Wednesday, July 29, 2020

It's not who you know, it's the opportunities they tell you about...

Part 3 in the 'It's Not Who You Know Saga...'

While approaching publishers the traditional way through the submissions process is a legitimate way to get published, (and it's still the way I generally follow and the way I am most likely to be published) there are additional opportunities that you can try.  There are competitions like all the ones run by Storylines and I know folk who've had books published this way. There is a window of opportunity for submissions to Scholastic NZ on Valentines Day each year - follow them on facebook to find out more. Two friends of mine had new work picked up through one off competitions to pitch to an agent and a publisher respectively, both part of author events and organised through the New Zealand Society of Authors over the last few years. From a distance these things can look like special treatment or like they are part of the the whole 'who you know' vibe, but the bottom line is people gave themselves a chance to hear about these competitions or opportunities, entered, and were selected because of the strength of their stories and the quality of their writing. Joining organisations like Storylines and the NZSA give you access to more chances. But joining also makes you part of a community of like-minded people who share information on other opportunities that are available. Of course belonging to these communities also helps you persevere when the going gets tough. Make no mistake. This career is a long game. Assume years are involved. And there is luck involved. But I do find luck is more likely to strike when you stand in front of the opportunities. And you do it repeatedly.

Sorry I'm such a nag. But I kind of nagged myself to stick at it and take chances and I'm still going. Yesterday another publisher said yes to another story of mine. I'm on a wee roll at the moment but I've been banging away at this for just over twenty years. My current luck might run out tomorrow but I won't be letting that stop me. Not for a good while yet anyway.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

No secret handshakes required

I made the comment in my last post that you don't need to know the 'right' people to get published. It's not how I first got published and it isn't true for many other writers I know either. But I know this can be hard to believe when you've been submitting your work through the traditional channels and nothing has been happening.

I understand that burning desire to be published. I felt it when I started out and the intensity of the feeling hasn't changed or gone away at all over the years (I guess if it ever does that might be the time to stop writing). But there is no secret hand shake, or introduction by an already published writer necessary. You don't have to have met the publisher beforehand or have the name of someone on the inside. I've seen a lot of picture book manuscripts over the years from a variety of sources. And in all my reading I've come to believe that ...

... these are the things most likely to get you published

1. Polished writing. The kind that acknowledges the rules of grammar; of punctuation and sentence structure. Writing that flows with a natural easy rhythm. But writing that also makes the words used feel fresh and alive, and the way they are combined makes you excited and delighted about language and its potential. Sometimes its just that the writing has a certain charm. I've seen a lot of passive writing over the years. I've seen a tendency to over-simplify and speak down to children. I've seen a lack of acknowledgement that picture books play out over  28 to 30 pages (in a 32 page book), with a need for the story to allow for variation in the illustrations from page to page. Good writing is a winner. But it's not enough on its own. You also need ...

2. ... a strong, original, exciting idea. The comment is often made that there are no new ideas, but there are. Themes might be recurrent but we want the vehicle that carries them to surprise and satisfy us.

The best way to avoid rehashing well worn ideas is to read widely, but especially the award winners and the well reviewed. Know your category so you can push the boundaries and explore fresh ground. Of course re-tellings and the repeat of classic ideas will also sometimes get published but these too need a fresh angle. And your idea needs to be relevant and strong - why will a child care? Is it exotic, or relatable? Does it tell them something worth knowing, sufficiently explore an issue they worry about, or that will grow their minds, or empower them to fight their own battles, or solve their own problems? I've seen many lovely stories that don't quite have the muscle to be accepted. And ones that just aren't as fresh as the author hopes they are. And even if your writing is terrific and your idea is gripping, you also need ...

3. ... it to fit with what the publisher is looking for. And a lot of things can influence their decisions - sometimes they don't know what they're looking for until they see it. Sometimes it feels too much like something they've already published (both recently and years previously if the book is still in print) and they don't want to have titles that compete with each other. Sometimes its part of a trend and while we haven't seen the trend play out, the publisher, who knows what is on their publishing list for the next two years, knows it is already too late. Sometimes it's just not to their taste because publishers are also humans with their own likes and dislikes. Sometimes it is great writing and a great idea but the focus is too narrow or the potential audience too small so it won't cover its own costs. And sometimes they just can't say why it isn't right for them, and there is nothing wrong with the story and nothing you could change to change the result.

