These boots were made for walking: writing rituals

28 July 2017

I have very few writing rituals, things that I actually need in order to write. Having children has focused me in a way nothing else ever could because until this year I wrote in the cracks of life. I grabbed an hour while the littlest slept and the two older children were at school, or while the bloke took the lot of them down to the park. I learnt how to ignore the housework and sit down at my computer and just go. When time is limited every second counts.

This year, for the first time, I have all three of my children at school. But that ability to sit down and get on with it is now ingrained. There is only one thing that I need before I start writing: coffee. It doesn’t matter where I write (my study, the library, cafés) but I need (good) coffee. The caffeine helps my fingers fly across the keyboard, but in reality it is just a ritual. A small thing that signals a shift into a different mindspace.

Mostly I work from home. In some minds this seems to translate into me swanning about the house, and writing the odd sentence or two. It’s as far from that as you can get. There is zero swanning involved. It’s a job like any other, except that I don’t take a lunch break or stop for cake to farewell some colleague or chat about the weekend in the staff room. After I’ve done the school drop-off I take five minutes to make coffee, then get stuck straight into it, drinking at my desk while I read back over a little of the previous day’s writing to get me started.

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Because I try to cram in as much as I can between my working hours of 9.30 to 2.30 while the kids are at school, for lunch I eat last night’s dinner, or whatever I can scrounge from the fridge that requires zero prep time, at my desk. Last week Master 10 was home for a couple of days. He was sick enough to be off school, but well enough to entertain himself, so I kept working. That day I took a proper break to eat lunch with him. ‘Your work is intense, Mum,’ he said to me with mild admiration. ‘You don’t stop.’

But there is one exception, my second ritual: a daily walk. Sitting on your bum for hours is not the best, so in the middle of the day I get out of the house and walk. It gets everything moving again, but it’s also the best way to reset and prepare for the afternoon. At the moment I’m finishing a novel, and on Monday to Wednesday I divide my day roughly down the middle. Morning is for writing, afternoon is for all my non-writing activities: editing other writers’ manuscripts; developing any workshops I might be running; prep for my university editing seminars or upcoming events; answering emails and other admin, and so on. (Thursday and Friday are dedicated solely to editing.) In-between I clear the cobwebs with a walk.

The view from my balcony — I swear Canberra has the best sunsets in the world

Sometimes I listen to a writing podcast, sometimes I don’t want words filling up my ears. However there is a danger inherent in walking after having written all morning. Sometimes I tune out of the podcast and begin unknotting some issue with my novel, or ‘writing’ a new scene. The mind is a strange thing, often I don’t realise I’ve even been subconsciously doing this until the solution presents itself to me. Of course then I have to get that down on paper which means the afternoon’s work gets shunted to the evening or the weekend. But hey, that kind of flexibility is why I love working from home.

Writing and walking commonly go hand in hand. I know so many writers who walk to work out thorny problems with their manuscripts. I’m fortunate that I live in a house looking to the hills, so my walk is accompanied by a vista over the valley to the Brindabellas. Honestly, I never tire of it. It fills me up every single day. And at the moment, when I’m in the middle of a particularly busy couple of months, it’s an indispensable pause in an otherwise ‘intense’ day.

Do you have specific writing rituals? Are you a writer who walks? Would love to hear from you in the comments.

Go ahead, make my day: supporting Australian authors

18 July 2017

Here’s a stat for you. On average Australian authors make just $12,900 a year. That figure is usually made up of a bunch of different income streams that might include teaching writing, festival appearances, PLR/ELR (if you don’t know what this is, read on), school visits, and a range of other writing-related activities. Book royalties  often represent only a fraction of an author’s total income.

The market in Australia is small and consequently there is pressure on authors to sell enough copies of their book to warrant the publisher’s financial investment. Put simply, if a book doesn’t sell well enough, a publisher will think twice about taking on another book by that author. So if you love Australian writing, here are some ways that you can support authors and the industry that makes it possible for them to continue publishing.

  1. Buy their book, but know that all sales are not equal.

On every book sold authors make ten per cent of the RRP. So if the book retails for $30, the author makes $3. If the book has multiple authors, or an author and an illustrator, that ten per cent will be divided between them. So, for example, my picture book, Megumi and the Bear, retails for $27.95 which means that on every book sale I receive 5% or $1.40 (as does the illustrator, Craig Phillips). But this is only the case on full price sales. If the book is sold at a discounted rate the author may earn next to nothing. For example, on my latest royalty statement a bunch of Megumis were sold at discount, netting me the grand total of 13 cents per book. Deals like this are often done by the publisher when the book has been out for a while, but even a new release can receive just a few cents in royalties. How? you might ask.

