Monday, December 21, 2015

Just keep swimming...

So I'm hanging in there with the whole twitter thing at the moment, although I've not had much success with twitter pitching. In some respects I am sticking with it because I am a little in love with hashtags. If facebook posts can lack nuance, twitter makes up for this in spades with the hashtag concept. And the 140 character limit is excellent mental gymnastics and enormous fun to experiment with. The 'how to say more with less' lesson is almost better than sudoku. Twitter is craft and craftiness all in one, and a chance to meet a whole new tribe of people from around the globe.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, three boxes of books, submitted for the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults (please let there be an acronym), arrived this past week. All sorts of goodness lay therein and I have already been making myself acquainted with the contents and started reading, digesting, and judging.

And I have finally signed off on the content for the next picture book, Fuzzy Doodle, checked out the cover art (HB and PB - be still my beating heart), and received print run info. Every step closer generates another little frisson of excitement and I cannot wait to show you how it looks. It has all taken a bit longer than expected cos reasons so I probably won't be able to give you a peek till 2016. Soz about this.

I also got my first school booking for 2016 which was a bit of a buzz. Next year is slowly taking shape and it's a pretty cool shape so far.

And because it's the end of the year here is a handy dandy list for you to take away and digest

re School Visits and Talks
1) Be someone who is good to work with. It is a pretty awesome compliment to get invited back somewhere because they enjoyed working with you/ having you in their school the first time. Schools and expectations do vary widely, so I have learned to be adaptable
2) Add value - for me it's about thinking what creative writing skill(s) I can demonstrate to the age group in the time available. Sometimes it's revealing a cool aspect about books/reading they might not have considered before. I ALWAYS try and send my audience away with more than they arrived with
3) Value your own expertise, the time you put in to preparation, and the day or so it takes to recover afterwards. Talking and interacting and thinking on my feet with a large group of strangers often gives me a serious people hangover. I've come to respect this and give myself space, when possible, between engagements.
4) Be yourself. Seriously! Being yourself is exhausting enough - being someone else is just insane. And don't try to use whatever schtick someone else uses as part of their talk. Find the things that work in with your own set of skills. But don't be a schtick-free zone either. Over the years I have assembled a set of strategies, a range of talks with exercises that cover different aspects of creative writing, set examples to illustrate my points, and some jokiness. I am always looking at ways to enhance what I already have and ways of identifying what works best with which crowd. I try to use 20 minute chunks where possible to reflect the average attention span...
5) Don't beat yourself up if it doesn't go well. I don't always get it right. Sometimes I misread the crowd or I'm the last session at the end of a long day, or my audience is different to what I expected or it's widely ranging mixed age groups which means it's near impossible to cater to everyone in the group. I can feel the flatness when things aren't working and sometimes I'm able to effect a change that works. Don't give up. Sometimes the audience is quiet and unresponsive and the organiser will turn around at the end of the session and say 'I've never seen them so animated,'  You don't know what their normal is. And sometimes the understanding and digestion of your material is invisible to you. If you have come in with the aim of adding value, chances are high that you have.
6) Take care of yourself. Not too much self-flagellation, and treating yourself to a bit of a reward afterwards is always good. I usually save the wine and the chocolate till I get home though ;)

re Hanging in there
Like the object in your rear view mirror, the realities of the publishing world are often nothing like you anticipated. This becomes interesting when you try to shoe horn all the plans you made based on your expectations, into the real unfolding of events. And like the price of a house for sale, no one really wants to give you a specifics on what your time, skills and efforts are worth least you use this information against them at a later date. Clarity on the subject is like the elusive word on the tip of your tongue. Add to all this the seesawing fortunes of books over the last 7 years, the 2008 financial slump, the rise of e-books, and the retrenchment of various publishers and general undervaluing of arts and culture in this fair country and no one would blame you for feeling a bit glum about it all. So how do you keep body and soul together in the face of all of this?

1) Find your tribe and become a part of it. When 'nothing' is happening for you, your tribal membership will remind you who you are and why you do this. You will appreciate that the difficulties of the industry are not yours alone but are shared by us all. You will have access to information and understanding, knowledge, advice and camaraderie. That is the good oil right there.

2) Be a whale shark and keep going, cos otherwise there will be no fresh water over your gills and you will die. Seriously, you either keep going or you don't. Opportunities lurk in the weirdest places and like to jump out and yell surprise when you are least expecting it. If you stop, then those opportunities will never get their chance. If you would like to keep being a writer, then keep being a writer. Sometimes it will seem like there is no prize for keeping going. Those are the times when you batten down the hatches, wear down the gilt on any previous prizes, provide your own rewards for hanging in there and eat into those carefully stored reserves of hope you laid down in the good times. Make sure you put aside some hope when you have that excess of it.

3) Investigate other people's art - read, go to art galleries, movies, binge watch a well written/crafted tv series. Or try your hand at a different discipline or learn a new skill. Wine making and cooking with chocolate are excellent choices here. You should always keep your creative soul well-stocked, but sometimes it's extra nice to have a good wallow. And exploring something you haven't tried before is especially good in dark times, cos that shiny fresh newness of something completely different can rub off.

4)  Don't fall into the trap of thinking you have to change what you do, or the way you do it because you must have been doing it wrong if nothing is happening. If you feel it's wrong, then change by all means. Or if you have always wanted to branch out or try different styles or genre then this can be the perfect time to do it. But if you feel that what you write and the way you write it says what you want to say, stick with it. When things go awry or just don't go at all, staying true to yourself is more important than ever.

5) Be ambitious - keep pushing at the forward edge of your work. Explore more, dare more, experiment more. Cos, man that stuff can be so exciting, energising and motivating. And chances are you might push through to something brilliant

re A New Year

1) Avoid the same old, same old - plan for something creatively fun, like going to a new show, exhibition, or festival. Or organise a writer's weekend away, or book in for a class or workshop.

2) Give yourself a deadline on one work. Be realistic, plan towards it, and then achieve it. Reward yourself when you make your deadline. Make a plan for what you will do with the finished work (and I mean an edited polished finished work, not the first draft), whether it is entering it in a competition, submitting it to an agent or publisher or getting it professionally edited, booktracking it or making it available yourself as an e-book or printed version.

3) Try entering or applying for something. Whether your application or entry is successful or not, entering and applying is a good thing to practice and a great skill to have under your belt.

And in late breaking news, the publisher has said I can share a pic from teh new book so here is a sneak peek from Fuzzy Doodle with artwork by the most illustrious Donovan Bixley.

Monday, December 7, 2015

When writer's block is real...

Over the years I have several times declared my belief that I don't believe in writer's block. Partly, secretly, this was kind of a defense mechanism - if I don't believe it to be true, it won't be. And partly writer's block seemed to be just another name for being stuck - my idea isn't working, I can't get a good idea I like, this part of the story isn't working, I've taken a wrong turn in the story and I'm not sure where I got lost, this part of the story is flaccid, boring, cliched. The cure was time away and maybe a freshening or restocking of thinking by going to movies, spending time with friends and family, reading other peoples books, looking at art and nature and so on. Things would fall back in to place and I would move on. Not so much a writer's block as a writer's hiccup, or stall. And this is how I viewed it and talked about it.

It wasn't just me. There have been plenty of other writers, famous (Neil Gaiman) and not famous, who have agreed with this view. There are blog posts and articles to be found all over the internet that discuss writer's block in exactly these terms. Don't worry, they say. It's not real. You are just stuck. It will pass.

