Wednesday, September 22, 2021

It's okay to make something terrible ...

 Auckland has made its way from level 4 lockdown to level 3. This still represents a lot of time at home and while this sounds like the perfect opportunity for writing creatively, I have to say I'm very stuck on that front. Instead I have been ruminating and contemplating about a bunch of stuff and it seemed like it might be a good plan to assemble all the musings here. 

1) So much of a writer's life is outside of their control. If you decide to seek traditional publication, will the story be accepted or rejected? It's not up to us. If accepted, will the book sell well, get appreciative reviews, make its way to other countries, other languages? Will it bestsell, win an award, receive harsh criticism, languish at the bottom of the bargain bin, get pulped? All of these things can send an author into raptures of delight and depths of despair. And we wait constantly for any and all of these things to happen. Our happiness or otherwise is in the hands of others who answer to needs and expectations unrelated to what drove us to write the thing we wrote. 

I can see you frowning (and not just over that last sentence).  

It is not healthy to put all your happiness in the hands of others I hear you say. And you are right. But the nature of this calling means that some of the things we covet most - our words in print, the success of our book - requires the participation of others and in a manner of their choosing. At least some of our happiness will be at the mercy of others. But it shouldn't all be.

Obviously there will be other aspects in your life that bring you happiness and over which you have control. But you should also have some things like this within your creative existence. What makes you happy in this realm? 

For me?

I love the feeling when a story comes together and works like it should. When you write The End and you think, 'Yes, that's it! How handsome are you!'

I love the feeling of having a fragment of an idea and you sit down to write and it all (and more) pours out unexpectedly but satisfyingly.

I love the feeling of a hot new idea. No matter where it goes and if it turns into a full story, the frisson of excitement when you first grasp that dazzling spark is so delicious.

I love the feeling of sending a story out on submission. When I hit send and I think 'good luck little buddy, fare you well'. All the potential possibilities as it makes its way out in the world.  

I love talking with other writers, sharing our hopes, dreams, disappointments and dreads. I love not having to explain how things work in the writing world because we all speak the same language. I love the shared understanding and the camaraderie. I love the trust I feel that my fellow scribes will cheer me on when the news is good, and support me when I'm down.

I love making a conscious effort to fill my mind with fun and interesting experiences, especially when something catches alight in my mind and I am inspired.   

I love writing anything, once I get going and the words are coming together, and I feel that hum ... which kind of brings me to my second contemplation. It's okay to be dissatisfied by what you've written ...  

2) Being stuck is not a good time. I feel ill-at-ease when I am not writing. It's like having a broken leg when you're an athlete and all you can do is lie around when you are itching to be active. Wanting all that you write to be good can be a fly in the ointment - a part of what keeps you stalled. I came across the most wonderful tweet the other day which managed to give me permission to unstick myself a little. It's okay to make something terrible. It's a step on the pathway to making good things.

Bianca Stone
@biancastone
·
One big stupid (understandable) human problem is looking for shortcuts, when literally the end results are only truly achievable by the relentless, *almost* unbearable work. Terrible poems, humiliating conversations, reckoning, change...it's brutal, but glorious to live.

So perhaps wrestling with some written things which are refusing to obey you is the step you need to be taking now. Not everything will work. Not every idea becomes the desired object. And sometimes the only way to find a solution, is to try, try and try again. Do the work. Muddle through. It's okay to make a crap thing. Sometimes seeing the crapness is a way to get past it. Sometimes you just need to get it out of your system. 

This tweet felt particularly pertinent because I have been sporadically writing some grown up poetry - not so much because I have big ambitions to be a writer of grown up poems, but more because the ideas that have turned up have had mature themes or demand a mature approach. It is a very different form and at times it feels like trying to speak a new language when I don't know all the words. But I feel like I have things to say and this is the way to say these things. A few of my efforts have worked (and made me happy - see 1) but I have had more misses than hits. Maybe being terrible at it isn't the worst thing. Maybe not doing it at all is the worst. 

 3) A local philistine has been on twitter the last few days moaning about the arts in New Zealand and the government's funding support for them. The arts (according to said philistine) are a luxury, a frivolous indulgence. Its not a real job. Its just lazy people not doing anything worthwhile or productive and just farting around with fringe ideas while avoiding getting a 'real' job. Critics forget how creative minds are responsible for their tv entertainment that preserved their sanity during lockdown, that Netflix movie, that amazing podcast, that comedy set that made them laugh so hard they cried, the songs they listen to on the way to work or while they're exercising, the books that grow their children's minds and teach them the fundamental skills of reading and writing and being human. And the artwork that is a part of it all. All the creative minds involved in product design, fashion, hairdressing, jewellery, watch making, mobile phones and so on ... All the every day things we take for granted that look and work best because a creative mind got involved. And the ideas we debate and discuss in fiction that illuminate our lives and contribute to the way we shape society. Just imagine your life without all that and then get back to me about the necessity of the arts. Sheesh. 

4) There is also a persisting line of thinking that children's books are an inferior art form. I think about this a lot, and feel immensely frustrated that people are so wrong about children's literature. I have discussed it before on this blog here, and here, and former UK Children's Laureate Lauren Child touches on it here. I'll be very interested to see her manifesto and will post it here when/if I can.  


Sunday, September 12, 2021

Does your picture book manuscript tick these boxes? ...

What ho, fellow writers, readers, assorted friends and family members - how goes it? I am in Limboland also known as Level 4 lockdown in Auckland. We are in week 4 of level 4, and at this point it feels likely the level will be extended a bit longer - and while I'm here to do the work required of me (staying home, wearing a mask when out and about, being vaccinated) because I have no interest in endangering anyone, my brain feels a little curdled by it all. 

