Saturday, May 30, 2009

A few tips for school visits...

Here I am at Westport North Primary School in Were-Nana accessories (thank you wonderful Fifi for sending me a set) talking to the children. Here I had my favourite bit of feedback. At the end of my talk and story reading one young man put his hand up to say that when he grew up he wanted to be a writer like me. I try my best to make my talks interesting and hopefully helpful for everyone in the audience but the thought that I might light a spark under some young person's creativity is overwhelmingly rewarding.
For all the people who lit a spark in my creativity: my parents, some of my teachers, other writers, I am beyond grateful - thank you. And now as I visit schools as a writer, thank you to the patient, attentive children who listen to me and my stories, thank you to theNZ Book council, the school principals, the teachers and the librarians who organise, fund, prepare visits and enthuse about writers and books. I guess these visits not only have the potential to inspire the children they also inspire and invigorate me. And i get to hear the sweetest words, 'read it again'.
Here are a few tips for making the most of (and surviving) a school visit/tour.
1) Do not try to cram too much in. Although each visit might be only half an hour to 45 minutes I always go over time and there is always travel time, set up time and the unexpected to be factored in. And no matter how interested and well behaved the children are, it is very energy sapping. Three sessions in a day is the upper limit for me although I recommend keeping to two sessions if you are doing several days of visits in a row.
2) Before you go try to find out if the organisers have anything in particular they want to achieve from your visit. Do they just want reading, or a more workshop style event? Do they have a particular outcome in mind? Is it book week or some other important event?
3) Find out the size of your audience. I don't use powerpoint or any other technological display tools, its just me and my books (and a few fun accessories - see above and below) so it is a bit more challenging to speak to larger groups. I've spoken to as many as several hundred at once but if possible I prefer smaller goups of 15 to 30 with a maximum of 100. Larger group sizes means it is hard to connect with individual members of the audience and make it more likely that children will get distracted and restless. It is harder for them to hear you reading (and see the pictures of the book for pbs) and ask questions. For a workshop 10 to 20 works better for me and such groups operate best if composed of children particularly interested in writing or books. Better to know what you are facing even if the group size is not your ideal one.
4) Have a think about how you will answer the audiences questions. Check this out to see how not to answer audience questions (although I laughed myself silly over these and wish I could use these responses - maybe in a parallel universe. This blog also makes a good point about acknowledging the contributions of both writer and illustrator in pb's) . Younger audiences in particular come up with some doozie questions that are totally unrelated to writing or books (how old are you? are you married? how much does your husband earn?). But seriously, you do want to have an answer for - where do you get your ideas? how long have you been writing? why did you become a writer? what are your favourite authors/books? Which of your own books/stories is your favourite?
5) Props are useful and sometimes life saving. I have a special decorated suitcase for all my material which serves as an icebreaker with audiences. I have a soft toy which travels with me and can be used to motivate children. I have books and other material which can be handed round and now of course I also have my fab Were-Nana accessories. I always include some of my sources for the viking information I used in my novel Jack the Viking and these can be useful to start discussions with older children. All children love little extras like bookmarks or postcards. I also have unpublished material which can be used as a basis for the children's own illustrations. Take everything you can think of. Every audience is different and what worked brilliantly with one group might be the kiss of death with another. Its good to be able to pull a rabbit out of the hat when the audience is getting restless.
6) Remember, while children can be exceedingly scary and can be merciless if they smell your fear, I believe they really do want you to succeed at your visit.
Remember also that none of the above are hard and fast rules. These are all things that I have discovered that work for me as I have gone about the business of school visits. I learn something new every time and my repertoire of talk topics grows which is useful because I have more options to chop and change if something isn't working. Most important, be brave and reward yourself with a nice coffee/wine/piece of cake/chocolate/all of the above, afterwards. You'll deserve it.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Gotta love the indie's...

