Tuesday, December 30, 2014

I've been reading...

You might have been wondering where I've been. My dad passed away on the First of December. While not unexpected, it has been a sad time for my family. There have been a few other unwanted challenges as well this month for us and at times I have been focusing on the words of others as a comforting distraction. Below are some reviews of the books I have read recently.

Monkey Boy by Donovan Bixley (Scholastic, 2014). 4 stars - Action and adventure on the high seas with young powder monkey Jimmy Grimholt, freshly recruited into the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars. While at first vulnerable and naive, with the help of some unexpected allies and a very special talent Jimmy faces danger head on. This book is not for the squeamish, with plenty of blood, guts and toilet humour, but Bixley's well timed inclusion of graphic novel elements provides an effective change from sections of text, adds drama and detail, and keeps the pace zipping along. The narrative is a little slow to find its rhythm at first, but is a terrific read when it hits its straps.  A ripping read

Hunter by Joy Cowley (2004). 5 stars - Spare, fast paced and satisfying. Cowley deftly imagines and handles NZ history, seamlessly and believably presenting customs and habits of  the Maori people in 1805. In 2005 young teenager Jordan and her two little brothers are in a plane crash in a light aircraft that veers off course trying to avoid a storm. Hurt and alone, in an isolated part of New Zealand's rugged South Island they must fend for themselves and keep their hopes alive that help will come. Yet when help does come, it initially arrives most unexpectedly from the past. From Hunter, a psychic young Maori slave on a Moa hunt in 1805.  The adventure is a little predictable but well managed and for the most part, rewarding. Some words are a bit dated for the 2005 setting  ('Hipsters'?).  Recommended.

Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater (2014). 4.5 stars - following on from the breathless second part of Stievater's Raven Cycle series (The Dream Thieves), we pick up with Blue, Gansey, Adam, Ronan and Noah six months after Maura disappeared into Cabeswater. There are new threats and old enemies to deal with, as well as another quest. As ever, Stiefvater's writing is lush and lyrical with sentences that sweep you up in their arms like long lost lovers, and paragraphs you want to save for sharing or future reference. The characters are intriguing and well drawn in a good amount of detail. The plot did get a bit squirrelly at times and the book ends on somewhat of a cliffhanger with the final installment a year away, but I will be lining up to get my hands on it as soon as it is available.

Every Breath by Ellie Marney (2013). 4 stars - Great read, good pace, well written. It tends towards the schmaltzy in places, as it's essentially a romance, and the detective work is on the light side, but this book is most enjoyable, with plenty going on, some chilling villains and a few good thrills along the way.

Every Word by Ellie Marney (2014). 3.5 stars - There were things I really liked about the book and other aspects, not so much. The criminal activity is more complex (good), and the violence nasty and more frequent than I think is healthy (bad). The romance is still hot and heavy and I would have preferred it dialled back a notch. On the whole a pretty good read though and I'll be checking out the third book when it is out in 2015.

Half Bad by Sally Green (2014). 5 stars - Half Bad - rather good. The writing in this first in a trilogy is polished and tight in this urban fantasy where witches live privately side by side with regular folk. Ongoing concerns amongst white witches about the threat posed by black witches comes to a head as young half code (white witch mother, black witch father), Nathan, heads toward his 17th birthday when he will receive his magical powers. Classic themes of what really makes people good or evil, nature vs. nurture, and how people justify their cruelty to others, wrapped in a well thought out package.  I was reminded a little of the Demon's Lexicon series by Sarah Rees Brennan (in a good way). Sometimes main character Nathan thinks a little more maturely than his age would suggest and I had to keep reminding myself how old he was meant to be. But I like where this is heading and have high hopes that the solution will be way smarter and more satisfying than how the BBC's Sherlock jumping off the roof was sorted.

Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen by Dylan Horrocks (2014). 5 stars - Magic indeed. We follow Sam Zabel through this comic adventure as he suffers a crisis of artistic conscience. Falling into a vintage comic of a famed fictional NZ comic artist, Sam explores the attitudes of the past as he searches for answers to questions about his own future, personally and creatively. 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

You don't scare me, December....

My cold is gone, the assignments marked and returned, fabo judged, and paid work completed. I have set the wheels in motion for where to send my returned manuscripts next. Possibilities are by no means exhausted. I aim to straddle that wobbly fence-line that marks where the paddock of realism meets the field of optimism. It is precarious but not impossible. And new work needs creating. If the earlier works don't grab the publishers then I will require other work to submit. Not indie publishing, I hear you muse? Not with picture books. I cannot produce the kind of end product I would want. It is important to keep faith with my own aims and intentions. (Tip#1. Decide on the goal and then make sure subsequent decisions support this goal). It is important to acknowledge the skills I don't have, along with the ones I do. So, onward ... (Tip #2. Always make a plan for what to do next. Staring for too long at the result you didn't want is unhealthy. And Tip #3. If the commas you add to your sentence for meaning look awkward, it means you should reorder/rewrite the sentence).

And with the Christmas/Holiday season wind-down about to crank into high gear it is time to give thanks for the year that is drawing to a close and consider the possibilities of 2015. (Tip#4. Always celebrate the good stuff, irrespective of the size or shape of it).

For a change I don't have a university paper I am planning to enrol for next year, which is simultaneously a relief and somewhat horrifying. Sure stretching my brain around assignment questions has made it hurt sometimes, but finding answers is exciting and satisfying. Fact is I have completed my Diploma in Children's Literature so I should probably stop with the papers. I guess if nothing else the bank balance will be the cost of a paper better off next year (Tip#5 - there is often a silver lining - always check for one, and if you see it, acknowledge and enjoy it).

After the thrilling whirlwind of the residency, the festivals, workshops and school visits of this year, the anticipated relative quiet of next year is welcome and scary. The old ego will have to rein it in a bit but that will be offset by a leisurely pace that will allow more time for navel gazing (Tip#6 don't underestimate the importance of navel gazing for writers. Our navels are often where we find our best ideas - please note this is not to be confused with novel gazing which is something else entirely). The freedom to read whatever I want is deliciously appealing. And the idea of finishing off a few writing projects in 2015 is also a satisfying one. I love writing the End. Right, well, I think that's 2015 sussed. Okay December, I think I am ready for you.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

How NOT to write a blog post...

