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’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.
By Liane Moriarty Pan Macmillan Australia 2015 Adult Fiction
Score: 10/10 Genre: Australian suburban drama/suspense
This is part of Shorts Series of book reviews (skimping on all aspects except Use for Writers)
There is death and mayhem at the primary school trivia night. Big Little Lies deals with the circumstances leading up to this tragic event. There is school-yard bullying, over-involved parents, dark secrets hidden behind closed doors, fraught relationships and firm friendships.
My first 10/10 book for the blog!
This book deals in part with dark subjects of domestic and sexual violence. But, like real life, these don’t exist in isolation. The farcical ‘mummy wars’ and the cringe-worthy helicopter parents are both humorous and all too familiar. The mystery is suspenseful and teased out in chapters in varying POV’S. But above all the dialogue and characterisations sparkle with authenticity and wit.
Use for writers: Liane Moriarty depresses me. Sometimes when I read a good novel I can convince myself of one of two things:
– I couldn’t write it because I don’t have the life experience or the time/resources to research the subject material.
– I think I can emulate aspects of the novel.
-Moriarty doesn’t write about the unfamiliar – this is suburban coastal Australian. It could’ve been set at my local primary school, in my suburb. So, the first excuse is null.
– And for the second: Moriarty so deftly handles structure and characterisation that it would be easy to try and do what she does, and fail.
The structure of both, Big Little Lies, and her novel, Truly Madly Guilty, follow the pattern of: A terrible event has taken place. What are the things that lead to this event (flashbacks and forwards). The who, how, and exactly what of the event. The fallout from the event.
Moriarty reveals each part of the mystery and each character’s secrets just at the right time. The changes in points of view enhance the pacing and add to the suspense. The dialogue and inner thoughts of the main characters are so witty that I wanted to reread sections just for fun. I particularly loved the use of the humorous snippets (flash forwards) of the police interviews for the minor characters. If you are thinking of writing a Multiple POV novel it would perhaps pay to do a table/map of POV changes and time shifts throughout Big Little Lies to get a sense of its structure.
Multiple POVs and fragmented timelines have the potential to make for a confusing read but not here because:
-We are kept orientated with statements about the length of time till the trivia night eg FIVE MONTHS BEFORE TRIVIA NIGHT.
– The voices and the houses/circumstances of the main characters are so different that you never lose track of where you are and whose head you’re in.
Madeline, the sassy older mum with fierce loyalty to her friends is a wonderful character. In this excerpt she is with her new friend, Jane and older friend, Celeste – on her birthday, feeling sorry for herself due to an injured ankle. The last passage shows how Moriarty cleverly segues into the future police interviews.
‘Let’s have some now!’ Madeline lifted the bottle by the neck suddenly inspired.
‘No, no,’ said Celeste. ‘Are you crazy? It’s too early for drinking. We have to pick the kids up in two hours. And it’s not chilled.’
‘Champagne breakfast’ said Madeline. ‘It’s all in the way you package it. We’ll have champagne and orange juice. Half a glass each! Over two hours. Jane? Are you in?’
‘I guess I could have a sip,’ said Jane. ‘I’m a cheap drunk.’
‘I bet you are, because you weigh about ten kilos,’ said Madeline ‘We’ll get on well. I love cheap drunks. More for me.’
‘Madeline,’ said Celeste. ‘Keep it for another time.’
‘But it’s the Festival of Madeline,’ said Madeline sadly. ‘And I’m injured.’
Celeste rolled her eyes. ‘Pass me a glass.’
Thea: Jane was tipsy when she picked up Ziggy from orientation… Young single mother drinking first up in the morning. Chewing gum too. Not a good first impression. That’s all I’m saying.
Footnote: After this I read Liane Moriarty’s Truly Madly Guilty – also brilliantly structured. I give it 9/10. I favour Big Little Lies because the overwhelming feeling when reading Truly Madly Guilty was one of dread (it involved the possible drowning of a young child). This dread keeps you turning pages but perhaps not as entertaining as the mystery and humour which infuses Big Little Lies.
I am currently reading the, The Hypnotist’s Love Story, also by Liane Moriarty.
I’ve been slack, very slack with this blog of late. Because like a true Geminii I get bored easily and am tempted by the next glittering thing. The next glittering writing project/genre/challenge and the next platform on social media. But here I am back with a renewed fondness for my blog because, let’s face it, I’m verbose. Restraining my word count is not my strong point. So really Twitter, Facebook and recently Instagram just don’t fill my rambling need.
And I admit I lost faith in my blog for a time I’ve been reading other excellent writing blogs and did a course on social media for writers and realised I’m doing it all wrong.
I should have a brand, a focus for my blog. I should target my potential fiction readers. But like my restless Geminii personality my blog is a hotch-potch of nature photography and taxonomy, book reviews, writing (in all genres and ages) travel and general musings.
Who is going to follow that? Who has my eclectic blend of interests?
But that’s who I am. And even if I write to nobody but myself at least I’ll be writing a variety of things that’ll keep me interested. If one week somebody visits my blog who is interested in the Asian House Gecko and the next week another person reads my poetry challenge efforts and the next week a dystopian enthusiast reads my book review on, Wool then, to me, that’s thrilling. Not practical. Not good marketing. Just fun.
So what to do now? How do I play catch-up?
