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!