Thursday, 24 July 2014

school days

I feel a bit like your mum, dear reader, writing a post like this but if it helps then I'm happy to oblige.

I have recently done a series of back-to-back school visits and it got me thinking about newly-minted authors, especially those who write books for children. You see, as part of the deal you will be required to visit schools from time to time. Some authors relish this and seek it out. Others find it exhausting. For some of us it's a bit of both. If you are an introvert, like myself, you might find this side of things quite gruelling. Remember, being an introvert has nothing to do with self-esteem and shyness. It simply means that you regenerate or get your energy, from being alone.  You need space. Lots of it. Crowds and public speaking and just the thought of being 'on' for extended periods can deplete you VERY quickly. So here are some tips that might help you when you are out and about doing school visits:

• Have a big breakfast. It might be HOURS before you get the opportunity to eat again — especially if you are doing book signings after your workshops. The teachers and librarians are always exceptionally kind but half a cup of tea might be all you manage to gulp down before 1pm. If your first session is at 9.30 and you've been on the road for at least an hour prior, well, it's a long time between refuelling. 

• Take your own water. Again, water will usually be at hand but sometimes, well, it's not...

• Take your own supply of whiteboard markers. I can't tell you how often there has been a last minute scrabble for a decent whiteboard marker. This wastes everyone's time. It's so much easier to have your own.

• Think carefully about how much 'stuff' you need to cart with you. Do you really need to lug copies of your books? Check ahead, ensure the school has your books handy. By the same token, if you have an advance copy of your new book TAKE IT WITH YOU (ahem).

• Display banners are great but again if you're on your own with no one to help you, do you need to drag that giant contraption around? I have a desktop banner. It's A3 and collapsible, with all my latest book covers displayed. It's light-weight and fits happily in my school visits bag. I simply whip the banner out and pop it on the signing table when I first arrive. Kids love the banner, too, and it sparks off conversations while they're waiting in the signing queue.

• Check the school map beforehand. Hoorah for Google Earth and the Internet! You might find that the junior school is up the road and around the corner and across the ditch and nowhere near the official School Address you have in your diary. This is nearly always the case with large independent schools. Prepare to walk! And if you haven't orientated yourself beforehand prepare to get bamboozled. In all cases allow time.

• Have your workshops written out in note form so you can refresh, remember, inspire yourself between gigs. Have some back-up activities noodled out, too.

• Memorise a list of funny anecdotes.  For example, kids love to hear what other kids have said and done while you've been on the road. When I recently asked a class what the word 'doodad' meant, one clever and quite analytical girl put up her hand and said, 'It's a dad who does a lot'. Kids love little stories like this.

• Have an official School Visit Bag that you top up each evening and never use for anything else. Having this 'special purpose' bag will streamline the entire palaver and help ease the stress. I have a permanent supply of fresh tissues, Panadol, Rescue Remedy (ahem), pens, whiteboard markers, bookmarks, lip gloss, business cards, an umbrella, all the essentials in my school visit bag.

A practical Ted Talk today, dear reader, but one I hope is of some assistance. If you have any questions remember I'm always here (unless, of course, I'm on the road...).

Toodle-oo for now. Jen. xx

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Friday, 18 July 2014

keep it snappy

Behold, my new camera! 'Oh Jen,' I hear you cry, 'how did you manage to photograph your own camera?' Baffling, is it not?

After much deliberation and a rather tense period of skirting around one another, I have decided to name my new companion, Gertrude. Gertie, for short. Gertie has quite a forceful personality and even though she is not an SLR she has a Very High opinion of herself... and a rather low opinion of yours truly. In fact, her attitude has at times left me quite breathless. She speaks, dear reader! She really does. She has this screen at the back and she sends me... text messages. She says things like, 'Somebody blinked!' 'You are forcing the flash!' 'Turn me off and start again!' God, I have been a nervous wreck. One day, I was almost reduced to tears while trying to put her lens cap back on. I tried and I tried. Beads of sweat gathered on my brow. I began muttering incoherently. For at least twenty minutes I fought with that infuriating lens cap. Meanwhile, what did Gertie do? She just sat there. Silent and petulant, a febrile gleam in her on/off button. In retrospect I am amazed she didn't screech at me. I'm amazed she didn't say, 'Turn me off, you fecking ninny!' 

