Sunday, December 29, 2013

Muse on leave...

So, enough with the pictures of the kids. And sorry I have been AWOL. I have been busy with family pre-Christmas (some significant illness, and significant life changes for my parents) and then there was Christmas when food preparation went into overdrive, consumption into hyperdrive, and digestion into warp drive. And then it was my birthday. I would like to announce that I am a year older than I was last year. And in the last few days I have just been lazy...

In 2012 I was wondering (quietly to myself) if my picture book writing days were over. I hadn't had a decent new idea for what seemed like an age. After all, my latest picture book While You Are Sleeping was penned several years ago. I was experiencing a pb drought. Picture books for me are all in the idea. The writing up of the idea is obviously also an important part of the whole but the idea is what gathers the words to it and hopefully sells it to a publisher and encourages readers to pick it up. When you are working with less than 1000 words, the central idea, the conceit, must be a goody. With a focus on novels for a few years I thought my picture book muse had packed up and jumped ship. It wasn't the end of the world. I was still writing. But I wasn't thrilled about it either. I love writing picture books. I love sharing them. And having my name on the front of them is pure happiness.

Well, wherever my muse had sloped off to - she sloped back in 2013. Just a couple of quick visits. But crikey she must have been off planet, or hitting up some exotic substances or something because she dropped off some very exciting fresh new ideas. I just left the door open for her to return. She comes and goes as she pleases and really, I wouldn't like to tell her how to do her job. I wouldn't make her stay against her will. A caged muse tends to produce only cliches. I just let her know I care and tell her she's always welcome no matter where she's been or what she's been up to. Never appear desperate because they can smell desperation a mile off and it is not an attractive scent. Don't go searching for ideas from other muses - then it just looks like you are copying someone else's ideas. Just keep busy and maintain an air of confidence and belief. If you trust they will return, they invariably do. And I wrote two new picture book stories.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

My favourite things

Art Explained

We argue about art. What is it? How do you know? When is it beautiful?

Art is how we react. That is why our children are works of art

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Getting your marrow spoon ready for 2014...

It is that shiny, tinselly, reflective time of year when I look back over the preceding 11 and a half months and go, 'What the...'. It would be no exaggeration to say that this year has had more than its fair share of the unexpected. Most of the surprises have been happy ones but there have been a few shocks, frustrations and disappointments as well. Whether good or bad, it has been full on and I must say I feel ready for a bit of a lie down over the summer break. Although I won't be lying down too long as I am doing a talk on junior fiction to some Writing for Children university students in early January and giving some writing workshops at Selwyn College in the second half of January (more on that later in this post) and I have some workshop/talk notes to finesse. Oh, and I am one of the authors exhibiting 'What Lies Beneath' my most recent book in an Exhibition we are putting on at the National Library in Parnell beginning in January. Oh....

So 2013, I have embraced you and sucked the marrow out of you. However I feel like I am still digesting you. I don't know what to think about half the things that have transpired. I am hoping to have a handle on it all by mid 2014. If only things would slow down a little and give me time to catch up....

So my philosophical brain twirlings that have emerged from 2013....

- Don't put stuff off until a better time comes along. The time is now! Enrol, submit, apply, enter, participate! Just do it. Everything, especially in the world of publishing (whether trad or self) takes time. If you start now you will be ready by the time things are actually happening.
- the internet is designed to overwhelm you and suck you in. When I was a kid (bleat) I got a weekly magazine for girls and I could pull out the poster of my favourite boy band (I could tell you who they were but then I'd have to kill you - lets just say tartan was involved) and stick it on my wall. Now I can keep a 24 hour watch on my current obsession, and have a pseudo conversation via twitter when I am not googling their next project. No it isn't healthy. The internet is like a best friend that is a cross between the Bitch in Apartment 23 and Single White Female. Use it, but don't let it use you.
- Say yes to everything, but lock yourself away from time to time so no one can ask you to do something.
- Each year make sure you take on at least one thing you didn't think you could do. This year I wrote a story in rhyme. Next year I am moving to Dunedin for six months. Sucking the marrow folks.
- I have seen a lot of phoenix's rising out of some very deep ashes this year. I have been dead impressed listening to folk talk about the nuts and bolts of the publishing process and discussing the cost effectiveness of taking a particular route with printing, etc.... They've taught themselves how it all works and how to make things happen. The tools are out there. People are sharing information. You know the saying - when you are given lemons...
-doing the step before does not always prepare you for the step that comes next, both in terms of writing and all the associated stuff that goes with it. Bit like raising children really. Just when you've sussed the baby stage, they become a toddler. And when you've finally learned how to wrangle the toddler they morph into a pre-schooler. Each time you begin again figuring out the demands of the age stage and the strategies for growing them successfully to the next. At no point do you arrive at the resting-on-your-laurels stage. That is a myth created by advertising companies
- I have come to the conclusion I want to be a champion for NZ Children's literature. It deserves more attention than it gets

It's good to take stock of the year that's been. It's good to set some goals for the year ahead. Sometimes this can be a little like setting New Year's resolutions which I don't think I ever manage to keep, but organising your thoughts into groups of things you would like to do at least clarifies where you see yourself heading and can help you identify what you might need to do to get there. Want to submit something for the Tom Fitzgibbon or Joy Cowley Awards? They close October 31st so aim to polish that manuscript well in advance. Want to go to Storyline's Margaret Mahy Day (end of March, beginning of April) or Family Day (August 31st in Auckland) then pencil these in to your calendar now. If you want to take Massey's Writing for Children paper (Albany Campus) you will need to enrol for the 2014/2015 summer semester. And if you fancy taking any of the writing or publishing courses at Selwyn College in January you can check out the info here.

Go make plans - be bold and pick something fabulous to do that scares you - and get your marrow spoon ready for 2014

Friday, December 13, 2013

Crabby with a side of frustrated...

In response to the University of Kent's woeful attitude toward children's literature and sadly a few other disparaging and dismissive comments on the subject, and the recent dismissal of the experienced and well regarded children's book reviewer, Amanda Craig, at the Times in the UK, Keren David posted about the persistent problem at An Awfully Big Blog Adventure. And then there was this on Nicola Morgan's blog. The Times wasn't interested in the letter regarding Miss Craig with over 420 signatories (many of them award winning children's authors and illustrators).

I don't expect all the grown up writers to know all about children's literature as well as adult literature (although it is possible to keep up with what's happening in both areas, I certainly give it a go). However it does seem very rude when sweeping generalisations are made about such a wide range of literature without actually cracking the spine on any examples, yet somehow the commentators are still qualified to talk as if knowledgeable on the subject. And if they are widely read in children's books are they saying that the adult experience is always going to be a better topic? Or that emotional, spiritual or any kind of personal or social growth or change is more worthy if experienced by an adult?  The comment  'JK Rowling is now trying to write proper books for grown-ups...' unfortunately does seem to be a common attitude held by many readers/writers/studiers of adult literature towards the creators of literature for children. Should I accept this idea that my books aren't 'proper' books? Or that writing a book for children does not require any effort or sophisticated thinking? That I am taking it 'easy'?Or that my effort is worth less? Or I am a lesser kind of adult? Why so defensive? Maybe it's the constant belittling. Or the bewildered reaction that appears when it is suggested that writing for children is also literature. I am so disappointed that writers would do this to other writers. I am disappointed that this kind of thoughtless dismissiveness is delivered so easily. There are wonderful supportive and encouraging exceptions but sadly I think they prove the rule. I would apologise that I appear disrespectful towards writers of, or academics in, adult literature but I've been wading through so much blithe disrespect recently some of it has tried to cling to me. I am shaking it off. It really stinks.  


Friday, December 6, 2013

Genre doesn't determine quality...

Some people genuinely believe that children's literature can never qualify as good literature. I feel bad for them. Kent University thought it was okay to say this 

teachers at the Centre for Creative Writing "love great literature and don't see any reason why our students should not aspire to produce it … We love writing that is full of ideas, but that is also playful, funny and affecting. You won't write mass-market thrillers or children's fiction on our programmes." 

