The Art of Balancing


When I read that my grandson – freshly out of a solid plaster cast for a broken arm – was balancing on his mother’s balance ball, weights in hand, singing energetically to “Another one bites the dust” I felt more than a moment of envy. Energy, enthusiasm, and action without fear. That’s a powerful combination.

I dream of being energetic; a person of action, cheerfully engaged and productive. Yet in my particularly busy times I appreciate why writers hibernate, work like crazy, and emerge only when the work is done. I also seek some balance and I am not sure that balance is possible without routine. What is it I am wanting – a balancing of the many different aspects of my life, balance within my working week, or balance over a longer period of time?

Productive time demands single-mindedness, or a strict routine. There is a lot of truth in the advice given, in various forms of the same idea: “If you wish to be a writer, write.”  (Greek philosopher Epictetus, who died in the year 135). More recently, writer Stephen King said “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” If so many writers are saying this, it must be true, right? I suspect that, perhaps, it’s not a fully complete instruction. Writing every day is pointless if you are writing badly, writing without purpose, writing with nothing in particular to say.

Thinking about writing has been decried, but I believe it is important to think about where you fall in the two camps of writers as described by writer Ryan Holiday in this interesting post. What is it that you have to say? Are you compelled to write? Or are you writing for the sheer pleasure of creating something new, crafting it, editing, nursing the very best from the language you have chosen to write in?

Holiday passes on excellent advice that he received early in his career: “go do interesting things”.

Go do interesting things. This is the fulcrum on which we must balance our careers, not on the hours in the day, not on the months in the year, not on the routines we establish. If I fill my life with interesting things, and slide from one end of the seesaw (the writing end) to the other (the illustrating end) then somehow, I hope, that productive balance that I seek in my life will come. It will come not because I have clocked up a certain number of hours in the day, but because in my interesting life I have ideas and stories that are demanding to be written, demanding to be illustrated, determined to be published.

A Book Without Pictures

“and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?” (Lewis Carroll, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland).

‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’(Lewis Carroll, in Through the Looking Glass).

One of the blogs I follow is Brainpickings. Today my inbox brought me some background on Alice in Wonderland.

It has been an ‘Alice’ kind of week. A young Italian friend is reading Alice in English. She purchased her copy of it in Spain. Alice certainly gets around. We had a little fun with my favourite quotation about memory. Here it is (in context):

‘I don’t understand you,’ said Alice. ‘It’s dreadfully confusing!’

‘That’s the effect of living backwards,’ the Queen said kindly: ‘it always makes one a little giddy at first —’

‘Living backwards!’ Alice repeated in great astonishment. ‘I never heard of such a thing!’

‘— but there’s one great advantage in it, that one’s memory works both ways.’

‘I’m sure mine only works one way,’ Alice remarked. ‘I can’t remember things before they happen.’

‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’ the Queen remarked.

Occasionally I wonder if I am living backwards. My book without pictures has been on hold for a long time, stalled on 30,000 words when I took a break from it. The next chapter is writing itself as I sleep – my subconscious has been working backwards. My paintings for an exhibition are progressing reasonably well; my daytime work is going forward. And somewhere in the working day, and on my desk, are some little owls waiting for some colour. A book must have pictures, after all.

Where Does Inspiration Come From?

“You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.”  ― Saul Bellow

I have always loved to write. My childhood efforts were published in the children’s pages of the national farming magazine. The writings were usually poetry, but occasionally I wrote a short story in prose. I think it made me feel special, and linked to the exciting, unknown, city world,

Recently I have been wishing that I could see these again. My scrapbook of cuttings has long gone. I wonder, though, was that the beginning of the desire to publish now? I remember the waiting, after I had posted my fat envelopes, carefully licked to stick really well. The magazine came out once a month. Would it have any of my work in it? Often it did.

Where did my inspiration come from then, and where does it come from now?

When I was a child my inspiration came floating, tumbling or charging in as I settled to sleep, when I woke in the night, or on rising. I guess it was my subconscious* (See below) trying to make sense of my world.

