Leighroswen.com is now exclusively for, updates on my writing, reviews and the Literaleigh personal and creativity blog. The Nature Lover’s Log has moved to Natureloverslog.com. Please check it out. I’ve begun an ambitious project to log all the insects and spiders photographed in my suburban yard. It’s called Bug-a-log. I set myself a leisurely target of logging five new bugs every month (this could take quite a while).
Even though Leigh, the nature nerd has moved away from here. I hope I’ve taken some writing skills with me and will apply them to my extended nature writings in – The Log Blog and Bird Tales. You may notice I’ve migrated across a few of my favourite old posts. The new website focuses heavily on visuals and every photo used is my own.
Last week I travelled to Christchurch for the launch of, Wish upon a Southern Star – a collection of retold fairy tales by Australian and New Zealand authors. My story, Jack and the Alphaget Book is one of the stories chosen by editor Shelley Chappell to be part of this anthology.
This was my first book launch and my first time in the south island of New Zealand so it was all very exciting. When we arrived at our air bnb the hosts showed us the backyard where a clear spring-fed creek flowed (header image). And there in the creek was a magnificent white swan– straight out of a fairytale. This swan was particularly cranky and aggressive towards us so I guessed an evil witch had put a rather nasty spell on it – or perhaps it was slighted because there were no retellings of, The ‘Wild Swans’ in Wish upon a Southern Star.
Wish upon a Southern Star contains 21 retold fairytales, ranging from the well-known tales such as Cinderella and Rapunzel to lesser known ones such as retellings of Kissa the Cat and Cat and Mouse in Partnership.
I haven’t had a chance to read the collection yet because I’ve been reading a novel that I need to finish. I’m rigid like that I can’t start a book no matter how enticing until I finish the one I’m on (is anybody else like that?). But I am enjoying just looking at it on my bedside table – like a treasure chest of untold wonders just waiting to be opened. From the readings at the launch I know there is a wonderful blend of dark and funny, romantic and prescient.
My daughter and I spent a lovely few days in Christchurch – a city still rebuilding from the devastating earthquakes 7 years ago. There are more tradesman than shoppers in the central district and a mall of shipping container shops. We could have tried to cover more of the south island in the four days we were there but there is something to be said for staying put in a unfamiliar city and trying to get a feel for the people, the culture and the layout. We deduced in our brief time that Christchurchians are above all resilient. Conversations with the locals showed their pragmatism regarding the disruptive and slow rebuilding process and their unshakeable (literally) pride in their city and their optimism for the future.
The Container Mall
View from the top
The book launch itself was held in the South Christchurch Library with individual author talks, book sales and importantly nibbles. It was lovely to meet many of the other authors and share in the thrill of holding the book in our hands.
For me the old adage of ‘no writing is wasted’ had come true. Unlike many of the other authors in the collection I hadn’t written this story in response to the call for submissions but had written it many years ago. Jack and the Alphaget book was one of those rare stories that tumbled out of my head in a few days. However when I sat back to look at it I realised that there was just no market for a tween story with such a long word count (6000 words). So I put it away for a long sleep among my computer files …. until Shelley my fairy godmother came along for a request for retold fairytales up to 10,000 words! With help from my writing group I dusted off and polished my story and successfully submitted it, and now here it is, in an anthology. The moral is never throw away any of your old manuscripts – there may just be a market that opens up in the future.
I went to the Wollongong Botanical Gardens the other day to wander and take some macro shots. It had been a long time between visits. The visit made me sad because there was something different. It wasn’t the gardens. They were still beautiful and the sky was blue and the afternoon sun warm. It wasn’t just because I was nostalgic for family picnics or the times my son and I explored its forests and creeks while my daughter attended drama lessons. No. It was more the young people in the garden.
