Tuesday, May 28, 2013

I have set you some homework

I am winging my way south by plane tomorrow. Christchurch, I hope you are ready for me and my mint green penguin onesie. I will be visiting Selwyn House School on Thursday and St Andrews College Prep on Friday morning and then the Golden Yarns Conference begins on Friday afternoon. It's a little dizzying to think I will be talking nothing but children's books all weekend long. And with people who never get tired of the topic!!

So while I'm away I have assigned you some reading. Go check out this very fine blog post on how the idea of Survivorship Bias relates to writing advice. This fits with a lot of my own philosophies - people we need to be keeping an eye on the bigger picture. And like Tobias Buckell (excellent name btw) I have always subscribed to the idea of the long game.

And for extra credit you could go on to a response to Mr Buckell from Chuck Wendig and the original article on Survivorship Bias which inspired Mr Buckell to write his post. This original article especially is way cool and just made me even more interested in the World Wars of the 20th century. I am developing an obsession healthy interest in these. I suspect it may influence my writing for a while, but maybe not in the traditional sense.

Friday, May 24, 2013

What to feed your poem to keep it alive...

Words are such powerful things. Even the simplest. Yes. No. Love. Hate. They can be dangerous. Weapon-like. Cutting and cruel or heart-achingly beautiful. A single word can be the cause of immense happiness. Any author can confirm the truth of that.

Authors are often exhorted to show not tell. As they should be. Telling is so dull. And when you think of the potency of even the most ordinary little words why not take advantage of it. Showing is a satisfying challenge. When I do school visits I demonstrate the power of words with the following phrase (or a variation on it):-

"Get lost Four-Eyes."

I don't think I need add a dialogue tag for the reader of those words to understand something about the speaker and their character, something about the person being spoken to, and the relationship between them. It's a cruel statement. And a picture begins to form. I didn't use a lot of descriptive words to achieve these. Language doesn't have to be complex or generous to create a powerful image. Think of poetry - some of the briefest and yet most powerful language known.

I wish I was a poet. It only happens sometime - maybe days with an 'n' in them once every six months. Most often when I am not looking, it springs out of nowhere and surprises me - Boo! And then before I can hold on to it and put it in a very strong container for safe-keeping it is gone again. Maybe if I kept it in a box it would die anyway. I never know how many holes to poke in the lid or what to feed it.

Other people seem able to keep theirs not only alive but vigorous and healthy for years. Like the fab New Zealand poet Paula Green. Paula has the coolest blog for young poets. Maybe if I had had something like this when I was trying to keep my poetry alive in a box as a kid I would be writing poetry now on days with a 'y' in them. You should go check it out. 'Tis very excellent.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


What a weekend. The Auckland Writers and Readers Festival outdid itself this year. There were big crowds. Events seemed well patronised. I went to three. And they were all terrific.

Friday night was a wee feast of YA writers. Paula Morris, Kate De Goldi, Libba Bray and Patrick Ness. They were seated at the table next to ours. I felt like a 16 year old fan girl. Each author read from a recent work.I found it fascinating on (at least) two levels. Fascinating to hear the work they read, fascinating to hear them read their work. I left feeling jealous of their opportunity to read their work aloud to an appreciative audience. Afterwards I queued to have my copy of 'A Monster Call's signed by the author. Big ups to the very generous Mr Ness who has a formidable memory. I was impressed, which was great because...

...on Saturday I went to Patrick Ness's session chaired by Kate De Goldi. He read from his new adult title The Crane Wife (It sounded good. I bought it). Then Kate and Patrick had the most interesting discussion. Well, Kate had done her homework and made smart prompts and Patrick, prompted, said very very interesting things. He talked about how goodness in a character isn't necessarily boring. "Goodness writes white," he said, (quoting Henry de Montherlant) and then disagreed and went on to demonstrate how the way good characters respond to different circumstances and events is just as interesting as how other characters react. He went on to reveal the complexity of other characters in the book and what inspired and informed them (including his own personality). He talked about the nature of story, and truth. About how we are always the stars of our own stories and when we describe events and experiences we talk from our own perspective which doesn't make our 'story' any less truthful, just a different truth compared with any other person telling the story of that same event or experience. He talked about the frustration of being asked about how he balances fact with fantasy in his stories. 'Balance' isn't the task at hand. Creating a story/ a truth that compels a reader to believe in what they read is what he aims for. No balancing required.

