Saturday, November 23, 2019

We should talk about overthinking ...

I suspect I am like many other writers, sweating a lot about what publishers are thinking and doing with my submissions, or what is happening in the great abyss that a contracted work falls in to before it emerges many months later as a published book. We tend to be overthinkers. It comes with the territory. Honestly when your job centres on extensive brain noodling to create meaningful, believable and rational plots and characters, it is hard to shuck off this intensive thinking. We start to apply it to EVERYTHING. We are gap fillers, using our empathic skills to scrutinse and prognosticate on what others are thinking and feeling, about us and our work. We follow trains of thought into tunnels and out the other side. We stop at the most unexpected stations, and sometimes we get out where we shouldn't.

If we write full time it means we have more of this overthinking time. We don't want to be obsessed about how long that submission is taking and what it might mean. We don't really want to imagine all the possible implications of that long silence following our enquiry. We're just made that way. That's why we're writers. Its a pretty rubbish side effect of the job. You can suggest 'keeping busy' all you like but keeping busy for a writer just means more thinking time. Daydreaming, considering, wondering,  obessessing, crying into our coffee ....

And then you add in social media. And as a writer it can be a useful tool in the drive to raise one's profile, broaden visibility, and help with branding  and book sales. People tell you to avoid it, or spend less time on it, and sure it can be a vast rabbit hole that has all the qualities of a gravity well. But it's not the time wasting concerns that do my head in. Its the fact that if you join the writing community on any/many platforms (because that is what writers do), it is a constant reminder of the achievements and successes of others. Have enough followers/friends and you can sprint from grateful, excited post to grateful, excited post about book launches, festival invitations, award wins, film deals and bestselling statuses which only serves as a contrast to your own current stalled position in the wilderness. Of course the relentless positivity is not some skewing of an overabundance of good things happening to everyone else except you, its just a normal pattern of people mostly sharing the good news and keeping mostly schtum about the crap things, or an absence of tweets about an absence of progress in their careers, or whatever. Be part of a big enough group of mostly writers and the normal occurence of good news can't help but look top heavy It just seems like everything is happening to everyone else except you, but its not true. It's an artificial effect.

Of course when you combine the two - overthinking and everyone else is clearly doing way better than me - it can become downright unhealthy. So what to do to maintain sanity?

1 - buy some jigsaws/books of sudoku/code crackers. A most excellent way to keep the brain too busy for random thoughts. If you need to switch off, do some puzzles. Reading is great, and important for writers, but you need to find things unrelated to writing to truly switch off.
2 - make sure you follow people on twitter/facebook/instagram who aren't writers to get some balance. I recommend squidthegriff on instagram and endless screaming (@infinite_scream) and @JamesBlunt on twitter.
3 - remember none of it is real. It is our minds working over time and the false evidence of social media. (however, should your worst prognostications turn out to be true remember a) most of your prognostications weren't, and b) confirmation can be liberating, allowing you to process it and move on)
4 - have a strategy for when you feel yourself slipping down the slide of obsessiveness. This strategy might include knitting or baking, exercise, and looking at cat pics/videos. Telling a writer friend can help but can also intensify the obsessiveness - have a list of people you can approach who will listen carefully, give you a wee slap and provide a rational explanation for whatever thought process you are having.

Hmm - I'll keep thinking on this. I think the list of helpful tips should be longer so I'll be trying to add to it in the coming days.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

A week of words, warmth and wisdom ...

It is Monday November 11 here in New Zealand and I am reporting to you live from my bed at 10.22am.

It has been quite a week.

Last Tuesday I flew from Auckland to Dunedin with fellow writer Maria Gill. We were met at the airport by Fifi Colston: writer, illustrater, wearable arts creator and Wellingtonian, who'd flown down earlier in the day. Later in the week we would be presenting various sessions at the Wild Imaginings Children's Writers and Illustrators Hui, but Maria and Fifi had thought schools might be interested in having some out of town authors visit preceding the Hui, and had invited me to join them.