I think they were truly surprised that other folk didn't agree with them and brushed off the complaints about their position on children's literature with a few jokes. Eventually they apologised but I couldn't help feeling they weren't entirely sure what had just happened. A book for children is simple to write and simple to read. Move along. Nothing to see here people.

And folk commenting on the article didn't get it either 
- lol at all the butthurt Dan Brown and Harry Potter readers on CiF crying because someone pointed out they are reading childish unchallenging books said letusberealistic.

I don't think letusberealistic (or Kent University) is reading children's books properly, or the right ones. But Frip's comment 

A lot of people read for pleasure - not to be challenged. I am one of them. My work is challenging - I want entertainment when I read. Why does a book have to challenge you? 

which appears to be an attempt to support children's books is not much better. Many children's books from YA novels to picture books contain big ideas. Complex themes and issues are put forward in a highly distilled format (no mean feat) that explores, explains and enlightens sometimes in less than 1000 words. Sometimes in less than 500 words. In a way that a very young mind can take it on board and move forward toward adulthood with that knowledge understood and absorbed. These books are challenging and entertaining. Plenty of adult books cannot do both. 

I'm not going to dispute that there are some rubbish children's books out there with little thought or effort put in to them. With cliched, tired or empty themes or stories that revolve around a one note joke. But there are many children's books that easily qualify as good writing. Surely good writing or a good book is not determined by it's genre. My biggest surprise is that adult fans of adult literature believe they never read a good book until they read an adult book. Maybe they had difficult childhoods that they would rather block out or deny. How easily they forget that it is probably only good children's books that got them through those challenging years. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

No relation...

It would not be an overstatement, I think, to say that this year has been somewhat busy. Now that I have handed in my final assignment, launched my latest book While You Are Sleeping (with a purpose built cake of course)

and agreed with the editor on some last text changes for next year's picture book I have been kicking back just a little (here lunching with some terrific writery pals - Maria Gill, Victoria Azaro, Elena de Roo and with Jane Bloomfield behind the camera).

Somehow this year, while Christmas is on the same date in the same week that it always is, I can't help feeling that everyone has already started their end of year wind down. And that includes me. It seems oddly early and normally this would worry me as I don't like the usual wind down timings and struggle with not having the access to people, businesses and processes that I enjoy having the rest of the year (although I am sure they need their rest from me :) But I feel like I have sucked the marrow out of 2013. On the whole it has been a good year. I am content to wind down with the rest of the world and potter away at my current projects. What has happened to me??? Maybe I am growing up. I hope not.

I am trying to be a bit more zen about things anyways. Being on social media brings people in regular contact with a whole raft of problems, crises and issues and makes the world seem as if it is in a permanent state of exploding, imploding or falling apart. I often feel angry or wound up about all the injustices and while the concerns are important and taking action is worthwhile, existing in a constant state of feeling over-wound can't be healthy. So I'm trying to pick my battles, think of proactive things I can do to contribute to positive change and trying to throw off the associated stress. A current frustration is the lack of respect shown to children's literature within the local literary scene. I have lamented in the past that children's literature seems like the poor relation of adult fiction in New Zealand. Sometimes I think maybe I'm overstating things, or being too sensitive. My mistake. Apparently it is no relation at all. All too often anecdotal evidence demonstrates that I am not nearly sensitive enough. Our children's literary community is very strong in New Zealand. Children's fiction publications in New Zealand would surely outnumber adult fiction every year (adult/general non fiction I suspect would dominate all other categories). We are producing quality material. Folk might say our persistent inability to sell overseas is indicative of not quite making the mark in comparison to foreign books. But if you consider that the business end of publishing and distribution often wants to see the success of a title before taking it on elsewhere and we can never hope to demonstrate the desirable kinds of numbers in a population of 4 and a half million people or interest from a sophisticated yet still too small television or film industry, do we face impossible odds? And while our wines, our indigenous culture, our take on fashion and hobbits seem desirably exotic, this surprisingly does not extend to our children's literature. And when opportunities for introducing our work to a bigger market arise, despite the relative size of our children's writing community and that the resulting publications are a significant proportion of all annual publications here, we continue to be grossly under-represented at international events. We don't get seen at these events, or feted, or promoted. No wonder the rest of the world is unaware of us. Folk are generally unaware of us here. I know some sectors are very good at knowing us and supporting us but other sectors, who might also make a significant long term difference for us, don't share this approach.   I do not want to just be grumpy about this. I like to think there might be a solution to this problem. Maybe the summer hiatus will provide me with some good thinking time.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

How to catch an idea...

"How/where do you get your ideas?" is one of the most common questions I get asked. Ideas are everywhere and yet are more elusive than strange quarks/fairies/dark matter/Nessie/insert mythical creature here. How do you catch an idea? (This post applies more to picture books and poetry - I'll explore short story and novel ideas in the future)

I am always thinking about possible story ideas. I liken this, especially for potential picture book ideas, to trying to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together. Usually this requires a lot of time and effort and if you are lucky you might generate one or two little sparks and if you are very, very lucky a spark might fall on the driest part of your kindling or a patch of scrunched up newspaper with sufficient oxygen around it to start a fire. Fire = story. I try an awful lot of story ideas out in my head that never spark in to anything. They are too familiar, cliched, obvious, try-hard, preachy, superficial, empty or just downright dumb and are summarily discarded. Or the idea is intriguing and solid but I just don't know what to do with it. That kind I fill out as much as possible and keep for when I am ready to write them (this is how my next book The Song of Kauri was written and from first idea to final version was maybe around ten years with not much going on inbetween - I had to grow, as a writer, in to the idea ). But the best ideas are matches with a handy strike plate. Not a spark but an instant generous flame (watch out though - cup your hands around that flame, as unexpected and/or strong gusts of wind will blow it out). So where are the matches kept and how do we get them?

In a recent post I mentioned being inspired by the speech of a stuttering schoolboy and the result was my poem Eagle. The driving fragment of thought was 'I own the air' associated with the idea of 'birds' which came into my head after hearing the words (in separate sentences) own, birds and air. And while the resulting poem might not shake up the poetry world or win any prizes, the way it came about does say something about ideas. As I listened to the boy's speech the first time, while I appreciated the magic of what was happening to him I didn't hear what he actually said, I heard 'I own the air'. And this phrase was like a key that unlocked a larger idea about the relationship between birds and the medium they fly in.

I am watching, reading, thinking, observing (different to watching) and listening all the time. I read and watch widely from rubbish to academic material. This seems to make matches turn up more often. And by constantly trying on new ideas, and trying to get idea fires started I recognize when it's a match and not a twig or a knife or a pencil or a carrot. I know Neil Gaiman goes to the Idea Shop in Bognor Regis for his ideas. I'm not sure exactly how my brain goes from A (air, bird, own) to B (I own the air) - it's not a big leap but it came with useful baggage - but I think its important to feed your mind regularly and practice turning ideas into stories until you find one that works. Like a muscle, the more you exercise this process, the fitter it gets. This doesn't mean I get more ideas than the next person, it just means I know what they are when they show up. And then the hard work of turning the ideas into stories begins. How/where do you get your ideas?

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The qualities and habits of a children's writer...

Some folk think writing for children is somehow easier than writing for adults. I tend to think they have forgotten that writers for adults have more in common with their audience and in truth might often be considered to be writing for someone who is essentially themselves. Writing for an audience from whose company you were separated some decades previous adds a certain degree of difficulty. Factor in that childhood now is a very different kettle of fish from what it used to be and you add another degree or 30 - when I was a child I rode around the nearby cul de sac with the other neighbourhood kids till after dark, and went all sorts of places on my own recognisance. There was no internet. No cellphones. No playstations. It is not overstating it to say that times and childhood have changed considerably and irrevocably. The gap to be bridged between childhood and adulthood, between then and now, requires a special kind of engineering. That children's writers make it look easy, is not because it is. It is because they have some unique skills.

So what habits and qualities facilitate the development of these skills?