Yes. I eventually discovered it for myself. With trembling fingers I discovered that one has to Turn Gertie Off before replacing her lens cap. 

Until tomorrow, dear reader, I remain Yours in Perpetual Bamboozlement. xx

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Tuesday, 15 July 2014

don't be scared...

There is a scary doll in Truly Tan:Freaked, dear reader. Are you scared of dolls? Do you suspect they tiptoe down the hall at night while everyone is sleeping — or smirk when your back is turned? Here is the scary doll that Claire Robertson drew for the new story. It freaks me out and this is only the rough. The old photo was part of my inspiration board for the book. I photographed the other doll in a vintage outlet in Geelong (then scurried away before its icy eyes put a spell on me). I love sending Claire bits and pieces like this and waiting to see where she will go with it all... 

Truly Tan:Freaked is due for release in November this year (HarperCollins Publishers). It is the fourth Truly Tan book. I will crow more about it as the publication date draws nearer...
Until tomorrow. Jxx
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Saturday, 12 July 2014

sunshine on the kitchen table

Visiting: My mother-in-law. She's 84 today!

Lunching with: Himself and his beautiful family.

Working: Writing the denouement to my new fantasy novel. Working title, The Shop Next Door. It's sitting beautifully at 60,000 words and I'm very happy.

Watching: Catching up on the last three episodes of Offspring.

Doing: Long overdue housework/shopping/flower placement/cake baking.

Enjoying: Hearing about the SCBWI Sydney conference via Facebook.

Longing for: A haircut.

What are you up to this weekend, dear reader? Stay sparkly! xx

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Friday, 11 July 2014

Travels with my books: the Asian Festival of Children's Content

The writing life is solitary and intense. But there are also outings and events and FESTIVALS, dear reader. This year, May 30 - June 4, I attended (and was honoured to speak at) the Asian Festival of Children's Content, AFCC. The festival was held in the National Library in the tourist heart of the city. The NLS is an astonishing fourteen-storey building, with a futuristic sort of 'appendage' on the top floor known as The Pod (forgive me if you are an architect). The Pod even has its own secret lift and one is always accompanied on the journey upwards. The Pod has panoramic views across the city and everyone goes slightly nutty with their cameras. I attended a couple of events in The Pod including a lecture given by award-winning Lebanese writer, Fatima Sharafeddine. This lecture, which centred on the challenges and joys of writing for children in the Middle East, was definitely a highlight for me. 

The National Library, Singapore. The view looking up from the plaza.

There were workshops, lectures, panel discussions, masterclasses in writing and in illustration. There were authors and illustrators, publishing and education professionals from all over the world including, China, India, UK, Malaysia, USA, Ireland, Slovakia and of course local Singaporeans. This year's country of focus was India. Next year's (2015) will be China.
'Less is more in Singapore.' 
I am extremely wary of the sun. I burn like an ant under a magnifying glass. I was overjoyed to see that parasols are de rigueur in this beautiful city.

I adored the box that my new parasol came in. Sadly, the hotel staff thought it was rubbish...

I took the wrong train one morning and ended up in the financial district. It was fabulous. 

'Feeding the Reader's Hunger: Writing for Series'. 

I joined Gabrielle Wang (Australia) and A. J. Low (Adan Jimenez and Felicia Low-Jimenez, Singapore) in the most casual, free-flowing panel discussion imaginable. Gabrielle's latest book is The Wishbird, (Penguin Australia). It is a novel for readers 10+ and is incredibly beautiful. Gabi also writes for the Our Australian Girl series. She is talented and prolific, yes indeedy! Adan and Felicia write the Sherlock Sam series. Sam is an adorable character and I have no doubt this series is going to go off worldwide. Just you watch!

