Sunday, May 27, 2012

A little respect for writing for children...

My research topic for my university paper this year involves a discussion about how the literary community sees fiction for young adults and children. When anything related to this appears online and/or in the media it is invariably a criticism by the literary folk that writing for children and teens can be nothing other than inferior to literary fiction. I have been mulling this whole debate over and as a writer of children's fiction I must admit I am immediately on the defensive. I have wondered whether, because I write children's fiction, I have a chip on my shoulder. Maybe I should just give in and admit they're right: that literary fiction is superior and an intelligent, considerate adult reader can learn little about the world or the art of words by reading a children's book. The only problem with giving in to this argument is that I would then have to agree that I believed the literary community to be correct in their assessment and I just can't bring myself to do it. It isn't a chip or an innate groundless defensiveness.   I have a degree in English Lit and have read my way through Joyce, Forster, Hardy, Atwood, Rhys, Walker, Kundera, Frame, Fitzgerald, Malory, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Mr and Mrs Shelley, Hemingway, James, short stories by Updike, Cheever, Wharton, Baldwin, Faulkner, O'Connor and poetry from Keats, Yeats, Tennyson, TS Eliot, Tuwhare, Baxter, and Mason. And many, many more. I enjoyed a lot of it. Some bored me senseless and was self-indulgent twaddle. Some was so dense with words they became like bricks I felt I was bashing my head against with no chance of breaking through to a meaning, if there was one, beneath. And sometimes I think a particular aspect of the human condition just shouldn't be examined. I am not ignorant of 'literary' writing both modern and historical. I am also not ignorant of children's writing both historical and modern. I also read other stuff like Crime, Thrillers, Historical, and (cover your eyes, you sensitive souls) Romance. And enjoyed a lot of it, and thought some of it, with representatives from all the categories, was rubbish. But I think the most important thing was that I was afraid of none of it. So maybe I'm not the defensive one.

I don't get why it is us and them. I don't get why we must compete. We are not selling to the same audience. And if there is concern that the funding pie might not be shared equally around I can confirm it isn't and as far as I can tell it is not the literary writers who are missing out. Sure there is lightweight children's fiction out there. Some of it is downright embarrassing. But there are also remarkable books that bleed into your soul and transform you. Some have writing that had magic as its mother. And we never grow and develop in our understanding of the world more, then we do as children and teens. If we don't sell the art of writing to the youngsters they are less likely to care about it as adults. All I'm asking for is a little respect for children's and teens writing. Or at least, keep an open mind...

UPDATE: for more discussion on this topic go check out this post.

Friday, May 25, 2012

the positive light emanating from bad reviews....

I always believed that being a successful writer was about writing well technically and telling a good story that made sense. I thought if you could weave different threads in and out and draw them all together to knit a whole by the end, and if you gave readers something they didn't have when they began reading your story you were doing even better. Mmmm, maybe not.

Having joined Goodreads in recent times and been reviewed quite a bit myself I have given a lot of thought to reviews; both giving them and receiving them. Getting a couple of bad reviews has stung me but I know people must be free to react and respond to my writing as they see fit. Sometimes I disagree with how something has been perceived and I want to point out where I think the reviewer might have gone wrong. Sometimes they pick nits about a wrong word or typo. Sometimes they call you out on an element they see as incorrect or inconsistent. And yet other people either don't care or disagree or are enjoying the rest of it too much to see any issues at all.  Some readers love the books completely and find no fault. Others just hate it. When I am feeling particularly exposed by a negative review I go check out the reviews of my favourite books and feel a little better that they too have bad reviews. Crikey some people can be passionate about their loathing of particular books. And I am sorry to all you writers that I have felt better after reading your bad reviews.

Anyways, I know that I can't accept the positive reviews and then just dismiss the negative. No reviews are more right than others. They just reflect whether my book met the readers expectations and fitted with the kind of books they enjoy most of all. The ideal plan I guess is to help your books find the readers that will enjoy them most. But knowing your potential fan base is not a simple exercise. I am working on it.