I was wrong.

Unfortunately writer's block is real. I don't think it's terribly common. But if you ever experience this you have my complete and utter sympathy. Generally I think people who go through it or have it, don't talk about it. It is pretty frightening. When you are in the middle of it, the fear that you may never come out the other side is unspeakable. Giving voice to that is an admission no writer really wants to make. And sympathy can't fix it. I have only ever seen one blog post on this by Nicola Morgan some years back. It made for difficult reading. And now I've felt it for myself. And I am only mentioning it because I seem to be on the other side of it and I can look back on it with something almost (but not quite) approaching objectivity. And I think if you have felt it, are feeling it, you might want to know that you are not alone. And that it is possible to get beyond it.

So what is it? Writer's block isn't a stall or a hiccup. It's not being stuck, or frustrated with where things are at. It's not struggling to find the right words or ideas. It's a big fat creative nothing. A complete absence of creativity. If you are like me, you feel that being a writer is who you are, not what you do. And in being a writer, in being unable to imagine life without the impulse to write, to be 'blocked' is a form of paralysis. A functioning part of you ceases to work at all, and no amount of desire or effort or will can fix it. You might feel like your writing ability is gone. And that it may not come back.

Why does it happen? I don't know. But I'd say things like frustration, disappointment, and grief can contribute. Maybe. Or stress. And doubt. Or hay-fever. Or the shit state of the world. Or being in a month with the letter e in it. I don't think it's necessarily depression because it was isolated to my writing. I could laugh about plenty of other things and enjoy hanging out with family and friends. I could get out of bed in the morning and manage everything else like usual. This is not to say that depression isn't a factor for some people. Or maybe it's just a really weird specific kind. For whatever reason, your creativity is switched right off. And if you have not experienced this, it is hard to imagine. Which is why in the past I pooh-poohed the idea. But I get it now. And I wouldn't wish it on anybody. But I do believe it is possible to get through it.

So how did I get through it? No idea. I honestly thought my writing days were over. It was unpleasant (understatement) and I wondered what I would 'do' instead. I didn't talk to writer friends about it because they were still writing and I couldn't do that. When you have no idea how you got there, there are no easy solutions. I tried to be kind to myself. I treated and indulged myself - reading, going to movies and doing some binge watching of some favourite tv series. I tried to not think about the long term consequences of being uncreative. I tried hard not to be anxious about it, and to relax. I tried to be hopeful. I hung out with the people I love. And then one day I wrote something. I'm still sluggish. My creativity is like a deer that I don't want to startle or scare away, so I am hanging back and not making any sudden movements. How long will it last? How long is a piece of string? And I don't think there are any guarantees. But I think, while it feels like your creativity has disappeared or died, it is still there inside you, locked away. And whatever unknowable magic has allowed us access before, is capable of doing it again. I choose to always remain hopeful.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Beans have been spilled...

Sorry I haven't posted for a while. I have been sitting on some news and was waiting for my opportunity to spill the beans. As I mentioned last time, I am between published books, and with that in mind I decided to put my hat in the ring when the call came recently for judges for the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults for 2016. I have always been interested in trying out for this. And having just completed the Diploma in Children's Literature, and with this window of opportunity of having no eligible books of my own (which may or may not come around again), I thought this might be my best chance to take on such a role. I applied.

I have known the outcome of my application for several weeks, and today it was finally announced I AM A JUDGE for the 2016 Awards. Suffice it to say I am very excited and I'm looking forward to discussing the submitted books with the other judges. There will be lots of reading involved as you can imagine, and then lots of secrecy as I meet up with my co-conspirators to make shortlists and winner decisions. I have strong secret squirrel game so I am READY! You can read all about it below.


picFiona Mackie, Kathy Aloniu and Melinda Szymanik have been appointed as judges of the 2016 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.
The judging team will deliberate over an expected 150 entries in five categories: Picture Book, Illustration, Junior Fiction, Non-fiction and Young Adult Fiction. They will select five finalists, then a winner in each category.
Te Rangi Rangi Tangohau, Lawren Matrix, and Mereana Taungapeau have been appointed as judges for Te Kura Pounamu – the award that recognises and celebrates books written or translated into te reo Māori.
The supreme winner, drawn from the winners of the six categories, will be declared the 2016 Margaret Mahy Book of the Year.
Between them the judges have huge experience of reading, enjoying and working with books for children and young adults.
“The New Zealand Book Awards Trust is delighted to have such excellent judges for the 2016 awards,” says its chair Nicola Legat. “These judges stand out as having remarkable experience and expertise across many aspects of children’s literature.”
The finalist authors in the awards will embark upon a nationwide author tour, in the week prior to the awards being announced at a ceremony to be held in Wellington in August.
The New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults is sponsored by Creative New Zealand, Hell Pizza, Book Tokens Ltd and Copyright Licensing Limited New Zealand (CLLNZ). They are also supported by the Fernyhough Education Foundation and Nielsen Bookdata. The awards are administered for the New Zealand Book Awards Trust by the New Zealand Book Council.
For further information please contact:
Nicola Legat
New Zealand Book Awards Trust
ph: 021 958 887
Judges Background Information – Additional information
Convenor of judges Fiona Mackie has 30 years’ experience across the education and libraries sectors, having worked as a teacher, a reference librarian, the Social Sciences Selector and the New Schools Advisor while at the National Library. She is a Past President of SLANZA — the School Library Association of New Zealand Aotearoa — and is currently the teacher-librarian at Pinehurst College in Auckland.
Riki-Lee Saua (Ngāpuhi, Te Roroa, Tainui) is the Te Kura Pounamu Award Coordinator. Riki-Lee has worked in a number of Māori-specific roles at Auckland Libraries and Massey University Library. Currently she is a Subject Librarian at Manukau Institute of Technology in Otara, Auckland and is also a member of Te Rōpū Whakahau, the professional association for Māori who work in libraries, archives and information services.
Kathy Aloniu’s love of children’s literature comes from a rewarding 14 years spent as Manager of Children’s Services at the Invercargill Public Library. Kathy is currently City Team Leader at Dunedin Public Libraries and is an associate of the Libraries and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa (LIANZA). In 2012 Kathy was part of the LIANZA Children’s Book Awards judging panel.
Melinda Szymanik is a highly regarded writer of children’s fiction. Her books include Jack the VikingThe Were-Nana and A Winter’s Day in 1939. Recipient of the University of Otago College of Education Creative New Zealand Children’s Writer’s Residency in 2014, Melinda recently completed a Diploma in Children’s Literature from the University of Canterbury.
Te Rangi Rangi Tangohau (Te Aitanga ā Hauiti, Te Whānau ā Apanui, Ngāi Tahu, Ngāi Tuhoe) is Principal Librarian Children’s Services at HB Williams Memorial Library, Gisborne. Te Rangi Rangi continues to ‘raise reading levels’ for kura kaupapa Māori children participating in the Kiki Taumata programme. The programme is conducted in te reo Māori and supported by senior students.
Lawren Matrix (Ngāi Tuhoe, Ngāti Koura) is the Children’s Librarian at Te Matariki Clendon library in Auckland. Lawren is responsible for the provision of Māori-specific programming, story-time visits and other programmes designed for children and youth on behalf of Auckland Libraries. Lawren has strong connections with Māori and Pasifika community groups in the Clendon and the wider Auckland area.
Mereana Taungapeau (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Wai) is Heritage Programme Adviser, Māori, at the Alexander Turnbull Library. Mereana is involved in a number of outreach programmes responsible for connecting Māori children, youth and adults to library collections. Mereana has wide experience of delivering library outreach programmes for local kōhanga reo and kura kaupapa Māori.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Excuse me while I do the limbo...

