Friday, December 18, 2020

Helping you find your way through the tall-hedged maze...

 Well colour me blush. I talked about some of the reasons why your book might not get to be published overseas and lo and behold I have had news over the past week of some overseas deals for a couple of my books. Unsurprisingly I am happy to feel awkward about this turn of events. While I am not sure I can share all of my news, I am thrilled to say Sharing with Wolf, published by Scholastic NZ, and illustrated by Nikki Slade Robinson, will be heading off to Italy. Being published in Europe is a first for me and I am looking forward to the adventure. I guess the bottom line on my previous post was that overseas publication is not a given. If it doesn't happen to you, you are in good company with other good people and other good books. And then when you least expect it, it may happen after all. Honestly, I'm as surprised as the rest of you.

Usually, as we approach Christmas, I do a stocktake of the year that's been, but this year has been like no other. A big bunch of things I signed up for never happened. A bunch of other things still went ahead via zoom, or with masks, hand sanitizer and social distancing. We all became anxious about our wifi dropping out at crucial moments, and the habit of frequently touching our own faces that we never knew we had. And lockdown was the weirdest time of all, full of challenges we'd never had to contemplate before. It hasn't been all bad. I've had books accepted, an award shortlisting and now I can add the latest overseas developments to my 2020 good things. And I'm not alone - I've been hearing some very bright spots of good news across the children's writing community. Maybe because through it all we've been reading as much as we can. Its been fantastic to see books bring other people much needed joy and comfort. In times like these, books are even more essential than usual. 

Next year is slowly beginning to take shape. I have some gigs lined up in March, April, June and August. I'll be teaching my Writing Children's Picture Books course again at Selwyn Community Education, and in 2021 I'll also be taking a half day workshop there on Writing Short Stories. Woohoo! I really enjoy sharing tips, tools, and techniques with you and I'm really looking forward to doing it again next year :-) I have everything crossed that things go ahead way more often in 2021 than they did in 2020.

And I have books coming out. A few days ago I received an advance copy of Moon and Sun illustrated by Malene Laugesen and published by Upstart Press, which launches in February. Squuueeeeeeee!!

And in 2021 I'd really like to provide more blog content that helps you build your craft, find your way through the tall-hedged maze that is getting and staying published, and develop ways to manage everything from the admin of writing and books, to surviving rejections and successes (however, I beg of you, do not ask me about commas). So, to that end, if you have a burning question, or an issue that you can't quite resolve, or topics you'd really like me to tackle (even if I've covered them before), please let me know in the comment section here, or via facebook or twitter.

Possible topics include:

1) What your plot cannot live without.

2) Top qualities of successful picture books deconstructed

3) Imagining the pictures when you can't 'picture' to save yourself (i.e. making sure your story will work as a picture book)

4) The publishers secret handshake

5) The grammar you can't avoid

I will try and address all of these in 2021, but let me know if there are any you are particularly interested in. And if I don't know the answer I will go in search of the person who does. 

Wishing you a safe and happy festive season, and perfect weather for the summer break (with occasional rain cos we really need it in Auckland). See you in 2021...

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

You can't just eat the icing ...

 As progress is made on the picture books I have coming out next year, I am feeling super excited, and impatient to show you what they look like. When a story has made the big leap to become a book, sharing it with readers is the goal. Waiting for the moment to arrive when this can happen is like keeping a big secret, and keeping a secret can be very hard. Still, it's all part of the process and like so very much of the process it requires patience and perseverence. 

In the meantime here is a sneak peek of My Elephant is Blue, to be published by Puffin (Penguin), illustrated by the remarkable Vasanti Unka, and coming out in May 2021. Huzzah! I cannot wait to show you what it looks like inside. And now we can be tortured about it together.

If your work hasn't been published yet, I think there is a fairly common belief that the (print) book will publish across a range of international markets. In my experience, this tends to be the exception rather than the rule. IMHO there are lots of reasons why this is the case. 

1) Lots of children's stories don't translate well, especially if they are rhyming or have internal rhyme or word play that relies on idiom or cultural knowledge. 

2) Some stories don't cross cultures well. They make perfect sense to us here but have no reference points or relevance in a different culture. Sometimes that is the point. We want to share our experience with others so they better understand us. But other countries/cultures must first want to know. Is our story something other cultures want to understand and share? 

[Note: The irony here is that NZ is flooded with books from other countries and I know a lot about boarding school life in the UK, pioneer America, Scandinavian crime and policing, and more, and yet do these places get to (or want to) read about us?]

3) Other countries/cultures may already have enough books just like yours, covering the same themes and topics, with similar ideas, or voice. 

4) It may be culturally inappropriate. Or too sensitive.

5) Books that are particularly kiwi in flavour are less likely to be sold overseas. Books about Kiwi and Kea and Matariki and Kauri. They might be bought here and taken home to grandchildren overseas but an overseas publisher is unlikely to be able to sell sufficient copies in their home country to make it worthwhile.

6) While it is possible to write a book about a place you've never been and a culture you've never experienced, it is difficult to know what we don't know. We may be safer in a fantasy or speculative genre but it may still not cut the mustard with the country/culture we are trying to appeal to. Books like this can make the leap but it is not a given. 

7) Even when books are sold into other territories it is not always a big pay day. And the level of involvement and control you have will be at a distance, and possibly diminished, so it is not always a boost and I guess, it is possible, sometimes not even a good idea. 

Of course, books by New Zealand authors do get sold overseas, in all sorts of territories. But it is not every NZ book, and if it doesn't happen to you, you are in very good company with many other great writers and illustrators whose books haven't left these shores.

