Archive for March, 2009

Feeling Understood

Everyone seeks to be understood, in some way or another.  I know many writers struggle with this, for a number of reasons.  Writing as an art form is a bit intangible, especially to those who don’t do it.  Few ‘non-writers’ can truly understand the commitment and drive and time required to take even a small piece of writing through to publishable standard, and the years it takes to develop these skills.  Not to mention just how tough it is to get something published.

When I was finally ready to say out loud that I wanted to seriously pursue writing, it was a change that had been happening in my head for a long time.  So to me it seemed a natural progression.  However to others I had been practising as an occupational therapist, a career much more tangible and linear, so many struggled with the idea.  My wonderful fiancé embraced it first, and has always been fiercely protective and supportive of me.  My mum was great too, and had probably seen it coming, even though the thought of a career change was a still bit scary.

Friends have been varied.  Some have embraced it completely, and we openly discuss what I’ve been up to with my writing as much as we discuss their careers.  Others are interested, asking questions but not quite comprehending the change.  Some still see it as just a hobby I indulge in, while others never mention it, probably not sure what to say.

So when you do have a friend understand, and truly understand, it really stands out.  We had two of our closest friends visit recently, and completely out of the blue they gave me a gift.  They very sweetly said it was to show that they believed in what I was doing and that they believed in me.  I’m not certain they knew just how much that meant to me, and what an incredible gift it was.  A gift of support and a gift of understanding.

So, I’d like to introduce you all to my new blog mascot, a rather floppy little rabbit named Squish (who you might have seen around the blog).  He now sits by my computer, each day gifting me a little ray of light.  Thanks, Al and Sharim.

2009-03-30

 

I want to be a Wild Thing

After seeing this clip, who doesn’t?

Dreams and Ideas

Rabbit - psychicIn an essay he wrote about where his ideas come from, Neil Gaiman made a comment about dreams:  “(People) want to know if I get ideas from my dreams. Answer: no. Dream logic isn’t story logic.”

Part of me agrees with him.  Certainly if you were to directly transcribe a dream it would mostly be an illogical, meandering mess.  The story would lack true focus or a strong enough plot.

But then another part of me knows that many novels, such as Stephenie Meyer’s ‘Twilight’, have been inspired by dreams.  And I can understand why.  Dreams are like the melting pot of all that’s important to us.  They’re a soup simmered from our subconscious.  A boiling down of the things that both inspire us and concern us: our deepest desires and darkest fears.  We’re often told to write about the things that are important to us, and I believe that if you feel compelled to write a story that has come from a dream, then that is exactly what you’re doing.

Often on waking I have a very clear image in the front of my mind that I have to draw.  Some of my favourite characters have come to me this way over the years.  I’ve also had two novel ideas that have been sparked by dreams.  However, I am aware that my dreams are slightly different to the usual.  While I do have random ones, which are just a mess from my subconscious, I also have dreams that are more (dare I say it) story driven.  They have a definite beginning, middle and end, even clear themes that run through them.  These dreams also tend to have a kind of internal consistency, and are incredibly vivid in detail.  In them I’m rarely myself.  I’ve been an old woman, a young boy, both black and white, from different cultures, even occasionally an animal.

But while I’ve had hundreds of these dreams over the years, only two have ever captured me enough to become novel ideas.  Both of these dreams were like a single scene from a story, and on waking, the characters wouldn’t leave me alone.  The writing side of my brain is so hard wired nowadays I’m no longer sure what I actually dreamed and what my mind created.  Often without realising it, my mind starts to fill in the missing details.  I immediately start asking myself questions about the events and characters, letting the story stew in my mind: become richer, thicker.

When I was younger, my brother often accused me of lying when I retold an event, but really I suppose I’ve always had a storytellers mind: filling in missing details to create a more captivating story.  At least, that’s my excuse.

Editing Blues

Rabbit - sitThere’s no point in dancing around it – editing is hard work.  And if right now you’re wondering what I’m talking about – if you’re thinking I’m mad and are telling me through your computer screen that editing can be fun – then either you’re in an earlier stage of ‘fun-fiddly’ editing than I’m talking about, you have selective amnesia or you’re a robot.  Take your pick.