Well I’m writing a series of shorts. Not so succinct they are Twitter or Instagram size, but short enough to summarise my endeavours and observations over the last 8 months. Including:
Reading shorts – Mini-reviews of the books I have read recently with a focus on my, Use for Writers (as there are plenty of reviews out there which have good synopses and inciteful opinions) – on my Book Reviews blog.
Creativity/Musing shorts – What I’ve learnt, where I’m heading on my writing journey and how I stepped outside my comfort zone in the last 8 months – on my Literaleigh blog
Nature shorts – this is the one I am looking forward to most. I’ve taken many photos and want to share some observations – on Nature Lovers Log.
By Phillip Pullman RHCP Digital 2015 (Book 1st published 1995)
Children’s Fiction (*see warning)
Score: 8/10 Genre: Fantasy
Northern Lights is the first in the, His Dark Materials trilogy, followed by, The Subtle Knife and The Amber spyglass. It is set in an alternate reality where every human has an inseparable animal daemon with whom they communicate and share feelings.
Lyra has an undisciplined childhood growing up in Jordan college with old, preoccupied scholars as her guardians. When her Uncle, the formidable Lord Asriel, visits Jordan college Lyra overhears him request funds for a mysterious ‘dust’ research project that he is conducting in the cold North.
Lyra seems set to continue her carefree life until children start to disappear, including her good friend Roger. The charismatic Mrs Coulter arrives and whisks Lyra away to London, to a life of comfort and order. After hearing frightening talk about Mrs Coulter’s activities, Lyra flees her London flat and is taken in by the noble, boat -faring gyptians. She travels North with them intent on finding Lord Asriel and the missing children.
In the North Lyra encounters great dangers – crippling cold, institutions of child and daemon cruelty and warrior bears. Ultimately she exposes shocking truths about ‘dust’ and her parents.
Lyra is assisted in her adventures by the truth-telling alethiometer – a compass-like instrument given to her in secret by the Master at Jordan college.
This is a beautifully written book. The descriptions of landscapes and characters are evocative without being too lengthy or pretentious.
Pale green and rose-pink, and as transparent as the most fragile fabric, and at the bottom edge a profound and fiery crimson like the fires of Hell, they swung and shimmered loosely with more grace than the most skilful dancer (description of the Northern Lights).
The settings in this fantasy are the earthly landscapes of Britain and the polar regions, making it easy to visualise Lyra’s surrounds. This leaves the reader more mind space to digest the vivid character and daemon descriptions.
Crouching like the Sphinx beside him was his daemon, her beautiful spotted coat glossy with power, her tail moving lazily in the snow.
The presence of daemons adds another layer to each character, as each person’s personality is reflected in, both the type of animal, and the actions of that animal. The alethiometer as a device is less effective. There are points in the plot where it would be logical for Lyra to use the all-knowing alethiometer but it is obvious the author has chosen not to in order to heighten the suspense. The movie based on this book was named after the alethiometer and called The Golden Compass (I haven’t seen ).
*The POV character, Lyra, is eleven years old so this is classified as a children’s book, but be warned the story involves horrible cruelty to children and a brutal bear fight. Pullman is prepared to push his characters to the limit which makes for a tense read.
A writing colleague of mine found Lyra’s character to be too much of a brat in the opening chapters and consequently put the book down. I think it pays to stick with Lyra for a while as her feistiness and stubbornness prove to be necessary character traits for survival. Her early waywardness also allows room for her to grow and mature.
The other characters in, Northern Lights, are cleverly nuanced and not always what they seem. We find that the evil can be charismatic the wise, unassuming and the ferocious, loyal.
I was prepared to give this book a nine based on the beautiful writing and interesting concepts but I found the end a little convenient and rushed. I’m not a fan of sudden realisations with no lead-up. This book is not entirely stand-alone as Lyra’s quest is obviously not finished at the end. However Northern Lights can be enjoyed by itself as it does bring to a close a significant chapter in the quest.
Recommended for: 11 to 15-year-olds who are not upset by violent or sad scenes in a fantasy book or adults who enjoy reading fantasy (the language and the concepts are sophisticated enough to keep your interest).
Use for writers :
No info-dumping: Exposition is deftly sprinkled throughout the story especially in relation to the daemon concept. It would have been tempting for the author to immediately give us all the practices and limitations relating to daemons in the opening chapter, instead he only gave out information when it became pertinent to the action. Because the daemon-human relations are so fascinating and offered in easily digestible bites each revelation is eagerly anticipated. To offer concrete examples of the spacing of some of these bites of exposition :
Chp 3 – We learn children’s daemons change form but the daemons of adults do not. (although hinted at before)
Chp 5 – We learn that a humans and their daemons share each other’s pain.
Chp 9 – We learn that it is taboo to touch another person’s daemon.
Vivid descriptions: (as written above) Pullman uses all the senses in his descriptions of landscapes and people. The descriptions of the historic building and spacious grounds of Jordan college, the claustrophobic comfort of Mrs Coulter’s flat and the cold bleakness of The North transport the reader to those locations. Here, the journey north in the gyptian boat is described:
But the rush of water below, the movement in the air, the ship’s lights glowing bravely in the dark, the rumble of the engine, the smells of the salt and fish and coal-spirit, were exciting enough by themselves.