This writing business works pretty well if you love writing what you write. If this is the only outcome of what you do, that is a win. Anything else (getting published here, and/or elsewhere, being shortlisted and maybe even winning prizes) will be icing. If you only want the icing it can become a bit unhealthy. Love your writing first. Anything else that happens will be an interesting ride and with a bit of luck, you never know, it might also be rewarding too


Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Some children's book reviews ...

While I doom scroll on twitter for the latest on the US post-election potential for a coup, and await the daily NZ covid case update, whilst writing about ten words a day on the five projects I have open on my laptop, I have also been reading other people's books and reviewing them. As it is Christmas soon and books always make fabulous presents, here are some reviews of books by New Zealanders out this year: 

The Inkberg Enigma by Jonathan King (Gecko Press, 2020)

I opened the front cover of this graphic novel and I must confess I was immediately smitten. The endpapers are covered in a map and I suspect the place names are nods to other New Zealand illustrators, writers and comic artists – ‘Hicksville’, ‘Murdoch’ Inlet, ‘Laing’s Man’s Field, ‘Yoshioka’ Circuit, ‘Kerr’ Bay and ‘Knox’s’ Shade. I didn’t recognize all the names, and I guess it might sail over the heads of many of this graphic novel’s target audience, but I noticed it and I couldn’t help smiling. And as I read through I recognized that the main character Miro is the kind of kid who probably ‘would’ notice. Nice.

The setting is Aurora, a fishing village overlooked by a strange castle on the hill owned by an enigmatic never-seen owner, and a mystery swirling around the lucrative fishery operation that is behind the town’s prosperity.

The story moves along at a fair canter. It’s the holidays and school kid, Miro, is busy secretly pillaging the relics in the household attic to make money to feed his habit – for books, especially the expensive, first edition kind. This was where I was smitten all over again as Miro selects books that I have swooned over myself (it’s not often you see a reference to Comet in Moominland!).

Miro falls in with shutterbug and fellow student Zia, and pushed along by her inquisitive zeal they are soon on the trail of the mystery. What was that strange thing wrapped around that ‘injured’ fisherman’s leg, and why didn’t the mayor want them to see it? There’s a secret society, a sacred text, and weird goings on. It seems like everyone in the village is involved, and the adults definitely don’t want the kids snooping around. There is a Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys vibe to this story with a dash of Tintin thrown in, with some visual and textual Easter eggs, and a current of subtle humour running along through-out. I zipped through this fairly quickly and overall found it a fun read, and I think plenty of 8 to 12 year olds will thoroughly enjoy it too. 4 out of 5 stars

Viola Vincent Reporting: Troubled Water by Anna Kenna (Tirimoana Publishing, 2020).

 This is the third in a junior fiction series revolving around young wanna-be-journalist, Caitlyn Nove, and her investigative alter-ego Viola Vincent. I haven’t read the previous books, but I didn’t find it too much of a challenge to pick up the gist of Caitlyn’s ongoing story. Each book tackles a hot button issue of the day such as puppy farming (Book Two), and in book three it’s protecting the environment with an added nod to climate change.

Caitlyn is faced head on with the consequences of polluted rivers when she gets horribly ill after a swim while on holiday. The state of our rivers and waterways is a significant issue here in New Zealand at the moment, most often caused by intensification of farming, and Kenna pulls no punches in exploring this problem. She also addresses the practice of Kaitiakitanga, or ‘guardianship’ of the environment, through the concerns and reactions of the local iwi to the pollution of the waterways.  Despite their advice and the placement of a rāhui on the affected river, the local council’s lack of consultation with iwi has resulted in the kai moana becoming too toxic to eat and the river becoming un-swimmable. Kaitiaki is well explained here, although I think the speed at which understanding and agreement is reached between the two key parties was a bit surprising.

And it’s not just the polluted water, it’s also the impact of changing weather on the coastal settlement where Caitlyn’s Granddad has his bach. The last storm caused some damage but no amount of shoring up and battening down will protect them from the next one. Solutions suggested by the local council are expensive and ultimately short term. The author leaves this issue open and it’s possible it may be explored further in future books.

All in all, these are major, complex problems and through Caitlyn and her adult co-conspirators, journalist Megan and photographer Tamati, Kenna provides a wealth of information and some pretty persuasive arguments. At times it feels a smidge didactic, but I think it is useful to raise awareness of these subjects amongst today’s children, and there is plenty to chew on here. While there are a few awkward sentences early on, the writing soon settles in to a good rhythm making for a very readable story.  And although Caitlyn sometimes speaks with quite adult turns of phrase, and she’s sometimes a bit grumpy for a kid, I guess that’s not entirely unexpected for a junior reporter worried about what’s going on in the world. Recommended for the environmentally conscious youngster in your household.


I am the Universe by Vasanti Unka (Puffin: Penguin, 2020).

This is an ambitious picture book that seeks to answer a big question – what is our place in the Universe? I couldn’t help but be reminded while reading of my own childhood determination to mark my place, writing on my school exercise books and diaries my comprehensive address beginning with my house number and street name, through my suburb and city, the appropriate island in our New Zealand archipelago, through our country, ocean, hemisphere and planet, and always ending with ‘The Universe’. And I know I wasn’t the only one doing this. I imagine children still do this. And I am the Universe embodies this desire to know where we are in the grand scheme of it all.

The book takes us on a journey, beginning with the universe; the galaxies whirling through the inky darkness. Now we are inside a starry spiralling galaxy, and then our own solar system with all the planets depicted in glorious colours. On and on we go through each descending level of organisation on each double page spread until we find ourselves in our neighbourhood, then our family unit, until it’s just us looking out our bedroom window gazing up at the night sky.

