Lately I’ve gotten into the habit of watching the news in the morning, and the other day there was an interview with Bic Runga (you can watch the interview here). She had been nominated for the Silver Scroll, alongside four other women songwriters, and Bic was asked about her twenty year career. How did she stay relevant? How did she keep coming up with new ideas?
I loved how down to earth she was, but what I found inspiring and motivational is how she described her approach to song writing. She says, “I guess you have to keep doing what’s honest to you; that’s all you can do.”
When I first started writing (so for The Caretaker of Imagination and Lucy’s Story) I had three rules that I had to meet before I was ready to publish. One of them was that the story had to be true to me. I think I lost that a little with Beyond the End of the World, which is perhaps why I’m not as proud of that story as I am of my others, but I’m regaining that now.
Now, I’m focusing very much on what’s true to me; what’s honest to me. In Bic’s words, that’s all I can do, but I think that’s also what I should do. Because what’s the point otherwise?f
It has been refreshing this year to start cutting out voices that are telling me what to do, telling me how to be a success, and telling me that there’s a right and a wrong way to do this whole indie thing. And the more I follow my own nose, the more I am rewarded.
Which is all to say that there’s more than one way to make a buck as an indie, and more than one way to carve a niche. Perhaps my niche is something that doesn’t really exist anywhere else – I mean who else publishes colouring books, anthologies, collaborative non-fiction, AND children’s books?? – but I can chisel away at it until it becomes something special.
When I look at my backlist (yes, it’s exciting to be able to refer to my ‘backlist’) I see a diversity of work. There’s children’s fantasy fiction, collaborative children’s non-fiction, anthologies, zines, photography, illustration, and painting.
Since it’s pretty clear I’ve given up on the idea of being consistent, why not chuck a picture book into the mix?
There are several reasons why I write, illustrate, edit, and publish. I love the challenge, and I love trying new things out and seeing where they lead me. It’s rewarding to publish other people’s work, especially people who may not otherwise be published. Most of all I enjoy the process of making, of problem solving: I work towards that moment where the idea in my head aligns with the product in front of me (I have no qualms about calling my finished pieces ‘products’).
I try to choose the medium that the story, or topic, tells me it wants to be. Reading Into the White, by Joanna Grochowicz, inspired me to write narrative non-fiction. I did some research, and had a few potentials to write about. But as I was researching, something else caught my interest – native New Zealand plants. We know so much about our birds, but what about our threatened plants? Or other native animals?
The more I researched, the more I found. I was also keen to do more collage, so I listened to an artist talk by Jeannie Baker as I worked – who better to turn to for inspiration on nature-inspired books? She got me thinking about what I’d really like to share with people. What do I love that I want to celebrate?
I had a turtle for a while, a red eared slider, who we’d rescued from the beach. She had probably been dumped (or escaped) from a previous owner. When I moved out of my parents’ home, I gave her to a friend who bred them. I’d love to have a turtle as a pet again. I simply like them.
Turtles have been used as a subject in children’s books before. My favourties are The Smallest Turtle by Lynley Dodd, I’ll Follow the Moon by Stephanie Lisa Tara, and One Tiny Turtle by Nicola Davies, though there are others. Primarily, they’re about the dangerous race of the turtle hatchlings from the nest to the water.
There are already many creative non-fiction picture books, so I wanted to ensure I was adding something to the landscape. Thus, I ruled out a book about hatchlings getting to the sea. Many creative non-fiction books start at birth and follow the life cycle of the animal they’ve chosen to focus on. So I wasn’t going to do that either.
I visited the DoC website and looked at turtles they featured. It told me the most common sea turtle in New Zealand waters is the Leatherback. I hadn’t heard of it, so I searched it up and found out more. They are fascinating! I had found my topic 🙂
We are still learning about these creatures, as they were primarily studied when they came on land, which was annually at most. One of the ways scientists are learning more is by tagging them, or placing video cameras on their backs, when they surface for air. This became my starting point.
Now that my topic had been firmly chosen, and I was learning more about these intriguing turtles, I decided that there were three things I wanted to achieve with this book:
There are many threats this species is facing.
People are taking action to save them.
Leatherback turtles are fascinating!
I have been thoroughly enjoying making these illustrations. It is my goal to complete one spread each week, so all of them are done by the end of 2017. In particular, gathering natural resources (dry leaves, shells, sand etc.) has been a fun task in creativity and problem solving. This will probably be the first in a series on NZ nature – I’m thinking ‘Wild New Zealand’ for the series name, with the next one being about a native plant.
And now for the announcement! This book will be getting Augmented Reality (AR) treatment (AR is tech that superimposes a computer-generated image over the pages of the book). Mark Southcombe, my brother, is a programmer / game designer and expressed an interest in taking on this project. I met with him earlier this week, and we discussed what each page might be. We’ve included some animation and interactivity, though we’re being flexible with how things might turn out – this is his first go at AR.
The idea with doing AR is to further build on what I want to achieve with this book – it’s to excite people about leatherback turtles, and to really get the reader involved. Leatherbacks are beautiful, ancient, and fascinating creatures – and many people don’t even know they exist! I just hope that we can do them justice.