The editing I’m talking about is gritty, finger skinning, brain twisting, eye gouging, painfully hard work.  The editing I’m talking about is the part of the writing journey that will test your commitment to the process.  It will make you question why on earth you want to be a writer (and conveniently forget the joy of new ideas and characters that consume you and and all those lovely butterfly things).  This editing will make you question whether you have it in you.  It will push your brain out your ears.  BUT: I guarantee you that every writer, be they new or experienced, has felt this way.  And probably has experienced all these doubts at some point during each and every book they’ve written.

Based on the above rant, you may well have guessed that I’m going through a tough round of edits.  A few weeks ago I received Kate’s assessment on the latest draft of my mentorship novel, and she bravely, patiently and honestly guided me through how to take my novel into its third draft.  My reaction has nothing to do with Kate or the way she approached it – she has been an absolute dream to work with.  She even invited me to bang my head against a wall, saying this is how she often feels at this point in the editing process.  It’s always nice to know you’re not alone.

Luckily I’m sitting on the cusp of the ‘hard work’ mountain.  After some serious time spent world building, pushing all my major and minor characters further, significant reorganising of the plot points, and detailed (scene by scene) analysis of pacing, I’m almost ready to start the rewrite.  For me, this means I’ve just reached the editing summit and am about to start gloriously frolicking down the other side.  The lure of the writing has been the light at the end of my ‘plotting’ tunnel, and it will be so much easier due to the tooth pulling work I’ve just done.

There’s a great guest post over on Rachelle Gardner’s blog talking about this exact process.  It’s called ‘The Hell Formerly Known as Editing’, and Terry Brennan discusses the editorial process he went through after selling his first book.  He’s refreshingly open about just how tough it’s been.  It’s certainly not for the faint hearted, but we all need a little brutal honesty every now and then.

I know most of the time I need to believe that writing is wonderful and exhilarating and a constant source of joy, but if you’re serious about this (and are aiming for publication), this also needs to be balanced by the knowledge that some bits of writing are just plain hard work.  So, protective gloves on, helmet buckled tightly, safety goggles in place, and back into the fray!

Drunks, Leopard-Dots Pants and Lessonful Children’s Books

Rabbit - runEver longed for a children’s picture book about handsome gnus, potato vortexes, leopard-dots panties or drunks?  Well, I’m sorry to say that unless you speak a language other than english, it’s just not to be.

I was going through my writing articles today and stumbled across an old post I’d saved.  I have a habit of collecting writing related things that make me laugh: they help me to smile through the days where I feel a bit disheartened.  The original post was on Cheryl Klein’s wonderful blog.  As a New York editor, she gets sent short blurbs about foreign picture books, in order to decide which sound like good candidates for an english translation.  Needless to say, none of the below qualified.  In fact, I’m secretly hoping something was lost in the translation…  Enjoy.

Who’s the Most Handsome? Milo is the most handsome gnu in the world. His mother tells him so non-stop. He often asks himself what he’s got that the others don’t. So Milo decides to take part in a beauty pageant for animals. The first prize is a trip to Paris. But nothing is going as planned. In the crowd of candidates, Milo feels a little alone. And no longer so handsome. Suddenly, he sees a little penguin with his young refrigerator. A drama is at hand.

Go on! Don’t give up, Slug! From all appearances, there is a shell; it’s a slug and a snail. However, how about if we trace the slug’s ancestors? A poem with a unique viewpoint of a slug.

Bud and the Nameless Potato: One day, after school, Bud finds a strange potato on the table. Bud runs after the potato and falls into a fantastic world swept away by a huge vortex. Bud wants to know the name of the potato but it doesn’t have any name. And so Bud begins to travel with the nameless potato in search of its lost name all around the world.

The Cat and the Clarinetist: “A heartwarming fantasy with full of clarinet sound!” What is best ever for me is a life with cat. One evening there came a cat. She loved the sound of my clarinet. As listening to my tone, she got bigger and bigger, first larger than bed, then larger than house! You will be fulfilled with joy by the growing cat as you read on.

