Monday, November 28, 2011

Time for a little fantasy...

Here is a sample of one of my current projects ... still in draft form, but you get the idea

“You are such a worry wart,” the boy teased. “It is years away.  And the Hunting of the Hare is just a tradition. It is organised to the last detail. Nothing will go wrong. ”
“Athel is right,” the second boy said.
The third one said nothing. He looked away from his friends, his gaze sweeping up the hill to settle on the castle perched on its brow.  A light spring breeze ruffled the pennants on the top-most tower and sent the clouds on their way. Twilight shadows began to creep over the grey stone walls, welcoming the dark of night. Even the majesty of this sight could not put his mind at ease. It just made him feel worse. Tomorrow he would hunt the hare. Tomorrow it would tell him he was not fit to rule. Tomorrow everyone would know what Arran was already too well aware of.  He sighed.
 Athel rolled his eyes at his friend. “Come your highness, it is time for you to prepare,” and he clicked to his horse to move on. The others followed, the third boy letting his horse fall behind. There was little point arguing. When his father died, he would take his place. None of them could understand why he thought it the worst thing in the world.

He woke too early the next morning, the darkness proving a fertile ground for his fears and concerns as he lay waiting for the cock to crow the day awake. But it was still well before dawn when his father’s guard came to get him. Tomorrow he would be sixteen. Today he discovered whether he would be a good King.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

It's dark down here...

It has been a sobering few days. After the thrill of getting a great mark on my assignment, it has been all down hill since then with some things that didn't go my way. Feeling a little bleak today but felt a bit buoyed by this post from Nicola Morgan. If you have been trying to get published for a long time and things haven't been happening then Nicola's story will give you hope. Its a good story. I admire and respect her perseverance. And her career since she first got published has been impressive. The thing that resonated with me most though is how she views the setbacks and disasters she has experienced.

Nicola says her first book,  Mondays are Red was published in 2002 and I have been very lucky ever since, though it has not always been easy and I’ve had my knockbacks. Authors tend to hide those bad times and you should realise that beneath every apparently successful author’s confident exterior are bruises and scars. But do I wish I hadn’t had the years of failure, of not knowing whether I’d ever be published? No. They stop me taking anything for granted or thinking too highly of myself. They are crucial to who I am now; they are also why I understand what gets published and why some perfectly wonderful writing does not.

What doesn't kill us makes us stronger. Setbacks and disasters are character building. At first I agreed completely with Nicola. I would probably be way more of a brat if everything had gone my way. Would I pay it forward as much if I didn't know how difficult and slippery this business can be? I still do agree with her about that.  But if I knew other authors bore the same bruises and scars that I did, I think it would make me feel a bit better about my own. And if I knew what had caused those scars and bruises I might take a different approach in future to avoid some of them. The other night I discovered a writer friend had experienced exactly the same setback I had a few years ago. She will be the third person that I know of that this has happened to. Are there others? Should we sit back and accept it or are there things we can do to save other people this experience in the future.  Maybe its not right that we just passively accept the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Why yes ma'am I can write an essay about that. I can write an essay about anything...

My final assignment was returned in the post today - an essay on why (or why not) poetry from the past is relevant to today's children. I had started it in plenty of time before the deadline but every time I approached it, the topic got away from me and my thoughts ran all over the place and refused to hold hands in a circle. Finally on the way home from dropping my daughter off at some after school thing I had an epiphany. I emailed my tutor and asked if I could get the essay in a few days late. The rubbish I had already written wasn't going to wash. I needed to start again and take a different tack. The age of the poetry wasn't what mattered. It was the poetry itself. What was it about successful poetry for children that made it successful? The essay nearly wrote itself. I wracked my brain for the rules about referencing and bibliography that I had used during earlier university courses and went through the process. I am very happy to report I got an A+. Essay writing, like fiction writing, needs the right idea. Find the right approach and it falls out on the page almost fully formed. And when you have hit on the right idea, you know its the one. My earlier attempts had felt awkward and uncomfortable. Even though I ended up using a lot of the same material, I now had focus and cohesion and everything fell into place and made sense. Just three more papers to go. Next year I think I'll have a go at the research paper. I've been nervous about doing this one but I think I have to do it before I can move on to the others. I feel like I can do it now. I can essay the heck out of just about anything.