This year is a year without a book. I have a small project which will be out in print next month and I have been writing, mostly on the novel which I began while at the Pah Homestead, but this has been a fallow year. Sitting on the sideline watching the book world move forward without me. Excuse me while I do the limbo.

After the hurly burly of the last few years this feels strange. But I am no stranger to strange. Much of the first half of the year was spent at the Pah Homestead. Several months ago my focus was on preparation for our big overseas trip and then we embarked on the trip itself, which was awesome and monumental, both literally and figuratively. And then we returned and the remainder of the year fell into a kind of limbo with few fixed dates. The most excellent NZ Book Week (in the last week of October) and the wonderful and full of warm fuzzies NZ Bookshop day (on Halloween!!) was a most welcome departure from this. Huge thanks to the NZSA for rescuing this incredibly important event, and to the two bookshops (Time Out Bookstore in Mt Eden and the Dorothy Butler Children's Bookshop in Ponsonby) who invited me along on the 31st to share in their celebrations. It was a day of mutual love and respect between booksellers, writers and illustrators, and readers, and every one felt very wanted by the end of the day. I have everything crossed and knotted that this becomes an annual arrangement.

But the rest of the time... well ... I'm mostly still in limbo. It feels like being in one of those flotation chambers where you have no choice but to be introspective. I've been navel gazing and reading posts and articles on the social media platforms I'm signed up to which can be a very dangerous occupation. And trying to fathom twitter which is a deep well of weirdness. Whether Essena O'Neill's reasons for quitting social media were honest or not she's right about sites like facebook, twitter and tumblr being a heavily filtered version of reality. Even if photos and comments are raw and genuine, folk still curate their images and words carefully to show the side of themselves they are willing to reveal. And people have agendas. Twitter, while it still feels like learning a foreign language, is a perfect example of an agenda driven medium. All sorts of strangers have started following me and I know it's not because of my phenomenal wit and stunning beauty (ahem - cough) as clearly neither of these are on display on the platform (cough, cough). For some, it's because they hope to sell me something at some point, whether it's their services or their books. I am allergic to direct selling, preferring to find my books by way of good writing and discovering an author is really cool and has interesting things to say, which seems to be a novel way of doing things these days. And I always (where possible) try and buy my required services locally. And yet twitter  is so interesting. Social media has multiple means of luring you in and turning you into an internet zombie ... anyways, as always, I have digressed.  

So, while I wander the labyrinth of social media like a modern day  Ulysses without a ball of string wondering whether I mind being lost or not, 2016 looms... looking mostly like a blank canvas. The thought of a new year is always a mixture of dread and giddy anticipation. So many possibilities, so much free time.

I do have a picture book scheduled for release next June. Yay!! Fuzzy Doodle. Illustrated by the marvelous Donovan Bixley and published by Scholastic. I don't have any pics to share yet and I am feeling a little coy about revealing any part of the story. Soz. But soon folks ... soon you can have a wee peek...

So, one key event for 2016, and the rest has still been feeling like a yawning chasm of nothing. An emptiness...

I booked a few things to give myself the illusion of busy and/ or important. Tickets for my SO and I to see The Tempest at the Pop Up Globe Theatre in March. And a follow up specialist's appointment in October. Woohoo! But after the schedules of the last few years things were still looking a leedle bit barren. Don't worry, my SO said, things will crop up. That's pretty much always been my philosophy too. Stay connected and involved. Keep writing - cos that's what I like to do. And have faith that things will arrive to pepper the calendar with busy and/or important. And fun!

And you know what? It's already started happening...

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Stewing in a soup of fear of failure

I joined twitter. If you notice my sentences getting shorter you'll know why. It was all part of the plot to be able to pitch some of my manuscripts to publishers and agents. This opportunity was offered at the Tinderbox conference and it seemed like a relatively easy way to gain the attention of some key players. I'd been thinking about jumping in to the twitterverse anyways and here was some very good motivation. So I jumped.

The astrophysical imagery is apt as Twitter does indeed seem like another planet after hanging around on facebook and blogger for so long. The pace, the brevity, the style and shape of conversations, are like nothing else I know. I guess it's probably good for my brain as I learn a whole new approach to social interaction.

But I digress. I joined twitter partly to satisfy my curiosity, partly cos of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), and partly to be able to pitch. And the pitching was easy. Tweet the correct hashtag with a brief tagline for your story and publishers and agents could search the hashtag and check it out. For Tinderbox it was #TBPitMad. If they favourite your tweet you could then query them with the story, referencing the pitching opportunity. And the thing is people that the Tinderbox pitch session was only one of many springing up regularly on twitter (my latest go was with #PBPitch - you can go and search these hashtags to get an idea of how it works). And these are generally international opportunities (although the agents and publishers may not always appreciate that fact?). And in the end most of the publishers and agents are open to general querying even if you don't get favourited. Realistically I don't know what the success rate is like and I suspect it's no greater than other more traditional channels of querying but it's very motivating. I have emailed off a rash of queries in the last few weeks with several different projects. Exciting stuff...

But also, as I know all too well, subsequently terrifying. Weirdly for a published author, I am a very private person when it comes to my writing. I don't share it widely before I send it off to publishers. It seems waaayyy easier to have my work judged by strangers then it is by fellow authors, other friends and relatives. I get my story to a stage that I feel happy with on my ownsome and then I start submitting. Then it's the moment of stark unavoidable truth. Sometimes I show other folk after I've submitted. I am weird that way. By then it's too late.

As an author, if you are following the path of traditional publication, whenever possible you should have some work out there, submitted. If one of your goals is traditional publication, submissions are just a day-to-day part of your job description. Thought being a writer meant you devoted all of your spare waking moments to your craft?? Ha ha. Think again. An appreciable part of your daily grind will be researching who to send your work to, how to send it, polishing queries, worrying about the strength of your query, trying to summarise your work in one or two pithy compelling sentences, wondering if your word length will put them off, trying to locate the name of the editor, sometimes wondering if that's a woman's name or a man's. Sometimes that is all so overwhelming that you think I just can't even... and then you go on facebook for a while. And so the twitter pitch seems inordinately manageable in comparison. Too easy in fact.

I went a little crazy...

It sucks you in and makes you excited about the process and before you know it you've wrangled your query and the synopsis and the biography and cut and pasted some text into the body of an email and pressed send. And then the slow dawning realisation that I am staring down the barrel of  all their responses.The waiting. The wondering. The post posting analysis. Sure, I like my analysis to arrive after it's too late to act (see above). And it leaves me drenched in that heady emotional mix of hope and terror. Like stewing in a soup of fear of failure. The thing they never tell you about pigeons coming home to roost is how much pigeon poop there is. How thick should I be growing my skin? How much loin girding will be required? My mum always asks me if I have anything out on submission. Well mum, at the moment I do. I'll let you know how I get on...

Sunday, October 11, 2015

A most excellent conference...

I have been to a few conferences over the years. One or two in my previous working life in Hospital administration and a bunch more since I have been writing for children. Tinderbox2015, held last weekend in Wellington, would have to be the best of the lot in my experience.

