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