Sunday, March 29, 2009

Writing Against (Financial) Odds

OK, we get that the world is full of doom and gloom, and there is this huge financial crisis. We also get that people are losing their jobs, due to greedy or incompetent company bosses. Recent reports from the Bologna Book Fair (the biggie for children's books) indicated that US publishers had reacted most strongly to the GEC by laying off staff and reducing their programs. I guess it doesn't help that we've been told Borders is on the verge of bankruptcy, and that book sales everywhere are down. Although I've seen another report that in Australia, at least, book sales were up in the July-December 08 period. Hmmm. Have some publishers gone into panic mode unnecessarily?

Probably not. There has been talk for several years now that too many publishers were producing too many books, going for the "hit or miss" idea, because after all, who knows what makes a bestseller? Famous author brings out new book, publisher puts big bucks into publicity and marketing, bestseller follows. Pretty obvious outcome. Unknown author gets first novel published, publisher gives it the usual small push, somehow novel gains rapid word-of-mouth recommendations and bestseller follows. Who could've guessed? Maybe the editor who fell in love with the manuscript, but probably not the marketing guys or the booksellers. It can be a fickle business.

And that's the point. It is a fickle business, even though it tries hard not to be. So where does that leave an author who writes well, submits regularly, but just can't make it to the next level? When I say next level, I mean that the writer has a few small publications under their belt, and some positive rejection letters, enough to make them feel confident that they are on the right track and shouldn't go back to quilting or sailing as a hobby. But when you combine the economic woes with a week of four rejection letters, what do you do?

One option is to give up. I do know some successful writers who have said (in public) that they only continue writing because they're getting published. If they started getting rejections, they'd go off and do something else. Another option is to keep writing, no matter what, and combine the writing with a few other things that I think are going to become even more essential in the next couple of years. Things like these:

1. Market research. Make time every day to add to your store of information about publishers, what they're doing right now, what they might be looking for. If you write for children, you will find that many publishers produce newsletters - sure, they're aimed at parents and teachers, but they'll tell you exactly what that publisher thinks is important to talk about. Use marketing guides or websites - compile lists of markets for your specific kind of writing and give each one a mark out of ten on how appropriate they are for you.

2. Expand your horizons. Write other things. It's all about track record. OK, you write novels, but branching out into nonfiction or reviewing or serious blogging on current topics will expand your skills as well as give you more credibility. Look around for opportunities, don't think they'll come to you.

3. Take serious steps to improve the quality of your writing. I can't stress this one enough. If you are madly scribbling story after story, building a bank of stuff that keeps getting rejected, think about the possibility that maybe you're focusing too much on quantity instead of quality. Find a way to improve your craft and skills or use a good critique person.

4. Read widely in your genre/form/what you write. Look at what is being published now, why it's popular or getting good reviews, what is original about it. Pick out ten examples - things you wish you had written. Ask yourself why you didn't write that! Are you sticking to 'safe' ideas? Are you trying to cash in on a trend that's already on its way out? Are you writing the first idea that comes to you instead of working hard to make it into something special?

5. Keep up with the industry. There are plenty of free newsletters, websites and discussion boards out there. Instead of spending your time on the net emailing friends or looking for bargains on EBay, find some great newsletters to sign up for. If you receive a couple and think they're no use to you, just unsubscribe. (I'm going to post soon on ones I think are good.)

6. Invest in yourself. I subscribe to a free email business newsletter that has a lot of small business analysis and motivational stuff. One of the recent articles talked about how this is the time to re-invest in what you do best. This doesn't mean you should buy a new laptop if the one you have is OK (if it crashes every five minutes and you keep losing stuff, however, then you should consider a new machine). But it does mean taking a serious look at where you are lacking, and doing something about it. Maybe you need a couple of good writing books, or a writers' retreat, or an online course. Maybe you need a week away without the kids to get your head together. Maybe you need a week away at a health place to get your body working again.

7. Stop thinking about the money. If you gave up your day job to become a writer, and you're not doing so well at earning money from writing, and you need money, maybe you should go get a day job. In my experience, writers do their very worst when: a) they believe they have to write more and more to earn money; b) they put themselves under enormous pressure to try and write something that might be a bestseller (if they could just get it accepted); c) someone else is standing behind them, hoping they'll earn money from this darn-fool 'occupation'; d) they're in debt and they are starting to feel desperate.