I kept pencil and paper by my bed. Sometimes when I reached out or searched with my torch I couldn’t find it – disaster!  I couldn’t turn on the light; I shared a bedroom and I was supposed to be asleep.

My thoughts were precious to me – always inspired, my child’s brain was so sure. If I didn’t record them they would vanish. I would tiptoe on the cold floor and record those ideas the only way I could without waking my sister. The next morning I would be first up, springing from my bed, grabbing pencil and paper, and copying furiously.

My middle of the night inspiration was always there, thank goodness, safely recorded with a cold, wet finger in the condensation on the window. I had to be the first one up, in case my sister or my mother wiped the window dry and washed away my precious words. If there was no condensation on warmer nights I would huff and puff on the glass to create my own. Those mornings I really had to strain to see, looking from different angles to read what I had scrawled on the glass. If I didn’t wipe them off they would reappear the next time the window was wet, and my midnight thoughts would be exposed.

Now my inspirations are triggered in my waking hours. A chance observation, a snippet of conversation, a wonderful view or an interesting corner. Filing them away in notebooks and sketches doesn’t always work for me. I am happiest when I can grab the idea and run with it, abandoning whatever it was that I might have been doing. I write best with that urgency, chasing the idea in a much fuller form before it escapes. That wonderful window which is surely hiding a fascinating story, the house with a happy face, the tree with so many gnarled branches – all those wonderful settings wait in my subconscious and will emerge when the characters arrive.

The Lost Happy  page 13
The Lost Happy page 13

* Bryan Tracy, author of “The Psychology of Achievement”, writes a brief post about the subconscious here: Understanding the Subconscious

Keeping to a Time Line

blog owls

In story writing there is always a time line. Most children’s stories are in chronological time and easy to follow. Adult fiction often dips in and out of the chronology, taking readers back in time or plunging in some time ahead of the story line’s actual beginning, creating a more challenging read.

Sometimes my life gets a little out-of-order, and so does my time line. It’s probably why I draw new timelines on A4 paper, rather than write things into my diary. I like the illusion of control.

The down side of being your own boss is being able to alter that timeline and constantly push out your own deadlines. I am good at meeting deadlines. In fact, I am great at meeting them, I’m one of the most reliable people I know. That is, when someone else gives me the deadline.

Now, with only my dreams and plans dictating my day, and with many other interruptions and distractions in my life, meeting deadlines is not so easy. It means treating each day as a work day, and scheduling in time off, or time for other projects in my life.

I frequently draw inspiration from my eldest daughter, who asked me once, quite pointedly,  “Is it in your dreams, or in your diary?” It was a great question; so useful, in fact, that I quote her regularly. When friends say “I’d love to come and visit you … sigh…you’re living my dream…” I challenge them with this question. Very few of them reach for their diaries. Even fewer manage to get past the dreaming stage.

Today, however, is diary/time line day for me. It’s time review progress, and to set a new deadline or two. I’m a ‘big picture’ rather than a details person; I like to have an overview of my year.

At the end of last year my dream was to be sending manuscripts to publishers and to have sample illustrations for other books done by the end of March. I was then going to head to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair (see earlier post) to familiarise myself with the industry, portfolio under my arm.

My timeline had dates running down the page and details of books, paintings and travel plans alongside them.

My aims to the end of March:
Three manuscripts posted to three different publishers.
Three more manuscripts finished and sample illustrations made.
My (still secret) book written and illustrated, ready to send to publishers.
Ten new paintings for a joint show in Italy to be completed.
Trip to Bologna as a hopeful writer/observer.

The reality: 
Loads of research into publishing, and the decision to self-publish was made.
Publishing house chosen, account set up.
Seven manuscripts completed.
Three illustrated books published.
Legal Deposit copies of three books posted to the  National Library of New Zealand.
My special (still secret 😉 coming later this year) book written, revised, and ready to illustrate.
Eight new paintings completed.
Three paintings currently on display in Cassino, Italy, at a group exhibition.
Blog up and running.
Lots of new materials purchased and work happening (a treat to play with, instead of going to Bologna).