And its about time we had some more juicy links. My mantra is always 'be polite and professional.' You can do a lot of brave and bold things as long as you are polite and professional. Following up with publishers is less scary and more fruitful if you are polite and professional. In fact everything is more fruitful if you are polite and professional. Everyone likes to be treated well and with respect. And its not just me saying it. Nicola Morgan over at Help! I Need a Publisher agrees. Although I am not sure I agree with the statement
Always wear a suit when preparing your submission. If you wear pyjamas, they will see. :) 
If you write for children not only are pyjamas the right choice, your slippers should be animal themed or extremely fluffy.

Nicola also has an excellent post on praise. I adore praise (I also adore chocolate) but praise is never without strings attached. Make sure you know where all the strings lead back to and what this means about the praise and the thing praised. 

Last but not least I would like to draw your attention to this. It is a sobering read but also hopeful. Yes publishing can be an unfair place. It may not be you or the quality of your work that is the reason you have been rejected. Keep believing in yourself and try again.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Feeling stuck with your writing? Go see a movie...

Often, more so than from books, I learn something about plot, setting and character from movies. Sure there are different constraints and different requirements, but the best movies tell complex stories with fascinating and compelling characters with endings that satisfy. And in a movie there is less time to achieve this end. A good movie must 'show' effectively, the motivations, the decisions, the emotions of the character. Good movies can teach us a lot about 'show'. Well chosen settings background the people and the action. Sometimes they play a character as well.

Last night I saw Drive, starring Ryan Gosling, and Carey Mulligan. The movie opens with the main protagonist (Ryan Gosling) doing one of his two occupations. By day he is a stunt driver for action movies, by night the wheel man of getaway cars. He is smart, ice cool and skilled. A man of very few words. He meets and falls for his neighbour, played by Carey Mulligan, who has a young son and a husband in prison. When the husband gets out, he is targeted by thugs to whom he owes money, who threaten his family unless he does one last job. The driver offers to help for the sake of the man's wife and child. And it all goes horribly wrong.

What we thought we knew about the driver changes as the movie progresses. The violence is graphic and hideous but explains subsequent (and previous) events. Who do we root for? Can bad people be redeemed? How can extreme and opposite emotional states be rationalised? If you are squeamish this may not be the movie for you. But it is a gripping and rewarding watch. 5 stars from me. Another good movie, although with considerably less violence, stamped with the same quality, is Super 8. From the opening scene when the man changes the 'number of days since last work accident count' to 1 at the Steel Mill we know we are in for some subtle and sophisticated story telling. If you feel stuck with your writing? If you feel like you aren't 'getting' how you can improve your storytelling, go see some movies. Even bad ones will teach you something. At least your book doesn't rely on the quality of the acting or the amount of money you can spend on costumes, locations and special effects. Your characters just have to 'be' who you want them to be. Show us why they behave the way they do. Show us who they are and what makes them feel the way they do. Remember you don't have to spill your guts completely at the beginning (metaphorically speaking that is) of the story. Hold some stuff back. Make your reader wonder and want to read on to find out. A good plot is like a plait or shoelaces - it isn't done until its all laced together.

I'll be talking up a storm about plotting, character and showing and working through some juicy exercises on writing for children at the Centre For Continuing Education Summer Workshop next January.

Friday, November 18, 2011

One step closer to the funny farm...

I have to frequently remind myself that this business is a slow dance, interspersed with long pauses. This is a source of much frustration for me. Long time readers will know of my chronic impatience. It is a benign tumour that cannot be safely or permanently excised, that provides constant reminders of its existence, pressing on my rational brain. Either a benign tumour or a curse. Both fit.  When expectations developed in eons gone past are finally realised, I know I should be patient. But this understanding has the half life of a whisper and then I am back to my impatient self. And when the only distraction is the annoying, political arse-hattery of the upcoming election it is enough to drive me a little crazy. I am one step closer to the funny farm.