1) Read children's books.
2) Be in touch with the child you were
3) Be in touch with the child you still have inside you now.
4) No lecturing, hectoring, badgering and preaching unless you are a lecturer, Hector, badger or preacher, and even then, don't do it.
5) Don't be afraid for your audience
6) Don't be reckless with your audience
7) Be smart
8) Be silly
9) Be honest
10) Be respectful
11) work hard

If you think these things are easy, you are doing them wrong. And there are no shortcuts.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Never say never... it can be embarrassing

I have always loved and admired poetry. The best poems make your mind sing. I still remember poetry I loved in my childhood (favourites included The King's Breakfast and The Invaders by AA Milne, Walter de la Mare's Silver and The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes). And I have studied poetry in my journey through tertiary education - I particularly enjoyed Keats, Coleridge, Donne and Arnold - and I have plenty of poetry books from the past and present, overseas and NZ poets (Kate Camp, Hone Tuwhare, James Brown and many others). There are other poets I am keen to try out - e.e.cummings and Emily Dickinson. Rhyming, poetic picture books are lyrical lovelies that stay in the mind and on the tongue - by rhyming geniuses like Lynley Dodd, Margaret Mahy and Dr. Suess, to name a few. And yet I have been very shy about my own poetry, both writing it and sharing it. I have not considered myself a poet and I have often looked at the poetry of others with envy. The best make it look effortless and natural. Like sirens calling they lure you on to the rocks, dashing your poetic hopes there. But sometimes...just sometimes... an idea turns up refusing to be anything but a poem. It is not my fault. I do as I am told. But once written, they have stayed in my drawer, or in a file on my hard-drive. Occasionally they have been wheeled out on my blog, (like trolls are, I have been emboldened by the relative anonymity of social media) because it's my blog and I can post if I want to. But I am not a poet. Really. And I couldn't write a rhyming story if I tried. Never.

Except last week I was contacted about having a poem of mine included in an anthology of children's poetry, edited by the wonderful Paula Green, and to be published next year by Random. And then on Friday I heard from a publisher about a rhyming picture book story I had submitted. It's coming out late 2014/2015. And several people have pointed out that the text of While You Are Sleeping is a poem. Well that snuck up on me. It's a bit awkward really. Never say never. It's likely to come back and bite you. Although sekritly I am very pleased.

Monday, November 4, 2013

A poem for Tuesday...

So I have this essay to write. The last one for the year. And my (self-determined) topic is rehabilitating the reputation of YA romance. Don't shoot me - even the feminists agree they aren't all bad. And anyways, because I was avoiding having to make hard decisions and actually write the thing, then I watched this and, I don't know if its real or not, but my tears and the inspiration were real. And of course I wrote a poem. Tuesday is poem day so here it is in all its raw and unedited (which is the only way I manage to write my poems) glory. Maybe it should be longer. I'll have to think about that.

 by me

You own the air
treat it with a devil's care
make it bend to your will
for journeys
for need
for the way home
for fun

I see you out in storms
It's not that you have no
for the speed and ferocity
of that wind
But maybe that it has
for you

Sunday, October 27, 2013

"Artist Dies of Exposure"

Things are weird. I don't seem to be a new writer anymore. Ideally I would like to read over a job description for this stage that I have reached. First I need to identify what this stage is. I'm tempted right now to call it a stage of confusion.

My confusion is exacerbated by the contradictions at play in the book marketplace. What value do we place on the written word? Much has been said on the internet recently about creative folk being expected to do work for free. We are exhorted to refuse work with no pay attached, in order to change the attitude that this is acceptable. As Tim Kreider says in this article in The New York Times, "money is ... how our culture defines value, and being told that what you do is of no ($0.00) value to the society you live in is, frankly, demoralizing. Even sort of insulting. And of course when you live in a culture that treats your work as frivolous you can’t help but internalize some of that devaluation and think of yourself as something less than a bona fide grown-up." On the one hand technology makes it crazy scary easy to obtain content for free. On the other hand some folk genuinely see what we do as indulgent and in no way the equivalent of whatever they do as a plumber or farmer or politician etc... It makes it very difficult to make a rational and objective decision about what we are worth, and then to place an actual dollar figure on visits, workshops, or anything we write. This is compounded by the fact that there is very little that is uniform about the writing process. You could not apply an amount per word because two stories of the same word length might have varied in the time taken to write them, possibly even by years. This 45,000 word story in no way resembles that 45,000 word story. Talks and workshops are always tailored to the particular requirements of each audience and the focus requested. So not only must I find a unified formula to apply a fair and reasonable value, and factor in what the market might be able to afford, I first have to have encouraged end users to see that they should pay for the work I have done.

I was saddened too to see a bit of outraged brouhaha in the media about the fact that Kim Dotcom's file sharing site Mega was offering free downloads of Man Booker prize winning novel The Luminaries by New Zealander Eleanor Catton. On the one hand I share their outrage. On the other hand I am disappointed that no one previously noticed the books by all the rest of us being downloaded thousands of times for free on sites like Mega. If nothing else I hope this new attention on the issue raises public awareness about the problem. But in an effort to preserve my own life I shan't be holding my breath for change to happen any time soon.

You might think with some years of experience under my belt and a reasonable and varied publishing history that I would have a firmer sense of the value of my work and time. You'd think I would know what point I have arrived at in this career journey of a children's author. It might seem like a leap forward to reach this next step. Yet there is strength and excitement in beginning: trying on a new idea/embracing your creativity is like being the kid in the candy shop drunk on sugar and the power of a disguise. Somehow this lovely story captures this and  having shed the beginner's dinosaur skin I must now figure out how to live as the next me. Allie Brosh understands my confusion perfectly.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Off to do a little sprunting...

well, that was fun! As far as I am concerned, words are an endless source of goodness and entertainment. Thank you to everyone who entered for providing me with some delicious, odd and infrequently used words that I will treasure forever. But there can be only one, and (drum roll please) the winner of a copy of my new book While You Are Sleeping is Stephanie Thatcher who wooed me with nomophobia ( the fear of being out of mobile phone contact) and then clinched the deal with this link to ten outstanding-in-the-field words of dusty and obscure origin, limited meaning and fantastic roll around in your mouth fun-to-sayness. 'Uhtceare' especially seems to have been made for me. And I am now desperate to find a way to use sprunt and groke in a story although I should have no trouble with ultracrepidarianism, as this happens so often I'm surprised it isn't in current use. Congratulations Stephanie - email me with your address and whether you want a softback or hardback.

And special congratulations to New Zealander Eleanor Catton; fabulous, smart and youthful winner of this year's Man Booker Prize for her novel The Luminaries. That has to look pretty bloody amazing on the old writing CV. And it makes a nice change to have a writer getting this much press in the NZ media. It almost makes up for the lack of a book page yet again in the Sunday Herald. I am always surprised at how little is known (and how little interest is shown by the wider community) about books and authors outside my writery circles. At times I think, well it's a fringe topic that most people don't give attention to, and then I realise how much I know about a wide range of fringe topics or even just the interests of other people that aren't my own interests, and then I think dammit, books aren't a fringe topic, they are the gateway to a healthy, educated, empathetic and caring society. And then I get grumpy. I think Neil Gaiman was feeling a little grumpy too when he spoke so elegantly and eloquently on the topic of why our futures depend on libraries and reading. We shouldn't have to work so hard to encourage folk to pick up a book or two or discuss them in an everyday fashion. Books matter people.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Win a copy of While You Are Sleeping...

Time for a book give-away methinks. My new picture book While You Are Sleeping is out this month. I am having a wee launch next month to wet the baby's head (so to speak) but as this is the actual birth month a give-away seems like a good way to kick things off. If you want to know more about the book here is the front cover

here is the back cover

here is some information on the wonderful illustrator Greg Straight. And here are some more reviews to give you an idea of what it's all about. From KidsBooksNZ and Around the Bookshops.

