This week’s challenge calls for a transition such as a river that flows via a delta to the sea. A photo, that perhaps, captures part of a transition or a moment in time without necessarily telling the whole story.
Currarong is a picturesque seaside town on the South Coast of NSW Australia. A week before I captured this photo the coast was battered by high winds and storm surges. The pool in Currarong creek had returned to tranquility but the muddy bank, the broken branches and the vibrant red tannin stain (from tea trees) were testament to the previous turbulent weather.
Looking to the right of a foot bridge the creek is surrounded by bush but to the left of the bridge the landscape quickly transitions to a sandy shore. The creek morphs to shallow stream flowing to the sea.
While on a late autumn bushwalk I photographed this tangled web. It seemed designed to capture the scarce morning rays that penetrated the rainforest canopy. The light captured by the silk was transient and had already faded by the time we passed. Spiders themselves have a transient existence most do not survive the winter months perhaps this was a beautiful testament to the last exertion of a spider’s life.
I’m to the halfway point of the annual Picture Book Challenge founded by picture book author, Julie Hedlund. The idea of the 12 X 12 challenge is to write a picture book each month. It’s a challenge I took on in a moment of frustration when I felt like a break from my usual writing genre (middle grade). I love a challenge, or more accurately, I need a kick up the pants in the form of deadlines and cheer-leading. The 12 x 12 challenge is patronised internationally and attracts over 800 participants. The perks of membership and cost are well documented here http://12x12challenge.com/membership/ As I hadn’t done the challenge before I paid for the Shel Silverstein – level membership.
After a quick perusal of the ‘Introduce yourself’ forum on the 12 x 12 member page I deduced that only about 10 % of participants appear to be non-USA citizens.
So what is the Australian experience of 12 x 12 . What are some things to consider?
1.Budget for the exchange rate.
The actual cost of membership was around AUD $200 (USD $147).
Last month I also purchased, Picture Book Blueprint, which was a special deal offered by webinar presenter Laura Backes (25% off). This deal wasn’t so special when taking into account the Australian exchange rate. It cost around 200 AUD for lifetime access to the PB blueprint video presentations, downloadable PDF’s and facebook page. This latter purchase was entirely indulgent and it is not a requirement of the challenge. I haven’t used this resource yet but intend to for next month’s effort.
2. The time difference. Live webinars were generally staged at 4 to 6 am Australian time but this is not a huge problem (see below)
3.The picture book market in USA is different.
– Narrative non-fiction particularly picture book biographies seem to be very popular. This isn’t just coming from the webinars and industry experts on the 12 X12 page. For my own interest I asked the members of my critique group (all from USA) what their own children’s favourite picture books were. Many named biographies in their lists.
– More room for niche books – those which address minority groups and issues . The awarded and prolific Australian author Michelle Worthington said at the NSW Writers Festival that her more specialised books such as, Noah chases the Wind, featuring a child with autism, are sold direct to USA publishers.
– There seems to be more leniency with word count. Picture book competitions in Australia and general advice I’ve received from industry insiders advise that texts should not exceed 500 words. In the USA picture books that go up to 900 words seem to be more accepted. I think this is partly due to the popularity of narrative non-fiction.
– Agents seem to be almost mandatory over there whereas most first-time picture book authors here gain publication through direct submission. A consequence of this author- agent relationship, often stated in the 12 X 12 discussions, is that writers should have at least three submission-ready manuscripts before putting one forward to agent. Agents represent authors rather than books and seek clients with depth. In Australia if you have single manuscript that you’ve polished (and polished again) then it is pointless labouring away on another two or three before you submit that first one. Submit, then work on your next book – there is sure to be lots of waiting whether successful or not.
4. Terminology and Australian culture. This is the hardest problem for me to get around when writing for 12 x 12 . It is not just the obvious terminology differences ie thongs vs flip flops, trolleys vs carts, Mum vs mom, but also cultural practices. For instance, the naming of school grades, popular sports and pastimes. I mentioned cricket (the game) in one of my stories, but of course, my US critiquers didn’t get it and many Australian kids can’t relate to baseball (although both my children played the pitching game).