Best of 2011 Lists are emerging all over the place in the run up to Christmas. Big congratulations to all my kiwi compatriots who appear! - Maria Gill, Kyle Mewburn, Brian Falkner, Donovan Bixley and Ruth Paul. The House That Went to Sea made it on to the Storyline's Books for Christmas Giving Lists - whoop, whoop! I dream of making it on to more lists. As my rational brain knows this can take time. Maybe next year. Every year I adjust my goals depending on what has gone before. Get published was superseded by get published more than once which has been superseded by get published in different age ranges which has been superseded by get published in other formats and other countries. And of course now 'have books appear on lists'. I haven't achieved all of these yet so there are things to work on. I hope you keep your goals and ambitions fresh. Its that time of year. Sometimes they just need a little lip gloss applied, sometimes just a pinch of the cheeks, but sometimes you need to clean it all off and start again. After all, when that eyeliner smudges it can look a little ghoulish.

Remember, goals aren't just about an end product. Goals should grow your career. Goals should be about personal growth as well as career growth. Goals should nurture and take care of you as well as move you forward. Don't play it safe. Do something that scares you but not something that you don't want to do. I leave the bungy jumping to the thrill seekers - being a writer with a dislocated hip would not be my idea of personal development. Make sure that scary thing is something you've always secretly wanted to try. Maybe its saying hello to an author or illustrator you admire at next year's Storyline's Margaret Mahy Day. Maybe its showing your manuscript to a stranger for their advice. Or sending it out to that publisher. Maybe its doing a school visit or an author talk. Or presenting a workshop. Maybe its turning your manuscript into an e-book. Maybe its attending an overseas writing conference. When I look over that list I appreciate how many scary things I have done over the last few years. Maybe 2012 will be my year off scary things. My goals for 2012?

1) Do another university paper towards my Diploma of Children's Literature
2) Find a way to be involved in NZ Book Month (although I try and behave like every month is NZ Book Month)
3) Find a way to be involved in NZ at the Frankfurt Book Fair (even if its just talking a lot about it on interweb and trying to get some of my books there)
4) Finish rewrite on Jack the Viking: Magnetic North and publish in digital form (yes sorry I dropped the ball on this one this year)
5) Finish current projects
6) Have a decent holiday
7) Keep fit
8) Make more time

This list is not complete. After a year of unexpected things I am not sure whether 2012 will be the same. I feel like I have enough to keep me busy without adding more. That was one of my problems this year. I thought I would tick a lot of things off the list I made for 2011. So this year number 8 is a priority.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Paper prozac

It would be disingenuous of me to say I write for the pleasure of writing alone. I write in the hope that others will read my work with pleasure. I write to find the magic that filled the books I loved as a child. I write to replicate the happiness I find in the pages of a good read. Paper prozac. I want to read it, and write it. So it makes me feel very good when people say nice things about my books. Even more so when there is no tie of kin or friendship to temper their words. So yes I did do a little happy dance when I saw this review of The Half Life of Ryan Davis, 

"A disturbing story but compelling reading. Tightly told in short chapters which capture the teenage voice very well. Almost a detective/mystery novel but has more depth than that."

And this one of The House That Went to Sea.

"This beautifully produced book is a great little story, easy to read out loud and has that perfect combination of adventure and a little touch of sadness that makes the best kind of children’s books."

Do reviews influence readers and book buyers? I have asked this question before and there are no conclusive answers. I know I buy if I see a good review of the kind of book I like. But to me a review is a thumbs up for me as a writer. Someone enjoyed my book. People who read a lot and who know their apples have recommended my books to others. That is a significant reward in these tricky times. It is very encouraging. And it is a terrific antidote to rejections. Especially for the books in question.

If you have been wondering what I am up to now I confess I have become a total slack-arse. I have three novels to work on and instead I have been counting down to the release of the final Harry Potter movie on DVD (and am now preparing to watch it ad nauseum - yay), hanging with my children between their exams and trying to support and encourage them through their study (bless their little cotton socks). I have been reading a great quantity of other people's books which is a treat and an aid to my own writing and have been fascinated to find I have learnt more from the books I have read that weren't as well written as my faves were. It is easier to spot weaknesses than it is to point out the mechanics of great writing. And when the sum of all parts is greater than the individual parts, - fuggedaboutit. That's the magic.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A legend in my own mind...