To win a copy
I recently came across a word I had never ever heard or read before - ratiocinative. A few years before that the word gallimaufrey caught me by surprise. Especially when I came across it twice in the space of about twelve hours in unrelated sources. To win a copy of the book (your choice of hardback or soft) post your favourite obscure word in the comments and the winner will be the one I like the best. Competition closes Friday 5pm - relatives of the author, illustrator and publisher may not enter. No correspondence will be entered into. Judges decision is final cos she's in charge.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Happily hanging out in a parallel universe...

My first story was accepted for publication back in July 2002. A second was accepted in October of the same year and ended up coming out first in April 2003. Both were short stories. My first picture book was accepted 2004 and my first novel in 2006. I'd been writing for several years before that first acceptance and dabbling secretly for many years before that.

If I knew what lay ahead of me before the first 'yes' I don't think I would have believed it. Not because it is more than I could have imagined. Although at times it has been (and then there have been the other times when it has been downright depressing and way less than what I hoped for). Not because publishing and books are inexorably changed from when I started out - and they are, in ways few could have predicted. It is because this has turned out nothing like my expectations, and the more time passes the less sure I am of what will happen next.

Don't get me wrong - I like where I am at. I'm proud and excited by the way things are going most of the time. But if you'd asked me to predict where I'd be ten or 15 years down the track I don't think you would have been able to accuse me at any point of having ESP.

Which leads to a small problem I have when I think about what advice to give new writers.  Okay, all the basics are still true. The fundamental tenets of writing and editing are still the same. Characters, plots, settings and voice all function pretty much like they always have (okay maybe they have gone a bit post-postmodern). And the advice about joining organisations and writers groups is still true. Even the rules about submitting are still the same, although the range of alternatives to traditional submissions has widened. But at some point I seem to have hopped onto a parallel universe. One populated by that alien chameleon Benedict Cumberbatch. Where time runs differently, sometimes indifferently, and never uniformly. Where the things most likely to happen don't, but the most unexpected and often lovely things do. And the best piece of advice I can give you now was crystallised in my mind as I watched the weirdest sitcom on tv last night "Don't Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23". It's not rocket science. And it's not new (and that programme is really very strange). Networking is how you make things happen. Sending your CV out, honing your letter of introduction and waiting at home for the phone to ring have their place. But more things are likely to happen if you get out there and shake hands, introduce yourself, get seen and take a chance. That doesn't mean you can push things. Results are usually best when they happen organically. As in, you plant that seed, water it and walk away and wait for the sun and time to make things grow. I've had eggs in baskets that haven't hatched and yet chicks have popped up in other places. I've tossed my hat in the ring and had it flung back at me, hitting me in the back of the head. But sometimes it gets returned with an invitation. Or with bells on.

I can't guarantee you results. No one can. But you have a greater chance of being in the right place at the right time if you go places where things happen. Fill in those stretches where the only thing that happens is your impatience, by making new connections, saying yes to things that drag you out of your comfort zone and where you don't even say anything but you see and are seen.And be open to things. Because I'm discovering the unexpected is a pretty great place to find yourself in.

Now that I've exhausted all my metaphors we are off to have a rest.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Rules for behaving...

I have a number of unwritten rules that I observe as I go about my writerly business. The all come under my mantra umbrella of being 'polite and professional'. Sometimes I would benefit from being a little less polite and professional but 99 times out of ten this approach has worked for me.

Here are some of the (no longer) unwritten rules:-

1) I don't review things I haven't read - although I may make a comment if I've tried to read something but stopped because of the content. 

2) I don't rate or review my own books (although I may refer to someone else's review or a straight description). How could I be even remotely objective and in view of this, how might readers perceive such reviews? 

3) I can get very emotional about stuff. Being in touch with feelings is a useful quality for a writer. But in the end I always try and make a rational rather than an emotional decision. Do NOT shoot first and ask questions later. Regret is not a fun companion. 

4) I always reserve the right to change my mind and I try to fess up if I was wrong.

5) Honesty is a good policy.

6) I despair about the fakery, witch-hunting, name calling, stalking, hate-filled behaviour that has been on the rise in the online book world.  Wtf. Why do people do this stuff???  

7) Know when to say nothing. Sometimes silence is the right response. Sometimes silence is eloquent and speaks volumes.

7) Be yourself - being someone else can be much harder to pull off. 

8) Don't get stuck on past problems or mistakes - learn from them, apologise if necessary, and move on

9) Be nice. Most folk respond well to good treatment.

Feel free to add your own rules in the comments. In view of my number 6 above - here is a link to 5 tips for writers using social media from Nicola Morgan.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Chocks away...

I had such a fun visit to Viscount School in Mangere yesterday and I was greatly impressed by the students. They treated me well, were really engaged and asked great questions. Cool kids, cool school - thank you so much for making me feel so welcome.

The day before I had posted my essay off for my university paper. With assignments I often circle round and round the question for a while trying ideas out and experimenting until things start to fall into place, to gel, to coalesce and turn into a whole that hopefully makes sense and addresses the issue at hand. I circled for a long time on this one till I seemed to be running low on fuel and thought I might have to ditch in a nearby paddock. I managed to land that thing but it wasn't elegant. Oh well... it's done now. On to the next (and last) one due Halloween. I contacted the tutor today and checked if my proposed essay topic was gonna fly and got the thumbs up. Chocks away.

Things have gone a little crazy on the internet recently with hostilities breaking out between some authors and some reviewers. Nathan Bransford blogged about it on September 3 and the long thread of comments is sobering reading. Emotions have been running pretty high. I want people to say what they really think about my books. I understand that sometimes they won't like my books. Negative reviews do hurt but on the plus side even a negative review is an engagement with the book.  And I always hope that reviewers will accord me the same respect that I accord them. I don't ever want to interfere with the process. I acknowledge them all, good and bad. Then I go back to the keyboard and write some more. I don't know that I've really been tested though. And if things went beyond just a review how would this feel.  Fellow blogger Maureen Crisp posted an interesting link to a post on the Popular Science site which stated they were turning off comments on their articles as research had revealed that reading insulting comments can artificially skew a reader's perceptions about a topic. Yikes. I know reading comments like those on Bransford's blog had an impact on me. And freaked me out a little.  I'm worried about where this is all heading. Be careful out there people.

My latest title While You Are Sleeping is still a few weeks away from release but I have had my first review which you can check out here. Sweet!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Live, in action...

From time to time I like to try on a new hat. Recently I was asked to be a judge for a very cool writing competition for children. Run by The Breeze radio station, the brief is to write a 400 word story. The closing date is September 27th which isn't too far away so if you would like to enter you will need to get writing. There are two age groups: 9 and under, and 10 to 13. The winners receive a cash prize and books for their school library. This is epic. Get writing. And if you need a few tips there are some videos online from the judges...

... including one by me!

And if you like, you can listen to my story The House That Went to Sea being read by Emma Kinane on Radio New Zealand

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Sometimes...a poem happens

Thank Dog

My dog’s tail can’t always decide if he is happy or not
Be glad
I tell him confidently.
Glad like I am, that I have no tail of my own
To give me away
Like his does.

The cat begs to come in so she can stare out at the world
I let her in, again
Always. I know how she feels
And let her come inside
To stare out at life going on without her
Till she is ready to go out again

Thank cat,
and dog

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The dog may never forgive me...

I have been concealing a sekrit. I could have told you all but then there would have been problems over what I would have done with all the bodies. But that is no longer an issue as the news has now been made public. I am to be the "University of Otago College of Education Creative New Zealand Children's Writer in Residence" for 2014. I will be heading down to the city of Dunedin next February and staying there for 6 months. There is a stipend, accommodation, working space on campus at the University of Otago and most importantly an ENORMOUS amount of time to do nothing but write. I must admit that last bit leaves me a little giddy.

