Monday 25 February 2013

How many?

How many books have you written?

This is another question I often get asked at writer talks. Like How long does it take to write a book?, it's a deceptively straightforward one, which I struggle to answer coherently.

For one thing, there's the matter of size. War and peace counts as one book, but so does a 32-page picture book. (The much beloved picture book Rosie's walk only has about 32 words, let alone pages - but it's a classic, too.)

Some people churn out books at the rate of dozens a year; others only ever produce one masterpiece. What would be the point of asking Harper Lee How many books have you written? What would be the point of asking James Patterson?

I find myself gabbling information about different formats of books and School Journal pieces, but I can sense that the person asking the question just wants a number. Five? Ten? A hundred?.

Sometimes my reply includes the fact that I've written over 80 pieces for the School Journal as well as other educational publications. It's a number, so it feels like it's anchored to reality. But what is a "piece"? A story in the School Journal could potentially resurface elsewhere as a picture book - as happened to Margaret Mahy's wonderful The lion in the meadow (sadly, none of my Journal stories are anywhere near as good.)

Is asking How many books have you written? different from asking How many books have you had published? That's another aspect of the question that I've only just identified. Many writers have a drawerful of manuscripts that have never seen the light of day, but that they needed to write to be able to produce a manuscript that was of publishable standard.

Like that previous question (How long does it take...) , I wonder if there are other things going on in the mind of the person asking it. Maybe it's an attempt to quantify the business of writing: tick off how long, tick off how many.  Maybe we're just used to counting and measuring things.

I think it's good to know that some things can't be counted and can't be measured.


Tuesday 19 February 2013

How long?

How long does it take to write a book?

This is one of the questions that I almost always get asked - by adults and children - whenever I do any sort of writer talk.

Recently I read a post on Melinda Szymanik's blog about the same question, and it made me realise how often I gloss over the answer. There might be a classful of children all waiting impatiently to ask their own question. Or maybe I'm feeling a bit worn out with talking by then and I just give the easy answer. It seems like a straightforward question, so it should have an equally straightforward answer. Shouldn't it?

So what do I usually say? I talk about the difference between writing fiction and non fiction  I explain that I need to do a lot more research for a non fiction book. I might give a wild estimate: six months, a year, two years.

But now I'm wondering if that is what the person asking the question is really asking, and what they actually want to know.

Writing a book is such a mysterious process, one that many non-writers or would be writers (or even writers themselves) are fascinated and intrigued by. I wonder if the person asking this question is really trying to quantify and make sense of the process itself. If I know it takes six months to write a book, they might think, then all I have to do is set aside six months of my life and I will have written one.

But of course it's not like that.

Books are such individual things, the process can't be pinned down - and writers are such individual people. It's true that some books get written astonishingly quickly. The Internet tells me that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - now regarded as a classic - in six days. I can't vouch for that, but last year I went to a talk by John Boyne who described how he stayed up for three days existing on little food and less sleep to write The boy in the striped pyjamas. (He said that if he'd had a meeting scheduled on any of those days, his concentration would have been broken and he might never have finished the book.)

On the other hand, some books take years to get set down on the page.

A book for me starts with a germ of an idea that won't go away, and it might take years to develop into something bigger, or to gather other ideas around it. And even then, it' s not a matter of sitting down in front of a sheet of paper or a computer for so many hours, days, weeks and months. As Melinda says, "when you start writing, you don't necessarily write day in, day out until done". For me, it's writing a bit, making notes, going for a walk to try and sort out a problem of plot or characterisation I'm stuck on, stopping to hang out the washing, stopping to cook dinner, having to deal with emails and paperwork, maybe having to meet a deadline for another piece of writing,  checking up on a few facts in the library, writing some more, editing, writing...

At the end of all of that - the writing , the editing, the interruptions, the emails flying to and fro with the publishers - it would be hard to say exactly how long it took to write that particular book.

But it would take a long time to explain all that, so I apologise if sometimes I go for the easier option.

Six months? A year? Two years?







Thursday 7 February 2013

Book trailer

Anzac Day: the New Zealand story: what it is and why it matters 

Due out March 2013

What is Anzac Day? What does Anzac stand for? Why do we have Anzac Day? Why does it matter? I hope that my new book will answer all these questions and more. You will discover lots of things you didn't know about Anzac Day including what the different parts of the service mean and what happens on Anzac Day, here and around the world.

And you can view the Anzac Day book trailer here.