I am the Universe effectively conveys a sense of wonder, a sense of the enormity of the infinite and the drama of the cosmos, and the thrilling diversity and richness of nature. But it also provides a sense of the collegiality of community, and the warm embrace of our family. It is at once reassuring and also mind expanding, with plenty of triggers to spark conversations about big scientific and philosophical concepts. And it is all done with simple yet compelling, thoughtful text, and bold, flat artwork that covers every inch of each page. The illustrations are attractive, colourful and dynamic sending the reader swirling through space, swimming through oceans and strolling through town, all enabled by a generously big format which makes you feel like you’re falling into the world of the book. 

What a wonderful thing. Highly recommended.

Katipo Joe: Blitzkrieg by Brian Falkner (Scholastic, 2020).

This is a good middle grade/teen read from Brian Falkner, following the exploits of boy spy Joseph 'Katipo' Saint George, during World War II. After spending much of his youth living in Berlin with his diplomat parents, Joe is perfectly primed to help the allies out. We follow him through some dangerous formative experiences before he finds himself in London during the Blitz, and then eventually getting embroiled with British Intelligence. Falkner has done his research well loading this book with plenty of rich detail, and Joe's adventures are at times tense and thrilling. 

There is some unexpected romance, and some violence. Death is hard to avoid in a book about war but the romantic and violent moments make me think this would be better suited to late intermediate/early high school. I also found Joe a little distant as a character at times but I guess this might be the result of giving him the cool, rational mind of a spy. All in all I enjoyed the ride and I think young readers will too.

And I also reviewed some junior and middle grade books for the Sapling not so long ago, including A Little Blue by Jeanette Goode, Flying Furballs: Nine Lives by Donovan Bixley, Just End It by Donna Blaber, and The Tea Dragon Tapestry by Katie O'Neill, which you can check out here.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

How I thought it would be vs. How it really was ...

Recently I have been looking back on when I got started and thinking about what I thought it would be like. And thinking about the reality now I am over a dozen books in. My past beliefs and current understanding are not the highly overlapping circles of a venn diagram. This is my experience - results may vary across different authors.

My first book Clever Moo (illustrated by Malcolm Evans and published by Scholastic) came out in 2006. So, what did I imagine would happen?

1) My first published book would fling open doors to publication of further work

2) People out in the world (also known as the general public) would come to know my name

3) My book published here in New Zealand would also get picked up overseas.

4) I had written a book that everyone would want to buy

5) I was on my way

Ahhh, how fresh faced and innocent I was ... And what do I know now I am 13+ books in, in 2020?

1) Each book must cut the mustard and stand on its own merits (which is as it should be really). I have been more rejected than accepted if I consider all the work I have written, and submitted. However I do acknowledge that the door that has been opened is the one where publishers do know who I am and they know that the bookie community knows me too which is an advantage. It helps that I have a history and I have done what I can to make it a good history and I am still hard at work doing what I can to keep it growing. 

2) Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha - lol - gasp - no. This is an uphill journey, for which I have not yet found the right crampons. There is a distant peak, which may or may not be a mirage, that I am aiming for. Who knows if I will ever reach it ...

3) It is not the norm to have your book picked up overseas and if it does happen it does not always mean instant riches (or gradual riches either). 

4) I am still praying I will someday write this book. Tis the holy grail all authors yearn for ... Please note that even if it does happen, 'bestseller' status does not automatically confer riches, or any kind of notoriety or longevity.

5) I wasn't 'on my way' in terms of fame and fortune, but I guess I was on my way in terms of having a writing career. The clash of reality vs expectations has resulted in some disappointments but I am still holding on like a very determined limpet. Maybe those things aren't unrelated.

Friday, October 2, 2020

The 4.45pm news from the desk of Melinda Szymanik ...

Yay!!! Finally an occasion when judginess is desirable 😃 accompanied by glorious access to a mountain of the best local kidlit. Yes folks, it's time to put your hat in the ring to be a judge for the 2021 NZ Book Awards for Children & Young Adults. The call has gone out and applications close 5pm Friday 30 October. You can check out the application details HERE.

It's been a busy old time over the last fortnight, what with giving a workshop on writing children's picture books to an adult audience at Selwyn Community Education and then running a week long creative writing camp for children on the north shore. It was especially challenging last Tuesday when the harbour bridge was closed due to high winds (first time ever in the history of the bridge!!) and my 30 minute drive turned into a two hour long one as all the bridge commuters joined me on my usual route. I was super lucky that my teacher sister had agreed to help out for the day as I ended up being late and she stepped in and got the class started - thanks Halina, you were a life saver. And I have discovered that driving long distances in first gear is very boring. Oh for some audio books stashed in the car - I will have to invest in some.

There are just a few events I am involved in over the rest of this month and what remains of the year is looking pretty quiet. I have a few writing projects I am noodling away on, and I have some planning to do for next year. This all feels rather nice. Despite the fact that covid has put paid to around half the gigs I had lined up for 2020, working from home is my ultimate happy place as I get to focus on my core practice - writing new books.

Last week I had an email from the publisher with final proofs for one of the picture books coming out next year. Its heading off to the printers and I am thrilled with how it all looks. It is gorgeous. Here is the front cover art by illustrator Malene Laugesen.

It is called Moon and Sun, and is due to be released by Upstart Press in March 2021. I can't wait to have it in my hands and show you how wonderful it looks inside. There have been a few delays with this title, partly covid based, and I am so happy it is now on its way.

Finally I hope you are all busy polishing your manuscripts for the Storylines manuscript awards - Joy Cowley for picture books, and the Tom Fitzgibbon for junior fiction - submissions close October 31st. The Tessa Duder Award for YA fiction is biennial and will be open to submissions next year. With Scholastic currently closed to regular submissions, don't miss this great opportunity to have your story read by them. Good luck peoples!!

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Maybe the new normal? ...

Time flew and it's no longer August and I'm well overdue for another blog post.