Someone in the audience asked him whether he thought of writing happier endings for his teen audience and Ness spoke of reading enough writing from teens themselves that demonstrated the depth of their fears, worries, sadnesses and depression. For teens their emotions are big and all encompassing. They are everything. Fail to acknowledge the depth of their feelings, resist addressing the issues important to them and they won't trust you or your writing. I liked that. Ness also talked about having a soundtrack for each book - Peter Gabriel's Mercy Street was the song associated with 'A Monster Calls' (sorry I can't recall the songs for the other books). There was more. He was very generous. And he was generous too when the session was over. After, getting The Crane Wife signed, I asked a bit more about the truth of the teen experience and what makes a book YA. I wanted to hug him when he said he believes children are self limiting and will just stop reading if they don't like or aren't ready for a particular story. This has been my philosophy all along.

There seemed to be a bit of a Kate De Goldi thread to my weekend as she was also part of the session I attended on Sunday: a talk on Dealing with Dementia between Kate and Helena Popovic, a doctor specialising in improving brain function. Both speakers have parents with dementia. They spoke about the realities of caring for someone with this degenerative condition. Popovic spoke of the benefits of light and nature for sufferers. Of keeping up social interactions and providing opportunities for those with dementia to feel like needed members of their community. She warned of not letting beliefs and misunderstandings about the condition influence interactions. Beliefs and misunderstandings can become self fulfilling prophecies. She wanted to ban the phrase 'senior moment'. Older folk are not necessarily more forgetful than younger folk but we become more conscious of how much we can't recall and talk ourselves into a decline. The doctor also talked about preventive measures. There were three key things. 1) Regular physical activity. 2) Social interaction is also important for cognitive health and 3) mental exercise. Its not enough to do crosswords or sudoku. We should provide ourselves with new mental challenges (De Goldi talked about brushing her teeth with her other hand) and learn new things. All good stuff. Both women expressed the difficulties of having to be carers of loved ones in cognitive decline. It was sobering and understandably emotional stuff.

Kudos to the organisers. I think the weekend was well run. There were plenty of interesting things on offer and plenty of happy looking punters. My only brickbat? It would be great if New Zealand writers/illustrators of children's and YA fiction and non-fiction got the chance to speak and read at these events sometimes. We also have interesting things to say to adult audiences. And in view of the fact that many adults buy and read YA and yes, gasp, children's books too, they would probably be pretty happy with hearing it read at such events as well.

Friday, May 17, 2013


Using a clay bowl, sShe scooped some water out of a large pottery jar into a clay bowl and gave it (the bowl) to me. It The Water tasted stale and flat (?). It didn’t matter. I was thirsty.
She watched me drink it all.
“Now you must leave,” Hella said.
“Are you kicking me out?”
“No kicking,” she said raised an eyebrow at me. “But you should go.”
“I only just got here.”
“It is too dangerous for you to be here.” 
I wasn't sure if she meant for her or for me.
“But it’s dark…and freezing-bloody-cold out there,” I whined. I sounded so pathetic. Some brave Viking warrior, I was. Even in this light I could see Hella’s raised eyebrow, her smirking lips.
"You might stay alive in the dark and the cold," she said.
"Maybe..." I muttered.
(break here next two lines drop to new section below)
 “There is no more food. You must go into the mountains … join with Stig.”

She lifted the lamp onto the floor and drew a map in the dirt to show me where to go. A slanted tree, a standing rock with a sign carved in it, a cleft in a cliff face. I wished I had something to take notes with. And on.
She gave me a hat made of some matted fabric. It smelt funny and for a moment I wondered if it doubled as a smoked fish holder, but I took it anyway. I picked my knife back up and put it through my belt.
“Got any arrows?” I asked. I thought it was worth a try. (where’s the bow been all this time??)