How not to write a blog post:

1) Have final university assignments to complete

2) Have paid work with a deadline

3) Run the last story writing competition for Fabo 2014 (with heartfelt thanks to Tania Hutley) at www.fabostory.wordpress.com (entries are closed, and I am now judging the winners)

4) Get a cold

5) Start reading books from the enormous tbr pile beside your bed as soon as 1) is posted away to your course controller (so far I've read Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater and Every Breath by Ellie Marney)

6) Watch movies (I recommend Mud) and all 7 series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to avoid/get you through doing 1) and 2)

7) Be down about the state of publishing, which seems to be turning in ever decreasing circles these days. Lists have got shorter, publishers fewer, and competition fiercer. Publishers are looking for safe bets, blockbusters-in-waiting, the next big thing. I've recently had a couple of accepted projects subsequently declined. And I'm not the only one to whom this has happened.

8) Spend time looking for the silver lining to 7)

9) Stare at the looming prospect of Christmas that sucks the air out of everything else from now until January 1st

10) Read other peoples blog posts about what you should put in a blog post

11) Think a lot about writing (rather than doing any)

12) Listen to/watch your writing heroes say amazing things about the art of writing

See what I did there? :)

Monday, November 10, 2014

Head down...

Here is a little something something while I complete my final university assignment (which looks like it'll be about 10,000 words long at the rate I'm going). It includes a bit of a look at how Margaret Mahy uses and subverts fairy tales in her fiction. Which reminded me of this poem I wrote and posted some time back.

I have made some changes.

Sometimes words escape me
I think it's because I pinch them
As if I'm Hansel and Gretel's witch.
Sometimes I squeeze them
so hard
Cut them to make them fit
Like the feet of step-sisters
In Cinderella's dainty shoes
That they bleed
upon the paper
Leaving a stain upon the page
That reads between the lines
Like the truth of ‘happy ever after’
In old fairy tales

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Bits and Pieces...

I am so excited to have a poem of mine included in the most wonderful book just out - A Treasury of New Zealand Poems for Children (Random), edited by poet Paula Green and illustrated by Jenny Cooper. This is a wonderful collection of poems by poets both new and experienced, young and old.

Paula arranged a series of interviews by children of all the poets and you can see my interview with Lily here. Lily asked awesome questions and I really enjoyed answering them. Oh, and my poem is called Fancy if you want to go check it out.

And next Saturday, November 1st, I will be reading my new picture book, The Song of Kauri, at 11am at Arataki in the Waitakere Ranges, as part of their events for Conservation Week. Yay!!!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Free Workshop on Writing Historical Fiction this coming weekend...


I am running a workshop on writing historical fiction next Sunday, October 26th, at 10.30am as part of the Polish Festival at the City and Sea Museum in Wellington. It is FREE to attend, and the workshop is suitable for adults and children 12 and up. Bookings are essential and can be made by phoning (04) 472 8904 or email : museumswellington@wmt.org.nz

Thursday, October 16, 2014


I thought it might be useful to talk about editors. What are they? What do they do? What don't they do? Whether you are traditionally published or self published you cannot send a book out into the world without the advice and assistance of an editor. And why, exactly, do you need one?

First of all - some definitions. Different kinds of editors/editing do different things.

1. A commissioning/publishing editor: this is the person at a traditional publishing house that chooses the manuscripts from the slush pile that they think deserve publishing. They champion these manuscripts at acquisition meetings and contract with the author for the work, if the acquisitions committee agrees to publish the work.

2. Copy editor/editing: copy editing is about spelling and punctuation and grammar. Do your sentences function effectively and mean what you want them to mean? It's also about consistency; of spelling, comma use, etc... UPDATE - a good editor will also fact check, e.g. place names, dates of events etc...(Thanks Sue!).

3. Structural editor/editing: does your plot work; does it sag in the middle; is everything in the right order; are your characters believable; do you have too many characters; too few; do their interactions ring true; does the action propel the plot forward effectively? Structural editing is also about consistency - does the hero have the same eye and hair colour all the way through; is their personality consistent? and so on.

4. Manuscript assessment: an editor might offer a manuscript assessment service. Usually this focuses primarily on structural editing and the general impressions about whether your manuscript is publishable.

I love editors. I know my weaknesses. I have a tendency to lose control of my commas, and my use of them is inconsistent. Usually my spelling is pretty good but I have writer friends who need help with it. Sometimes my sentences veer toward the passive. And I have to have an impartial reader confirm that my stories make sense and work like I hope they do. Even if you believe you write perfectly, it is worthwhile having a fresh pair of eyes confirm this. But seriously, every story can be made better. I like my stories being sharpened up.

An editor is not there to massage your ego and praise your genius. They are not there to tell you what you want to hear. You can tell yourself that already.They are there to recognize and help you realise the potential of your story. They will point out any errors, inconsistencies and problems with the narrative. They may encourage you and help nurture the development of your writing. If they are experienced and good at their job, if they have edited stories that have gone on to be successfully published, then you should trust their judgement.

They are not a guarantee of the publication or success of your manuscript. No one can guarantee that. You do not have to accept or implement everything they suggest. You decide. It is your story. Your name is the one that will be on the book cover. But their only interest is in improving your manuscript. They have read a lot of manuscripts and have a good idea of what works and what doesn't. I pick my battles, and only question their advice if i can prove to them and myself that I was on the right track to begin with.

This article also talks about the function and benefits of editors - and the fact that if they do their job well, you can't see where they've been. The best are invisible.

A good editor will cost. That's fair enough. They are providing a service and their expertise. Its worth it to get your story into the best shape to be a book. Make sure when you contract an editor to work on your manuscript that you discuss and confirm with them what type of editing they will do - copy, structural, assessment, or some combination of those.

A good rule of thumb for picking an editor is to choose one with proven experience. Anyone can call themselves an editor but it's a skilled job requiring a depth of knowledge and familiarity with the requirements of language and publishing standards. Word of mouth can be a great way to find one, or through the acknowledgements section of books you've admired. Some good local freelance children's editors that I have worked with are:

Christine Dale - ex commissioning editor Scholastic NZ

Sue Copsey - ex editor Dorling Kindersley, Pearson Education.

Well folks - I hope this is helpful.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Climbing out of the ghetto...

Sigh - oh, look, somebody is complaining about YA literature again. How original...and refreshing...and, OFGS.

If we talked more about children's and young adults literature in the wider media maybe people would have a better understanding of it and we could spend less time having to defend it. Sigh. This article argues for greater media coverage on behalf of Australian literature but we need to be doing this in New Zealand too. If media attention was apportioned according to market share, children's and YA literature would be featuring a lot more than it does now.  And as Danielle Binks says, the YA and Children's lit crowd are having way more interesting and complex discussions while the adult critics bang on about their cringe over adults reading YA. Our envelope is being pushed, the boundaries challenged and the bar raised, while their record appears broken...