Covid19 continues to change and influence our lives. After a small resurgence in Auckland we are back to some heavier restrictions. I'm comfortable with this - I don't want this disease and I don't want to give it to anyone else, so I'm happy to do what is necessary to knock it back. But this means events and bookings I had have been postponed, cancelled, or altered. Uncertainty is the name of the game but things are uncertain for everybody so I'm doing my best to roll with the changes. Today I physically visited a school, the lovely Albany Primary on the north shore, but protocols meant I wasn't able to do my presentations in the classrooms, hall or library. Instead I spoke to the children via an internal zoom-style system. I'm so glad the school decided to proceed with the visit - I was grateful to have the opportunity. Just like other businesses must adapt to the new arrangements I've come to realise I need to be able to deliver my talks in new and different ways.  This may or may not be the new normal but I want to have the skills to meet any need. And the experience was very positive, the technology ran well, and the students were great.

Some things I discovered about delivering content via technology:

1. You still need to project your voice, just like you are talking to the back of the hall.

2. Test that the students can hear you (show of hands), and can see the pages if you are reading them a book. Make sure you know the system for classes to let you know if they are experiencing issues and what you can do if they are (i.e. where are the audio-visual mutes, is there a way to see yourself, who is your tech help etc...) 

3. Ask for any questions to be collected and provided in advance, or if a class plans to ask them directly so you can connect when appropriate. 

4. If many classes are connecting they will be muted. Usually my sessions are very interactive with me asking the children questions, with the answers leading them on to the next part of my talk. It can be empowering for them to show they already have some of the answers and interaction also helps keep the children engaged. 100% listening is hard for anybody, especially over longer sessions. You'll need to proactively think about alternatives, find other ways to keep their energy up, and remember this is a different ball game. 

5. Even though technology separates you from your audience, keep your own energy high because you set the tone. Be just as excited and passionate as you would in person.

6. Always have a plan B and a plan C and be ready to switch if things aren't working. This is another good reason to take these kinds of opportunities - practice and experience will help you expand the tools in your toolbox. And sometimes you just have to roll with a less than ideal scenario. 

7. If you haven't had any experience with this kind of technology see if you can observe someone else using it. I've always thought it would be useful to have a school visit mentoring system where people new to visits can accompany someone with experience. If anyone ever wants to come along with me (unpaid, and the school would need to be willing), hit me up. I don't have all the answers, and ultimately everyone needs to devise their own speaking programme but I feel that knowing some of the parameters would be helpful for folk visiting a school for the first time on their own. 

In other news, I've seen roughs for the picture book being published by Penguin Random House next year, and I'm thrilled with the way this is coming together. Despite everything with Covid19 and the level changes we have been experiencing, progress is still happening.    

And I thought you might be interested in this post by agent Janet Reid. She talks about the writer's desire to offer up a lot of info/backstory early on in a manuscript and counsels against it. The reader doesn't need to know it all upfront. The idea is to make them want to know, to read on to find out ...

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Coming unstuck ...

I came to an interesting realisation this morning while in the shower. I am still not sure why the shower is where I most frequently discover my truth but I am reassured by the fact that it is, and in these covid19 level 3, drought/water conservation times it gives me a good reason to keep clean. 

And what was my realisation, I hear you ask.

It is possible to have writer's block in one category of writing while being able to write freely in others. I wrote my last novel length junior fiction in 2017. Last year I wrote seven (or maybe eight) picture books, several short stories and lots of content for talks and workshops. So far this year I've written two picture books, some poetry for children, reworked a picture book into a short story and produced more content for talks and workshops. But I am stuck, stuck, stuck on novel length junior fiction. It eludes me. It scares me. I have had a few ideas for this form of writing but they have not developed. I have a novel three quarters written but I throw my hands up whenever I look at it, unable to edit, rearrange or complete it.

Have I exhausted my novel writing abilities? Was that it? I had a finite allotment of titles and I've reached the end? Is it just a blip? A temporary (three years and counting) abberation? Or is my brain switching focus to picture books for now but the train will switch back to the novel track at some point in the future? Or is it a gradual separation caused by how my novels have been read, responded to, or rejected over the course of my writing career? Have I just lost faith in my ability to write this form, wrongly or rightly? Have my particular series of novel-related events (some fortunate, some unfortunate) chipped away at my novel writing confidence? 

And does it even matter? 

I guess it does. At least to me, because I've been thinking about it - thinking about it enough to write a blog post on it. I don't like not being able to write this form. I feel like something is missing. Maybe a foot, or a couple of the more useful fingers.

It got me to thinking, because I believe my current inability to write novel length fiction is the product of my belief in my ability to do so being chipped away at over time. None of the individual chips was terribly big but over time they added up to quite a chunk. And like chopping that deep V out of a tree trunk, eventually the tree falls (and of course in a forest with nobody to hear, it doesn't make a sound - a bit like me stopping writing novels :-) ). So the writer we become is a product of our writer-related experiences over time and how we respond to each experience. 

For better or worse, the path we take, the choices we make, build up our sense of who we are as a writer. It comes to colour what and how we write, how and to whom we submit, and how we handle the results. Rinse and repeat. Sometimes failure, rejection and criticism pushes us to write a better thing. We are able to see (sometimes because of the many small steps we did take) where we went wrong and how we might improve. Sometimes there was nothing wrong except the timing, so changing how or what we do might be the wrong response. Do we see this in time to stay on what is still the right path? How do we know? Sometimes it makes us turn to something else or give up completely. Or be stuck, stuck, stuck. 