The above three points are not necessarily drawbacks. The following are counterpoints to the above discussions:
1. Cost. The price of this challenge is less that you would pay for one good PB manuscript assessment or one conference registration. The monthly webinars have so far been well-presented and packed with information and relevant examples. Julie Hedlund hosts industry experts which all have something different to offer from polishing/editing, to rhyming and non-fiction and finding ideas that resonate. Julie herself asks the right questions and adds useful anecdotes in an easy-to-listen style. The webinars are worth the price of admission alone but there is also many discussion forums you can join on aspects of picture book writing and a manuscript assessment forum where you can post your picture book texts for comment. I’ve only used the latter feature once for an early draft. I received some good feedback but, to be honest, I’m a little worried about this forum as your text is available to every member of 12 X 12 (800+) so you do this at your own risk. I felt more comfortable when I joined with a small critique group with five members. There are plenty of opportunities to join these smaller critique groups which are advertised in a section called Critique Connect.
This years writing craft book is money well spent. Ann Whitford Paul’s, Writing Picture Books* is packed with ideas on age-appropriateness, structure, voice, character and plot devices. This book was published in 2009 so some of the example texts listed are a bit dated* (although some are ageless) and need to be supplemented with studies of modern texts. This where I’m at a bit of disadvantage as I no longer have young children who bring home books or have the need to buy picture books. However I have gleaned quite a bit from listening to the webinars as they give excellent modern examples. Many picture books readings are available on You-tube although I can’t imagine these videos don’t infringe some sort of copyright laws.
I’ve paid for a year’s subscription to ‘Storybox Library’ which is an Australian site where picture books are read out loud (often by celebrities). This is a lovely site but as a writer there is nothing like having the picture book in your hands to have a close look at the layout, language and page turns. You can source books at libraries but it is easy to get overwhelmed when you go into the children’s section – and there will be some poor quality picture books on the shelves. It is worthwhile doing a little research around the best new picture books including looking at the CBCA Awards for early readers http://cbca.org.au/short-list-2017 for past few years and the koala awards http://www.koalansw.org.au/winners/.
So in short – Yes the price of 12 X 12 is worth it. And I would recommend Ann Whitford Paul’s book* even if you’re not doing the challenge.
2. Time difference. Each webinars is made available as a replay about a week after live event so you can watch at your own leisure – and not necessarily all at once. Of course, with a replay you can’t participate in the live question/answer sessions but I haven’t watched a replay yet where I wished they’d asked this or that question. The replay webinars remain available on login for about a three weeks – so plenty of time to watch. Other forms of communication are not time dependent – the discussion forums are always open and historical discussions kept. I use email for my small critique group and view and occasionally comment on the 12 X 12 facebook page. The two occasions I had a minor queries Kelli Panique (Julie’s administrative assistant) has replied to my emails promptly.
3 & 4 Market. You may want to target the USA market. If this is the case 12 x 12 is a great way to get a feel for what works in the States. It’s good to run your story past US critiquers to test how internationally friendly your characters, setting and language are. Australian author, Mem Fox is hugely popular in the USA – and she even mentioned cricket in Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge. Still, you shouldn’t go into 12 X 12 thinking the US market is easier to crack. 12 X 12 bloggers and social media posts present many, many stories of continual rejections, near misses and years of revising and education. The market may be bigger over there but so are the number of aspiring picture book authors.
I am not a model challenger as I have written only three manuscripts so far in the six months but I am quite happy with that given that Julie Hedlund herself says she never actually wins the challenge. And I’m am learning mountains and those mountains are steep. Above all I know now – writing publishable picture books is a lot harder than it looks.
