Saturday, October 17, 2015

Stewing in a soup of fear of failure

I joined twitter. If you notice my sentences getting shorter you'll know why. It was all part of the plot to be able to pitch some of my manuscripts to publishers and agents. This opportunity was offered at the Tinderbox conference and it seemed like a relatively easy way to gain the attention of some key players. I'd been thinking about jumping in to the twitterverse anyways and here was some very good motivation. So I jumped.

The astrophysical imagery is apt as Twitter does indeed seem like another planet after hanging around on facebook and blogger for so long. The pace, the brevity, the style and shape of conversations, are like nothing else I know. I guess it's probably good for my brain as I learn a whole new approach to social interaction.

But I digress. I joined twitter partly to satisfy my curiosity, partly cos of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), and partly to be able to pitch. And the pitching was easy. Tweet the correct hashtag with a brief tagline for your story and publishers and agents could search the hashtag and check it out. For Tinderbox it was #TBPitMad. If they favourite your tweet you could then query them with the story, referencing the pitching opportunity. And the thing is people that the Tinderbox pitch session was only one of many springing up regularly on twitter (my latest go was with #PBPitch - you can go and search these hashtags to get an idea of how it works). And these are generally international opportunities (although the agents and publishers may not always appreciate that fact?). And in the end most of the publishers and agents are open to general querying even if you don't get favourited. Realistically I don't know what the success rate is like and I suspect it's no greater than other more traditional channels of querying but it's very motivating. I have emailed off a rash of queries in the last few weeks with several different projects. Exciting stuff...

But also, as I know all too well, subsequently terrifying. Weirdly for a published author, I am a very private person when it comes to my writing. I don't share it widely before I send it off to publishers. It seems waaayyy easier to have my work judged by strangers then it is by fellow authors, other friends and relatives. I get my story to a stage that I feel happy with on my ownsome and then I start submitting. Then it's the moment of stark unavoidable truth. Sometimes I show other folk after I've submitted. I am weird that way. By then it's too late.

As an author, if you are following the path of traditional publication, whenever possible you should have some work out there, submitted. If one of your goals is traditional publication, submissions are just a day-to-day part of your job description. Thought being a writer meant you devoted all of your spare waking moments to your craft?? Ha ha. Think again. An appreciable part of your daily grind will be researching who to send your work to, how to send it, polishing queries, worrying about the strength of your query, trying to summarise your work in one or two pithy compelling sentences, wondering if your word length will put them off, trying to locate the name of the editor, sometimes wondering if that's a woman's name or a man's. Sometimes that is all so overwhelming that you think I just can't even... and then you go on facebook for a while. And so the twitter pitch seems inordinately manageable in comparison. Too easy in fact.

I went a little crazy...

It sucks you in and makes you excited about the process and before you know it you've wrangled your query and the synopsis and the biography and cut and pasted some text into the body of an email and pressed send. And then the slow dawning realisation that I am staring down the barrel of  all their responses.The waiting. The wondering. The post posting analysis. Sure, I like my analysis to arrive after it's too late to act (see above). And it leaves me drenched in that heady emotional mix of hope and terror. Like stewing in a soup of fear of failure. The thing they never tell you about pigeons coming home to roost is how much pigeon poop there is. How thick should I be growing my skin? How much loin girding will be required? My mum always asks me if I have anything out on submission. Well mum, at the moment I do. I'll let you know how I get on...

Sunday, October 11, 2015

A most excellent conference...

I have been to a few conferences over the years. One or two in my previous working life in Hospital administration and a bunch more since I have been writing for children. Tinderbox2015, held last weekend in Wellington, would have to be the best of the lot in my experience.

I'd hemmed and hawed a bit when registrations were approaching. I'm a big fan of the networking that goes on in our industry but there was money involved and I like to be able to justify business expenses to the taxman. Had I already heard everything I could possibly hear about the state of children's literature and it's publication in this country? I have been a member of the writing community for some time and providing master classes for experienced writers is something that even larger, more well-funded organisations struggle with. In the end the lure of catching up with my kidsliterary friends in Wellington was too great. I took a leap of faith and signed up, selected workshop options (including daringly putting my name down for the Illustration session with the most excellent Sandra Morris), booked my plane tickets and received a generous offer of accommodation from writer/illustrator friend Fifi Colston.

I flew in to Wellington with writer friend Maria Gill on the Thursday so we could attend WOW Wearable Arts Show that night and get an early start for the first day of conference on Friday. WOW was incredible - not least because we got to see Fifi's wonderful co-creation that was an awards finalist.

The next day, despite dour predictions, the weather made an effort to be congenial and the conference got under way on time in St Catherine's High School. First up was a double session with multi award winning YA writer Mandy Hager who ran a workshop on plot structure and planning. Her in depth analysis of character 'motivation' and 'change' provided fresh insights and inspiration. Prolific bestselling author Andy Griffiths then stole the show with a brief but energetic and irreverent appearance and then next up it was Understanding Metadata with Andrew Long from Penguin Random House. This offered insights and clarity on the murky business of metadata and how we can maximise our searchibility. Playwright Dave Armstrong ended the day's sessions taking us on a heartfelt journey through his own experiences and how these fuel and enrich his stories.

