Wednesday, April 5, 2023

My writing tip for the day: on voice ...

I had a bit of an interesting thought while giving my Writing Children's Picture Books workshop recently.

When I talk about language techniques that can be used in picture books I always include a discussion on voice. Voice is the quality that can make a story stand out from its peers, that can grab the attention of publishers and readers alike. It's something I think every writer should be cultivating. When I think of my favourite picture book writers, their voice is distinctive and is a big part of why their stories appeal to me. Oliver Jeffers, Lauren Child, Ian Falconer, Mo Willems, Margaret Mahy. And yet voice can be hard to explain and teach. What IS voice and how do you achieve it?

For me the simplest explanation is that voice is the personality of the story. It can be chatty or crisp, jaunty, winsome, funny and cheeky, wry, dry or serious. It is achieved through sentence length and punctuation, phrasing and word choice. It is the way the narrative 'speaks.'

In my workshop we do an exercise where I provide two different images/scenes for a familiar fairytale - I use Little Red Riding Hood. I then get students to write a paragraph telling the story in each image. The images each drive a very different voice: one a classic, young, old-fashioned depiction, the other a modern, provocative, young adult visualisation. 

After the exercise last weekend I realised that if you are struggling with the voice of whatever you are writing then making a mood board with images/illustrations/scenes that fit with how you imagine the story can flip the switch. Use the images to inspire and influence your writing, working your way through the different scenes till you find what feels right. Describing the scenes might just be the way in to discovering/developing the voice for your story. And they might also help clarify your thinking on what your story is or should be.

You may already be doing this. Someone else may have already suggested this to you or you might have already read it somewhere. But just in case you haven't, this is my writing tip for the day :-)

I also stumbled across this interesting old post on twitter about whether you should quit if you are an unhappy writer. It's kinda philosophical and big picture thinking and I liked what it had to say. I thought you might like it too.

Monday, March 13, 2023

Focusing on the making rather than on the end product ...

I had some really good news recently. I have been around the traps too long to think it a done deal at this point, but if things do go according to plan I will have not two, but three picture books coming out in the second half of this year. Huzzah!!! This has happened to me once before, in 2021 and, I have to say, it was something of a strange experience, especially in the covid era. In all honesty it went very differently to how I imagined it would. I am interested and excited to see how it goes this time. And I will tell you more when there is more to tell :-)

I have come to realise how easy it is to get suckered in to the drive/obsession to keep being published. Getting a yes is a heady hit of the feel goods and you'd have to be an automaton to not want to repeat that boost of endorphins. Then follows the desperate efforts to write the next publishable thing. Is this it? Is this it? Maybe this one will be? Or that! But this can be an unhelpful road to go down. Don't get me wrong. I definitely want to keep being published. But I find it hard to create good work when I am focusing on what a publisher might think. I can't know what they're going to think. They don't know either. Not until they think it. Making good art - whether that's a picture book, or a novel, or a poem for adults, or for children - is the goal. And good art might not only please me, it might please the publisher as well. Of course focusing on the making rather than on the end product is easier said than done and I am working on some strategies to keep the focus where it should be. I think, in part, it's about slowing down and letting things breathe a bit more.

In other news, my book with Vasanti Unka, My Elephant is Blue (Penguin, 2021), is coming out in the US on April 11th and has been accruing some State-side reviews which has been rather encouraging. There is this lovely one in Kirkus, and this one in Foreword Reviews and perhaps the loveliest one I've ever seen here at Books Worth Reading . I'm also being interviewed for an American podcast, Reading With Your Kids, which should be posted up some time around the release date. Gulp. 

I'll also be running my all day Writing Picture Books for Children workshop on Sunday April 2nd. If you, or anyone you know, is keen to get the good oil on how to get started you can find registration details here. And if you can't make it in April I will be repeating the course in August.

Right then, I'm off to work on some poems. If I make some good ones, when the opportunities arise I will have things to submit.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Looking for signs ...