I'd hemmed and hawed a bit when registrations were approaching. I'm a big fan of the networking that goes on in our industry but there was money involved and I like to be able to justify business expenses to the taxman. Had I already heard everything I could possibly hear about the state of children's literature and it's publication in this country? I have been a member of the writing community for some time and providing master classes for experienced writers is something that even larger, more well-funded organisations struggle with. In the end the lure of catching up with my kidsliterary friends in Wellington was too great. I took a leap of faith and signed up, selected workshop options (including daringly putting my name down for the Illustration session with the most excellent Sandra Morris), booked my plane tickets and received a generous offer of accommodation from writer/illustrator friend Fifi Colston.

I flew in to Wellington with writer friend Maria Gill on the Thursday so we could attend WOW Wearable Arts Show that night and get an early start for the first day of conference on Friday. WOW was incredible - not least because we got to see Fifi's wonderful co-creation that was an awards finalist.

The next day, despite dour predictions, the weather made an effort to be congenial and the conference got under way on time in St Catherine's High School. First up was a double session with multi award winning YA writer Mandy Hager who ran a workshop on plot structure and planning. Her in depth analysis of character 'motivation' and 'change' provided fresh insights and inspiration. Prolific bestselling author Andy Griffiths then stole the show with a brief but energetic and irreverent appearance and then next up it was Understanding Metadata with Andrew Long from Penguin Random House. This offered insights and clarity on the murky business of metadata and how we can maximise our searchibility. Playwright Dave Armstrong ended the day's sessions taking us on a heartfelt journey through his own experiences and how these fuel and enrich his stories.

Day 2 saw us glued to the screen as we had a skype session with another prolific best selling author, Susan Kay Quinn. She talked about finding the creative life that works for you, about 'never saying never' (I am familiar with this lesson), about mailing lists, writing collectives (especially the group support and information sharing) about trying and retrying things, and the importance of knowing your own strengths and weaknesses. She talked about building fanbases, and growing a writing career organically (YES!!). After Ms Quinn I got to play with sculpy in the Illustrators workshop. After so much concentrated and focused listening and word digesting, doing something creative with my hands was a wonderful change. Not only did I enjoy the experience but I learnt some wonderful modelling tricks and made something I rather liked.
 My fox head, photo courtesy of Fifi Colston.

In the afternoon, Associate Director and Set Design lecturer Penny Fitt from Toi Whakaari talked about the stories we tell ourselves about failure. Failure can be the result of things outside our control, and can offer insight into possibilities for future growth and improvement. Ultimately failure wasn't an end of something, but rather offered a starting point to push off from. According to Suzuki, 'the real secret of the arts is always to be a beginner.'

Following on from that talk some of us had the opportunity to get some tips and advice on how to chair a panel or session.As with the other workshops, this felt too short and all of us wanted more on this topic. But the next session was just as interesting and we got to see Johanna Knox provide a skilled example of panel chairing as she led the discussion on Small Indie Presses. It was clear that passion for, and a belief in the titles they published was an essential ingredient for all three speakers (Mary McCullum, Greet Pauwelijn and Mandy Hager). 

That evening we dined at the James Cook as a group and heard about a very cool old project from skilled raconteur Fifi Colston, and an exciting new publishing project from Gecko Publisher Julia Marshall and author Kate De Goldi.

Sunday was my final day. My brain was beginning to feel like fudge but I had to hold together because there was still much to take in and enjoy. First up was a Pecha Kucha style session with a variety of speakers talking for ten minutes each on a range of topics. Many dealt with collaborations, which was one of the key themes for the conference. We heard from Adele Jackson talking about her wonderful Sketch Book Exchange project, Barbara Else who spoke on Query mistakes, Jenny Bornholdt and Sarah Wilkins who shared the floor to talk about their book, A Book is a Book, Mandy Hager who did a condensed version of her talk on researching for her latest book about Heloise and Abelard, Sue Copsey who spoke about her experience with Booktracks, and Maureen Crisp who let us in on a special Tinderbox secret - we would have the chance to pitch our manuscripts to some publishers via twitter.

Then we got the lowdown on contracts with author, agent, and assessor Chris Else, talking rights, territories, obligations and royalties. This was incredibly useful, and even more so with some of the questions the group asked. It confirmed some of the assumptions I've made about contracts over the years, and clarified other aspects. Then social media queen Alexandra Lutyens took us through the different forms of social media, explaining what they did, how to get on them and how we might use them to our advantage. Last but not least was a shared talk by husband and wife book design team Luke and Vida Kelly who gave us a peek into their world of design wonder. By now my brain was bulging and I was afraid I might develop a slow leak or just explode altogether. Everything I attended had given me useful practical tools I could use as an author. I'd taken notes and most of the folk running sessions promised to make their notes etc... available to participants. There was SOOO much information, and for all the workshops I attended there were other equally valuable sessions running concurrently. Johanna Knox ran a wonderful project all the way through the conference called Sparks which saw folk teaming up to produce articles for a nature magazine. Everyone looked energised and excited. Old friendships were renewed and new ones were forged. We were a happy bunch. 

So Tinderbox2015 set a very high benchmark. My hometown Auckland is next up to host the conference in 2017. Gulp.

Monday, October 5, 2015

When patience was a virtue...

You might be wondering where I've been.

The big O.E. is a bit of a kiwi tradition. We seem to be fairly well travelled as a population - according to Wikipedia 75% of New Zealanders hold a passport (compared with around 70% of Australians and 42% of Americans, while approximately 5% of Americans travel outside the country (Huffington Post).I don't know how many kiwis travel overseas in any given year but I think it'd be more than 5%. Out of my family I was the only one not to travel to Europe as a young adult. I was a little bit afraid of countries where I wouldn't know the language, with customs wildly different from my own. I wasn't won over by the notion of backpacking, youth hostels and shared bathrooms. I got busy with other things, working, getting married, buying a house and then having children. Getting the 2014 University of Otago Children's Writer-in-Residence post and taking a spur of the moment jaunt across to Melbourne with my eldest for her 21st last year gave me a touch of bravado, and before it could wear off I suggested to my SO that we finally head off on the big O.E. We quietly got excited about the idea, and then we got organised...

We got back just over a week ago after nearly a month of tripping and traipsing across Western Europe. Am I glad we waited? Well I felt like a young adult. And it was jolly nice staying in hotels and having a suitcase with wheels. Lots of people spoke English which was an enormous relief as my head for other languages is the size of a pea. A shrivelled pea. I can't tell you what I missed not going thirty years ago. I imagine a lot is different. But I got to go now and it was good. Great even. Okay, fabulous.

I touched the Louvre

Looked up the Eiffel Tower's skirts

Sighed over the Venice bridges

Adored the Duomo

Wished Gaudi had found his way down under 

And wondered at the whiff of modern in these 12th Century chessmen in the British Museum

I loved every monument, ruin, cobbled street and museum. I want to see it all again. I wish it wasn't all so far away but then I don't, because the effort required to get there makes everything seem even more significant and much more satisfying to experience. And in a fit of the most wonderful luck ever, and because I'd developed a willingness to queue despite the odds, I got tickets to see Benedict Cumberbatch play Hamlet at the Barbican in London, which was the perfect ending to our adventure.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

More on voice... and being brave

I keep rolling the concept of 'voice' over in my mind. Trying to find a way of simplifying it's definition, and come up with techniques you can use to find your own and apply it successfully to your writing. Writer pal, Sue Copsey, and I chatted at length about the importance and qualities of voice yesterday, trying to nut out what it is and how to produce it.

