Sunday, November 24, 2013

Loving the day job

Is it just me or has time flipped into warp speed? The days zip by so fast that sometimes I'm left dizzy. Has it really been two months since my last blog post? Wow. Time to rectify the situation.

Photo courtesy of Claire Saxby
The last two months have been busy with the release of A SWIM IN THE SEA, which has had some gorgeous reviews and has turned up in some unexpected places and on some unexpected lists. But, in truth, what has been keeping me particularly busy is the DAY JOB.

Which is not all bad. Because I am one of those lucky people who actually loves her job. Working in publishing for the past ten years has been a wonderful journey for me – a profession I never even thought of until I was actually doing it. (Weird, I know.)

But I love it. And feel very privileged to not only have a second career (I was a primary school teacher for twenty-five years) but to be in a job where I get to work with a fabulous team of creatives – editors, designers, authors, illustrators – to make gorgeous BOOKS for children and young adults. How can you not love that?

Some things I love about my job making books:

  1. Being a phantom – lurking in the background quietly guiding and encouraging my authors to create the very best story they possibly can.
  2. Being a puzzler – pondering on where each piece of the story puzzle should go, which pieces need to go altogether, and which pieces need to be added to create the best result –  the complete and perfect story. 
  3. Finding solutions and coming up with ideas – something that is so much fun when you work in a supportive and creative team! Many heads working to the same end results in many great ideas being hatched.
  4. Typography and book design – thanks to all the designers I have had the privilege to work with, I have such a wonderful new respect and love for beautiful typography and clever design.
  5. Holding a finished book and knowing every step of its journey. That is a very satisfying feeling. Only topped by witnessing the joy on the authors' and illustrators' faces when they get to hold their "babies" for the first time.
How luck am I?

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Time to beach party

Well, the sun is shining, the weather is warming and the gorgeous blue sea is twinkling at me. And it is almost exactly the same sort of day when about ten years ago I was filled with a scrumptious child-like excitement as I headed down the cliff track to the beach to have my first swim for the season.

But as my bare feet hit the still coolish sand, a refrain started to play in my head:

I'm going for a swim in the sea, the sea, the big blue sea. 

The refrain persisted as I garnered up my courage, closed my eyes and plunged into the still coolish water.

I'm going for a swim in the sea, the sea, the big blue sea. 

It continued as I floated in the current (briefly - the water was actually rather freezing!).

I'm going for a swim in the sea, the sea, the big blue sea.

By the time I had plodded back up the track, showered and made some lunch, the refrain had become a poem - a poem that over the next few years would nudge up against a couple of other ideas and eventually morph into a story -  A SWIM IN THE SEA.

And this week, with the red and yellow flags standing sentinel on the beach, marking the beginning of the summer swimming season,  A SWIM IN THE SEA is now officially a book, illustrated by Meredith Thomas and published by Walker Books.

So I think it is time to PARTY! You can read about the launch here.

Beach party launch of A Swim in the Sea at Austinmer Public School.
And, as you can see, I am once again filled with a scrumptious child-like excitement as A SWIM IN THE SEA hits the shelves in bookshops around the country. Yip-ee!

Friday, July 19, 2013

Start something, stick with it, finish it … or start something new

Last Saturday I spoke on a YA panel with Lisa Forrest and Rebecca James at the Southern Highlands Writers’ Festival. It was a fun, relaxed session and I enjoyed the company of Lisa and Rebecca immensely. 

During the session Lisa gave an aspiring young writer some sage advice about writing. It went something like this: Read lots. Write lots. Start something. Stick with it. Finish it. Nothing startling, but well stated in a way that was easy to remember. And it provided a timely reminder for me.

So after my stern talking to self on Sunday, I started the week with a new resolve. I was going to get back to my YA WIP; I was going to stick with it and finish it. No matter how long it took.

I started out by reading through what I had written thus far (about 3000 words), poring over the pages and pages of character notes and ideas, trying to get back into the heads of Shay and Riley. There was some surprisingly good stuff here, much of which I had forgotten about. But I knew I had a lot more “thinking” to do, and that I needed to go slowly, think deeply about my characters and take the time to get to know them properly. It was going to be a long process. But I was excited. That was Monday.

On Tuesday I woke thinking about a junior fiction idea I had years ago. A comic adventure idea that was very character driven and filled with much silliness. Ideas were zipping around my head, and I had to get out my notebook to take them down before I forgot them. And before I knew it I was scribbling scenes and working out plot ideas.

