Friday, October 29, 2010

Pick this...

Note: For those of you who didn't know, growing like Topsy is a reference from Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.

I got my final university assignment back in the post today. I was very happy. My SO called me a girlie swot. One of the benefits of having a paper completely internally assessed is that I get to see what the tutor thought of my efforts. I like that his comments on my essays and tasks push my understanding even further. I learnt something extra from his feedback. I wouldn't have had that in an exam.

Some of you will already know I now have a picture book coming out next year. I love this story. I mentioned it a while back in this blog with a brief excerpt - The House That Went to Sea. I am so very happy it will be a book. It has happened very quickly (I sent the manuscript off less then a month ago). I am excited to see what the illustrator comes up with. I now have to put head down and bum up to get finishing my World War Two chapter book. The trail went a little cold while I waited for the publisher to decide whether they would definitely take this story, then it got a little more distant while I worked furiously to finish my university assignments. My task now is to quickly bring myself back up to speed with where I was at and where I'm going next, and fall into a pattern, a rhythm of regular writing to complete it. I still feel in touch with the 'voice' and my direction, so it should be reasonably straight forward. I am not sure what I will go on to after that is finished by April next year. Maybe, I hope, a proper holiday ( I will be writing over christmas - even when we go away - to meet my deadline).

I think I might wander up to my local indie bookshop (the fabulous TimeOut) and see if they have the new Scholastic Short Story Anthology with some of my stories in, Pick 'n Mix: Volume One. I haven't seen it yet and I am curious. I have recently been pondering the idea of doing an e-book of my children's short stories. I have an 8,000 word story that has received praise but no publication offers yet, that I think would go in a collection quite nicely, along with the fifteen or so published and unpublished short stories I've accumulated over the years. I will be exploring the mechanics and process of publishing an e-book and will let you know what I discover and how I get on.

Monday, October 25, 2010

It wasn't the story that needed to change...

Been mightily distracted by the horrible state of affairs regarding the filming of The Hobbit over the last week. I wish I could convey to Warner Brothers Studios how much keeping these movies in New Zealand means to so many people here. I am shocked that the actions of a shortsighted few people can have devastating consequences for thousands of people. What did they think was going to happen? What arrogance to imagine their own interests would be automatically embraced by the rest of the acting, film making, and general communities. And why these films? The sad thing is that its blown up in their faces but the fallout is the size of our whole country. Sigh. Sad times.

On a completely different note I was thinking some more about the whole 'flogging a dead horse' issue. You definitely do not want to be spending precious time and energy going over and over and over the same story that may never be the one as far as a publisher is concerned. As a writer you have to find some litmus test for yourself that says a story is finished. I trust my gut instinct (and am generally like to err on the side of slightly underdone anyway - like a good medium rare steak - slightly blushing on the inside). Maybe you need to limit the number of drafts any story can go through. Find what works for you, but acknowledge that the polishing process is never-ending if we let it be. There are things I would change about most of my stories in print (although I am at least content with most of my short stories) but they were publishable without that extra titivation.

On the other hand sometimes it takes a long time to find the right home for a story. This is not about polishing and re-polishing the story until it shines with a blinding light. This is about keeping the faith that your story is good and sending it out despite previous rejections. We've all heard the story about how many times the first Harry Potter book was rejected before Bloomsbury took the risk. Its happened to me too, on a somewhat smaller scale of course. But there was no questioning the enthusiasm of the publisher for my manuscript. And it wasn't that I edited the story after previous rejections - the story stayed the same. It wasn't the story that needed to change.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Bazinga! I learnt something...

Every time I try and explain the mechanics of writing to someone else I learn something. Yesterday I chatted with the writing group at the local intermediate school - bazinga! I learnt something (about the benefits for your plot in knowing your main protagonist). Today I gave a one-on-one workshop with a keen writer and - bazinga! I learnt something (about knowing your main protagonist and achieving the right voice for your story). If you are serious about making writing your career you should be talking about it with other people. You will learn things, make discoveries, have epiphanies quicker and more frequently if you are sharing your experience with others (ideally other writers!!). Sometimes it's merely confirming something you already believed. Sometimes clarity comes when you try and explain something to someone else. Sometimes you see something in a new light when someone else shines their metaphorical torch on it. I have leapt forward with my writing by making writer friends and keeping in touch with them. You can too.

