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.
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.
My third post of things I have done IN and OUT of comfort zone. The out is the important one as these are the things that have taken a little courage or effort to push beyond the everyday. It has been a while since I’ve written, Ins and Outs but I will try to be succinct, as this post is meant to fit into my shorts series of posts.
Nature nerding: I’ve been busy bird-watching, spotted many mammals, observed incredible insects, sensational spiders and recently had a flurry of fungus fun.
Visits to the state forests of the Southern Highlands – Wingello, Belanglo and Penrose started me on my fungi fixation. The pine plantations are rich with mushrooms – both poisonous and edible. My husband says I now have fungi on the brain, well I guess that’s better than on my feet (I think). Blame the bored-doodle (previously named distractordog) we only travelled far afield to the state forests because we were catering for her boundless energy. Dogs are allowed off-leash in state forests but not at all in the National Parks or the Illawarra Escarpment State Conservation Areas closer to home.
I’ve always appreciated flora and fauna but a few new book gifts, websites and naturalists on social media have further encouraged me. My next post in Natures Lovers Log will list those resources that have aided and abetted by obsession. My instagram and facebook followers may have wondered whether the mother and writer has been hijacked by the biology nerd.
When I was young I always dreamed of a job as a park ranger, marine scientist, museum curator or biology researcher. But my nature hobby is the next best thing – maybe better, as I can go wherever my photos and feet take me with no expectation or restriction.
Nervous conference attendee: In September last year I attended my first SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference, held in Sydney. To push myself way out of my comfort zone I dived in head first and signed up to be a roving reporter/photographer. I am not a natural networker and, as I suspected, I felt out of by depth in the company of esteemed authors and publishers. However, I didn’t regret signing up for the reporting job. Taking photos gave me something to do and an excuse to mingle. If you’re an introvert like me and have a mortal fear of looking like an impostor it’s helpful to go to conference with an activity in mind – whether to participate in a pitch session, or help the organisers or have plans to meet fellow participants – perhaps those you have only previously known online. My favourite part of the conference was viewing the wonderful portfolios on display at the illustrator showcase. But I was also inspired by the varied panel discussions and always entertained by Susanne Gervay’s (Aust/NZ Regional Advisor) warm and funny MC-ing.
Muddling through a MOOC: I participated in a MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) called ‘Storied Women’ (how to write women in fiction) conducted by the International Writing Program (IWP) at the University of Iowa, USA. I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for as this was my first adult literary course. The assignments tested me. The parameters set for the assignments were broad enough so that everybody (and there were 1000’s) could write a different story but focused enough to make you think about aspects of plot, character or form discussed in the lectures. Being a free* course there is no real pressure to complete it but I was swept up in the challenge. I eagerly awaited each of the video lectures and readings and completed the five weekly assignments. These assignments are submitted online and are commented on by peers. The usefulness and number of the comments vary but at the end of the course I had five pieces that I wouldn’t have otherwise written. I’m a convert and intend to participate in selected future IWP MOOCS.
*Note: the course is free but to get a certificate sent via email is US$50. You must accumulate enough points via submitting comments and assignments to gain this award. I saw this money as a donation but probably won’t purchase the certificate next time. The work I’d produced by the end of the course was the real reward.
A few months ago I found myself deep in a writing rut. My confidence deflated my motivation stalled, my wheels spinning – going nowhere.
The reasons for this roadblock –
1. Several rejections of short stories. No, not rejections, Declineds – this is the term employed by the widely-used Submittable portal. Declined, somehow manages to sound more polite and more impersonal all at once. Gone are the days where some satisfaction could be gained by spearing rejection letters to a spike on the wall (a’ la Stephen King). I admit some of my manuscripts weren’t a good fit for the markets I was submitting to, but due to point 2. I was fairly desperate to send my children’s short stories anywhere.