So after only one day into my resolve, I have started something new. But I am positively buzzing, the voices of my characters chattering away endlessly in my subconscious. Is this just classic avoidance behaviour? Am I just putting off delving back into my YA because I know that it is going to be hard? Who knows? But right now I am going to combine two of my favourite sayings and go with the flow and do what makes my heart sing.

Start something. Stick with it. Finish it. Great advice – if only I would follow it. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A stern talking to self

Okay – enough is enough, Susan. No more excuses.

Portraits of Celina has been out for three months. It has been read, reviewed and reprinted. You have received wonderful notes and emails and FB messages, and you have done what you can to promote it: school visits, library visits, festivals, panel sessions, conferences, interviews and articles. You have blogged and facebooked and tweeted.

There will be more opportunities – and they will be wonderful and appreciated – but it is time to let go. To stop being that helicopter parent hovering over and worrying about your latest little book baby and how it is doing in the big bad world. Slash the apron strings, Susan. Let Bayley and Celina tell their stories to whoever wishes to listen to them. They are no longer your characters. They belong to your readers, and you must move on. You have a new novel to write and it is not going to write itself. It requires time, effort – and in the (paraphrased) words of Ernest Hemingway “you need to sit at your typewriter and bleed”.

Remember Shay? And Riley? Remember that image you have of them: torn, crying, bereft, but loving each other to bits? Remember Shay touching Riley’s face and telling him she will fix it, fix him? That she would never leave his side no matter what he’s done? Remember your blog post about Dad and those tangly webs? Remember that?

You have another story to tell. And I think it could be a good one, one worth telling. And, yes, it is going to be hard. Really hard. It is going to take a long time. You are going to doubt yourself and at times you will feel as if you are writing nothing but rubbish – and maybe it will be, just that, rubbish, but maybe it won’t. But, Susan, you have to give it your best shot. Come on, put a lid on those doubts, silence those excuses and, please, please, just get on with it. 

Like now.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Bookish adventures


I have had a HUGE June with many bookish adventures.
From Reading Matters conference in Melbourne to
Voices on the Coast in the Sunshine Coast to
SCBWI WA events In Perth and "retreat" on Rottnest Island to
three days and nine schools' tour with Westbooks!

Wow! It was hectic. It was fun. It was inspiring. And although I am slightly exhausted, I am also pretty satisfied that I got through it all without too many dramas.

Here are some happy snaps from the WA leg of the trip.

Illustrators showing off! Clever bunnies.
Some of the gang on Rottnest
The two Sues - with Sue from Westbooks
The Greatest Liar exhibition at the Lit Centre Fremantle - with Frane Lessac
Brian Falkner - writer in residence at the Lit Centre
That's what I call an auditorium! Loved talking about Celina to keen readers.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

A note from Celina O’Malley

That morning, my last morning, April 7, 1975, dawned brilliant: warm and golden, the sun slanting through the trees. It matched my mood perfectly. It was to be the first day of the rest of our lives, for Robbie and me.

I walked down my driveway, brimming with excitement, closed the front gate behind me to keep the goats in, just as I did every morning, and headed along the dirt track to the bus stop.

I never made it. I was just sixteen years old.

I have to tell you that I felt ripped off, dying that young, when I had everything to look forward to – my whole life ahead of me. And it was going to be such a good life. I had passion: so much I wanted to do, to achieve. It was incredibly unfair.

But dying wasn’t the worst part, let me tell you. It was just the beginning.

Imagine what it was like having to watch everyone suffer so horribly after I was gone. The waiting, wondering, worrying – the not knowing what had happened to me. It was torture, for them, and for me. It’s what drove Robbie away and sent Mum and Dad mad with sorrow.

And all the while HE lived on. Walked among them. Laughed. Joked. Prospered. Lived. Did unspeakable things.

But now MY time has come. My patience has paid off. It may have taken nearly forty years, but now my sweet little cousin has come at last to help me. And although she doesn’t know it yet, she is going to exact my revenge. To make HIM pay. It’s all up to her now.

Make him pay, Bayley. Make him pay.
I won’t rest until it’s done.

Peace sister.

