Monday, December 29, 2008

What do you want to know - maybe thats the place to start...

Check out the discussion on Justine larbalestier's Blog today about her take on the advice to 'write what you know'. Being told this when I was a youngster, when I was desperate to be a writer but thought my chances of achieving this were poor, was almost completely dream crushing. Books were full of daring, cunning, wild adventures. Full of intense gripping experiences and unexpected twists. I was a middle class teen prone to book reading, time with my family and study. My wildness was pretty tame. The page would be mostly blank if i wrote what I knew. The write what you know advice crushed my fragile ambition for years. I went to university, then to work, then back to university, got married bought a house and had children; common experiences, the only possible resulting book of which would be a brilliant antidote to insomnia. But of course, with age comes the lovely wisdom of 'sod it' which says advice can be ignored. John Marsden says stories come from imagination and experience, but as Ms Larbalestier reminds us, experience can be borrowed by way of research. If my life is full of everyday chores and the humdrum minutiae of keeping home and family functioning then there is nothing to stop me researching other existences. The viking era interested me and with my sparking idea of how would a 21st century boy cope if thrust into the violent world of the vikings, I found out how the vikings lived through research and wrote 'Jack the Viking'. Ultimately the core of the story is Jack's emotional journey and transformation and these are brought to life by mining my own emotional experience. So yes I write what I know but it's the knowledge that comes from answering questions like 'what would I do if I was in this position' and 'what are the details of this position?' I didn't know I knew these things before I started writing, I worked them out and coloured them in as I went along. I wasn't writing what I knew, I was writing down my discoveries, my answers to questions I thought were interesting. So if you worry about having to 'write what you know' - DON'T. What do you want to know - maybe that's the place to start.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Okay, its official, I'm a year older...

Okay - its official - I'm a year older then I was two days ago. Alright I'm only two days older than two days ago but after my birthday I have to officially add a whole extra year to my age. I'm not sure how I feel about this. Aging has a scary in-to-the-unknown (like how wrinkly am I gonna get and what will MY health issues be and will I even remember who i am) quality about it which I'm personally not a big fan of. I'm keen to see the Curious Case of Benjamin Button not just cause I like Brad Pitt (its his acting I tell you) but also because I'm hoping for some new insights on this whole aging, birth, death thing. But lets face it - is there anything new that can be added to our understanding of how the whole birth, life, death process works - no surprises there really. You read those things where the eighty year old lady says if she had her life to live over again she'd eat more cake etc...etc...but being real here, if she ate more cake she probably would have carked it at sixty and she wouldn't be waxing lyrical at eighty about leading a more hedonistic life. Hindsight is a fabulous but ultimately annoying thing and hindsight seems to be the main thing I have more of these days. Yes I should have worn more sunscreen when I was younger. Yes I should have complained less about how much I weighed and how I looked because really I was trim, energetic and unlined and I didn't really appreciate how elastic everything was until the elastic started losing its boing. Life's cruel joke perhaps?

But whatever I think about aging and how it applies to me I can't complain about the fabulous lazy day I had on Boxing day. Friends and family texted best birthday wishes or rang me. It was a perfect sunny day. I didn't have to cook (my favourite birthday tradition) or prepare any food. My children didn't argue (only minor bickering). We shopped, I watched HSM2 on tv, did a jigsaw, lay around, ate and drank, and whooped with joy when that horrible contestant got eliminated on America's next top model. I got lots of hugs. It was all lovely. I wish everyday was my birthday except for the fact that my age would now be a ridiculous number. But then my age would be totally outrageous and therefore meaningless and maybe I wouldn't care about it at all. Still, I've got a whole year to get used to this age - I'll let you know how it pans out.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Things i want for christmas...

Things I want for christmas - 1) obedient,tidy, home loving teenagers, 2)acceptance of any of my manuscripts out there doing the rounds, 3) lotsa really good chocolate, 4) calorie and hangover-free yummy champagne (that is still actually champagne, not the alcohol and fun free kind cos then there's no point), also 5) world peace and a global economic bounceback. I already have gorgeous husband, good health, three switched on kids, loving family, a warm, dry house in a fab suburb in a great country. Thats a lot to be grateful for and i shall do my best to quit whining. I rang the quit whining hotline last night but they got sick of my complaints and hung up. Maybe they'll feel differently tonite. I may need liposuction after lotsa chocolate and real world good champagne. Its my birthday this week. Maybe I can get that as a present.