Sure, there are some children's and YA books that are not well written, are formulaic and break no new ground either thematically or in literary terms. But there are many that are and do. Can we please discuss each book on its merits and accept that the term children's or Young Adult does not make a book some inferior entity? No category of book is automatically inferior or superior. New Zealand SFF author Helen Lowe argues the point well on her blog here. The divisiveness harms all of us. Folk need to grow up and talk about each book on the quality of its content, including Children's and YA.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Brain still under repair. Meanwhile...

Now that the election is over here in New Zealand it seems like a good time to revisit the question - Why should we bother supporting the Arts? To some, the arts are an indulgence, a luxury that should only be fostered in times of plenty. To some, people should have 'real' jobs that make things people need or provide a service people want, rather than pursuing speculative endeavours that just aren't important and don't sell well. And they believe we shouldn't rely on government support or encouragement.

I think folk working in the creative arts do have real jobs making things people need and/or providing a service people want. It is easy to forget that a positive can-do attitude that encourages us to be motivated and innovative, and to succeed in competition around the world in business, commercial and scientific fields, sports and other areas, is born out of a belief in who we are as members of a great and unique society. Our New Zealandness is special and part of what makes us punch above our weight. We're the plucky little country that the rest of the world views as friendly and socially progressive, and yet edgy and different.

The Arts contribute to our sense of who we are and our confidence in our identity. They hold up a mirror, reflecting back at us our society's values, mores, and culture. We can't just exist on a diet of books, art, dance, film and music from other countries. We need to see ourselves and value what we have and what we can offer. We need to see that being a New Zealander is worth something. From birth to old age. The Arts foster our country's self esteem and consequently the self esteem of the individuals within it. If we only ever experience the arts of other countries, it chips away at our self confidence. And it's not enough that we enable the arts, we need to celebrate them too. If we are embarrassed about them and always look to overseas critics to endorse us and tell us we're good enough we will always be waiting for the approval of others. We make good art. Lets not lose that or we might lose ourselves.

Oh, and by the way, our books, and art, and music, and films, and dance, do sell, and win awards, both onshore and off. And supporting the arts supports the growth and well being of our nation.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Home on the strange...

Did you miss me? I missed you. No, don't shake your head - it's true!

Well, the family survived without me (phew) and are still even talking to me. Yay!! And luckily they didn't save all their dishes and laundry for me either. I am truly lucky with how supportive they have been of my adventure down south. I loves them. I think maybe they loves me too.

My final hurrah was a fantastic opportunity - the WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival. I got to take part in the Schools programme (which you can see here and here and here), several read aloud sessions and a panel discussion. The venues were buzzing, and the crowds big and enthusiastic. I'd learnt my lesson at the Auckland Festival and took every opportunity to attend sessions once mine were done. Major personal highlights included the Great Crime Debate, the Margaret Mahy lecture by Elizabeth Knox, and the discussion on Margaret Mahy's novel The Changeover. And of course being in Christchurch itself. It is heartbreaking to see so much destruction still in evidence but heartening to see the wonderful things being done to bring the city back to life.

Best of all for me though was the chance to talk with writers and illustrators, both local and international, children's and adult. I had an amazing time. I feel like I am still processing everything I heard and saw and learned. I am grateful for the chance to be a part of this terrific event and my congratulations to the organising team, especially Literary Director Rachael King and Executive Director Marianne Hargreaves, for making magic. Wow! Check out the very cool blog of award winning slam poet Anis Mojgani who was one of the featured speakers, here. Scroll down for his poignant impressions of Christchurch.

And now I'm home I am realising I left it all out there. If you ask me what I'm writing right now I would have to say nothing. Te brain is fried. Not just crispy round the edges but deep fried on a high heat. I guess it's a little like cyclist Sarah Ulmer's inability to draw breath and respond to the reporter after her winning ride at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. She gave that ride everything. Anything less would have been a disappointment. I sucked the marrow out of the last six months folks. It may take me a little while to get my breath back :)

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Whoa Nelly, it was a wild ride...

Well the days just galloped past and before I could yell, 'Whoa Nelly,' the residency came to an end. I had my last day at the office today. Tomorrow I pack my bags and move out of the writer's cottage. I take part in the Dunedin Storylines Family Day on Saturday and the Christchurch Storylines Family Day on Sunday and then I am off home. Weird.

It has been a wild ride.

I have spent time with the coolest people. Teachers, and teachers of teachers. Fellow fellows. Students: undergraduate, postgraduate and PhD. Primary, intermediate and secondary too. Librarians, booksellers, writers: for adults and children (and those strange creatures inbetween), illustrators and old friends. I have flown backwards and forwards. And then backwards again. I know that the airbus is the A320 and that D is not a window seat, except when you are on the ar72. I never put my carry-on in the overhead lockers. I have a fair idea what ice on the pavement looks like and know not to cross the road until you are sure the cars are going to be able to stop. I have admired the gentle behaviour of flakes of snow slowly drifting down. Stone buildings are cool.

I have been busy. Not all of the events I have been involved in resulted from my being the Children's Writer in Residence. Some came about because of other things. And some events were the love children of the residency and other things coming together. The word 'organic' took on a whole new meaning this year. In a different year I think the residency would have had a very different flavour. 2014's flavour was 'wild ride'.  It came chocolate dipped with crushed nuts and a flake. 

But now the adventure is over and soon normal transmission will resume. My SO said at the beginning of the residency that it would change me and I scoffed back then at the suggestion. But now I think he's right. It has. And I am different. Hopefully, on the whole, for the better. If you think you might like to do the residency, I recommend it. If you are not sure how you will manage it, find a way. The benefits are real. After all, I am now an ace suitcase packer.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Song of Kauri - story with music

A wonderful outcome of my residency at the College of Education at Otago University has been meeting the other 2014 fellows. I was most fortunate that the Mozart Fellow, Jeremy Mayall, suggested collaborating and wrote a musical interpretation of my picture book The Song of Kauri. After composing the music, he recorded me reading the story, and put the music and reading together with a slide show of Dominique Ford's lovely illustrations. Enjoy!

If you prefer, you can listen to just the audio here

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

I wasn't prepared for that...

The last few days have been a whirlwind. Last Friday I launched my latest picture book The Song of Kauri, stunningly illustrated by Dominique Ford. It was a lovely evening, thanks to terrific support from fab writer and friend Tania Roxborogh and her husband Phillip, Jeremy Ross from Scholastic, Kay Mercer from Dunedin Library, the University Book Shop, and all the lovely folk who came to help me launch the book. I showed the multimedia presentation with Dominique's illustrations, and me reading the story accompanied by the music composed by University of Otago Mozart Fellow, Jeremy Mayall, and it got a terrific response. I hope to post a link to the video here on the blog soon. I've had some more reviews of the book too - here and here.