Day 2 saw us glued to the screen as we had a skype session with another prolific best selling author, Susan Kay Quinn. She talked about finding the creative life that works for you, about 'never saying never' (I am familiar with this lesson), about mailing lists, writing collectives (especially the group support and information sharing) about trying and retrying things, and the importance of knowing your own strengths and weaknesses. She talked about building fanbases, and growing a writing career organically (YES!!). After Ms Quinn I got to play with sculpy in the Illustrators workshop. After so much concentrated and focused listening and word digesting, doing something creative with my hands was a wonderful change. Not only did I enjoy the experience but I learnt some wonderful modelling tricks and made something I rather liked.
 My fox head, photo courtesy of Fifi Colston.

In the afternoon, Associate Director and Set Design lecturer Penny Fitt from Toi Whakaari talked about the stories we tell ourselves about failure. Failure can be the result of things outside our control, and can offer insight into possibilities for future growth and improvement. Ultimately failure wasn't an end of something, but rather offered a starting point to push off from. According to Suzuki, 'the real secret of the arts is always to be a beginner.'

Following on from that talk some of us had the opportunity to get some tips and advice on how to chair a panel or session.As with the other workshops, this felt too short and all of us wanted more on this topic. But the next session was just as interesting and we got to see Johanna Knox provide a skilled example of panel chairing as she led the discussion on Small Indie Presses. It was clear that passion for, and a belief in the titles they published was an essential ingredient for all three speakers (Mary McCullum, Greet Pauwelijn and Mandy Hager). 

That evening we dined at the James Cook as a group and heard about a very cool old project from skilled raconteur Fifi Colston, and an exciting new publishing project from Gecko Publisher Julia Marshall and author Kate De Goldi.

Sunday was my final day. My brain was beginning to feel like fudge but I had to hold together because there was still much to take in and enjoy. First up was a Pecha Kucha style session with a variety of speakers talking for ten minutes each on a range of topics. Many dealt with collaborations, which was one of the key themes for the conference. We heard from Adele Jackson talking about her wonderful Sketch Book Exchange project, Barbara Else who spoke on Query mistakes, Jenny Bornholdt and Sarah Wilkins who shared the floor to talk about their book, A Book is a Book, Mandy Hager who did a condensed version of her talk on researching for her latest book about Heloise and Abelard, Sue Copsey who spoke about her experience with Booktracks, and Maureen Crisp who let us in on a special Tinderbox secret - we would have the chance to pitch our manuscripts to some publishers via twitter.

Then we got the lowdown on contracts with author, agent, and assessor Chris Else, talking rights, territories, obligations and royalties. This was incredibly useful, and even more so with some of the questions the group asked. It confirmed some of the assumptions I've made about contracts over the years, and clarified other aspects. Then social media queen Alexandra Lutyens took us through the different forms of social media, explaining what they did, how to get on them and how we might use them to our advantage. Last but not least was a shared talk by husband and wife book design team Luke and Vida Kelly who gave us a peek into their world of design wonder. By now my brain was bulging and I was afraid I might develop a slow leak or just explode altogether. Everything I attended had given me useful practical tools I could use as an author. I'd taken notes and most of the folk running sessions promised to make their notes etc... available to participants. There was SOOO much information, and for all the workshops I attended there were other equally valuable sessions running concurrently. Johanna Knox ran a wonderful project all the way through the conference called Sparks which saw folk teaming up to produce articles for a nature magazine. Everyone looked energised and excited. Old friendships were renewed and new ones were forged. We were a happy bunch. 

So Tinderbox2015 set a very high benchmark. My hometown Auckland is next up to host the conference in 2017. Gulp.

Monday, October 5, 2015

When patience was a virtue...

You might be wondering where I've been.

The big O.E. is a bit of a kiwi tradition. We seem to be fairly well travelled as a population - according to Wikipedia 75% of New Zealanders hold a passport (compared with around 70% of Australians and 42% of Americans, while approximately 5% of Americans travel outside the country (Huffington Post).I don't know how many kiwis travel overseas in any given year but I think it'd be more than 5%. Out of my family I was the only one not to travel to Europe as a young adult. I was a little bit afraid of countries where I wouldn't know the language, with customs wildly different from my own. I wasn't won over by the notion of backpacking, youth hostels and shared bathrooms. I got busy with other things, working, getting married, buying a house and then having children. Getting the 2014 University of Otago Children's Writer-in-Residence post and taking a spur of the moment jaunt across to Melbourne with my eldest for her 21st last year gave me a touch of bravado, and before it could wear off I suggested to my SO that we finally head off on the big O.E. We quietly got excited about the idea, and then we got organised...

We got back just over a week ago after nearly a month of tripping and traipsing across Western Europe. Am I glad we waited? Well I felt like a young adult. And it was jolly nice staying in hotels and having a suitcase with wheels. Lots of people spoke English which was an enormous relief as my head for other languages is the size of a pea. A shrivelled pea. I can't tell you what I missed not going thirty years ago. I imagine a lot is different. But I got to go now and it was good. Great even. Okay, fabulous.

I touched the Louvre

Looked up the Eiffel Tower's skirts

Sighed over the Venice bridges

Adored the Duomo

Wished Gaudi had found his way down under 

And wondered at the whiff of modern in these 12th Century chessmen in the British Museum

I loved every monument, ruin, cobbled street and museum. I want to see it all again. I wish it wasn't all so far away but then I don't, because the effort required to get there makes everything seem even more significant and much more satisfying to experience. And in a fit of the most wonderful luck ever, and because I'd developed a willingness to queue despite the odds, I got tickets to see Benedict Cumberbatch play Hamlet at the Barbican in London, which was the perfect ending to our adventure.