I have taken a departure from my shorts with this post as I had a lot to say. But have a few more shortish posts to go on my other blogs
* Ann Whitford Paul has a new book coming out in 2019, so if you can, wait for this new edition. It will have updated texts and will address, more recent market trends eg self-publishing, shorter text lengths. (heard from a Julie Hedlund/Ann Whitford Paul webinar Jan 2018)
Two of my works have been illustrated in the last 6 months.
The first was my flash fiction piece, The Age-old Battle published in The Readers Digest 100 Word Short Stories. I didn’t know this anthology would be illustrated at all, let alone my particular story. So it was an unexpected pleasure when I opened the book to find the powerful image of my protagonist. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any illustrator credited in the book.
The second one was ‘Thongs on the Path’ published in June 2017 issue of School Magazine. Wow! What a thrill to receive my two copies in the mail and see David Legge’s quirky interpretation of my story on the front cover. David is a talented illustrator of many books and author/illustrator of the terrific picture book – Bamboozled. I didn’t laugh at my text when I wrote ‘Thongs on the Path’ but I did have a giggle at the inside illustrations. A good illustrator does that. They don’t just create appropriate pictures to match the words they add something to the story. I’ve always been in awe of artistic talent (because I have none). But more than that children’s illustrators are, in fact, co-authors as their interpretation of characters and scenes are important to the narrative and to the mood of the story.
From this one passage in my short story:
“He (Uncle Kevin) wouldn’t be needing his scratchy, heavy human clothes again, but the Zulerians wanted to keep them – to display in their museum.
David Legge created this:
I hadn’t put anything about the appearance of the aliens, or the display and yet his interpretation was perfect and funny and went beyond my imagination.
While doing the 12 X 12 Picture Book Challenge this year (my experience in a future blog post) I have to keep reminding myself that it’s important to leave room for narrative input by an illustrator. Less description and less action narration. It is not an easy switch when you are used to writing non-illustrated stories.
I have updated this old post as I find I am using more online resources now, particularly for insect identification.
My love for the nature is enhanced by constant education. These are some of the resources that help me classify and learn about the flora and fauna in my photos. I apologise to my overseas visitors these resources relate to Australian wildlife.
https://www.facebook.com/groups/AmateurEntomologyAustralia/ Fantastic group there is seemingly an enthusiasts on each insect group here. If you want an id make sure you follow the rules of group by posting geographical location and any helpful behaviour/size/plant hosts/micro-habitat. Be aware that many insects cannot be identified to species level – because they either need microscopic examination or a simply not well-described (this is what makes entomology so exciting). Apart for getting id’s the posts by others will teach you a lot about insect behaviour and identification. This site also seems to except spider posts although not insects.
http://www.bowerbird.org.au/ If I can’t get an id on Amateur Entomology facebook I go to this citizen science site where you can post photos and descriptions and usually have it identified as close as possible by an expert. This site is a little hard to get used to but administrators seem to be very patient with newbies. I had trouble with screen size/scrolling once and got quick response via email. There is a long online document with instructions on how to post but I found it best to muddle through and refer to instructions when you get stuck (otherwise you will be overwhelmed.) Even if you don’t post, scrolling through the sightings on individual ‘projects’ may lead you to an id on your own discovery. ‘Projects’ on bowerbird are broad groups of living things eg moths, beetles, bees, spiders, fungi or even all sightings in a particular geographical location.
https://www.brisbaneinsects.com/ WOW! this site has me in awe. The Chew family from Brisbane started this site in 2001 and their last posting appears to be 2011. They have taken so much care to carefully identify and photograph the insects around Brisbane. Because ids in the insect world are ever-changing some classifications here may be out of date. Even so this is the site where I most often find matches to the hard-to-find creatures or at least find their closest relatives. Just looking through the listing of insect families is an education and gives you a broad perspective of evolutionary relationships. I live in southern NSW but rarely find an insect that is not listed here (although there are are many that I don’t see). I hope this site is never taken down as I believe it will serve as a record of insect biodiversity which according to dire predictions is in rapid decline. Thank you, Chew family.