I have daily goals. Get a few chores done, achieve at least one work related task, get a little exercise and then do whatever it takes to keep mind and soul together. I am running out of work related tasks though, and because tradition dictates that I leave the hardest jobs till last I am finding it extra challenging to complete the last few things and meet those daily goals. This is compounded by the fact that the last few things on the to-do list are self imposed. I don't HAVE to do them, but I just thought they would be a good idea. And I am very unsatisfied by my efforts at the moment so the tasks and I are languishing and giving each other the stink eye.

None of it is helped by the fact that my usual schedule is generally quite varied so even though it looks like much hasn't changed for me I am down to doing only around 2 things out of my usual 8 or 9. It IS doing my head in even if it looks easy and unstressful. Also I am currently operating in a vacuum - all the interactions I would normally be having with publishers and librarians and schools and organisations like Read NZ are down to a trickle. I don't like it. I feel disconnected, and I spend half my day willing missives to arrive. And of course they won't so it's all a bit futile. This is the usual lot of a writer dialled up to 'extreme.' 

Anyways, I thought it might be useful to talk about one of the potential topics for discussion that I mentioned a while back, especially as entries for the Storylines Joy Cowley Award close at the end of next month and if you are going to enter it's a good time right now to be gussying up your manuscript. There is nothing surprising or new in what I'm about to say but it's a good checklist and bears repeating IMHO. 

What your plot cannot live without ...

Your picture book plot needs:-

1) Structure: Is the story orderly? Does it have a beginning, middle AND end? If you introduce an idea or dilemma, is everything explained or resolved by the end? Is there logic to the events that unfold? Does it make sense? And have you avoided resolution by convenience (as in 'I have this magic gizmo that restores everything to how it was before', or 'it was all a dream' )?

2) Something interesting: is the topic/theme at the centre of your plot interesting? Is it fun for the target audience? Or relevant to their concerns? Or stage of development? Is it something they want to know about or understand? Bonus points if the topic/theme is also interesting for the potential intermediary who might be sharing the book with children such as parents/grandparents/teachers/librarians. Is there space/opportunity to take the topic/theme further? Does the plot open doors for discussion or further reading? 

3) Something different: have we heard it all before? Has this subject already been explored a thousand times? You can get away with an old topic/theme if your writing is super fresh or your point of view is unexpected or original. But the bottom line is, what makes your story stand out from all the others? Why this version?

4) Totally for/about the kids: children don't want an adult perspective on a topic. Are children centered in the story, or alternatively, is the approach one which speaks directly to them? This is a book primarily for young readers - where are they in the story?

D) Something satisfying: does your plot resolve in a satisfactory way? Will it stand up to multiple reads because the punch line/resolution never gets old? Do you feel good when you get to the end of the story?

E) Respect for the words: Is the language dynamic? Does it respect the young readers thirst for new vocabulary and ways of combining? Is the writing rhythmical? Is language used actively, and attractively? Is it surprising, rich, quirky? And I don't mean making up new words, whether for the sake of a rhyme, or for fun. Good new words are way harder to pull off than many think.

F) Room for the illustrator: A picture book is a shared venture (unless you are both author and illustrator). What have you left unsaid for the illustrator to explore? What can they add, tease out or finesse? Where is their chance to show themselves?

Sure, there are picture books on the bookshop shelf that don't fulfil all these criteria, but I reckon the more of these you can say yes to, the better your chances of having your manuscript accepted for publication. 

I hope wherever you are, in whatever stage/level of lockdown you are in, you are finding a way to keep your body and soul together and your creative mind happy. Our current circumstances mean we might need to find new ways to do this. Surprising, interesting ways ... Maybe that's a topic for next time ... Talk again soon ...




 


Thursday, August 26, 2021

In honour of a day honouring poetry ...

 It's New Zealand Poetry Day today!! All sorts of things were planned but we are in Level 4 Lockdown (the strongest type of lockdown) so things have gone online. In honour of a day honouring poetry I thought I'd share some of my own poetry online, too. 

The first poem, Fancy, is one for children. I wrote this years ago when some friends were visiting one bright sunny day and their youngest was getting a bit close to the lavender bush which had a few bees hovering around it. This poem appears in A Treasury of New Zealand Poems for Children (ed. Paula Green, Random House, 2014).


Fancy

Don’t pick the flowers

the bees might follow you home

the cows will come for the buttercups

forget themselves

and eat your grass

leaving little half moons in the mud

that remind you

of Milky Way nights

and cream and honey on your porridge in the morning


The second poem, The Meaning of Life, is for grown ups. It appeared on Paula Green's NZ Poetry Shelf blog June 21st this year (which you can check out here). 


The Meaning of Life

I am not here

I am here

I am not here to ask why I am here

I am here to find answers

I am not here for you

I am here for me

I am not here to demand meaning

or faith

in anything except myself

I am here the only thing I can be sure of

and here I am not so sure

When I am no longer here

the Earth may show as little

or as much care

as if

I was never here

And last but not least, here are some New Zealand writers for young people (including moi) reading some poems they love in celebration of this wonderful art form, on Paula Green's Poetry Box (A New Zealand poetry page for children) with some great poetry writing challenges for children included. Click here.


 


Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Well that took an unexpected turn ...