A writing life is a strange thing. A common myth surrounding such a life is that once you have been published, you have 'cracked the code' as it were, have your 'foot in the door,' and whatever you write henceforth will undoubtedly be made into a book. I am here to tell you that that myth should die an ugly death in a ditch because it is just a fever dream that does no one any good.

After publication:

1) not everything you write will be accepted

2) not everything you write will be good

3) writing does not necessarily come easier

4) ideas are not necessarily lining up to follow you home

I don't mention this to freak you out or depress you if you are currently at the pre-published phase of your writing journey (and I am only talking about traditional publication which is the road I've mostly taken, although I think some of my experience and observations will still be relevant to you if you are following a self publishing route). Of course you may be an exception to all this and that is jolly fortunate, but I do think there are a couple of important messages in all of this. Because this writing life is the most epic roller coaster you will ever step foot on and being prepared for the troughs will keep you on the track. 

Not everything you write will be good. Even though you wrote 'good' in the past this is no guarantee of permanent goodness. This is NOT bad, abnormal or a reason to give up . Sometimes what we are striving for eludes us - that idea, or that way of wrangling or presenting a theme or issue is just out of reach. Sometimes your skills have to catch up to your ambition. Maybe the well is empty. Or other parts of our life are intruding, especially if they are stressful. If nothing is coming out like you want it to or you are struggling to write at all but you still want to continue being a writer, don't despair. Sometimes the writing will be rubbish, but not writing at all will not yield you any better results. Keep going. Maybe writing all the rubbish will get it out of your system to free you up for some future good writing.

Most likely not everything you write that IS good will find a home. The industry can be hesitant, fickle, or just moving in a different direction. Sometimes they get it wrong. Sometimes we get it wrong. Publishing is a business and will be operating on a different model to the one that underpins your own endeavours. That is not strange or wrong. It just is. Sometimes the good thing you wrote will get its moment at some point down the track. Or maybe it is a step you needed to take to get to the thing that will fit with the publisher's aims. Whatever you do, don't throw it out. And keep going.

Our tastes and opinions change, as we grow older and perhaps even wiser. And so our writing changes along with us. We continue to read and learn from other texts, other writers, and we are motivated and inspired by new things. While we might become more adept at constructing sentences and avoiding classic writing pitfalls, sometimes we also follow more experimental types of writing or veer away from the zeitgeist. Maybe we're stuck down a blind alley and sometimes the only way out is to write yourself back on to the right path.

Failure is not so much a sign you shouldn't be doing this, but just a common part of the writer's life. It is built in to the model and isn't a cause for panic if you experience it. We might threaten to give up in the hope that the universe will give us a sign that the reading world can't do without us and we should keep going. But I'm afraid to say the universe is indifferent. And your internal plea for a sign is the sign that you are looking for - you are not done with the writing life yet. As James Baldwin said, 'If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you; if you're not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you.' 


Thursday, January 12, 2023

My love letter to Libraries ...

I thought I'd share the wild and crazy love letter to libraries I wrote, that I delivered as a talk in December last year. Remember, if you share it, please acknowledge me as the author - thank you :-)


My name is Melinda Szymanik and I write books for children. I was born in Auckland to Polish parents and now I live in Mount Eden. You might know me from such titles as … Sharing with Wolf, A Winter’s Day in 1939, Time Machine and Other Stories or My Elephant is Blue.

It’s been a tough year this year for so many of us, for so many reasons. Covid, the increase in the cost of living, war, tightened budgets, difficulties keeping things afloat with staff sickness and a lack of funding. And always uncertainty which is very tiring, and doom-scrolling on twitter which is at times terrifying. Although I have loved connecting with librarians on twitter. I hope Elon Musk hasn’t killed it completely.