Don't send your work to one publisher and give up if its a no. Try other publishers. Talk to other writers about where they send their work. It might not seem like it but new opportunities are popping up all the time. And keep writing new material because maybe the next thing you write is the 'one.' And don't give publishers a reason to say no, like submitting differently to what they ask for, or getting frustrated with a rejection and telling them they're wrong. Be the person they want to do business with. Have faith. You can do it. No secret handshakes required.

And competition results? Unfortunately no one guessed correctly which book of mine has been most printed. I'm keeping the answer to myself and may run this competition again next month. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Look out for the competition lurking at the end of this post ...

Look out Milford!! I'll be up your way this Sunday reading my books aloud at the Mall. Check out details here - -  if you want to come along and say hi. I'd love to see you.

Things are falling back into the normal pattern of things. I've visited a few schools (shout out to Botany Downs and Remuera Primarys), been reading books, reviewing, writing content for talks and workshops, attending some zoom meetings and doing a spot of mentoring.

Truth is though that things are also not normal. If you are feeling like the publishing landscape has become much harder to traverse, you are not alone. It feels bleak. But I've heard several good news stories from writer friends (new AND mid career) over the last week about work they've had accepted. And I've also recently heard some positive numbers regarding sales for New Zealand books. The call to shop local has had an impact for local content.  But if you are finding it tough you are in good company.

Hang in there. It can feel like its hard to justify keeping going, but you don't need a reason. Just keep going if you want to. If you are a seasoned campaigner keep in touch with the writing community. If you are new to the business, come join us. Realising your experience is shared by others is kinda comforting. Groups like Storylines, KIWI-SCBWI and Kiwiwrite4kidz (all can be found on facebook) are a good place to start.

If you are new to the business, give yourself a decent chance to hone your writing skills. Don't lose heart if your first manuscript doesn't get anywhere. It can take time to strike the perfect balance with a breathtaking idea and the right combination of words to make that idea really shine. And if the first publisher you send it to says no, send it to another one. They tend to like different things. True story.

You don't need to know someone in the industry to get a manuscript accepted. I didn't, and I know other published writers who've had the same experience as me. There will always be exceptions. I do know somebody who's first book was the result of a friend showing her manuscript to someone else who showed it to a publisher who said yes. But I remember that because it's uncommon. And the manuscript was great. And it was still a lucky coincidence.

Literacy is the cornerstone of education. Reading is proven to have postive impacts on academic, social, and emotional intelligence. People still need books. And publishers still want new content.

I thought I'd do another giveaway competition. I'm giving away a copy of both Time Machine and Other Stories and Sharing with Wolf to the person who correctly guesses which one of my titles (going right back to the beginning) has had the most copies printed over its life time. I'll accept answers posted in the comments below, on facebook or twitter. If more than one person guesses correctly I'll pick the winner out of a hat. The competition closes 5pm Saturday 11th of July. And GO!


Wednesday, June 17, 2020

A picture book milestone ...

I heard back in March that Penguin wanted to publish my picture book story 'My Elephant is Blue'. The paperwork was to be sorted, and then ... we went into lockdown. But happy days, a little belatedly, we have reached the contract stage, which makes it very exciting and real and announceable. Yay!!!

The plan is for it to come out next year - I'll keep you posted as more information comes to hand. I cannot wait to hear who the illustrator will be - a pachyderm aficionado I hope. It'll be my tenth picture book which somehow feels like a bit of a milestone. I feel very lucky to still be here, doing this thing I love. After several years in the wilderness my current situation is surreal. The clocks are melting ...

Invitations and opportunities are coming in again for school visits and workshops too, and hopefully, if we remain in level one, I'll be conducting my Writing Children's Picture Books workshop at Selwyn College in Auckland on Saturday, 22nd August (and repeated on Sunday, September 20th). You can check out deets here. I've got a bit slack about my writing in recent weeks, and it's time to crack the WIP whip, so I'm off to work on a new story ... talk soon.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

It's been a bit of a week...

Well, it's been a bit of a week.