Where is my Leopard-Dots Panty? “Oh my! My leopard-dots panty is gone! It was in my drawer!” a kid shouts in his room, and from here the colorful story begins. First, it’s a baby lion who puts the panty on his head to be like his father. Then it’s a thick and large snake who takes a nap in the panty hanging down. Up next is a flamingo. Wow! She is wearing the panty as a necklace for her wedding. Then a baby otter wears it like a swimming glass. Very hilarious!

Puppy Poo: A Puppy Poo forsaken at the corner of an alley. Everyone avoids it saying “Dirty Poo!” One drizzling spring day, Puppy Poo meets a young dandelion plant who needs fertilization. Puppy Poo joyfully breaks itself down and soaks into the root of dandelion. This self-sacrifice finally blooms a dandelion bud into its full glory. A moving and lessonful story illustrated by Sung-gak Chong.

A Girl Born with a Sound of Fart: In the island far south, a baby was born with a sound of fart. She grew up to be a nice girl and her great fart would often save people from wild animals. Then she was asked to save people from the monster that comes for babies when the moon is full. On a full moon night, she set out for the sea to face the monster, with her powerful fart her only leverage.

The Toilet Express: Rubbing his sleepy eyes a little boy gets up to pee. But he bumps into the toilet that was on his way to an excursion. The toilet says he was late already and could not help him! The chase starts. The boy follows the toilet to the station and jumps on the Toilet Express. Dynamic illustrations with that familiar feeling of holding to go and the relief that follows is humorously described.

Aren’t they all Drunken? Children always ask adults “Why?” and one of the most frequently asked “why?” is “Why do they drink?” This question leads to other questions like “Why do their faces turn red?” “Why do they keep on saying the same thing?” “What happens in their body when they drink?” “Why they come to themselves after some hours?” No one can readily answer these questions, so let’s look into the mystery of alcohol!

Character Design

Usually, when first designing characters, I go through many drafts before I start to feel like I’m capturing their ‘essence’.  However occasionally it doesn’t take so long.  Just recently I’ve been developing some characters for a junior adventure novel I’ve written, and because the characters have been sitting in my head for so long (and developing as I wrote the first draft) when I sat down to draw them they sprung onto the page almost fully formed.  Of course, they’re likely to still change and grow as I draw them more, but I’m reasonably happy with how they’re going.

When trying to capture the essence of a character, I try to focus on their personality and think about how this would influence all the little things about them.  Such as:

  1. Their stance: do they slouch, stand up perfectly straight, bounce, balance on one leg, stand on their hands, cross their arms, hands on hips, stand with feet planted firmly on the ground?
  2. Their expression: do they smile lots, frown, scowl, constantly look a little amused, easily become agitated or bored?
  3. Their hair: is it messy, impossible to tame, neat, long, short, curly, straight?  Hair is one of the first things we notice about a person, and it strongly influences how readers assess a character’s personality
  4. Their clothes: are they neatly dressed, scruffy, wearing a perfectly matched outfit or one with competing patterns, wearing traditional or modern clothes, clothes from a specific culture or region?  The clothes people chose to wear say a lot about their personality

I’m sure I’ve missed some.  Please chime in if you have others!  Below are some of the early sketches:

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2009-03-13b

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2009-03-13c

The Graveyard Book

2009-03-11I haven’t blogged about individual books yet on this blog, but staying true to her name, the Well Read Rabbit does read a LOT (about 3 or 4 books a week) and felt compelled to write about this one.

Neil Gaiman is a genius.  Not just your run of the mill ‘has a brain bigger than a small planet’ or ‘invented something life saving’ genius.  But a genius of words and worlds.  I have always been a big fan of his, from his picture books (Wolves in the Walls) to his children’s novels (Coraline) and Adult novels (American Gods).  But for me, The Graveyard Book went beyond.  It is part fable, part adventure, but always subtle and genuine and real.  A story that moves between worlds, shifts your sense of reality and is imbued with magic, but was ultimately about a small boy growing up and trying to find his place in the world: Gaiman combines such things with an enviable ease.  He has a wonderful ability to create characters that experience incredible things, but always react calmly and thoughtfully, and they are all so uniquely quirky and vivid and flawed.  The writer side of me knows Gaiman as the king of dialogue.  Dialogue is an art that is deceptively hard to master, and his always reads like a song.  I agree whole heartedly with Garth Nix‘s assessment of the book:

I wish my younger self had the opportunity to read and reread this wonderful book, and my older self wishes that I had written it.