I am leaving my family at home. This will be a challenge for me and them. We are a close knit unit and I will miss them terribly (the dog may never forgive me. The cat will just say 'meh'). When I think of who I am, as an individual and a writer, my family are an indivisible part of the whole package. But when applications first opened for the residency back at the beginning of May I mentioned it to my eldest and she encouraged me to put my hat in the ring. Thank you Elora for showing me this opportunity wasn't just good for me, it was good for you too. My family all know I have writer stamped on my DNA. And there is more to receiving this opportunity than time to write (which is HUGE), financial support ( a concrete endorsement of my being a writer), and being part of an academic environment (which I have always loved - I am a recidivist student). It's a big honour to be selected. The children's writing community in New Zealand is such a strong one. And while the benefits in 2014 will be tangible and obvious, I think this opportunity has the possibility to keep rewarding me for years afterwards. And then, ya know, YOLO. I have always been a little risk averse (let's not play the radio in the car when the engine is off), and kinda careful about a bunch of stuff. This is a big adventure for me. I think this experience is going to inform my writing in new ways. And I must say that is rather exciting.

Thank you to James, Elora, Geneva and Remek for their understanding and patience. And to the University of Otago College of Education, and Creative New Zealand. I am truly grateful.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Perhaps not the right reward for excellence....

Last week was a shocker. The New Zealand Children's literature community was rocked by the news that the Government is closing Learning Media, the organisation that has produced the School Journal and other educational literacy material for use in schools. This award winning material is provided free to schools and forms the backbone of learning to read and extends many other courses of study within the classroom. The School Journal and other materials have an international reputation for excellence and are the envy of many other countries. Concerns were raised earlier this year when we were alerted to the fact that the production of these materials was being put out to tender. Learning Media were required to compete for the business that it had previously held sole responsibility for. And now they are to close. We wonder what might happen next to these wonderful educational publications.

Paul Little had this to say in the Sunday Herald - The state-owned enterprise that publishes the School Journal is to close, largely because it lost a Government publishing contact.
Don't expect the Journal itself to last much longer. The decision not to bail out Learning Media and ensure continuity of this beloved resource shows, as if we needed reminding, that we value money ahead of reading, imagination, creativity, tradition, inspiration, history, art, stimulation, fun, language, writing, communication, children, dedication, variety, the music of words, open minds, canons, culture and memories.

And here is a good explanation of what happened and why we should care about what happens next, written by NZ illustrator Adele Jackson - "There is a company that wasn't managing to return a profit and perform well under the government's new procurement processes, certainly. The reasons for this are many but essentially, Learning Media were forced to compete for their work, where once they had a monopoly. The company produces literacy resources for the Ministry of Education and all kinds of other wonderful educational materials like 'Ready to Read' books used by most if not all schools, and science magazines of a quality not seen anywhere in the world, te reo resources and pacifica resources. They also produce the School Journal which contains plays, fiction, nonfiction, poetry and craft activities. Now that the company is being wound up, the School Journal will be tendered out to other publishing companies for production. These companies are on a panel of providers. There is nothing to stop overseas companies from applying to be on the panel of providers and content for the Journals could be sourced from overseas in future. In all probability it will eventually stop being published altogether if the new tendering process fails to reach the levels of economies required by the Ministry. Before that happens we may see it being sold to schools ... and this will be a huge expense for lower decile schools. 

So looking at the effects now:
The the demise of the school journal *will* affect literacy levels undoubtedly - Journals are primary schools' main resource for teaching reading, social studies, science, history, english and culture... (and they are free to all schools I might add). The School Journals have uniquely New Zealand content which is written and illustrated by New Zealand authors and illustrators. They are graded to match literacy standards imposed by the Ministry of Ed as a child progresses through school, and they're matched against the New Zealand Curriculum with extensive teachers notes. All journals are indexed so back issues can be used to support classroom planning and the curriculum at any time. Picture books like The Gruffalo (not a NZ book) aren't core learning materials. The School Journal reflects New Zealand culture and arts as well as New Zealand history and the achievements of New Zealanders.

So you see... there really is a lot to lose and they are a hell of a lot more than a sentimental memory for those of us that grew up with them. They are a priceless treasure house that shape our kids learning through school."

 If you are concerned about what is happening please write to your MP and the Minister for Education and let them know 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Living the dream...

I am somewhat surprised by folk who dream of meeting and chatting with their author idols. Not because they have them and I don't - oh no - I have author idols (Jane Austen -  although meeting her would probably mean sifting some dust through my fingers which I imagine would be reasonably unsatisfying, Ursula Le Guin, Neil Gaiman - who I did get the chance to meet but didn't, Maggie Steifvater, and a small but very select bunch of others who I truly admire). I have author/illustrator idols as well (Maurice Sendak, Theodore Geisel - to name a couple) and a few illustrators too. I just don't really want to meet them.

My relationship with them happens on the page. They're very good relationships. Happy, magical ones even. I'm okay listening to my idols talk and happy enough to be in the same elevator with them, or best of all have them buy my book without any word about it from me (although I am sceptical about miracles so lets not dwell on that last one). I'm just not so fussed about their process - because I have one of my own and it's taken me awhile to get to that and if I change it inorganically it might stop working. I'm not that fussed about what they eat, or whether we enjoy the same tv programmes or have our coffee in the same way  - "Why yes I do peg my sweaters under the arms when I hang them out to dry," or 'Yes it is pantene and don't be jealous, but it did happen overnight."

I have no idea what I'd want to say to them or what I would want to know about them. They're human beings just like me so our habits probably aren't that dissimilar apart from the fact they're best sellers so their lifestyle probably does include a bit more international travel and public speaking than mine. I just want to read their books because, really, they tell me everything I want to know. They teach me what beautiful sentences and cunning word play look like. They demonstrate effective settings, satisfying plots and credible character developments. I can learn about motifs, metaphor, imagery, and onomatopeia. Why ask the writer what they were trying to do in a particular passage, or plot twist? - the challenge is mine as reader to work it out.

I have met and talked to some starry authors but it was jolly hard work composing sentences which didn't make it sound like I'd had a stroke or swallowed a dictionary of cliches, or a shipload of ums. My main aim was to sound smart enough not to embarrass myself which meant my questions weren't based on things I really desperately wanted to know (especially because there weren't things I desperately wanted to know) but on things I though the writer might want to talk about. If cannibals are correct in their theories I might have been better off eating their brains but it would be cheating to be using their skills when really I would be better off developing my own. I could try and discover whether their values and politics and beliefs are similar to my own but asking runs the risk of finding out that they aren't which might be disappointing.

Ultimately, talking to my author idols would be a false or transient relationship. I would much rather be Neil Gaiman's Diana Wynne Jones or Justine Larbalestier's Holly Black but this is a very different thing. And I already have my own writery/illustratery friends with whom I discuss the kinds of things that Neil and Diana used to talk about and Justine and Holly talk about now. And I already get to do that. It would seem I am already living the dream...

Saturday, August 24, 2013

This one's for you....

Sorry I have been a bit slack folks. No excuses either.

First things first - for any UK followers my book A Winter's Day in 1939 is now available as an e-book on Amazon UK. Yay!!!

Second - the clock is ticking down to the release of my next picture book 'While You Are Sleeping' illustrated by the very talented Greg Straight and published by Duck Creek Press. The book is released on October 1st and I will post details for the launch soon. This is a bedtime book to share with young children, with fun illustrations full of gorgeous details complimented by spare poetic text. I am really looking forward to holding this in my hands and being able to share it.

And third - I want to do a big shout out to the very cool crowd of children from Viscount School in South Auckland who performed my story The House That Went to Sea (Duck Creek Press, 2011) at the Auckland Storylines Family Day last Sunday. What a talented bunch of kids. I was completely blown away by the cleverness of the production, the cool special effects, the mermaid song (this mermaids on water, to the tune of 'This girl is on fire'), the pirate battle, the costumes, the sound effects (big ups to the violinist shark!) and of course the acting - I was dead impressed. If I can wrangle a recording of the show I will try loading it up here.

And the family day was terrific. I love being a part of this celebration of children's books. And it's great to have the opportunity to connect with young readers and their very cool and supportive parents. Thank you too to my most marvelous minder, and fellow writer, Katie Furze who was excellent company for the day and a terrific minder.

