Sunday, October 11, 2020

How I thought it would be vs. How it really was ...

Recently I have been looking back on when I got started and thinking about what I thought it would be like. And thinking about the reality now I am over a dozen books in. My past beliefs and current understanding are not the highly overlapping circles of a venn diagram. This is my experience - results may vary across different authors.


My first book Clever Moo (illustrated by Malcolm Evans and published by Scholastic) came out in 2006. So, what did I imagine would happen?

1) My first published book would fling open doors to publication of further work

2) People out in the world (also known as the general public) would come to know my name

3) My book published here in New Zealand would also get picked up overseas.

4) I had written a book that everyone would want to buy

5) I was on my way


Ahhh, how fresh faced and innocent I was ... And what do I know now I am 13+ books in, in 2020?

1) Each book must cut the mustard and stand on its own merits (which is as it should be really). I have been more rejected than accepted if I consider all the work I have written, and submitted. However I do acknowledge that the door that has been opened is the one where publishers do know who I am and they know that the bookie community knows me too which is an advantage. It helps that I have a history and I have done what I can to make it a good history and I am still hard at work doing what I can to keep it growing. 

2) Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha - lol - gasp - no. This is an uphill journey, for which I have not yet found the right crampons. There is a distant peak, which may or may not be a mirage, that I am aiming for. Who knows if I will ever reach it ...

3) It is not the norm to have your book picked up overseas and if it does happen it does not always mean instant riches (or gradual riches either). 

4) I am still praying I will someday write this book. Tis the holy grail all authors yearn for ... Please note that even if it does happen, 'bestseller' status does not automatically confer riches, or any kind of notoriety or longevity.

5) I wasn't 'on my way' in terms of fame and fortune, but I guess I was on my way in terms of having a writing career. The clash of reality vs expectations has resulted in some disappointments but I am still holding on like a very determined limpet. Maybe those things aren't unrelated.



Friday, October 2, 2020

The 4.45pm news from the desk of Melinda Szymanik ...

Yay!!! Finally an occasion when judginess is desirable 😃 accompanied by glorious access to a mountain of the best local kidlit. Yes folks, it's time to put your hat in the ring to be a judge for the 2021 NZ Book Awards for Children & Young Adults. The call has gone out and applications close 5pm Friday 30 October. You can check out the application details HERE.

It's been a busy old time over the last fortnight, what with giving a workshop on writing children's picture books to an adult audience at Selwyn Community Education and then running a week long creative writing camp for children on the north shore. It was especially challenging last Tuesday when the harbour bridge was closed due to high winds (first time ever in the history of the bridge!!) and my 30 minute drive turned into a two hour long one as all the bridge commuters joined me on my usual route. I was super lucky that my teacher sister had agreed to help out for the day as I ended up being late and she stepped in and got the class started - thanks Halina, you were a life saver. And I have discovered that driving long distances in first gear is very boring. Oh for some audio books stashed in the car - I will have to invest in some.

There are just a few events I am involved in over the rest of this month and what remains of the year is looking pretty quiet. I have a few writing projects I am noodling away on, and I have some planning to do for next year. This all feels rather nice. Despite the fact that covid has put paid to around half the gigs I had lined up for 2020, working from home is my ultimate happy place as I get to focus on my core practice - writing new books.

Last week I had an email from the publisher with final proofs for one of the picture books coming out next year. Its heading off to the printers and I am thrilled with how it all looks. It is gorgeous. Here is the front cover art by illustrator Malene Laugesen.


It is called Moon and Sun, and is due to be released by Upstart Press in March 2021. I can't wait to have it in my hands and show you how wonderful it looks inside. There have been a few delays with this title, partly covid based, and I am so happy it is now on its way.

Finally I hope you are all busy polishing your manuscripts for the Storylines manuscript awards - Joy Cowley for picture books, and the Tom Fitzgibbon for junior fiction - submissions close October 31st. The Tessa Duder Award for YA fiction is biennial and will be open to submissions next year. With Scholastic currently closed to regular submissions, don't miss this great opportunity to have your story read by them. Good luck peoples!!

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Maybe the new normal? ...

Time flew and it's no longer August and I'm well overdue for another blog post.

Covid19 continues to change and influence our lives. After a small resurgence in Auckland we are back to some heavier restrictions. I'm comfortable with this - I don't want this disease and I don't want to give it to anyone else, so I'm happy to do what is necessary to knock it back. But this means events and bookings I had have been postponed, cancelled, or altered. Uncertainty is the name of the game but things are uncertain for everybody so I'm doing my best to roll with the changes. Today I physically visited a school, the lovely Albany Primary on the north shore, but protocols meant I wasn't able to do my presentations in the classrooms, hall or library. Instead I spoke to the children via an internal zoom-style system. I'm so glad the school decided to proceed with the visit - I was grateful to have the opportunity. Just like other businesses must adapt to the new arrangements I've come to realise I need to be able to deliver my talks in new and different ways.  This may or may not be the new normal but I want to have the skills to meet any need. And the experience was very positive, the technology ran well, and the students were great.

Some things I discovered about delivering content via technology:

1. You still need to project your voice, just like you are talking to the back of the hall.

2. Test that the students can hear you (show of hands), and can see the pages if you are reading them a book. Make sure you know the system for classes to let you know if they are experiencing issues and what you can do if they are (i.e. where are the audio-visual mutes, is there a way to see yourself, who is your tech help etc...) 

