Friday, December 15, 2017

Flamingo wrangling 101

Next year is a bit of a mystery. I have been contemplating retraining. I know you all think I'd make an awesome ninja assassin or flamingo wrangler but I actually had something else in mind. I am still undecided but time is running out. 2018 is so keen to get here.

I am off on holiday with my honey in January in honour of being wed for 30 years. This seems like quite an achievement these days - not too many folk make it that far - but if I'm honest it's not like it's been hard. But who am I to say no to a celebratory trip away. There will be photos and commentary at some stage because I'm not one to keep you out of the loop.

In the meantime I'm hemming and hawing and its not about whether I should pack my bikini. So while I make up my mind here are some tips and rules for 2018 because y'all know it's nearly upon us...

1) Say yes to things. Your instinct might be to say no because you have limited experience or you feel nervous but if it fits with the long game you have embarked upon then the time to start is now. Or five minutes ago.
2) It's okay to say no. Not often, but often enough to give yourself time and space to do your core activity. If you are an author and you run out of time to write new content you need to address this.
3) If you do have time and don't fill it with writing, don't beat yourself up. The stars align for writing at their own discretion.
4) People will disapprove that you seem idle - why are you not in paid employ or studying? That's how the rest of the world works! My response is the creative world marches to the sound of its own drum which they can't hear. We have our own set of rules and more than enough self doubts and criticisms without the offerings of others. Tell them it's a full time job. Say you are doing research. Tell them you found their comments very interesting and have taken notes. Say you are very sorry about what happens to the character you have based on them.
5) Plan a reward. Maybe for mid year. Have a weekend away with other writers, a night out with friends, a visit to an exhibition or show or... you get the picture. Whatever wine or chocolate you buy or thing you do, double your investment and treat yourself like the star/god/goddess you really are. It may not be visible yet, but anyways just persisting in this industry is noteworthy.
6) Do a charitable act. For other writers, for young readers, for someone new to the industry. Charity is the marshmallow that cushions and sweetens our community.
7) Be charitable to yourself. Writers tend to be their own harshest critics.
8) That 100 rejections thing is a good idea. Plan for 100 rejections in 2018. Make a list of what you will apply for and who you intend to send your work to. Make a list of what work is ready, nearly ready to go out. Make a list/calendar of the competitions/opportunities you would like to enter. Add the one thing you have always secretly wanted to do/try but have always felt was out of reach. Make a plan to be ready for them all.
9) Have a safe and happy holiday peeple. And see you in the new year!

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Off-stage, behind the curtain ...

I finished my work-in-progress a few weeks ago. The writing of it had fair galloped along, and it was an enjoyable process for the most part. The muse had been awfully kind and given me something not far off fully formed. I felt more like a conduit than a creative controller, although I know the old brain is deceptive and that in reality my noodle had probably been assembling something quietly off stage behind the curtains for some time, waiting for that moment when the tale was ripe for the picking and there was enough energy, space and motivation on my part to do something about it.

It seemed to come out in good shape, and revising was a fairly swift affair. I'd pitched the 'idea' to several folk, and now the manuscript was complete I followed up with a few others. I naively thought they would share my speed, my excitement and enthusiasm. You have to wonder how some one at my stage in this business can be that naive. But there it is. Even though I've ridden round the block a few times I'm still surprised by that blind entrance.

So now I am playing the author's favourite, the waiting game. I wish I could say it gets easier but I don't want to be naive AND a liar. It is, as always, torture. I know the best way to wait is to work on new content but the last story was such a gift in its completeness that I am resistant to anything that requires more significant brain gymnastics. I will get over my laziness at some point. I suppose. (see voodoo comment below). Folk also suggest that completing a story is an achievement in itself and requires its own kind of acknowledgment and celebration. It has been a while since I've completed a novel and it IS nice to think I still have it in me to reach The End. Woohoo. Look at you, you cute-as-a-button complete little manuscript, you. I am so proud of you :)

I often get asked, when I am talking about the nuts and bolts of publishing, whether it's okay to do multiple submissions. I think it is. Some publishers ask that you mention you have submitted to other publishers, and other publishers say nothing about it at all. I assume that they've just naturally assumed I'm doing multiple submissions. I think that is pretty much the norm in places like the US. I feel like it should probably be the norm here too. That assumption. Just assume that no one has time to wait months for a response to a single submission before sending it out to someone else. Of course multiple submissions mean you exhaust your potential publishers faster but I think that just enables you to get back to the writing of new content sooner. I find submissions can sometimes cast some voodoo spell of writing paralysis over me.

So I wait in submission-limbo, nervously contemplating my empty calendar for next year, and hope the noodle is busy, secretly back at work behind the curtain.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The 2017 Storylines Hui and what I learnt there ...

Weekend before last I attended the 2017 Storylines National Hui for Children's Writers and Illustrators with other delegates from all over New Zealand. There were plenty of familiar faces but a whole host of new ones as well which I thought was a terrific sign. The mood was collegial and a positive hum accompanied every gathering. I attended keynote speeches, workshops and panel discussions. I engaged in more 'active listening' then I've done since university and man that stuff is seriously tiring but totally worthwhile.

I gave a workshop on the business of being a writer, or 'What They Don't Tell You at Writing Class' (and discovered that when you are worried about providing sufficient content for 90 minutes, you end up with 180 minutes worth of content),

and I was part of a panel where I talked about Fabostory, with the other panel members talking about cool initiatives such as NZ Read Aloud, SCBWI, Getting Kids Into Books, and Storylines itself.