Celina O’Malley

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth and Me, memories from childhood, and a salute to a great writer

A few years ago, I was preparing for a Perth Writers’ Festival panel session about favourite books from childhood. (Here is a link to an article on the session.) I recall I was remembering fondly my obsession with Enid Blyton and her Famous Five series, when I was hit by an unexpected flashback.

I suddenly saw a much younger me, perhaps ten or eleven, plucking a purple hardback from the shelves of my local library. The book was Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth and Me by E.L. Konigsburg (published in the states and elsewhere as Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and me, Elizabeth).
I had totally forgotten about this book, but as soon as I had this recollection, I remembered the experience of reading it all so vividly. I recalled how much I loved this particular story, how it spoke to me at the time, how I longed for a friend to pretend to be a witch with, to make potions with and to chant around a magic circle.

Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth and Me was unlike any other book I had read, and I have no idea why I picked it up. Maybe the pretty purple colour of the cover attracted me, maybe the names intrigued – I suspect I would have had no idea who Hecate and Macbeth were. I certainly didn’t know that it was an award-winner: a Newbery Honour Book and ALA Notable Book, that it was the first book written by Konigsburg, who would go on to become one of the most celebrated and loved contemporary American writers for children and young adults. And I wouldn’t have thought that forty years later, on hearing of the passing of this wonderful writer, on April 20 (aged 83) the much older Sue would immediately order a copy of this book and read it once again in salute to this great writer.

And my rereading didn’t disappoint or tarnish my recollection. Instead, it enhanced it. It brought a warm smile to my lips as I recalled the things that charmed me as a child, and the adult me was intrigued at how I would have identified with the character of Elizabeth – there were many similarities: smallest in class, new girl at school, no siblings at home – and I am sure I would have found Elizabeth’s Saturday meetings with Jennifer tantalisingly daring.

First published in 1967, the book certainly showed its age with references to being excited at pretending to smoke menthol cigarettes, being smacked and the like, but I could forgive those. And the writer in me was able to admire the way Konigsburg wrote deeply from within her child character’s point of view and how cleverly she had cast the adult world to the periphery of the story. The story is quite slim, but masterfully layered; the relationship between Elizabeth and the domineering Jennifer is a complex one, and it was terrific to witness the growth in Elizabeth over the course of the story. 

There were certainly many lessons for me in revisiting this book.

I plan to dig out and read or reread more of Konigsburg’s work over the coming months – and I’m hoping that some of her storytelling gift, her wisdom, wit and insight will rub off along the way.

Vale E.L. Konigsburg.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Stillness after craziness, the love of long lost fathers and the tangling of webs

I love the morning. Love the promise of it. The stillness of it. The quiet pause of it.

This morning the stillness is particularly sweet. After a crazy couple of weeks of releasing Portraits of Celina into the world (or to be more precise, Australian bookshops and libraries!) – a couple of weeks of great excitement and extreme trepidation, where I have had the pleasure of reading some AMAZING reviews, where I have had the joy of seeing nice little STACKS or teetering PILES of the book in bookstores (coupled with the worry that the piles will remain teetering and end up being returned), where I have had gorgeous, enthusiastic emails and facebook messages full of praise and good wishes from friends, relatives, booksellers, early readers and writing buddies, where I have introduced the book to hundreds of teen girls and been encouraged by their excitement and engagement – after such a couple of weeks, it is good to soak in the stillness of the morning, take stock (and a deep breath), make a vow to stop obsessing, worrying and self-googling, and to get back to my next novel.

And this brings me to thoughts about my dad and tangly webs.
My dad died when I was barely twenty. Six months exactly before my wedding day. (Yes, a child bride!) Eight years before I had that first stirring in my belly that I’d like to write, and twenty years before I had my first book published. In an interview for Magpies magazine, Joy Lawn asked about the absence of fathers in my last two novels. The question threw me. I hadn’t realised. And I had to wonder if it was due to the fact that deep down I feel like I have missed out on having a father for much of my life.

I don’t remember an awful lot about my father as a person. I think he was cheeky. I think he loved having fun. I think he was a risk-taker. I say think because I don’t really know. But when I think of him, my first thoughts are not about what we did together, my first thoughts are of love. I loved him deeply and I know he loved me unconditionally in return. And despite his early departure, he left me with some very strong “lessons” that have travelled with me my entire life. He taught me to be prepared – to do my homework – before speaking or acting or reacting. He taught me to strive, not to settle for a small life. And he taught me about truth. Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive. His favourite saying. And the core of my new work. A story of love, lies and deception and a very tangly web.