Am I on schedule? Not really. I am still about twenty years behind with my goals, because it took me that long to move them from my dreams into my diary.

Today’s diary: 
Review time line. (Done). Decide what went well and what could have been better.
Set new deadlines. Then it’s on to some small pictures.

I have a tough boss, and little owls are waiting to fly.

To eBook or Not?

I have been asked by potential buyers if my books are available for Kindle, and others have suggested that this would be a good idea. Yes, when children are travelling, perhaps this would be useful. Yes, for getting more books sold, it is probably a good idea. Would I? Should I?

For now, at least, the answer is a firm (yet gentle) no. Why do I choose to miss out on those sales and that revenue when I am a fledgling business? The answer is easy; I love books.

When I was a child, the “success” of a Christmas or birthday was always the number of books I was given. But it’s more than that. I love the idea of children snuggled into a parent, an aunt or uncle, a babysitter, an older sibling, pointing to the page, running their fingers over the words, sharing. Sharing, sharing. I also love paper, paper of any kind.

I am totally for eBooks, but I am not writing for this format yet. To me a good eBook is an interactive adventure, a little like a 21st century “pick-a-path” book. I am not ready to learn all I would need to know to present a book to its best in an interactive way.

I strongly believe that picture eBooks should be designed for the pages to be read consecutively. Mine are still designed to a “facing page” format. My illustrations, particularly as I work on the next series, need that page turn, that suspense, the adult deciding just when to reveal the surprise over the page. I like that.

Jon Skuse puts it particularly well. Jon Skuse worked in the computer games industry then did a Master of Arts in children’s book illustration to develop his skills. He is now a freelancer helping publishers move into world of eBooks. He says:

“There are two aspects to this – the business side and the creative side. The eBook is cheap to make once the technology is in place and it is cheap to buy. And you are not limited to a certain number of pages in the way a print-based book is. It doesn’t have to be linear in its construction either. The creator can make different ‘branches’ or routes; for example, the reader can tap on a door to take one route or tap on another to follow a different narrative.” (Cited in Children’s Picturebooks The art of visual storytelling, Martin Salisbury and Morag Styles, 2012 ,Laurence King Publishing Ltd London, pg 184).

He continues on to say

“The eBook isn’t about winning or losing. It’s about an ‘exploration’, an experience, rather like a pop-up book. What many publishers are doing wrong at the moment is just copying printed picture books on to this format, which does both media a disservice. It’s just like looking at a PDF. Children will simply flick through. A printed picturebook is a particular kind of physical experience that can be savoured and revisited. The eBook needs to exploit its own particular characteristics and strengths to evolve as similarly special but distinct experience.”

This month one of the keynote presentations at the world-wide Children’s Book Fair in Bologna, Italy, is the development of eBooks in the digital age. Eric Carle’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” has at least two re-makes into interactive apps, and these will be explored in-depth. I think the presentation description of a book “re-engineered” is very apt:

Case Study: Two apps; one caterpillar — How StoryToys successfully re-engineered a beloved children’s publishing icon, with interactivity in mind.

Emmet O’Neil of StoryToys. Winner of the 2015 BolognaRagazzi Digital Award. Emmet will provide a case study into the details of making the award winning My Very Hungry Caterpillar. (Excerpt taken from the programme update emailed to me).

This is a glimpse of the future for children’s picture eBooks. I am impressed, I think it is exciting, but I am not in a hurry to write for this model. For now I will leave that to the younger writers and the computer enthusiasts.

I write for junior teachers who read to classes. I write for grandparents who grew up with books and want to share their love of the printed page with their digital age grandchildren. I write for children who want to touch the page, to revisit images, to add their own imagined world into the white spaces I leave, and I write to keep shared reading alive.

It’s even more simple than that too. I don’t love screens. I love books.