The short answer is, there is no short answer. The long answer is, I know it when I see it, and I can tell when it's missing. You can have technically great writing but the story won't work without voice. I guess then my definition is, voice is the beating heart that brings a story to life. And in different stories it manifests in different ways.

Sometimes voice is provided predominantly by the first person narrative of the central protagonist - such as Georgia Nicolson in Louise Rennison's Confession series that began with Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging.

Sometimes it's structure, setting, or the domination of dialogue or dialect. Sometimes the genre of the material drives the voice, at other times it's the central underlying theme. If you think of the Harry Potter series, the voice is clearly more than just the character of Harry. The magic of the fantasy setting,  the myriad of imaginative invented elements, the colour and energy and complexity of the plot are all involved too. Some critics would probably argue it's the frequency of adverbs. In The Hunger Games, the character of Katniss provides a significant proportion of the novel's voice but the atmosphere of the physical setting, the dramatic and urgent sequence of events and the complex political themes also contribute. With some writers it's the ability to surprise, whether with the plot, or the word play, or both. Sometimes it's the poetic nature of their writing style. Or its elegance or spareness.

And how do you put voice in to your writing? Specific methods are elusive but here are some things worth contemplating as you search for your own writing voice.

An author's style choices, their tics when they write, their own linguistic preferences, all shape their voice. And most of all their own personality influences the way they write, the topics they choose to explore, the presence or absence of humour, the weight of the themes, or it just permeates the writing in a more general sense. Engaging 'voice' in your writing demands that you put something of yourself in to your writing. It requires authorial bravery - they don't talk about baring your soul for nothing. Fear of exposure results in a weak or absent voice. You have to put yourself out there.

And for all that I understand about how to compose sentences, and what I know about the fundamentals of plot and how to structure one, the search for voice requires that I push myself beyond these basics of writing. It demands that I 'let go', that I experiment and play with ideas, with metaphor and simile, with characterisation and tone, motif's and imagery, with dialogue and action. And I'm willing to do it, willing to try new and different things and share pieces of myself in my writing, because it's worth it if I find my 'voice'.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Writing voice...

I have been working on a commissioned project. The lazy part of me will tell you that commissioned projects are jolly hard because someone else comes up with the rules and the inspiration and you must then work within these constraints to find and create the story. While this does not sound that difficult, I come from the school of organic inspiration. You know: the one where you start with all sorts of seeds, and you have sunshine, and rain, and warm soil, and some good fertilizer, and time, and eventually something grows. I have no clues which way the wind will blow, but it does, and this helps decide which seed germinates. In fact my whole writing career owes a lot to the whole 'organic' concept. Not just in terms of finding and turning ideas into stories, but also growing my profile and promoting my books. It all sounds rather 'soft' and undirected and haphazard, but there is an underlying drive and philosophy that keeps me true to my purpose, and mostly focused on the writing and the stories which in the end are what it is all about for me. Anyways, I digress. Commissioned project. A bit like a university assignment. Totally impossible to do and why did I ever enroll and I will tear my hair out before I ever get this finished, until you have actually done it and then you can look back and say that was a jolly good challenge and I'm so glad I took it on.

However, when I was in the midst of all my angsting about finding a commissioned project difficult, the voice of a character popped into my mind. And before I knew it, my mind grew the story and I'd written it down. And it underlined something important in my writing. I write best when I have found the voice.

Voice is a somewhat elusive concept. It isn't just the way your central protagonist talks and behaves and carries themselves. It's the words you choose to tell your story with, and the style of your writing. It is also the personality of the story as a whole. Is it jaunty, hilarious, sombre, confused, desperate? Or a combination of some, or all of these things, or a collection of other qualities entirely? Having these qualities signals what kind of story it is to the reader, and gives them a sense of whether it is their kind of thing. It is a means of connection, and provides the reader with a sense of the personal. This isn't generic or formulaic.  Reading a good story with a strong voice becomes a conversation with a friend, a journey the reader and the story take together. I try to make 'voice' the heart of my writing and I am lost without it, but by the same token it is not the 'whole' story either. You still need plot and character and setting etc... Identifying 'voice' during a university assignment for a creative writing paper many years ago was my aha moment. That's what I was missing in my own writing until that point. Suddenly I was 'seeing' it when I read and knew what I needed to do. It began to creep out of my mind and in to my writing.

We don't all want to see the same 'voice' when we read. Different readers are attracted by different things. I don't think you want to aim to create a one voice fits all - it dilutes the magic. But working on developing voice may be one of the most important things you do. If you are not sure how to do this, a way in is to look at what sets the writing of your favourite authors apart from that of other writers. What underpins their style and what qualities permeate their stories. How does their 'voice' make the story more than just the sum of its parts. There is a reason we often like everything a particular author has written.

I think voice is evident in the opening paragraph of my story Crocodile Dreaming:

The teacher took Joseph Miller to the zoo. In fact she took the whole class, including Joe, who was the second smallest student. It would have been better to be the smallest, but that position was filled by Martha Eggleton, who was not only short, but also blond and dimpled. Everyone felt protective towards Martha. Joe had red hair, and more freckles than ‘you could shake a stick at’ as Granny Miller liked to say. Joe didn’t get how a shaking stick was a way to measure anything but Granny used it quite a lot. He also had teeth that refused to sit neatly in a straight row, and wore glasses because otherwise the words on the board looked like wet weetbix. His classmates found all these things impossible to ignore. Maybe if Joe played sports, things would be different. But he didn’t, and they weren’t. He wasn’t really the right shape for sports.

And you can also see it in this paragraph I think:

Albert Bertal hated the museum. “I don’t want to go, Mum,” he said. He rolled his eyes to show her how much he didn’t want to go. “Museums’ are boring. Tell them I’ve got a pain. Tell them it might be suspected appendicitis. Tell them I might need surgery. And I’ll be back at school tomorrow.”

There are similarities in the voices of these two excerpts but they are not identical. Joseph and Albert are very different people and this becomes clear as the two stories progress. But the stories themselves are also already showing their own natures. Part of this is creating questions in the readers mind that invites them to read on for the answers, and the shape of these questions is already taking on its own personality...  

And this one from further along in The Half Life of Ryan Davis (pp. 83-84):

We came to a stop outside Kim's. I patted the pocket of my shirt to check the tickets were there. I put my hand on the door handle again but Dad put his hand on my shoulder.
"I've got a girlfriend too, mate," he said.
I didn't know what to say. My stomach kind of flopped over. I figured he and Mum were never getting back together but this news punched that message home - right in the guts. I didn't want another mum. Girlfriends were what people my age have. Not old dudes like Dad. He had a bald patch on the back of his head and his stomach hung over his trousers.
I turned back in my seat. Took my hand off the door handle. "How old is she?"
"She's younger than me," Dad said. "Not by a lot though. She works at my office. Her name's Annabel. She's really nice, you'll like her."
I don't even want to meet her, I thought.
"She's got two kids too, although they're younger than you and Gemma. This is her car."
A surge of anger drove through my body. I wished I had that coin in my hand to run along the paintwork. Two kids? He already had two kids. His own kids. My eyes stung with tears. I didn't want to be hearing about this now.
"Does Mum know? Or Gemma?" I forced the words out. He shook his head in reply, this gumpy expression on his face.
"So why tell me?"
He shrugged and shook his head again. "I don't know. You were going to have to find out sometime."
"Not if it doesn't last."
"Don't ask me to babysit," I shot at him as I yanked open the door as roughly as I could and got out, slamming it behind me.