But it’s not just Garth and I who felt this way about this book.  So did the Newbery Medal committee.  And Gaiman was his usual charming and unassuming self when he twittered about the morning the news was announced:

First: ‘Mr Gaiman briefly ponders putting marmalade in tea, then realises he has lost his mind.’
Then: ‘About to drink second cup of tea without Marmalade this morning. Also, I just won the Newbury Medal for THE GRAVEYARD BOOK.’
Finally, it sinks in: ‘Newbery, not Newbury. Also F***!!!! I won the F***ING NEWBERY THIS IS SO F***ING AWESOME. I thank you.’ (sans expletives, for the sake of innocent ears and eyes)

Gaiman’s way of tackling the question ‘Where do your ideas come from?’ has always fascinated me.  In the dedications section of the book, he mentions that his first spark for The Graveyard Book happened when watching his 2 year-old son ride his tiny tricycle through gravestones one summer (twenty-something years ago).  But apart from this, he is often a little more guarded in his discussion of the topic.  I suppose he gets the question a LOT.

Anyway.  Buy the book.  Read it.  Love it.  Then talk to me about it (there’s nothing I love more than a good book natter).

Forest or Tree?

Rabbit - lookAre you a big picture person or a details person?  A forest or a tree?  To be a good writer you need to be both, but like with most things, we all have natural preferences.  Things that are more appealing to us, and that we naturally navigate towards.  Of course there is always overlap, but for the sake of this post I’m ignoring grey and presenting only black and white.  So, here’s how I’m defining them:

Ideas:

A Forest loves to daydream, brainstorm and mind-map.  They let their ideas roam free.  And they will not be limited to just the story in front of them – oh no – multi-book series unroll before their eyes.

A Tree gets excited by each individual idea.  They’ll fastidiously unfold each one like an easter egg, careful not to break the foil.  One book at a time, thank-you, and let them plan out the beginning before they even think about the middle or the end.

Characterisation:

A Forest lets their characters appear as they write.  They discover their past, present and future as the story unfolds, and learn about each character based on their actions and choices.  A Forest will say they don’t write their characters – they just run around after them, writing down what they do.

A Tree needs to know everything about their characters before they start writing.  What are their hopes, dreams, ambitions?  They’ll interview them, find images of them in magazines, get to know every intimate detail of their life, including their flossing habits.

Plotting:

A Forest will let the plot unfold.  They will not be limited by detailed plans – no! – they will let the pure ideas pour onto the page as they write.  They trust in the story to write itself.  Plot-holes – bah! – their subconscious will fix such things.

A Tree will have scrapbooks filled with notes on plots and sub-plots and sub-sub-plots.  Detailed story arcs, chapter plans and action graphs are an absolute necessity before even considering starting to write.

Research:

A Forest will scoff – who needs it?  All they need to know is enough to start writing.  Incidental research can be done along the way, and any holes can be filled in later.

A Tree could write essays on the background research they’ve done, fill encyclopaedias with the knowledge they’ve accrued – all before they’ve even written a word.  In fact, many a Tree has become so caught up in their pursuit of knowledge that years can pass before they remember there was a story to be written.

I feel like I’ve just written a set of star signs (Forests are also givers not takers, and Trees’ lucky numbers are 2, 5 and 8).  I think we all naturally tend towards one more than the other.  I am more of a Forest myself.  For some reason the more detailed planning and researching and editing side of writing never appeals to me quite as much, even though I do quite enjoy it when I make myself do it.  The Forest side of me loves daydreaming about new ideas and plunging into first drafts with the thrill of the chase, discovering characters as I go and the surprise of unexpected twists and turns.  However I am able to be a Tree when I need to be, and to write well I need to channel Tree qualities often.  In second drafts I become very organised, with chapter plans and character profiles, and do much more research at this point.  It’s just that I don’t enjoy being a Tree quite as much.  I’m a much more natural Forest.

How about you – are you more comfortably one or the other?  How have you learnt to integrate the other side into your writing habits?