And don't forget, at each step in the journey, different people will respond differently to the same event. That rejection might steel your resolve, or break you. That success might see you blossom, or question if this is what you really wanted. No two writer's sequences of events and experiences will be the same so who do you look to for meaningful advice when you are not sure which way to go? You look to the only person you can - yourself! This too is part of being a writer. Looking at circumstances and saying to yourself, not, What do I do now? but, What do I want now? And saying, I want something completely different, is a legitimate answer. But it's not the only answer.  In truth I still want to be writing novels. I'm going to have to figure out how to get myself back to it. I'm not sure how yet, but the bottom line is I know that's what I want. And luckily, while my confidence in my writing might come and go, my confidence in my ability to find a way remains strong. I'll figure it out because I have to. I'll see you when I get there :-)

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

It's not who you know, it's the opportunities they tell you about...

Part 3 in the 'It's Not Who You Know Saga...'

While approaching publishers the traditional way through the submissions process is a legitimate way to get published, (and it's still the way I generally follow and the way I am most likely to be published) there are additional opportunities that you can try.  There are competitions like all the ones run by Storylines and I know folk who've had books published this way. There is a window of opportunity for submissions to Scholastic NZ on Valentines Day each year - follow them on facebook to find out more. Two friends of mine had new work picked up through one off competitions to pitch to an agent and a publisher respectively, both part of author events and organised through the New Zealand Society of Authors over the last few years. From a distance these things can look like special treatment or like they are part of the the whole 'who you know' vibe, but the bottom line is people gave themselves a chance to hear about these competitions or opportunities, entered, and were selected because of the strength of their stories and the quality of their writing. Joining organisations like Storylines and the NZSA give you access to more chances. But joining also makes you part of a community of like-minded people who share information on other opportunities that are available. Of course belonging to these communities also helps you persevere when the going gets tough. Make no mistake. This career is a long game. Assume years are involved. And there is luck involved. But I do find luck is more likely to strike when you stand in front of the opportunities. And you do it repeatedly.

Sorry I'm such a nag. But I kind of nagged myself to stick at it and take chances and I'm still going. Yesterday another publisher said yes to another story of mine. I'm on a wee roll at the moment but I've been banging away at this for just over twenty years. My current luck might run out tomorrow but I won't be letting that stop me. Not for a good while yet anyway.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

No secret handshakes required

I made the comment in my last post that you don't need to know the 'right' people to get published. It's not how I first got published and it isn't true for many other writers I know either. But I know this can be hard to believe when you've been submitting your work through the traditional channels and nothing has been happening.

I understand that burning desire to be published. I felt it when I started out and the intensity of the feeling hasn't changed or gone away at all over the years (I guess if it ever does that might be the time to stop writing). But there is no secret hand shake, or introduction by an already published writer necessary. You don't have to have met the publisher beforehand or have the name of someone on the inside. I've seen a lot of picture book manuscripts over the years from a variety of sources. And in all my reading I've come to believe that ...

... these are the things most likely to get you published

1. Polished writing. The kind that acknowledges the rules of grammar; of punctuation and sentence structure. Writing that flows with a natural easy rhythm. But writing that also makes the words used feel fresh and alive, and the way they are combined makes you excited and delighted about language and its potential. Sometimes its just that the writing has a certain charm. I've seen a lot of passive writing over the years. I've seen a tendency to over-simplify and speak down to children. I've seen a lack of acknowledgement that picture books play out over  28 to 30 pages (in a 32 page book), with a need for the story to allow for variation in the illustrations from page to page. Good writing is a winner. But it's not enough on its own. You also need ...

2. ... a strong, original, exciting idea. The comment is often made that there are no new ideas, but there are. Themes might be recurrent but we want the vehicle that carries them to surprise and satisfy us.

The best way to avoid rehashing well worn ideas is to read widely, but especially the award winners and the well reviewed. Know your category so you can push the boundaries and explore fresh ground. Of course re-tellings and the repeat of classic ideas will also sometimes get published but these too need a fresh angle. And your idea needs to be relevant and strong - why will a child care? Is it exotic, or relatable? Does it tell them something worth knowing, sufficiently explore an issue they worry about, or that will grow their minds, or empower them to fight their own battles, or solve their own problems? I've seen many lovely stories that don't quite have the muscle to be accepted. And ones that just aren't as fresh as the author hopes they are. And even if your writing is terrific and your idea is gripping, you also need ...

3. ... it to fit with what the publisher is looking for. And a lot of things can influence their decisions - sometimes they don't know what they're looking for until they see it. Sometimes it feels too much like something they've already published (both recently and years previously if the book is still in print) and they don't want to have titles that compete with each other. Sometimes its part of a trend and while we haven't seen the trend play out, the publisher, who knows what is on their publishing list for the next two years, knows it is already too late. Sometimes it's just not to their taste because publishers are also humans with their own likes and dislikes. Sometimes it is great writing and a great idea but the focus is too narrow or the potential audience too small so it won't cover its own costs. And sometimes they just can't say why it isn't right for them, and there is nothing wrong with the story and nothing you could change to change the result.

Don't send your work to one publisher and give up if its a no. Try other publishers. Talk to other writers about where they send their work. It might not seem like it but new opportunities are popping up all the time. And keep writing new material because maybe the next thing you write is the 'one.' And don't give publishers a reason to say no, like submitting differently to what they ask for, or getting frustrated with a rejection and telling them they're wrong. Be the person they want to do business with. Have faith. You can do it. No secret handshakes required.

And competition results? Unfortunately no one guessed correctly which book of mine has been most printed. I'm keeping the answer to myself and may run this competition again next month. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Look out for the competition lurking at the end of this post ...

Look out Milford!! I'll be up your way this Sunday reading my books aloud at the Mall. Check out details here - -  if you want to come along and say hi. I'd love to see you.

Things are falling back into the normal pattern of things. I've visited a few schools (shout out to Botany Downs and Remuera Primarys), been reading books, reviewing, writing content for talks and workshops, attending some zoom meetings and doing a spot of mentoring.