It's really hard not to think about money when you write. For the people in your life, the money you earn is likely to be the only thing that validates your writing for them (and the time you take away from them). But that's them, not you. What happens when the rejection letters keep coming in and the bills don't get paid? That's the point at which you will really want to chuck it all in. That's the point at which I'd go back and get a day job. If you can.

Yes, it's hard to write when you have to work, too. I haven't given up my day job, but that's because I've come to see it as a kind of safety net. It actually allows me to write without financial pressure. I discovered a long time ago, when I tried the full-time freelance life, that I couldn't do it. Having to write simply for money wasn't in me. It killed off most of my enjoyment and inspiration. I don't think it would make any difference now if I was trying to write full-time as a children's writer. But that may not be you. You may be totally committed to the full-time writing life, no matter what it costs you. Just make sure it doesn't cost you your house!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Give and Take of Writers

Kristi Holl recently blogged about drainers and fillers - the people around you (some of whom are writers) who either fill you with confidence and support and encouragement, or drain you with their needs and demands. She talks about how someone can be both a filler and a drainer, but I was thinking further on this, and wondered about that. If a person is a genuine filler - someone who supports without criticising, makes you laugh, takes your mind off your latest rejection, critiques your novel for you - can they really be a drainer as well?

I think the word that describes them is something more like consort, or co-operator, or dual enabler, or maybe just - plain good old writing buddy! The writing friends I have never drain me. I might feel a bit tired occasionally when I've spent time and energy on critiquing their manuscripts, but the fact that I know they will appreciate my efforts, will totally engage with my comments and be eager to discuss them, and this will in turn lead to wider conversations about writing and editing - that doesn't drain me, that re-inspires me.

Their commitment to their writing mirrors my commitment. Their willingness to critique and discuss and spend time on my manuscript mirrors my own. Their openness to comments and discussion energises me and creates some fantastic to-and-fro about what it is we are both trying to achieve. Even swapping goals at the beginning of the year is a co-operative venture that is about both of us supporting the other equally. Yes, there are times when one needs more assistance than the other, but a great writer-to-writer relationship always balances out in the end.

Kristi is right when she says a new writer may feel they have nothing to offer a more experienced writer in a relationship, but if you are a keen reader, with the willingness and growing ability to offer insightful, thoughtful comments and questions, you can absolutely offer a range of benefits to the relationship. And if you don't expect the experienced writer to coerce their agent into taking you on (or their editor), if you're willing to learn and grow, your part of the relationship will grow too.

I've heard lots of stories, however, about drainers. These are people who: ask you to critique their novel and then argue about every comment; see you at a conference and hang onto your arm and expect you to introduce them to every single editor or agent you see (and then embarrass you by gushing or thrusting a manuscript into the editor/agent's hand); call you up at all hours and expect long conversations about their latest writing problem; want to know all the latest industry information (that you garnered by reading newsletters and belonging to industry discussion groups), including who is currently looking for manuscripts, but never returns the favour and jealously guards any "inside" knowledge.

I won't go on with this - it may sound too bizarre or ridiculous, but unfortunately it's true. But the drainers are in the minority - it's just that they impact so disastrously on people. Yes, this is an industry, but if you can find a fellow filler, someone who helps you to keep going, lifts you up when things are going badly, and someone to whom you can happily return the "good stuff", you'll be so much the better for it. I'm very lucky. I have a terrific writers' group, and I have two fellow writers/fillers for whom the give-and-take is a great experience. How about you?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Somerset Celebration

I've just been to the Somerset Celebration of Children's Literature (and slept for ten hours last night!). For those who haven't heard of Somerset, it's a large private school on the Gold Coast (about 1-1/2 hours south of Brisbane) that holds a huge festival every year. This year around 30 authors gathered for 3 days of talks and workshops with students from about 70 different schools. Although Somerset is the hosting venue, and lots of their students attend the various sessions, schools from all over the place send groups of students in buses too.

Some authors had 400 kids in their sessions. I had one session with 206 and another with around 250. I can tell you that 250 first and second graders make a lot of noise when you get them to practise their pirate talk! Arrrrrrr. The great thing about Somerset is that you have plenty of opportunities to listen to other authors (while madly making notes about what worked for them and getting new ideas for your own presentations - not stealing, just thinking 'I could do that but I'd do it like this'). I listened to Pat Flynn, Lee Fox, Michelle Taylor, James Roy and P.D. Martin, among others, and everyone had a completely different approach.