Illustration Wednesday

This is an illustration I’ve been developing over the last week for a picture book text I’ve written.  I coloured the mum and daughter using watercolour paints, then constructed it digitally in photoshop using collage and some digital shadowing.  I’m really enjoying this technique – it certainly feels like the most natural way for me to communicate visually.  It also means I forever have a pile of strange things on my desk to scan in and use for background texture.  Like right now: I cleaned out my wardrobe on the weekend and have three skirts and one pair of pants that I like the fabric of, and need to scan in before I drop them off to St Vinnies.  Probably the strangest thing I’ve collected for texture so far is toilet paper while I was in Europe – they have really interesting patterns and imprints on theirs.  And just in case you’re wondering, it was CLEAN toilet paper – I’m not that weird.  For this image I used mainly recycled papers, but also easter egg foil and wood.
2009-03-04

Anyone else got any strange collecting habits to admit to?  No holding back now.  Come on – it’s liberating.

7 Stages of Feedback

Rabbit - climbI’m starting to think the stages we go through after receiving feedback on our work is a lot like the seven stages of grieving. I’ve found feedback to be one of the most valuable ways to develop my craft: to see my writing more objectively and make it the best it can be. However the process of receiving feedback can be a bit challenging and at times even a little painful. Especially if it’s the first time we have sent our ‘baby’ (or manuscript) out into the world, when we are still feeling particularly enamoured by its magnificence.

Reactions to such feedback can look a little like this:

  1. Shock or Disbelief: OMG. Look at all those red marks. Every single comment is negative. They hate it. All of it. Not a single thing can be salvaged from my wreckage of a manuscript. And I thought it was ready to send out. Am I that delusional?
  2. Denial: OK, slow down. Maybe they were just having a bad day. That’s it – their boyfriend broke up with them, and they’re taking it out on my manuscript. Or maybe they’re just not into my genre? Maybe they prefer romance – so how could I expect them to understand my gothic steam-punk YA? They clearly just don’t ‘get’ my writing style.
  3. Bargaining: Well, maybe if I just alter this little part in the story, then my whole meaning will be clearer. Maybe if I make this one chapter then the rest can stay as is. Or maybe if I make this character a bit more likable / assertive / witty / intense / muscly they’ll understand my genius and take their comments back?
  4. Guilt: I can’t believe I sent them this dreck. What on earth made me think it was ready to be read? How could I have wasted their time with such a clichéd, flawed, mud-heap of a manuscript? Oh woe…
  5. Anger: I’m so stupid! In fact, the whole world is stupid. Everyone and everything in it. I hate it all.
  6. Depression: My writing sucks. I’ll never make it in this industry. Why bother? I shall never again burden the world with my atrocious writing, be it novel, blog entry, e-mail or shopping list.
  7. Acceptance and Hope: You know, on rereading their comments, they’re really not so bad. In fact, there are an awful lot of positives in there. Hey, I think they actually like it. Sure, there’s a fair bit to fix, but most of that I sort of knew anyway. This person’s actually quite astute. Their comments are spot on. And, with a bit of time, I reckon I can fix it. It might just be the next Harry Potter after all…

Ok, so maybe I hammed it up a little. I’d hope no one’s reactions are quite that extreme, but it can certainly be a tough process. I find my reactions are heightened if the person giving the feedback is within the industry: ie. agent / editor / respected writer, as opposed to my critique group (who I feel more ‘safe’ with). The quicker you embrace the stages you go through, the faster you’ll move through them. I used to wallow for a good week, but now go through stages 1-6 in the first day, and am at stage 7 overnight and ready to tackle the manuscript afresh.

So, I say embrace your neurosis, let yourself grieve any feedback a little, and then run through the writing fields of your mind wild and free and ready to rewrite.


About this Blog…

A blog of ramblings about the world of writing and illustrating for children, by an author / illustrator who might just have a thing for rabbits.

Katherine's picture books, 'Squish Rabbit' and 'Brave Squish Rabbit', are out with Viking (Penguin, US) and UQP (Australia). Please e-mail if you would like her to blog about something in particular.

All text & images  Katherine Battersby

Released Sept 2012:

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