After my first book was published I quickly learned it is not a certainty that bookshops will stock my books, although my fingers and toes are always really, really crossed. So I felt my heart drop when I read the news at Beattie's blog here, that Whitcoulls/Borders will in future be managed from overseas. I cannot imagine that this can have a positive effect on the stocking of books published here in NZ. Two large Dymocks shops are closing doors on Lambton Quay, Wellington and Queen Street, Auckland. Sigh - why are things getting harder? Still, gotta love the indie's and hope they are doing okay. I'll keep doing my bit by buying books as often as possible.

In better news I got an A on my first assignment for the university paper I am doing. Crikey, I better get cracking on the second one. And it was fantastic to read of Tania Roxborogh's success (also on Beattie's blog) signing up with a US agent to represent her book Banquo's Son. To be published here by Penguin NZ in October, it sounds like a ripping read and I can't wait to get my hands on a copy.

Still waiting to hear back on a bunch of stuff (come on guys, its been months now!!). Its friday. Sipping at a piccolo of champagne and laughing at Fifi's comment to my last post. I've decided the secret to managing it all is to lock the door from the inside and stay really quiet so no one can find you :)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


Epiphany - its a pretty word that sounds as luscious and sweet as its meaning. I think being a writer means you are liable to have more epiphanies than most. Epiphanies about story ideas, plot and character development. About timing, or rearranging of pieces of the puzzle to make the best whole. Epiphanies seem to come with the territory and I personally am extremely fond of them. My most recent epiphanies however have not been story ones. They've been about my writing life.

Epiphany 1) The children's writers community rocks (okay thats not so much an epiphany because I already knew it but recent events have only reminded me and strengthened the truth of this). Children's writers are supportive, encouraging, generous and caring. One of the best things I ever did was to join in with this community. I have made wonderful friends and learnt HEAPS. I am a better writer and a better person for belonging.

Epiphany 2) No matter how much you screw up your eyes and concentrate all your brain power on willing someone to reply to a submission or question or request for information nothing will happen. Sadly this is just wasted energy although sometimes it is a fun distraction. However be warned, too much of this activity messes with your head and, I suspect, ultimately kills brain cells (that may be the accompanying beverage consumption - I'm not sure). I suspect too that the length of time it takes for someone to reply to any of the above is inversely proportional to how much you want them to get back to you.

Epiphany 3) It is difficult to be a writer and be an author. In my experience being a published author means going out and meeting your readers, and publicizing your work. The bottom line after all is that there is a bottom line. Selling insufficient copies of your titles can be detrimental to your writing career. Meeting the readers is brilliant, a very happy side effect of the whole business but these other activities to promote yourself and your books cannot help but use up writing time. It takes me a lot of pfaffing around to knuckle down and write the few words I pound out on the keyboard to grow my WIP. Pfaffing time has been harder to come by and consequently I am behind on my writing. Writing is central but I appreciate that promotion is necessary too. I want to do both but I haven't yet found the secret to achieving both without having the other suffer. This is compounded by the need/desire to earn some money which means doing writing related activities (as writing is not generally known to pay the bills) such as teaching and visiting (and that doesn't even take into account life outside of writing, or exciting extras like sick children or their extra curriculur activities). Any advice on this will be gratefully accepted. Please keep in mind however that I'm completely flakey when it comes to being disciplined and organised. Maybe I just need another epiphany...

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Back to reality...

I wish I could have another go at the NZ Post Book awards 2009 ceremony. Primarily so I can enjoy the night properly without all the associated nerves. And get another chance to talk to all the people that I wanted to talk to and didn't. And to take more notice of all the things going on a round me. Thank goodness my SO was there with me to fill me in on a bunch of stuff I missed. It was a wonderful experience but its like being at your own wedding, where the whole event just flashes past (demonstrating the time is not a constant). Already I'm forgetting things (and no, I didn't have that much to drink) and I don't want to. Its a bit like young girls with High School Musical or Twilight on DVD :) I just want to be able to replay it over and over again whenever I want.