The bookshop has signing tables, so after your session, you went along to the bookshop and sat a table and signed books and talked to the kids. This was such a contrast to the Sydney Writers' Festival a few years ago, where I sat at a table next to Sam Wagan Watson and we signed one book each! At Somerset, lots of kids bought books and brought them over for signing, but also lots were collecting autographs. You could almost pretend you were famous (I said almost!).

The festival is incredibly well-organised, with a great bunch of parent volunteers who did everything from driving our shuttle bus to working on the food stalls and in the bookshop, plus managing the sessions and seating, and getting us all to the right venue at the right time. We also had student volunteers who helped us set up and fetched water and introduced us. Somerset has been running for 16 years, and it shows. A really huge thank you to all who helped to make it an amazing experience.

On another tack, the news came in while we were there that the 2010 Children's Book Council conference has been cancelled, citing financial problems - another victim of the current global crisis. This is very sad news, as the conference is a vital national meeting place for writers, teachers and librarians, as well as lovers of children's literature. There were many people who commented that maybe moving the conference (and its organisation) to a new city every two years is a mistake, and that a central group needs to build on experience, year after year (like Somerset and other long-running festivals), rather than start anew each time.

No doubt over the next few weeks there will be many opinions and ideas flying around, but mostly I think everyone is just upset that such an important conference has bitten the dust. Time will tell whether anyone else steps forward to create an alternative, or whether we'll have to wait until 2012 for the next one...

Monday, March 16, 2009

Writing Deadlines

The big news around the writing scene at the moment is that Audrey Niffenegger, who wrote The Time Traveler's Wife, has just sold her second novel for over US$4 million. In these dire economic times, that's big news. And no doubt the kind of news that will make many novelists grind their teeth. But, as some bloggers (such as Kristin Nelson the agent) are pointing out, she sold it on a fully completed manuscript. A great manuscript. Not a chapter and synopsis and a wish and a prayer. She apparently knows that the dreaded second novel can sink you, as can its deadline.

Writing to a deadline can be a great incentive. Or a lead weight around your neck. I know two children's writers who have signed deals for series in the past couple of years, and agreed to insanely tight schedules for Books 2, 3 and 4. Book 1 is already done. Book 2 is half done. How hard is it going to be for Books 3 and 4? Strangely enough, they get harder. They get worse. They start to inhabit your nightmares. The due date for the next one draws closer and closer, then it whizzes past. You struggle. And really, to be honest, the pleasure and enjoyment has gone. The characters you invented are now people you'd like to strangle.

Audrey did incredibly well with her first novel. I have a copy here somewhere but I haven't got around to it yet. I might just dig it out and read it now, and the editor and agent are saying her second one is terrific, better than her first. When was the last time you heard that about a second novel? Usually the knives are out, one way or another, before the second novel hits the printing press. Second novels are always a let-down (that's if you can even finish your second one after the trauma of your first one either hitting the best-seller lists unexpectedly - therefore making you temporarily famous - or sinking without a trace).

But the series deadline? It makes you think twice, once you've heard a few horror stories. You write a novel and think - this could be series! That's what everyone wants. But you have to really believe in your heart that you love your characters enough to write another five or ten. And then you have to resist the super-tight deadline, if you can. Easier said than done, especially in today's climate.

I remember a few years ago that Sue Grafton dug her heels in (after a couple of Kinsey Milhone novels that weren't too good) and said she would write them when she wrote them and not before. She'd either take the time necessary to make them the best possible, or she wouldn't write them at all. She had eight novels behind her already, so it was a lot easier for her to say no. Some people can churn a series out, but most of us can't, because we do want our books to be the best they can possibly be. And that takes time and patience.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Who Buys Picture Books?

I guess the answer to the above question is fairly obvious - 99% of the time, adults buy picture books. Parents, grandparents, teachers and librarians. And then small children get to read those picture books with the adults. And then eventually by themselves. But the person with the money in their hand gets to decide what goes on the bestseller lists, simply by virtue of the $$ they spend. What interests me is how the same old books end up on those lists, year after year, when I know there are absolutely wonderful new picture books being published every week.