There were some sobering moments where people talked about the realities, difficulties and disappointments of their own experience and/or current local and global trends. There were some moments of envy when established writers talked about close relationships with publishers and agents, 6 figure advances and long successful careers. Nearly 60 delegates pitched to publishers and agents during the Pitch Slam and I really hope we get to hear some success stories down the line from these. Agents talked about what's hot, what's not and what's downright dead. I made some pitches of my own. To two agents and two publishers in the end and now I wait too to see whether anything has 'taken'. It's part of my attempt to get 100 rejections this year. The philosophy is that the more submissions/applications/entreaties/pitches you make the more chance you have of something being selected/accepted/supplied. There is merit in this idea although it does mean working harder submitting and applying often enough to achieve this, and it does mean preparing yourself for a higher than usual rejection onslaught. But the truth is there is no yes without the submissions, the applications and the nos. I can't go soft on that stuff. And all the submitting and applying gives off a nice aura of possibilities.

So, back to the Hui. My favourite workshop? Poetry with Paula Green. Hands on word play is like a happy drug. And I wrote some things I really really like. Stacy Gregg ran a close second with her realistic insights into the life of a series writer. Not for the faint-hearted. My favourite keynote? Brian Falkner. Honest, unexpected, and a testament to all the things that make up a career - self belief, hard work, luck, more hard work, and gripping on for dear life during the tough times. I felt strangely buoyed by his words. I learned that success is a strange creature with many faces. And that is a useful thing to know. I felt grounded, and encouraged and motivated by the whole experience. And I felt reminded yet again that my community is a wonderful one. And whatever happens it is very clear that we are there for each other. Love you all guys.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

A brief stint on the high wire ...

Well that month went super fast. It was already looking pretty busy with a bunch of school visits for the Otahuhu Project and one or two others, as well as some planning, plotting, organising and wrangling for the Storylines Hui and then, what-ho, at the 11th hour I got an invite to take part in the Storylines Nelson Tour with some other wonderful writers right smack dab in the middle, and I couldn't resist saying YES!!

So here we are - Apirana Taylor, Gareth Ward, myself and Juliette MacIver looking fresh and shiny on our first day (all photos by our intrepid driver, and all-round awesome author and schedule wrangler, Vicki Cunningham). We toured around Marlborough and Tasman, visiting schools and libraries, and school groups in libraries.

I did my best Hobbit impression.

The scenery was beautiful (on the way to Takaka) ...

... and pretty as a Picton (photo by me).

and we had a fabulous time! What wonderful schools, stellar students, amazing teachers and librarians, and brilliant travel companions!

I hadn't run away to the circus after all, like some of you might have been thinking. Well I had. But only for a week. Now the month is nearly done I will be putting my nose back to the grindstone and tickling the keyboards as I get on with my WIPs. But before I do I will be taking part in the Storylines Hui in Auckland over the first full weekend in October. I'm looking forward to catching up with old friends, making new ones and talking shop. Events like these are always a terrific boost, lighting a fire under my creativity and making me itch with excitement over my chosen career. October here I come....

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

And the winner.....

We have a winner  to last post's competition!!! A copy of Fuzzy Doodle will be going to the first commenter, Girl For All Seasons. Congratulations! Email me your details and I will sign it forthwith and pop it in the post :)

And as a cool bonus in addition to the competition announcement ... one of my favourite-of-all-time writers, Maggie Stiefvater (The Scorpio Races, The Raven Cycle and many more...), recently responded to a question on twitter about 'Imposter Syndrome' with a somewhat unexpected but totally genius answer. I've often felt the sting of this syndrome. I've picked myself up from the fraudsters' floor and reminded myself that I have a few clues about how stories work. But I love how Ms Stiefvater embraces the idea as a mechanism of keeping ourselves grounded, and a reminder that many things contribute to any success we might enjoy. You can read it for yourself below and I also recommend you pick up one of her books and give them a go too. She is equally smart (and linguistically lyrical) with fiction.  And as always, writing itself, word by word, is what we need to keep doing.

