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. 


Thursday, March 4, 2021

I don't remember agreeing to get on this roller coaster...

It has been a weird old week. We returned to level 3 here in Auckland at 6am on Sunday after things got a little hectic with a new covid community cluster (the rest of the country was in level 2). Since then things seem to have been wrangled back under control and I am hopeful we might reduce levels in the next few days. In the meantime I was busy writing the content for a talk I would be doing via Zoom on Thursday night. It was a talk about giving talks and all the associated admin. I was keen to make it comprehensive and ensure it was the right length to fill the two hour space once question time was factored in. It was ironic that I would be feeling and doing all the things I was outlining in my talk. If nothing else I can confirm the content was sincere and authentic. 

A very nice group of people dialed in for the talk and I hope they found something useful amongst all the info I shared. I was mighty pleased they stayed engaged for the whole presentation. That's an awful lot of listening in a tricky environment.

A while back I applied to be a picture book mentor on the summer programme of the #WriteMentor scheme (check it out here) and recently discovered I'd been successful. This international scheme matches mentors up with new writers keen to polish their work before an agent showcase in September. Mentee applications are open 15 and 16 April. There are lots of wonderful people offering expertise and advice so go check it out. It's great that things like this can continue through technology when so many other aspects of daily life have been constrained.

This week I also had a really nice initial response to a new submission, and while it may still come to nothing it felt very encouraging. Especially for this particular story. And things are getting close to done on illustrations and the cover design is imminent for my picture book Batkiwi coming out in July with Scholastic, Izzy Joy Te Aho White illustrating (and fingers crossed I can share a pic soon). It looks fabulous and the illustrative tone is perfect for the story. It's super cute too!

Then today there was a swarm of earthquakes off the East coast of New Zealand's North Island, including one sizeable one and then two bigger ones at the Kermadecs. Civil Defense alerts were sounded for potential tsunami action and I have to say, although the threat is now significantly reduced I found it all a bit stressful. Thankfully the Sapling posted up some picture book reviews this afternoon including a truly lovely one of my picture book Moon and Sun, which cheered me up. I am always grateful when a reader recognizes all the extra elements I have snuck in to the story and is enthusiastic about the result. It's here if you want to check it out. 

And I was recently reminded of this poem - one of my favourite poems as a child. I have always loved the moon so I guess it's no surprise I wrote a picture book about her.

                                                    Walter de la Mare


Slowly, silently, now the moon
Walks the night in her silver shoon;
This way, and that, she peers, and sees
Silver fruit upon silver trees;
One by one the casements catch
Her beams beneath the silvery thatch;
Couched in his kennel, like a log,
With paws of silver sleeps the dog;
From their shadowy cote the white breasts peep
Of doves in a silver-feathered sleep;
A harvest mouse goes scampering by,
With silver claws, and silver eye;
And moveless fish in the water gleam,
By silver reeds in a silver stream.

Monday, February 15, 2021

The pattern is that there is no pattern ...

 So, for several reasons there was no public launch this time round for Moon and Sun, and honestly, it is a mixed blessing. Launches can be stressful things that are hard to land with the desired results. But watching your book arrive with no wine-glass-clinking, cake-eating celebration is equally daunting. Will anyone notice it has arrived?? As with all my paper babies, I am so proud of this story. It says and does some good and surprising things. And Malene Laugesen's illustrations elevate the story, magnifying and building on the emotion and detail of the text in a beautiful way. Truth is, a launch is only ever a small part of a book's debut. Plenty of work has been happening behind the curtains (thanks to the team at Upstart Press) to support Moon and Sun's arrival. Copies have been going out and about and some early reviews have been really lovely - thank you to Desna Wallace at BookTrailers4KidsandYA, NZ Booklovers, and KiwiReviews. I'm also being interviewed about the book for radio later in the week, and there is a chance to win a copy of the book in the Kids Club section of the current NZ TV Guide (20 - 26 Feb). And I finally get to wear the t-shirt with artwork by my eldest, which is a perfect fit for the book.

Welcome to the world Moon and Sun - I'm so happy you are here :-) 

And I have to say this book, a gentle, secretly science-y tale, is so different to the last thing I had published (the darkly funny and mischievous Sharing with Wolf). I am a technicolour dreamcoat, a collection, a museum of many things. I do worry that I am a bit unpredictable and that fans might want some reliable patterns to hold on to as they take a wild ride through my books. The only patterns you'll find are a distinct love of language, a desire for rhythm, and a guarantee that there will be layers of meaning, peelable and yet also intersecting. My next two picture books, My Elephant is Blue (illustrated by Vasanti Unka and coming out in May with Penguin, dealing with heavy feelings) and Batkiwi (illustrated by Izzy Joy Te Aho White and published in July by Scholastic, about being a hero) are also different. Perhaps the pattern is that there is no pattern. 