https://australianmuseum.net.au/animals The Australian Museum site is an important source of accurate information on classification. Can be contacted by email with photo attachment if you are really stuck. I queried them a few times and they have given good succinct answers.
http://www.ozanimals.com/index.html It is not clear who runs this site but they certainly have a wide array of photos of all animal types with classification. Click on the small index photos to see larger and often a variety of photos. Good to browse through if unsure where to start.
https://fungimap.org.au/ this is a not-for-profit organisation that asks for your sightings of fungus. They have pdf forms to fill in if you want to submit a sighting or have a fungus identified. Identification will take a while as they are inundated with requests and fungi can be tricky shape/colour shifters which are hard to classify. Try some of the resources listed before you submit an identification request.
Instagram On Instagram you can just about find any # you could ever imagine. If you suspect you have a particular fungus, bird, insect, search on the hashtag and relevant pictures will appear. I have put in some pretty obscure genus and species names and have rarely have zero hits. From these hashtag searches (and those who like your posts) you can find nature photographers that are also interested in classifying flora and fauna. Use specific hashtags so you attract like-minded naturalists.
https://wildlifespotter.net.au/ This is a bit different. Not a site to investigate my photos but a fun site to help with fauna research. Sign up and classify animals taken by automatic cameras set up for various projects throughout Australia. I have spotted quolls, dingoes, white-tailed rats, bandicoots, bettongs, mulgara (small marsupial carnivores) and, I know you won’t believe me – I think a Tasmanian tiger.
Bird apps – Books are still the best tools for bird identification but it can be useful to have a bird app with calls. I purchased the Morcombe and Stewart Guide a few years ago. However this is quite expensive ($30) and really the most useful feature is the audio. I notice there are now free apps for apple and android devices that offer bird sounds.
There are of course many other websites and blogs – some of them specialising in particular types of animals. Image searches are your friend and enemy. I’ve been down a lot of rabbit holes that lead to sites that have no classifications or wrong classification. When doing a search remember to always put the location (at least country) to narrow down. Also remember that juvenile and adult, male and female can look quite different. Observations of behaviour and habitat are also often invaluable in classification.
I have many books on my shelves relating to marine life (from my scuba diving days) birds, mammals, reptiles, plants, and backyard wildlife. Some of these are quite old and there may be better or later editions published. But the following three books I have carefully chosen in the last 6 months and I can vouch for their usefulness in classification (as well as sheer beauty). Books are an important resource and far less likely to mislead you than the internet. They are often my first stop before I check online for more images and details.
The Field Guide to the Birds of Australia, Graham Pizzey and Frank Knight, 2012
I have old editions of Cayley’s and Simpson and Day on my shelves but I was recently gifted this book for Mothers Day and it is my most treasured reference. Each page has only a few closely related species depicted (maximum four) with beautiful clear drawings often showing juvenile, male and female forms as well as variants. Every household should have a bird book and this one I would highly recommmend.
The Butterflies of Australia, Albert Orr and Roger Kitching, 2011
Also a mother’s day present. Filled with wonderful pictures of, not only the butterflies, but also eggs, caterpillars, pupae and host plants. This is large book (28cm long) and beautiful enough to grace a coffee table
A field guide to Australian Fungi, Bruce Fuhrer, revised 2016
This is a book with over 500 fungi described and beautifully photographed in their natural environment. It is widely acknowledged to be the most comprehensive guide to Australian fungi. Despite this, fungi identification is incredibly difficult for a beginner like me. Even using this book and internet searches I have five or six fungi photos that have me stumped. There is variation within species of colour and size and many features (sometimes microscopic) that have to be either recorded or photographed. Even in this book there are many fungi that are listed in a general group and described as unidentified species.
A field guide to Spiders of Australia, Robert Whyte and Greg Andersen
Beautiful close-up photos of spiders. If you may not find the spider you are looking for here but it will set you on the right track re families to investigate.