Of course it was turning the cold day-old sweaty and muddy soccer socks right way out that brought me back down to earth. Cloud 9 is a wonderful place to visit but you can't live there. From up there I could see the mounting pile of washing including all the school uniforms, the state of the kitchen bench and the pinched feed-me-something-other-then-snack-food looks stamped on the faces of my children. And it wasn't just the day to day running of the household at No. 24 that brought me back, it was the realisation that laurels aren't really made for resting on. Laurels can be prickly beggars (although they're very nice for flavouring soups and stews). And ultimately winning something (after the happy shock wears off) just teaches you to work harder and better for the chance to do it all again. I have to keep writing. It is only the finished product that might get made into a book and if I don't write there will be no finished product. So back to reality. And don't get me wrong, I'm very fond of my reality. And after all writing good things to make happy readers is wot I luv.

Although I do wonder, apart from the wonderful feelings on the night and the lovely prizes (see post below) I'm still not entirely sure what winning the Children's Choice Award will mean. Whether it will have any impact short or long term on other aspects of my writing career. One thing is certain - there is no better reward than getting the big tick from your readers. So its back to the writing in search of more big ticks - yowza

Friday, May 22, 2009


Here is the gift I received for getting the Children's Choice Award last week along with a certificate and a cheque. Such a beautiful piece of glass art by Brendon Sole. Sarah Anderson also got one. I'm in love with it. It perfectly represents one of the most important reasons I write. I think whenever I look at it I will hear a little voice saying "read me a book please..." and I will feel compelled to go away and write.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Were-Nana wins (The view from cloud 9 rocks...)

(This is me and my wonderful SO all dolled up and ready for the award ceremony)

Well, who'd a thunk it. I was so thrilled when The Were-Nana was shortlisted for the NZ Post Book Awards back in March. I was proud of my story, and delighted to have been paired with such a wonderful illustrator but aware that some people might find some of the themes in the book a little challenging. After all, it is a little different.

Yesterday I scrubbed myself off, slapped on the war paint and got into my very little black frock (in what seemed like sub zero temperatures). And off we trundled to the publisher's pre-do afternoon tea at 3.30. I was too jittery to circulate too much and clung on to friends like a drowning woman. Looking back now I'm not sure why I was so nervous. Probably partly because only my characters are good at small talk. Partly because I had little idea of what to expect. And partly because this sort of thing has never happened to me before. After five we set off up the hill to the gorgeous venue at the Auckland Museum for a few glasses of bubbles and the official ceremony scheduled to begin at 6.30. I had rehearsed a few things I should say if we won but I thought it unlikely so I just left those few things floating freely in the back of my brain where they might easily get lost. So when I did need them unfortunately some of them had wandered off.

First off were speeches by Chris Finlayson, Minister for the Arts who left me feeling like our creative arts are in good hands, John Allen CEO of NZ Post (although sadly moving on from this to be CEO of Foreign Affairs I think) who inspired with his passion and depth of understanding of NZ children's literature and Alastair Carruthers, chair of Creative NZ and Hamish Wright of Booksellers NZ who were equally passionate, erudite and eloquent. The judges, Bill Nagelkerke, Jenni Keestra and Rosemary Tisdall gave us a view into what they'd been up to for their summer holidays, also better known as the very serious business of selecting finalists and winners. Then the awarding began. The picture book category was announced and while I had to go up the front to receive my finalists certificate I wasn't required to speak. The winner was Roadworks. Its an excellent book and I was so happy for Sally Sutton and Brian Lovelock. With a smidgeon of disappointment hovering at least now I could relax. The other categories came and went and winners announced (Jack Lasenby with 'Old Drumble' for junior fiction, Kate de Goldi with 'The 10pm Question' for senior Fiction and Gregory O'Brian with 'Back and Beyond: NZ painting for the Young and Curious' for non-fiction). The young actors providing a small sketch for each book were impressive and gave the audience a window of insight into each finalist. Then it was childrens' choice, best first book, and best book overall. While people had told me they'd voted for Were-Nana for children's choice I thought for sure one of the other books would be picked.

