Monday, June 28, 2010

Now I Am Bigger

Today - Monday 28 June - is a pretty amazing day for me. Two of my books are being released on the same day! As tomorrow I'm having a celebration for Now I Am Bigger, I thought I'd highlight this book today, and One Perfect Pirouette in a couple of days (it's being launched after the school holidays).

This is what the back cover of Now I Am Bigger says:

Now I Am Bigger captures all the excitement and wonder of a small child's world, when every day brings something new – new teeth, new words, new shoes, new bed – and every little change is very, very BIG.

And this is from the Penguin website (who distribute the book):

When you're very little, time doesn't mean anything. What is an hour? A day? Are we there yet? Time is measured in growing, and in accomplishing new things like walking and growing teeth and eating by yourself, and most exciting of all, discovering the power of words and learning to talk. So much of little kids lives is about is now - 'I can wear real shoes now with laces'. I wanted to try and capture their world, where everything, almost every day, is new. It's a very busy, intense and wonderful time!

It's a picture book, with beautiful illustrations by Nina Rycroft, published by Working Title Press. Working with Jane Covernton and Nina was a great experience, with a beautiful result. The story in the picture book is told in poems. It takes a child from birth to around age three - that time when you move from your cot into your first big bed (remember?)! The poems work on sound and rhythm, rather than rhyme, and I love to read them aloud.
In fact, tomorrow I'll be doing exactly that, at Story Time at my local public library. I'll be faced with around 20-30 little kids, and it'll be a good test to see if I can keep them enthralled!!
Here's a poem from the book:


who is this?
not my mummy
she isn’t furry

who is this?
not my daddy
he doesn’t have
a wet black nose

who is this?
not Grandma
she doesn’t bark

who is this?
not Grandpa
he doesn’t lick

who is this?
this is Dog
furry, wet-nosed
barking, licking

hello, Dog!

Also this week, Dee White is featuring me on the Boomerang Book Capers blog - it's a busy week indeed.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Truth in Fiction

Farm Kid One of the things that children's authors often do is school visits. Some people dread them, but I've found it's a great experience and a chance to find out what kids think about all sorts of things. But it did take me a little while at the beginning to get the hang of it. Firstly, the kids don't want a pile of facts, nor do they want to hear advertisements for your books. What they want is stories - more stories like the ones you wrote, or stories about the stories!

Farm Kid was my first verse novel for upper primary readers, and although it started as a bunch of poems about me on our farm way back when, it did develop into a story about a family who lose their farm because of a severe drought. I show photos of a lovely green farm, and then I show one of a Victorian farm paddock that is totally dead. Just one lonely rabbit in the middle. And then I tell the kids that I wrote a fictional story about a family losing their farm because, to me, the newspaper articles never showed the real truth of that situation.

Then I say how often fiction can tell the truth and make something real in a way that facts never seem to manage - and the kids always get it! I see them nodding, and looking at the photos again, and I read some of the poems. This always makes me think about books that have pretended to be memoirs and turned out to be made up, and how this makes readers angry (not to mention publishers who then have to pulp the book). It's something we demand of fiction and non-fiction - the truth - but in different ways. Perhaps with fiction it's more about the emotional truth of a character and a story, and this is part of where voice comes from.

Today, in Australia, our government politicians went into a room and when they came out, we had a new prime minister. Julia Gillard. At lunchtime, there was a press conference on TV, with Ms Gillard delivering her first speech. Very lovely it was, too. Well-delivered, passionate, and said in a voice that promised many things, including a new and better future. And I thought again about truth in fact and fiction, and why we get so upset about politicians who lie and deceive. Perhaps it's because they continually offer hope (whatever you hope for, they'll promise to deliver) and so rarely carry out their promises.

We'll see how our new PM goes, and whether she'll be just like all the others. In the meantime, I'm going back to reading novels where the author has delivered on their promise between those pages!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Sydney and the CBCA Conference

I've just spent five days in Sydney, with two highlights - a school visit to Avalon Public School, and the NSW Children's Book Council conference. It was a long but enjoyable bus ride to Avalon, with views out across the ocean and a great people-watching opportunity. The students asked excellent questions and I was welcomed by everyone.

The conference went for two days, and featured speakers such as Marcus Zusak, Bob Graham, Glenda Millard, Ursula Dubosarsky, Tohby Riddle and James Roy. There was a bookshop that I tried to stay out of (without success) and lots of fellow writers to catch up with. The conference went well and everyone enjoyed it. I got to meet lots of teachers and librarians and talk about books.