Most of my talk this evening is going to be a big thank you. Being an author in this country has some specific challenges to it. I think this is particularly true when it comes to folk who write for children. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the media are a bit obsessed with sport, especially rugby which apparently is our national pastime. I’ve even watched the 6 o’clock news covering overseas curling and corn-hole championships in moments of desperation, rather than having to talk about books or culture of any kind. There’s almost this expectation that books and reading will take care of themselves, or that reading and sports are mutually exclusive, which they are not – I actually saw a study mentioned in Stuff online today which said, “children involved in outside-of-school arts activities or individual organised sports have about twice the odds of reading more frequently and higher odds of enjoying reading too.”

And do the powers that be believe that sports needs the media’s help because otherwise it would just be forgotten? Okay now I’m just sounding like a crazy person.

Children’s books in particular are just not sexy enough for the main stream media and are only sufficiently click baity if they’re written by a celebrity or have some grown up scandal attached. I’m still trying to figure out if there is a ‘safe’ scandal I can have to get me some exposure.  The media seem to think that children’s writers have children’s brains and don’t actually have adult thoughts. And that writing for children is so easy everyone can do it with their eyes closed and we don’t need to talk about how it’s done. Grown up and celebrated author Martin Amis, when asked if he’d ever thought of writing a children’s book, famously replied, ‘If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children’s book.’ Charming. Anyway, I digress. Suffice it to say we, and our books, don’t get talked about much in the wider public arena.

I’ve been published for around twenty years now with over 15 books to my name and a few more on the horizon. I’ve won a few awards, both here and overseas. But if you stopped someone on the street and asked them if they recognized my name there would be some pretty awkward conversations. Although I’d love to be there taking notes which I could then use in a story, because nothing is ever wasted. Even embarrassment. And I take comfort knowing at least some of you in this room would have heard of me before tonight.

As writer Katherine Rundell says in her lovely wee book, Why You Should Read Children’s Books Even Though You are So Old and Wise, children’s fiction has a long and noble history of being dismissed. It is the territory we children’s writers inhabit. Ms Rundell also said to think of children’s books as literary vodka – it’s a great little book. Anyway - I have a great support network of writers and illustrators so it’s not all doom and gloom. You can find us huddled over a wine and a shared bowl of hot chips muttering about our general obscurity. It’s pretty hard to compete with David Walliams and the amount of shop frontage that gets devoted to his many titles. I doubt even his most recent uncouth swearyness will hurt his bottom line either, because, well, scandal and celebrity.

But we really, really love what we do. And we keep doing it despite the difficulties. And the most soul restoring thing is that you seem to love what we do too. If I get invited to a school, 9 times out of ten it is the school librarian who has made this happen. You see us and you want the students at your school to see us too. You understand the impact a visit can have. Research backs you up but you are the ones who know and who act upon this knowledge and go to great lengths sometimes to do so. I recently visited an Auckland school and after the visit the librarian kindly emailed me to say there had been a run on my books in the library. One in particular was in very hot demand and had a waiting list. All the research is true! Author visits inspire children to read more. And write too.

Of course responses can vary and sometimes audiences are fidgety or distracted. And every question at the end is ‘well, actually’ more of a statement. And sometimes that statement isn’t even about writing or books….good times … But I can guarantee there is always at least one child in the audience whose life has been changed by the experience.

When I was a kid, it would have been me.

We didn’t have author visits in schools back then when Adam was a boy and Noah hadn’t built his ark yet. There weren’t a lot of children’s books written by New Zealand writers either and I thought you had to be English or American or Scandinavian to be a writer. It messed with my writing confidence, and forced my ambitions into hiding for years. When I got married at the age of 24 my husband didn’t even know I wanted to be a writer. Sorry James. He’s still holding out hope that one day one of my books will be an international bestseller and that’ll take care of our retirement … lol

So just know, your actions, your efforts to organise author visits are changing the lives of the children at your school. And you’re helping the writers and illustrators as well and we see it and we love you for it.

And it’s not just the school visits.

