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.