I adored Singapore and fell hopelessly in love — the people, the food, the history and the extra heaven of spending a week immersed in the wider world of children's literature. Singaporeans are incredibly passionate about children's books and their burgeoning industry. It was such a thrill to be a small part of this festival. If you are an aspiring or established author and/or illustrator my advice is, GO GO GO!

To The Pod and Beyond!
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Thursday, 10 July 2014

How to Write a Book...

First Ted talk for 2014! Let's get cracking straight away, shall we? 

Basically, dear reader, there are two ways of writing a book. You can choose to write organically — plant the seed, stand back and let your story grow (watch out though, you might end up with a great, unwieldy triffid and those things can be hard to rein in). It’s a scary approach but this style of writing has plenty going for it. Moreover, its champions (who are generally quite… militant) will tell you it’s the only way to achieve a genuinely spontaneous story full of quirks and surprises. This is the purist’s way. The Creative’s Way.

The other approach is to plot your story in advance — to make like an accountant and figure it all out before you begin. The idea is that with a bit of planning you’ll have a blueprint to back you up and keep you moving when the going gets tough, a guide that will save you from writing yourself into corners. By plotting in advance you’ll have more control over characters and events and a clearer vision of where you’re heading. However, detractors will tell you this is a wooden, rather pedestrian way of writing that sucks all the energy from a story. This is creative writing in a shirt and tie. It is the CPA’s Way.

When I first began writing I was convinced that ‘organic’ was the way to go. Being rather dewy eyed, I passionately believed it was the only truly creative approach to the craft and was quick to defend it. I wrote Tensy Farlow and the Home for Mislaid Children in this manner. I found a character who intrigued me and I simply began writing (while at work on a Tuesday afternoon if my memory serves me well). It took me four years to write that book, dear reader. Admittedly I was working full-time for the first couple of years, and Tensy was my first major piece of fiction so perhaps I can be forgiven for being a slowcoach. By the same token, I did waste a lot of time while writing that book. I went down many blind alleys. I backtracked endlessly because as I delved deeper into the story I began to understand the characters and their worlds more deeply. With each new insight there was no choice but to backtrack, rewrite, recast, cut, embellish, throw entire chapters at the wall. Even when it was finished and accepted for publication, it was miles too long. Here I was, toting a 100,000 word manuscript aimed at a 10+ readership. Poor little peanuts. I had to cut the final draft by 30,000 words. You all know the knitting metaphor. Oh yes, this sweater needed serious unpicking (and I don’t mind telling you there were times when I got in a terrible tangle). Those four years were stressful. The most stressful I’ve endured as an author. And yet I will still defend the organic approach, at least in that instance. It taught me a whole bunch of stuff including patience, perseverance and the astonishing magic of an unfettered imagination. Creative writing is after all, experiential.

I have of late been writing ‘chick lit’ for pre-teens. These books (the Crystal Bay Girls) have to be written quickly because, well, I have a contract and there are people with big sticks waiting. This is contemporary drama with none of the whimsy or fantastical elements of my gothic fiction or fairy tales. I have therefore been writing these books with extensive plans. They are thoroughly plotted in advance, chapter by chapter. And do you know what? It has been entirely joyful. It is so comforting to have a plan. It is incredibly reassuring to know that you have things figured out before you start scribbling. It takes away mountains of anxiety and, ironically, frees you up to enjoy the process and really connect with your characters. With a detailed plan, less energy is consumed by doubt and worry and there’s more left for actually writing. I will write about this method in more detail in another post. It deserves further explanation. If you’re anything like me, dear reader, you’ll have loads of questions such as, How exactly does one plot in advance? How long should I spend on my plan? What does a plan actually look like? But for now back to the little post at hand.