It’s having books by New Zealand authors in the library and buying their latest title when it comes out even though the budgets are tight. It’s about supporting and reviewing those books on blogs and in places like Magpies Magazine or Goodreads or reading reviews that others have shared. Or just discussing them amongst yourselves. It’s about joining groups like Storylines and keeping an eye on Notable lists and Book Awards finalists. It’s about applying for Storylines tour visits or having an award finalist skype with students. Its organising a kids lit quiz team, or finding cool new ways to entice reluctant readers to just try this one book because they might recognize themselves or the place they live in it. What you do is so important. And every child switched on to reading by your efforts is changed for life. There are so many spinoff benefits… and, of course, writers and illustrators need new readers to be made.

I know I’m speaking to the converted. I don’t need to tell you how wonderful books are or how transformative they can be in a person’s life. It’s your bread and butter. Although I do worry school libraries are tarred with the same brush of dismissiveness that surrounds children’s writers. How else can we understand why libraries have become vulnerable?

Still …

… no one ever had trouble getting a book into my hands. As soon as I learnt to read I became a complete convert to the joy of it. I grew up in a language rich home, surrounded by books of all kinds. We talked a lot. We read a lot. My dad drove me to the public library when the school library had run out of things I hadn’t read. Shout out to Mangere Central Primary School and Mangere East Public Library. Also to Rosemary Tisdall’s mum, Mrs Bray, may she rest in peace, who was the librarian at McAuley Girls High School when I was there. I count myself very lucky for the upbringing I had and the people who helped me with my book obsession along the way.

I was at a school visit a few years back, in a mixed year senior primary class and we were finding words associated with trees for a writing project. None of the students knew what a bud was when I suggested this as a tree related word. We went outside to look at a tree in the school grounds where someone promptly broke a branch off and when I showed them a bud they recognized it for what it was. They just didn’t know the word for it.

It shouldn’t be about luck.

It should be about school libraries and the passionate folk who manage them. Because you are the ones who step up when luck isn’t happening.

From where I stand, school libraries today seem to be facing several challenges. You know all this but I hope it helps that I know it too. First there’s the general assault on your existence (the fact you seem to be an endangered species when you definitely shouldn’t be), and second there’s the expectation that you will continue to find novel and crafty ways to convert every child into a reader for pleasure, on less funding and resources then you had before.  I have been repeatedly bowled over by the innovative ideas school librarians come up with to do just this.

I’m not sure I have answers to these problems. Well, I do, but I don’t really have the power to influence the individuals who make the terrible decisions to reduce the physical space, and the book and staffing budgets of libraries in schools, without resorting to something that might get me arrested. Do people chain themselves to the doors of school libraries like they do to gates and trees and bulldozers when they are trying to protect the environment from developers? Maybe I have to rethink my strategy.

There’s been a lot in the news recently too about declining literacy levels in our youth. There has been talk of what the educators should do and how the curriculum needs to change but I can’t help thinking if there was more investment in school libraries, if librarians were given more resources to promote a love of reading, to expand their premises and buy a wider range of books to meet the needs of their students, if libraries were valued and the media was made to talk about books with the same passion that librarians do then we might not find ourselves in this situation. I find it hard to fathom that libraries and our support of them are not centered in the arguments for helping improve literacy. A while back we, as a country, seem to have dropped the ball on loving and talking about books – maybe it was in the eighties when the free market economy began to emerge. Certainly we look back on the eighties as the golden days of children’s literature and the children’s book community thought we were about to see an explosion of NZ children’s writers onto the international stage. How wrong we were. Instead we somehow disconnected the skill of reading from the joy of reading. Except in libraries. You are the rebel bases as the book oblivious Empire seeks universal control. And I certainly appreciate your quiet rebellion. And that’s something else we writers talk about huddled over our wine and chips. Please know that we love you and the work you do. We recognize its importance and the need to act to keep it not just alive, but in good health. School libraries are an essential service and only school librarians can get the most out of them. We’re on the same team, trying to find ways to spark that joy of reading. And we are here for this rebel alliance.