Then yesterday I flew up to Wellington for the LIANZA Children's Book Awards. A Winter's Day in 1939 was a finalist for the Esther Glen Medal for Junior Fiction. This is my first ever LIANZA shortlisting and I was thrilled to be included. The Awards Ceremony was held at The National Library and was a great opportunity to catch up with the Wellington children's literature community.

And then I got a bit of a shock because this happened:

And I got this:

And these:

And this was my response:

- that's me looking very happy alongside Elsie Locke Award for Non-Fiction winner, Fifi Colston.  I'm still in the 'pinch me, I'm dreaming' phase. And feeling very honoured.

Libraries helped shape me when I was growing up. They enabled me to read widely and often. They were a safe haven filled with like minded people. They were like the world of pools in CS Lewis's The Magician's Nephew, where each pool leads to another unique and separate world: an endless supply of adventure, fun, entertainment, and information. Libraries encouraged the writer in me. And they're still doing it now! They deserve to share the credit for me writing this book, cos I wouldn't have reached this point without them. So Libraries, you rock!! This one's for you.

Below is a complete list of the winners from last night. (And here is a link to the complete post). Thanks also go to Hell Pizza who have made a positive contribution to the reading habits of many children across New Zealand through their sponsoring of these awards this year.

2014 LIANZA Children’s Book Awards Winners
LIANZA Esther Glen Junior Fiction Award For the most distinguished contribution to literature for children aged 0-15.
Dunger by Joy Cowley, (Gecko Press)
LIANZA Young Adult Fiction Award For the distinguished contribution to literature for children and young adults aged 13 years and above.
Dear Vincent by Mandy Hager, (Random House New Zealand)
LIANZA Russell Clark Illustration Award For the most distinguished illustrations in a children's book.
Flight of the Honey Bee, by Raymond Huber, illustrated by Brian Lovelock, (Walker Books Australia)
LIANZA Elsie Locke Non Fiction Award
For a work that is considered to be a distinguished contribution to non-fiction for young people.
Wearable Wonders, by Fifi Colston, (Scholastic New Zealand)
LIANZA Librarians’ Choice Award 2014Awarded to the most popular finalist across all awards, as judged by professional librarians of LIANZA.
A Winter’s Day in 1939, by Melinda Szymanik, (Scholastic New Zealand)
Te Kura Pounamu (te reo Māori)Awarded to the author of a work, written in Te Reo Māori, which makes a distinguished contribution to literature for children or young people.
Ngā Kaitiaki a Tama!, by Kawata Teepa, illustrated by Jim Byrt, (Huia NZ Ltd)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Jumping at our own shadows...

Sorry I have been a bit absentee. Things have been busy and I find I am unable to post on my blog during the day. And, well, I have been having doubtie moments. This might seem perverse with books published and things going well etc... but doubts are no respecters of, well, anything, really. For many creative folk it is a normal part of their personality/genetic make-up. We are sensitive souls who jump at our own shadows (when we aren't inserting them into our stories). These things don't have to be logical. Doubt is my middle name.

When you work within an industry which is mediated at every step by personal taste, opinions and subjectivity, and where every step of the process is unpredictable and not necessarily tied in to the value of your writing, well because what is valuable? and how is that value mediated by personal taste, opin....well, you get my drift - things can get tricky and doubtie. Especially when there are so many ways for people to tell you what they think of your work, and then if they don't talk at all, well the silence is VAST. Anyways. So, as you do, I went in search of some good advice online on the topic of doubt and came across some useful stuff - this is helpful, and so is this. The second one is more about dealing with criticism but I think most of our doubts boil down to our worries about how our work will be received. And the lovely thing about these two posts is that they demonstrate that plenty of others also deal with doubts. It is normal to feel doubts. The important thing is not to let those doubts make decisions for you.

Meanwhile The Song of Kauri has had a nice review from Barbara Murison on her fab Around the Bookshops blog. I love how she says -

"The whole beautiful production sings of the kauri – its gold, brown and yellow cover with its embossed koru, the carefully crafted words and the feeling that if you took a deep breath as you turn the pages you would be able to smell the leaf mould of the forest and the heady scent of the kauri gum." 

And I'm thrilled to say, two of the other 2014 University of Otago Fellows, Mozart Fellow Jeremy Mayall and Caroline Plummer Dance Fellow Louise Potiki Bryant have suggested collaborating with me to create music and dance for The Song of Kauri. I'm recording a reading of the book today to accompany the music Jeremy has composed. More details soon on the dance, I hope. This is a first for me, and for one of my books. Exciting times.

I talked up a storm last week down in Invercargill, running a round of workshops for Intermediate students, High School students and adults for the Dan Davin Literary Foundation. I met a host of wonderful people and was well sorted by organiser extraordinaire Becs Amundsen. A cool few days in the deep South. I even got down to Bluff, which was amazing, thanks to Becs. See? 2014 is my year of adventures.

Sent in and received back another university assignment. Had my misgivings but it went okay. It will be weird to be at the end of my studies when I complete this year's paper.  I've been enjoying the Diploma of Children's literature so much (except when an assignment is due and I want to throw things and set fire to my hair and run around the room screaming). It's been a terrific insight and taught me so much. I am still not sick of learning yet but will have to take responsibility for it myself in future. The world is such an interesting place.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Hours of fun...

I am thrilled to report that I am part of the WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival 2014, happening August 28-31. You can check out the programme here. I'm one of the writers involved in the 'Read Aloud Schools Programme' along with Jackie French, Donovan Bixley, Dylan Horrocks, Laini Taylor and Anis Mojgani. Excuse me if I am a little giddy about all of this. I am part of the free storytelling on Saturday for 8 to 12 year olds at 11.30am on Saturday and for young children at 1pm. And then I get to debate the truths of writing for children with Gavin Bishop and Tania Roxborogh at 2.30pm. You can be sure I have some opinions on this. Hours of fun. Bring it on!