Truth is though that things are also not normal. If you are feeling like the publishing landscape has become much harder to traverse, you are not alone. It feels bleak. But I've heard several good news stories from writer friends (new AND mid career) over the last week about work they've had accepted. And I've also recently heard some positive numbers regarding sales for New Zealand books. The call to shop local has had an impact for local content.  But if you are finding it tough you are in good company.

Hang in there. It can feel like its hard to justify keeping going, but you don't need a reason. Just keep going if you want to. If you are a seasoned campaigner keep in touch with the writing community. If you are new to the business, come join us. Realising your experience is shared by others is kinda comforting. Groups like Storylines, KIWI-SCBWI and Kiwiwrite4kidz (all can be found on facebook) are a good place to start.

If you are new to the business, give yourself a decent chance to hone your writing skills. Don't lose heart if your first manuscript doesn't get anywhere. It can take time to strike the perfect balance with a breathtaking idea and the right combination of words to make that idea really shine. And if the first publisher you send it to says no, send it to another one. They tend to like different things. True story.

You don't need to know someone in the industry to get a manuscript accepted. I didn't, and I know other published writers who've had the same experience as me. There will always be exceptions. I do know somebody who's first book was the result of a friend showing her manuscript to someone else who showed it to a publisher who said yes. But I remember that because it's uncommon. And the manuscript was great. And it was still a lucky coincidence.

Literacy is the cornerstone of education. Reading is proven to have postive impacts on academic, social, and emotional intelligence. People still need books. And publishers still want new content.

I thought I'd do another giveaway competition. I'm giving away a copy of both Time Machine and Other Stories and Sharing with Wolf to the person who correctly guesses which one of my titles (going right back to the beginning) has had the most copies printed over its life time. I'll accept answers posted in the comments below, on facebook or twitter. If more than one person guesses correctly I'll pick the winner out of a hat. The competition closes 5pm Saturday 11th of July. And GO!


Wednesday, June 17, 2020

A picture book milestone ...

I heard back in March that Penguin wanted to publish my picture book story 'My Elephant is Blue'. The paperwork was to be sorted, and then ... we went into lockdown. But happy days, a little belatedly, we have reached the contract stage, which makes it very exciting and real and announceable. Yay!!!

The plan is for it to come out next year - I'll keep you posted as more information comes to hand. I cannot wait to hear who the illustrator will be - a pachyderm aficionado I hope. It'll be my tenth picture book which somehow feels like a bit of a milestone. I feel very lucky to still be here, doing this thing I love. After several years in the wilderness my current situation is surreal. The clocks are melting ...

Invitations and opportunities are coming in again for school visits and workshops too, and hopefully, if we remain in level one, I'll be conducting my Writing Children's Picture Books workshop at Selwyn College in Auckland on Saturday, 22nd August (and repeated on Sunday, September 20th). You can check out deets here. I've got a bit slack about my writing in recent weeks, and it's time to crack the WIP whip, so I'm off to work on a new story ... talk soon.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

It's been a bit of a week...

Well, it's been a bit of a week.

On June 1st my new picture book with illustrator, Nikki Slade Robinson, Sharing with Wolf (Scholastic NZ), was released and crikey it's exciting to have a new book out in the world. I was nervous about how it would go down with folk. It's a little different to the usual picture books - a little dark and dangerous and unexpected. But I'm really happy to say that so far, people have been saying really nice things.

Here are some reviews:-

It's also been nerve wracking to release a book under the current circumstances. The corona virus pandemic has changed the way we do things and had economic impacts. There's been no physical launch party. I've been burbling on about the book on social media quite a bit and I hope people feel excited to meet it. Nikki and I made a little video talking a bit about making the book instead:-

The release of a new book is exciting enough, but on June 4th the finalists for the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults were announced and I am so, so happy to say my collection, Time Machine and other stories is a finalist for the Wright Family Foundation Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction. I am still pinching myself that this is real. Short story collections can find it hard to win people over so it is extremely thrilling that the judges have chosen it. Congratulations to all the other finalists, I will be arm wrestling you all for the prizes later. And commiserations to those who missed out this time. 

The finalists this year are:

Picture Book Award

Abigail and the Birth of the Sun, Matthew Cunningham, illustrated by sarah Wilkins (Penguin Random House)
How Māui Slowed the Sun, written and illustrated by Donovan Bixley (advised and translated by Dr Darryn Joseph and Keri Opai) (Upstart Press) 
Mini Whinny: Goody Four Shoes, Stacy Gregg, illustrated by Ruth Paul (Scholastic NZ)
Santa’s Worst Christmas, Pania Tahau-Hodges and Bryony Walker, illustrated by Isobel Joy Te Aho-White (Huia Publishers)
The Gobbledegook Book, Joy Cowley, illustrated by Giselle Clarkson (Gecko Press)   

Wright Family Foundation Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction

#Tumeke!, Michael Petherick (Massey University Press)
Lizard’s Tale, Weng Wai Chan (Text Publishing)
Miniwings Book 6 Moonlight the Unicorn’s High Tea Hiccup, Sally Sutton, illustrated by Kirsten Richards (Scholastic NZ)
Prince of Ponies, Stacy Gregg (HarperCollins Publishers)
Time Machine and other stories, Melinda Szymanik (The Cuba Press)

Young Adult Fiction Award

Afakasi woman, Lani Wendt Young (OneTree House)
Aspiring, Damien Wilkins (Massey University Press)
The History Speech, Mark Sweet (Huia Publishers)
Ursa, Tina Shaw (Walker Books Australia)
Wynter’s Thief, Sherryl Jordan (OneTree House)