Hi there ('waves') - long time no see. Between having not a lot to say and many things to do I have not blogged for a long time but I suddenly find myself stuck in a motel room in the deep south (Invercargill) in level four lockdown, in limbo while I wait for the right time this evening to head to the airport and catch a plane home to Auckland. So I thought I'd write a post and fill you in on my latest adventures ...

A week ago I was setting off on a ten day odyssey. First down to Wellington for one night to attend the New Zealand Childrens and Young Adults Book Awards (NZCYA) in my role as NZSA representative on the Book Awards Trust. What a lovely warm, positive event it was, full of collegiality, community and joy. It was fantastic to see all the different groups that love and support children's and young adult literature come together to celebrate the cream of the book crop. I returned home the next day, packing and repacking so I could leave early the next morning with my SO/Personal Patron of the Arts to drive down to Hamilton. I visited Southwell School and had a fun morning talking creative writing with some of their Year 7s. We got the chance to visit Hamilton Gardens in the afternoon once the rain had shifted and if you are ever in that part of New Zealand I encourage you to check out this fabulous free treat. It's like the tardis in there with something new and unexpected around every corner. And you don't have to be a gardener to appreciate what this place has to offer.

On Saturday I shared a morning event with fellow writer Karen McMillan, talking about our books, creative writing for children, ideas and imagination. In the afternoon I ran a workshop on writing Fiction for Children for 26 participants



and then it was back in the car to return home. 

The following morning I flew to Invercargill to start a Storylines Tour of schools in Southland with a crew of 3 other authors (Sue Copsey, Kate De Goldi and Pauline Smith), and a mum and dad to take care of us, driver Peter and expert wrangler Rosemary. Our school visits on Monday and Tuesday went really well. The schools were welcoming, and the students were engaged and beautifully behaved. We visited bigger schools in town and smaller schools in more rural areas. At my first visit on Tuesday morning I spoke to 296 students ranging from new entrants to year 8, and my last visit of the day was a shared chat with the entire school (six students) at Glenham. 


(My fellow author Sue Copsey is not checking social media but is taking a photo of the students as we take a closer look at one of the illustrations in The Were-Nana).


(The gang's all here [almost] - Me, Sue, Rosemary Tisdall, Pauline Smith and Kate De Goldi at the last supper on Tuesday night, with Peter Mercer taking the photo).

It already felt like we were making an impact. And then in the afternoon there was a reported case of covid in the community in Auckland. At dinner we received the alert - level 4 lockdown across the country. Flights home were hastily rearranged as we shared our last meal together, our tour ended prematurely, just as we were hitting our stride. 

It would be fair to say I'm feeling pretty disappointed we can't see this through. These things are months in the planning with the four authors carefully scheduled across 31 schools and several thousand students. Driving times and talk times are carefully calculated and there are also the logistics of flights and accommodation for everyone involved.  These things can't be helped and I'm glad we got through two full days and met some wonderful children. I hope we made a difference. I certainly feel like the children have changed me...

So now I'm sitting in a motel room waiting for midday to turn into late afternoon taking the slow road with packing my suitcase. It is a weird time. I have everything crossed that this quick, hard response means the virus doesn't get the chance to get too far. I know these things get worse before they get better but swift, decisive action has been taken and I will be doing my part. Stay safe people, do all the things (mask, scan, distancing, hand washing and get tested if you feel unwell) and see you on the other side soon. I have other things to tell you ... 

Saturday, July 17, 2021

The message writers most need to hear (and a competition) ...

My new picture book BatKiwi had a lovely soft launch yesterday at St Helier's Community Library, thanks to the generous invitation and fab skills of librarian Pip Blake, the support of Abby Haverkamp from publisher Scholastic NZ and Peter from Paper Plus Booksellers, and an appreciative wonderful audience of children and their grown ups who braved some pretty atrocious weather to come out and share a love of books and reading.

 


It is always a thrill to see people, especially new readers, warming to a story and wanting to have it for themselves, to take it home and re-read it.  And it was just the loveliest to have one young girl come up to me afterwards and tell me that she loved my story and that I must keep doing what I'm doing. This is the message writers most need to hear sometimes. It's easy to get caught up in the continuing drive to stay published, and sell books, and be reviewed and be shortlisted but the bottom line is we want most of all for our books to be read by the people we wrote them for. For them to love our stories and discover all the things we put in there especially for them. This is why I became a writer. Because I remember so, so well the way I felt reading my favourite books when I was their age. The magic and wonder when I realised what words were capable of and how they could affect me. And the thrill of working out all the threads, and meanings and layers and easter eggs an author had laced their story with, as if I was the first one to know, to realise, to work it out. That is the power of words. So when the going gets tough it is wonderful to be reminded what makes this job so important and so rewarding and why it is worth perservering with. And I'd like to say thank you to that young girl (Caitlin) from the bottom of my heart.

And I have a copy of BatKiwi, and a copy of the Te Reo edition, Ko PekaKiwi to give away. Tell me who your favourite superhero is, and what it is you like/admire most about them, either in the comments here, or on the facebook or twitter posting of this blogpost, and I will pick my favourite answer. Please let me know which version of the book you would like. Competition closes 25th July at 5pm and I will aim to announce the winner that evening. 

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

A Hero is Born ...

Today!!! It's today!!! Our new picture book Batkiwi is out today!! This book was a lot of fun to write and Isobel Joy Te Aho-White's illustrations capture it all perfectly. Many thanks to Scholastic NZ for doing a Te Reo translation and for making both books such lovely products.


It has everything - action, pathos, humour, heroism and happiness. If you don't believe me you can check out this super duper review on Radio Kidnappers by ace reviewer Lou from Wardini Books.