On Twitter, Connor Allen asked: "do you ever deal with imposter syndrome as a writer? If so, how do you get past it and just make yourself write?"
My answer:
Dear connorallen94,
I think everyone does to some degree or another.
Career success and artistic skill are only poorly correlated. What do I mean by this? I mean that you have to get a certain level of skill in order to get published/ put in a gallery/ get musical gigs, but after you get to a certain level of competency, greater or less skill doesn’t seem to have any relationship to how commercially successful you are. Other factors begin to take over in exposing your work to buyers, and moreover, the more rarified your skill becomes, the fewer the punters are who can appreciate it. You can turn a beautiful turn of the phrase while juggling 47 themes and delicately drawing an allegory for the pain of man’s condition? Great. Most people won’t notice. And while that additional skill will get you noticed among peers who are also writing beautiful novels with 47 themes and delicately drawn allegories, it is a bad predictor for commercial success. If you use that skill to delicately render specific lizards, for instance, you still run the risk of only appealing to lizard people.* But mostly it’s just excess — the average person doesn’t care if Coldplay’s Chris Martin can play Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in D on his guitar. (I don’t know if he can. But I hope so.)
This is because in the commercial art world, most consumers are not also artists. Other factors are nearly always more important to the non-artist consumer: a strong story, a topical subject matter, a celebrity name, a catchy tune, a wicked hook, a pretty cover, the creator’s funniness on Twitter, the creator’s ability to speak in public, the creator’s actual and literal hotness because wow, relatability of the themes, a movie tie-in, an omnipresent advertising campaign, availability of the work in places that rhyme with BallMart.
It’s why you can be an international bestseller without being the best in your field. It’s why you can be an international bestseller without being remotely the best in your field.
Whenever I say this online, people like to shout “what kind of a self-drag!” I suppose because as an international bestseller, I am supposed to think I am 100% fantastic and have definitely earned my title at the top of the heap by some objective measure of wonderfulness. Also because people are weird and possibly don’t understand how self-awareness, confidence, and humility really ought to play well together if you want to be a happy professional artist. It’s crucial to understand just how big of a role you play in your own success. This is so that you can focus on only the things you can control (you can’t make your subject more topical, you can’t suddenly become a famous rock star with a memoir, you can’t guarantee you have a beautiful, eye-catching cover; you can only work on writing faster, writing more accessibly, writing well), so that you don’t take it too hard when all of your career dreams fail to come true overnight. But it’s also to keep you from being a self-aggrandizing asshole about success. You’ve sold millions of books? Great. Remember, Stiefvater, that your skill is only poorly correlated to that number. You wrote a competent-or-better book at a good time for that genre/ subject/ cover/ something, and it took off. Good job, that was nice. Get back to work.
I don’t generally mind this push-pull, actually. Imposter syndrome whispers that I might be a fraud, a just-okay writer wrapped in accolades I don’t deserve. But mostly I think that’s all right: let the voices whisper. The opposite of the imposter syndrome would be letting myself believe that I am entirely to credit for my success, and that’s just as false. The truth is a middle ground, and this truth is also why imposter syndrome doesn’t get in the way of my work.
Because the truth is this: I’m a writer who works hard, puts down a quarter million words of fiction each year, shows up for work even when life throws health or family or world crises at me, and doesn’t make excuses. Those things aren’t subjective. Those things I can control.
So get to work.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Time to do a book giveaway ...

T'was the big awards night earlier this week and despite my most fervent hopes, Fuzzy was not a winner on the night. There were just too many excellent books to pick from. Big and most hearty congratulations go to all the amazing winners:

Best Picture Book
That's Not a Hippopotamus
Juliette MacIver and Sarah Davis
Gecko Press

Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction
My New Zealand Story
Bastion Point: 507 Days on Takaparawha
Tania Roxborogh

Elsie Locke Award for Non Fiction
Jack and Charlie: Boys of the Bush
Josh and Jack Marcotte
Penguin Random House

Copyright Licensing Award for Young Adult Fiction
The Severed Land
Maurice Gee
Penguin Random House

Te Kura Pounamu Award for Te Reo Maori
Te Kaihanga Mapere
Sacha Cotter and Josh Morgan
translated by Kawata Teepa

Best First Book Award
The Discombobulated Life of Summer Rain
Julie Lamb
Makaro Press

The Russell Clark Award for Illustration and Margaret Mahy Book of the Year
David Elliot
Otago University Press

But neither Fuzzy Doodle nor I have been completely without some good fortune lately 😊 As mentioned previously, Fuzzy will be published across Asia (China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia) by Scholastic Asia in October. And in more good news I have been awarded Creative New Zealand funding toward completing my new project, in the most recent quick response round. I have applied many times (at least 7, maybe more) for direct funding over the years and it is a thrill to finally be successful. And I am VERY EXCITED by this project.

So ... I have decided to do a little giveaway to celebrate. I have one signed copy of Fuzzy Doodle and one signed copy of A Winter's Day in 1939 as prizes. Please tell me in the comments section here on the blog how many countries Fuzzy Doodle will be in across Asia, and tell me whether you want the picture book or the novel as your prize. I will pick randomly from any and all correct entries.You have until 5pm next Thursday. And ... go

Sunday, July 30, 2017

August ...

I suspect there may be an assumption outside the publishing world, that if your books are published they are automatically sold outside of New Zealand as well as locally. Just as we see all sorts of books from overseas for sale here in New Zealand, so must our books travel to other countries.

But it's not a given. The reality is generally pretty modest. Many books that start their publication life here don't escape the gravity of this country. I guess it's partly that some overseas publishers may find our stories too local in flavour and believe they won't fly in other parts of the world. Or that without the authors/illustrators presence to drive promotion the book might struggle to succeed. Or maybe it's something else. Several of my books have been published and/or sold in Australia in addition to New Zealand which has been great. One of my picture books has had a modest foray into other territories. We all hope that our books will be picked up by overseas publishers. That their appeal and value is international. That they have a life, an audience, beyond this country. I have watched wistfully as some other NZ children's authors and illustrators have had some international success.

So I'm really pleased to say that an English language edition of my picture book Fuzzy Doodle, illustrated by Donovan Bixley, is to be published by Scholastic Asia in October. This is the first time one of my books has been picked up by a major publisher outside of Australasia and it's quite a thrill. I'll post up some more info as it comes to hand. And watch this space as I think I'll have to do a give-away soon in honour of this cool news.

July has been almost solely for writing and I have made good progress on my new WIP. August, however, will be focused on other things and I'll have to manage my time more carefully to enable me to hang out with my manuscript. I have some school visits at the start and end of the month and the big night for the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults on August 14. I'm off to Dunedin August 11th and 12th for some events associated with the book awards, and on August 19 I'll be running another workshop on Picture Book Writing at Selwyn Community Education. There will be lots of information on what picture books should and shouldn't be, some hands on writing exercises and some good oil on publishers, competitions and submitting. If you think you might be interested in attending you can find more details and register here. If I don't see you there, I'll see you on the other side.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Fuzzy genesis...