One of my current favourites is Wolves by Emily Gravett. Check out her website, too. And Mo Willems' books are great. But there are many picture books that never seem to get a look in, because adults are too busy buying into nostalgia (literally). There seems to be a whole market now for picture books that appeal to adults, that are reprints of the books they had when they were little, or are books that have a definite adult perspective (e.g. stories about harrassed mothers with kids that never give them any peace). I guess I understand why The Very Hungry Caterpillar is still around after 30+ years - it's a simple story with a great concept to engage littlies (the holes in the pages, the rhythm of the words).
But I don't really get why Possum Magic is still selling heaps after 20 years (sorry, but I don't - it's a nice story, but...). And although Where the Wild Things Are is certainly a classic, I know plenty of littlies today who hate the pictures. Now I hear that not only are they bringing back Captain Pugwash, but also Horrid Henry! Come on - surely there are plenty of great current picture books that would be just as good to promote, if not better?
Except, of course, I'm forgetting about the person with the money in their hand. The parent for whom Captain Pugwash was a favourite when they were little. And Horrid Henry? Hilarious! I remember reading that ... well, no, I didn't actually read either, nor did my daughter. No, our favourite was The Paperbag Princess, and that has als
o been reprinted, but I still have our copy. I have to admit I have asked people who work in bookshops the "oldies on the bestseller list" question, and received an answer that dismayed me - lots of people have no idea about books for children. They roll into a bookshop, look puzzled, and ask for help. And because most booksellers in large stores are not familiar with kid's books, they inevitably recommend the ones they recognise themselves. Thus perpetuating the cycle.
I listened to a talk recently by a person from the Australian Booksellers' Association. It was great to hear her talk about training booksellers in how to find out about children's books in order to sell a wider range, but it sounded like her training sessions were reaching about 2% of the staff in stores. How can we encourage buyers to try new authors and illustrators? To give all those wonderful new picture books a chance? Any ideas?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

If You're Not Writing, Are You a Writer?

This topic has come up several times in the past few days. It's strange how something you barely think about from one week to the next suddenly jumps out in front of you. When I was doing psychology/philosophy stuff years ago, the theory was that "the thing" was always there - the difference was that something in your life made you notice it. Today, it was our second year novel writing class. One of the students had only written 15 words this week, and seemed to think that was OK. Nup. Not if you want to be a novel writer.

I haven't been writing for a few weeks now. I needed a healthy break. Of course, what happened was I ended up writing poems instead of fiction, plus I did some journalling. I still felt like I wasn't really writing, because I wasn't producing 3000-5000 words a week. Now I have started again, simply because I couldn't stand not writing anymore. The urge got bigger and bigger, and finally I opened the laptop and began. Feeling, as usual, like what I was writing was awful, but words on the page are words to work with.

Today my email newsletter arrived from Margie Lawson and Mary Buckham. (It's free, by the way.) It included an interview with a writer called Lois Faye Dyer. I'd never heard of her before (I don't read her genre) but she said something that rang a bell to clang along with the other things I've been thinking and hearing. "Too many writers don't spend enough time writing. A writer writes. Full stop. ... Finish a book a year, a whole book, not just the first three chapters and a plot synopsis."

I know there are literary writers who regularly take 2-3 years to write a novel. That's not the point. The point is - they are still writing regularly, and probably every day. Andrea Goldsmith has been a full-time novelist for many years. I've heard her talk about her writing life - it includes reading, thinking, planning and writing, as well as lots of rewriting. All the time. It's her career. Those of us who have day jobs have to fit our writing around what pays the bills. But we still write regularly, we produce words - lots of them - and we rewrite lots of them.

That's how a book gets written. And the next one. And the next one. By writing, regularly, by giving up other things in order to put words on the page, by understanding that only by writing are you a writer. Thinking about it doesn't count.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

We Love School Librarians

All children's writers love school librarians. Why wouldn't you? They love kid's books, they love getting kids to read, they love talking about books. The photo above is from the Northern Sydney School Librarians' Conference I spoke at last week. There were many there who are designated "teacher-librarian", which means they teach classes as well as run their school library. I have never met a school librarian or teacher-librarian yet who wasn't dedicated, enthusiastic and hard-working.

Why am I telling you all this? Because over the past few years, various state and federal governments have gradually taken away many librarians from schools, especially primary schools. If you don't have a special person to look after your library, who manages to buy the books, get them on the shelves, talk to the kids about what they might like to read (with knowledge, because the librarian usually reads as many as s/he can)? It falls back on teachers, who are already totally over-committed with classroom work.

At the conference, I talked to the attendees about poetry. When I suggested that they shelve poetry in with the fiction (instead of the 800s) some of them clapped!! (I thought they might boo me for that one!). It was great to talk to a room full of people who understood what I was saying about encouraging poetry reading and writing, and I talked to many of them later about other ideas. I also sat in on a couple of their sessions, and was astonished at the complexity of library admin these days. I used to be a librarian many years ago, and have things changed!