A NZ children's author, much awarded (here and overseas) and much published (same) had their name transformed and gender switched on air recently. Ever since I heard it it has been bugging me. After an initial giggle (sorry mate) my thoughts quickly descended to 'what do you have to do around here to get some recognition'. I understand if my name is mangled - its a tricky name - it can be a challenge even for people who've known me a long time. But I was a bit shocked that this person's name wasn't better known. At least enough to be the right sex. If you have a flair for rugby your name is soon the topic of discussion around the breakfast table. If your face is on the TV during peak viewing it is an easy side step to print media. And bad behaviour seems the most effective PR of all and, as Paul Henry can confirm, the equivalent of a winning lottery ticket. If it was just about being good at what you do then I could understand that. If it was about building your reputation then that would be something to aim for. But these don't seem to be sufficient for writers of children's literature in NZ. And many of the NZ writers for children that I know regularly do the promotional equivalent of a marathon and try all sorts of gymnastic contortions to get their names out there. When I do school visits I often ask children if they know some NZ authors and illustrators and I'm saddened at their response. No Roald Dahl is not a kiwi. They often ask me if I draw as well as write and when I say that I don't, I ask them for the names of some NZers who do. What's the world coming to if they don't know Lynley Dodd or Gavin Bishop or Pamela Allen? And what about Ruth Paul and Donovan Bixley?When they ask me if I'm friends with other authors and I smile and say of course and tell them who, they stare blankly at me. Surely the sign of a healthy society is not only clothed and fed and educated children, but also a society that recognizes the names of their writers and illustrators for children. They know the names of children's writers from other countries, whether recent or not. The music industry has managed to raise its profile, but that took a government required quota system. Do children in other countries know the names of their children's writers? Do you know who Mo Willems and Ian Falconer and Lauren Child are?

I guess this example illustrates that our efforts, no matter how strenuous, aren't working. We need some help. Any suggestions?

UPDATE - okay as my SO pointed out, books are often known by their titles or main characters, especially amongst children. Hairy McLairy, or Maori Legends, or the Wheels on the Bus would be remembered before the people behind them are. I don't think this is a complete rationale or excuse though. Is there ever a teaching focus on NZ writers in primary schools? Is it in the curriculum? I would love to know.

UPDATE 2.0 - of course the more I think about it, the more I have to acknowledge how much name recognition is about branding. I get branding. However while I pursue branding on the one hand, for me I make the whole issue so much more complicated for myself by not having a series or sticking to one style/genre/age group. I can't assume that readers who like my short stories or my picture books will necessarily graduate to my longer works. And I have contemporary and historical time slip and my picture books are all stand alones and do I need to build name recognition for each one? Okay I'm tired just thinking about it - I'm off to have a lie down and a cup of tea and then work on my next novel which is completely different to anything that has come before - sigh. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Just hold steady a minute, so i can get my bearings...

Getting your work published is not the end of your education it is just the beginning. Every time I have had something published I have learned something new. The more I learn the more I appreciate how little I know. And it does not help that the industry is constantly evolving and currently seems to be experiencing some rather major shifts. Jeepers, just hold steady for a minute, will you, so I can get my bearings. Yet there are certain fundamentals which will always apply in this business. Being polite and professional is always the right place to start. And you can check out some more good advice on how to get on the publication road here at Nicola Morgan's blog.

I am in the teaching seat this summer holidays, taking a two day weekend workshop on writing for children as part of the University of Auckland's Centre for Continuing Education Summer Programme. There are still spaces available and you can check it out here. To be held at the lovely Epsom campus, it will be a fun weekend of juicy writing secrets, tips and the chance to weed and iron out those pesky writing problems you might be having.

Thanks to the wonderful Graham Beattie who reviewed my new book The Half Life of Ryan Davis on his blog. "YA psychological drama thriller writing at its best......."  Crikey - I wrote that book :). And I just want to share this juicy link because I think this is very smart. Janet Reid talks about the mistaken assumption of stupidity when someone does not 'get' what you are saying.  This is not just for writers but for everyone, everywhere.

I visited the primary school at which a fellow writer, Phillip Simpson, teaches last week to read to his year 3-4 class. I put up a signed copy of The Were-Nana as the prize for a writing challenge I gave them. Here is the winning entry by Eva Colthart. Well done Eva...I have chills running down my spine...