2. The demise of the children’s short fiction market. In Australia I know of at least four competitions/markets that have closed in the last few years in an already tiny market. I never expect to make money or even wide recognition for short story writing but a little validation and goals to work toward are important. The competitions that do exist for children’s writing often have comparatively hefty entry fees ($12.00 or more) and for the winners there are small returns in terms of both money and publicity. Also children’s short fiction markets stipulate restrictive word limits. Most are under 700 words for the under 11 age group and no more than 1500 for older middle-grade. YA short fiction markets are almost non-existent. Micro-fiction (adult markets often regard anything up to 1000 words as flash or micro-fiction) can be engrossing and clever but also restrictive in terms of language, character arcs and settings. This can be stifling for a writer (especially verbose ones like me) and it is easy to look longingly over the fence at the adult literary magazines where the word limit of individual stories jumps dramatically to sometimes 10,000 words and often 6,000 words.
It is a volatile landscape for magazine publishers and small print presses. The Mslexia indie press guide says this ‘they start up and close down at the drop of a hat compiling an (indie press) guide is a bit like playing whack-a-mole‘ Unfortunately when it comes to children’s magazines disappearing into the mole hole is more common than a new mole poking their head up.
You might think that e-mags would have filled the void but they haven’t. Emags that except children’s writing from adults are hard to find. I did stumble on a mega-short story site recently called East of the Web and found it has a children’s section but am hard pressed to name any other.
Competition within this limited children’s market is fierce the only remaining Australian children’s print magazine – The School Magazine, only publishes a handful of the hundreds of unsolicited entries it receives per year.
Caterpillar magazine, a high quality Irish publication for 7 to 11-year-olds accepts international children’s stories and poems. It has a waiting period of up to 4 months from submission to news of acceptance/rejection.
Cricket media group in the USA produces a series of fiction and non-fiction magazines for children and young adults. While it is hard to find information on the number of entries they receive across 11 magazines even US blog posts I’ve read say this is a tough market to crack for US writers. You can bet it is even harder for Australians. Turnaround time on news of submissions can run up to 6 months. That equates to a big slush pile. Highlights magazine group are the other big print magazine publishes in the USA with a stated four-month submission waiting time.
While American markets do seem to be a bit healthier and varied than ours (or UK’s) I find it hard to adjust my stories to fit the US market. It’s not just the terminology but the organisational and cultural practices as well. I recently wrote a story about scouts. My story relied on having girls in the troop but in the USA scouts is still only for boys. And what about school? Do you change the way you name the grade levels? Although UK is more closely aligned I doubted a story I wrote about children walking home from the surf would resonate with British children. But I hear you say – Aren’t US magazines, in particular, crying out for diversity? Yes, but the not the diversity of an Australian suburbanite. I am stuck in a world which is diverse enough to be confusing but not diverse enough to be enlightening.
There is also a problem of accessing overseas magazines to research their preferred style and voice. So many blogs/podcast/editors I’ve heard say this research is a must If you live in the country of origin it is likely that the library will stock popular children’s magazines but if you have to subscribe from Australia to say, two of the Cricket media magazines, a Highlights magazine and The Caterpillar this can get pricey (over 150 annually) and impossible to justify on a purely cost-benefit analysis. Even if you’re lucky enough to climb the slush pile and win the grand prize of publication the rewards are likely to be less than $200 per story.
As far as competitions for children’s writers I wonder if many organisers have thrown in the towel because there were simply too many entries. It does seem ironic that high demand leads to cancellation. I’m only speculating. Maybe somebody more in-the-know can shed light on the demise of children’s writing competitions. I keep a submissions book which lists the manuscripts I’ve entered going back to 2012. It reads like a column of death notices for fallen competitions. My most disheartening discovery was that the Mary Grant Bruce award was no longer listed in the Fellowship of Australian Writers Awards in 2015. This was a rare opportunity that accepted children’s short stories up to 5000 words. Last year the Fellowship of Australian Writers offered 19 different annual awards across many genres and forms. There was not one award for children’s writing. The 2016 awards list will be released on Sept 1st.
I am powerless to influence the trends in the children’s short story market. So I can only file away my unsubmittable stories and hope a market opens up in the future.