While perusing reviews for a particular book the other day (not one of mine) I was initially shocked at how polarising the book had been. I understood some of the criticisms but was surprised at how much people had taken it to heart - they wanted to throw the book and/or the writer across the room. And I realised that sometimes these responses, although negative, actually said something positive about the book. The book had provoked thought, challenged the reader and made them ask questions, often about the issues raised by the book (why did that happen, what did it mean?) or about how a particular character behaved (no one should or would behave like that, why didn't they do this? where were the answers I expected). Sometimes anger, confusion and frustration are the right response. Sometimes books can't provide easy answers. Or turn out the way we hoped or expected them to (how many people wanted things to turn out differently in the Hunger Games trilogy - Suzanne Collins was always going to disappoint at least 50% of the female readers with the romantic choices of her heroine). And because we've written about particular issues doesn't mean we condone these things. Check out this post over here at Justine Larbalestier's blog on this very topic.  I have been horrified to see a suggestion that YA books be rated. My YA includes some swearing (apparently behaviour that rates well with teen readers) and some close contact of the boy/girl kind. If they based the rating purely on the appearance of sex and swearing my book might be rated beyond its intended readership, and yet the close physical contact has a result that I think is honest and true to the character but that any concerned parents wouldn't be unhappy with. Who would judge the rating (teens or parents? or someone else?), and how would it be applied? Would it be the mere appearance of certain things or how they are handled or how they conclude? And as reviews have shown me, what is true and right for one reader will be a load of old rubbish to another. Who says some teens might not benefit from the more contentious books. Sigh. There's this very sensible link here too on the topic of including gay characters in books and ensuring they are not just token inclusions.

And now because I'm feeling extra generous here are some more juicy links that you might find instructive on the whole traditional vs. self publishing debate, with Nathan Bransford and Victoria Strauss et al at Writer Beware. I've made my mind up on this subject, but if you haven't, these could be helpful.

Monday, May 21, 2012

I don't write poetry, except when I do


Sometimes words escape me.
I think it's because I pinch them,
Like Hansel and Gretel's witch.
Sometimes I squeeze them so hard,
Cut them to make them fit,
Like the feet of step-sisters
Into Cinderella's dainty shoes,
That they bleed
And weep
Upon the paper.
And the blood and tears
Cannot be wiped away
But leave a stain upon the page
That reads between the lines
Like a wolf in grandma's clothing
In an old fairy tale.

Kidlit Focus at 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair...

this year New Zealand is the guest country of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Money has been set aside, promotional material organised, preparations are being made and a contingent has already been to the Leipzig Fair a few months back. I was surprised to find today that children's literature is to be the focus at the 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair. Here is a quote from a recent Book Fair Newsletter 

‎"Frankfurt Book Fair is planning to highlight children's and young adult media as a focal topic in October, addressing some 1,500 publishers of children's books from 100 countries."

This is a tremendous opportunity for the Children's literary community in this country and I hope it is grasped with both hands and made the most of. When I was a child the children's literary scene here was just starting out but over the years, thanks to the quality, strength and commitment of publications like the School Journal (Learning Media) filled with local content, supporting and encouraging local writers and illustrators, and the presence of internationally renowned children's authors and illustrators like Margaret Mahy, Lynley Dodd, Gavin Bishop, Maurice Gee, Joy Cowley and Robin Belton, and the continuing efforts of long standing, and new  publishers of children's material, the local industry has blossomed. New writers are coming through all the time and I think our current scene is strong. Yet it is a struggle to find opportunities to have our voices heard overseas. In an article in the NZ Society of Authors magazine within the last year well known children's author David Hill lamented the difficulties of having titles picked up by foreign markets. He acknowledged the infrequency and unlikelihood of this happening. Is this our golden ticket - our chance to win some change in this trend? I sincerely hope so. 

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Smart advice on the creative life...

I am linking here to Neil Gaiman's commencement address to the 2012 graduating students at The University of  the Arts in Philadelphia, partly because I want to have it to refer back to when I need a pep talk. If anyone can give a pep talk to creative people in these crazy times it is Mr Gaiman. So many things he says, I found myself nodding along to: philosophies that underpin my own approach, ways of doing things that I have learned by the doing, advice that it never hurts to be reminded of. I love that he says he learned to write by writing. This is what I believe too, and sometimes my faith in this has been shaken by other writers, or teachers of writing (who I guess have a vested interest in rattling this belief) who disagree. I suppose it might not be true for everyone, but it has been true for me. The more I write, the more I understand what I need to do. The better my stories have become. I guess if I showed you my early stuff you would see the difference, but then I would have to kill you.