I had it in my mind for a long time that I wanted to write a story about a kiwi. Its New Zealand's national bird, with so many qualities that reflect New Zealand's own culture and uniqueness. However my mind is a disobedient, feckless thing that generally ignores my wishes and does whatever it feels like. Cue several years of no decent kiwi-centered story coming to mind. Of course once the word batkiwi popped into my head I thought things would change, but cue another few years of no decent kiwi-centered story coming to mind. I guess things were percolating in my subconscious after all though because eventually an idea began to take shape and as is usually the case once the heart of the story turned up the body of it quickly followed. It took a while to tweak it all into place. I've talked about it before, but it always bears repeating - patience is a necessary quality for a writer. I work best when I allow the story to develop organically and let the mental engineering take it's time to create a fully functioning story, so here we are. 

Lots of other native fauna insisted I include them in the story and it makes me very happy to see New Zealand's own natural environment reflected in the book. I will be reading the book at St Helier's Community Library on July 17th at 10am and there will be books available for purchase and signing if you are in that neck of the woods. I will also be doing a giveaway of a signed copy soon on this blog, so keep an eye out.

I hope young readers take heart from the book and the layers of ideas get discovered anew everytime the book is opened. Fly high little Batkiwi - with love, from one of your creators xxx

Saturday, June 5, 2021

And the winner is ...

Tarantara!! The competition has closed and I have selected a winner. Clare Scott will receive a signed copy of My Elephant is Blue. It would be very cool to have the book in Te Reo! You weren't the only one to suggest this but you got in first with this most excellent idea. 

The book is launched, and has bravely gone forth into the world. It's a scary time for an author - I've talked about the book, reviewers have talked about the book (you can see some at Poetry Box here, at My Best Friends Are Books here and at What Book Next here) and now it's over to the readers and the book buyers. While our little book meet the moment and be embraced? 

Soon I'll be talking a bit more about my next book, Batkiwi (Scholastic NZ), illustrated by Izzy Joy Te Aho-White. This book is out July 1st and is a bit of a love letter to our native fauna and flora. I've always wanted to write a kiwi story and I'm thrilled Scholastic are publishing this. The illustrations are lush and beautiful and cute as anything. 



Being a writer is quite the roller coaster ride both in terms of the ups and downs of the faith you have in your own writing and the feast and famine of being published. I've had more than twenty years of this wild ride and I have not yet found any means of flattening the journey out. Right now I am in the unusual position of having three books out this year and it is quite the whirlwind with a touch of overwhelm. When you send things out you never know how it's going to go. One book was delayed from 2020 to this year, and I just wasn't expecting things to be so swift with the other two so here we are. And I'm so proud of all of them. I love writing picture books - there is so much poetry and refining and crafting involved - a balancing act to find the right ratios of word play, meaning and story, knowing all the while that ultimately illustrations will share the job of telling. I feel sad when picture books are dismissed or trivialised - I put so much into them and I know the illustrators do too. It is all too easy to forget that picture books contribute mightily to kick starting the career of a reader. That's where my love of reading began ...

I've had a bunch of questions running round my head recently ... and I am thinking about these as the basis of some future blog discussions. If you want to hear more about any of these let me know.

1) Is it problematic for children's writers to have adult opinions on social media? Is there a line that shouldn't be crossed?  

2) Are twitter book pitching opportunities evolving in to a less functional creature? (sub question - is writer twitter good or bad for us?) 

3) Do we influence boys' reading choices right from the get-go in unconscious ways? (Are we part of the problem?)

And if you have any questions you want me to add to the list please comment below.

 



Thursday, May 27, 2021

Win a copy of My Elephant is Blue ...

I was meaning to write this blog post and then found myself reading an essay by Rebecca Chace about her poet mother Jean Valentine, and then writing a poem in response instead. Go figure. 

Sorry I have been so absent. It has been a busy old time. I have had lots of things to write and do and organise although sadly, (for me) not so much creative writing of my own stories. I have a general policy of saying yes to things. Book adjacent events are an unpredictable thing so I know there will be plenty of quiet times down the track to balance out the busy times happening right now. If people are keen to have me visit their school or take part in a library event, or talk at length about writing/reading/books, I am IN! And sometimes all the invites come at once. This is how it goes and I am here for it. But when I am invited to do things, it's not just about doing the event. It also means preparing what I am going to say and sometimes creating material (handouts, powerpoints, exercises) to go with it. I take all these events very seriously. I want to do a good job. So I have been beavering away on lots of book adjacent things. And the occasional accidental poem. 

My latest picture book My Elephant is Blue is now out. Before it was even printed this wee story was wooing publishers overseas and it will be coming out in Germany, Italy, and China, and Spanish language rights have also just been sold. I have not had a book this translated before and it is très exciting. Fly little elephant, fly! 

Some lovely reviews have been coming in too (you can read one here or here ), and this Sunday we are officially launching the book at Time Out Bookshop in Mount Eden. Look at the lovely shop window they have created (swoon).



If you read this before Sunday and you want to come along - please DO! Here is the invite



And because I still have a bunch of book adjacent things to do I am going to run away and leave you with a competition to win a copy of My Elephant is Blue. To win a copy tell me in the comments (here on the blog, or on this post on facebook, or on twitter) which language you think the book should be translated into and I will pick my favourite answer. Entries close June 4th. 


