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.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Ta da...

This competition was fun - I will have to do this again soon. And now as you can probably tell from the drum roll I am about to announce the winner. Congratulations to Vanessa Hatley-Owen who reminded me how much I love the word Oubliette (which sounds cute and fun but actually means something rather nasty) and makes me want to go rent out the movie Labyrinth (also a smashing word in itself). Vanessa let me know what book you would like. And I enjoyed doing this so much I have picked another winner at random. 5inabus gets a copy of The House That Went to Sea. Email me at with postal details too peeps.

And folks if you have not already checked out the most awesome NZ Poetry Box blog run by fab poet Paula Green go take a look now. This is a blog for children, parents and teachers up to year 8. Paula posts tips, challenges, competitions, interviews and poems by children amongst other things. She has already run a number of challenges and awarded prizes to young poets from schools (and individually) all around New Zealand.

Paula recently ran the first Fabulous Poetry Competition for Children and after receiving nearly 2,000 poems has selected twenty to appear in the A Treasury of New Zealand Poetry for Children to be published by Random House. I cannot wait to see this fabulous book. Paula said:-

it was an ELEPHANT task reading my way through them all. It was really hard narrowing it down as there were so many wonderful entries. I think some schools must be little writing havens as they sent in so many good poems.
There were poems about cats, dogs, paddocks, beaches, the moon, wizards, witches, blue, yellow, fireworks, families, feelings, dragons, space, people, places, the world, gardens and a thousand other things. There were fat poems, skinny poems, funny poems, musical poems, poems that rhyme, poems that don’t, scary poems, thoughtful poems, imaginative poems, surprising poems, sad poems, happy poems.
There were similies that popped and words that shone.

Monday, July 8, 2013

How the word cumquat could help you win a book...

Sometimes I like books that are just a gob-smackingly good read - with luscious language, pace and a plot so cunning you could put a tail on it and call it a weasel. The ones that make you feel like 'I didn't really know reading satisfaction, until I read this book.' Sometimes I like books that make me think, challenge my preconceptions and tie my brain in useful kinds of knots, like some metaphorical, metaphysical macrame pot plant holder. But my most favourite books are the ones that are the former, with the latter secretly hidden inside. The entertainy, learny kind all rolled into one 'oh-my-goodness-I am-so-devastated-it-is-over-how-will-I-live-without-it-but-look-how-much-smarter-I-am-about-the-world-now' package. These are the books that you want to un-remember so you can read them for the first time again ... and again.

I like to try and write books that make people think. That aren't just superficial and glossy but have some kind of greater meaning or examination of universal themes or revelation of some useful truths, or helpful ideas that people can take away and use in their own lives. Sometimes I think I get there, sometimes I almost get there: but it is always the goal. Words are a powerful medium. And with power comes great responsibility. A book is one of the safest ways to venture outside your comfort zone. To gain an insight in to the lives of others. And it is my job to put it in an entertainy, learny package that makes you put it back on your book pile to read again.

Authors work very hard to draw the reader in. To help them see what the author sees. The brilliant Maggie Stiefvater explains it well here. And shows exactly why some books need more than one reading to get the most out of them.

And because I now have a total of 40 followers I am going to have a competition. You can win any one of my books (except the first one, Clever Moo) in print, or where available, in a digital format if you prefer. Enter by commenting on this post with the title of the book you would like to win and with your favourite word (no swears please). I will pick my favourite of your favourite words as the winner. For example 'phalanges' is quite an amazing word, or 'cumquat'. The competition will close on Friday.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Songs of experience...

Following the announcement that Ted Dawe's YA novel Into the River had won top prize at the NZ Post Children's Book Awards a few weeks back, commentators emerged denouncing the book for it's graphic content, saying our teens shouldn't be reading about sex and drugs in a book littered with swear words. We must protect the innocent they cried. NZ Post judge Bernard Beckett and writer Emma Neale both gave smart, rational arguments in favour of the book and its award winning credentials.

But as the mother of three, two of whom are still teens (Happy 20th Elora) and as an author of books for children and teens I too have a few thoughts on the topic. I would also like to point out I once was a child and a teen myself. I applaud books for teens that are well written and keep them reading. I applaud books for teens that tackle difficult issues of identity and growing up. I defend the rights of those who choose not to read a book but I do not believe they have the right to make that choice for all other readers in the intended demographic. A book is easily left closed on the shelf.

I love my children more than I can say. I want them to do well, to be happy, to be safe. My heart bleeds for them when things don't go well for them; when they are disappointed or brokenhearted, suffering, hurt or frustrated. But folks all I can do for them is arm them with the tools they will need to negotiate what life throws at them. One of my children recently had a major disappointment. I wanted to take her pain away. To give her the thing she wanted so much. But that would be wrong. If my children go through life only seeing a rose-coloured world, where they always get what they strive for, are never told no, and never know disappointment or loss, how will they survive as adults? A world where sex is always like a romantic movie, and a hangover is just a hilarious premise for a successful onscreen trilogy, where someone will smooth over the consequences of whatever mistakes are made - gives an incomplete understanding of how to navigate the real world. Having some strategies for dealing with the downsides of mistakes, for managing loss, anger, frustration and sadness are essential. No one gets through life without experiencing these. As an author my strategies for dealing with disappointments and rejection are regularly exercised. I would be a monumental mess if I didn't know how to deal with it. I learnt some strategies from my own life but some I learned from the books I read. This is why books that reveal the messiness of life are essential for our teens. The books that talk about some of the harsher aspects of growing up; that show others dealing with difficulties and getting through to the other side, are so important.

Teens are adults in training. I think it's useful if they understand how the adult world works before they get there.