Today’s question is, what do I reckon about all this? Now that I’ve written using both approaches, what is my conclusion? Well, both ways have their merit. And I do think that the genre you’re writing in and the circumstances surrounding your work can influence your decision. However, do you know what? There is a third way. ‘What’s that?’ I hear you say. ‘Give me a break, Jen. This Ted talk is nearly over and now you’re bringing in a new idea? That’s breaking ALL the rules.’ I know, I know. I’m sorry. Truly I am. I said at the beginning there were two ways of writing a book but quite frankly that was just to lure you in and make you comfortable. Two choices are manageable. But three? Aie, aie, aie. You might have flicked me off and gone to Dottie Angel for crochet tips…

So what’s the third way? Well, it’s the Swedish Chef’s Combo. That’s right. Combine both approaches. Mix it up. Meander and plot, plan and freefall, all within the same story. Oh, the delight. The daring. The parody of the safe risk. This is the Writing Roller-coaster with personalised speed control and comfort stops. I’ve already used this method on a smaller scale in the last two Truly Tan books. And it’s the method I’m using now, only on a grander scale. This is what I’m doing as I write (and rewrite) my next fantasy novel—I plan and plummet, plot and freefall. So far it seems to be working. But it’s early days yet. Too soon to be cocky. Too soon to blab lest I end up in a screaming heap with naught but a chocolate ‘moose’ grinning at me. Either way, rest assured I will report back in greater depth as soon as I know more.

As I said, creative writing is experiential. You have to get in there and do it in order to understand it, to really get a feel for it, to develop and test and flex your artistic intuition. If you are an aspiring author I urge you to mess around, dear reader, I really do. It’s the only way to discover what works best FOR YOU.

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Wednesday, 9 July 2014

country tartan love

I am LOVING this Cleckheaton Country 8 ply, dear reader. This is the second vest I have made from it. I also love the Country Tartan range, too. 

It is 9 degrees and raining today in Melbourne. I can scarcely wait until tonight when I can light the fire, make myself a hot toddy and start stitching this little masterpiece together. Of course, then it will be time for the circular needles and I don't mind telling you, just the thought of those doozies gives me a hot flush. Do you have a cozy project to help you while away the winter evenings, dear reader? Or perhaps you live in different climes and have a sunny sewing project or something of that ilk underway? Wherever you are, stay happy, stay creative. xx

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Sunday, 6 July 2014

So much to tell you

Hello! Gosh, gosh, gosh, ring the bells, sound the horn, I can’t tell you how happy I am to be back at Baxter Street! I’ve missed you all so much and I must confess I am sick to my teeth of ‘tea for one’. The last twelve months have flown by (yes, it’s almost a year to the day since this fat lady yodelled) but upon reflection I can see why I had to put down my blogging pen for a while. I had so much work to get through that my noggin went into overload. I had to shed, dear reader, just so that I could meet my contractual obligations. How posh does that sound? Contractual obligations. I assure you it’s not. Mostly the life of a writer is just plain old hard work. Often lonely. Occasionally frustrating. Sometimes so overwhelming I’ve been known to fantasise about quitting writing all together and opening up a quaint little store. I would sell stunning fabric and high-quality picture books and my store would be called Reading Materials. I can see myself now, standing behind the oak counter, my spectacles balanced on the tip of my nose, smoothing my tweed skirt while surreptitiously summing-up my customers. I would wear a different blouse every day and a cashmere cardi slung across my shoulders — and I would only ever play 1940s music on the radiogram. But which brooch would I wear? I have a rich selection but some are too formal for a storekeeper and… Hello? Gosh. Sorry. Where was I? Blogging? Oh reality, how you do mock me…

I have written three junior novels since we spoke last, as well as two picture books and a book of short stories for boys. I also finished a fantasy novel that I have been working on for years and, well, I completely and utterly messed it up—mostly because I lost patience and rushed ( a dreadful thing for a writer to do). Except for the disastrous fantasy novel, all these projects are now at various stages of production, safe in the care of my lovely publishers and I feel I can breathe again. I have been taking art classes, too, (more about that HEAVEN soon) and I have studied so much Echkart Tolle I believe I am surely on the brink of enlightenment.