3. Novel woes. I was told a by few sources working in children’s editing/publishing that no Australian publishers would take the risk on a middle-grade novel from an unknown author that was as long as mine – 85,000 words. I received a manuscript assessment that suggested I need to expand certain parts but at same time somehow simplify my story (among other criticisms.) It seemed an impossible depressing task to cut words and yet expand chapters so I put it away – for a while.
My comfortable middle grade wagon was going nowhere. The most sensible option (the least masochistic) would probably have been to give up on my writing journey and call for a taxi to take me to a new destination (Painting? Photography? Gardening?) This was harder than I thought. I tried for a week – maybe two. But I realised writing wasn’t just a pastime it had become a compulsion. I couldn’t stop thinking about my novel (could I fix it?). I got it out and rewrote a few of the early chapters with the aim to strengthened my main character’s motivations. Against my better judgement I even wrote another middle grade short story that came to me unbidden. This had to stop.
Strange, how the social media universe sometimes seems to nag you. As I pondered my stagnation I clicked over to twitter and somebody had tweeted this timely post quoting Coco Chanel
“Don’t spend time beating on a wall, hoping to transform it into a door. ”
I had to come up with a way to satisfy my writing habit and still have some achievable goals. Hence I hopped out of my comfortable pot-holed middle-grade car and decided to try out some new vehicles.
I wrote poetry as part of a 10 day WordPress Challenge. This is a great exercise which not only offers a daily prompt to get you going but also provides notes on different devices and forms of poetry. It is the best free course I’ve ever done. And while your poetry is not ‘marked’ the feedback you give and receive is fun and encouraging. The greatest lesson I learnt from this challenge was that I produce my best work when I have to and I have guidelines. For me deadlines and prompts are the best writing coaches. Admittedly I was exhausted after the 10 days but also chuffed that I had managed to write that many poems. I had never even attempted a single adult poem before.
While I know I will never become a great poet, I’m sure the language and the economy of words used in poetry can improve my fiction writing. Picture book writing and nano-fiction, in particular, require a beauty and sparseness of language that is closely related to poetry.
Adult short stories
Unlike children’s writing there seems to be a plethora of opportunities for adult short form writing with a wide range of word counts, genres and forms.
There are many literary magazines and international competitions accepting submissions throughout the year. Two good sites that list these opportunities are:
I also recently purchased, Mslexia Indie Presses 2016/17. This is a wonderful resource for British markets (many of which accept international submissions)
In past years I have started many adult short stories and finished a few. I decided to make a conscious decision to write more in the next 12 months and finish at least two of those languishing in my files.
It is not easy to change gears between adult and children’s short story writing and the effort sent me scuttling for dusty short story collections on my shelf and listening to short story podcasts – Selected Shorts and The New Yorker. I prefer the Selected Shorts selections (less high-brow) but I enjoy The New Yorker discussions (sometimes more than the story itself).
In children’s stories all story threads should be tied up neatly – the plot is all important. In adult fiction there is usually some shift in the character, but the language and the mood created are often as important as the plot. A good short story often leaves the reader pondering. I like the description I read somewhere – ‘An adult short story should, end but never close.’ Good short stories often reveal something profound about the human condition. On comparing the novel to the short story, V.S Pritchett’s is quoted, ‘The novel tells us everything whereas the short story tells us only one thing, and that, intensely.’ (From On Writing Short Stories edited by Tom Bailey)
I have managed to complete one adult short story recently but I feel it’s not quite right – almost a fusion between adult and children’ s writing. I am keeping my eye out for a course that will force me to do assignments and take my short story writing to the next level. If there is one thing I learnt from the poetry challenge is that I need prodding.
I wrote a nature essay that has been swirling around in my head for many years. I sat down to write it with great trepidation. Whereas poetry is an embellished representation of your heart and fiction is your imagination, a personal essay is your mind and personality laid bare. This is the one piece of writing I actually felt embarrassed about showing to my very non-judgmental (except re bad writing – as it should be) writing group.
Having said this – I really enjoyed writing this essay about mine and my children’s carefree childhoods in close contact with the coastal bush. Words flowed more freely than in any other form of writing I’ve attempted. Writing blog posts has definitely helped me find my voice for this kind of writing.