Saturday, May 1, 2021

Writers don't 'weekend' like other people do

I've just come off a week of teaching creative writing to young people. It makes for a busy time and I usually feel pretty shattered by the end of it all - it's just the nature of the job. I told my SO I was going to take it easy over the weekend to let myself recharge and decompress. When I told him this morning that I was thinking I might start making a few lists about jobs I need to get done this month because I don't have so many gigs as I do in the following months, he just looked at me and said 'I thought you were taking the weekend off.'

Creative people don't have weekends like other people have weekends. Inspiration doesn't sign off on Saturday and Sunday and I don't go in to an office from Monday to Friday. Maybe it's actually my head that's my office and, as it happens, I am there all the time, 24/7. It is hard to switch off. I mean, look at me! I should be reading or bingeing something on Netflix but instead I am writing my blog. Especially cos it's a bit overdue.

So maybe this is a good opportunity to remind ourselves about self care.

1) If you write fulltime, days off don't have to happen only on Saturdays and Sundays.

2) I have to admit, because I don't want to miss any inspirational ideas I don't mind if I leave the inspiration switched on. Sometimes it goes into sleep mode but I never switch it off completely. I have found it's worth the constant low drain on my energy to leave it this way.

3) Sometimes a rest just means no socialising. Large events with many people give me a people hangover. I only need a break from interacting. If I refuse your social request, it's not you, it's my current inability to people - normal transmission will be restored shortly.

4) I think the biggest problem for me is the guilt I feel if I'm not doing anything writing related. Because I don't work 9-5, Monday to Friday, I don't have a regular reliable income. Hence the need to keep creating and networking and promoting so that I do make the most of any opportunities that are lurking. And they can be lurking anywhere, anytime. Folk with regular jobs don't necessarily feel guilty about downtime. They know how to kick back on weekends and holidays. I have no idea how this is done. I guess if nothing else, acknowledging this is the case can be helpful. And don't feel guilty if you have your 'break' on a weekday (see 1).

5) While I fully endorse getting fresh air and exercise I have discovered my brain does not switch off from writing during these activities either. They are important but do not represent a break from work. And you should still do them.

6) Weirdly, a writer's retreat is the most restful thing I can think of (oh dear, there is no hope for me).

So ultimately there are no great recommendations for self care here - but maybe just an acknowledgement of the challenge our chosen profession presents. We do not weekend like other workers weekend. And perhaps one of the best things you can do is let your loved ones know that this is the case. Remember too - it is not unproductive to rest. Your work will suffer if you never step away from it. You need full batteries and and well stocked brains for tip top functioning. However you define self care, make sure you do it regularly.


Sunday, March 28, 2021

The publisher's secret handshake ...

Over the weekend I taught a day long workshop on Writing Children's Picture Books (at Selwyn Community Ed. - there's another one in August - you can check it out here) and early on in the day one participant mentioned that she felt the picture book publishing industry here was a closed shop.

One of the topics I had intended to address over the course of this year was 'the publisher's secret handshake' - the idea that it's who you know (and not what you write) that can make things happen. The idea that there is a shortcut to publication or that having some previous connection is all you need. I've been thinking about it a bit in light of that comment on the weekend so we may as well tackle it now.

If you are a keen picture book writer and you have not yet got a manuscript over the line and had a picture book published the industry can definitely feel like a closed shop. You see the same names cropping up on the book shop shelves. Publishers are only interested in publishing already published people. Why can't I get a toe in the door? Why did I receive another rejection?

Seeing the industry as a closed shop can help soften the blow of a rejection. It's not me, or my story, its that you already have to be on the inside to get published. If only I knew the secret handshake my book would be in shops by now. 

While I do think it's a tough industry to get into, and to stay in, I really don't believe it's a closed shop for the following reasons.   

1) Every published writer has a first book. I wasn't on the inside before my first picture book was published. I was definitely on the outside not knowing publishers and with no special connections (and I'm not exactly on the inside now either - I still submit manuscripts like I used to and get rejected more often than not). And every year I see first books come out and debut writers enter the scene.

2) Previously published authors may get published again because the work they did on their writing craft to get them to their first publishable manuscript has also probably benefited their subsequent manuscripts. I like to think the stories of mine that become books have been good enough to do so, not because the publisher recognises my name when my submission hits their inbox. The only influence my name might have is if readers have liked my previous books in sufficient numbers. But it's the story that won them over. And subsequent stories have to be up to the same standard.

3) Seasoned writers with many books to their name get rejected all the time. No amount of knowing the publisher or shaking their hands in a peculiar manner will make the publisher ignore the financial imperative inherent in trade publishing. Publishing is a business and the bottom line is, can they sell enough copies of this book to cover the cost of producing it and ensure the continuation of the business. No amount of love for your story will overcome that imperative. The business must pay its bills and they achieve this by selling sufficient units of their product. Nearly everything I have written has been on spec. With no guarantee that it will get published. Despite my publishing record I do not have a key to open the publishing door. My story must get there on its own merits.

4) The industry in New Zealand is not a big one. There are not as many picture book publishers here as there are in Australia, or the US or UK. Less new books are published annually and print runs are smaller. Our population wouldn't sustain more publishing houses, longer publishing lists or larger print runs. And the sad truth underlying this (probably in all countries, not just this one) is that there will always be more authors than there are publishing opportunities. It is a tough industry because it is finite. And it is tough for every writer. You are not alone in your struggles.

5) Some publishers that previously accepted unsolicited manuscripts have closed their doors to submissions. The key one here is Scholastic. Most of the other publishers remain open most of the time, sometimes with provisos. As the biggest publisher of picture books in New Zealand, Scholastic's changed stance might seem like it's made things a closed shop. However they have ensured there are alternate opportunities, primarily through the Storylines Joy Cowley Award and their Valentines Day submission window. And every year they publish wonderful first books by new people through those avenues.