Gaiman also talks about writing the things you want and need to write, not just for the money you have been offered to write them. If the money side of things falls through all you will have to show is something that means nothing to you, that you don't care about. If you write something you care about , whether you get paid or not, you will still have something you are proud of to show for your efforts. I have tried to write things just for a payday and they turn out rotten. I know better than to try now.

And I am most guilty of worrying, when I should be enjoying the moment. Sure, my 'moment' isn't anywhere near what Gaiman's 'moments' have been. I've never had all those award nominations, or wins, the long line of eager fans waiting patiently for a Gaiman signature, the invitations to prestigious events, interviews, TV appearances etc .... but I've had good things happen and I struggle with the idea of stopping to smell the roses. If I stop the world might move on without me. But what is the point of doing this if you can't get pleasure out of the happy results of your own creative efforts.

I like that he says he didn't know that certain things were going to work, their success never inevitable in his eyes; I like that he says make mistakes - Coraline after all, was the result of a misspelling; I like his idea of making your goal a mountain and only choosing to do things that take you closer to that mountain - of course the problem with this analogy is whether you can always tell whether certain steps will take you closer or not - it's better, I suppose to take a wrong step then take no steps at all. I like that he talks of the upheavals in the creative world with excitement not fear. And I like that Melinda Szymanik, children's author does have things in common with the Rock God of Writing Neil Gaiman. His faith is my faith.

There are other pearls of wisdom in Gaiman's address and if you are a creative person I urge you to watch it and take notes. And go make good art!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

what to expect when you're an expectant elephant...

So while you are figuring out your fabulous answers to my Author-in-residence competition questions here is some other stuff.

I spent the last three days writing and then polishing a scene in Jack the Viking 2 which I am now going to cut. Still, nothing is wasted - I shall squirrel it away with my other nuts for use at another date. It was rather graphic and a bit gruesome but very thrilling. I should have known something was up as I kept polishing and polishing but I couldn't seem to move forward with the plot. When my writing is stalled it tends to be because the scene I am moving through is not what I should be writing. My brain has figured this out but sometimes it takes a while for it to filter down to my conscious: this does not work -lose it and move on. I am a little annoyed though as I want to be making more progress than I actually am. Unexpected things still keep cropping up and I have other demands on my time in the near future and I really want to have this done. More hours in the day will make no difference. I have enough hours in the day, I just don't seem to be able to use them as I should. I am beginning to feel like a mama elephant - I have been gestating this story FOREVER and wonder now if I will ever give birth.

And things keep arriving that change my life. Just little things. This career thing I have been working on for the past ten years seems to be gathering some momentum and almost developing a life of its own and I have had three surprise invites to participate in bookish events in the last ten days. I also had an email forwarded to me this morning about some unsolicited (?) overseas interest in one of my books. I know the drill with these things - initial interest (A) rarely translates into actual action (B), but I figure you can't get B without some A happening so I am going to allow myself a brief splurge of excitement over this. I can't lie: it was exciting to see the actual email from the foreign editor. Soon I will go back to normal, but for a little while I will indulge myself.

Here are some pictures from my evening event last Wednesday. Just in case you were wondering.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Am I your school's author-in-residence?

Call me crazy but I am running this competition. I'm kinda excited because how cool is it to have a school excited about authors. And if the school is excited, the students will be excited and if the students are excited then everyone wins.

and then there was this that put a smile on my dial. Kind of a bucket list thing I guess to have a book of mine mentioned in the much venerated New Zealand Listener (Made with Love May 12-18, 2012).

of course just cos it happened doesn't mean its coming off the Bucket list. I enjoyed the experience so much I hope it happens again.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

A Mind for Murder - AWRF: A review...