Elsie Locke Award for Non-Fiction

Kuwi & Friends Māori Picture Dictionary, written and illustrated by Kat Quin, translated by Pānia Papa (Illustrated Publishing)
Mophead, Selina Tusitala Marsh (Auckland University Press)
Te Tiriti o Waitangi / The Treaty of Waitangi, Ross Calman and Mark Derby, illustrated by Toby Morris, translated by Piripi Walker (Lift Education)
The Adventures of Tupaia, Courtney Sina Meredith, illustrated by Mat Tait (Allen & Unwin, in partnership with Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum)
Three Kiwi Tales, Janet Hunt (Massey University Press)

Russell Clark Award for Illustration

Dozer the Fire Cat, illustrated by Jenny Cooper, written by Robyn Prokop (Scholastic NZ)
Santa’s Worst Christmas, illustrated by Isobel Joy Te Aho-White, written by Pania Tahau-Hodges and Bryony Walker (Huia Publishers)
Song of the River, illustrated by Kimberly Andrews, written by Joy Cowley (Gecko Press)
The Adventures of Tupaia, illustrated by Mat Tait, written by Courtney Sina Meredith (Allen & Unwin, in partnership with Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum)
Wildlife of Aotearoa, illustrated and written by Gavin Bishop (Penguin Random House)

Wright Family Foundation Te Kura Pounamu Award for books written completely in te reo Māori     
Arapū Toi, Moira Wairama, illustrated by Austin Whincup (Baggage Books)
Ko Flit, te Tīrairaka, me ngā Hēki Muna, written and illustrated by Kat Quin, translated by Ngaere Roberts (Scholastic NZ)
Ngā Hoa Hoihoi o Kuwi,    written and illustrated by Kat Quin, translated by Pānia Papa (Illustrated Publishing)
Te Kirihimete i Whakakorea, Pania Tahau-Hodges  and Bryony Walker, illustrated by Isobel Joy Te Aho-White, translated by Kawata Teepa (Huia Publishers)
Tio Tiamu, Kurahau, illustrated by Laya Mutton-Rogers (Huia Publishers)

Best First Book Award

Michael Petherick for #Tumeke! (Massey University Press)
Weng Wai Chan for Lizard’s Tale (Text Publishing)
Isobel Joy Te Aho-White (illustrator) for Santa’s Worst Christmas, written by Pania Tahau-Hodges and Bryony Walker (Huia Publishers)
Belinda O’Keefe for The Day the Plants Fought Back, illustrated by Richard Hoit (Scholastic NZ)
Laya Mutton-Rogers (illustrator) for The Smelly Giant, written by Kurahau (Huia Publishers)

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Some writing techniques for picture books ...

The most successful picture books IMHO have two key elements: 1) a strong (surprising) story, and 2) they are written in a strong (surprising) way.

You can have a terrific story but if the writing is dull, pedestrian and flat, it’ll be a lacklustre read. Of course you can have zippy energetic prose but if the story is clichéd, or pointless, you’ll also find it that much harder to win over your audience.

So, what techniques are the best to employ in a picture book?
All techniques can be used in stories for small people.
But not all of them necessarily in the same story. If you overwork everything with lots of techniques, the story itself may very well be lost. Fit the techniques to the story you are writing.
So many of these techniques are teaching tools for the young emergent reader. Rich text with techniques that facilitate acquisition of reading, expand vocabulary and develop a healthy regard and respect for words and their properties and elasticity.

Rhythm – please use this in EVERY story (picture book or not) you write. Rhythm is a non-negotiable requirement. Great rhythm is almost invisible but makes your story a pleasure to read both silently to yourself and even more so out loud.
Rhyme – I’ve written about rhyme before. This is from my piece on the Storylines website:
‘Should you write in rhyme? It’s such a compelling idea to do this. Rhyming stories are very seductive. They are fun to read and can help with the acquisition of reading skills. But rhyme is not always the right form for a story. And it is very hard to do well. And it is not essential for a picture book. For the ten picture book manuscripts I’ve had accepted for publication, only one has been written with some rhyme in it. Writing in prose has not stopped me getting published. It is not the only language technique that can elevate your story. However, if you do choose to write in rhyme, remember the key rules to successful rhyming. First, of course, is the rhyme itself, the sound-alike words that usually end each line, or every second line (there are a few permutations). Rhyme can also be found internally (mid-line).

The biggest problems when it comes to rhyming are the use of old-fashioned or dated words, made-up words, using words that require an unconventional or incorrect pronunciation to make them rhyme, odd syntax to make the rhyming word fall at the end of the line, or the use of an odd word that doesn’t fit with the tone or style of the rest of the story. They often interrupt the flow of reading and confuse readers. If you are relying on one of these types of words, it would be better to find a different rhyming pair.

The second key aspect for a successful rhyming story is rhythm. It has equal importance with rhyme, and its role should not be underestimated. It won’t matter if your rhyming is genius if the rhythm is off. Rhythm is a matter of syllables and stresses. You don’t have to be a slave to counting syllables, and having the same number in each line, but you do need to generate a smooth repeating pattern or tempo. The stressed syllable in each word will also have an impact on the rhythm. The stresses must also fit a pattern, for example Te DA te DA te DA te DA. If a stress naturally falls on the first syllable of a word, but your pattern requires that it falls on the second or third syllable, you CANNOT use that word. We do not say econOMy, we say eCONomy. Anyone coming fresh to your story will assume every word should be pronounced the conventional way. If you have altered the stressed syllable there is no way a reader can know that, and they will struggle to read your story.

A great test to see if your story works is to get someone who hasn’t seen it before (and hasn’t heard you reading it aloud) to read it aloud to you. If they struggle, or even hesitate at any point, you will know the rhythm isn’t quite right yet. Check out books by expert rhymers like Lynley Dodd and Juliette MacIver in local bookshops and libraries. These writers are skilled practitioners who spend months refining their rhythm and rhyme before submitting their stories. Study the patterns they use.’