3. Ask for any questions to be collected and provided in advance, or if a class plans to ask them directly so you can connect when appropriate. 

4. If many classes are connecting they will be muted. Usually my sessions are very interactive with me asking the children questions, with the answers leading them on to the next part of my talk. It can be empowering for them to show they already have some of the answers and interaction also helps keep the children engaged. 100% listening is hard for anybody, especially over longer sessions. You'll need to proactively think about alternatives, find other ways to keep their energy up, and remember this is a different ball game. 

5. Even though technology separates you from your audience, keep your own energy high because you set the tone. Be just as excited and passionate as you would in person.

6. Always have a plan B and a plan C and be ready to switch if things aren't working. This is another good reason to take these kinds of opportunities - practice and experience will help you expand the tools in your toolbox. And sometimes you just have to roll with a less than ideal scenario. 

7. If you haven't had any experience with this kind of technology see if you can observe someone else using it. I've always thought it would be useful to have a school visit mentoring system where people new to visits can accompany someone with experience. If anyone ever wants to come along with me (unpaid, and the school would need to be willing), hit me up. I don't have all the answers, and ultimately everyone needs to devise their own speaking programme but I feel that knowing some of the parameters would be helpful for folk visiting a school for the first time on their own. 

In other news, I've seen roughs for the picture book being published by Penguin Random House next year, and I'm thrilled with the way this is coming together. Despite everything with Covid19 and the level changes we have been experiencing, progress is still happening.    

And I thought you might be interested in this post by agent Janet Reid. She talks about the writer's desire to offer up a lot of info/backstory early on in a manuscript and counsels against it. The reader doesn't need to know it all upfront. The idea is to make them want to know, to read on to find out ...

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Coming unstuck ...

I came to an interesting realisation this morning while in the shower. I am still not sure why the shower is where I most frequently discover my truth but I am reassured by the fact that it is, and in these covid19 level 3, drought/water conservation times it gives me a good reason to keep clean. 

And what was my realisation, I hear you ask.

It is possible to have writer's block in one category of writing while being able to write freely in others. I wrote my last novel length junior fiction in 2017. Last year I wrote seven (or maybe eight) picture books, several short stories and lots of content for talks and workshops. So far this year I've written two picture books, some poetry for children, reworked a picture book into a short story and produced more content for talks and workshops. But I am stuck, stuck, stuck on novel length junior fiction. It eludes me. It scares me. I have had a few ideas for this form of writing but they have not developed. I have a novel three quarters written but I throw my hands up whenever I look at it, unable to edit, rearrange or complete it.

Have I exhausted my novel writing abilities? Was that it? I had a finite allotment of titles and I've reached the end? Is it just a blip? A temporary (three years and counting) abberation? Or is my brain switching focus to picture books for now but the train will switch back to the novel track at some point in the future? Or is it a gradual separation caused by how my novels have been read, responded to, or rejected over the course of my writing career? Have I just lost faith in my ability to write this form, wrongly or rightly? Have my particular series of novel-related events (some fortunate, some unfortunate) chipped away at my novel writing confidence? 

And does it even matter? 

I guess it does. At least to me, because I've been thinking about it - thinking about it enough to write a blog post on it. I don't like not being able to write this form. I feel like something is missing. Maybe a foot, or a couple of the more useful fingers.

It got me to thinking, because I believe my current inability to write novel length fiction is the product of my belief in my ability to do so being chipped away at over time. None of the individual chips was terribly big but over time they added up to quite a chunk. And like chopping that deep V out of a tree trunk, eventually the tree falls (and of course in a forest with nobody to hear, it doesn't make a sound - a bit like me stopping writing novels :-) ). So the writer we become is a product of our writer-related experiences over time and how we respond to each experience. 

For better or worse, the path we take, the choices we make, build up our sense of who we are as a writer. It comes to colour what and how we write, how and to whom we submit, and how we handle the results. Rinse and repeat. Sometimes failure, rejection and criticism pushes us to write a better thing. We are able to see (sometimes because of the many small steps we did take) where we went wrong and how we might improve. Sometimes there was nothing wrong except the timing, so changing how or what we do might be the wrong response. Do we see this in time to stay on what is still the right path? How do we know? Sometimes it makes us turn to something else or give up completely. Or be stuck, stuck, stuck. 

And don't forget, at each step in the journey, different people will respond differently to the same event. That rejection might steel your resolve, or break you. That success might see you blossom, or question if this is what you really wanted. No two writer's sequences of events and experiences will be the same so who do you look to for meaningful advice when you are not sure which way to go? You look to the only person you can - yourself! This too is part of being a writer. Looking at circumstances and saying to yourself, not, What do I do now? but, What do I want now? And saying, I want something completely different, is a legitimate answer. But it's not the only answer.  In truth I still want to be writing novels. I'm going to have to figure out how to get myself back to it. I'm not sure how yet, but the bottom line is I know that's what I want. And luckily, while my confidence in my writing might come and go, my confidence in my ability to find a way remains strong. I'll figure it out because I have to. I'll see you when I get there :-)

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 - http://milfordcentre.co.nz/event/story-time/ -  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!