Now it's barcodes as well as Dewey, and wrestling with a records system that makes the one I use at work look like the easiest thing in the world (but that won't stop me complaining). The sheer physical aspect of keeping books in good condition by covering and repairing is a job in itself. It used to be my least favourite job back in the old days, although I eventually came to see it as kind of meditative and quiet. So three big cheers for librarians in schools, and let's join the CBCA in campaigning for their restoration and maintenance.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Flying Home From Perth

I think I am becoming an inveterate plane sleeper. It amazes me when people say, "Oh I can't sleep on planes." And I think, Why not? It's like sleeping in the car when you're a kid. I'm almost to the point where I sit down, buckle up my seat belt, we take off and zzzz...... Something about the hum and the quiet (unless there's a screaming kid). Although I can't say the seats do much for the comfort level. This amazing sunset photo was taken after I woke up!

When I look back now on the Poetry Festival (seems like ages ago although it wasn't, but I've been to Sydney since then), this is what stands out for me:

* the keynote address by Fay Zwicky, not least of all because she had just been to see Gran Turino with Clint Eastwood and referred to it many times in relation to her life as a poet. I loved the movie and totally understood what she was saying, although no doubt some others might not have. She was very inspiring.

* the keen interest that everyone had in listening and contributing, and in writing and reading poetry.

* the opening party of the Perth Writers' Festival, in the grounds of the University of WA - and me getting lost looking for the bus back to the hotel and discovering a spooky sunken garden.

* the opening of the poetry festival by an Aboriginal person named Sean (sorry, Sean, I should have asked someone who you were!) - it was the most eloquent, stirring welcome to country I have ever heard, and from now on, anyone who just does the "lip service" thing will just be annoying! He brought tears to my eyes and raised goosebumps.

* the rain - I got soaked to the point of dripping onto the carpet on my walk back to the hotel one day, and it was wonderful. I'd almost forgotten what rain felt like.

I'll report on the Northern Sydney School Librarians' Conference shortly - it was terrific!

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Writing in Perth

Back from the Apropos Poetry Festival in Perth, and feeling zapped. The time zone difference is fairly small - two hours - but enough to disrupt sleep patterns, and then suddenly you're home again and still sleep-tardy. I got really sick of waking up at 4am and then at 6am, and not being able to get back to slumberland again. On two mornings, I went to the hotel gym instead, thinking it might help. Wrong. I would have done better using the "pillow talk" form next to my bed and asking for a better pillow from the multitude of choices available (this was a 5 star hotel).

The poetry festival was rich and varied, and gave me much to think about. By the time I came home, I'd written at least ten poems. I attended sessions on publication, new trends, performance, the influence of country/place, community arts, poetry in schools and whether you can pursue poetry as a profession or not. Plus I ran two workshops myself, and spoke on the schools panel.

It was a great pity that only four teachers came to the schools panel discussion. The fact that they made the effort was wonderful, and it would have been even better if another 20-30 teachers had attended. Because the ones who were there ended up feeling a bit like they were manning the barricades! Not intentionally, of course, but those of us who do school visits and workshops are very aware of the woeful situation of poetry in schools, and the discussion tended towards the gloomy. With good cause, but that didn't make the teachers feel any better, I guess.

I ended up compiling a long list of great suggestions for encouraging poetry in the classroom, most of which were contributed by those teachers who came along. A big thank you! I added some more of my own the next day, because I really couldn't stop thinking about it. I still can't.

Why is poetry given such pathetic lip service in so many schools? For every school doing wonderful things, there are 50 where the teachers avoid it. A report I was given from the UK pointed out that if teachers don't like poetry, don't read it, don't know how to teach it, of course they won't include it in their English studies. Our panel members talked about being poetry evangelists, of starting a poetry virus. I still think a lot of it has to do with resources and good training. You get anyone excited and interested in something, they'll be happy to pass it on and create equal enthusiasm.

I often meet poets who talk about being brought up in a household or attending a school where reciting and reading poetry was an everyday occurrence. That wasn't the case for me. I came to poetry late, but I just figure I have lots of great reading still ahead of me. But all the same, if 98% of our kids, especially those in state schools, are not being introduced to the joys and thrills of poetry, who will be reading or writing it in twenty years time? Only the kids who went to private schools where poetry was given room to grow? What was your experience at school? What is your kids' experience right now?