The children are who we write for. While you have to convince editors, maybe agents, and marketing and accounting people of the merits of your writing to get it published, the children are the ones we really want to impress. They are our most important audience and they are the ones we want to thrill, inspire, excite and entertain. And they liked us. They really liked us. Sarah and I won the Children's Choice Award for our book The Were-Nana. And because all the things I should have said disappeared when I needed them most I would now like to thank the Judges, NZ Post, NZ Booksellers, and Creative NZ. Thank you to Scholastic who weren't afraid of a were-nana, and my lucky stars for pairing me up with the most talented and utterly right illustrator for my story. And of course thank you to my family who put up with the ups and downs of having a writer for a mother, wife, sister and daughter, and especially my husband James who has always supported my crazy ambitions. I did remember to thank the children for voting but I don't think I can say it too many times. To all the people who voted for my book, yay, I am honoured and thrilled. Thank you...

Monday, May 18, 2009

Submitter's neuroses

So I've registered and paid to attend the Spinning Gold Conference in September in Wellington. I've put my name down for accommodation, organised my roomy and warned her about my unique snoring style. I've made my first and second choice selections for workshops and ticked the box to do the pitch slam because it sounds like insane fun and who knows, maybe, possibly, something that will have results. I made some unusual selections (poetry? drawing?) and figure sometimes you've got to try new things. It all sounds like enormous fun, I'm glad I registered in time to get in and I am excited to find out who else will be attending.

I missed out on Creative NZ funding again which is a tad disheartening (who is Tad and I hope he doesn't mind me using his name this way). As a friend pointed out though being funded is a sometimes sorely needed acknowledgement and endorsement of us and our writing. A big tick from the powers that be. It is hard to know whether to keep trying, to keep investing in the process thereby making ones self vulnerable to the outcome? How many times is the charm? I also didn't get the SCBWI scholarship to attend their summer conference in LA. This last bit may turn out to be a blessing though, as it is in August and may have been the last straw in an increasingly complex schedule of events and deadlines. And I doubt the scholarship would have covered all my costs.

I'm trying to get a head of steam up again on my WIP. I'm keen to try finishing it and i am on the homeward stretch. I need to distract myself too because I am at that awkward phase in submissions when its been a significant length of time since I sent things to publishers but its possibly still to early Or I'm too chicken to enquire after my manuscripts progress. Its a kind of no mans land. A doldrums of creativity and sanity where its impossible to focus on things one should be doing because there's this big weight of wondering blocking up the works. No matter how long I've waited, my patience is almost always guaranteed to run out before there is a response, irrespective of the time involved. There is no cure. Its the writer's disease - like tennis elbow or housemaid's knee, writers get submitter's neuroses. It can be ugly. There is no cure except the passing of time. And the worst thing is being patient under duress can lead to the development of certain male qualities which is only okay if you're a bloke. I guess they do give me the courage to enquire after a submission sometimes but what do you do with them afterwards?

Thursday, May 14, 2009


Yay, its Friday. The programme for the Spinning Gold conference is now here and I am looking forward to registering next week. One of my favourite things about conferences besides listening to smart people talk about hot topics, and rubbing shoulders with some of my heroes, is getting to hang out with a bunch of fab lovely children's writers. There's no better fun than chewing the fat with folk on the same wavelength - i think Einstien wrote an equation for it in his earlier work, genius that he was.

I'm still processing my trip to Westport but hope to give a bit more of a review of this next week. Westport was very intriguing, bordered by the sea on one side and mountains on the other, wild and rugged, it is a place of stories. I'd like to go back. And how cool is the place name Granity. It is begging to be used in a book.

In the meantime, via Jet Reid, here is a very cool little rant titled 5 lies writers believe about editors. Its a good peek into the truth about being an editor, I agree with all of it, and it concludes with the very sensible comment that there are no great secrets to being published.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Hi honey, I'm home....