So now, thirty-three years after his death, Dad is with me again. He is sitting on an orange vinyl chair at a laminate kitchen table, sipping his whiskey, chuckling and saying, Go for it, Suzie-Q; you can do it. Those tangly webs will make for a damn good story. Just do your homework and strive – don’t settle for a small story, make it big, make it shine.

And I am going to give it a red-hot go. This one’s for you, Dad. Love you. Miss you. XXX

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Give them pleasure

“Give them pleasure. The same pleasure they have when they wake up from a nightmare.” Alfred Hitchcock

I didn’t set out to write a creepy story. But it seems that I have.

Early responses from readers of Portraits of Celina are that the novel is gripping, thrilling and seriously creepy. This comment is often followed by grimaces and shudders, and then the sharing of favourite “freak out” moments. All relayed with huge grins and much wide-eyed glee. Fantastic and appreciated feedback for me as the author, but it got me thinking what a weird lot we human beings are! Why do we gain pleasure from reading stories that scare us?

The answer can be found in biology and evolution. Feeling fear is a primeval response that has contributed to our species staying alive and thriving, and that has saved us from many dangers.

The science goes like this. When we are confronted with a dangerous situation, the brain immediately releases a surge of hormones, in particular, adrenaline, but also others such as dopamine. These hormones trigger our fear response that allows us to react swiftly. Our bodies go on high alert, we are charged with energy and our senses are intensified. Essential things for survival.

Now, for many, when these hormones are released in non-dangerous situations, where there is little or no risk of physical harm, this heady rush of hormones results in a type of exhilaration, or at the very least, exciting, pleasurable feelings. All thrill, but no price! Perfect.

I can assure you it is very unlikely that I will ever bungee jump off a bridge, go skydiving or swim with sharks. I’m not even that keen on roller coaster rides. For me, there is no better place to get my dose of thrills and chills than curling up on my sofa in the safety of my own home caught in the suspense of a nail-biting novel, experiencing fear vicariously.

So I am pleased to have written something a little creepy – something that allows readers the same pleasure as waking from a nightmare!

Hope you enjoy the rush.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The devil’s in the detail

This particular idiom is a favourite of mine. How often do we get tripped up by not attending to the details of a situation? (What?! I had to check in forty-five minutes before the flight!) Not reading the fine print? (What?! I’m not covered for flood damage?) Not reading the instructions? (Why is there five screws left?) Ploughing through the steps of a recipe without paying enough attention to those important fine details? (What?! It said a teaspoon of chili not a tablespoon?)

As an editor, I am most certainly a details person. But it is in writing, that details give me the most delight and, at times, cause me the most dilemmas. The addition of details can make or break your writing and it can be a deliciously devilish thing to get right.

It comes down to the old Goldilocks scenario.

Too many details and your writing becomes wordy and dull, slow paced and bogged down, allowing no room for your readers to use their own imaginations.
Too few details and your readers will find it difficult to form pictures in their minds. And your writing becomes flat, uninspiring and quite possibly confusing.

But if you provide just the right amount of details, your writing will sing; it will be vivid and rich – without slowing the pace of the story.

But having the right level of detail is only half the problem. The details you choose must be just right as well – they need to be precise, convincing, evocative, authentic, sensory, specific, arresting, unusual. They should never be merely embellishments. They need to work hard for your plot, or setting, or themes, or character.

In my own writing, I tend to start quite expansive and then whittle down my descriptions and scenes until I feel I have just the right balance, keeping only what I feel are the most arresting, evocative or necessary details. This of course is time-consuming, but it works for me and, as I whittle away, the process becomes like solving a puzzle. By way of example, the first drafts of the prologue in Portraits of Celina ran at around 1000 words. The prologue that made it into the final draft is a mere 250 words – yet it still says everything it needs to say and, while it hasn’t been tested on the general public yet, I think it is vivid and powerful. (She says, hopefully!)

To finish up, I found an interesting definition of “the devil is in the detail” in that most reliable of sources Wikipedia.

“The idiom ‘the devil is in the detail’ refers to a catch or mysterious element hidden in the details.”

In the context of Portraits of Celina, this particular definition brought a sly grin to my face. There is certainly a catch / twist hidden in the details of this story. Quite a dark one, actually. And yes, my friends, that is a teaser ...