6) If your manuscript is dazzling and does not compete with another book of theirs (because why would they sabotage their own product), a publisher will say yes. That is it. Write good stories. Polish them till they gleam, and then find every opportunity you can and try every one. And if that story doesn't find a publisher, write another one. Viewing the industry as a closed shop can limit your own growth as a writer. If you feel that the only thing stopping you getting published is outside forces you can forget that the written content you are trying to find a home for is 100% under your control. That written content is what the publisher cares about. Keep working on your craft, keep trying new things, keep an eye out for new opportunities. And yes it's true that great manuscripts can be passed over but it is rare for this to keep happening if you keep putting fab saleable stories out there.

Note: yes there are celebrity authors who don't fit this narrative. There will always be celebrity authors. Don't let them distract you from making great art that a publisher can't resist.



Wednesday, March 10, 2021

I write picture books but I cannot draw. What should I do??...

[Disclaimer: This is a post for picture book writers who are seeking traditional publication. If you are intending to self publish, you WILL need to find an illustrator.]

I thought I would tackle another of the topics I listed on the blog at the end of last year. WHAT YOU NEED TO CONSIDER ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATIONS FOR A PICTURE BOOK WHEN YOU ARE NOT AN ILLUSTRATOR.

A common mistake I have come across over all the years I have been writing picture books, is picture book authors without any illustrative skills, desperate to find an illustrator. They believe that they need to take this step before submitting their manuscript to a publisher.

I have insufficient artistic skills to illustrate my books. I am a writer. My skill is with words. So far I have had eleven picture book stories picked up for publication.  And I have some advice for you if you are worried that you cannot illustrate the picture book text you have just written and you have no idea where to start to find someone to draw the pictures for you.

You do not need to do anything about it.

Your job as a writer is to create a compelling picture book story. That is ALL you need to do. You do not need to find an illustrator before you submit your story anywhere. In fact, apart from a couple of circumstances, publishers would prefer you left the job of finding an illustrator to them. No, really! Especially when you are starting out, it is unlikely you will know, or know of, the illustrators working in the picture book business anyway. The people who DO know them are publishers. Or they know how to find them, much better than you do. Publishers are also way more skilled and experienced when it comes to matching the right illustrative style with your story. And this is really important when it comes to making your story shine.

So don't worry about finding an illustrator. You do NOT need to do this (unless you are self publishing - see above). 

However ... HOWEVER ... you do need to think about the pictures when you are writing your story. Because the bottom line is, a picture book has both pictures and words. And they are both crucial to making a successful picture book (except for wordless picture books which are a separate diabolically crafty thing which make me redundant and I am not going to mention those again in this post). So, what should you be thinking about as you write your brilliant text?

1) The illustrations need to vary from page to page in order to engage the reader. Your text needs to require a change in the pictures. So, is there action moving the story along or some other form of variation going on (changing emotions, seasons, new characters, interactions with different characters). And has your pagination of the text supported this? (Don't forget to have an even spread of text across your pages - if you have heaps more words on one page versus the next to enable the pictures to be different from page to page, you might want to rethink your text a little).

2)  Will the pictures inspired by your story be appealing to the target audience? Will they be relatable, cute, informative, exciting, surprising? 

3) Is there room for an illustrator to add in extra content? (The answer you want here is YES). Don't forget, you don't need to spell everything out with words e.g., hair colour, if it can be shown in the illustrations. Educational texts might include more of these words so emergent readers can connect the word with what it represents, but this can be relaxed somewhat in a trade picture book. Illustrations can tease out layers of meaning and add texture to the story in their own right. So don't feel the need to explain everything :-)

4) Is your twist/theme/concept/action illustratable? Can it be depicted? Is it physically possible? Will it look like what its meant to look like? My next picture book, My Elephant is Blue, created some real challenges for the illustrator, with several pages requiring the elephant to be in a particular pose/position. Luckily she resolved the issue beautifully but it's important to remember our grand plans can't always be properly depicted. Don't just plan for pictures to be different from page to page, make sure there is actually a picture that can go with those words.



5) Be open to things looking different to how you thought they would. Be open to the idea that you might not be the best person to advise on or control how the artwork looks. We are not always the best judge of how things should appear illustratively. My skill is with words. The only times we get involved in directing the illustrations, are when meaning is at stake, or we need something in the illustration to make the text work (something that must be seen but not mentioned). To this end, I will add in illustration notes if I want something to be in the pictures that I haven't written. But I don't say anything else, and will only give information about style and illustrative detail, if asked. I never want to influence the illustrator unless they want me to. And I am always open to ideas, advice and suggestions. It's a leap of faith, but I have to say, this has worked out pretty well for me so far. I know I become part of a team when a picture book text is accepted. And every member of that team wants the book to succeed. 

 


Thursday, March 4, 2021

I don't remember agreeing to get on this roller coaster...

It has been a weird old week. We returned to level 3 here in Auckland at 6am on Sunday after things got a little hectic with a new covid community cluster (the rest of the country was in level 2). Since then things seem to have been wrangled back under control and I am hopeful we might reduce levels in the next few days. In the meantime I was busy writing the content for a talk I would be doing via Zoom on Thursday night. It was a talk about giving talks and all the associated admin. I was keen to make it comprehensive and ensure it was the right length to fill the two hour space once question time was factored in. It was ironic that I would be feeling and doing all the things I was outlining in my talk. If nothing else I can confirm the content was sincere and authentic. 