Point of view changes voice. As do our choices over dialogue and action, pacing and description. Like other aspects of my writing, creating 'voice' is organic. And if it doesn't come, the story is a struggle to write, and doesn't feel right. Sometimes I feel like I am casting around, fishing inside my mind for the right tone, the right feel, a voice that tells the story the way it should be told. And when it steps up and moves in to the story, the writing transforms. And flows. It's what makes readers, and publishers sit up and keep reading. As agent Janet Reid said 'Voice is one of those ephemeral "musts" that drive querying authors mad because there is no objective answer.  Unlike spelling, format and word count, there's no way to measure voice...but I know it when I see it.'

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Kids, exercise your rights!!

Peoples, it is very exciting times in this year's New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults!! Children get to say which books published over the last year they like the most. 20 Finalists across four categories have already been chosen by young readers from all around the country, and now it is up to you to have your say and cast your vote. Which books are your favourites? We want to know what you think. The power rests with you...

Here is the list to check out again before you get voting:-

Children's Choice - Picture Books
  • I am not a Worm by Scott Tulloch - Scholastic NZ
  • Little Red Riding Hood ….Not Quite  by Yvonne Morrison & Donovan Bixley - Scholastic NZ
  • The Anzac Puppy by Peter Millett & Trish Bowles - Scholastic NZ
  • Doggy Ditties from A to Z by Jo van Dam & Myles Lawford - Scholastic NZ
  • Marmaduke Duck on the Wide Blue Seas by Juliette MacIver & Sarah Davis - Scholastic NZ
Children's Choice - Junior Fiction
  • Dragon Knight: Fire! by Kyle Mewburn & Donovan Bixley - Scholastic NZ
  • The Island of Lost Horses by Stacy Gregg - HarperCollins
  • How I Alienated My Grandma by Suzanne Main - Scholastic NZ
  • 1914 - Riding into War by Susan Brocker - Scholastic NZ
  • My New Zealand Story: Canterbury Quake by Desna Wallace - Scholastic NZ
Children's Choice - Non-fiction
  • New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame: 25 Kiwi Champions by Maria Gill & Marco Ivancic - New Holland Publishers
  • Maori Art for Kids by Julie Noanoa & Norm Heke - Craig Potton Publishing
  • The Letterbox Cat & other poems by Paula Green & Myles Lawford - Scholastic NZ
  • A New Zealand Nature Journal by Sandra Morris - Walker Books Australia
  • Waitangi Day: The New Zealand Story by Philippa Werry - New Holland Publishers
Children's Choice - Young Adult Fiction
  • I Am Rebecca by Fleur Beale - Penguin Random House NZ
  • Night Vision by Ella West - Allen & Unwin
  • Spark by Rachael Craw - Walker Books Australia
  • Awakening by Natalie King - Penguin Random House
  • The Red Suitcase by Jill Harris - Makaro Press

Every kid who votes (you need to be 18 years old or under) will be in the draw to win some books for themselves and for their school (this is a truly awesome prize for people who love books like we do). On the second page you will be asked some questions to help the organisers contact you through your school if you win. If you are unsure about anything ask mum or dad or your teacher to help you.

Voting closes at 12 noon on Friday, July 31st. So VOTE now, and tell your friends to vote too. Just click here to vote.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

If a tree falls in a forest...

Feeling all existential this week. So, you know the argument. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? My SO and I have batted this one back and forth from time to time, neither one of us budging from our preferred stand on the debate. Does sound rely on a receiver to exist? What do you think? And why am I asking? Well, it occurs to me that being a writer is a bit like this. If you produce work that no one reads are you still a writer?

Bear with me.

There is a saying - Publishing is a business, writing an art. The two will never completely see eye-to-eye. Sure some writers work on commercial principles, writing, as much as it is possible to do so, for the market. They focus on commercial titles which have a greater chance of selling in volume. Of course there are no guarantees. All writers take a risk that their fall in the forest will be unheard. Some of us write stories that try to answer some other need. At first publication is the yardstick of our success. And if we are published, then sales, further publication and perhaps even short-listings and awards become the new yardsticks. All of us want to be heard. We crave a receiver for our sound. The more receivers the better. It's our greatest fear. That we aren't real if no one hears our voice.

But hang on ... just backing the truck up here. That tree created sound. Celebrate the act of creation folks. Cos humanity sometimes gets a little caught up with the measures of things rather than the creation itself. What is the object of our pursuit? The commerce? Or the creation? Personally I think it's cool to seek both. On the whole, we are social creatures who like to share what we do. I need a way to show others (publication) and understandably I hope they enjoy it (sales, short-listings). And if I'm honest I personally find the measures highly desirable. My ego likes a good stroking as much as the next person does. So what happens when the gap between strokes widens? Truth is, the only thing you can control is what you produce. You can't control the publishers, the market place, the readers, so focus on the product. In some ways I can't even control that. If there is a switch inside my brain that would allow me to stop the urge to write I am yet to find it. So I am bound to keep creating. If no one is listening I intend to focus my attention on making the sounds regardless. Gotta make the best tree-falling noises I can. And just gotta be a tree that can keep getting back up again ;-)

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Finalists Announced

The finalists for the 2015 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults have been announced. Check out this awesome bunch of books!

Picture Books
  • Construction, Sally Sutton and Brian Lovelock, Walker Books Australia
  • I Am Not a Worm, Scott Tulloch, Scholastic New Zealand
  • Jim’s Letters, Glyn Harper and Jenny Cooper, Penguin Random House
  • Keys, Sasha Cotter and Joshua Morgan, Huia Publishers
  • Little Red Riding Hood . . . Not Quite, Yvonne Morrison and Donovan Bixley, Scholastic New Zealand
  • Ghoulish Get-Ups: How to Create Your Own Freaky Costumes, Fifi Colston, Scholastic New Zealand
  • Māori Art for Kids, Julie Noanoa and Norm Heke, Craig Potton Publishing
  • Mōtītī Blue and the Oil Spill, Debbie McCauley and Sarah Elworthy, Mauao Publishing
  • The Book of Hat, Harriet Rowland, Makaro Press/Submarine
  • Under the Ocean: explore & discover New Zealand’s sea life, Gillian Candler and Ned Barraud, Craig Potton Publishing
Junior Fiction
  • Conrad Cooper’s Last Stand, Leonie Agnew, Penguin Random House/Puffin
  • Dragon Knight: Fire!, Kyle Mewburn and Donovan Bixley, Scholastic New Zealand
  • Monkey Boy, Donovan Bixley, Scholastic New Zealand
  • The Island of Lost Horses, Stacy Gregg, HarperCollins
  • The Pirates and the Nightmaker, James Norcliffe, Penguin Random House/Longacre Child
Young Adults
  • I Am Rebecca, Fleur Beale, Penguin Random House
  • Night Vision, Ella West, Allen & Unwin
  • Recon Team Angel: Vengeance, Brian Falkner, Walker Books Australia
  • Singing Home the Whale, Mandy Hager, Penguin Random House
  • While We Run, Karen Healey, Allen & Unwin
Māori Language Award
  • Hoiho Paku, Stephanie Thatcher and Ngaere Roberts, Scholastic New Zealand
  • Nga Ki, Sasha Cotter and Joshua Morgan, Huia Publishers (translation ofKeys, a finalist in the Picture Book category)

This year we also have finalists for Children's Choice as selected by young readers themselves - a wonderful new development in these book awards.