Loved this juicy link courtesy of someone who exemplifies my point above. I love belonging to the children's writers and illustrators community in New Zealand and around the world - they really are a quality brand of folk.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

I'm sorry Madam, that horse was dead some time back...

Finished my last university assignment and posted it off. I had reached that point where I no longer wanted to look at it. It would have to do, as it was. As much as exams can be a drag, when you are writing hell-for-leather trying to show everything you know on the topic in 3 hours or less finesse flies out the window. This can be a good thing. Cos when the assessment is 100% based on assignments where 'theoretically' you have the time to massage and polish your work into a hard shiny gem all that finessing starts to wear you down. I get a related feeling about my creative writing. There comes a point when I feel as if I am polishing for the sake of polishing, editing because other people do 5 or ten edits before they submit it to a publisher, not because it's what the story needs. There are times when I observe other writers still polishing the same story year after year, trying to make it shiny enough to dazzle a publisher. Sometimes this is the right thing to do. A while back I linked to writer Steven Parrish who worked and reworked his story over a number of years until it was accepted. He had faith in his story and feedback he'd received suggested he was close to the mark. But other people are putting a lot of time and energy into polishing pumice - folks that baby is never going to shine. How do you know which group you fall into? It can be incredibly hard to tell. The kind of feedback you are getting might tell you but this is not foolproof. 39 publishers might pass with a form rejection and the 40th publisher will whoop with delight when they read your story and won't be able to ring you up fast enough. Or no amount of rubbing and cutting will make any difference. One thing I can be sure of is that if you want to have a writing career you will need more then one story. If you work on only one story till it is published you will have nothing to follow it up with. Sometimes working on something new will help you see how to fix something old. Sometimes it is your growth as a writer that makes all the difference. Try writing something fresh and new - a little holiday can make all the difference.

On the flip side of the coin sometimes we want to move on but can't get started. Writers are easily frightened by a blank page. They often get that manic stare, that possum-in-the-headlights look (which often precedes that flattened feeling), and have the five coffee jitters. Its closely related to the will-I-ever-get-published-again neurosis. I've been there and knew I needed help when I started looking for strait jackets in my size (10-12 with plenty of room across the shoulders). Experience has taught me that 'dithering' is a normal part of the process. Sure some writers are really disciplined, or like little sausage factories writing vast quantities of words every day and it works for them but I know I will have days where I have nothing to put on the page. And that's ok. Its only not okay when you fret about it. The minute you give your fear some attention it feeds on it and grows like Topsy (name that reference to win a prize of my choosing). Go watch some bad TV or read a bad book. You'll be back at the page in no time knowing you can do better then that.

BTW Nicola Morgan has had some fabulous advice on dialogue on her blog recently. Check it out here and here.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Why conferences are good for you...

We are now at the delicious point of getting all our speakers/presenters on board for Spinning Tales next April in Auckland. If you are unsure whether you should attend an event like this consider the following goodies available to you. 1) a chance to meet with other children's writers and illustrators. I cannot stress enough how important this is. If you are serious about writing and/or illustrating for children one of the best things you can do is join that community. We share information that may help you get published. We encourage and support each other, share the good news and commiserate over the bad. We give feedback on each other's work. We laugh a lot and sometimes drink wine together. 2) a chance to meet, pitch to, or at least put a face to the name of NZ (and hopefully some Australian) publishers and agents. There will be many of them in one place. This does not happen too often. I have benefited from meeting publishers in person. 3) a chance to hear experienced and successful children's writers and illustrators share their wisdom and ask them questions. They live in far away spots all around New Zealand and are usually busy writing, illustrating or promoting their work. At Spinning Tales they will be talking to YOU. 4) a chance to live, breath and talk nothing but children's books for a whole weekend, without anyone saying "can you please put nutella on my toast" or "where is my striped top" or "I'm bored". You can have a look at some of the details here and register your interest while you are at it. I can't wait!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The sum of its parts...