I jogged, even though my limbs seemed to be made of pulse with lead and my lungs felt raw inside. It was dark and freezing cold – keeping moving felt like the best option. Still, the sound of five precious arrows knocking around in the quiver/horn (research) at my shoulder back cheered me up. Hella’s quite a magpie. And it wasn’t just the arrows and quiver. The thick blanket slung over me and pinned with a brooch at my shoulder was pretty handy as well.
She’d said head east and south, although all my orienteering experience (half a day a few years back for EOTC – check first book) had been in daylight in the southern hemisphere. I had no idea how to tell the direction at night.  And how slanted was the slanted tree (she told me to turn right at)? 25degrees, 45 or 60 perhaps? I hadn't bothered asking Hella. Like me, I couldn't imagine she was much chop at trigonometry.  

Just in case you wanted to know what I've been up to, amongst other things

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Use a spoon...

I'm sorry folks, but if you are serious about writing, I believe you have to be rather serious about reading too...

When I first outed myself as a wannabe writer I was a bit rubbish. The desire to write was overwhelming, I'd read a lot all my life (although I realise now for many years I was obsessive about a small number of books rather than tackling a wider range), and I'd been playing with words for years. But my stories were pretty much lifeless.  Looking back it's easy to see I still had a long way to go to write something publishable. Now when I talk to new writers I still advise them to read a lot of books. That is where you learn your craft. And to a certain extent this is true. You can't help but consume a lot of well written sentences, a lot of correct punctuation and hopefully a good dose of creative word play when you read. Some of it does soak in and helps you write in a logical, readable manner. All those wonderful books that were my best friends growing up taught me and inspired me. But it took me a long while to learn how to read in a way that would transform my sensible sentences into a strong voice with something truly interesting to say. The change wasn't a conscious decision. I don't remember experiencing a shift in how I read. Well maybe I do. My first assignment for my Children's Writing paper when I worked my way through my English degree back in the 90's required me to read closely a passage from two set books. The BFG by Dahl and Rowling's Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone. Subconsciously I had always appreciated the 'voice' of certain writers, without actually putting a name to it or wondering how they might achieve it. But to meet the demands of the assignment I picked apart the unique qualities of these two writers and in doing so liberated my own voice. It's no good to just pick your brain, you actually have to scoop it out with a spoon and throw it at the page. Metaphorically of course.

In the beginning, imitation is a good way to get started in finding your own voice. Imitation and a willingness to let go. This isn't recommending purple prose (a.k.a the presence of a thousand adjectives), this is about collecting words and turns of phrase that have impressed you as a reader. How or why did they work? How can you use the same techniques - metaphor, POV, imagery, symbolism, rhyme, rhythm, allieration etc...etc...etc... Experiment. Don't be afraid to fail. Some of life's best inventions (including stories) were meant to be something else. Finding your own voice takes practice. And it will continue to evolve. Be brave. And remember, writing is a conversation with your readers, not just listening to the sound of your own voice.

So my advice to new writers isn't just to read a lot of books. It's read a lot of books, select the ones that really spin your dials and ask what it was about those books that flipped all your switches and how did the writer do it? Because, as a writer, if you aren't asking the questions, how will you find the answers??

Sunday, May 12, 2013

And then there was Benedict Cumberbatch's voice...

I have a big list of things to do - BIG - so I went to the movies and saw Star Trek Into Darkness which I may need to see again for the purposes of quality control and I just watched the first two episodes of Parade's End back to back and it has all messed with my head and I am disinclined to do ANYTHING which means of course I am now posting on my blog. That Benedict Cumberbatch boy is a chameleon with a voice that could lure you off a precipice. I am worried his head will inflate till it explodes because everyone is going round saying he's amazing as Sherlock/Christopher Tietjens/John Harrison/insert latest role here. I'm sorry Benedict but this is unhealthy, you need to be crap at something so you can rejoin the real world.