A very nice group of people dialed in for the talk and I hope they found something useful amongst all the info I shared. I was mighty pleased they stayed engaged for the whole presentation. That's an awful lot of listening in a tricky environment.

A while back I applied to be a picture book mentor on the summer programme of the #WriteMentor scheme (check it out here) and recently discovered I'd been successful. This international scheme matches mentors up with new writers keen to polish their work before an agent showcase in September. Mentee applications are open 15 and 16 April. There are lots of wonderful people offering expertise and advice so go check it out. It's great that things like this can continue through technology when so many other aspects of daily life have been constrained.

This week I also had a really nice initial response to a new submission, and while it may still come to nothing it felt very encouraging. Especially for this particular story. And things are getting close to done on illustrations and the cover design is imminent for my picture book Batkiwi coming out in July with Scholastic, Izzy Joy Te Aho White illustrating (and fingers crossed I can share a pic soon). It looks fabulous and the illustrative tone is perfect for the story. It's super cute too!

Then today there was a swarm of earthquakes off the East coast of New Zealand's North Island, including one sizeable one and then two bigger ones at the Kermadecs. Civil Defense alerts were sounded for potential tsunami action and I have to say, although the threat is now significantly reduced I found it all a bit stressful. Thankfully the Sapling posted up some picture book reviews this afternoon including a truly lovely one of my picture book Moon and Sun, which cheered me up. I am always grateful when a reader recognizes all the extra elements I have snuck in to the story and is enthusiastic about the result. It's here if you want to check it out. 

And I was recently reminded of this poem - one of my favourite poems as a child. I have always loved the moon so I guess it's no surprise I wrote a picture book about her.


                                                        Silver
                                                        by
                                                    Walter de la Mare



 

Slowly, silently, now the moon
Walks the night in her silver shoon;
This way, and that, she peers, and sees
Silver fruit upon silver trees;
One by one the casements catch
Her beams beneath the silvery thatch;
Couched in his kennel, like a log,
With paws of silver sleeps the dog;
From their shadowy cote the white breasts peep
Of doves in a silver-feathered sleep;
A harvest mouse goes scampering by,
With silver claws, and silver eye;
And moveless fish in the water gleam,
By silver reeds in a silver stream.



Monday, February 15, 2021

The pattern is that there is no pattern ...

 So, for several reasons there was no public launch this time round for Moon and Sun, and honestly, it is a mixed blessing. Launches can be stressful things that are hard to land with the desired results. But watching your book arrive with no wine-glass-clinking, cake-eating celebration is equally daunting. Will anyone notice it has arrived?? As with all my paper babies, I am so proud of this story. It says and does some good and surprising things. And Malene Laugesen's illustrations elevate the story, magnifying and building on the emotion and detail of the text in a beautiful way. Truth is, a launch is only ever a small part of a book's debut. Plenty of work has been happening behind the curtains (thanks to the team at Upstart Press) to support Moon and Sun's arrival. Copies have been going out and about and some early reviews have been really lovely - thank you to Desna Wallace at BookTrailers4KidsandYA, NZ Booklovers, and KiwiReviews. I'm also being interviewed about the book for radio later in the week, and there is a chance to win a copy of the book in the Kids Club section of the current NZ TV Guide (20 - 26 Feb). And I finally get to wear the t-shirt with artwork by my eldest, which is a perfect fit for the book.


Welcome to the world Moon and Sun - I'm so happy you are here :-) 

And I have to say this book, a gentle, secretly science-y tale, is so different to the last thing I had published (the darkly funny and mischievous Sharing with Wolf). I am a technicolour dreamcoat, a collection, a museum of many things. I do worry that I am a bit unpredictable and that fans might want some reliable patterns to hold on to as they take a wild ride through my books. The only patterns you'll find are a distinct love of language, a desire for rhythm, and a guarantee that there will be layers of meaning, peelable and yet also intersecting. My next two picture books, My Elephant is Blue (illustrated by Vasanti Unka and coming out in May with Penguin, dealing with heavy feelings) and Batkiwi (illustrated by Izzy Joy Te Aho White and published in July by Scholastic, about being a hero) are also different. Perhaps the pattern is that there is no pattern. 

It would be lovely to talk about this. I sometimes envy adult writers chatting about their latest book with a wise and well read interviewer on a stage at a Writers Festival. This doesn't really happen to picture book writers. I've seen picture book and junior fiction writers interviewed on stage, or giving a talk, but these events are pitched at young readers who usually make up at least half the audience (and many of the rest are their guardians and minders and keepers). But like a writer of adult fiction, I too have ideas and influences and writing craft that are grown up things. Lots of writers for children do. And I am always sad that picture books are only ever seen as childish things. We don't talk enough about children's books outside our children's books circles. I think this needs to change - for the benefit of our children. 



Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Self trickery - how to grow a word count

The competition to win a copy of my new picture book Moon and Sun has now closed and it only seems right that there should be two winners. So Clare Scott and Craig Campbell, if you message me your addresses I will send those books right off to you. Congratulations!!! 