 But the family day has also always been an opportunity to catch up with old writer and illustrator friends and make new ones. This year I met Rachel Spratt, creator of the Nanny Piggins books, Stacy Gregg, author of numerous Pony Club books, Greet Pauwelijn, publisher (Book Island) and Isaac Drought, winner of last year's Joy Cowley Award who was launching his winning picture book Alphabet Squabble. Every author and illustrator I meet makes me feel even more convinced that (despite the crazy and difficult elements ) I was picked by the right career. Every author and illustrator I meet helps me paint a more comprehensive picture of the book world. I would not be where I am now without the advice, the information and the support and encouragement I have received over the years from this fantastic community. Even yesterday after lamenting my writerly laziness to a writer friend, she said just the right thing and helped me put my situation in perspective. If I was allowed to only ever give one piece of advice to help another writer reach for their dreams I would tell them to become a part of the writers community.  It is the best way to learn what you need to know. It is the best way to hear about new opportunities when new opportunities seem thin on the ground. It is the best way to keep your head above water when drowning seems like a real possibility. And I'm not talking about just a critique group here (although joining one of these can be enormously helpful too) - you need to be talking to authors and illustrators at all stages of their careers; people much published, gaining momentum, starting out, and unpublished. You only get the full picture if you see it from all angles. If you only hang out with other folk at the same stage as you are, you may remain unaware of the dangers and the pitfalls, and be ignorant of the possibilities and proactive things you can be doing to propel yourself forward. I love having peers who understand where I'm at, icons to look up to and learn from and new folk who I can share information with. We are a very nice bunch.

And last but not least today I want to say a heartfelt thank you to the people who support us. Being an author and/or illustrator has always been a tricky profession. We are at the mercy of our rejections and acceptances, over our success and failures and the complex machinations that drive our careers. Most of us don't earn a living wage and our contribution to the family coffers is often token at best. So to all the husbands, wives, partners, girlfriends, boyfriends, parents and families...for the financial and emotional support; your continued belief in us and your encouragement THANK YOU - we couldn't do it without you.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Did I write that? What do I do with it now?...

A while back I wittered about 'brand'. Brand has been a hot topic and as part of our self marketing plan we have been exhorted to develop one. Initially I thought this a good idea and tried to tie myself into a single package with a suitable summation of what me and my books are. Then I decided, well, actually, no, I am me in all my complex, ever-changing glory and a standard 'brand' box is the wrong size and shape to represent me. I like to think readers can rely on me to get something interesting and 'a little different' but it might come in a variety of forms, genre, length, etc.... I don't want to be tied down to a brand either. There are all sorts of exciting possibilities out there. But brand has another side which I cannot avoid in the same way. Some time back I wrote a picture book story. The main character was a bit of a wayward boy and in the end he learns to be better behaved. The story has some charm and some humour. The characters are kind of fun. It is polished and edited and I am happy with the writing. But it has a whiff of the didactic about it (you could probably already tell, right?). Publishers in general aren't keen on didactic. I am not that keen on it myself. But I like this story. It has been turned down by a couple of publishers with some interesting (and opposing) feedback. Do I keep sending it out? Would I be happy if it was a book? Do I want my name printed on the cover of a didactic text? Can I draw a line between too didactic and just a little bit didactic?

This might seem like an odd dilemma but I can tell you right now, even with all the sales and money involved, I would not want my name on the front of 50 Shades of Grey. Are there books you wouldn't want your name on the front of? There are certainly some books I wish I had written. Is the converse true? Do I chalk this one up to experience and file it in the drawer forever?

Saturday, August 10, 2013

A baker's dozen of writery advice....

Some new tips for writing in these tricky times. The rules have changed. Writing and publishing have become a wide open field of possibility. Be brave, have fun, but let's be careful out there...

1). Read as if your life depended on it. To become a good writer you must learn to recognize good writing. The best writing for you to learn is the kind you love reading the most; that you enjoy; that best satisfies your reading needs. Folk might try telling you only one kind of writing is the good kind. I would rather write the kind of book I love to read. They are my benchmark for good writing.
2) Don't jump in without checking the water first. There might be sharks, mermaids or pirates, none of whom will help you. Don't let ignorance be your excuse for being eaten alive, being lured by the siren, or being plundered for booty.
3) Ideas are two faced and will abandon you when you need them most. Don't call them, they'll call you. Have faith in the fact that they are there, whether you can see them or not. Eventually they will show themselves
4) Some ideas take years to develop. If you like the look of it don't give up on an idea just because it refuses to grow. Put it aside and let it prove
5) Act like a writer. Write. Think about writing. Write some more. Make friends with other writers. Read. Write some more. Put writing first sometimes.
6) The buck stops with you. People can give you advice and you can choose whether or not to take it. This is very exciting. But don't forget the responsibilities and the consequences of your decisions will also be yours.
7) Reward yourself. When things go well. When things don't go so well. You will write better if you feel good about it
8) Take care of yourself. Rest, eat, exercise, see people, get fresh air, laugh.
9) Celebrate any successes. If you haven't had a success for a while - celebrate an old one. I recommend wrapping successes in gladwrap so they stay fresher longer.
10) Don't be afraid to find new dreams. This does not necessarily mean getting rid of old ones. But as it appears it is still possible to achieve your dreams it pays to update them regularly.
11) Instincts can be quite trustworthy. If you are not sure about your own, find friends who have good ones and ask their opinion. If a bad decision happens, unless it stops you breathing, know that you will get past it. Do your best to learn what you can from it.
12) Be happy that you are doing what you love, no matter how it turns out
13) Know that no one has all the answers - even the biggest smartypants

Monday, August 5, 2013

Trust the dog...

Tis very exciting today as I have a visitor. A guest blogger! Over the writery years I have got to know a wonderful bunch of writers and illustrators around New Zealand, and even some people who are both at once, and at times having these friends has been the saving of my sanity. But here, I'll let Ruth Paul explain it better. Click here to find out more about her fabulous award winnery books. This is one of my recent faves

by Ruth Paul

You know who they are. The shiny, clever, good looking, well known, respected, connected authors who radiate talent and possibility and always get CNZ grants. I want to be one of them.

But like every photo ever taken of me, I am shocked to discover that I'm quite ignoble. I have a wonky mouth and a square face. If a chin can be both receding and protruding at the same time, well, I have it.  On the bright side, as a picture book writer and illustrator, I work alone and no one has to look at me. I have Radio New Zealand National for company, and for a while there developed a big crush on Jim Mora’s voice. Perhaps that should have been a sign.

There were other signs, of course. The success of fellow authors started to grate. Not in a jealous way that made me want to scratch their eyes out, but in a way that crippled my ability to work. Google took the place of newspaper horoscopes or the Bible. I’d type in things like “What do you do when you’re a picture book author and you feel like you’re not very good but you want to be really good?” or “Picture book doldrums” (which, to save you the time, always turns up The Phantom Tollbooth).  I started looking forward to my friend’s disasters so I could live vicariously over the phone through their thwarted romances or office corruption scandals. And I never brushed my hair, convincing myself that birds nesting in it was quite fetching.

When I started sharing these thoughts with Jim, the slight tilt of the dog’s head made me take stock. By virtue of doodling and writing doggerel I had cornered myself in a solitary career, when really I was a people person! Consequently, I seriously considered becoming a City Councillor – a long story, but trust me when I tell you I'm very good at arguing.  I consulted the wisest women in the land, email-moaning to Margaret Mahy (reply: “…Writing is a solitary process as you know. You sound as if you might enjoy social life rather more than I ever did.”) and visiting Jeanette Fitzsimons at her home (deftly sidestepping the invitation for a naked swim). My vocation hung in the balance, the clock ticked.

Then, just as I was about to plunge into the cesspool of local body politics, a good friend rescued me. She gave me a job as her illustration assistant on The Hobbit. These were the early days, pre-green light, and a true pleasure. I put on decent clothes, drew gorgeous things, laughed loudly with other fabulous people, chose my own hours, grazed by the espresso machine, realized I had a skill that not everyone else had, and GOT PAID GREAT MONEY BY THE HOUR! I dropped Jim like a hot potato and took up with my new shiny, clever, good-looking friends in the film industry. And politics? Why, with friends on both sides of the actor’s equity fracas I had it all! Highways and by-laws be damned.