I liked the new Star Trek. Good work J.J. Plenty of nods and referencing of earlier Star Trek episodes and movies in a reverential kind of way. It was fun telling my co-watcher (middle child) about the scenes that echoed scenes I'd seen in my youth. And yet these fitted seamlessly into the new narrative. I thought it built well on the first movie. And then there was Benedict Cumberbatch's voice. And some good humour, and some excellent running and a stunning spaceship crashing scene and the cleverness of dealing with a spaceship tumbling through space. And then Parade's End focusing on a man struggling to deal with the decline of the rural idyll (yes I am oversimplifying here - sorry). The countryside and the noble tilling of the soil and the sense of community might have been utopia for Tietjens but any society that views cuddling your own child after a nightmare as soft may deserve a little readjustment. All the manners, and the traditions and the contradictions are disturbing and fascinating. And then there's Benedict Cumberbatch's voice. Oh and there's a love triangle. The love triangle is fairly straightforward. One woman is the wife and the other woman is called Valentine. And then there's the man sticking pipes in the bushes so his landowner lord and master can grab one any time and have a smoke - people probably actually did that. I am enjoying it all. So yes I have been waylaid. Let's call it research.

And there has been a lot of sharing and discussion over the last few weeks of Maureen Johnson's gendered-book-cover experiment. You can see her fab article here if you haven't already caught it. I have discussed something similar before. Ms Johnson makes some fair points. It all reminds me of the comment this year in the NZ Post Children's Book Award judges' preface to the finalists. The judges lamented the lack of strong heroines in this year's batch of books. Last year or maybe the year before they probably lamented the lack of books specifically for boys.  I'm not sure why they mentioned it. As if children will falter in their social and gender development without a book this year with a fiesty female character. There is a whole NZ canon out there with heroines and heroes in a variety of genre catering to all readers. Good readers read widely. They can get their heroines and heroes from the wider cache of books from any year, not just this one. Please don't suggest writers should be going out of their way to fill a gap, they're too busy writing the best books about serious and compelling issues with the protagonists that demand their story be told. Or watching Star Trek.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Somehow it became a poem, briefly, in the middle...

I had an epiphany this morning. A writery friend was despairing about the 'not-so-easy' aspects of being a children's writer and was ready to throw in the towel. I have a wide circle of children's writery/drawery friends (yay - I love you all!!) and we have discussed the difficulties on numerous occasions. The thing is, the difficulties never go away. And the perks and/or pluses can be few and far between (far and few...far and few... maybe that's what Lear really meant). I don't know of any writer who could tell you it got easier. I don't know of any writer resting on their laurels, taking long exotic holidays on the proceeds of their book sales. I don't know of any writer who recommends this 'career' to others.  Apparently we are all barking mad because we have all come to realise the truth and STILL keep doing it anyway. But the thing is, it isn't a choice. Because boys and girls, we all checked in to the Hotel California, and you know what they say about that place.

But if I consider the question, what would you be if you weren't a writer,
I don't have an answer.
I could 'do'
other jobs,
but I 'am'
a writer.
I think its printed on my DNA,
entwined in every fibre of my being,
stained on my heart,
the iron in my blood.

So folks, there is no sense to it. Any rational person would walk away. But we aren't rational, we are all Max, in our wolf suits, hoping our supper will still be hot when we return from the land of the wild things.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Step away from the reviews and no one will get hurt...

Authors often struggle with bad reviews. After all, a slice of our heart and a dash of our soul are poured into every work we create. Our greatest wish is that other folk will bond with our literary baby just like we did. When readers can't get past perceived warts or blemishes it is hard not to feel a little pain. Even though it is extremely tempting to believe only the good reviews and see the bad ones as some aberration, we must rationalise that as long as a reader's response is honest we have to accept the bad if we want to also accept the good. And then sometimes, we start to trust the bad reviews and begin to question the good ones. Were people just being nice, sparing us their real opinions with their kind words? Which of course then begs the question, what is a 'real' opinion and are book analyses ever truly objective? (No). And what impact does it all have on us as writers, and on other prospective readers of our work. Some authors have become very concerned over bad reviews, suggesting reviewers have made incorrect assumptions, or missed some important thing in their reading. They've questioned the reviewer's taste, their focus, and their motives, scared that other readers will trust that review at the expense of better ones. And maybe sometimes they do. But folks, it is not our place to tell people how to read our work, or what impression or reaction they should have when they are done. Check out this smart post by Stroppy Author on a kind of related topic. You can't and don't want to stop readers coming to their own conclusions. Whether you like it or not, it's none of the author's business. The minute you, as an author, make it your business the review is tainted by your involvement. And this can get ugly. I've seen it happen. Step away from the reviews and no one will get hurt (except the author, but for us it's just part of the job description and you must find ways to manage this or change professions). 