It was fascinating to see a report on the contribution publishing makes to the NZ economy. I was surprised by the results. We make a real contribution ($330million total sales). Educational publishing and trade sales to educational institutions and libraries constitute 24% of total sales. And children's and Young Adults books will take a respectable share of trade sales. I would love to see the numbers drilled down to the different categories of books: children's and YA, adult fiction, non-fiction etc... For a small country these seem like robust figures. I have all sorts of thoughts and questions and need more information to find answers, and comment meaningfully. A key thought is that money is still being made in publishing. I shall not give up my day job yet. Ha ha, the day job is writing, and it doesn't pay well but I still feel hopeful. Oh who am I kidding. What else am I going to do. To all those people who say, 'what you do is not who you are,' I say, 'you are obviously not writers.' Sheesh.

And as my new book The Song of Kauri slowly eases it's way into the world, here is another lovely review with some Q and A from yours truly. And there was a bit of a thing on me in the Otago Daily Times last Thursday.

Monday, July 7, 2014

A winner haz been picked...

Tis time to announce the winner of my competition to win a copy of my new book The Song of Kauri. I have had a range of terrific entries on facebook and here on the blog. And the winner of the English version, with her name picked out of a hat by my eldest, is Sue Copsey, who picked her favourite name, the hattifatteners (from the Moomintroll books) for it's sublime mixture of silliness and pathos. Your book will be making its way to you soon. As it was unclear whether any of you would like to win the Maori version, if any one would be interested in this copy, I will give it to the first person who puts their hand up. Thanks to all for entering my competition.

I will be officially launching the book in Dunedin on August 1st. Exciting times!!

And in the ongoing debate about YA literature and what teens should and shouldn't be reading, here is a terrific post to remind adults everywhere that the kids, and their books, are alright.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Thrilled and terrified...

The release of a book is simultaneously thrilling and terrifying. Up till that moment the book has just had potential and promise. Now it is up to people to decide whether it is something they like and want to buy. Now readers will have a read and make up their own minds. As they should. My marketing and promotion strategy has always been kind of organic, and long term. Agent Janet Reid talks about the same sort of thing here and I think this has always been my philosophy. I'm not keen on being actively 'sold to' so I try to avoid doing this to others. And reading the phrase 'the next big thing, or 'by the next (insert famous author's name here)' about a new book hot off the press makes me grumpy. I want to hear what other readers think. Genuine word of mouth is not something you can manufacture.

Yet again there is much debate about the suitability of books for their target audience. In particular the winner of the 2014 Carnegie Medal, The Bunker Diary, by Kevin Brooks. Folk have been outraged that such a bleak book can win a prize. Because now more teens might read it. Nicola Morgan talks very thoughtfully about this fact, and our desire to protect young people, here.  I've talked about my stance on this issue before. I believe children and teens are self limiting and smart readers. There is no magic transformation into adulthood from adolescence. It can't happen in a vacuum. Teenagers must have access to information in order to become responsible, empathetic adults. Better that they read about difficult topics in a book, than have to experience them first hand in order to understand. Letting teens read books like The Bunker Diary might actually be a better form of protection for them.

And I loved this terrific smart response to that annoying article in Slate admonishing adults who choose to read YA books. It made my day. Because:

Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. - CS Lewis

But you should really go and read the whole thing. Or an extended version of CS Lewis's original article here.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Your chance to win a copy of my new book 'The Song of Kauri'...

NZ Booksellers recently held their annual conference. You can read a bit about it here. As mentioned last year, sales are declining (bad), although the rate of descent is slowing (good). And again, sales of children's books are doing better than most (great). I would love to know what actual numbers we are talking about here, and whether NZ children's literature is forming a reasonable percentage of those children's book sales. And if they are, what sort of push might be made by all those involved (from publishers, through to booksellers, and international trade folk) to make the most of this. How do our NZ children's literature sales numbers relate to total NZ lit sales and book sales overall? NZ literature has been getting some good overseas exposure recently through our guest of honour position at the Frankfurt Book Fair a few years back, our special Festival in the UK last month, and through Eleanor Catton's spectacular Man Booker Prize win. Yay! This is all great news. I am hoping at some point this wonderful spotlight will widen on our local children's literature. We work hard to write great books and help them sell, but I think we could do with some extra help to get a bit more attention overseas. If our books garner more interest, this benefits booksellers as well as authors and illustrators.

I went on some wonderful school visits this week, with an all day session on Tuesday at Kowhai Intermediate in Auckland and a shorter one at Balmacewen Intermediate in Dunedin yesterday. We talked about plot essentials, character development, the importance of names and of editing, and about books we love amongst other things. I tip my hat to the wonderful teachers and librarians who devote themselves to sparking a love of reading in their students, who continually look for new ways to interest and engage them, and encourage and support their reading and writing skills. They are real heroes in my book!

And now folks, it's time for a competition! My new picture book The Song of Kauri is out July 1st and I have just received my author copies. I have one hardback copy and one softback Maori translation to give away. In the comments below tell me your all-time-favourite character name, and why you love it. Some personal favourites of mine are Elizabeth Bennett, Frodo Baggins and Finnick Odair.  Also say whether you want the Te Reo or English version of the book. The competition will close on July 4th. And.......go!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Night at the Awards: Part 1...

It was the end of an era last Monday night. The final NZ Post Book Awards ceremony for Children and Young Adults. After 18 wonderful years, a long and fruitful sponsorship has come to an end.  NZ Post can no longer sponsor the book awards and the job of finding a new sponsor has begun. Next year things will be different. I hope they are as magical and exciting as they have been with NZ Post in the sponsor's seat.

The scene this year was set with butterflies, bell jars, toadstools and vines. A little bit Wonderland really.

(Photo taken by Fifi Colston).

Winners on the night were:

Picture Book: The Boring Book by Vasanti Unka
Non-fiction: The Beginner's Guide to Hunting and Fishing in New Zealand by Paul Adamson
Junior Fiction: Dunger by Joy Cowley
Young Adult Fiction: Mortal Fire by Elizabeth Knox
Best First Book: A Necklace of Souls by Rachel Stedman
Children's Choice: The Three Bears, Sort of by Yvonne Morrison and Donovan Bixley
Margaret Mahy Book of the Year: The Boring Book by Vasanti Unka

Congratulations to all the winners! These are all terrific books. I cannot deny it would have been rather lovely to be a winner myself (cos really, who doesn't like that) but being chosen as a finalist is a big honour and I am very proud to be in the company of the other finalists. There were many wonderful children's books published in New Zealand in 2013. I'm proud of my book. And I'm thrilled New Zealand children's and young adult's literature is in such good heart. I am so happy to be a part of this community.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Why yes, I do have an opinion on that...

Well, look at that! I am reading and talking as part of the Read Aloud Programme for Schools for The Press Christchurch Writers Festival in August. Super excited! Writers Festivals are a little slice of heaven.