Voting for the Children’s Choice opens on Tuesday, 9 June and closes on Friday, 31 July. This year there will be a winner in each category. Anyone 18 and under can go and vote here.
Children's Choice - Picture Books
  • I am not a Worm by Scott Tulloch - Scholastic NZ
  • Little Red Riding Hood ….Not Quite  by Yvonne Morrison & Donovan Bixley - Scholastic NZ
  • The Anzac Puppy by Peter Millett & Trish Bowles - Scholastic NZ
  • Doggy Ditties from A to Z by Jo van Dam & Myles Lawford - Scholastic NZ
  • Marmaduke Duck on the Wide Blue Seas by Juliette MacIver & Sarah Davis - Scholastic NZ
Children's Choice - Junior Fiction
  • Dragon Knight: Fire! by Kyle Mewburn & Donovan Bixley - Scholastic NZ
  • The Island of Lost Horses by Stacy Gregg - HarperCollins
  • How I Alienated My Grandma by Suzanne Main - Scholastic NZ
  • 1914 - Riding into War by Susan Brocker - Scholastic NZ
  • My New Zealand Story: Canterbury Quake by Desna Wallace - Scholastic NZ
Children's Choice - Non-fiction
  • New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame: 25 Kiwi Champions by Maria Gill & Marco Ivancic - New Holland Publishers
  • Maori Art for Kids by Julie Noanoa & Norm Heke - Craig Potton Publishing
  • The Letterbox Cat & other poems by Paula Green & Myles Lawford - Scholastic NZ
  • A New Zealand Nature Journal by Sandra Morris - Walker Books Australia
  • Waitangi Day: The New Zealand Story by Philippa Werry - New Holland Publishers
Children's Choice - Young Adult Fiction
  • I Am Rebecca by Fleur Beale - Penguin Random House NZ
  • Night Vision by Ella West - Allen & Unwin
  • Spark by Rachael Craw - Walker Books Australia
  • Awakening by Natalie King - Penguin Random House
  • The Red Suitcase by Jill Harris - Makaro Press
Winners will be revealed on August 13th at an Award Ceremony in Wellington.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Crocodile Dreaming Parts 1 + 2

And here is my completed story wot I have now finished

Crocodile Dreaming

The teacher took Joseph Miller to the zoo. In fact she took the whole class, including Joe, who was the second smallest student. It would have been better to be the smallest, but that position was filled by Martha Eggleton, who was not only short, but also blond and dimpled. Everyone felt protective towards Martha. Joe had red hair, and more freckles than ‘you could shake a stick at’ as Granny Miller liked to say. Joe didn’t get how a shaking stick was a way to measure anything but Granny used it quite a lot. He also had teeth that refused to sit neatly in a straight row, and wore glasses because otherwise the words on the board looked like wet weetbix. His classmates found all these things impossible to ignore. Maybe if Joe played sports, things would be different. But he didn’t, and they weren’t. He wasn’t really the right shape for sports.

Joe liked the idea of going to the zoo. Animals seemed much less complicated than people. His Mum and Dad took him once but they were busy people and hadn’t managed to fit in another visit yet. He tried to hide his excitement in the week leading up to the visit. The other boys in his class found other people’s excitement annoying. At least that’s how they found Joe’s excitement.
It was cloudy the day of the trip. Ms Terry said this was perfect zoo visiting weather. Sunshine made animals sleepy and want to hide away in their dens in the shade. Joe stayed on the bus till all the other students were off as he often tripped over other peoples legs. But when he finally emerged he sniffed the earthy combination of animal fragrances and smiled.
“Hurry up Joseph,” Ms Terry called. “Stop dawdling.”
The animals didn’t disappoint.
“Miss, aren’t flamingos meant to be pink?” Harry Tanner asked as he hung over the railing at their enclosure.
“They’re grey because of the food they eat,” Joe said. “When they’ve eaten enough shrimps and stuff they’ll change colour and be pink.”
“Quite so, Joseph,” Ms Terry said tartly.
“Yes Joseph, quite so,” Harry parroted.

It was a small mistake, laughing at Harry when the llama spit at him. Everyone laughed at Joe when Harry spat at him at school, and frankly Joe didn’t see the difference. But apparently there was one because Harry let him have it while no one was looking during morning tea break beside the band rotunda. Harry’s friends egged him on.
Joe tried not to cry, but his nose hurt.
“What’s all this?” asked Ms Terry when she finally noticed.
“They’re crocodile tears Miss. They’re not real. I didn’t do anything,” Harry said in his own defence, out of habit, even though Joe had said nothing.
Joe didn’t bother mentioning that crocodiles did actually cry real tears. And that it had nothing to do with pretending they felt sad when they didn’t.

The crack in the left hand lens of his glasses made the animals look mysterious; especially the crocodile, already a little sinister, eyeing Joe from under half closed lids, through the vapour of the climate-controlled Reptile House. Half submerged in murky water, the animal floated perfectly still. Its knobbly, patterned hide made Joe think of dragons, and the knights who fought them. Magnificent teeth, curving and pointed and long, sat outside the crocodile’s lips in a predatory grin. Who could really tell what simmered below the calm and silent surface? Only a low railing separated the pond and its grassy surrounds from the visitors.
“This is boring,” Harry declared. “Crocodiles never do anything. And they’re ugly.” He smiled at Martha who flashed a dimple back. “Let’s go see the lions.” Everyone was slowly filing out, students pushing and shoving in their impatience. It might have been an accident. Who could tell in the end? But Harry’s elbow caught Joe in the back as he leaned over the fence. Joe found himself falling forward, watched closely by those crocodile eyes.  He landed on the edge of the pond, his hands in the water. What was that beneath his hand? He grasped at it.
Laughter erupted behind him. Joe wasn’t quite sure how being in danger was funny.
As quickly as he’d fallen in, the crocodile keeper yanked him out, pulling him up by the back of his shirt. The crocodile had not moved. Even though that’s what they usually did when food fell down right in front of them. How odd.
“You should never climb into an enclosure,” the keeper warned. “Crocodiles are killers.”
There seemed little point in Joe saying he’d been pushed.
“Yes,” he said instead. And, “Thank you.” But already the keeper was moving off to attend to his next task. The room had emptied. Joe opened his palm out and looked down at the crocodile tooth, large and hard and yellowed. He popped it in his pocket and glanced at the crocodile.
“Thanks for not eating me,” he said.
The crocodile blinked, a slow single tear sliding down its cheek. Joe said, “Bye,” and hurried off to find Ms Terry and the others.

His parents told Joe to be more careful when he showed them his broken glasses after school that day. They fished his spare pair out of the hall cupboard and handed them to him. It felt so much better not to have a fault line running through his eyesight. Joe didn’t tell them about the tooth. Instead he put it under his pillow as he got into bed that night.

He dreamed…

His nose filled with the scent of animals rising up from the ground beneath him. Zebras, antelope, giraffes, and lions. And darker things. Hyenas, man.  He moved forward slowly across the grass, with a scything motion, twitching from side to side, his tail sweeping the ground behind him. His claws dug into the earth. He blinked, a lazy movement, felt his teeth slide over his lips as his mouth clamped shut.
Joe felt powerful, hungry, and confident. He reached the edge and slid into the water, surging forward as the fluid took his weight. His view blurred a little as his third eyelids moved across his eyes, but they kept the water out. He watched bubbles rise up from his nostrils to break the surface of the water above. Submerged reeds swayed, silt from the riverbed swirling with his movement and the currents. Thin sharp shapes darted: fish too small for his appetite. This was his domain. Here the rules were simple. Here he felt at home.