It’s easier to get this wrong than it is to get it right. So to summarise, common problems include
-          Bad scansion – the number of syllables in a line is out of step with the count in other lines. Can someone unfamiliar with your story read it aloud in a natural fluent manner? Or do they pause and make adjustments, or stumble.
-          Inconsistent rhyme – do your stanzas follow a consistent rhyme and rhythm pattern? abab four line or ababcc etc… Any switches to a different pattern must be for effect and not convenience.
-         Awkward word use to allow rhyme – if you pick a word that doesn’t fit in with your other words (e.g. it’s old fashioned, awkward contraction, adult vocabulary) just to make the rhyme work, this can be a problem
-          Sacrificing meaning for the rhyme

As I tend to not use rhyme, I instead focus more on other techniques to make my prose sing. One of the joys of writing for children is making them fall in love with words. Using fun and interesting language will help you achieve this. You’re probably already familiar with the following techniques. I learnt them all at school and doubled down on them at University. But it never hurts to be reminded of these, and how they work. 

Alliteration – starting consecutive words with the same letter. This is easy to over use so keep a tight rein on this technique.
This line from my book The Were-Nana has both alliteration and assonance – Stella Rosa had never met Nanan Lupin before, but she knew her voice sounded horribly hollow and hard to understand when she spoke on the phone. The lovely thing about this is when reading it aloud, the words ‘horribly hollow’ sound as ghastly as their meaning.

Assonance – this is kind of a riff on alliteration, using words (consecutive or in close proximity) that begin with (or include) the same or similar sounding syllables. They can have either, the same vowel and different consonants, e.g. hells bells, or different vowels within similar consonants e.g. flipped, flopped, lapped.

e.g. The Nursery Rhyme
A diller, a dollar,
A ten o'clock scholar,
What makes you come so soon?
You used to come at ten o'clock,
And now you come at noon.

She sells sea shells
By the sea shore

Onomatopoeia – children are the ideal audience for this technique, and this is a great way to get littlies participating in the reading process. Words that replicate a sound – boom, honk kapow, pitter pit pat, ratta-tat-tat. Practitioners who ace this are Sally Sutton (Ambulance, Ambulance), and Elena De Roo (The Rain Train). Make sure you give appropriate attention to getting the ‘sound’ right. Certain words will work better for different age groups, so remember to target your audience appropriately too.  

Personification – helping to give personality to things that are inanimate. The Song of Kauri does this on several levels: Years passed, and Kauri grew tall and vigorous. At first he lived alone in the valley. He spoke with the Earth, but the great Earth was busy with its own concerns.’ and ‘The rain came down to embrace Kauri, but the Sun soon dragged it back into the sky to make clouds to wrap itself in. This is helpful to get the reader to identify and connect with a non-human, maybe even a non-biological character, to enable dialogue and emotions.

Metaphor – a comparison using two unrelated things, giving a new perspective to something familiar, e.g. in The Song of Kauri, instead of describing diggers and backhoes doing roadworks: Monsters made of dark night, belching smoke, carved scars across the land..

Simile – a comparison using ‘like’ or ‘as’.

Repetition/cumulative text – repetition is an awesome learning tool in picture books. It can take several forms:
     The same line or refrain repeated, either on the same page or separated by one or more pages
     A repeating structure. For example in The Were-Nana, Simon describes his nana to his impressionable little sister over several pages –

“She has whiskers,” Simon said, as they pulled out of the driveway. “They scratch your skin when she hugs you.”

“She has long, sharp fingernails …” he said, as they drove along the motorway, “ … like claws. They dig into you when she pulls you close.”

“And don’t think for one minute she’ll be arriving on a plane. She rides a witch’s broom that she borrows from her witch friends.”

This trio of descriptions creates a rising tension, to which the sister then reacts with a fearful outburst. The repeating format facilitates the rhythm and also follows the rule of three (see below). The descriptors provided (whiskers, fingernails and witch friends) are also themselves repeated several times later in the story by the little sister. She has comprehensively swallowed her brother’s ‘fake news’ and her repetition – “She’s a were-nana,” (…) Her friends are witches and she has a hairy face and claws on her hands” gives more power to the words both in her mind and in the mind of the reader. Repetition is a powerful tool.

Cumulative text works a little differently and is valuable in the acquisition of reading, providing text which an emergent reader can easily predict and follow along with. It’s great for creating a sing-a-long too, e.g. I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, Wonky Donkey

Puns/Word play – A fantastic way to show young readers the fun and joy to be had with words. I can’t think of any specific local examples off the top of my head right now but will do my best to remedy this as soon as possible J

Neologisms – inventing new words can be enormous fun. Most don’t pass into regular use but they can work brilliantly in a picture book. They still have to make sense in the context of the story, though, and I would avoid making them too nonsensical or reliant on base humour. The two I’ve managed so far are the were-nana (from the picture book of the same title), like a were-wolf but oh so different. And sheepnotist (as in, a sheep performing hypnotism - I guess this also qualifies as wordplay) from my latest picture book Sharing with Wolf.

Rule of 3 – three is truly a magical number. Repetition reinforces an idea, helping it to stick in our minds and repeating it three times works well, giving us a good chance of recalling it while not becoming dull or annoying. Grouping things in threes (bits of information, clues, actions, descriptors, etc) can also help things stick, making them all easier to remember, providing a framework for that recall (I know there are three things).  In my own writing I have found it often occurs organically. I was raised on books that used the power of three and so utilise the same rule when writing myself without consciously attempting to do so. Fairy tales are easy examples of the rule – The Three Little Pigs, the Grimm Fairy tale The Three Brothers, Andersen’s Clumsy Hans and so on.

There are other techniques. I will have a go at assembling some more, but if you have any questions, or comments or disagreements on what I've talked about above, or suggestions for other techniques to discuss, let me know in the comments below!