Late one night, late in 2013, a funny little phrase popped into my head as the engineering inside my conscious mind began to power down for the night. It was a rhythmical rhyming phrase and I liked the idea, sound and shape of it so much, I got up, found some paper and a pencil and wrote it down.


The next morning I didn't muck around. I grabbed a piece of paper and started writing, to see where that first stanza might take me. Maybe my subconscious had worked on it overnight, maybe a clear head after a good night's sleep was what did it, but it all came pouring out. The central conceit, the metamorphosis, and (what I felt was) a most satisfying conclusion. I transferred the story onto the computer and began to rewrite and refine. While not strictly rhyming, the text had developed a particular rhythm and it was fun to play with language techniques, particularly as the techniques, in addition to the words themselves, supported the key themes. As I reflected on what I'd written I felt excited at the destination I'd arrived at from that very simple beginning. I could see one main thread of the text gave a mental nod to The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but there were other influences too. The first thought as I'd lain in bed the night before had been of Beedle, which has a lovely structure/mouth feel/rhythm all it's own. Of course many of us have heard this name through Rowling's The Tales of Beedle the Bard, but I was just playing with the word in my head, and words like beetle and doodle and a few other two syllable sound alikes. It was just random thinking, word play, where I suspect a lot of good ideas are born. I'd thought about Emily Gravett too, and the self-referential metafictiveness of her work. Of course dear reader, as you will know, Beedle became Fuzzy. Despite the buzz of inspiration that first night, 'Fuzzy' became a better fit with the picture I had in my mind, of that first little doodle. More reader friendly too, I thought.

Once I'd launched off with the idea of a doodle that comes to life in the margin of the page (where many doodles start their lives in the real world), it seemed obvious that (like a caterpillar) the doodle would be hungry and on a page what is there to eat but words and pictures. The act of consuming culture can make us creative ourselves. Just like the doodle, we can experience a creative metamorphosis. The ideas grew and wrapped back around themselves and the more I thought about it, the more layers I could see in what I was writing. I love layers. It is always my goal when writing to make an iceberg out of my narrative with the text visible above, and a whole lot of ideas going on below. Or maybe it's a cabbage. Or an onion.

Of course the text is only part of the story when it comes to picture books. I sent the manuscript off to the publisher, Scholastic, and in November 2013 they signed the story up for publication. The hunt began for an illustrator and in 2014 Donovan Bixley came on board. His schedule meant waiting until mid 2016 for publication, but it was so worth the wait. His artwork picks up on everything in the text and extends it. All deceptively simple and yet it is what good art should be. Beautiful, and inspiring and empowering.

Since Fuzzy Doodle has been published, readers have broadened the discussion of what it all means. During a school visit on my recent tour of Northland with Storylines, a teacher asked me if the book was autobiographical,and straight away I said yes. I hadn't consciously thought of it that way but of course he was right. On that very first night when that phrase popped in to my head, and when I began to work the story the very next day I knew that things I've seen and read and watched and smelt and tasted and touched coalesce into ideas, and become my books. And then in the best kind of magic, my books can become grist in the creative mills of others. One of my biggest thrills has been discovering that young readers previously not confident in their own creative skills have been encouraged by the book to make all kinds of art.  After all, stories begin with one simple idea popping into our heads last thing at night, and art can grow from that little doodle in the margin at the edge.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The shortlist for the 2017 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults announced ...

I am so happy to finally reveal (cos it feels like I have known for an age) that Fuzzy Doodle, my picture book with Donovan Bixley, is shortlisted in two categories (Picture Book and Russell Clark Award) in the 2017 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. I am so proud of this book and even prouder that the judges have selected it as a finalist. The lists are full of wonderful books created for our young readers right here in New Zealand, and I know that there are even more terrific, deserving books that have missed out on a shortlisting. We make some pretty amazing children's literature here in this country. The winners of these awards will be announced on August 14 - exciting times. 

The finalists for the 2017 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults are:

Picture Book Award
Fuzzy Doodle, Melinda Szymanik, illustrated by Donovan Bixley, Scholastic NZ
Gwendolyn! Juliette MacIver, illustrated by Terri Rose Baynton, HarperCollins Publishers (ABC)
My Grandpa is a Dinosaur, Richard Fairgray and Terry Jones, illustrated by Richard Fairgray, Penguin Random House (Puffin)
That’s Not a Hippopotamus! Juliette MacIver, illustrated by Sarah Davis, Gecko Press
The Singing Dolphin/Te Aihe i Waiata, Mere Whaanga, Scholastic NZ
Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction 
Helper and Helper, Joy Cowley, illustrated by Gavin Bishop, Gecko Press
My New Zealand Story: Bastion Point, Tania Roxborogh, Scholastic NZ
Sunken Forest, Des Hunt, Scholastic NZ
The Discombobulated Life of Summer Rain, Julie Lamb, Mākaro Press (Submarine)
The Impossible Boy, Leonie Agnew, Penguin Random House (Puffin)
Copyright Licensing NZ Award for Young Adult Fiction 
Coming Home to Roost, Mary-anne Scott, Penguin Random House (Longacre)
Kiwis at War 1916: Dig for victory, David Hair, Scholastic NZ
Like Nobody’s Watching, LJ Ritchie, Escalator Press
Shooting Stars, Brian Falkner, Scholastic NZ
The Severed Land, Maurice Gee, Penguin Random House (Penguin)
Elsie Locke Award for Non-Fiction
From Moa to Dinosaurs: Explore & discover ancient New Zealand, Gillian Candler, illustrated by Ned Barraud, Potton & Burton
Jack and Charlie: Boys of the bush, Josh James Marcotte and Jack Marcotte, Penguin Random House (Puffin)
The Cuckoo and the Warbler, Kennedy Warne, illustrated by Heather Hunt, Potton & Burton
The Genius of Bugs, Simon Pollard, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (Te Papa Press)
Torty and the Soldier, Jennifer Beck, illustrated by Fifi Colston, Scholastic NZ
Russell Clark Award for Illustration
Fuzzy Doodle, illustrated by Donovan Bixley, written by Melinda Szymanik, Scholastic NZ
Gladys Goes to War, illustrated by Jenny Cooper, written by Glyn Harper, Penguin Random House (Puffin)
If I Was a Banana, illustrated by Kieran Rynhart, written by Alexandra Tylee, Gecko Press
Snark: Being a true history of the expedition that discovered the Snark and the Jabberwock . . . and its tragic aftermath, illustrated and written by David Elliot (after Lewis Carroll), Otago University Press
The Day the Costumes Stuck, illustrated and written by Toby Morris, Beatnik Publishing
Te Kura Pounamu Award for books written completely in te reo Māori
Ngā Manu Tukutuku e Whitu o Matariki, Calico McClintock, illustrated by Dominique Ford, translated by Ngaere Roberts, Scholastic NZ
Ngārara Huarau, Maxine Hemi, Illustrated by Andrew Burdan, Huia Publishers
Te Haerenga Māia a Riripata i Te Araroa, Maris O’Rourke, illustrated by Claudia Pond Eyley, translated by Āni Wainui, David Ling Publishing (Duck Creek Press)
Te Kaihanga Māpere, Sacha Cotter, illustrated by Josh Morgan, translated by Kawata Teepa, Huia Publishers
Tuna rāua ko Hiriwa, Ripeka Takotowai Goddard, illustrated by Kimberly Andrews, Huia Publishers
Best First Book Award 
Awatea’s Treasure, Fraser Smith, Huia Publishers
Like Nobody’s Watching, LJ Ritchie, Escalator Press
The Discombobulation of Summer Rain, Julie Lamb, Mākaro Press (Submarine)
The Mouse and the Octopus, written and illustrated by Lisala Halapua, Talanoa Books
Wars in the Whitecloud: Wairau, 1843, written and illustrated by Matthew H McKinley, Kin Publishing

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Storylines National Children's Writers and Illustrators' Hui...

One of the things I have always envied about writing greats, is their hobnobbing with other writing greats. Like Neil Gaiman's friendships with Terry Pratchett and Diana Wynne Jones. JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis. And Stein, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. And many other literary groups and friendships. I can only imagine how cool their conversations are/were, and wonder whether they offer(ed) each other criticism and advice or just talk(ed) about more lofty philosophical topics. Maybe they just talk(ed) about what colour ink to use, but probably in a very exciting way. I think the important thing to hold on to here, to assuage the jealousy, is the fact that when these people formed their friendships/alliances they weren't necessarily the writing greats we have come to think of them as. They just got together to talk about their common interests.

As with any job or vocation, getting to know others in your field is how you keep your sanity, overcome issues that are hard to wrangle on your own, share information for the betterment of the group, and help and support each other through successes and failures, because if you stay in this business for the long haul you will experience both.

I always recommend to writers just starting out that they should find their tribe. You will need friends who understand what being a writer means as you make the journey. Ideally you will make friends with writers at all different stages of their careers because every stage has its own unique set of advantages and pitfalls. Most likely your group will be centered around the type of writing you do. You might belong to several groups. And late at night when you are struggling with your writing or, anything really, you will message your writery friends and they will know just what you mean and suggest ways to fix it or get through, or sympathise with the place you are at, or cheer you on.

If you don't know how to find your tribe, if you are unsure how to reach out to them, a conference (in addition to having many other benefits) is a good way to begin. Hanging out with your tribe (current or intended) is one of the loveliest things about a writing conference. There is to be a Hui for Children's Writers and Illustrators in Auckland this coming October. I'll be running a workshop for beginner writers, and there will be lots of practical workshops, pitching sessions and opportunities to meet and hang out with writers and illustrators from all over New Zealand at all sorts of different stages in their careers. If you want to find out more or sign up to attend, everything you need to know can be found here. I hope I see you there!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Touring Northland with Storylines ...

I went travelling last week. Thanks to the most excellent organisation Storylines, I toured Northland schools and pre-schools with Tim Tipene, Diana Menefy, Anne Marie Florian, Terry Fitzgibbon and Maria Gill. We talked books, reading, writing and illustrating, and their value and importance. We were wrangled by the lovely, patient, expert driver, and literature fiend, Anne Dickson, who deserves a medal or two for getting us to all the places we needed to go. I visited and spoke at 18 schools, kindergartens and related events. Group sizes varied from  22 to 225 (plus teachers). Ages ranged from 3 months to 13 years. Sometimes groups comprised a whole school, years 0 to 8. It was pretty full on. But as you can see I was still smiling on Friday.