Meantime, I have made a commitment to pull out the baking bowls, dust off the tea set and reconnect with my favourite Street People. I hope you will find time to join me now and then, as the mood takes you of course. I know you are all busy people with much more important things to do — you can simply breeze by, pluck a biscuit from the Royal Albert and keep running if you like. Honestly, I won’t be offended. No matter how brief your stay, I will strive to make our dalliance worth your while. For example, of late I have come by a rather modern camera and Himself has been instructing me. It’s all terribly complex, with so many buttons and options that it makes one look longingly at poor old Nigel. Remember Nigel, dear reader? He was the nifty little ‘beginners’ camera with whom I shared so many early blogging adventures. Barely bigger than a powder compact he slipped comfortably into my handbag and enjoyed nothing more than a good SASHAY through the backstreets of Melbourne, clickety-click-clicking. Well, sadly, I have to report that Nigel is cracked. Cracked, dear reader! Literally and metaphorically. So much so that I can no longer trust him. Oh, he pretends to be taking professional shots. But it’s a shameless ruse and quite frankly I could do better myself with two crayons and leaky Bic. Needless to say, with my new as yet un-named camera I promise to have much prettier snaps to share in future. No more shonky photos on Baxter Street. Heavens no. This is now a Proper Blog. I have returned with renewed vigour and pledge to entertain nicely and with style. We are going to have a smashing time, you and I, yes indeed, sunshine-dandy.

Oh, and for those of you who are interested in creative writing I will continue with my ‘Ted talks’. The first one, humbly entitled, How To Write A Book, will be posted next Thursday. I think Thursday is a fine day for a Ted talk, don’t you? If you are looking for catch-up tips I have gathered all the old Ted talks together and put the link in the margin. Just over there… (Look to your right and you’ll spot dear little Ted sitting on his IDEAS suitcase — it’s packed with insights and helpful hints).

I may even keep up the What I Wore Posts, too. Depending on what you think, dear reader. Actually, what do you think? Please let me know. ‘Personal Style’ posts drive me to despair and under most circumstances I would cheerfully ditch them. I am not at all comfortable in front of the camera. And yet I still believe it’s important for ordinary women (especially women of a certain age) to be brave; to stand up and say, ‘We will not be overlooked, cast aside, patronised, pigeonholed! We are NOT invisible.’

Big hugs, dear reader. For those of you who have visited Baxter Street before, thank you for your patience, support and enduring friendship (often via facebook). For new readers, welcome, warm salutations and namaste. I have set a place for you, linen napkins, vintage crockery, the works.

Now, just excuse me while I take out my curlers. Then, with a dash of lipstick and a puff of eau de cologne I shall carefully and with great ceremony, Make The Tea. Hoorah! It is indeed Good To Be Back. xx

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Friday, 14 June 2013

Farewell from Baxter Street

Dearest Most Treasured Reader, Thank you for all your lovely comments over the years. Thank you for popping by Baxter Street, for sharing my nonsense and for being your kind, endlessly patient, well-mannered self. You have earned a CHERISHED place in my heart. I have LOVED blogging, it has been a unique and rewarding part of my life. But, well, even Seinfeld ran it's course, didn't it? And so too has my little blog. My life is changing and moving in different directions at the moment,  and sadly I cannot give you the riveting entertainment to which you have grown accustomed. True, I can barely articulate what my New Directions are but, as Cate Blanchett says at the beginning of Lord Of the Rings, 'I feel it in my waters'. Or was it, 'I feel it in the water'? No matter. Life is change and in that spirit I am waving hoo-roo from Baxter Street. 
Kiss, Kiss, Dear Reader. I shan't hang around lest I become too teary. 
Thank you ENORMOUSLY and Good Night.
Jen xx

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Thursday, 13 June 2013

Vogoff Wonderland

It's here, dear reader! If you haven't already, put on your kitten heels, grab the Pimms and get across to Melanie's. Vogoff! OMG. xx

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