There are quite a few competitions and occasional markets that accept personal essays. Sometimes they have an open topic and other times they ask for specialised subjects such as travel stories or nature essays.
I am sure there will be more ruts in my writing journey (and hopefully a few downhill sections). But, hey, there is still screen-writing, play-writing, novellas, flash-fiction, non-fiction articles, picture books, romance…
Recently I attended the NSW Kids and YA Writers Festival which was an inspiring, informative and entertaining day.
One of the sessions I attended was pitch session for middle-grade and YA authors. Writers could sign up upon registration, then during the session six were drawn to present a 3- minute pitch. I’ve never attended a pitch session before so I was eager to see how they worked. You see, in my braver moments I imagine putting myself forward for my middle grade fantasy. This is what I learnt from the judging panel (agents and publishers) and those courageous souls whose name was drawn out of the box to present their work.
State the title, genre (see this post – Lara Willard) and specific age suitability of your book. eg 7-9 yrs, 9-12 yrs. (just middle-grade can be considered too vague) Young adult, New Adult, Adult.
Don’t try to recite a whole synopsis. Concentrate on the human emotion, the central conflict, the theme. It is very hard to listen to a convoluted plot. Things have to be much simpler in the spoken word than in the written. It’s hard to digest names, places and events in a monologue. The pitch is more like a blurb than a synopsis.
Always read a sample of your work. Probably the first page is best, as then there is no need to set the scene. This seemed to be the most important part to the judges and I came to realise why. A good premise is not much in itself. A captivating voice and engaging style is what really made the audience sit up and take notice.
Introduce yourself. Be brief. The work is more important. Help the listener understand your motivations, experience, staying power and enthusiasm. Things you might mention are, occupation (if it relates to your writing), your driving force and relevant writing successes (eg competition/publications).
State where your book fits in the current marketplace (not mandatory) eg My book will appeal to readers of…and … OR I was inspired by the world-building of…., the quirky characters of… and the off-the-wall humour of ….These options are preferable to comparing with just one book as agents/publishers don’t simply want a version of an existing novel.
Is there something that makes your book different? eg an unusual structure, an alternating POV, unreliable narrator.
Above all PRACTICE. Make sure the pitch fits into the time limit. Have prompt cards or small notes but don’t be trying to sort them out as you take the stage. Experiment with the order of the above. One pitcher opened with a dramatic reading from a passage of her text. This worked well for her. Don’t underestimate how flustered you (and definitely me) may be when there is a panel of agents staring coldly (it seems) over the rim of their glasses at you. Practice gives you confidence.
Before you decide to throw your hat in the ring for a pitch session, I’d suggest attending at least one previous session. I learnt a lot from the judge’s comments and I’m sure there is more to learn. In fact, I want to know what I’ve left out for future reference (one day I might just build up the courage).
I wouldn’t still be writing without my critique group. Writing simply would have been too lonely and frustrating. My abilities would’ve stagnated. There is only so much theory you can get from books and courses. You need to write and you need feedback. Sometimes you need to be told the same thing a dozen times before it truly sinks in (and maybe twenty when it comes to the difference between being and been – Sorry guys). Manuscript assessors or competitions with feedback can’t consistently deliver that. They also can’t provide friendship and support the way a writers group can.
I’m sure there have been many writers who’ve been successful without peer critiques but there would be few of those that didn’t have the help of a family member or close friend or agent who read and commented on their text before they sent it to publishers. Lucky you, if you have a loved one who has the patience to wade through several drafts and give you honest feedback. Most of us don’t.
I don’t want to sound like it’s easy to find a writing group that you feel comfortable with. It’s hard. This is not a book club get-together. You are baring your unfiltered mind to fellow members. You are sharing unpolished work and crazy ideas. If you were to equate mind to appearance it would be the equivalent of other’s seeing you stagger out of bed in your underwear first thing in the morning.