We met a lot of children as we travelled. I talked with students at Tauhoa Primary, Tapora School, and Tomarata Primary on Monday. Mangawhai Beach School, Waipu, Maungaturoto and Paparoa (and Tinopai) Primarys on Tuesday. Maunu and Onerahi Schools, and Whangarei Intermediate (a workshop) on Wednesday. Thursday I visited Hurupaki, Hukerenui, Pakaraka and Kaikohe West Schools and in the afternoon/evening we did an event at Kerikeri High School in association with SLANZA. Friday we wended our way home via Our Place Early Learning Centre, Kerikeri Community Childcare Trust, (Makana Chocolate Cafe - not a school) and Horizon School in Snell's Beach.

We covered a lot of miles (1,812km!!) and got to see many beautiful parts of Northland (including some I'd never seen before). This is me, Tim, Diana and Anne Marie at Whangarei Heads School where Diana and Anne Marie spoke. Just the most amazing backdrop, don't you think?

I received the loveliest gift and card from Maunu School, and was sung a waiata at Kaikohe West School, and at Kerikeri Community Childcare Trust. Everyone was so welcoming everywhere we went.

I was a bit weary by the time I returned home Friday evening but the whole week was a total blast. I felt very lucky. If I got the chance I would do it all again. I had felt a little daunted by the prospect of all that public speaking in such varied circumstances but the children were wonderful, respectful and enthusiastic. My travelling companions were the best company and we had a lot of laughs. Storylines have created a wonderful thing. There will be more tours around other parts of New Zealand over the rest of the year. If you would like an author and/or illustrator to visit your school or preschool you can apply here.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Tempting boys to read...

Much is often made of writing children's fiction to tempt boy readers. The general consensus is that they lag behind girls in reading volume and therefore reading (and associated) skills. We must write things that will appeal specifically to them in a way that boy readers in particular will enjoy. I'm not sure what that means. Maybe more action and adventure, or toilet humour and slapstick, more horror and science fiction, less girls, less narrative, more dialogue, and no crying, god forbid.

Recently I listened to a terrific speech by a wonderful, successful, well-published author. He writes great books. He said he wrote to tempt the boy reader. He also said he was surprised down the track to find that many (most?) of his readers were girls. And I can't stop thinking about this. Did this mean his efforts to tempt boys didn't succeed? Or that the books appealed equally to girls? Or appealed more to girls than boys despite the authors deliberate intentions otherwise? Or that girls will read widely and don't care what gender the main character is or whether the main themes are considered masculine or feminine or whatever? Or that girls will always read more than boys no matter what?

If girls will read stories centering around boys and 'their interests' in addition to stories focusing on their own gender, then why won't boys read stories centering around girls and their interests? Are we failing boys by not supplying enough of exactly what they want to read, or are we failing boys by providing exactly what they want to read. Have we made it impossible for them to pick up something with a pink cover, with glittery foil? Have we dismissed female protagonists as being beneath them or as not deserving of their attention? Maybe it's not the books. Maybe having a society that seems slightly apologetic about books and dismissive of the arts in general is the issue. As noted by Toby Manhire in the 9 January 2012 issue of The NZ Listener, our then Prime Minister, John Key, (in his contribution to a flyer for Otago's NZ Literary Heritage Trail), 'put the role of New Zealand art and culture in its national context.

"I have always believed we should enhance the literary skills of our young people and while our literary heroes may never challenge the glory and respect given to our All Blacks, we still need role models to inspire us." '

I don't think anything has changed since then. Books can never be as cool as the All Blacks according to the folk who set the tone for our attitudes. Representing your country in sport is cool. Winning an Olympic medal is cool. Books, hmmm, not so much. If only reading could be that cool. 

A few years back, I read or heard someone comment that it was wrong to have your young male character cry during the course of your novel. Because boys didn't cry and this would render the character less credible in the eyes of young male readers. When I first read/heard it I worried about all the young male protagonists I'd written that had cried or become emotional when something terrible or terrifying had happened. Now I know my protagonists should cry when this is the right emotional response, regardless of their gender. But this attitude that crying is wrong is not uncommon when it comes to what is widely considered appropriate content for books for boys. In our attempts to coax more boys into reading more books what are we showing them about the world we live in? Are we writing girls out of their world? Or rendering them as only helpers or assistants rather than heroes in their own right? And if they are heroes they must be 'kick-ass' and physical? Are we making it uncool to cry? Have we sacrificed too much in our efforts to get boys to read more? Have the efforts that have been made to increase their reading even worked? Is it time to try a different approach? Should we forget about 'girl' books and 'boy' books and just make reading so cool that all children feel an irresistible urge to pick up a good book. 


Thursday, March 23, 2017

Turning in ever decreasing circles

It was a surprise and a bit of a blow to see the recent announcement from the Book Awards Trust regarding changes to the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults (you can check it out here). There are some positive developments in there - with increasing promotion of finalist titles through several initiatives and a revamped schedule of events that will see authors and illustrators hopefully reaching more of their young readers in what looks like a much more celebratory style - Good!

But my heart broke a little to see that these new intiatives come at the expense of the Children's Choice Awards. For a number of years children were able to vote for their favourite book from amongst the finalist titles. This was a limited approach with a format that tended to favour picture books but it encouraged engagement with all categories of New Zealand children's literature and was an important means of giving voice to our target audience. The prize was much coveted by authors and illustrators, a ringing endorsement from the people we write for. It was a huge thrill when The Were-Nana, my picure book with Sarah Anderson, won the Children's Choice Award in 2009. I love that book and I'm quietly chuffed that the children did too. It gave me the confidence to keep writing for children.