Halloween  Night
By Eva Colthart

Once   a   little   girl   was   going    to   do   trick   or   treating.   There   was   a   house   near   the   grave   yard.   She   trick   or   treated   there.   She   knocked   on   the   door   and   an old   man   came   out.   She   screamed   and   ran   away   as   fast   as   she   could.   Then   BANG!!   Something   came   from   the   old   man’s   house.   She   went   back   to   her   house   and   ran   into   her   bedroom   and   told   her    dad    everything .  He   didn’t   believe   her.  A    minute   later   the   lights   went   out   and   her   dad   lit   a   candle.   Then   the   lights   flashed   and   there   was   a   spooky   noise   it   sounded   like   a   howl.   She   thought   that   it   was   a   were-wolf   but   when   she   went   back   to   the   house   of   the   old   man   it   was   him.   He   was   turning   into   a   were-wolf!!!   She   was   scared   she   ran   and   told   her   dad,   he   still   didn’t   believe   her.   She   took   her   dad   to   the   old   man’s   house.   Then   they   went   into   the   old   man’s   house.   He   was   dead   on   the   floor.   Aaaaaarrrrrraarrr!!!!   She   screamed.   They   both   ran   back   to   their   house   and   the   lights   were   still   off.   Her   dad   lit   another   candle.   Then   a   zombie    came   through   the   wall!!!!!   And   on   that   day   they   both   died.

The   end!!!!!!!!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Instant success, just add water and stir...

It was, I thought, a good idea. A company wanting to provide some free children's story downloads to customers for long car trips. Authors would receive a free audio file professionally produced to use as they saw fit. They would retain all rights and get some free promotion through folk being able to listen to their stories (a huge bonus when promotion can be such a hard slog). But the company hadn't planned to 'pay' for the stories they chose to record. Fair enough, I thought, they are not selling them. I thought about the stories I had written that might fit the bill and sent them in. But I was somewhat surprised to hear some folk thought this was a terrible idea. As far as I can tell its not a scam. I always think of a scam as the situation where things are nothing like you think they are. Or where you have to pay them to accept your story. Neither of these things was true in this instance. If my stories made the cut I would be getting a return on them but not one instantly quantifiable in dollar terms.

I believe I should be paid for the creative work I produce, but it is hard to know what I am worth. Who decides? The market? The market is saturated with books; many very, very good ones. Plenty of great writers get ignored by the market and it has nothing to do with the quality of their work. Publishers? They want to reward writers but must do so at the behest of the market. They are, after all, commercial operations. Award judges? Sure! They select stories they believe are of a high quality and it can only help to be talked about in this way. But ultimately it is the everyday purchasing reader I have to impress. In my opinion I have to earn the reputation I want to be rewarded for. This doesn't happen overnight. I can't wash it in Pantene and have instant success. Sometimes it does happen overnight to people (I want the shampoo they're using) and good on them but it hasn't happened to me. I have to write the best stories I can and send them out into the world. And then I have to keep doing it. Because if someone does find one of my books among the many, many others and then discovers they like it, I want them to like my next book even more. They might remember my name. Next time they venture out to the bookshop or the library or onto Amazon they might ask if there are any other books by me. When a new one comes out they might get that too. Building a readership can be a slow painstaking process. I have to win people over with my writing cos most of the time that's all they see of me. I can't make them love me. And with children it can be extra challenging as our target readers are always growing up and moving on. "Hey, I just won you over, stay 8 a few years longer!" And then we have to do it all over again with a whole new group and who knows what they will like. If having a story on audio helps win people over to my writing then that sounds pretty good to me. And having that recording to help sell my other stories sounds even better. I like the idea of expanding the formats my stories are available in. That's part of the reason I signed up for The Half Life of Ryan Davis to be published by Pear Jam Books. It's already in 2 formats and a third is in the pipelines. Four formats is the goal for all Pear Jam Books.

So I am willing to give my story to that company to help build my name. So its building their name as well? Good for them. I know how important that is. And if I get no financial return on a short story today its not the end of the world. If one kid likes my story on a car trip who knows where it might lead.