On June 1st my new picture book with illustrator, Nikki Slade Robinson, Sharing with Wolf (Scholastic NZ), was released and crikey it's exciting to have a new book out in the world. I was nervous about how it would go down with folk. It's a little different to the usual picture books - a little dark and dangerous and unexpected. But I'm really happy to say that so far, people have been saying really nice things.

Here are some reviews:-

It's also been nerve wracking to release a book under the current circumstances. The corona virus pandemic has changed the way we do things and had economic impacts. There's been no physical launch party. I've been burbling on about the book on social media quite a bit and I hope people feel excited to meet it. Nikki and I made a little video talking a bit about making the book instead:-

The release of a new book is exciting enough, but on June 4th the finalists for the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults were announced and I am so, so happy to say my collection, Time Machine and other stories is a finalist for the Wright Family Foundation Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction. I am still pinching myself that this is real. Short story collections can find it hard to win people over so it is extremely thrilling that the judges have chosen it. Congratulations to all the other finalists, I will be arm wrestling you all for the prizes later. And commiserations to those who missed out this time. 

The finalists this year are:

Picture Book Award

Abigail and the Birth of the Sun, Matthew Cunningham, illustrated by sarah Wilkins (Penguin Random House)
How Māui Slowed the Sun, written and illustrated by Donovan Bixley (advised and translated by Dr Darryn Joseph and Keri Opai) (Upstart Press) 
Mini Whinny: Goody Four Shoes, Stacy Gregg, illustrated by Ruth Paul (Scholastic NZ)
Santa’s Worst Christmas, Pania Tahau-Hodges and Bryony Walker, illustrated by Isobel Joy Te Aho-White (Huia Publishers)
The Gobbledegook Book, Joy Cowley, illustrated by Giselle Clarkson (Gecko Press)   

Wright Family Foundation Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction

#Tumeke!, Michael Petherick (Massey University Press)
Lizard’s Tale, Weng Wai Chan (Text Publishing)
Miniwings Book 6 Moonlight the Unicorn’s High Tea Hiccup, Sally Sutton, illustrated by Kirsten Richards (Scholastic NZ)
Prince of Ponies, Stacy Gregg (HarperCollins Publishers)
Time Machine and other stories, Melinda Szymanik (The Cuba Press)

Young Adult Fiction Award

Afakasi woman, Lani Wendt Young (OneTree House)
Aspiring, Damien Wilkins (Massey University Press)
The History Speech, Mark Sweet (Huia Publishers)
Ursa, Tina Shaw (Walker Books Australia)
Wynter’s Thief, Sherryl Jordan (OneTree House)

Elsie Locke Award for Non-Fiction

Kuwi & Friends Māori Picture Dictionary, written and illustrated by Kat Quin, translated by Pānia Papa (Illustrated Publishing)
Mophead, Selina Tusitala Marsh (Auckland University Press)
Te Tiriti o Waitangi / The Treaty of Waitangi, Ross Calman and Mark Derby, illustrated by Toby Morris, translated by Piripi Walker (Lift Education)
The Adventures of Tupaia, Courtney Sina Meredith, illustrated by Mat Tait (Allen & Unwin, in partnership with Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum)
Three Kiwi Tales, Janet Hunt (Massey University Press)

Russell Clark Award for Illustration

Dozer the Fire Cat, illustrated by Jenny Cooper, written by Robyn Prokop (Scholastic NZ)
Santa’s Worst Christmas, illustrated by Isobel Joy Te Aho-White, written by Pania Tahau-Hodges and Bryony Walker (Huia Publishers)
Song of the River, illustrated by Kimberly Andrews, written by Joy Cowley (Gecko Press)
The Adventures of Tupaia, illustrated by Mat Tait, written by Courtney Sina Meredith (Allen & Unwin, in partnership with Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum)
Wildlife of Aotearoa, illustrated and written by Gavin Bishop (Penguin Random House)