So now for some end of year best ofs...Okay, i think Tania Hutley is right when she says that end of year lists are like stocking padding but if you haven't already heard, seen or read them I'd recommend these things. Best movie I've seen this year - Dark Knight. Best books I've read - The Boy in Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne, Catherine called Birdy by Karen Cushman, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist by Dave Levithan and some woman whose name i can't recall right now, and Slam by Nick Hornby. Also Monster by Walter Dean Myers and Library Lion by Michelle Knudsen and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. I totally love picture books that make me cry. And if you are a New Zealander who can cope with some salty language and you haven't already seen every episode to date then go and borrow all the Outrageous Fortune DVDS from season 1 through to the end of season 4 and WATCH THEM. These people know how to tell a good story. There is lots of very good reasons why it is the longest running home grown television series ever.

And last but not least have a safe and happy christmas. Hug your loved ones, be zen and relax!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

When the writing isn't happening take a holiday in your bottom drawer...

So when the writing is slow I find myself drifting back to check out old material. I find myself staring wistfully at things that seemed a lot easier to write way back when (although like one of those perpetual reflections i probably turned away from those stories to stare wistfully at things written even further back in time - like the dark ages). This has the potential to be another unproductive distraction, or, as happened to me last weekend it could be like striking a seam of coal in the depths of a mine. While rootling around for no good reason (apart from the pretence of domestic industry) in some old papers I came across a letter from a publisher, the main thrust of which was to advise me of the illustrator they'd selected for my picture book Clever Moo (Scholastic, 2006). But as I let my eyes trail idly down the page I spied a sentence which referred to another picture book submission I'd made. The story had potential but there were some issues. It was going to be discussed further. A month later I received a form rejection and because I was a bit green back then I let it go. I put the story away. Now, with the benefit of a little experience I would have got back to the author of the original comment and said 'can you tell me what this means' and 'is there anything I can do?' I did do some rewriting and submitting elsewhere to no avail. But last weekend I realised that publisher had seen potential and I would be silly to let the story die quietly in my files. So its gone off to the agent who also thought there was something there. It does need work but its alive again.

I've also resurrected an intermediate level thriller adventure novel. I hadn't realised how much I'd written (around 33 thousand words) and how likeable it was. I'd put it aside because a crucial element at the beginning didn't work throughout the story and needed replacing. The replacement needed to be able to fit with all the other plotting - not an easy task, but after 3 or 4 years I think I now know what might do the trick. And if the fix works I only need about another 5 to 10 thousand words to finish the story (and a bit of spit and polish to tidy things up of course). You never know what you might find when you look at what's in the bottom drawer. Things you'd forgotten about. Little bits of grit which have turned into pearls while your back has been turned and your focus fixed on other things. What were insurmountable obstacles a few years back when you were less experienced can now be seen with an eye and mind that have benefitted from the passing years. Maybe those stories time has come. So sometimes when the writing isn't coming together, when you want to biff the keyboard across the room in frustration and rip Roget in half, take a holiday in the bottom drawer, or under the bed or in the last file pocket of your cabinet. It can be very refreshing.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Everything will be better in 2009...

I have been struggling of late with this writing thing. Its hard work, there are other things to do which make more money, what can I do to introduce people to my books, oh-my-goodness there are my children to feed and wash uniforms clean for school for and take to physio appointments and drop off for social engagements and look my head fell off. Again. And then there's the little matter of trying to sell new work. Its been slow going this year although I take a little comfort from thinking I am not the only author experiencing these things. I have so far bought only one christmas present although secret santa has reared his annoying little head and I get to buy something cunning and spectacular for $5 or less for a child I don't know in one of my children's classes. Yay! But not really. Then there's shared lunches, 'Mum it says I have to bring a plate, but no nuts, or sugar or anything that might make us energetic or excited, and nothing shop bought and...a bottle of water? Okay Mum.' At least school finishes for all three of them on wednesday but this is one of those blessings and curses all in one. There will be chocolate but lets not talk about the waist line.

So writing is being partly avoided and partly neglected. Its my core business and when writing is going well it makes me happy. I have given up on getting it sorted in 2008. Poor old 2009. A lot is expected of it already and it hasn't even started yet. Now I'm off to test what the low petrol warning light in the car actually means. Wish me luck.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Chocolate, my hero...

Sometimes chocolate is the only thing standing between me and a straitjacket. Good old chocolate. It has saved my life many times. It is a hero. And a friend. I don't care what you say diet books, chocolate loves me. It knows just what I need and its not afraid to be there for me when things get difficult. Okay, okay, so sometimes it gets a bit clingy, especially around my midriff. But when the chips are down, especially the extra thin chips with honey mustard sauce from the turkish kebabary up on the corner, chocolate comes to the rescue. You rock chocolate. I may just name a character after you in one of my novels one day, or dedicate a book to you.

Monday, December 8, 2008

change, change and for a change, more change...