So how do you even begin to look for a writers group? Most of the groups I’ve been involved in have come about as a result of meeting people at local writing courses. I will be forever in the debt of well- known children’s author and generous networker – Di Bates. I participated in a course she ran on children’s writing and through her I was introduced to Danika. That was over five years ago and we are still meeting regularly having gained and lost some members along the way. Local writer’s centres and societies often run writing groups – even if you don’t like their format it is important to get yourself into situations where you can meet other writers and find those that you click with. Social media tags eg (#amwriting #amediting), attending writing conferences and participating in NaNoWriMo regional groups may lead to finding your perfect writing partner/s. I have no experience of online critique groups but I know they work well for some and maybe the only option for those in remote areas or with limited time.
I certainly didn’t land in my current fabulous writing group on my first attempt. In many former forays into writing get-togethers I worked out what works and what doesn’t for me. I stress for me because it very much depends on what you want to get out of a group. I’ve written down a few things that I found problematic:
– Writing groups that just do exercises/games. This is fun when you are starting out and can be good for idea generation but it often means you are not writing what you want to write and not getting meaningful critiques either. Particularly if the exercises involve writing things on the spot. I am hopeless at on-the-spot writing and never feel entirely comfortable sharing it with anybody. I believe writing impromptu is a different skill than writing and re-writing in a considered and careful manner. Also if you are all writing about the same thing for a particular exercise it can become unnecessarily competitive.
– Writing groups that are just about coaching/accountablity rather than critique. If you are an established writer with editors and publishers or you are held back more by your time management than the quality of your work this type of group or networking is great. If I could only have one, though, I would opt for the critique variety as they can still act as a motivating force but the accountability-type group can’t improve your writing.
-Writing groups that become more about something other than the writing. Do you find yourself baking and preparing lunch for 2 hours before a meeting? Or do you meet in noisy cafés where it is more about chasing down the best latte than getting down to the nitty gritty of your character’s development. Or does the group spend hours talking about the non-writing stuff?
– Members of the group find it difficult to take criticism of their work. That doesn’t mean everybody should accept criticism without comment. I often ask fellow members for clarification or explain why something is difficult to change. But even in that process I’m learning. Honestly, 90% of the time I come around to their viewpoint anyway. It is when members get emotional or overly precious about aspects of their work that it can become very awkward and unproductive.
– Conversely members who are rude or demeaning in giving critiques. Yes, writers do have to have thick skins. But if you find yourself crying or ripping up your work after each session then don’t torture yourself. Leave. No writing group at all is better than one that make you feel worthless.
– Groups with fluctuating membership. It’s important to build a relationship with fellow critiquers to get to know them and their work. It is difficult for someone to critique the middle chapter of your novel if they have no idea how it started. It is not critical if members miss a meeting or two but having new people every second meeting can be disruptive. Also it takes a certain familiarity to feel at ease with somebody both criticizing your work and allowing you to criticize theirs. Our group is lucky enough to have had the same five members for over 2 years now.
Now I’ve talked about how to meet writing partners and possible problems with writing groups. I’ll move on to what works for our group. I would love to hear the variations of how other successful critique groups operate. Our procedures aren’t set in stone – any group should be willing to evolve to better meet the needs of their members.
– We meet fortnightly. We used to meet monthly. This was too long to sustain the motivation between sessions. We all lead busy lives and more often than not one or two members can’t make it on the day. This meant that it was often two months between sessions if somebody missed one. By then they were practically strangers (not really but you know what I mean).
– We have five members. Any more that this and it gets too onerous to edit everyone else’s words. Much less and there may not be enough eyes or viewpoints to make well-rounded criticism. I like five because if one or two are away then three can still have a meaningful meeting. You often find that different members have different strengths (thank goodness the others know more about punctuation and grammar than me).
– We take it in turns to meet at each other’s houses. Five people can easily fit around a dining table and we don’t go to any huge effort for food. A morning tea with nibbles. We joke that an essential requirement of our group is a tolerance for pets. At last count we had eight dogs and four cats between us (Pat has over half those). They invariably provide us with some distraction (my dog is the worst attention-seeker).
– Every meeting we critique up to 1500 words of each other’s work. This can be part of a novel, a picture book text, a poem, or series of poems , or a short story or even pitch letters and synopses.