today - mother's day, after a breakfast of pikelets made for me by my middle child (excellent job Geneva, thank you) I hied myself off to the big smoke for an hour of discussion on the levels of violence in contemporary crime novels with, sensibly enough, crime novelists Greg McGee, Paul Thomas and Peter James, with Craig Sisterson as Chair. It is my lone Auckland Writers and Readers festival event this year. I wish I could have gone to more. Actually I wish there were more I wanted to go to. Last years Wordy Day out filled with YA writers was terrific. I felt sad it wasn't being repeated this year. Okay, I had wanted to attend the gala opening, but thursday is already enough of a stretch for us as a family without adding in an event which is, no matter how interesting or relevant to my writing life, still an indulgence. The Friday session with Eoin Colfer and Emily Rodda was appealing but 5.30 on a Friday is when I give a big sigh of relief that the rushing around for the week is over and I can pour myself something ruinous and dress in comfy trousers that should not be seen by the public at large. Enough said. So sadly it came down to one. I was not disappointed although lord knows I have been disappointed in the past. I always come away from these things with mixed feelings, uncertain about what compelled me to go in the first place, unsure what I am taking away. There are no insights about writing or the writers life that I have not heard before, even if they have been expressed in fresh ways. And if I want this kind of info I can tap my way to  a Titanic's load of epithets, advice and homily's online. I confess, while I do read some crime fiction, including by NZ authors (both women - one of whom was in the audience today) I hadn't read any of the participants books so I wasn't going as an ardent fan. But I am interested in this genre, both as a reader and a writer, and I am interested in the process of giving a talk and being a participant in a panel session. I want to do more of this in the future. I wanted to be up there today. I fancy their job.

Props to Craig Sisterson who was a great chair. I have seen some doozies in the past, even from some of NZ's most luminous spheres literary lights lites lights. Being intelligent and/or a writer doesn't make you a skilled chair. Greg McGee (aka Alix Bosco) replaced Jennifer Rowe (aka Emily Rodda - how appropriate for crime writers to have an alias)who had to head home due to illness in the family, and while McGee was interesting I missed the chance to have a female perspective on crime writing, especially as the issue of misogyny in the genre was raised. Today's discussion wended its way from the levels of violence in crime thrillers, the need for crime novels to explore the social connections that drive crime, through the elitisim of literary writing (and the presence or absence of a plot and what this signifies), how serial killers don't make the best antagonists in crime writing (although Hannibal Lecter would argue there are always exceptions), the importance of opening lines, first pages and last lines, how science and television are driving crime fiction away from the cosy mystery end of the spectrum and toward violence. There were anecdotes. I enjoyed the grumble about the snobbery of the literary writing community toward crime fiction. It definitely isn't just children's writers who feel this then?

As with any of these talks I always think of questions to ask as I slide in to the driver's seat for the drive home. Is a rise in graphic violence an attempt by authors to keep their novel novel and fresh? After all if crime novel's reflect society, how many different societal forces can there be driving crime? Is crime writing easier to sell overseas? Is it easier to sell overseas if its more graphic/ technologically up-to-date/ deviant? Did all the panellists have links to police or specialists working within crime or forensic detection to support their writing (as Peter James definitely did)? I guess I need to up-skill as a literary event participant so these questions turn up when I still have a chance to ask them.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Being me was actually fun ...

It was all go on Wednesday. I rested yesterday but today I'M BACK!!! I have pinched this fab link from Maureen Crisp. On the other end of that link John Yoeman answers his own question - Is it worth being an author? I agree with Dr Yoeman. This is one of the things I said on Wednesday night at the 'Evening with Melinda Szymanik' event (it's still weird referring to myself in that way). Writing is hard and more often than not, any tangible rewards fall well short of the effort put in. But that's not the only reason I do it. Being a writer (amongst a few other things) is who I am. Its an un-extractable, indivisible component of me and I cannot schuck it off any more than I could function without my brain or heart. There are times when we are not on speaking terms, my writing self and me, but we always kiss and make up and move on.

I said some other things on Wednesday night as well, such as how I will miss Maurice Sendak, whose fighting words "I refuse to lie to children" and his suspicion of the 'innocence' of children have informed my own writing. "Where the Wild Things Are," has had a major influence over my picture book stories, that successful blend of magic and realism, those hints at the dark edges of childhood, those questions. I talked about other influences, about growing up in a New Zealand too young still to have much of a children's literary tradition. I began my reading journey when Margaret Mahy and Maurice Gee and Joy Cowley were just getting started, before Fleur Beale or David Hill had published their novels. I read a diet of US and UK books for children and I have often worried to myself that my books aren't New Zealand enough. But I don't think I need New Zealand place names and icons to reflect our society and culture. I am a Kiwi, I was raised here, and the way I write demonstrates my kiwi values and beliefs and attitudes. You can't take my nationality out of me or my books. I talked too about the influence and importance of librarians and teachers. Their advice and encouragement helped me as a child and today's librarians and teachers do the same. We need them to be, and remain, passionate. How can we help them?