Some folk have been complaining about adults reading YA. Here and here. Cos ya know YA is just dumbed down stuff and talks about issues that have no relevance or interest for adults.What are we thinking reading that puerile stuff. Cos like children and young adults are, ya know, like some simple, inferior version of like, grown up people. Sheesh. Folk reacted, responded, or went a little septic, here and here. What do I think (cos y'all know I am bound to have an opinion on this)? There is an arrogance that underlies some of the criticisms of YA literature. That young adults and children are simple, un-smart versions of adults. That YA books can only offer the adult reader escapism, instant gratification and nostalgia (and it is obviously embarrassing to want these from a book). That YA literature is incapable of dealing with complex, important or challenging themes.  That grown up issues are somehow better and more important than issues facing younger people. Is Malala Yousafzai's experience simpler and less important because she is a teen? Can we not join the 'real' realm of adulthood if we don't read 'difficult' adult literature. But perhaps the thing that I wonder most about this brouhaha is why? Why the complaints and criticisms? And why do folk see the need to denigrate a book category to further their agenda? I wonder if perhaps some writers of adult literature aren't happy that adults are buying and reading YA books rather than adult books. They want to shame us into changing our reading habits. I just can't help thinking that telling me I should be embarrassed is the wrong way to go about getting me to change my behaviour. And making sweeping generalisations about YA books of which many are diverse and rich and well written is just, well, poor ammunition. Of course not all YA books are sophisticated and smart. But then neither are all adult books. And children and young adults might lack experience but they don't lack brains, or feelings. And they can be faced with issues just as complex as those facing adults. And if they aren't there yet, doesn't mean some of the books don't contain those more difficult themes for when they are. Because the thing that irks me most about this whole debate is thinking that the way to win me over is by telling me YA books are beneath me. That there is something wrong or bad about that kind of literature. Perhaps if the critics had spent more time impressing and exciting me with the books they would like me to read, I would be more open to their suggestions. I just want to read good books, regardless of the target audience.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A part of things...

It has been a bit of a day - I got to give a brief talk at Otago Girls High School today as part of their Library Day. This has been an OGHS tradition for 76 years. In recent years the students have been dressing up as book characters in honour of the day. They assemble in the hall, listen to a guest speaker (me this year), and then various groups (subjects, departments, year groups etc...) gift books to the school library. There were many more than a hundred books across a variety of categories and genre. So many books. It felt like Christmas. Students and staff had embraced the opportunity to appear as favourite characters - Daenerys Targaryen, Katniss Everdeen, Alice in Wonderland, Cruella de Ville, Phryne Fisher and the Corpse Bride complete with blue face and bones painted very effectively on her arm. What a wonderful ritual. What lucky students. What a great school.

And folks, it's my turn!!! Yesterday I set the new fortnightly challenge for the Fabostory writing competition. Go check it out here. What happens to Jason when he picks up the patu in the forest? Primary and intermediate students can write what happens next to win prizes and have their story published on the website. This round of the competition closes on June 22nd.

There was some less happy news, but more on that another time. Because also today, the LIANZA children's book award finalists were announced. Check out the list below. I am thrilled to be on the shortlist for the Esther Glen Junior Fiction Award with my book A Winter's Day in 1939. I have never been a LIANZA finalist before, so this feels very special. There are so many wonderful books shortlisted. Winners are announced August 4th. More details can be found here.

The LIANZA Children’s Book Awards acknowledge excellence in junior fiction, young adult fiction, illustration, non fiction and te reo Māori.
2014 LIANZA Children’s Book Awards Finalists:
LIANZA Esther Glen Junior Fiction AwardDunger by Joy Cowley, (Gecko Press)
Brave Company by David Hill, (Penguin Books)
Project Huia by Des Hunt,(Scholastic New Zealand)
Felix and the Red Rats by James Norcliffe, (Random House New Zealand)
A Winter’s Day in 1939 by Melinda Szymanik, (Scholastic New Zealand)

LIANZA Young Adult Fiction AwardRecon Team Angel, Book 3: Ice War by Brian Falkner, (Walker Books Australia)
Dear Vincent by Mandy Hager, (Random House New Zealand)
When We Wake by Karen Healey, (Allen & Unwin)
Bugs by Whiti Hereaka, (Huia NZ Ltd)
Mortal Fire by Elizabeth Knox, (Gecko Press)
Cattra’s Legacy by Anna Mackenzie (Random House New Zealand)

LIANZA Russell Clark Illustration AwardBruiser and the Big Snow by Gavin Bishop, (Random House New Zealand)
Flight of the Honey Bee by Raymond Huber, illustrated by Brian Lovelock, (Walker Books Australia)
Taka Ki Ro Wai by Keri Kaa, illustrated by Martin D. Page (National Treasures Design Ltd trading as Tania & Martin)
The Teddy Bear’s Promise by Diana Noonan, illustrated by Robyn Belton, (Craig Potton Publishing)
Henry’s Map by David Elliot (Random House New Zealand)

LIANZA Elsie Locke Non Fiction AwardWearable Wonders by Fifi Colston, (Scholastic New Zealand)
Flight of the Honey Bee by Raymond Huber, illustrated by Brian Lovelock, (Walker Books Australia)
The Beginner’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing in New Zealand, by Paul Adamson(Random House New Zealand)
Anzac Day, The New Zealand Story, What it is and why it matters by Philippa Werry, (New Holland Publishers (NZ)

LIANZA Te Kura Pounamu (te reo Māori)Taka Ki Ro Wai by Keri Kaa, illustrated by Martin D. Page (National Treasures Design Ltd trading as Tania & Martin)
Meariki by Helen Pearse-Otene, illustrated by Andrew Burdan, (Huia NZ Ltd)
Pūao (series) Te Pātiki, Te Mānawa, Te Whai, Te Tāmure by Huia Publishers, (Huia NZ Ltd)
Tāhoe: He Pakiwaitara mō Hinemoa rāua ko Tūtānekai by Chris Szekely and Andrew Burdan, (Huia NZ Ltd)
Ngā Kaitiaki a Tama! By Kawata Teepa and Jim Byrt, (Huia NZ Ltd)

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Books - powerful and vulnerable, all at the same time...