It would be lovely to talk about this. I sometimes envy adult writers chatting about their latest book with a wise and well read interviewer on a stage at a Writers Festival. This doesn't really happen to picture book writers. I've seen picture book and junior fiction writers interviewed on stage, or giving a talk, but these events are pitched at young readers who usually make up at least half the audience (and many of the rest are their guardians and minders and keepers). But like a writer of adult fiction, I too have ideas and influences and writing craft that are grown up things. Lots of writers for children do. And I am always sad that picture books are only ever seen as childish things. We don't talk enough about children's books outside our children's books circles. I think this needs to change - for the benefit of our children. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Self trickery - how to grow a word count

The competition to win a copy of my new picture book Moon and Sun has now closed and it only seems right that there should be two winners. So Clare Scott and Craig Campbell, if you message me your addresses I will send those books right off to you. Congratulations!!! 

I was chatting with a writer friend t'other day (waves to Heather Haylock) and we got on to the topic of productivity. What we think we can achieve vs. the abject realities of what happens under self motivation.  Sitting down and writing productively every day is fraught. There are a lot of contributing factors when it comes to how many words one might tap out in a day. Mood, the general state of the world, other worries, personal news - good and bad, confidence, the state, and desirability, of one's current project, other projects that seem more alluring but are actually equally challenging once directly addressed, whether there is chocolate in the house, the fact that your two favourite tv sitcom characters have just broken up (it's alright, they got back together), the depth of one's laundry, the day's imposter syndome scale ranking, and a host of other things.  Whew - I'm amazed I get any writing done at all. What!? I hear you say, what about self discipline? I think you are very lucky if you have it, but there are plenty of us who don't. This blog is for those who sometimes (/often/always) find their self discipline is AWOL. Including me. It turns out I require a lot of cajoling and self trickery.

So I am currently resorting to several methods of indirectly talking myself into writing more words. The fab Maureen Crisp recently mentioned Austin Kleon's 100 days and suck less challenge on her blog, and I like this because 100 days of applying yourself is a most excellent way to build a habit. I would however like to know why it only takes a few days to break a habit and around five hundred years to build it up again. 

The embarrassment of having something of long standing that you still haven't completed can also be good motivation. Honestly, it is worth finishing just to avoid the awkwardness of saying 'I am still working on that particular project.' The difficulty here is that this particular project is past redemption and will be slipped in to the bottom drawer once complete. But it will be finished and I will have gained the writing mileage.

The fear (constant), of falling in to a permanent publishing hiatus is also a really good cattle prod - keep writing, or else. Laurels are a stupid thing to rest on - all right, they do smell nice, but they aren't exactly soft and cushy. On the other hand fear doesn't always get the best results.

And before you suggest it, yes, I have tried bum glue and sadly it doesn't work for me. Or more to the point, it is an indiscriminate adhesive for too many things, like other people's books, netflix bingeing, social media scrolling and email refreshing. Bum glue can be a blunt tool.

Running races are a practical approach. Team up with one or two (or more) other writers, and check in with each other daily with word count tallys. This only works if you are all able to participate to the same degree. But knowing someone will be checking in daily can keep you honest. 

Rewarding personal word count achievements can also spur you on. As can fake deadlines. But the trick is in making the reward big enough to keep the writing going without breaking budgets or breaking a writing stride. And fake deadlines need to convince you that they are real even though they aren't. The running race can work as a fake deadline.

And sometimes it is just enough to know that plodding on will be the bridge between the last hot project you excitedly sped through and the next hot project you will not be able to resist. It's keeping your writing muscles sufficiently exercised that you know what to do when the next idea is irresistable. You don't have to keep doing a marathon, it's okay to slow to a walk between bursts of sprinting. And on that exhausted metaphor note I am off to potter on some average ideas.   

Monday, January 18, 2021

Win a copy of Moon and Sun ...

 A Competition!!! My author copies of Moon and Sun (illustrated beautifully by Malene Laugesen and published by Upstart Press) have arrived and I am so pleased! The book is out February 11 and to celebrate it's imminent arrival I am giving away a copy. Tell me what your favourite science fiction movie (kids or adults) is, and why. I'll pick my favourite answer to receive the book. You can give your answer here on the blog, or in response to this blog post shared on twitter, instagram or facebook. One entry each only. Competition closes January 31st. 

And to kick the year off I thought I'd address one of the topics I'd suggested at the end of last year. So today I'm going to talk about ...

What your plot cannot live without. Not all picture books have to have a plot. Some are concept books that look at the world around us, or important issues or ideas, and a plot isn't always necessary for these. The following list isn't exhaustive and may be added to over time. And if you think there is something I need to include, let me know :-)  

So a plot needs...

