Wednesday, September 28, 2016

IBBY Congress report 2016

This was my first time at an IBBY Congress (IBBY stands for International Board on Books for Young people) so I wasn't sure what to expect, other than a lot of people passionate about children's and YA bools from all over the world. It certainly was that - more than 500 of us. We gathered in Auckland, NZ this year, the first time the Congress has been held down this way for 20 years.

The program was huge, with dozens of speakers, poster presentations and events such as the Literature Quiz and the Hans Christian Andersen awards dinner. I was lucky to be one of those presenting (on my PhD topic of fairy tales) - each part of the program with presentations like mine was in streams of six, with four people in each, so at any time you had 24 topics to choose from! It was a bit hard skipping between streams but you could do it if you tried as people mostly kept to their time slots.

The best way to sum up the Congress is to give you some of the quotes and things people talked about. NZ author Kate De Goldi was outspoken as always about important issues. In the opening session she talked about how series are dominating the market these days, crowding out the rest, "the fictions that shape a moral compass". There was mention of this many times over the four days - the ways in which fiction impacts young readers and how important it is to give them quality books, but not "worthy" books. If you're not sure about the moral compass bit, think about the books that impacted you as a child - how did they change the way you thought about the world? How did they change the way you thought about people "other" than you? More than ever, I think we need books that show kids "the other" in ways that promote understanding and compassion instead of fear and prejudice.

Witi Ihimaera said clearly, "Children are not the problem - adults are." If we think technology is taking our kids away from us, then chase them, catch them up and tell them stories. Trish Brooking talked about the UN Rights of the Child and said "children's literature operates as both a window and a mirror". I loved the exhibition of what were called "silent books" - these are books with no words. They tell the story with pictures and thus are able to be read by anyone, no matter what language they speak or read.

A very good session was the one moderated by Kate De Goldi with Leonard Marcus and Julia Eccleshare, both of whom are well known in the children's literature world. Leonard for his work in the USA (books, criticism etc) and Julia for being the Guardian children's book editor (although she does lots of other stuff, too). In the end most of the quotes I wrote down were from Julia! They talked about the different histories of children's and YA books in the US and UK. Julia said she thought adult commentary freights children's books with messages they don't read for - "children read for the interior life of the characters".

She railed against the lack of good editing these days (a familiar theme) and said writers are not being given enough time to write and develop better books. She said the marketplace doesn't allow you to rest or be silent for a while - if you stop, the market (sales) algorithm goes against you. That's a scary thing for a writer to hear! There were discussions about what Kate called the "tsunami" of YA fiction, a lot of which is not very good (her words, and someone near me muttered, "Who's she saying is not good?"). Julia replied that it's feeding off itself and she wasn't sure who the readers are. (Note from me - other speakers later talked about the readership of YA being 16-35).

Finally they talked about Where the Wild Things Are (Maurice Sendak's picture book), and Julia said that it's from the child's point of view, which is why children feel safe about it and adults don't. I thought it was strange that adults still feel ambivalent, so she says, about this book when it's been a classic for so long. Adults decide what makes a classic. So ...

In another session there was a great discussion about culture. One speaker was Nahoko Uehashi a Japanese fantasy writer, who said "culture is something we acquire after we are born and as we grow up". She talked about how those who belong to the majority never have the experience of being judged for their authenticity, and that "culture does a fine job of showing how you and we are different ... but stories bring us together, transcend the bounds of different cultures". She said some great things, including, "I want my readers to soar above their own self".

Katherine Paterson was also there as a guest, although she was only in one panel session, sadly. She talked about being astounded at the echoes in her books of favourite stories from her childhood, such as The Secret Garden and The Yearling. She said, "The spaces [in the story] are so important - the reader gets to write the book" and that Terabithia is a country created in the reader's imagination. Other guests included Markus Zusak, who has a new book coming out soon (Bridge of Clay), and Sir Richard Taylor. Taylor gave two presentations with Martin Baynton about Weta Workshops, and their work is amazing - evrything from Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit to The Wot Wots!

Another highlight was the play of The Whale Rider, done with puppets. This isn't a blow-by-blow summary of the Congress - apart from anything else it was too big to cover even half of it. I tend to write down things that strike me as insightful rather than take copious notes these days!

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Finding time to blog

I was astonished to find I had not posted here since February! But my writing and studying life, along with work of various kinds, has squeezed up every hour of my day for months, and although I've had quite a few ideas of things I wanted to blog about, I just have never found the time or headspace.