– We don’t always write in same genre or for the same age group. I have read elsewhere that groups should only be formed who write in the same genre eg all middle-grade or all YA. This maybe be ideal, but having people who you get on with and are good at offering criticism is much more important than sticking to a group that writes your exact genre. Also I would argue that the variety is refreshing and as a writer you don’t feel restricted to presenting the same genre every week. We’ve had adult flash fiction, picture books, children’s and adult poetry, middle grade and YA Novels presented at our meetings. I even got valuable feedback on a nature essay I wrote.
– We send out our work via email attachment 2-5 days before the meeting. I like this method because, as I’ve said before on this blog, I am a slow thinker and writer and I like to give a considered critique rather than a hurried on-the-spot one. Some of you may be excellent at the off-the-cuff critique so this may not be necessary. Or if your group is large (over 6) the emails and pre-work may be too overwhelming. We each choose the method we prefer for editing. Some of us prefer to use Word review in-document comments others just prefer to use a pen on the printed-out text. Either way we bring a print-out of our own work and critiqued work of others to each meeting.
– Each meeting we take it in turns to have our work read out. Mostly, we get someone else to read our piece. This can be enlightening as other readers don’t make the same assumptions about your work. This can be particularly useful with poetry and picture book texts where language and rhythm are all important.
– At the end of the reading we discuss the piece and explain our critique comments. The discussion is often as productive (and definitely more fun) as the comments themselves. At the end of the discussion we pass over the commented piece to the writer to take home.
– We are not all business. We DO chat. We chat about our inspirations, our rejections, our successes, writing opportunities and festivals, our experiences of publishers, self-publishing, manuscript assessments, courses, social media – every topic related to writing and… some not – families – human and furred. This is important. I have learnt so much and reached wider writer’s networks by listening and learning from the others in my group. The support to keep going and being around people who understand your passion and struggle is invaluable.
If you are curious these are the websites of the others in my writing group:
Wacky doo! I’ve made it. A whole ten days of writing poetry. I started as a total newbie to adult poetry and I finish humbled. Now I have no doubts that a poet’s lot is wearying and soul-wrenching. I’m spent. But I’ve learnt so much about form and technique. I’ve written verse that I never would have considered without the prompts and the guidance. Thanks to wordpress and my fellow participants for sharing the journey.
The last challenge, the sonnet, was well left to last because, for me, this was the toughest. It seemed wrong for an amateur like me to tackle such an esteemed form. After hours I gave up on iambic pentameter but chose the Shakespearean rhyming scheme. I stayed up till after midnight writing my first effort ‘Finding My Voice,’ but all night it needled at me. Was my one and only contribution to the world of sonnets going to be so ego-centric? So this morning I wrote another ‘Beautiful Hurting Earth’ which eased my mind a little.
Prompt: The future
Form: The sonnet
Beautiful Hurting Earth
Oh, beautiful, blue hurting sphere,
Spinning around a brilliant, burning sun.
Will our tenure be short? Our end near?
In your eons is our race close to run.
Can we overcome the hatred and the greed?
Can your welfare come before the politic?
Can we work as one in our dire hour of need?
Or are we doomed to obstinance and rhetoric.
Alternatives to belching, dirty fossil fuel.
Alternatives to wrenching, ugly, useless war.
And yet we choose the deadly and the cruel.
For who? Not you and I. We want no more.
Don’t we all want an earth where those we hold dear,
Can live and breathe without ignorance and fear.
Finding My Voice
William the bard says life is but a play.
Actors all, we join the mighty rolling cast.
But taking the stage has not been my way –
For, without the clapping crowd the show won’t last,
And understudy, dresser, stagehand,
As well, I’ve done those parts, without regret.
Time turns and now it’s right for me to stand,
To find my voice, a role for this old girl yet.
I’ll sing a ballad, pen a poem, paint a green sea,
Stroll beaches, walk hills and in the valley camp
Write till late, write a play, write a book or three
I’ll play the artist, the writer, and the tramp.
My future’s mine to shape. If I may be so bold,
But shaping is not knowing what the years will hold.