In keeping with my suspicions about 2009, I discovered last friday that there will be a number of changes in the NZ children's book industry calenday next year. The Storylines festival week is moving from June to August, with the Auckland family day taking place on August 30th. The NZ Post Book awards ceremonies will take place in Auckland instead of Wellington and the Margaret Mahy lecture will not be in Auckland. Its a little surprising that there are multiple changes happening simultaneously but there you have it. It seems to me that there has been nothing but change in recent times. Its a little unnerving. Will these be the last changes? Probably not.

Friday, December 5, 2008

An author's goals for 2009

So I'm hearing sales of children's books are bouyant but the market is overcrowded. I cling to the hope that people will keep buying books despite the tough economic times because they are a highly reusable, relatively cheap form of entertainment, but I can't ignore the fact that publishers are reducing lists, budgets and staff numbers. So while books continue to sell, is the downsizing a response to what might happen or the result of revenue that has already declined to much? And how does that gibe with bouyant sales? I must admit I'm a little confused. While it might them make them harder to achieve (depending on what the situation actually is), it doesn't change my essential goals of trying to sell more books and getting more manuscripts accepted. Publishers haven't stopped needing to acquire manuscripts and publish books to stay in business. But 2009 looms a little mysterious.

Clear goals are: finish the two manuscripts I'm working on now and try generating a few short stories for the 2009 Random anthology and for School Journals and Magazines, scrape money together for September Children's Book Conference in Wellington, and make a website. Writer Tania Hutley has already got her website up and running after attending the Kiwiwrite4kidz marketing and presentation workshop just last weekend where having a website was whole heartedly recommended. I'd like to keep the momentum going with school visits and author talks/workshops too. If nothing else, 2008 has taught me greater persistence and adaptability in the face of uncertainty. I can't imagine what 2009 might bring but i feel ready for just about anything.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Crikey pass the smelling salts, its December...

I was a little horrified to discover a few days ago that it is December already. Once the guilty pleasure of being the first in my family to get in the pinch and a punch for the first of the month (and no returns) had worn off I realized it was the last month of the year and all sorts of things were about to happen. For a start Santa will be on his way soon and I am ill prepared for his visit. None of my children have lists and I have done none of the usual Santa’s little helper preparations which I am signed up for like ALL the present buying for our household, all the food preparation and Christmas card witticismry and posting thereof. Soon everyone will be stopping whatever they are doing and closing up their offices and running away to pitch their tent in the place where it always rains over summer. And you can be sure they won’t have replied to any of my manuscript submissions before they go and I will have to add on several more years to the million years it already takes to hear back about a submission. The only possible response I can make to this is to consume frightening quantities of lollies, baked goods and alcoholic substances and then scare the children in the new bikini I bought after trying it on in the dark because lights and mirrors and bikinis should never be in the same room together. Then I will get cranky because I can’t sleep at nights because someone has switched my feet on to roast, the mosquito volume on high which Noise Control roll their eyes at whenever I call about it at 2am even though all noise should cease at 11pm and those sheets which felt like ice in winter are now doing a nice sandpaper imitation. Yes folks it is almost the summer holidays when you are on holiday but no one else should be, so they can read your ms, accept your return of the glow-in-the-dark apron without a receipt because no madam you are quite right that is not a hot Christmas gift which every wife is desperate to have, and open the picture theatre so you can cool your sun-burnt shoulders in the dark while watching the movie of the book which should never have been made. Why do December days pass twice as fast as the days of all other months apart from January where the days before businesses reopen pass twice as slow. And why are school holidays always a week too long? Must go – have Christmas shopping to do!

Monday, December 1, 2008

No more changes please, I am already over my quota for 2008...

I must admit to feeling a little shell shocked. After 25 years with Scholastic NZ, the publishing manager has resigned. Twenty five years is a long time and a good enough reason on its own to have a break and try something new. I can't imagine that the strain of operating under the current financial situation would have helped, but its just more sad news for authors like me in what has been a difficult year. Scholastic has been my main publisher so far and I was just getting the hang of how it all worked. Now I guess it will be different. 2008 has been very different to how I expected it to go. I am having trouble imagining what 2009 may bring and making plans is almost impossible. At the moment the thing I am looking forward to the most is the Children's Writers conference in Wellington in September. Wellington is a most excellent place to visit and is further improved by the wonderful writers and illustrators who reside there and who it will be great fun to catch up with. To my way of thinking the conference cannot come at a better time (well maybe earlier in the year would be better but...) as we need to have some serious discussions about how we can move forward and make things better in the current environment. All you kiwi children's writers and illustrators need to be marking it in your diaries now.