We rejoiced when Children's Choice expanded to acknowledge the book with the most votes in each book award category. And we were jubilant when  over the last few years children could vote for any book submitted for the book awards instead of just the finalists, and Children's Choice then drew up its own list of finalists and each category winner was feted individually. What a tremendous level of engagement for children around New Zealand. This expansion took some of the sting out of the cutting of the LIANZA awards. In a small country with a small population and little media exposure for local children's literature, the loss of these awards has been a real blow to the children's book community. The broadening of Children's Choice was seen as the ideal positive step forward, helping our local writers and illustrators achieve a greater connection with their audience, and giving that audience a chance to speak directly back to us through their choices. A real win:win.

And now it's gone completely.

I appreciate that giving potential voters access to all the eligible children's and young adults titles in a limited time frame, encouraging them to vote and collating the responses must be a significant and costly task. I understand that the organisation of a whole additional tier of finalists and winners adds a degree of complexity for the awards team. Maybe the administration of the Children's Choice Awards is ideally shared with another organisation, or could be reconstructed into a more manageable format that still allows children to have their say. How cool would it be if a dedicated sponsor came forward to fund Children's Choice. Our readers and their opinions are incredibly important to us and the future of children's literature in this country. Other countries with robust Children's Book Awards programmes have Children's Choice Awards. With tightening publishing lists and these cuts to children's book awards we are turning in ever decreasing circles.

Friday, March 17, 2017

A few good things...

It has been a week of news :)

I'm so thrilled to say I get to be a part of this year's Auckland Writers Festival. I've been involved in the Festival before and I didn't dare hope I'd get to take part again. I'll be running a workshop on writing picture books called Picture Book Practice, talking about key attributes, common mistakes, and avenues for publication. It'll be a 90 minute primer with lots of juicy information and a fun exercise to set you on your way. Information on the session is here. Sunday 21st of May 4.00 - 5.30pm at the Aotea Centre. The festival is jam packed with all sorts of amazing goodies and I can't wait to go along!!  Exciting times. Check out the full programme here.

I think one of the nicest types of feedback I can get on my workshops, school visits and other events is repeat business. I recently got invited back for the second time to an annual event, and received a request for a school visit from someone I've visited for before. I'm always working to improve my talks and workshops and always thinking of ways I can add value to what I do, so to know I'm on the right track with content and delivery is enormously helpful.

And a very exciting kind of feedback is acknowledgement of our books by the children's literature community. I'm very proud that Fuzzy Doodle, my picture book with Donovan Bixley, has been named a Storylines Notable Book for 2017. Here is the list of picture book fabulousness that I feel honoured to be a part of:

Storylines Notable Books List 2017

The Storylines Notable Books List 2017, for books published in 2016, has been announced. The award-winning titles are:
Picture Books
  • If I was a Banana by Alexandra Tylee, illustrated by Kieran Rynhart (Gecko)
  • Gwendolyn! by Juliette MacIver, illustrated by Terri Rose Baynton (HarperCollins)
  • Tuna and Hiriwa by Ripeka Takotowai Goddard, illustrated by Kimberly Andrews (Huia)
  • Maui – Sun Catcher by Tim Tipene, illustrated by Zak Waipara (Oratia)
  • Gladys Goes to War by Glyn Harper, illustrated by Jenny Cooper (Penguin Random House NZ)
  • Fuzzy Doodle by Melinda Szymanik, illustrated by Donovan Bixley (Scholastic NZ)
  • Gorillas in our Midst by Richard Fairgray, illustrated by Terry Jones (Scholastic NZ)
  • Henry Bob Bobbalich by Juliette MacIver, illustrated by Link Choi (Scholastic NZ)
  • Witch’s Cat Wanted Apply Within written by Joy H Davidson, illustrated by Nikki Slade-Robinson (Scholastic NZ)
  • The Harmonica by Dawn McMillan, illustrated by Andrew Burdan (Scholastic NZ)
  • Rasmas by Elizabeth Pulford, illustrated by Jenny Cooper (Scholastic NZ)
  • The Best Dad in the World by Pat Chapman, illustrated by Cat Chapman (Upstart)

Junior Fiction

  • The Road to Ratenburg by Joy Cowley, illustrated by Gavin Bishop (Gecko)
  • Annual edited by Kate De Goldi and Susan Paris (Gecko)
  • The Diamond Horse by Stacy Gregg (HarperCollins UK)
  • Rona by Chris Szekely, illustrated by Josh Morgan (Huia)
  • Enemy Camp by David Hill (Penguin Random House NZ)
  • The Impossible Boy by Leonie Agnew (Penguin Random House NZ)
  • Grandad’s Wheelies by Jack Lasenby, illustrated by Bob Kerr (Penguin Random House NZ)
  • Barking Mad by Tom E Moffatt (Scholastic NZ)
  • Sunken Forest by Des Hunt (Scholastic NZ)

Young Adult

  • Lonesome When You Go by Saradha Koirala (Makaro)
  • Coming Home to Roost by Mary-anne Scott (Penguin Random House NZ)