When I was finishing off the formatting for Ramble On over the last few weeks, it was taking longer than anticipated to get it done. On top of genuine tech issues, I was procrastinating like crazy and I could feel a knot in my chest just at the thought of getting it done. Something was holding me back. I tried talking to my partner about it (he’s pretty good with the pep talks) and he said as long as I was 95% happy with it, then it’s okay for it not to be perfect.
I couldn’t even say that I was 90% happy with it. The final outcome was not how I had envisioned it at the start so I was grappling with this on top of general wonderings of ‘is it good enough?’ He told me not to worry about it so much – the important thing was that I was actually doing it.
At Tauranga Zinefest I was chatting with the artist next to me, who had recently illustrated a children’s picture book. As our conversation continued, I asked her if she was mostly happy with her work. She didn’t say anything but her face said no. ‘90% happy?’ I asked.
Nope! In my opinion, her illustrations were fantastic. They gave a great vibrancy to the story, reflected the tone of the words, and had a distinctive style. Her opinion of her own work told me that maybe it’s okay for me to not be super happy with my work, either.
Maybe the important thing here is taking that original vision and striving towards it, rather than having something that is perfect. Maybe it’s about actually doing something about the vision, rather than just thinking or talking about it.
I may never be 99% happy with my work – but I’ll do my best to get as close as possible, and be proud of my efforts.
With Ramble On in its final stages (celebrate the release at Auckland Central Library, Sun Oct 15) I’ve been busy planning my next projects. Here they are!
The Caretaker Series is, I’ve decided, just for me. These are books where I get to be as deep, dark, weird and fantastical as I like. It’s about getting ideas out of my head and into a story that other people can interact with. I’m up to Book Five of the series at the moment, about halfway through the draft, and have a couple of beta readers lined up to give me feedback.
The Train to Nowhere is an idea I’ve had for a while, and I’ve recently worked out how to best do the illustrations – with a miniature dollhouse! I wrote a blog post about it here if you want more details, but this is going to be a longer term project. It’ll probably be ready for photographing in early 2018.
And now for the new one… I’ve been playing with the idea of making a picture book about turtles for a while now, and returned to this idea a couple of weeks ago. I did a search for turtles in New Zealand, and the DoC website told me that the most common wild marine turtle is the leatherback. I’d never heard of them before, but they’re fascinating! They don’t have a hard shell (hence their name), and there’s still a lot we don’t know about these jellyfish-gobbling, dinosaur-age giants.
The storyboard is 95% complete, and I’ve been inspired by Jeannie Baker’s work to do this one in collage. Looks like I’ll have a few picture books in my future.
The final project is another long-term one. I feel like I didn’t give myself enough time to research for Ramble On, so I’d like to remedy that with my next adult non-fiction, which will be on New Zealand plants.
Yes, plants. Because they’re also fascinating. There’s this tree on this island that’s the last of its kind ever, and a native carnivorous plant that only flowers for like a week a year, and a kiwi botanist whose research of seaweed was important during WWII… like I said. Fascinating! So I’m giving my time to research this fully and will probably look at putting it together in late 2018, or possibly even 2019.
Well, you can’t stay I’m not staying creative. Looking forward to the journey these projects bring, but for I’m off for a walk and then the day job… have a happy day! xx
I’ve been selling at events for a while now. The first was The Caretaker of Imagination book launch, then craft markets, and finally bigger events like New Zealand’s annual zinefests and the NZ Book Festival. Not being a salesperson at heart, I’ve learnt a lot.
Last year, the NZ Book Festival almost didn’t happen. It was only in it’s third year, though, so we pulled a team together and gave it a good shot.
On the day I made conversation with customers, shared my story about how I got into writing, and repeated my ‘elevator pitch’ for books people were interested in dozens of times throughout the day (with plenty of help from my niece – thanks, Angie!). My setup wasn’t great and I was feeling a bit flustered but I made my stall fee back, as well as a small profit on top of that. Besides sales, I launched the second annual NZ Young Writers Anthology, met some wonderful people, and got to catch up with a bunch of my author friends.
It surprised me then how many people complained about their lack of sales afterwards. An author friend, Kirsten McKenzie, wrote this brilliant post about the do’s and don’t’s of selling. Read it. While I certainly didn’t have the upbringing that Kirsten did, I’ve learnt what she’s learnt: engage with your customers, don’t sit down, smile, have a tablecloth, a table full of books, and don’t play on your cellphone the whole time.
At most events I’ve been to, I’ve done well. However, at Tauranga Zinefest last weekend I broke most of my rules. The problem was that all week, and the previous evening, I’d been working on two new stories. I was still in creative mode, and I just wasn’t in the mood to sell or engage with people. And guess what? It showed. The organisers of the zinefest did an amazing job, but because I didn’t bring my A-game to the event, I didn’t do nearly as well as I usually would.
It reminded me how important it is to bring myself fully to every event I attend. No matter what mood I’m in, I need to be there for the customer and engage with them, and make sure that my stock levels and signage are what they need to be. I’m going to take this lesson forward for the rest of my events – onwards and upwards x