On Friday evening, we were entertained by the launch of Jackie French and Bruce Whatley's new book about Queen Victoria's underpants - including a version of Queen Victoria (above) who did indeed show us her underpants! It was quite funny to visit the Queen Victoria Building the next afternoon and see the statue of the real queen out the front. I also wandered through the Strand Arcade, which was built in 1890, and took photos to add to my historical research of that time.

One of the most interesting sessions was a panel of four publishers talking about ebooks - when are they planning to release ebooks (most said now) and how will the marketplace change. It wasn't at all reassuring to hear them talk about how they think writers and illustrators might be paid, or how much. One said she would happily pay her authors 50% of nett receipts, but her bosses would never approve. They also said they thought the prices of ebook readers would come down a lot in the next few years (like DVD players are now about $30 whereas once they were $1000), but also maybe the price of ebooks. Gulp. So instead of 15% of maybe 60% of $14.99 (if you're lucky), authors will get 15% of 60% of $4.99.

And after that session, on my walk along George Street, I ventured into the Mac store and watched about 20 different people playing with iPads, and not one person was reading a book. But also things are so up in the air at the moment, with so many possibilities and new options (and disputes looming), that I think it's impossible to predict where any of this might be in two years time.

So I'll keep writing, and instead of walking through the city, I'll be back walking in the bush - leaving skyscrapers behind and focusing on the tiny little cities that inhabit old, wet logs!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Book Community Around You

Quite a few years ago, I presented a radio show on 3CR, a community radio station here in Melbourne. It was called Writers At Work, and it's still going, now hosted by Jan Goldsmith (Jan joined me in the last year or two I did the show, and then carried it on). Now there are quite a few community radio stations around, providing people with the opportunity to have their own show and share their interests and passions with others.

Last week, I sat on the other side of the panel and was interviewed by Denise Hughes (who is also a PWE student) on WynFM. Which was a lot of fun! Denise records the show and then Jacqui, who runs the Collins Bookshop in Werribee, creates YouTube videos out of them, using photos and book covers. I'd never thought of doing this before - the focus on YouTube seemed to be film. But Jacqui has done a great job, and her bookshop has its own "spot". The first part of the interview is here, and it's been uploaded in four parts, so you can just click on the next one to continue listening.

Also this week I have been organising celebrations for my two books that are coming out very soon. Somehow they have both ended up being released on the same day - 28th June! But again, my local community have been really helpful. Now I Am Bigger is being launched at Story Time at my local library, and One Perfect Pirouette will be launched at the Sun Bookshop in Yarraville. Dates and times announced here soon! Also, a friend of mine has a stepson who happens to be a terrific graphic designer and has his own business, Juncture Creative, so he's been doing invitations and bookmarks for me.

In the drive to be on the bestseller lists (a nice dream...) or even just to get a bunch of great reviews for your new book, it's easy to forget the support and encouragement that's all around us. Thanks, everyone!

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Eeek! Ebooks and Downloads!

The book news this year has been all about e-books. Ebooks. E books. Well, maybe the consensus has come down on the side of ebooks. Who knows? BEA used e-books (and there has just been a conference called DigitalBook2010). The sellers are using eBooks (I guess to line up "capitally" with iPad and iPhone). Borders are now advertising their Kobo eBook reader. Maybe the sellers (as usual) will determine what we call these things. For now, they're all crowding into the market and the reviewers are scrambling to assess which one is best, or which one might do everything you want it to do. No one has yet advertised one that will vacuum my lounge room while I read, so I'm holding off for a while.

But while I was typing this, an email popped up, as they are wont to do. This one was from Optus (an ISP and mobile phone provider here in Australia), who wanted me to sign up for their new plan for the iPad. $50 Pre-Paid gets you UNLIMITED~ data. Notice the funny little symbol next to the word "unlimited". I clicked on their handy little Buy Now button and in the fine print was told this:
Unlimited data voucher:Any data or credit on your service must will be used before unlimited data can be accessed. No rollover on Unlimited data expires after 30 days.
What on earth does that mean? Do I get free unlimited data download or don't I? What do I have to pay to get it? And isn't that a weird way to look at it?

My interpretation is that I pay X dollars, and I have to use what they give me first (3GB) and then after that everything is free - but only for 30 days. Then what? And this is the huge issue that is quickly emerging here in Australia. Maybe not overseas where mobile/cell phone costs are different and based on different modes and plans, but here the companies are falling over each other, trying to offer seemingly amazing deals, which nobody can understand when it comes to the "fine print". It's not just me. Quite a few reviewers are commenting on this as well.