We came across at least five different sets of teens and young adults who were searching for locations and posing dramatically for photos taken by friends. It wasn’t just girls. There were girl/boy, boy/boy and girl/girl combinations. It was apparent that the botanical gardens, for them was just a backdrop for their social media posts. Snippets of overheard conversation were about poses, hair and locations that would best show off their features. Overheard at the arbour: “How am I supposed to randomly put my feet here.” (truly)
I am not saying these are just other people’s narcissistic kids. Only last week my son had gone to the botanical gardens with a friend to ‘update his profile picture’ At the time I was just happy that he was getting out of his room but today the full weight of how quickly times have changed hit me. There’s so much emphasis on looking hot and having the façade of an aesthetic life. To the point that a teenage view of the world seems to about how good they’ll look in it. I don’t envy today’s kids. Who would want that pressure?
For a teen of today there is no break from peer pressures and for families there is precious little ‘family time’. At home, on holidays, in the car, kids are still with their peer groups via social media. Restrictions on devices just become another reason for family conflict – as if teens naturally don’t have enough to argue with their parents about.
I thought there could be nothing wider than the generation gap between me and my parents. But things are moving fast now. Much faster than they did in the 60’s 70’s and 80’s. The mere fact that I was relieved that my son was getting out in the fresh air and getting a little exercise – my parents wouldn’t have had the least concern about that. We didn’t need to be told to get outside. We didn’t have the allure of a secret online world in our bedrooms or access to cameras and social media 24/7. A teen in the 90’s would have more in common with my 70’s teen generation than they would with the current generation. Ubiquitous internet connectivity has changed everything. I heard somebody ask the other day if their YA novel set in the 90’s is historical fiction – of course it is. Our lives today would be like science fiction to a 90’s teen.
When I got home I asked my son, “When you went to the gardens the other day did you at least just wander around and appreciate them for a bit.”
“Of course, I did,” he said.
I don’t know whether it was true but I want to believe it.
Here are the pictures I took while I wandered and appreciated the bugs, birds and blooms in the afternoon light.
Who hasn’t felt a compulsion to feel the texture of a sandstone boulder warmed by the sun, a smooth pebble from the river bed or a jagged quartz crystal. To touch a rock is to connect to the earth before, humans. Before life itself. I feel a poem coming on, and photos of richly textured rocks taken on my travels.
I grew up in Gosford on the Central Coast of NSW, Australia. I must have taken the rail journey from Gosford to Sydney via the Hawkesbury River Railway Bridge dozens and dozens of times. Everyday thousands of commuters, travellers and hundreds of tons of freight make the journey over this bridge. But I wonder how many travelling this route have actually seen the bridge, apart from the limited view through the metal struts.
It took me till my fifties to get a real view of this familiar yet unfamiliar span. These pictures were taken from a motor boat just west of river town of Brooklyn (far from the New York borough) as a freight train trundled over the bridge.
I put a post-slate filter over these photos to accentuate the metallic struts.
This is the second construction of the Hawkesbury River Bridge. The sandstone piers of the first bridge remain as historic markers. This first bridge was opened in 1889 as part of extension of the rail line to replace a three-hour long paddle-steamer service that took passengers from Brooklyn to Gosford. The bridge gave around fifty years of service before severe cracking was discovered in one of the piers.
A lone tree with million dollar views over the picturesque Hawkesbury river can just be seen poking out from the top of the old pillar.
Construction of the new bridge took place during the WW11 years starting in 1940 and finally finishing in 1946. The train trip from Brooklyn to Gosford via the bridge now takes a total of 25 mins. However, the current bridge has problems of its own. It appears the depth of sediment on the river bed (before penetrating bedrock) and heavy loads eventually take their toll. Last year an engineering report revealed that there was cracking in the concrete piers as well as defects in the steel frame. http://coastcommunitynews.com.au/2016/12/hawkesbury-river-bridge-freight-train-limitations-imposed/
Perhaps before this century is out a third set of piers will be sunk into the mud of the Hawkesbury River.
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.