Recently at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival I was asked about my stance on whether we should censor the content of children's and young adult's literature in terms of contentious themes or the inclusion of sex, violence or profanity. I answered, saying what I believe to be true about whether readers need protecting or not. I think children are self limiting. Either they will decide it isn't for them and stop reading or it will be inaccessible to them as a result of their level of maturity (it will go over their heads). Or they will be ready for it, and frankly, a book is a much better way to come across such material where it is presented in context and provides a springboard for understanding and/or discussion. Sometimes it is material that provides wider understanding of an issue and makes them more empathetic. Humanity could definitely do with being more empathetic. Sometimes it is reflecting their own experience and helps them to feel less alone. The most excellent and wise author Judy Blume spoke to the same question here. Or you can hear the mellifluous Benedict Cumberbatch reading out Kurt Vonnegut's impassioned letter to a school district regarding the censorship of his books here. Children and young adults are far more likely to be harmed by the people they know than by the books they read.

And the intramaweb has been aglow with talk of the stoush between Hachette and Amazon. I don't know all the ins and outs. But I think Chuck Wendig's run down on the issue is useful and kinda reflects my own opinions if you want to take a closer look. I'm still looking to be the cork on the ocean.

And a few years back I had a meltdown over Joel Stein's New York Times editorial suggesting adults should not demean themselves by reading young adult or children's books. Obviously as far as Mr Stein was concerned, children's and YA books would never deal with issues or themes that could be of interest or value to adults. He mentioned The Hunger Games, which he had never read. Perhaps he should have come down off his high horse and read the trilogy. This week, this appeared. While the books are a work of fiction, the issues they contain represent real social concerns and author Suzanne Collins has spoken about the different real life events and real world problems that informed her work. And while Guardian journalist Jonathan Jones says the trilogy (and associated movie franchise) is not a manual for changing the world, the themes and concerns present in the books (and movies) have resonated with people and use of the symbolic gesture in the books have provided a platform for drawing wider attention to their fight.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

So what's it like...the residency?

So I'm over half way through on my residency. This puppy wraps up August 21st although I have a few bits and bobs tacked on to the end so I won't be home proper till the end of that month.

So, what's it like - this residency thing - I hear you ask? I spend a lot of time on my own and it's okay, although I've discovered I can be a bit annoying at times. Time alone is an interesting concept and everyone should do it at some stage, even if only to observe that you don't really like it. I don't mind it but miss the people I love and care about. I am thinking that in future a lovely little annual sabbatical will be mandatory, whether to write like the clappers or to just wallow in. Just me. And then the rest of the year will be happily spent wallowing in the best and most beloved company of others.

I have discovered that jokes work best with more than one person and I require other people to provide the musical backdrop to my day to day existence (and secretly I am grateful that they do). I have music here with me but I just don't put it on. It is weird - more silence than I am used to. It is amazing what your mind fills it up with.

The Robert Lord Writers Cottage is an excellent place. Idiosyncratic, which is a good thing, I think, for writers. The kitchen and I don't really get on though. I like more space and equipment and someone else to do the dishes. And cooking for one is much less straight forward than it sounds. But there is a TV and washer and drier and clothes line and the location is good - far enough to afford me some exercise and close enough that my days aren't too much arranged around the time it takes me to get anywhere. The wind in Union Street East is a beggar though.

I really like the University. Lots of venerable old stone buildings with personality. It has good old bones. And there are lots of lovely people, especially in the College of Education. I do wonder if anyone in the Science faculty is studying how some students can wear one layer on single digit temperature days though. Or is there a training facility for this somewhere on campus? On my first day in Dunedin I was advised to go for layers (thank you Philip Roxborogh) and this is the key to surviving the fluctuating temperatures and conditions here. I have only been caught out once or twice. I am finally getting the chance to indulge my passion for woolly hats (although I am yet to find a fix for hat hair). Still yet to wear socks over my shoes when it's icy - I keep telling myself I am up to it if the need arises.

I think my residency would be a very different beast if my year hadn't quite exploded like it did, with invitations to speak and workshop and participate in festivals, with shortlistings and touring. But it probably wouldn't have exploded like it did without my gaining the residency - proximity is definitely a factor. Hard to see what the one would have been like without the other. Anyways it is my year of travelling and I am becoming familiar with the different types of plane and the best seats to sit in on each type and little tips like always checking the departure gates for connecting flights on arrival because they are not always what is printed on your boarding pass. And that swimsuit issue themed safety message IS annoying. And I now know where the loos are in the main airports which you might think would be obvious but some airports in NZ currently seem on a mission to discourage this sort of activity.

At times life has been a bit of a whirlwind from which it takes me a while to unwind. Public speaking events are simultaneously fun and scary. If I didn't enjoy doing them I wouldn't say yes, but I find them challenging as well. Still, challenges are good and my skill set has grown. When I first embarked on this career around fifteen years ago I don't think I would have recognised the me I've become. I'm mostly a chicken on the inside now.

And the writing? It isn't just about having the time to write. There are other requirements like coffee, and chocolate and. And plenty of people write masterpieces in random minutes snatched from their busy days so time isn't the essential factor missing for most writers. They just think it is. It is also about 'being' a writer. About sitting down to the task and having belief at your back. Doubt is the middle name of many writers. We often feel like imposters. To say, this is what I do, this is who I am, is the best gift of all.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Be in to win....

As part of my visit to Remarkable's Primary School at the beginning of the month (what a great school!!) a competition was run to design a cover and write a blurb for my junior novel, Sally Bangle: Unexpected Detective.  Here is the most excellent winning entry by Paige in Year 5. Paige, you are a star! This is wonderful. I shall be sending you along an e-copy of the book shortly.

And folks, if I haven't already mentioned it here, the magnificent Fabostory writing competition rides again. Go check it out here at www.fabostory.wordpress.com. It has a new format - you have 2 weeks to take the information and opening paragraph provided and write the story, and then enter it online. The guest author judge will pick two winners and give out fab prizes. Then we start all over again with a new opening paragraph and a new guest author judge. There will be tips and advice along the way. Hone your skills, practice your writing and get feedback. What could be better than that for a budding writer!! Go to it.

(And I am feeling in the mood for a bit of a competition myself - watch this space in June - there will be a chance to win a copy of my new book The Song of Kauri ).

Friday, May 23, 2014

Less snot and froth...

Recently I wrote a bit of a frothing-at-the-mouth reaction to an article quoting Jonathan Emmett in the Times (which turned up in the NZ Herald) about gender imbalance in the children's literature industry. Mr Emmett rightly responded to clarify a few things.

"Hi Melinda.

Sorry that the Times article annoyed the snot out of you. I didn't write it. It was written by two Times reporters in response to this blog post about children's book reviewing which I did write:

You've made a number of unfounded assumptions about my views, some of which are addressed in this post: http://coolnotcute.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/four-clarifications-in-light-of-last.html#blogpost

I've offered "some practical solutions that might work" under the section headed "Solutions" which starts on page 21 of this essay: http://homepage.ntlworld.com/j.emmett/COOLnotCUTE/COOLnotCUTE.pdf

"And all you can say Mr Emmett is that we don't give our sons sufficient books about pirates?"
If you take the time to look at the rest of the essays and blog posts on coolnotcute.com, I hope you'll recognise that my argument is somewhat more complex and nuanced than that."