Bright and early Wednesday morning we set off for Oamaru to take part in a Speed Date the author/illustrator event, with 82 students from schools in the district. We'd run with a historical theme and Fifi and Maria dressed up for the occasion. The day was enormous fun (many thanks to all those involved in making the event such a success, especially Fiona Kerr, children's librarian at Waitaki District Libraries, and Kathryn Carmody at ReadNZ Te Pou Murarmura). We had car trouble though, so our highly anticipated dinner date at Fleur's Place in Moeraki had to be cancelled. Grrrrrr.


Maria, Me! and Fifi.

Thursday we were back in Dunedin, and Maria and I had school visits. I was hosted by North East Valley Normal School for the morning and what a great school they are, doing wonderful things to build a love of books and reading in their students.

Friday, Maria and I checked out the Challenging the Deep exhibition at the Otago Museum which was quite amazing, while Fifi had a school visit. Then it was back to the computer for some final content construction and preparation for our Hui presentations, and then off to the Opening Ceremony.

The Hui was wonderful.  Lots of talk. Lots of meeting old friends, and making new ones, forging connections and building relationships. I was a panellist for a discussion on reviewing for the first breakout session and we had a great round table chat about the topic with the attending delegates. My takeaway was that as traditional reviewing channels contract and decline, we need to make the most of the new reviewing forums popping up online, and grow their reach and their reputation. We have to focus on making the most of the new possibilities, rather than wasting time on lamenting the loss of the old.

Kate De Goldi's keynote chat with illustrating marvel, David Elliot, was a joy, followed by a fascinating discussion about different routes to market with a panel of 3 publishers (Mary McCallum at Makaro/The Cuba Press, Anoushka Jones of Exisle/EK Publishing, and Sophie Siers at Millwood Press), and best selling author Stacy Gregg, chaired by writer/agent Chris Else. It was great to hear the speakers talk about their title sales across a range of territories. The second breakout session with Stacy Gregg provided a solid framework for constructing compelling novels. With 25 novels to her name, Stacy knows her stuff.

I'd been tying myself in knots for several weeks trying to prepare my talk for the afternoon keynote that I was to be involved in - Pathways to Imagination. It's tricky writing for an audience that ranges from novices to experienced award winners. In the end I opted for covering as many bases as possible and touching on a reminder about the limits of our imagination. We can be inventive but cannot create something out of nothing. Our imagination must draw on our experience and knowledge, and risks arise when we try to write beyond these. We have to respect our own limits, and more importantly, respect the reader. I was really touched by the hui delegates who came up to me afterwards to tell me how much they'd enjoyed the talk.

The Conference dinner was a blast. Previous University of Otago College of Education Creative New Zealand Children's Writers in Residence (of which I am one) spoke about their experiences during their residencies, over the course of the evening . That's us below - from left: the 2020 resident, Elena De Roo, Leonie Agnew (2013), Me! (2014), Kyle Mewburn (2011), Fifi Colston (2019), Robyn Belton (with Jennifer Beck 2015), and Karen Trebilcock (2010). 2002 resident, Sandy McKay, who also spoke is missing from the photo.

Image may contain: 7 people, people smiling, people standing

During my spot, when I remembered to mention my 'getting locked in/small-lady fence gymnastics' adventure, I completely forgot to talk about the friendships formed with the other University fellows during my residency, in particular the Mozart fellow, Jeremy Mayall. Jeremy was keen to work collaboratively and composed music to accompany my picture book The Song of Kauri, released while I was in Dunedin. It was a very special and treasured experience, which a day of heightened preparedness had driven from my mind.

Next morning kicked off with a fabulous keynote by the incredible Wendy Pye, whose tireless work and creative thinking takes tools for reading acquisition all around the world to people who would otherwise not get the opportunity. Next I attended junior fiction series author Swapna Haddow's, breakout session on writing series. This was a terrific primer on constructing a series, and after a mini epiphany mid-session, I came away fizzing with a potential idea. The post lunch keynote was a fascinating insight into the process of two very different authors, Stacy Gregg and Rachael Craw, who were interviewed by Kate De Goldi. The session was a great reminder that there is never just one way to write a fantastic book. Unfortunately we had to dash away before the final keynote and farewell in order to catch planes home, but we'd had an amazing time. I tip my hat to the organisers for this rip roaringly successful event. I will be down there in a shot if they do it again.