But here I am at last. Determined to get back to posting more regularly, because I have always enjoyed it. I also think the little time I spend on FB has been taken up with negativity (shared, I might add) about the Australian elections and our pathetic politicians, our shameful treatment of refugees, and a number of other issues. I do love FB for the funny pics and cartoons that give me a laugh, though, just when I need it.

25898530What have I been doing? Mostly working on my PhD, which is on fairy tales. It includes several picture book length original tales and a middle grade novel, as well as a 30,000 word exegesis. I've found the academic writing to be a huge challenge, and it's only with the feedback from my supervisors (no, that's too chatty/conversational/casual) that I've been able to finally get a grip on it.

Along with that, I'm still working part-time (as little as I can) in TAFE, which often breaks my heart as the paperwork and compliance requirements from the government become more and more onerous for very little good reason or useful results. And as well as my creative work for the PhD, I've been writing a four-book children's series. Luckily that's been spread over 8 months so has been manageable. More on that in another post.

In fact, I have several things I plan to write about for this blog. I'm becoming more and more interested in memoir pieces (not my own life story - I wouldn't want to inflict that on anyone) but short essays and stories that dig deep into single events, or people. I was so pleased to have a poem and personal piece included in the second edition of Meg Files' book, Writing What You Know (first edition was called Write Your Life). In this edition she provides many examples of people's life writing, and my poem and piece are compared. They are about the same thing - my mother and her death - but they were written more than twenty years apart, and with quite different purposes. I can recommend this book - in fact both editions - and my students agree.

This is the book on GoodReads - and you can buy it online, no doubt.

I've also had poems accepted here and there, and am waiting to see illustrations for a new picture book, but mostly I've been writing and revising and revising and revising. My TV viewing is minimal and impatient - show me something good or I go to bed with a book. I've had to learn to become even more disciplined with my time, but at the same time, give myself breaks, and make sure I sleep well. I'm starting to see clear air ahead...

Friday, February 26, 2016

Keeping a stone face

I've just been watching the first Super Rugby game of the year, and what always gets me is the coaches. Inevitably, they sit in the coach's box and show absolutely no emotion whatsoever, no matter what happens on the field. (And show no sign of what they're thinking.) Mind you, the South African rugby coaches are not like this - they jump up and down and get mad and happy for all to see.

How does apply to writing? It seems to me that writers are continually pressured to show "the stone face". No matter what happens, whether your publisher dumps you, or rejects Book 6 after five reasonable sellers, or even if you're a new writer and nobody will give you that much-wanted contract for your book. No, you have to maintain silence, show no emotion, be professional and move on. To somewhere...

The rule is: no whining on social media or your website or blog. No whining in public, or you'll undoubtedly be blacklisted somehow. In fact, the stone face is required everywhere. Bad review? Stone face. Some lunatic on Amazon gives you a one star review and says crazy things? Stone face. Believe your editor secretly hates your book and is wrecking it? Stone face.

Well, not completely. If you have an agent, that will help immensely. You can whine to them, and they will say good things and calm you down. But no, you can't say it in public.

What does this really mean? In the past month or so, a number of very well-known writers have come out in protest against the practice of expecting writers to appear at festivals for NOTHING. Because your reward is the "free promotion you get". It's great that they have, because they are the only ones who are able to speak out and be heard. Nevertheless, they've been criticised for whining. Imagine, however, if a mid-list or new author or two had been the ones to protest.

I think they would have been crucified.

This is what kills us as authors (writers). Along with "professionalism" comes the stone face. Don't protest, don't whine - no matter how real and solid the justification - because you'll be lambasted for it. And it's not just festival appearances. It comes with crap advances or no advances (because publishers are not doing so well). It comes with educational publishers who insist on flat fee and taking your copyright and threaten authors who let others know and warn them.

You're supposed to feel grateful they want your stories at all. Stone face.

And then over there in Indie-publishing land, there's a whole pile of authors working damned hard and knowing that if they're going to whine, hell, they're whining to themselves and then getting on with it and that's OK. And then they celebrate their successes and keep working. No, it's not magic but it does seem to be where individual power and self-belief and autonomy goes a long way towards authors feeling less powerless and I don't think I've seen many stone faces over there at all! (Except those bizarre one-star reviews - yes, stone face.)