Fair enough. Mr Emmett's original article is considerably different to what appeared in the Times/NZ Herald (and I'm a little disturbed by how much the tone has been skewed). And his stats make for very interesting reading and raise a whole bunch of other questions about gender in writing, reviewing and publishing, that should be widely debated. I'm not totally convinced, at the latter end of the article, about how influential the boy-centricity of picture books (or the lack thereof) is on literacy levels. I wonder what contribution other factors like electronic gaming, online activities and television make to boys abandoning books? Do these things appeal more to boys? Here in New Zealand I sometimes even wonder how much the thought of the money to be made in sports (predominantly by men if we are considering gender imbalances) attracts boys away from reading? Plenty of boys I know certainly apply themselves more diligently to sporting activities than they do to academic ones. We are thought of as a sporting nation. Sports gets a lot of press (especially those sports played by men) compared with arts and culture. Sports are cool. Culture, hmm, maybe not so much. Children's book reviews in general are thin enough on the ground here in mainstream media, without considering the gender of the reviewers. This is the environment we are raising our boys in. These are complex issues.

If you are at all familiar with playground chants and rhymes you know how bloodthirsty and combative little children can be. I agree with Emmett that content should not be excessively sanitised. I think it's not necessarily always the publishers or the reviewers or librarians applying constraints (or gender-centric biases) to the content of children's books, but the (adult) consumers. Some adults felt my book The Were-Nana was far too scary for younger children and yet it won children's choice at the NZ Post Book Awards. In the end publishers have to publish what they believe they can sell. And they have to manage the risks of their choices. And how far would we push the content to attract the reluctant boy reader? Is that okay? What should our limits be? I also agree with Mr Emmett's lament about the sorry decline of children's non-fiction. For me this seems a more serious issue. If boys prefer reading non-fiction then this must also make a contribution to literacy levels. 

I still wonder how much our own subtle messages influence what boys think is cool to read. I wish I knew. I think too, some boys are even resistant to boy-preferred content, although this doesn't mean we shouldn't try to change their minds about books. On the flip side should we look at why many girl readers read more widely across a range of content. Is that driven by nature or nurture? Should we be producing more 'boy-centric' picture books or be applying different psychologically to the way we encourage boys to read? Either way we can do better. Mr Emmett, I am sorry I got so reductive. I really should know by now that sometimes the media like a spot of controversy and that some information might have dropped off along the way. 


Thursday, May 22, 2014

Pushing your comfort zone to a new level ...

Hi honey, I'm home!

Things I don't recommend
1) Living out of a suitcase that has been packed with what came out of an earlier suitcase
2) straining your vocal chords at the first of your speaking engagements
3) not taking the opportunity to buy dinner at 4.30pm before embarking on connecting flights and shuttle trips that get you to your dark, cold, lonely door at 10pm at night
4) not taking the opportunity to say hello to your writing idols and as-yet-unmet confreres
5) going for long periods without writing

Things I do recommend
1) saying yes to opportunities
2) stepping outside of your comfort zone
3) accepting the offer of a microphone
4) having some fall-back-position intelligent comments to whip out in those brain scrambled moments
5) being yourself

Wow, it may take me a while to process all the events I have been involved in over the last few weeks. It has been a whirlwind odyssey of talks, workshops, presentations and panel discussions. High point? All of it (especially getting to hang out with other writers, even if I was too shy to speak to half of them). Low point - not having more time in between to appreciate it all. Sometimes I just wanted to slow it all down and enjoy the moment.

There is no denying that it can be stressful facing a room full of strangers and trying to interest and entertain them. People asked me afterwards how the talks went. Unfortunately I have a natural tendency to immediately focus on things I wish I'd said, or things I wish I hadn't said, or forget everything that just happened, so I can never really judge these things. The litmus test in the talks to school students is if someone came up afterwards and shyly told me that they want to be a writer too, or that they felt inspired by what I said. And they did. They remind me of me at that age. I hope I've made a positive difference for them.

People say they couldn't imagine themselves standing up there on the stage giving talks. They don't know how folk do it. I don't know either. It is scary - I was speaking to one well known international writer before one of my talks and she too was anxious about her next event - had she pitched it right for the audience, she wondered. Trepidation is not unusual, even for the most seasoned performers. In the end, I focused on these events as opportunities to hopefully say something useful as well as interesting. To help others be inspired, or avoid pitfalls and mistakes, or just love books, and reading and words, and perhaps writing, just a little bit more. It was petrifying and exciting all at once. I have to say I felt very alive during the whole experience. And I've discovered that my comfort zone is transforming. There is a new normal. And I'm now very happy to return to my quiet, lonely garret to write.

Friday, May 9, 2014


It is my month of talking - May. If I am a little absent from my blog I apologise - I am darting hither and thither across the countryside and not sitting down at a desk as much as I usually do. I have remarked in the past that I could talk the hind leg off a donkey - apparently now I can also talk myself horse hoarse. I spent Thursday and Friday talking about creative writing and reading some of my books to the students at Remarkables Primary School in Queenstown, with a view to die for, and a tad more rain than I had anticipated. I talked about ideas, plotting, tone, language techniques and character development. We discussed rules for writing and how authors and illustrators work independently on a book. The children were terrific and I had a great time and was especially thrilled by the bright wee sparks who told me they couldn't wait to go off and write stories. Here are some pics from the visit

The school is in a very picturesque location:

Friday afternoon I headed back to Dunedin (via Christchurch) so I could take part in the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival. I felt very privileged to be asked to join author, Sandy McKay and chair, Bridget Schaumann for a panel discussion on Historical YA fiction and this morning we chatted about our writing process, our own history and the backgrounds to our books. We talked about getting published, research and writing habits. I hope the audience enjoyed the session as much as I did. If you wonder whether I get nervous before these things, the answer is, yes, I do. I think nerves are a normal part of the public speaking business and are not necessarily a bad sign. They don't paralyse me or prevent me from doing the job, and to me are just indicative of the fact I am keen to give a good talk and provide useful information in a coherent manner. And once I begin, they go. I don't tend to worry about them.This evening I am off to hear Eleanor Catton talk and then on Monday I wing my way to Auckland for some more talking at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. I am currently resting my vocal cords.