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.

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