So thank you from the bottom of my heart. From our hearts. We acknowledge and appreciate everything you do.

As for me personally this year? I have three (maybe four – fingers crossed), picture books coming out with Scholastic and Penguin over the next two years. One is about the clouds helping the sun and the rain to make friends. One is about what happens when the darkness runs away, and one is about a monster learning to love books and it features a librarian at the end.

I haven’t been able to write anything novel length for a while. Maybe it’s the weight of the pandemic, and the cost of living, and the challenges of the last few years, or maybe it’s just me. I think I’ll find my way back to the longer form eventually. And I haven’t been idle. Instead I’ve been challenging myself by writing in a different arena. I’ve been writing poetry. For both adults and children. The adult stuff is tricky but crikey, I find children’s poetry a lot harder. Still, I think I’m getting the hang of it and I’m getting some things published. And I’m still writing picture books as well.

I’ve been working more on the other side of things too. For the past three years I’ve been a trustee on the New Zealand Book Awards Trust and this year I became the Auckland, Northland, and Waikato representative on the New Zealand Society of Authors National Board. Partly I’ve gotten involved because books deserve way more attention in this country and I will try any avenue that might help change this. I hope this might help you too.

And we really need to stop dismissing children’s literature. As if children are only concerned by the trivial. As if children’s books are just fart jokes and ridiculous plots. It always frustrates me that adults can dismiss children’s books so easily because I am always working hard to put things into my books to entertain or inspire the adult reader as well as the young reader. Where possible my stories also have layers so that the book can grow with the growing child. My picture book Fuzzy Doodle can be read as a straight story of metamorphosis, the larva to the caterpillar to the chrysalis to the butterfly, but it’s also the story of how we make art whether its music or stories or pictures. There is a vast world inside that chrysalis as the scribble transforms. Like the process of becoming a reader. A mystery. A magic. Where the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts. Which is what the best books for children are. Mystery, magic and just a bit like the Tardis. But you already know that, partly perhaps because you work in a place that is a bit mystery, a bit magic and a whole lot like the Tardis too.

I think I’ll finish by reading My Elephant is Blue. I wrote this after receiving some bad news which pushed me into a bit of a depression. But writing the story pulled me out of it again.  Because that’s what story can do. Being read to is good for all of us and I think after a very trying year it’s nice to hear a quietly hopeful message.

Sunday, December 25, 2022

It's all a mystery here at the end of the year ...


It's been a year. I didn't realise how much of a year until I actually looked back and took stock. I spoke as part of the schools programme for Featherston Booktown in June, I gave a talk at the Storylines Hui in July and went away to Southland on a Storylines Tour in August and had a brief appearance at the Auckland Writers Festival. I am grateful to everyone who invited me to be a part of their event. I had a few school visits, ran a few workshops for Selwyn Community Education, attended the NZCYA Book Awards and was voted on to the NZSA National Board. I did around twenty manuscript assessments. I had covid. We travelled overseas. I had a picture book come out (welcome to the world There are No Moa, e Hoa/ Kua Kore he Moa, e Hoa ), and wrote a wee bit of poetry, both for adults and children.

The marvellous Paula Green did an incredible series of poetry illustrated by children on her blog, Poetry Box, and kindly included my poem If Fish Could Talk. The illustration is brilliant and you can check out the picture by Oscar D. and my poem here. And I gave a talk at a SLANZA end-of-year event.

It is always surprising to me that a few things dominate my memories looking back so it helped to actually look through the diary and tot up all my commitments. I was busier than I remembered. And there were so many wonderful experiences. I've been very privileged to take part in so many amazing things. Now I'm looking forward to 2023 and wondering what it has in store. I wish there was more certainty. I only have two workshops and an event I am required to be at signed up for next year. Yet 2023 may end up being as busy as 2022. I just have no way of knowing. I have two picture books coming out if everything goes to plan. And two poems.