Unfortunately for me, but fortunately for the rest of the nation, The Hobbit did eventually get cranking. I had to choose to stay on for the whole ride or find a replacement. And you know what? It never occurred to me to stay. Believe it or not, I missed my solitary career. I had a new book idea to work on, taller things to draw. Yes, having gone There and Back Again, I realized that I loved nothing more than writing and illustrating children’s stories. I just needed to get far enough away from myself to see it.

I am now resigned to my solitary vice, although that sounds rather more pleasurable than it often is. The path of a solo artists career can be a long and treacherous one, so here are some of my hard-earned pointers for the journey:

• Google is a miraculous tool that can take us into the studios of world famous writers and illustrators. It’s a fabulous research machine, but it has limits. It is neither friend nor soothsayer.
• The same goes for CNZ.  Never wait on a grant to validate your work or determine your route. If you need to get out, change tack, start a new project or enroll in a fancy course, just do it.  It’s up to you to put food into the machine.
• Discover Facebook (unless you can’t control it, in which case it’s like advising you to take up smoking) and phone coffee. Staying in touch helps keep the lonesome ghosts at bay. Good friends are as close as you’ll get to soothsayers. 
• Jealousy comes in fits and starts. Welcome it as a catalyst to drive improvement. Frankly, if I'm jealous of someone it’s my highest form of praise.
• Work is a great distraction.
• Exercise. Brush hair. Remind self that the voice on the radio is attached to a real person who is married and is not your imaginary friend.

Most importantly, know that going stir-crazy is a cyclical phenomenon. It’s ok, it’s natural, you won’t go blind.  And learn to trust that look on the dog’s face. 

Friday, August 2, 2013

Fun and good times in August...

Okay so I invoked the Borg in my last post, but folks resistance is not futile. And the only thing that is truly final is death, so if you are still breathing (pretty much essential if you are currently reading these words) then you should keep trying. Keep trying to make your way in whatever crazy endeavour makes you happy and/or excited. As long as its not criminal. Or is bad for other people. But I digress. The reason we feel so awful when we are rejected or get a bad review is because we care so much about what have written. This is a good thing. If you care so much then you should keep at it. And don't forget that Jean-Luc did escape the Borg. There is a lesson in that for all of us (and for some of you that lesson will be to go Google Jean-Luc and the Borg).

I had a terrific time yesterday, first of all out at the NZ History Fair out at the Vodafone Event Centre in Manukau. I was invited by the folk from the Kresy Siberia Virtual Museum which is devoted to the experiences of those Poles deported, like my father and mother were, from the Kresy region of Poland to Soviet labour camps in World War 2. I learnt a lot from my two lovely hosts and came away feeling very motivated for my next book projekt. Then in the afternoon I hung out with the fabulous YA Bookclub at my local independent bookshop, Timeout Bookstore. I got to talk about A Winter's Day in 1939 with them and be impressed by how well read, smart and switched on they all were. I was especially interested in their thoughts on book series and the kinds of books they were reading. While their ages ranged through 10 to 14 their reading was much, much wider. And yes some teens do skip YA and go straight to adult books. This bookshop run bookclub is a tremendous initiative. Timeout Bookstore is a shining example of a bookshop that knows how to make itself an indispensable part of its customers' lives. It does interesting, fun things, goes the extra mile and makes the book buying experience such a positive one. Long may they continue. They'll certainly be getting my continued business.

In a few weeks I am visiting the lovely New Windsor Primary School where I was author in residence last year. I am looking forward to catching up with everyone there, reading some stories and getting dressed up in my onesie and drinking Milo for their Milo Storytime on the Wednesday. This evening of stories and song is another example of a great initiative to switch children on to books and reading. What a fun thing to do and i am so lucky to get to be a part of it.

In a few weeks the Storylines Festival will be upon us. Yay I love this time of year when we get to celebrate children's books with a whole crowd of children and children's book loving adults. I'm going to be a part of the Family Day in Auckland on Sunday August 18th and there are some very exciting things planned (a performance of one of my books, and a panel discussion - more details soon). I'm also running a writing workshop for children on Saturday the 17th at the National Library as party of the Storylines workshop programme and I have all sorts of writing tips, ideas and exercises to touch the magic wand to your writing. Come celebrate with us!

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Not dead yet...

For some reason at the moment I seem to be in no-man's land, or all at sea (get your free overworked metaphor here ladies and gentlemen). There is progress with upcoming and previously published books, I am writing (not as much as I would like, but getting some work done) and reading (although only books prescribed by my university course) and getting ready for several upcoming author events (see next post). There have been some disappointments (things I applied or hoped for and didn't get) and then some small surprises (things most unexpected which I will tell you about soon), so business as usual really. But too much multi-tasking is making me a little jumbled. If everything would just slow down for a minute.

But as we all know change is happening all the time. Children keep growing up, publishers keep dropping by the wayside (we bid a sad farewell to Hachette who will be departing our shores in the near future, following Pearson and Harper Collins). And of course Penguin and Random are now a married couple and while it kind of seems business as usual I assume there will be changes there too. And educational publishing seems to have been attacked by the Borg. So far all these departures and transformations haven't impacted directly on me. I wasn't published by most of those folk and in some respects they have created a small vacuum which will in part be filled by those publishers remaining, some of whom are mine. But my friends are affected. And publishing as a whole in New Zealand is affected. And people are shocked and afraid and sad. In some respects we are powerless to do anything about it.

But then there is the news that Eleanor Catton's latest novel The Luminaries is longlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. And you look at the awards locally and you can't help but notice the writing in New Zealand is in really good shape. Our books are stronger than ever I reckon. And more beautiful. And perhaps gaining more notice overseas. And did you see the crowd funded nominee among the NZ Post Book Award finalists and the fact that the supreme winner of the NZ Post Children's (and YA) Book Awards was self published. So I don't want to despair. Things are a changin' but writing isn't dead or dying. I don't quite feel 'really excited' by all the changes either as some would exhort me to be - I came up through the traditional publication route and there are plenty of things I like about it. There are challenges ahead. I just reckon I'll get further by being positive about it :)

Monday, July 22, 2013

A new adventure?...

I am of a mind to assemble my children's short stories in to one e-book volume. A number have been published but for one reason or another some never got their chance to shine. So I will be gathering, deciding, primping, editing, and formatting from both the published and the unpublished. I have more than 20 to choose from. It will be fun to think of a title and cover. And I will let you know when it is ready to go. Here is an example of one from my files...