This was all brought home to me this week when a friend told me about her latest phone bill. She has an iPhone, and has probably a dozen apps on it. She leaves it turned on all the time for incoming calls, but her latest bill shows that every night, the phone has been connecting to the internet without her knowledge and downloading updates for the various apps she has. For half an hour at a time, not just 5 or 10 seconds. She said she had set the phone not to do this, but it is still doing it.

I said to her that my impression was that that was where the big money was going to be. Not in the phones themselves, but the apps. "They're cheap," she said. "A couple of dollars each." But there are now 255,000 apps available, and quite a few of them are between $5 and $15. Not cheap. And not when they are using your download time to update themselves. So where does that leave ebooks?

A lot of people have a problem with the ebook being "unshareable". I don't lend many of my books, but I do have a sharing system with some of my friends. And when I lend to someone and they love the book, they buy one of their own. But so far, many ebook readers don't allow "sharing" (although this does seem to be changing a little). I was horrified when Amazon was actually able to "take back" books that buyers had downloaded. Connecting to Amazon for a new download apparently gave them access to what was on your Kindle and they decided to take some titles back! I'd like to see them do that with the custard pie I ate today.

Compared with 12 months ago, ebooks have leapt into our world with a resounding thump. All those in publishing who were saying true taking up of ebooks was 2-3 years away yet have been proven waaaaay wrong. Now publishers and suppliers (like Apple and Amazon etc) are battling over price structures and who gets a cut of what. As an author, I can see a lot of feathers flying out there in the arena at the moment, and am cautiously checking my contracts to see what I agreed to in terms of ebooks (up till now it's usually been phrased quaintly as "electronic publishing" or something similar). Any contract that says ebook rights will be negotiated separately in the future gives me hope.

What is happening now is both exciting and scary. I'm not buying an ebook reader until the dust settles a bit. I still remember someone years ago who had a Beta video player!! And I want to play with them first. I want to see what each one does, and whether they do what I want in terms of reading needs. I already know an ebook reader would save me several kilos of luggage weight when I go away. But I want more. Anyone for a version that vacuums?
And what do you think about ebook readers? Do you have one? Are you going to buy one? Do tell...

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

First Draft, and then...

It's easy to hang on to your first draft. And hard to let go of it. Especially when it seemed to come in a fantastic rush of inspiration. It was like a gift, seemingly so perfect and original when it burst out of you that you can't imagine how it could be improved. 99 times out of 100, that usually means it needs a heap of reworking! Yes, very occasionally (less often than you think) a story does come like a gift, placed in your lap with reverence and awe. I've had one or two poems like that, and hardly had to change a word. Goodness, one of them was even semi-rhyming and every rhyme worked like magic. It's never happened again!

But mostly what we come up with in a first draft is actually us finding our way into what we really wanted to say. It's only in subsequent drafts that we hone in on the real story, the real poem. And I think it's only in those drafts that we find ways of deepening and strengthening what was, very often in the beginning, more like an anecdote. Developing layers of meaning and creating something that leaves the reader with "something to go on with" takes time, patience and, most of all, a willingness to acknowledge that the piece needs more.

Often in workshopping, that's the puzzle to be solved. What you read sounds great, reads well, flows, entertains. But at the end you are left with a sense of ... and? You can't quite put your finger on it but something is missing, something that would satisfy the deeper part of your reading self. You're not sure what it is, but it's not there yet. This can be a huge challenge when it's time to make your comments. To say "something's missing" is of no use to the writer. "What?" they ask. "What is it the piece needs?" And unless you can answer, you're no help at all!

Today, I had to answer this question for someone, and despite years of workshopping and grading student writing, I still struggled to define it. I said words like "substance" and "depth" and "meat". They sound a bit pathetic, don't they? And theme didn't quite cover it, because when you talk about theme, sometimes people go haring off and starting inserting messages instead. It's partly about showing instead of telling, but it's more about what's holding the story up underneath. How would you define the urge to tell a story that "means something", without falling into moralising?

In the end, I came back to the question: why? Why does the character feel like this? Why do they perceive the world in this way? Why do they need to behave in this way, react, act, think? What drives them? How can you show this through the story, without explaining? How can you go beyond the surface to the hidden depths? What, in the story, will subtly reveal what's really going on? Lots of questions, but that's fine. A one-line prescription doesn't work for anyone. It's only by questioning, over and over, that we gradually sink further and further into what truly propels our characters through a story.

And no, this wasn't War and Peace we were discussing. It was a picture book! Thank you to the person I was talking to, because it made me really think about it yet again.