I'm not much of a fan of the not knowing. In the past I guess I've surrendered to it and gone with the flow but I am tempted to take a different approach to the coming year. Maybe some study. Maybe a more structured approach to my writing. How much should we give in to destiny/luck, how much should we try to shape what lies ahead? It's all a mystery, here at the end of the year. What are you going to do? Make some plans, or leave it all to fate?

Monday, December 5, 2022

Am I Doing it Wrong? ...

Over recent years there has been a growing call for more diversity in our children's literature, and rightly so. Our literature should reflect the people who make up our society with more representation of different cultures, ethnicities, abilities/disabilities, sexual orientation and gender. I have wrestled with what I can and can't write about myself, growing in my understanding of what my limits are and ceding space (if it is in my power to do so) to those who will do a far better job than me. 

Back in 2016 a picture book of mine was called out for having a male main character in an article discussing a lack of female representation. I confess the rebuke stung but it did its job because I became much more aware of who I was writing into my stories. But I have discovered over the years that there is a flaw in my gender representation plan. Readers/reviewers/folk-in-general DO NOT NOTICE. They decide and then that is the gender of the character. They ignore my clues ('he said', or 'she said' or a complete lack of identifying pronouns).

Where I have avoided pronouns to enable the reader to make their own decisions I guess it might be fair enough that the reviewer/discusser has decided for themselves to apply a label, although ideally they would also take the route of making it vague - it's for the target audience to decide, not the reviewer or other adult intermediary.

My dilemma I guess is that I am wondering if my efforts are having the desired effect; am I managing to reach the people for whom this really matters (the kids are alright and we just need the grown-ups to catch up)? I suppose my books aren't centering the gender discussion so this might contribute to the assumptions being made, but I make deliberate decisions about my characters when I am crafting my stories and I am perplexed when these get no cut through. Sometimes my decisions are about ensuring there is an even mix of genders in the story, sometimes it is about challenging our expectations of roles and who performs/inhabits them, and sometimes it is just a practical decision - in BatKiwi for example male kiwis are smaller and female bats are bigger so the female bat has more chance of carrying the male kiwi (although actual physics/reality makes it impossible sadly), however I also didn't want a male bat swooping in to save the day for the female kiwi. 

When I review or talk about books other than my own I try to do my due diligence (although I am likely to have got it wrong sometimes in the past too). Novels are easier in some respects because character names and context can be obvious signifiers (although not always), but in a picture book it is a simple task to check. This isn't all about me and maybe these reactions don't matter but gender representation is important and I am just wondering - are the choices I'm making working like I hope they will? Are these responses just an anomaly or are they something to be addressed?

Sunday, November 27, 2022

When the post is more of a poem ...

Walking in Circles

This is a weird time of year. There are still things to be done. Little jobs to be finished. All the things you kept putting off which can be avoided no longer. And you never stop turning ideas over in your mind and trying to push them out into the sunlight like little paper boats. But things are also winding up. Folk are hurrying to get work completed as quickly as possible because there are festive preparations to be made and end of year functions to attend and holidays to be anticipated. And then there will be the complete silence of empty offices for a month. It is my annual limbo. It is my fever dream when I fantasise about who might invite me to talk at their event in the coming year and do they live in another country. I imagine chatting on stage with an interviewer like the grown ups do. I plan my response to an eager media keen to talk about my latest titles: where they sprung from, why I write them, what motivates me, what I worry about at night. And then late January I will wake up and go about my usual business. I have been wondering about reinventing myself. Perhaps it is already happening. Certainly writing poetry is a sort of new path. It might have started in a limbo time fever dream years ago. Maybe I am just walking in a circle and I will come back to the beginning again. Like when you are lost but not really. I am taking the appropriate steps ... perhaps next year will be different after all.