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Writing in the middle of high emotion

One of the things that makes poetry readers shudder is the poem written from inside ecstatic love, full of gushing and cliches. Coming a close second is the raw grief poem. We are told, "Don't write while you're in a state of high emotion because you're too close to it."

As if that somehow blights the poem, or the true story (because we are told this about personal writing of any kind). It's true that writing in these states does often make for awful writing, but it's likely that the writer simply isn't skilled enough yet to be able to use the language well enough to convey what they feel. They would probably write poor landscape poems, or sonnets, or ... We all know that feeling of This is too hard for me. I need to get better at writing before I tackle it.

Yet that doesn't mean you shouldn't write at all. Just that you probably shouldn't consider your heart poured out on the page as ready to share yet. It's a first draft, that's all, like any first draft. Hold on to it, give it time, rework it until it really does say what you want, in a way that evokes your idea for the reader. Often that's through the "less is more" guideline.

In fact, I'd say that writing how you feel, however clumsily or gushingly or with tears dripping onto the page, is a great way to deal with your emotions. For too long, "writing as therapy" has been scorned, or derided as only for hobbyists. I've been studying fairy tales now for 18 months, and part of my research is about the ways in which fairy tales help traumatised children. I'm also writing my own tales - new ones - and trusting my unconscious to take a spark of an idea and run with it, writing whatever comes out. As I have been doing so much reading of the tales (Grimms in particular, but others, too), the structure falls into place without me thinking too much about it. The fascinating part is looking at the story later and trying to figure out what came out of my unconscious and, more importantly, why. It's called practice-led research.

But in the past few weeks, my writing has taken a different path. Where I go on weekends to write - a wonderful bush property with trees, wildlife, native plants and birds - was totally burned in recent bushfires. It's been so hard to keep going there, to face each time the devastation all over again. Blackened trees, scorched earth, ash, everything gone but (miraculously) our tiny house.

At first I thought I could never write about it. I couldn't get past the shock and grief I felt every time I looked around. I kept seeing what was missing - the wrens and wagtails that used to frolic in the birdbath outside my writing room window was just one of many things that may take years to come back. Even being inside the house and almost forgetting - looking out the window was like a slap.

But then I decided I wanted to write about what it used to be like, and remember all the things I loved about the place. The day I came face to face with a wombat. The native flowers in spring. The silvery glitter of sunlight on the gum leaves. And as well I began to write about the aftermath of the fire. How I felt about it, how I feel now. I'm using language the best way I know how, trying to capture these emotions but also capture precious memories. It's doing me good. It'd probably be labelled "therapy writing" but I hardly care. This is about me, this is for me. That's what matters right now.

More than six years ago, I started a photo blog of this place. It was a hobby (I like taking photos) and it was a discovery record - every season I found new things growing. Now I am rapt that I did this, and kept at it. I'll keep updating it now, I hope as a record of recovery. It's here.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

The reading thing

I'm about to start school visits in earnest (August being the month when children's and YA authors are asked to do lots of them because Children's Book Week happens now). I was thinking about the questions I get asked the most, and one is definitely, "What made you start writing?" (This is usually how it's phrased, maybe reflecting their classroom experience of being made to write!)

My answer is always, "Because I love reading, and I just got to the point where I really wanted to write, too." Mind you, wanting to write and achieving something I thought was OK were not the same thing, but I remember in those early days how just writing anything was exciting and fun and felt like a big achievement. It's that feeling I try to keep in mind with students. It's all new to many of them. For kids at school, writing can seem like the most boring, tedious thing to do. A trial. A curse. A punishment.

Even for those who want to write, the act itself can be frightening and overwhelming. Where to start? What to write? How to escape self-criticism? How to avoid family questions and criticism?

I always point people back to reading. Despite a few writers who insist they don't read, and thus convince other aspiring writers they don't need to either, I believe reading, and then reading critically and consciously, is vital to becoming a writer, let alone a better writer. I have always loved reading, even before my big sister gave me C.S. Lewis's The Magician's Nephew and I discovered Arthur Ransome and T.H. White.

If you want to write picture books, you should be reading at least 50 picture books published in the past 10 years. Same with chapter books, children's and YA novels. Yes, read the classics, but if you don't read what is out there at the moment, you will have no idea how much these books have changed. It's an area where there have been massive shifts in illustration, styles, and marketing, at the very least. (I confess to being quite appalled at the current gender marketing in books for kids 6-12 years old. But if I wasn't reading and keeping up, how would I know? Doesn't mean I agree, though.)

