Archive for July, 2011

No Writer is an Island

There was a time when I didn’t have much use for a writing residency or retreat. Outside of study and paid work, my time has mostly been my own, which I’ve happily spent on my creative work: writing, editing, illustrating and brainstorming new projects. But in the last 6 months or so, in the lead up to my first book being published, all that has changed.

Suddenly my time is easily consumed by the business side of writing. Paperwork. Budgeting. Tax. Reading through contracts. Keeping on top of my blog. Updating my website. Writing articles. Researching grants. Applying for grants. Chasing workshops. Running workshops. Responding to a never ending avalanche of emails (does anyone else have an inbox count that multiplies like rabbits?).

That said, I’m actually not complaining. This is what I’ve long been working towards. And all of the above mean I’m slowly getting closer to being able to call this a career of some kind. However I have noticed what many professional writers have pointed out before me – the more I get into all of this, the less time I have for what drew me here in the first place … the Writing. So (drumroll as I finally get to the point): in steps the writing retreat. Suddenly it has a place in my little world.

After some planning, calendar scrutinising and packing (mainly laptops and beach towels), off my partner and I snuck to Stradbroke Island for 3 nights and 3 days of dedicated writing. I had the most amazing time – so much space to daydream and think and doodle. I was thinking about what it was that made it such a great writing retreat, and here are some of my rambly conclusions:

  1. Keep it Simple: Otherwise it will end up more like a traditional holiday, full of distractions. We stayed somewhere quiet and unassuming, in a simple room in the trees with a view of the ocean. We took most of our own food, starting each day with croissants cooked on a hotplate and honeyed tea in styrofoam cups. We didn’t take a car so we walked everywhere we went. And most importantly – we had no reception. No TV. No email. No facebook. Bliss.
  2. Atmosphere: I think it’s important to choose somewhere that speaks to your creative spirit. I grew up on the beach, so there’s something about sand and salt that calls to my inner child (which is valuable for a children’s writer). I also find beach walks and water soothing, so within hours I left behind the day to day stress and let my characters back into my mind. Finally, a glorious serendipity: the story I’m working on is based in a small seaside village, not dissimilar to Stradbroke, so it’s the ideal place to collect ideas.
  3. Writing Rhythm: I know what works best for my writing, so I can quickly create this rhythm away from home. I started each day with a long walk, chatted to my partner about any plans/ideas/concerns/thoughts regarding my story, then got into it. Our room was also perfect – it had a little wooden desk beneath big push out windows, so it was light and airy and had my ideal kind of view. When stuck on a scene I could stare out the window or sit in the sun by the pool or even go for a beach walk.
  4. Low Pressure: This is tough – when you have little time to write you can’t help but put pressure on yourself when you do carve out time, but the trouble with pressure is it can freeze the mind (or maybe I’m just a rabbit in the headlights that way?). Anyway, although I really wanted to get some good work done, I was also happy to just have time out from the world and give my story room to come back into my mind. I honestly felt that if the only thing I got out of the 3 days was that my characters were talking to me again then that was a successful trip, which really took the pressure off.
  5. Know Yourself: Not everyone works the same. If you can only write for a few hours a day, don’t expect it to suddenly change when on a writing retreat. Also, I often hear of people going away for a retreat and getting quite lonely, and when us creative types get low, the self-doubt often creeps in. This sounds a lot like me, so the idea of heading off on my own doesn’t particularly appeal. As my partner is also a writer we headed off together, while others surround themselves with other writers or quiet family etc, and still others revel in time alone. Set up your time to suit you.
I really wasn’t sure what to expect from my first writing retreat, so I’m thrilled it went well. So well in fact we’ll be going back a few more times over the year (a benefit of keeping it cheap and simple). Here’s a hodge-podge of photos from what you can probably imagine was quite a creatively colourful trip…

Voices on the Coast Part 2

This was my first year at Voices on the Coast, where I ran several different kinds of workshops with both primary and secondary students. My favourite part of these kind of events is meeting the kids and teens, as they’re funny and inspiring and so much more clever than I was at their age. Here are some of the drawings we did together in the primary school workshops…

Squishy Speech Bubbles

In this session I talked about how I tell my stories visually. We discussed emotion, body language, facial expression and a visual storytelling method I use in Squish Rabbit: pictorial speech bubbles. In this activity I had the kids brainstorm what picture we could draw in the speech bubble to let a reader know that Squish is hungry. There were some great creative suggestions, including tacos, sushi, pancakes and guacamole. We also discussed what each food would tell us about the kind of rabbit Squish is (ie. sushi might tell us he is Japanese, or well travelled, or is quite adventurous for a small rabbit).

We then chose one food to draw together – in the above class we chose a burger and the kids suggested all kinds of things to fill it with (clearly, we had to sneak in a carrot). We then worked on making it look extra tasty so the reader would really empathise with Squish and feel his hunger – notice the smell wafting, the sesame seeds and the big bite mark.

Making Monsters

In this session I talked all about characterisation – how I create my characters, the research involved and the drawing process. I used the example of a picture book of mine called ‘Monster Music’, where I had to create a whole horde of little monsters. In coming up with the characters, I actually drew about 100 different monsters before deciding on which ones to use in the book. In order to make sure they all looked like they belonged together and ensure they weren’t too scary (the story is more playful) I ended up basing each character on an animal and then adapting it. After demonstrating this I got the class to choose an animal to base our monster on.

The above class chose a bird, so together we brainstormed a couple of features unique to birds in which we’d keep – you can see they chose a beak, wings, feathers and claws. Next comes my favourite bit – we worked together to monster-ify our bird. The kids came up with all sorts of crazy ideas to make sure our character was really monster-like (the girls often want to keep their monsters cute, but the boys are quick to add fangs and blood). And did anyone notice the bunny ears on my monster? It actually wasn’t my idea!

The kids were a blast, and I wish I could show you all the zany foods and monsters they created. Or maybe instead I’ll just borrow some of their clever ideas for my next book… mwa ha ha <evil artist laugh>.

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

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