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
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,'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 ...