1) A story that is from a child's point of view, or is of interest to children. Something I have noticed is writers assuming an adult's view of children will be of interest to children and I don't think that's true. An adults view of children (or grandchildren or other topics) is of interest to other adults. So what is of interest to young people? The list is actually pretty long but includes friendship, confidence, fear, fear of the dark, being lost, being lonely, being different, difference in others, a new sibling, loss of a loved one, learning to be adventurous, being brave, sharing, sibling relationships, blended families, new experiences, firsts (as in going to kindergarten, school, to the doctor, to the hospital, on a plane etc...for the first time), traditions, family, worry, sadness, immigration, facing challenges, and there are a whole lot more. But you do always need to consider whether the approach you've taken works for a child reader.

2) A purpose. What are the characters doing in the story and why? What is their goal and what stands in the way of them achieving it? I have read some lively, fun, cleverly worded picture book texts where there was no actual point to the story, and the bottom line is, this will be a hard sell to a publisher. A collection of events is not a plot.

3) A resolution or revelation. How have the issues presented been resolved, the goal been achieved or what has the character discovered on their journey. A summary is not a resolution. 

4) A change in the main character (s). What do they know or understand now that they didn't know or understand at the beginning of the book? Is it relatable for a young reader? 

5) Satisfaction. Is the plot enjoyable? Does it feel 'right'? Would a child want to hear the story again? Is the story durable? Is it timeless? Can it be enjoyed by different ages? The more of these boxes you tick the better your story will be.

Pick up any good picture book and ask yourself what is this story really about? What is the topic at the heart of the story and how does the plot explore that topic? How many layers are there? What sort of things might a child take away from reading this book? In Moon and Sun the story centres on the sibling relationship between the Moon and the Sun. There is misunderstanding and jealousy and loneliness. But the text also touches on the Moon's impact on Earth. The Moon's gravity is important to tides and crops, our concept of a calendar was initially based on the lunar cycle, and the orbits of the Earth and Moon allow the story's resolution. And humanity has been inspired by the Moon for centuries in art and music and literature. A child will be able to explore these scientific and artistic concepts for themselves. 

Friday, December 18, 2020

Helping you find your way through the tall-hedged maze...

 Well colour me blush. I talked about some of the reasons why your book might not get to be published overseas and lo and behold I have had news over the past week of some overseas deals for a couple of my books. Unsurprisingly I am happy to feel awkward about this turn of events. While I am not sure I can share all of my news, I am thrilled to say Sharing with Wolf, published by Scholastic NZ, and illustrated by Nikki Slade Robinson, will be heading off to Italy. Being published in Europe is a first for me and I am looking forward to the adventure. I guess the bottom line on my previous post was that overseas publication is not a given. If it doesn't happen to you, you are in good company with other good people and other good books. And then when you least expect it, it may happen after all. Honestly, I'm as surprised as the rest of you.

Usually, as we approach Christmas, I do a stocktake of the year that's been, but this year has been like no other. A big bunch of things I signed up for never happened. A bunch of other things still went ahead via zoom, or with masks, hand sanitizer and social distancing. We all became anxious about our wifi dropping out at crucial moments, and the habit of frequently touching our own faces that we never knew we had. And lockdown was the weirdest time of all, full of challenges we'd never had to contemplate before. It hasn't been all bad. I've had books accepted, an award shortlisting and now I can add the latest overseas developments to my 2020 good things. And I'm not alone - I've been hearing some very bright spots of good news across the children's writing community. Maybe because through it all we've been reading as much as we can. Its been fantastic to see books bring other people much needed joy and comfort. In times like these, books are even more essential than usual. 

Next year is slowly beginning to take shape. I have some gigs lined up in March, April, June and August. I'll be teaching my Writing Children's Picture Books course again at Selwyn Community Education, and in 2021 I'll also be taking a half day workshop there on Writing Short Stories. Woohoo! I really enjoy sharing tips, tools, and techniques with you and I'm really looking forward to doing it again next year :-) I have everything crossed that things go ahead way more often in 2021 than they did in 2020.

And I have books coming out. A few days ago I received an advance copy of Moon and Sun illustrated by Malene Laugesen and published by Upstart Press, which launches in February. Squuueeeeeeee!!

And in 2021 I'd really like to provide more blog content that helps you build your craft, find your way through the tall-hedged maze that is getting and staying published, and develop ways to manage everything from the admin of writing and books, to surviving rejections and successes (however, I beg of you, do not ask me about commas). So, to that end, if you have a burning question, or an issue that you can't quite resolve, or topics you'd really like me to tackle (even if I've covered them before), please let me know in the comment section here, or via facebook or twitter.

Possible topics include:

1) What your plot cannot live without.

2) Top qualities of successful picture books deconstructed

3) Imagining the pictures when you can't 'picture' to save yourself (i.e. making sure your story will work as a picture book)

4) The publishers secret handshake

5) The grammar you can't avoid

I will try and address all of these in 2021, but let me know if there are any you are particularly interested in. And if I don't know the answer I will go in search of the person who does. 

Wishing you a safe and happy festive season, and perfect weather for the summer break (with occasional rain cos we really need it in Auckland). See you in 2021...