Second week of the holidays, I'm slowly chipping away at the tasks that need doing, and hanging with my kids. Saw 'The Other Guys' with them at the movies yesterday which I thought was less than the sum of all its parts. And too slow. Edit people, edit! Some genuinely funny bits in there as well but not enough to get the movie a big thumbs up from me. I've been watching a bit of the Australian version of the X-Factor lately and I have to say the whole x factor philosophy/psychology goes a long way to explaining why some things succeed, from books, to movies, to singers, actors etc ... Its chutzpah, magnetism, charisma. Its why even when they are standing at the back of the chorus some people just stand out. Its what publishers are looking for when they read your manuscript. Is your story more than the sum of all its parts?

Finished reading 'Wasted' by Nicola Morgan. Great writing. Compelling and complete characters. Intriguing narrative voice, although sometimes I was more conscious of this than I wanted to be. The author makes the story predictable as she explores its central themes - issues of fate, chance and luck - and challenges the reader to toss a coin to decide the outcome of certain events. And this predicability ultimately raises questions and gives possible answers about the randomness of life. Very smart stuff. An important book for young adults I think.

I also finished 'Surrender', this year's inaugural Pindar Prize winner by Donna Malane. At first I was conscious of a few gumshoe style cliches but as the first person narrative voice kicked in these fell by the wayside. The story is fast paced and exciting with plenty of character development to keep readers satisfied and two parallel running mysteries provide plenty of interest. The author wrapped things up well at the end although I had guessed who one of the bad guys was (I inherited this skill from my mother who always figured out the bad guy before the end of the movie or tv programme). The only jarring note for me was the descriptions of pain experienced by the central protag but this was a minor niggle in what was an otherwise
entertaining and well written read.

Had a fun morning at the Mt Roskill Library reading The Were-Nana at last saturday's storytime, a special one devoted to grandparents. That's me in action up the top of this post. Children's book lovers and librarian's, Marion and Danielle run a great programme and local library goers cannot help but be infected by their enthusiasm.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Enrol me? ...

Interesting times. I had an exciting phone call last week. There will be further discussions next week. I will fill you in once there is an outcome - whichever way it goes.

Went to an Auckland Branch NZSA meeting last night. Was interested to find there were three speakers lined up to discuss their respective creative writing courses: Jack Ross of Massey University which is starting up a new Masters of Creative Writing next year (will be available extramurally which is cool), Brian Morris of the NZ Institute of Business Studies which offers a range of writing courses and Paul Mountfort from AUT's Master of Creative Writing. I was disappointed to find neither of the masters courses included children's or YA writing, although when asked Mr Mountfort did not rule out the possibility of including writers for children on the course. I did not get the chance to ask Mr Ross. I applied to the AUT masters course a few years ago and was advised they weren't able to cater to Children's writers at that point. No matter. These courses are not essential to learn the craft of writing and become published. You cannot teach talent and a diploma or degree will not make a publisher accept your work. Writers do need to share their work before submission though, and their work will benefit from the identification and weeding out of obvious weaknesses. There are basic elements of writing that must be learned: basic grammar, technique, and issues of voice, plotting, tense, POV, character development, setting, tone and dialogue, etc... And I believe it is important to have a group of like minded-individuals with whom you can discuss specifics, generalities, industry gossip and opportunities and a course can be a great place to meet these people. And sometimes all you need to move forward is a little confidence. A course can provide some or all of these things. Will completing the course take you closer to publication? It is impossible to say. A boat load of reading, a boat load of writing and a boat load of submissions will probably give you the same chances. I find myself doing a fair amount of writing teaching these days. I've learnt a lot through doing and passing on what I have learned has forced me to clarify the mechanics of how I write. I've achieved some of the things the course might have given me through alternative channels. Folks, do what feels right for you. I'm off to write a book.

ps I believe there will be more speakers discussing other courses at the next Auckland NZSA meeting in November.