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Well, here’s how it works. In order to get books into the major department stores (the Big Ws of the world) the publisher offers them at a drastically reduced cost. So if you purchase a book from, say, Kmart, you might get it a couple of dollars cheaper, but you’re also reducing the author’s already meagre earnings. And then there are all the online bookstores offering cheaper rates. Again, the author’s earnings are likely to be meagre. I’ve quoted Jo Case’s stark example before but it’s worth repeating here. Purchasing a copy of Case’s memoir, Boomer and Me, from an Australian bookshop meant she received $2.50 in royalties, but buying it via Book Depository UK meant only three cents in royalties.

Ultimately authors are going to be happy that you’re reading their book any which way, but if you can buy locally from a physical bookstore everybody wins.

  1. Better yet, pre-order the book

Pre-orders and first week sales are crucial for a book’s success. Pre-orders help determine the number of copies retailers will stock, and also help books hit the bestseller list. So if you’re intending to buy an author’s book when it comes out anyway, why not pre-order it to give them that extra boost.

  1. If you can’t buy their book, borrow it…

…but not from a mate, from the library. Most readers don’t know that at the end of every financial year Australian authors receive PLR (Public Lending Rights) and ELR (Education Lending Rights) payments based on the estimated number of copies held by Australian libraries. These funds are significant, and often exceed royalties on sales.

If you read anything like the quantity of books that I do, then buying every book is simply not possible. But when you borrow a book from a friend, or buy a copy secondhand, the author gets nothing. Supporting your local library is a better option. I regularly borrow books from the library and if I love the book I will often then buy myself a copy. A recent example is Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek. I borrowed it from my local library and loved it so much that I bought a copy for myself, and have been buying it as a gift for friends ever since.

If your local library doesn’t have the book you’re after, you can request that they buy it. You’ll increase the author’s PLR payment and other library users will also benefit from your initiative.

  1. Write a Goodreads (or Amazon) review

I am a late adopter of pretty much everything, and Goodreads is no exception. I had an inactive account for years and have only just started actually using it (so come join me there!).

Reviewing and rating an author’s book does make a difference. The best kind of reviews give other readers a sense of what the book is about and why you enjoyed it. But if you don’t have time to construct a paragraph or two, a quick line — even just ‘loved this book’ — will always be welcomed. Aside from making the author extremely happy (and believe me it really does), the more reviews a book has, the more readers see it. And constructive conversation around a book is useful in generating awareness. I use the word ‘constructive’ because Goodreads can be a brutal place for an author. Many authors I know avoid it in order to maintain their own sanity. I think some reviewers forget that a real person with real feelings wrote the book that they are reviewing. So please be honest but kind.

  1. Tell your networks

If you’ve enjoyed a book let others know by tweeting, Facebooking or Instagraming about it. Even good old-fashioned face-to-face works a treat. Word of mouth is the best way to help a book make its mark because readers act on recommendations from people they know and trust. And the author will love you forever and ever.

  1. Write to them

It’s so easy these days to drop an author a line. Most authors are accessible via email, website contact forms and various social media platforms. And don’t underestimate the zing it will give your favourite author. You work so hard on any given book for so long in isolation and then when it goes out into the world you crave feedback from readers. As Roger McDonald once said ‘an author is a thirsting person in the desert’. Hand them that glass of water!

  1. Go to their events

Better yet, meet them in person. Get them to sign your book, tell them what you loved about their last one, even take a selfie with them! It’s the loveliest thing when someone comes up to you at an event and tells you how much they adored your book. Nothing beats it.

So there you have it. Six ways to make an author’s day.

Audiobooks: why they matter and why authors should care

9 July 2017

The companionship and delight of a voice telling stories is incomparable. Stephen Fry

I’m not usually a consumer of audiobooks, but circumstance has recently led me to a couple of excellent audiobooks, and it’s got me thinking about the medium. My children have long been fans, partly, I suspect, because we have a No-TV-after-school rule. This means they often listen to an audiobook while drawing, or doing craft. I mentioned this once to a fellow writer and her response was, ‘But is that actually the same as reading?’ The question holds an implication. That listening to books is somehow cheating, that it doesn’t count. That audiobooks are an ‘easy’ way to digest books with all of the rewards and none of the ‘work’.

My local library’s homage to the audiobook

The fact is that at a cognitive level there is no real difference between listening to a book and reading it. Listening comprehension and reading comprehension have a strong correlation. And while it’s true that listening to an audiobook does not require ‘decoding’ of the text, studies have shown that by Year 5 this ability is pretty much automatic and therefore not a particular benefit of reading over listening to a book.