  • See Play Do: A Kid’s Handbook for Everyday Creative Fun written and illustrated by Louise Cuckow (Beatnik)
  • Bruce Wants to Go Faster by Dreydon Sobanja, illustrated by Murray Dewhurst (Inspired Kids)
  • Armistice Day: the New Zealand Story by Philippa Werry (New Holland)
  • Speed King: Burt Munro, the World’s Fastest Indian by David Hill, illustrated by Phoebe Morris (Penguin Random House NZ)
  • Jack and Charlie: Boys of the Bush by Jack Marcotte (Penguin Random House NZ)
  • The Beginner's Guide to Netball by Maria Tutaia (Penguin Random House NZ)
  • Cricket with Kane Williamson by Kane Williamson (Penguin Random House NZ)
  • The Cuckoo and the Warbler: A True New Zealand Story by Heather Hunt, illustrated by Kennedy Warne (Potton and Burton)
  • ANZAC Heroes by Maria Gill, illustrated by Marco Ivancic (Scholastic NZ)
  • Much ado about Shakespeare written and illustrated by Donovan Bixley (Upstart)

A downloadable poster in PDF format of all this year's Notable Books can be found here.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Managing the news hungry writer...

One day two weeks ago was a red letter day. I got two emails that surprised and delighted me. One was responding positively to a bold suggestion I'd made sometime in the second half of last year. The other was to let me know a short story I'd submitted was accepted for publication. I floated, giddy, for 24 hours and believed in myself for at least 4 or 5 days. Now I'm back to my usual normal grumpy, jittery, self-doubting, frequent email-refreshing self.

As a writer, receiving any news is addictive. Good news makes you happy. Great news makes you high as a kite. And the rest of the time we are in withdrawal. Where the analogy goes awry is that we have no control over the supply of our favourite drug. So we need some management techniques to help us survive the cold turkey times. Because we never know how long they'll last or if they'll ever be over again.

For all the people who say 'but writing should be your addiction', or 'distract yourself from waiting for responses to your submissions/proposals/putting your neck on the line by getting started on your next book' - they are lying to themselves. Or they're not and I'm just so happy for them in their lovely homes in Stepford.

So here are my ideas for getting through...

1) Run away to a far away country where you can ignore the fact that there is no new news (an expensive option and only good for short bursts)

2) Have children so you can sneak a high from their good news. This is a major (and costly) investment but can really pay off in the long run

3) Refrigerate or freeze your favourite emails/letters so you can enjoy them again later. Please note however you cannot refreeze a thawed email, and previously frozen news will deteriorate faster

4) Keep news fresher for longer by watering daily. Some folk recommend a dried arrangement and these will last a lot longer but the colours do fade and they can become very brittle.

5) Fake news is NOT recommended. Especially as it makes the real news harder to identify

6) Don't try and 'be' the news. The media/social media are by their very nature rather judgy and generally harsh critics. Even filters won't protect you

The truth is all news wears out eventually anyway. Careful handling will make it last longer but it will become history at some point no matter what you do. Of course this is a blessing for the less than stellar variety. There will always be periods without news. You will get times where your email inbox goes deathly quiet and the world seems to be spinning on without you. Staying in the game is still the best way to keep new news coming in, but know that the days of waiting and wishing to hear are just a normal part of this job we have found ourselves in. And it pays to remember too that all writers have to deal with the lulls and the cold turkey trough. Hanging out with each other during an absence of news may just be the best way to get through. Be kind to yourself. And nice to each other

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Winging it ...

Hey there (waves). I don't know where you are or what you've been doing over the last month or so but I hope it has been AWESOME!! And I hope you have big plans for 2017. Well, good plans, whether big or small. Good luck for your good plans!

I have one plan for the year ahead, and that is to not have a plan :) I'm kind of winging it (because I figure when you wing it, you might just fly). 

Of course I'm gonna keep doing the key things I always do. My key tasks are to try and produce great content and to deliver the best talks, workshops and readings I can if I am called on to do so. Content, first and foremost, is king. Without it I'm not a writer. If I'm not a writer than I won't be called on to talk books, reading, and writing. 

And I'm keen to enjoy my writing. Feeling joy in the process can't help but leak in to the product. It's a good way to work as a creative, and can easily be forgotten in the drive to capitalise on previous successes or in attempting to meet a market which turns out to be slipperier than a greased seal. So: a passive approach and few expectations, a focus on writing, and a desire to work on things that make me happy.

Okay, so I am cheating a little having actively pursued a few opportunities last year which might bear fruit this year. I already have a few things booked in and they are nicely spread out across the next 11 months. But at the moment taking my foot a little off the gas feels like the right thing to do. This may change though, as conveniently, winging it gives me the right to make it up as I go along (lol, just like writing). 

 I thought it might be handy to start the year off with a few observations

1) If it's really difficult, you're doing it right

2) Believe it or not, it's all about the writing. Just the writing. No, really.

3) Where do ideas come from? Take an interest in things. Be curious. Live your life. Where experience and curiosity and imagination intersect is where ideas hang out. Go hang out there too.

4) If you think other writers have it easier, it's probably because they have chosen not to share about the knocks and struggles they have faced. We are all facing obstacles, wishing things would go a little better, and doing the best we can

5) Don't put off following your dreams until tomorrow. Start as soon as possible because you will always wish you'd started yesterday.

6) Of course it sometimes feels like you have the absolute worst job in the world! All the best jobs do

And in seriously exciting news for the NZ children's literature scene, a new initiative, The Sapling - a new online magazine about children's books. Because books grow children - is starting up soon. This sounds amazing and I can't wait. The founding editors, Sarah Forster and Jane Arthur, are currently running a Boosted fundraising campaign to  enable them to start things off right. If you would like to contribute, go check it out here. They also currently have a facebook page if you want to keep in touch with their progress