I'm back after a whirlwind tour of primary schools around Westport reading my books and talking about writing for the NZ Post tour. Things got a little shaky before I even took off from Auckland when I arrived home from my weekly gig at the local school to find my greedy dog had sucked all the chocolate out of their foil wrappers: the chocolate I'd bought specially to maintain my sense of humour on my trip. I know it wasn't the end of the world but I shed a tear and called my SO to tell him about it because a trouble shared is a trouble halved. And my sweety arrived home unexpectedly before my departure with a new box of chocolates because he totally understands their essential status. He wuz my hero. I got to the airport in good time and boarded the plane but the plane was broken and we had to get off. Even a ten mintue delay might have made catching the once daily connection to Westport tricky but it looked like being 40 minutes plus. Air New Zealand - bless them - swung into action, grabed my bag and the bags of the two other westport bound folk and scooted us on to a flight to Nelson. Once there we had a three hour drive in a taxi in the dark and made it to Westport by around 9.30. I'm glad i didn't have to make the taxi trip alone. My companions were civil engineers making their weekly trip to help manage the coal mine at Stockton and they were great company - thank you Sarah and Warren for keeping me from the brink of insanity. As bad things happen in threes when I called my SO to let him know I'd finally made it to the Motel he let slip that on the way back from the emergency chocolate delivery his car had been swiped by a bus doing an insufficient job of trying to squeeze through an insufficient gap in traffic. I blame it all on Robbie, of course.

I enjoy school visits except for the nerves and the mental preparation. Although there was plenty of time between engagements over the Tuesday and Wednesday, the itinerary was fairly full. Thank you so much to Kate and Margaret who chauffered me round, showed me some sites and gave me lots of information and insight into the region (especially loved the walk up part of the Denniston incline) accompanied me everywhere, and said positive encouraging things and to Michaela who organised everything down in Westport and glued it all together. You were all great company and made the trip even more enjoyable. I hope the schools enjoyed the visits. And I hope too that I get a chance to go back there.

Had an idea for a new picture book when I went to see Star Trek last weekend. Must get on with writing it.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Would I do it all again, knowing what I know now?

Sometimes I think having a writing career is like having a baby: you don't really know what it means until the baby has arrived. Before the birth you can't understand what people are trying to tell you, no matter how many times you've heard it, in however many different ways. You have to experience it yourself for the penny to drop. Once your offspring has turned up, just as you figure out how to get them to eat and sleep in a routine, they grow and develop into the next stage and you have to start the learning process all over again. This is a never-ending cycle. You can never get complacent or smug. Your children will always be one step ahead of you. And so it is with being an author. You wrote your masterpiece and some publisher finally said yes. And you thought, 'at last!' - Hell no - this is just the beginning. Now your novel/picture book/whatever, needs you more then ever. You have to learn new skills in marketing and promotion. You have to learn how to talk about writing to a variety of audiences. You have to talk about yourself to strangers. You have to learn how to look busy and not worried as you sit alone at your signing table at an event that didn't quite work. You have to figure out how to get over rejections for manuscripts that are just as good as the ones you've had accepted and you have to suck it up when your books don't sell. And then you have to go back and write another story. And then another one. Even though you're going to have to go through the baby raising thing all over again, every time. And there will be things in the future I don't even know I have to learn yet. Would I do it all again if I could start over, knowing what I know now. Are you kidding me? Hell yes!

By the way as my mother's day treat (no no it wasn't cleaning up the dishes after my children made themselves a cooked breakfast leaving an impressive trail of dirt and destruction) I went to see the new Star Trek movie on Imax. Yowza. Is it too soon to go see it again? It isn't perfect (revenge is so yesterday) but I loved what they've done with all the characters and as soon as the credits rolled I wanted it to be a weekly hourlong series on tv again because even an annual movie length fix isn't enough to satisfy my addiction.

And hey, check this out on youtube. Filmed in the neighbours back yard, the first bag jumper is my son, and the last is my SO. I think the plot is well developed, don't you.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Because there will never be a time when we know everything about our craft...

Hey go check out this superb site called Casting the Bones, which has all sorts of excellent advice and tips on writing. It is on my side bar list as well anytime you fancy popping over for some good writing direction. Thanks to this blog for the link.