“Good sleep?” Joe’s mum asked as she poured cereal into his bowl the next morning.
“Mmmm,” Joe replied. Telling his mum ‘maybe’ or ‘no’ would only lead to a difficult chat between them. He felt the tip of the crocodile tooth in his shorts pocket. Joe smiled at his mum and pushed his glasses up.

He felt different when he walked through the school gate. He was still a boy, but he felt his tail sweeping the ground behind him, his eyelids closed and opened in a slow, lazy blink, and his teeth … his teeth felt sharp.
Harry was waiting for Joe, as he often did. Half way along the corridor leading to their classroom. Just in front of the hook where Joe would have to stop and hang his schoolbag.
“Have a nice swim in the crocodile pond yesterday?” Harry asked, looking smug.
“Yes I did thanks. I felt right at home,” Joe replied. His tail twitched, his jaws closed and Joe rolled with his prey.
“They’re just crocodile tears,” Joe said to the gathering crowd as he hung his bag up and headed to his classroom.

He felt sure, as he took his seat at his desk, that at the zoo the crocodile was grinning. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Mockingjay

Do you ever feel like you are in a novel? More and more, people talk of the publishing world as if it was some kind of dystopia...

Sometimes I feel as if I am in the Hunger Games - thrown in to a vast wilderness with booby traps, and hidden dangers, fighting for survival. Skills will help you battle through but who knows what will be thrown at you next. The ground and goal posts keep shifting. Sometimes concealing yourself with camouflage and just waiting it out might be the best strategy. There are judgements and assessments, and ratings are applied. The audience watches on, drink in hand. They want to be entertained.

I'm waiting for my little parachute-topped tiffin pan with burn ointment from my sponsors.

Will there be a rebellion?

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

If only I could eat their brains...

Last weekend I attended a number of excellent sessions at the Auckland Writers Festival. They pulled out all the stops and had an incredible selection of international speakers this year including Haruki Murakami (who just does not attend festivals), Carol Ann Duffy, Tim Winton, Dav Pilkey, Helen MacDonald, David Walliams, David Mitchell, Alan Cumming, Anthony Horowitz, Morris Gleitzman, Ben Okri, Atul Gawande and many, many more. Local writers included Philippa Werry, Donovan Bixley, Paula Green, Rachael Craw, Nalini Singh and Helena Wisniewski-Brow. It is hard to imagine how they might top this collection of awesome in future. But I wouldn't put it past them to somehow manage it (Sonya Hartnett, Maggie Steifvater, hint hint).

The crowds (and boy were there some crowds) were full of familiar faces, both of good friends and local writing (and other) luminaries. I caught up with pals from Queenstown, Dunedin, Taupo and Wellington as well as a bunch of Aucklanders. We raved about who we had just seen or were about to see, shared writerly gossip and generally had an all round good time. I went to the opening night gala, attended a scriptwriting workshop and saw and heard Alan Cumming (who urged everyone to be authentic), David Walliams (apparently when you meet the queen you aren't allowed to ask any questions which is very tricky, you just have to wait for her to ask you some), Anthony Horowitz (sought the original author's voice when writing Sherlock and Bond stories), and Helen MacDonald (who found solace in the relationship she forged with the brutal and noble goshawk Mabel) in action. I queued up to have a book signed by Anthony Horowitz (such a lovely guy) but did not even attempt to join the 3 hour line for David Walliams. You have to pick your battles folks. And all the time, this buzz of excitement, an energetic frisson of anticipation.

I enjoyed everything I went to. I laughed at times, had a lump in my throat at others, and felt that twinge of jealousy when they read from their work. Once or twice I felt grumpy with things the speaker said. But in the end I couldn't avoid feeling mostly a professional curiosity, rather than a fan's love. I nodded in recognition at their writerly advice. Sympathised with their struggles. I scrutinised their presentations for tricks and tips and ideas that I might be able to use myself in future. Sometimes I just wanted to be them, other times I thought, I could do that too. In the end none of them really spoke about how they write, which is fine because everyone's process is personal and non-transferable (except in a zombie-ate-my-brain kind of situation and even then there are no guarantees). They were all just interesting people with stories to tell, which I guess is kind of the point.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Are we in danger of becoming disconnected from our own literature...

It was too sad/frustrating/maddening/insert your emotional response here, to find out that NZ Book Month will not be going ahead this year. It seems so few outside of our own community want to invest in New Zealand literature, or celebrate it. Maybe books are bad for people, and reading is a waste of time and should be discouraged. Maybe having a literature that shines a light on our own experience, that celebrates our own unique culture, and values, and concerns is not worthwhile. Maybe we just can't write 'good' books here in New Zealand like people from other countries do. Or are books just a frivolous indulgence, a luxury that can be set aside when times are tight? 

No, of course not! Reading can be the best escapist fun /entertainment /enlightenment /thought provoking experience, and you get heaps of added bonuses. Literacy is the cornerstone of education. Reading improves our cognitive abilities, and enhances our emotional and academic intelligence. And reading can just make you feel good. We make some incredible books here in New Zealand but we constantly face an uphill battle to tell the public about them.

Are we in danger of being disconnected from our own literature? Because the longer you expect the cord between the public and local creatives to stretch, the less elastic, and more brittle it will become.

Perhaps it is assumed the book industry, and more particularly the creative folk providing content, will survive and persist regardless. That we do not need to be promoted or feted. Money can be cribbed from this, the logic might go, because books will still be made and be available to readers (and if our local literature diminishes, hey there are just so many books coming in from overseas). And lets face it, so many writers continue to write despite poor returns.

When NZ Music month began it was about giving NZ music more radio airtime. Radio plays are not sales to the public (there is income to the artist but not to the radio station) but NZ music received way more exposure.  Radio stations didn't want to play more local songs but the government of the day (go Helen Clark!!) made them and in the end it has been a win/win. The current government does not seem keen to encourage promotion/exposure of NZ books in the same way but I think we need this kind of help. The industry and authors themselves do what they can but there is limited nationwide exposure. Perhaps the media, especially tv, are our 'radio' equivalents. We struggle to get the same kind of coverage that NZ Music month and the NZ music awards get (the most recent music awards had daily tv coverage of finalists leading up to the awards night). If media were encouraged to provide a quota of coverage daily during NZ book month the connection between the industry and the public might be strengthened. First you have to showcase the books. And encourage people to take pride in reading and owning NZ literature. Sales will come down the track. Long game people, long game.

So why do we need a NZ Book Month? Because no one else does NZ literature! Because New Zealand should be proud of the literature that is created by us and for us. Because too few opportunities currently exist for the wider public to learn about and be exposed to our books. Because reading is good for everyone and here is a chance to encourage everyone to pick up more books than they usually would. How amazing it would be to have some cheerleaders for NZ literature, just because they are New Zealand books. How cool would it be if these cheerleaders came from outside the book industry, because like, you know, the rest of us are already converted to the benefits. How about we grow some new fans!

The fantastic Rachael King (author of great NZ books you should read - The Sound of ButterfliesMagpie Hall, and Red Rocks) has started a brilliant twitter campaign this month to promote New Zealand books with the hashtag #NZBookMonthMay. We are doing what we can. But really, we need your help. Let's not go another year without a NZ Book Month.