Wright Family Foundation Te Kura Pounamu Award for books written completely in te reo Māori     
Arapū Toi, Moira Wairama, illustrated by Austin Whincup (Baggage Books)
Ko Flit, te Tīrairaka, me ngā Hēki Muna, written and illustrated by Kat Quin, translated by Ngaere Roberts (Scholastic NZ)
Ngā Hoa Hoihoi o Kuwi,    written and illustrated by Kat Quin, translated by Pānia Papa (Illustrated Publishing)
Te Kirihimete i Whakakorea, Pania Tahau-Hodges  and Bryony Walker, illustrated by Isobel Joy Te Aho-White, translated by Kawata Teepa (Huia Publishers)
Tio Tiamu, Kurahau, illustrated by Laya Mutton-Rogers (Huia Publishers)

Best First Book Award

Michael Petherick for #Tumeke! (Massey University Press)
Weng Wai Chan for Lizard’s Tale (Text Publishing)
Isobel Joy Te Aho-White (illustrator) for Santa’s Worst Christmas, written by Pania Tahau-Hodges and Bryony Walker (Huia Publishers)
Belinda O’Keefe for The Day the Plants Fought Back, illustrated by Richard Hoit (Scholastic NZ)
Laya Mutton-Rogers (illustrator) for The Smelly Giant, written by Kurahau (Huia Publishers)

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Some writing techniques for picture books ...

The most successful picture books IMHO have two key elements: 1) a strong (surprising) story, and 2) they are written in a strong (surprising) way.

You can have a terrific story but if the writing is dull, pedestrian and flat, it’ll be a lacklustre read. Of course you can have zippy energetic prose but if the story is clichéd, or pointless, you’ll also find it that much harder to win over your audience.

So, what techniques are the best to employ in a picture book?
All techniques can be used in stories for small people.
But not all of them necessarily in the same story. If you overwork everything with lots of techniques, the story itself may very well be lost. Fit the techniques to the story you are writing.
So many of these techniques are teaching tools for the young emergent reader. Rich text with techniques that facilitate acquisition of reading, expand vocabulary and develop a healthy regard and respect for words and their properties and elasticity.

Rhythm – please use this in EVERY story (picture book or not) you write. Rhythm is a non-negotiable requirement. Great rhythm is almost invisible but makes your story a pleasure to read both silently to yourself and even more so out loud.
Rhyme – I’ve written about rhyme before. This is from my piece on the Storylines website:
‘Should you write in rhyme? It’s such a compelling idea to do this. Rhyming stories are very seductive. They are fun to read and can help with the acquisition of reading skills. But rhyme is not always the right form for a story. And it is very hard to do well. And it is not essential for a picture book. For the ten picture book manuscripts I’ve had accepted for publication, only one has been written with some rhyme in it. Writing in prose has not stopped me getting published. It is not the only language technique that can elevate your story. However, if you do choose to write in rhyme, remember the key rules to successful rhyming. First, of course, is the rhyme itself, the sound-alike words that usually end each line, or every second line (there are a few permutations). Rhyme can also be found internally (mid-line).

The biggest problems when it comes to rhyming are the use of old-fashioned or dated words, made-up words, using words that require an unconventional or incorrect pronunciation to make them rhyme, odd syntax to make the rhyming word fall at the end of the line, or the use of an odd word that doesn’t fit with the tone or style of the rest of the story. They often interrupt the flow of reading and confuse readers. If you are relying on one of these types of words, it would be better to find a different rhyming pair.

The second key aspect for a successful rhyming story is rhythm. It has equal importance with rhyme, and its role should not be underestimated. It won’t matter if your rhyming is genius if the rhythm is off. Rhythm is a matter of syllables and stresses. You don’t have to be a slave to counting syllables, and having the same number in each line, but you do need to generate a smooth repeating pattern or tempo. The stressed syllable in each word will also have an impact on the rhythm. The stresses must also fit a pattern, for example Te DA te DA te DA te DA. If a stress naturally falls on the first syllable of a word, but your pattern requires that it falls on the second or third syllable, you CANNOT use that word. We do not say econOMy, we say eCONomy. Anyone coming fresh to your story will assume every word should be pronounced the conventional way. If you have altered the stressed syllable there is no way a reader can know that, and they will struggle to read your story.