When it comes to adult fiction, you have to read even more widely, because the changes I see are so intriguing. Self publishing is just the pointy end of platforms like Wattpad and Figment (see here for what is out there). These are writing communities where people post their works in progress and get votes and comments. There have been significant instances of writers being picked up by publishers through these platforms - especially when writers have more than a million readers!

What I am most interested in is why people read on these platforms. Is it simply because it's free and they can read to their heart's content without paying a cent? I'd love some comments on this.
Because to me reading feeds my writing, and the better the books I read, the more I get for myself. Ideas, language, examples of style and experimentation, great examples of characters.

Mostly, reading takes me away from myself and from my life. Not many TV shows do this (although I do admit that I have just finished watching series 1 of Mad Men, and the themes and subtext are brilliant - yes, I'm way behind but think how much enjoyment lies ahead for me!).
If you write, isn't that what you want your novel to do? Take the reader away so they are in your fictional world?

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Let's go retro!

I was giving some advice today on submissions and current publisher guidelines for Australia and it suddenly struck me how much really has changed in the past ten years. Everyone talks about e-books and digital downloads, but that's the end product. What about getting your work to a publisher - into that dreaded slush pile?

I remember ten or so years ago, teaching fiction writing and children's book writing subjects, that when we set an assignment which entailed an examination of a publisher, the hoops students had to go through to find their information. For example:
*  They had to write to the publisher and include a stamped addressed envelope, and hope somebody there had time to send them back a photocopied sheet of submission guidelines
* If they wanted to know what a publisher published (vital knowledge so you didn't send a manuscript to the wrong place), they had to find a way to get a publisher's catalogue. Sometimes these could be requested by mail, sometimes they had to beg bookshop owners!
* Often publishers just would not respond and the student was stumped. So we did a lot of sharing of information in the classes.
* We also did a lot of work with students on how to submit professionally - cover letter, clean manuscript (printed in hard copy of course), and stick to the guidelines - if they only want 3 chapters, only send 3.

Then came a period where most publishers closed their doors. Children's publishing wasn't quite so bad, but most publishers of adult fiction stopped taking unsolicited manuscripts. The job of filtering manuscripts fell more and more onto the few agents operating in Australia, and there were very few who represented children's writers. (It was similar in the USA, but the number of agents there was growing week by week, and they already had a system whereby your key goal was to write a great query letter - well, not much has changed there!)

However, the internet had arrived and it grew and grew, and publishers realised that if they put their submission guidelines on their website (even if those guidelines said NO, we are not accepting), then that might stem the tide. They also put their catalogues of books on their websites, so our students found it easier to work out who was publishing what (and the guidelines helped, too). This sounds idyllic, by the way, but it's not. Many, many new writers don't know any of this information and continue, even now, to submit with a scattergun approach.

So where are we up to now? Again, big changes.

* Once self-publishing began to take off and lots of disgruntled writers started publishing their books as e-books (cheap and no boxes of books in your garden shed), and some of those SP books started becoming best sellers and making big money, well ... publishers decided to open their doors again, unwilling to miss out. And technology made this simpler because instead of spending a pile of money paying someone to open parcels of manuscripts and then post them back again ... it all went electronic. Now many publishers open their doors to full electronic manuscripts, when it suits them. So we have the Monday and the Wednesday and the Friday pitch thing going on - but you can easily find out when to send just by Googling (and you're truly an idiot if you don't do this simple research).

* But in children's publishing, picture books still cost a lot of money to produce, so things are tight there and it's hard to break in. In the chapter book area, the obsession is with series. Even novel-length works are infected with the series/trilogy thing, which is daunting and makes it harder to get published (because stand-alone novels fade in the shade).

* We still don't have a lot of agents operating in Australia, and the ones we do have are full to the brim already. That doesn't mean you give up. It just means it's still hard. On the other hand, there is absolutely nothing to stop you trying to get an American agent - IF you have a manuscript that has global appeal. Despite everyone repeating ad nauseum "Australia is the flavour of the month", that month is long past. But first you have to master that query letter.

* When it comes to the market, not much has changed. Publishing is a business. A debut novel that might only sell 500 or 1000 copies is unlikely to get a first go in print, but you could get a deal to publish first as an e-book (going to print after a certain number of sales). The trend, though, is no advance. Is that really fair? I've seen complaints recently about Australian publishers offering pretty bad deals on e-book royalties compared with overseas publishers. Are we in a global market or not? As long as copyright territories continue to exist, the real answer I think is NO.