I was chatting with a writer friend t'other day (waves to Heather Haylock) and we got on to the topic of productivity. What we think we can achieve vs. the abject realities of what happens under self motivation.  Sitting down and writing productively every day is fraught. There are a lot of contributing factors when it comes to how many words one might tap out in a day. Mood, the general state of the world, other worries, personal news - good and bad, confidence, the state, and desirability, of one's current project, other projects that seem more alluring but are actually equally challenging once directly addressed, whether there is chocolate in the house, the fact that your two favourite tv sitcom characters have just broken up (it's alright, they got back together), the depth of one's laundry, the day's imposter syndome scale ranking, and a host of other things.  Whew - I'm amazed I get any writing done at all. What!? I hear you say, what about self discipline? I think you are very lucky if you have it, but there are plenty of us who don't. This blog is for those who sometimes (/often/always) find their self discipline is AWOL. Including me. It turns out I require a lot of cajoling and self trickery.

So I am currently resorting to several methods of indirectly talking myself into writing more words. The fab Maureen Crisp recently mentioned Austin Kleon's 100 days and suck less challenge on her blog, and I like this because 100 days of applying yourself is a most excellent way to build a habit. I would however like to know why it only takes a few days to break a habit and around five hundred years to build it up again. 

The embarrassment of having something of long standing that you still haven't completed can also be good motivation. Honestly, it is worth finishing just to avoid the awkwardness of saying 'I am still working on that particular project.' The difficulty here is that this particular project is past redemption and will be slipped in to the bottom drawer once complete. But it will be finished and I will have gained the writing mileage.

The fear (constant), of falling in to a permanent publishing hiatus is also a really good cattle prod - keep writing, or else. Laurels are a stupid thing to rest on - all right, they do smell nice, but they aren't exactly soft and cushy. On the other hand fear doesn't always get the best results.

And before you suggest it, yes, I have tried bum glue and sadly it doesn't work for me. Or more to the point, it is an indiscriminate adhesive for too many things, like other people's books, netflix bingeing, social media scrolling and email refreshing. Bum glue can be a blunt tool.

Running races are a practical approach. Team up with one or two (or more) other writers, and check in with each other daily with word count tallys. This only works if you are all able to participate to the same degree. But knowing someone will be checking in daily can keep you honest. 

Rewarding personal word count achievements can also spur you on. As can fake deadlines. But the trick is in making the reward big enough to keep the writing going without breaking budgets or breaking a writing stride. And fake deadlines need to convince you that they are real even though they aren't. The running race can work as a fake deadline.

And sometimes it is just enough to know that plodding on will be the bridge between the last hot project you excitedly sped through and the next hot project you will not be able to resist. It's keeping your writing muscles sufficiently exercised that you know what to do when the next idea is irresistable. You don't have to keep doing a marathon, it's okay to slow to a walk between bursts of sprinting. And on that exhausted metaphor note I am off to potter on some average ideas.   



Monday, January 18, 2021

Win a copy of Moon and Sun ...

 A Competition!!! My author copies of Moon and Sun (illustrated beautifully by Malene Laugesen and published by Upstart Press) have arrived and I am so pleased! The book is out February 11 and to celebrate it's imminent arrival I am giving away a copy. Tell me what your favourite science fiction movie (kids or adults) is, and why. I'll pick my favourite answer to receive the book. You can give your answer here on the blog, or in response to this blog post shared on twitter, instagram or facebook. One entry each only. Competition closes January 31st. 



And to kick the year off I thought I'd address one of the topics I'd suggested at the end of last year. So today I'm going to talk about ...

What your plot cannot live without. Not all picture books have to have a plot. Some are concept books that look at the world around us, or important issues or ideas, and a plot isn't always necessary for these. The following list isn't exhaustive and may be added to over time. And if you think there is something I need to include, let me know :-)  

So a plot needs...

1) A story that is from a child's point of view, or is of interest to children. Something I have noticed is writers assuming an adult's view of children will be of interest to children and I don't think that's true. An adults view of children (or grandchildren or other topics) is of interest to other adults. So what is of interest to young people? The list is actually pretty long but includes friendship, confidence, fear, fear of the dark, being lost, being lonely, being different, difference in others, a new sibling, loss of a loved one, learning to be adventurous, being brave, sharing, sibling relationships, blended families, new experiences, firsts (as in going to kindergarten, school, to the doctor, to the hospital, on a plane etc...for the first time), traditions, family, worry, sadness, immigration, facing challenges, and there are a whole lot more. But you do always need to consider whether the approach you've taken works for a child reader.

2) A purpose. What are the characters doing in the story and why? What is their goal and what stands in the way of them achieving it? I have read some lively, fun, cleverly worded picture book texts where there was no actual point to the story, and the bottom line is, this will be a hard sell to a publisher. A collection of events is not a plot.

3) A resolution or revelation. How have the issues presented been resolved, the goal been achieved or what has the character discovered on their journey. A summary is not a resolution. 

4) A change in the main character (s). What do they know or understand now that they didn't know or understand at the beginning of the book? Is it relatable for a young reader? 

5) Satisfaction. Is the plot enjoyable? Does it feel 'right'? Would a child want to hear the story again? Is the story durable? Is it timeless? Can it be enjoyed by different ages? The more of these boxes you tick the better your story will be.


Pick up any good picture book and ask yourself what is this story really about? What is the topic at the heart of the story and how does the plot explore that topic? How many layers are there? What sort of things might a child take away from reading this book? In Moon and Sun the story centres on the sibling relationship between the Moon and the Sun. There is misunderstanding and jealousy and loneliness. But the text also touches on the Moon's impact on Earth. The Moon's gravity is important to tides and crops, our concept of a calendar was initially based on the lunar cycle, and the orbits of the Earth and Moon allow the story's resolution. And humanity has been inspired by the Moon for centuries in art and music and literature. A child will be able to explore these scientific and artistic concepts for themselves.