What’s more, there are benefits that are specific to audiobooks. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that at seven my son was completely obsessed with audiobooks (there was always one playing). At this age his intellectual capacity was more sophisticated than his reading ability, and audiobooks supplemented equivalent books that I read to him at bedtime, and the lower-level books that he was able to read to himself. An additional benefit is that audiobooks teach the rhythms of language, and the way inflection and intonation are important when telling a story. Of course parents and teachers reading aloud can also do this, but who has four hours a day to read to their child? Masters Ten and Six both love print books but they can also gleefully recite whole slabs of audiobooks that contain sophisticated vocabulary. Now what could possibly be wrong with that?

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When I was a kid, my brothers and I had a cassette tape of Captain Beaky and his Band, an album of poetry set to music. I have no real memory of its content, but I do recall that it was roll-on-the-floor hilarious, eliciting the kind of violent laughter that makes everything hurt. We never tired of it, we listened to it so many times the tape eventually snapped. But as an adult who loves nothing more than curling up with a cup of tea and a print book, it’s only recently that I’ve discovered the pleasures of audiobooks for adults.

Later in the year I’m travelling to South Africa and I’ve been trying to read as much as I can by South African authors. I wanted to get my hands on Damon Galgut’s The Imposter but the library only had an audiobook, so I checked that out. Turns out it’s a stunning book and I’m keen to read more by Galgut. But this particular narration by Humphrey Bower, which gives each character a distinct South African voice, enriched the experience for me. I listened to the story whenever I was alone in the car and I found myself looking forward to previously mundane trips to the markets or school pick-up or meetings, because it meant I could sink into the story again. I was bereft when it ended, but not for long, because as it turned out my book club had scheduled Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera. I left it too late to get hold of a copy and when I rushed to the library only the audiobook was available. (I am, as you might have guessed, a big library user, but more on that another time.)

Whale Rider includes large chunks of Maori language which frustrated some of my fellow book clubbers on the page, but Jay Laga’aia narrates the audiobook and listening to these words in his mouth was like poetry washing over me. I only got the gist of their meaning but I could appreciate their beauty. Combined with Jay’s whale song and snippets of music, I found the audiobook a moving experience. Interestingly both these books were set elsewhere — South Africa and New Zealand — and the narration added another layer, bringing those cultures alive in ways not possible in print.

Of course there are audiobooks that miss the mark. It goes without saying that the quality of an audiobook hinges on its narrator. In May, the Australian Book Industry Awards (ABIA) introduced its inaugural Audiobook of the Year Award, with Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton’s 78-Storey Treehouse taking out the gong. Stig Wemyss is the voice behind all the Griffiths/Denton books and consequently quite the rock star in our house. (It is a terrible oversight that he is not credited on ABIA’s list of award winners.) My kids met Stig at an event at our local library and Master Ten has never forgotten the moment he was invited on stage. At Stig’s request, Master Ten responded to his every question with a series of burps in a fashion so gross it would have made Griffiths and Denton proud. He won himself an audiobook and much kudos from the mini humans present. (Unfortunately — or fortunately — I was not there to witness it.)

But I digress. For authors it’s worth knowing that while audiobooks are currently a small market, they are showing the biggest growth of any format. In 2014, the value of the global audiobook industry rose to $1.47 billion, up 13.5% from 2013. In 2015, the value rose further to $2.8 billion, and then again in 2016 to $3.5 billion dollars. Commensurate growth is predicted for 2017. Overall, audiobook growth is nearly five times the increase of the overall book trade industry’ according to the American Publishers Association. (For further stats see this article.) The most popular genres for audiobooks (and, incidentally, also for ebooks) are mystery, thriller, romance and fantasy/science fiction.

As Philip Pullman says, ‘Long before writing, people were telling each other stories and the audiobook goes all the way back to that tradition.’ While a print book is still my own personal preference, I’m an advocate of maximising opportunities for both children and adults to access stories. Ebooks, audiobooks, print books — whatever the format, it’s the story itself that counts. And if an audiobook means that I can convert all those mundane hours of driving every week into time spent with a story, I’m all for it.

Do you listen to audiobooks? Does it feel like cheating? And do you have a favourite narrator? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Welcome to my new website!

2 July 2017

The digital gods have not been kind to me in recent weeks. Just as I was about to launch this beautiful new site my computer decided it was time to commit suicide. That was just one hurdle of many, but here we are — finally — after months of dreaming and planning and designing. Hurrah! I feel like I should be splashing champagne about, but since we’re virtual this piccie will have to do.

Bouquets, both virtual and real, go to my super talented friend, Keeley, who has made this site a reality, and has graciously navigated all my pesky requests. I hope you enjoy having a look around. You can still browse through a selection of my older blog posts, and to receive new posts please do subscribe in that little bar to your right.

Well that’s it from me for now. Hope to see you here again soon!

Reading memories

6 June 2017
One of the perks of being Ambassador for the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge is visiting schools to talk about my favourite topic—books (duh). This week I headed to Holy Trinity Primary to meet the Year 1s and 2s. Here we all are getting a bit crazy together.