Any Australian publisher sure hopes to sell OS in rights deals, but truthfully I think it is rare. The books that do sell OS are actually global in nature. Think Hannah Kent's 'Burial Rites'. Set in Iceland. Ten years ago a new novel that did OK here would sell 2000 copies (they hoped). Now you're lucky to sell 1000. That's how the market itself has changed. The big sellers keep selling more. The little sellers are selling less, and that's really, really sad (and does bad things to our literature generally at all levels).

There are always exceptions. There are writers doing great on Amazon. We hear about the successes. But I started looking at what our students (and other prospective authors) have at their fingertips for researching publishers, and that is really where the huge change has come. Google can find you any information you want or need about a publisher - their books, their guidelines for submission, how global are they, who their best selling writers are ... it's all there via your keyboard instead of the envelope and stamp process. So no more scattergun approaches needed, right?

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Wisdom vs irrelevance in writing for young people

The other day I received an email from someone at my superannuation company, who pointed out that I would soon be reaching “the lovely age of 60”. Thanks for that. As if I hadn’t realised, or had somehow been trying to pretend I was still 40-something for the past few years.

Like a lot of people my age (and older) that I know, we never feel our age. Maybe people like us gravitate together. Maybe I just know a lot of people and hang out with a lot of people who take no notice of getting older. We travel, we go out and do stuff, we try new things, we still have plenty of dreams and goals and getting older seems irrelevant.

I started a PhD last year, something I never thought I would be capable of. Indeed, I feel like a toddler academic, staggering along, blundering into metaphorical chairs and couches, and struggling to understand language and how to communicate the way the grown-ups expect! I refuse to accept that my older brain won’t cope (and it’s doing fine). I have many years of reading and thinking to my credit already, so now’s my chance to put it to a more purposeful use.

But with the 50s comes other experiences: it’s harder getting out of the chair if I’ve sat there too long, and I have to wear glasses now, and take a pill or two for conditions I knew nothing about in my 20s. There are even people my age dying, enough to make me check my health and eat better and get more exercise and think about what I put in my mouth.

But I don’t think “old” the way some other people I know do. As in, eking out the days and weeks and months and wondering what the hell it’s all been for, and how much longer do they have to put up with this, and do they really have to get out of bed in the morning, and for what? Those people are already some kind of old where they can’t see anything ahead of them but an end. 

However, I know there are going to be issues with turning 60. Issues that arise from a view that I will be too old for many things. Not my view, theirs. For instance, that I can’t write anything new for children or teens because I am now “too far from those years” to be able to evoke them well enough, especially with the way technology has changed the world. For me, though, I have written and read so many stories for young readers that I think the struggle is about what “new” really means. I have seen series come and go, come and go. I’m much more interested in writing books that will last for years, hopefully decades, books that hold such deep resonance and meaning for my readers that they keep them for their own kids.
At my age, with my experience, I figure I know how to do that, and I’m damned determined to keep doing it, even if deeper stand-alone novels are not the flavour of the day. 
I used to worry about school visits, and looking way too old for kids to be interested in listening to me. Then I realised that everyone over 30 looks old to them, and over 40 looks ancient, so 60 is irrelevant. (And when a kid asks me how old I am, I give my mother’s answer – I’m as old as my tongue and a little bit older than my teeth.) Besides, they don’t much care about me, they care about whether I’ve written a story that will entertain and move them, and why, and what it means to them. That’s my job, right there.

The other thing with “new” is that you really do come to understand there is no new idea. It’s how you write it, how you create your characters, what the story means to you. I love reading and I love stories that reach deep inside me and tell me something about life and living and people that I didn’t know before. Kids and teens know so little about these things but they are longing to learn, and books give them some of that knowledge in a safe way. Safe because they can close the covers and put it away if they want to or need to. Or they can keep the covers open and go back to the beginning and read the story again, because it speaks to them about something important and vital to them
So that’s my job, too, to write those stories. And I’m not saying a 25 year-old or a 35 year-old can’t write them, but I have all those extra years of everything it takes to write a story that has guts and is not afraid to speak out and says the things kids need and want to hear. So, 60 is both relevant and irrelevant. It’s what I write that counts.