I talked about Kate de Goldi's lovely image of 'gnawing the bone', the bone being the issues we return to time and time again in our writing, and how my bone seemed to be predominantly composed of family. I have a lovely family and I appreciate how lucky I am but not everyone is that lucky and I think books need to reflect and explore that. I talked about my new books and how the family bone got chewed all over again in both of them.

I took the day off yesterday. I'd worked very hard at being me on Wednesday. It was a bit nerve-racking not being able to hide behind any other speakers, or take a back seat to the main event. I was the main event. I felt like I hadn't had enough time to polish my talk. My brain wasn't quite firing on all cylinders but somehow it all came together. Lots of lovely people came to hear me talk. And they said nice things to me and about me. And despite my nerves and wishing I could have been more prepared I enjoyed myself. Being me was actually fun.

In book news, I talked yesterday with one of my lovely publishers about illustrations for a brand spanking new picture book by me. Very exciting. Colour me happy.

And cos I love y'all here are some more lovely links to edumacate you on this hairy business we are a part of - something to include on your blog or website, and in defence of authors (this one was on Ms Crisps blog a while back and like a chump I missed it).

Monday, May 7, 2012

I love being the centre of attention, except when I'm the centre of attention...

Tomorrow I am the feature speaker at an event that is pretty much all about me. So, I find this a little weird. I mean, its just me. Just a suburban housefrau, office girl, girl friday. An ex-irish dancing, dog-walking, wife, mother, sister, daughter and friend. A card carrying library, NZSA, Storylines, Kiwiwrite4kidz, and SCBWI member; semi tech savvy, secretly nerdy and over educated. I blog, read the newspaper and wish children's books appeared more in the news. I like the colour black, I don't like to drive and I was born here. And I've written some books for children. Okay, its true - I've spent a lot of time writing, thinking about writing and thinking about all the processes involved in writing. I read a lot about books, and other writers. And I read books too. I keep tabs on changes, developments and trends in publishing and children's literature. Oh, and I have a lot of opinions. And did I mention I've written some books as well? Novels and picture books, one of which won a NZ book award. And I write short stories too. So maybe it isn't that weird after all. I can't wait to find out what I'm going to say.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Finding time to write...

My grand plan recently has been to stop thinking (and consequently worrying) about what is happening in the publishing world because a) I can't control or change whatever is happening, b) its irrelevant if I'm not writing, and c) it is beginning to give me a headache, and I have decided to focus on my writing. A very sensible option when you call yourself a writer. Of course that whole 'man plans, God laughs' epithet then comes in to play. I keep thinking next week (pick a week, any week). Next week I will have all this free time and empty hours not earmarked for events, family commitments, housework, research for my research paper, filing company tax returns etc.. and I can just hunker down over my lovely little lap top and go hell for leather, head down, bum up, and finish this sequel I have been wanting to rewrite since Adam was a boy. God is indeed laughing at my expense - in fact laughing so hard there are tears in his/her eyes. Things just keep cropping up. Things I wasn't expecting. Good things that tie in to my writing. Things that teach me new skills and/or help promote my name/brand. Things I like to do or know I should do. And look, there they go, those lovely empty hours, winging away like dreams or birds.And I sit here contemplating the reality that 'life is what happens when you're making other plans.' Of course my urge to write is even greater having had an epiphany (yet again in my favourite thinking place under a stream of hot water in the shower) about my rewrite. Holey moley it will be good if only I could get it down on paper the way it looks and feels inside my head. So maybe this waiting has had a benefit in allowing me to have this revelation about improving the plot-line. Okay so maybe its better things go this way. Then again, will there be a point at which I should start saying 'no'? And how will I know when I've reached this point? Or will somebody just kindly supply some extra hours in the day and a wee energy boost to get me through them...