Clean Hands
Mrs Blackstock licked her forefinger and smoothed back a stray hair.
"There. You'll do," the large woman said as she looked from the top of the little girl's head down to her feet in shiny black shoes. The girl's dress was bright red velvet with a white, wavy-edged collar, red velvet buttons and a wide shiny satin sash. It was smart and new looking although it was a little tight and a little short. You could see the girl's knees with three plasters and two bruises, even through the milky white tights that wrinkled at her ankles and strangled her underpants into an uncomfortable mass of folds. Her straight long yellow hair refused to stay in the orderly plait her mother had wrestled it into. How difficult is it, Mrs Blackstock wondered, for straight hair to stay where it was put.
"You have a few minutes before our guest arrives. This is a very important person and I want you to be on your best behaviour, but I'm sure it won't do any harm for you to be outside for a little while before they get here," Mrs Blackstock said. This will give me time to set out the rest of the teacups and do some last minute tidying she thought. How little Mrs Blackstock knew her daughter. How different they were.
The girl looked up, wide eyed, at her mother. Time outside? This was almost too much to hope for.
Mrs Blackstock propelled the girl toward the French-doors that led out onto the verandah.
"Just a few minutes, mind," the woman said. "And Careen, try and keep clean." This was her mistake. As we all know, keeping clean and trying to keep clean are two very different things.
The girl stepped out through the door and surveyed the Blackstock garden. From the verandah two steps brought you to the lawn which swept down grandly and steeply for some distance before it came to a stand of tall trees. Through the trees a shell path took you to a little wooden bridge over the puddle her mother liked to call 'The Pond'. One tree had a wooden swing suspended from it and closer to the house, on a tilt, sat a metal swing-set with a slide attached. Hidden by the fence amongst the weeds just a short distance from 'The Pond' an old box cart seemed to call magnetically to the young girl. So many things to do and so little time. The girl had to think quick.  She looked back at the house and saw her mother's head bobbing round through the kitchen window. Mrs Blackstock seemed too busy to be watching her daughter. Careen ran down the slope, still wet from last night's big rain. The grass felt spongy and a little slippery as well. Not the best for carting but it would have to do.
The cart was right amongst the bushes against the wire fence and the girl had to rummage around for what seemed like ages before she felt the rope attached to the steering bar that controlled the front wheels. She pulled and pulled and finally the cart let go of the weeds and jumped out at her. Plop, she sat down in more weeds with the cart half on top of her.
Over the bridge she pulled the cart, and on up the hill to the top of the garden. She sat square in the seat, on the damp wood and tucked the edges of her dress and the long sash in underneath her. She had to really dig her heels in to get the cart moving and it was slow going most of the way down, the wheels sinking a little in the soft ground. But a slope makes everything speed up. Careen tried to leap out of the cart at the bottom of the hill before it hit the trees, but it was going faster than she thought, lurching wildly on the uneven ground. It began to veer away from the trees toward 'The Pond' and before she could even think what to do the cart landed in the puddle with a splash. Then, in the stillness that followed she could hear her mother calling.
Careen tried to look at herself in 'The Pond' but it wasn't any good for reflections, being a bit too green. She bent over and wiggled her hands around in the water, wiping them carefully on her skirt afterwards. She smoothed down her dress and trying her mother's trick, licked her finger and pushed a few strands of hair back from her face. There. You'll do, she thought.
"This is my daughter, Careen," Mrs Blackstock said proudly without turning around. Careen put out her hand to shake the guest's hand as her mother had taught her. The lady smiled as she shook hands with Careen. Mrs Blackstock turned to survey her daughter, her mouth dropping open, her hands flying upwards in horror. Where was Careen in her red velvet dress, the white tights, the prim plait? "Oh your majesty!" she gasped.
"Why Careen, what lovely clean hands you have," said the Queen. And who could disagree?

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Double dip of desirability...

Earlier this year I outlined the financial realities of author visits. It is not always easy to ask for a fee but I believe being paid a fee is fair when you are asked to present to any kind of audience. Author/illustrator Oisin McGann extends the argument in his blog here. It is indeed incomprehensible that folk who draw a salary for their involvement in the publication /sale /promotion and/or celebration of books/reading and/or writing, feel the author should appear/write for free.This does not create, or perpetuate a culture of valuing authors. In fact it perpetuates the opposite view.

This is not about how much money authors make, this is about being asked to do work for nothing. I am not a volunteer writer - this is my career and I spend a lot of time and effort upskilling, refining and preparing so I can deliver information that will be useful and interesting for the audience or participants. Many (paid) folk view the ability to promote as this incredibly valuable commodity for authors. It seems to me that the concept of 'promotion' has taken on this mythical, magical quality as if it always translates directly into significant sums of money. Sadly this is not as true as we would like it to be. And promotion when you are an author of children's books presents some unique challenges when you consider that the majority of my audiences (children from kindergarten to intermediate ages) have very little purchasing power.

I often eye up writing residencies and fellowships with considerable longing: the double dip of desirability of dedicated time to write and often a stipend to value and support you as an author. What's not to love? Well, maybe just the fact that we don't seem to have a lot of residencies and fellowships available to children's writers. If you look at the total number available in New Zealand the majority are geared towards writers of adult material and if they are open to all writers, most of the time they go to those involved in adult writing (the Beatson, The Buddle-Findlay, Berlin, Menton, the Burns Fellowship, University of Waikato, Michael King Fellowship etc...). That's my impression anyway and I welcome your views, opposing or supporting, in the comments. There is the very cool University of Otago Children's Writer in Residence (long may it continue) but if children's writers have to compete with adult writers for the same programmes, for whatever reasons, good or bad, adult writing tends to win out more often than not. Competing doesn't seem like the best idea. I think there is a gap here. I vote we get another dedicated children's writers residency or fellowship. What do you think?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

What is a Young Adult...

Yesterday I got my most recent university assignment back for my paper in Young Adult Fiction. I shan't tell you what my mark was, suffice it to say I passed. I am now at work on the next assignment due alarmingly soon. However I thought in view of recent debates in social media about what is suitable literature for this age group I should post up one of my answers in this last assignment. So here you go, two different perspectives from the same person on what an adolescent/young adult is

Aim: to construct a working definition of adolescence
1.       Compile your own working definition of adolescence. Write no less than half a page, more if you feel you need to
2.       Treat the term as something unfamiliar, as a strange object you have never met before. How would you describe the experience of adolescence to someone from another world, or a place where the teenager did not exist? Write no less than one page.

1.      Adolescence – a time of significant physical, intellectual and emotional change and growth, culminating in the commencement of adulthood, transforming individuals from complete dependence and helplessness as infants, to the independence and physical, emotional and social maturity of adulthood.
During adolescence individuals become sexually mature in a process driven by hormones, becoming physically able to produce children of their own. Hormones also drive the appearance, growth and maturation of gender specific features such as facial and pubic hair, breasts and adam’s apples.  Adolescents experience new physical growth, with hips and/or shoulders broadening, and the reaching of their adult height, vocal tenor and shoe size. Brains too are maturing and thought processes developing and refining, with adolescents liable to impulsive and risky behaviours based on their ill-founded confidence in their own youth.
Adolescents are hungry for information during this developmental phase, looking for an understanding of their world and their place in it, testing physical, societal and moral boundaries and exploring their own wants, needs and desires. Adolescence is also a time of emotional instability and especially in view of the rate of sexual maturation and refining of emotional intelligence, teens often struggle to control their feelings and find the right emotion for the moment.
2.       All humans start off very small, born live and usually screaming and fairly grubby looking.
Beginner humans are helpless and completely dependent on others to have all their needs met.  However they don’t stay this way. They expand and become less helpless learning how to feed, clothe and get themselves around. They can now talk, and like to hang out with others of a similar size at shops that sell lollies and hot chips. They decorate their bedroom floors with their clothes and spend most time at home avoiding tasks set by their parents. After ten or twelve human years their basic training in being a human is finished and they begin a new phase called adolescence. This is a dangerous time, not for them but for any other people in their vicinity. Adolescents are mostly confused: about who they are, how they feel, the opposite sex and why is there hair and body lumps where there never used to be hair or body lumps before. They often appear to grow overnight with small weak boys going to bed for the night and emerging the next morning taller than their parents. This quick growth often results in significant levels of awkwardness and/or clumsiness. 
Adolescence is the time when humans grow their sex organs. Now they can make new humans of their own and much time is spent selecting and attracting a mate. It appears, especially for some humans, that many mates must be tested before the right one is found. Although adolescent humans can make a new baby most have not left their own nests and made one of their own. Even so prospective mates are sometimes test driven and new humans are made.
Although many adolescents have bigger better working brains than beginner humans or children they often forget this and do silly things, often with the assistance of chemical substances. Adolescents have little interest in any other phase of human development and tend to keep themselves separate from older and younger humans. This way it is easier to ignore the requests and demands of others. However they are still disappointed if older humans cannot read their minds, and refuse to believe that older humans might know anything about them or their feelings. This is often stated as “no you don’t know how I feel and you can’t possibly understand what I am going through.” Speaking these words is a time honoured tradition uttered by countless generations of adolescents. Conversations with an adolescent are usually conducted via arguments or grunts. Adolescents also smell different, usually of pits, tic tacs or week old socks. Adolescents talk, cry and scream a lot, often accompanied by music. They often like to live, and socialise in dark places. When adolescents finally finish this phase, having completed their growth in all dimensions, they become adults and seem to block out all memories of the adolescent phase so they in their turn can misunderstand the next group of adolescents.