourselves and this aversion we have. Our children need us to.

Why don't we have book clubs on regular TV like they do in the US and UK, or a 'book of the week' segment on The Project. We get movie reviews and interviews with actors of upcoming films, we sometimes get box office top titles for the week, so why not a NZ bestseller top five in Fiction, non fiction and children's. NZ music was transformed by mandated attention and celebrating our NZ literature could have an even bigger impact. We tut-tut at research that says our children are struggling but think the solution lies with someone else. It is everyone's problem and we need to change the conversation.  

In other news, I am thrilled to say I have signed a contract with Scholastic for a sequel to BatKiwi - again to be illustrated by the wonderful Isobel Joy Te Aho-White, and hopefully out this year in time for Christmas. This is my first ever picture book sequel and it was fun working with Bat and Kiwi again. I have seen a first rough by fab illustrator Vasanti Unka for our book, I'm Dark coming out with Penguin RH next year, and whoo-wee! its perfect. I am so excited to see how the whole thing looks. Also, the Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2022 (including a poem by yours truly) was launched, and has been reviewed by Erica Stretton, and blow me down, I get a mention. It's all a bit much so I am off for a bit of a lie down. Talk soon.