Talking about reading got me thinking about my own special reading memories, and one teacher in particular. Her name was Miss O’D and she was my Grade 6 teacher. She wore blue mascara and shoulder pads and was every kind of eighties cool. She was young, not that long out of university, and she made everything fun. And I mean everything. It was the only year that I enjoyed maths as we played ‘The Footy Game’ to learn our times tables. It involved an actual footy and four teams and much laughter. That year everyone’s understanding of maths skyrocketed.

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But for a booklover like me it was the literary activities that got me all shiny-eyed. Every week Miss O’D wrote a Poem of the Week on our blackboard and illustrated it with Dr Seuss-style characters. We would copy out the poem (using smelly glitter pens) and create our own illustrations. I still remember the time I got a rare and coveted 10 out of 10 for my work. ‘Perfect!’ she wrote, and my feet did not touch the ground for the rest of the day. She also constructed a haunted house reading corner from a massive crate painted black. It was full of cushions and dangling streamers and clearly sent one message: reading is fun. But best of all, she got us to write, illustrate and ‘publish’ our own picture books. I had been writing stories and making my own books at home for as long as I could remember, so the opportunity to create a shiny hardback (well, more laminated cardboard) had me practically salivating. I still have those two books and I often take them with me on school visits, as I did to Holy Trinity, to encourage kids to make their own.

So as all the Reading Challenge Ambassadors head out for their school visits, I thought I’d ask them about their own special reading memories. Here’s what they had to say.

Jack Heath: At Lyneham Primary School I had a wonderful teacher librarian named Kay Pietsch. When I missed school due to a crippling ear infection, she hand-picked books for me to read during my recovery. Thanks to her I discovered Claire Carmichael, Jackie French, Brian Jacques and many others. When I finally got back to school, I wasn’t behind my classmates. I might even have been ahead.

Harry Laing: There’s a nursery rhyme that’s always stuck in my head with a particularly vivid quality. I think my grandmother read it to me (and I’m sure my mother and maybe a favourite great aunt). I think it was probably just before I was reading properly so the words had that talismanic quality…

Hark! Hark! The dogs do bark
Beggars are coming to town
Some in jags, some in rags
And one in a velvet gown.

Listening to this as a child gave me a delicious shiver. Something to do with the wonderfully tight and expressive sounds and rhymes of hark/bark and jags/rags. It was scary to think of the beggars coming to town, and their power to provoke the dogs with their rags and then the really scary last line ‘and one in a velvet gown’. What did that mean? I’m sure I barely understood what velvet was or even a gown but it was such a smooth and sinister phrase. I still get the same feeling 50-odd years later. I can go back and look at Mother Goose and there’s the nursery rhyme with illustration but it’s the sound of the words that lingers. And how precious that is, to be able to go straight back to being five years old with nothing in-between. Mind you I did have to look up the meaning of ‘jags’ (tatters, rags).

Tracey Hawkins: As a child I owned a boxed set of Golden Press books, Wonderful World of Walt Disney. There were four books in the set, Fantasyland, Worlds of Nature, America and Stories from Other Lands. My favourite was Stories from Other Lands. Turning the pages took me to a world far away from the small coastal town I lived in. Books provided knowledge and escapism, and fascinated me. Reading fed my imagination as I unearthed the mystery, myths, legends and cultural diversity of other countries. I read thousands of books as a child, but I believe it was this book led me on my future path as an adult to explore and travel the world.

Tania McCartney: One of my earliest and most precious reading memories is with my mum, reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. The intriguing thing about this persistent memory is that it’s not the actual story I remember. It’s the warmth of her lap. It’s her arms around my shoulders and the rumble of her voice, resonating from her diaphragm into my back. It’s the smell of her clothes and the smoothness of the book’s pages. I can still feel my little toddler fingers poking through the holes in the page as the caterpillar eats its way through a multitude of delicious treats, and how the paper scratched my skin. I can also feel the rumble in my tummy, wanting to join the caterpillar for cherry pie, watermelon and a lollipop. It’s all those tactile elements, yes, but it’s also the less tactile—that envelope of love, that feeling of belonging, that parental attention and sheer enjoyment of story. And that, my friends, is how children fall in love with books.

Just look at all those hands! Such enthusiastic little readers!

As Ambassadors we all hope that our school visits will inspire kids to explore many more books and develop a lifelong love of reading. So I was so thrilled to receive a stack of letters from Holy Trinity with beautiful words of thanks and equally beautiful illustrations. I wish I could include them all here but since there’s not space here’s my lounge room carpeted in them, and one of my favourites from Lachy. His exclamations (‘Your visit…OH! I loved it. Please come again!’) brought a big grin to my face. Also, I am ‘awsem’. That’s the best bit of being an author right there.