A great test to see if your story works is to get someone who hasn’t seen it before (and hasn’t heard you reading it aloud) to read it aloud to you. If they struggle, or even hesitate at any point, you will know the rhythm isn’t quite right yet. Check out books by expert rhymers like Lynley Dodd and Juliette MacIver in local bookshops and libraries. These writers are skilled practitioners who spend months refining their rhythm and rhyme before submitting their stories. Study the patterns they use.’

It’s easier to get this wrong than it is to get it right. So to summarise, common problems include
-          Bad scansion – the number of syllables in a line is out of step with the count in other lines. Can someone unfamiliar with your story read it aloud in a natural fluent manner? Or do they pause and make adjustments, or stumble.
-          Inconsistent rhyme – do your stanzas follow a consistent rhyme and rhythm pattern? abab four line or ababcc etc… Any switches to a different pattern must be for effect and not convenience.
-         Awkward word use to allow rhyme – if you pick a word that doesn’t fit in with your other words (e.g. it’s old fashioned, awkward contraction, adult vocabulary) just to make the rhyme work, this can be a problem
-          Sacrificing meaning for the rhyme

As I tend to not use rhyme, I instead focus more on other techniques to make my prose sing. One of the joys of writing for children is making them fall in love with words. Using fun and interesting language will help you achieve this. You’re probably already familiar with the following techniques. I learnt them all at school and doubled down on them at University. But it never hurts to be reminded of these, and how they work. 

Alliteration – starting consecutive words with the same letter. This is easy to over use so keep a tight rein on this technique.
This line from my book The Were-Nana has both alliteration and assonance – Stella Rosa had never met Nanan Lupin before, but she knew her voice sounded horribly hollow and hard to understand when she spoke on the phone. The lovely thing about this is when reading it aloud, the words ‘horribly hollow’ sound as ghastly as their meaning.

Assonance – this is kind of a riff on alliteration, using words (consecutive or in close proximity) that begin with (or include) the same or similar sounding syllables. They can have either, the same vowel and different consonants, e.g. hells bells, or different vowels within similar consonants e.g. flipped, flopped, lapped.

e.g. The Nursery Rhyme
A diller, a dollar,
A ten o'clock scholar,
What makes you come so soon?
You used to come at ten o'clock,
And now you come at noon.

She sells sea shells
By the sea shore

Onomatopoeia – children are the ideal audience for this technique, and this is a great way to get littlies participating in the reading process. Words that replicate a sound – boom, honk kapow, pitter pit pat, ratta-tat-tat. Practitioners who ace this are Sally Sutton (Ambulance, Ambulance), and Elena De Roo (The Rain Train). Make sure you give appropriate attention to getting the ‘sound’ right. Certain words will work better for different age groups, so remember to target your audience appropriately too.  

Personification – helping to give personality to things that are inanimate. The Song of Kauri does this on several levels: Years passed, and Kauri grew tall and vigorous. At first he lived alone in the valley. He spoke with the Earth, but the great Earth was busy with its own concerns.’ and ‘The rain came down to embrace Kauri, but the Sun soon dragged it back into the sky to make clouds to wrap itself in. This is helpful to get the reader to identify and connect with a non-human, maybe even a non-biological character, to enable dialogue and emotions.

Metaphor – a comparison using two unrelated things, giving a new perspective to something familiar, e.g. in The Song of Kauri, instead of describing diggers and backhoes doing roadworks: Monsters made of dark night, belching smoke, carved scars across the land..

Simile – a comparison using ‘like’ or ‘as’.

Repetition/cumulative text – repetition is an awesome learning tool in picture books. It can take several forms:
     The same line or refrain repeated, either on the same page or separated by one or more pages
     A repeating structure. For example in The Were-Nana, Simon describes his nana to his impressionable little sister over several pages –

“She has whiskers,” Simon said, as they pulled out of the driveway. “They scratch your skin when she hugs you.”

“She has long, sharp fingernails …” he said, as they drove along the motorway, “ … like claws. They dig into you when she pulls you close.”

“And don’t think for one minute she’ll be arriving on a plane. She rides a witch’s broom that she borrows from her witch friends.”