Oh and I'm off to the West Coast on Monday for NZ Post author tour. My schedule has changed a little so first up on Tuesday I am giving a workshop. I'm also booked in to give a workshop at a school visit here in Auckland in June. We'll be focusing, I think, on writing scary stories. I'm feeling very inspired. I met a seriously unpleasant person today and if you cross me for no good reason you're likely to end up in one of my stories. I can't wait.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Books rock - and the children know it

I had a school visit on Tuesday. Over the course of the morning I talked to the whole school - in two groups. They had a wonderful new school hall - an auditorium with tiered seating like a lecture hall. When I was first ushered in to speak to the year 3-6 classes, the tiered seating was full of children and down in front was one single solitary chair - for me. Whenever I have the choice I opt for smaller groups, but this isn't always possible. This was the biggest single group I've addressed so far and the more perceptive members of that audience might have noticed my sudden 'possum in the headlights' appearance. Turning the hall lights up helped. After my initial surprise, I got into stride and delivered my talk.

I continue to be impressed by the behaviour of the children I talk to. They sit quietly and listen, are keen to answer my questions and think hard about good questions of their own to ask. Its extremely thrilling to think I might positively influence someone's love of books or writing. And the children who glow with the excitement of books - they make me super happy.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Frankenstein's monster wasn't popular...

So what do you do when you've written something you rather like and you've shopped it round a few places and you think you have something there but no one in commercial publishing agrees. After you've swigged a few bottles to dull the pain of your grief over the rejection you re-read their rejection letters/e-mails to check whether anyone has said "I would take another look at this if...." and if their suggestion is not an affront to your moral compass and doesn't turn your teenage romance into a slasher zombie horror (unless you'd considered making this change anyway) you do your best to edit your work and send it back ASAP. Saying "I'll take another look" is the publishing equivalent of gold and should not be dismissed lightly. Try and avoid taking years to edit and reply: publishing staff, book trends, and remembering you and your ms will all change and fade. If other stuff is happening in your life that affects your ability to rework and resend drop them a line and say you are making changes and intending to resubmit as soon as you are able.

If your rejection was a form one, the best next course of action is to work on new material. Reworking old material can lead you down a blind alley you might get lost in. Reworked material can come out looking like Frankenstein's monster - he wasn't popular. Take what you've learnt from writing that ms and apply it to a new story. You need more than one story. If all you ever have is one story, if a publisher does say yes at some point you have no other work to show them and will have months, if not years ahead of you, to produce something else. If your first published piece does well and readers are keen to see more of your writing, you will lose the opportunity to wow them with your next book because it might be three or four years away. Be prepared. Keep writing new material. But never throw out the old things either. Their day may come. Nothing is ever wasted.

Friday, May 1, 2009

No excuses left...

It was my annual pilgrimage to watch my son play soccer today. Today's weather would put many hardy souls off - it rained, it blew, it froze - but I really should go more often. For a bunch of eleven year olds there were some impressive skills on display and in the second half my boy played in goal and made some breath taking saves. His team squeaked in 1-0.

I have few excuses left not to finish my assignment (apart from still waiting on some important material). Its raining, the dishwasher and washing machine are full, switched on and doing their thing and the kids are on the playstation, taking turns on a rented game (and yes I am shocked by how chummy they currently are - I shall enjoy it while it lasts). My SO is off playing soccer. We are out to dinner tonight in honour of his birthday so I don't have to prepare any food. I want to write but know I can't until I get this assignment completed. All the calculations needed for our companies GST Tax return are complete. There are no excuses left. So I shall leave you with the opening lines of an as-yet-unpublished picture book story of mine while I go off and do my assignment:-

Nobody was surprised when Mick turned into a monkey.

Although its quite true he liked to swing on the gate, climb doorways and hang upside down from trees... wasn't that, that did it.

It was dragging everything out of every drawer and cupboard...
...and never putting them back,

slamming doors...
...pulling his sister's hair...

...and jumping up and down screaming.

His Grandma said, "if the wind changes you'll be stuck like that."