When I contemplate the purchase of a new title I now find myself sampling a selection of reviews good and bad (trying my best to avoid spoilers along the way) and trying to decipher whether those other readers (and sometime reviewers) share my taste and my values.   My best method of trusting another reviewer is to check out how they reviewed books I have loved. If they loved them too I take a punt that we are sympathetic and I trust their judgement to help ME find books I might enjoy. You might see their reviews very differently. You might be looking for different things. That's cool. I find it very helpful if reviewers have justified their position with specific examples (although not if you haven't read the book yet - potentially very spoilery). If they rant without justification this is also informative - these kinds of reviews can make for fun reading but are less likely to give me a real feel for the quality or lack thereof in a particular book. But a gut reaction can be just as meaningful. Over time you can build patterns and find some terrific books.

The bottom line is if you don't agree with what a reader has said in their review, this does NOT mean they are wrong. The biggest mystery to me is writers I love, who praise other writers whose writing is just not in the same league. And then you begin to question their impartiality. Which opens up the whole impartial worms can. It's a big can. I'm not sure anyone can ever be truly impartial. Everyone has an agenda, whether it's to support their writer friends, further their own reviewing career, or vent from their soapbox. Wondering about motives can mess with your head. DON'T do it! DO be as honest as you can be in your own reviews. DON'T review books you haven't read. DO respect the opinions of others. If you can, it can be helpful if you can justify your position/opinion - this can be a good way to develop your own reviewing skills. But folks at the end of the day your gut reaction/visceral response alone IS enough. I saw Iron Man 3 recently. I wanted to love it but I didn't feel the same level of satisfaction I felt after watching The Avengers or Dark Knight Rises. I enjoyed the movie but that ultimate gut satisfaction just wasn't there. You can't pretend that reaction. And the books that leave you with that profound sense of satisfaction, or that move you or transform you - they are the ones you should rave about. And you want to be free to say whether they do or don't, don't you?

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Adulthood - why go there?

Yesterday the publisher unexpectedly sent through roughs for the picture book I have coming out with them next year. I am rather in love with how beautiful they are (and these are just the roughs!). And I now cannot wait for this book to be out. I would like to know how people I have never met get inside my head and take the ideas there and breath a layer of visual magic on them.  This is how we like our surprises to go :)

I am also doing some prep work on a new project. This is because I have other more important things to be doing. You know how it goes. There is interest in the new project though so it too will become important. But I should finish up my other jobs first.

If you are regular readers you will know I am a regular bleater on the subject of the adult literary/children's literature divide. It is a sore subject with me and one which I doubt will ever resolve to my satisfaction. But I like to see folk fighting the good fight, putting up sensible arguments and this is very well done here by Philip Nel.  I thought this was good - 3) Almost no children’s literature is written, illustrated, edited, marketed, sold, or taught by children. Adults — and adults’ idea of “children” — create children’s books. It’s profoundly hypocritical for an adult to suggest children’s literature as unworthy of adult attention. Indeed, adults who make such claims are either hypocrites, fools, or both. Or just rude?

And it astounds me how adults forget their own childhood so readily. Not just the interest in the world around them they felt as children, all the facts and details and mechanics of it all to be soaked up, and their striving to wrestle themselves into maturity, but the desire they felt for acknowledgement, understanding and legitimacy in the eyes of the adults who surrounded them. Children are complex, inquiring, and full of potential and the adults who understand this work to provide literature which stimulates and extends this potential. Literature that acknowledges them, asks the big questions, challenges them and treats them as the intelligent, amazing folk that they are. I wish folk would stop trivializing material written for children and the people who produce it - its disrespectful. Bleat over and out.