This trio of descriptions creates a rising tension, to which the sister then reacts with a fearful outburst. The repeating format facilitates the rhythm and also follows the rule of three (see below). The descriptors provided (whiskers, fingernails and witch friends) are also themselves repeated several times later in the story by the little sister. She has comprehensively swallowed her brother’s ‘fake news’ and her repetition – “She’s a were-nana,” (…) Her friends are witches and she has a hairy face and claws on her hands” gives more power to the words both in her mind and in the mind of the reader. Repetition is a powerful tool.

Cumulative text works a little differently and is valuable in the acquisition of reading, providing text which an emergent reader can easily predict and follow along with. It’s great for creating a sing-a-long too, e.g. I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, Wonky Donkey

Puns/Word play – A fantastic way to show young readers the fun and joy to be had with words. I can’t think of any specific local examples off the top of my head right now but will do my best to remedy this as soon as possible J

Neologisms – inventing new words can be enormous fun. Most don’t pass into regular use but they can work brilliantly in a picture book. They still have to make sense in the context of the story, though, and I would avoid making them too nonsensical or reliant on base humour. The two I’ve managed so far are the were-nana (from the picture book of the same title), like a were-wolf but oh so different. And sheepnotist (as in, a sheep performing hypnotism - I guess this also qualifies as wordplay) from my latest picture book Sharing with Wolf.

Rule of 3 – three is truly a magical number. Repetition reinforces an idea, helping it to stick in our minds and repeating it three times works well, giving us a good chance of recalling it while not becoming dull or annoying. Grouping things in threes (bits of information, clues, actions, descriptors, etc) can also help things stick, making them all easier to remember, providing a framework for that recall (I know there are three things).  In my own writing I have found it often occurs organically. I was raised on books that used the power of three and so utilise the same rule when writing myself without consciously attempting to do so. Fairy tales are easy examples of the rule – The Three Little Pigs, the Grimm Fairy tale The Three Brothers, Andersen’s Clumsy Hans and so on.

There are other techniques. I will have a go at assembling some more, but if you have any questions, or comments or disagreements on what I've talked about above, or suggestions for other techniques to discuss, let me know in the comments below!

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Tips for surviving the zombie apocalypse ...

The next topic with the most votes was using language techniques in picture books. But having talked about voice last time I thought it might be nice to mix things up a little. Techniques will be a fairly large and more serious topic, so I thought I'd tackle topic number three this time and go back to techniques next time.

So, surviving the zombie apocalypse. 'Hang on,' I hear you say, 'this crisis is zombie free.' Stop right there. Back the truck up. And listen...

1. Watch out for crowds carrying pitchforks. While it might be that they are just recreating 'American Gothic' for the Getty Challenge, it pays to remember there is only one pitchfork required for that picture. Never throw out your McDonald's Cheeseburger wrappers. These can be folded around wads of that spare toilet paper you are bound to have, and thrown on the front lawn to distract the crowds while you make your getaway. Unfortunately you still can't go too far and will have to come back sooner rather than later ...

2. Dont be concerned about people turning up at your front door with unnaturally pale faces. They are more likely to be amateur bakers who clearly have not adhered to the, 'don't touch your face,' rule, rather than vampires or the covidly ill. It may pay to keep your curtains closed and the lights off though, as in all likelihood they are there to ask if they can borrow some yeast. For starters, you can't 'borrow' yeast. They won't be giving it back. They'll be incorporating it into a baked product you are unlikely to be able to, or want, to share. Protect those precious, smelly grains for your own harking-back-to-home-economics experimentations with dough. Unfortunately they are unlikely to believe that you are not home anyway, despite the lights and curtains. It's not like you can go anywhere. However that unrisen rock you are calling bread can be lobbed through the front window at those prospective yeast stealers.

3. And ... shhhhhhh ... don't tell anyone .... but ... actually ... we're the zombies. I certainly feel brain dead most days. We're constantly hungry, shuffling around, looking a bit unkempt, moaning unintelligibly, bleary-eyed, awake day and night.... Sound familiar? Yup. It's us. And that red stain on my chin? It isn't the blood of my victims, its just a little red wine that managed to escape on the way to my mouth ... honest.

The good news is that we don't tend to cannibalise our own so we don't need any zombie fighting tips. We just need to fight the boredom, the lack of willpower, the existential angst, and the poor clothing and dining choices we are currently making every day. But that's a blog post for another day ...