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Praise Junkies

Having a full bodied koala suit in the house can provide all sorts of unexpected entertainment. I hired one for a book signing a few weeks ago and was aghast on unpacking it to find the face was downright creepy. The black eyes sagged, the miserable mouth drooled. Not exactly the cuddly koala look I was hoping for.

IMG_0877I managed to convince my teenage daughter to try the outfit on. Mostly to judge if it was indeed a nightmare creating monstrosity. She duely donned the suit. Disaster. Our fears were correct. She looked like an extra in a horror movie.

‘Dance around a little bit,’ I said. ‘Wave. Look friendly.’

And that’s when the hilarity began. Miss Eighteen started crumping and twerking in that koala suit in a manner that would have made Miley Cyrus proud. We wanted her to stop, but we couldn’t. We were laughing too hard. Of course we videoed her on our iphones and she posted it on Facebook, checking her likes as soon as the suit was slipped to the floor. Next was my brother’s turn. No twerking, but a hilarious dog stalking koala act, also posted on Facebook. Who would get the most likes?

So here’s the point. As I watched these two compare the responses to their videos, I realised we have become a society of praise junkies. Who had the most likes? How quickly? What funny comments did their friends say? And it’s not just Facebook. A friend recently won second prize in a writing competition, and after finding out she got a score of 98%, was most worried about why she’d lost the 2%.

Praise junkie!

Sam reading Smooch and RoseAnd then I turned to myself. Look who was talking. My first book, Smooch & Rose has been on the shelves only 2 months and I worry constantly about why it’s not in that shop, or that one. Is it an okay book? Did I do a good job? And then I read it to the intended audience and I see their shining faces, eyes wide, edging forward. Of course it’s good enough. The kids love it. And yet, that great bookshop just down the road doesn’t …

So what’s with this praise junkie thing? Are we so uncomfortable in our own skin that we must constantly look to others to tell us we’re okay?

I wonder, if, in our strive for praise, we avoid things that might make us fail. For kids, this might mean not putting your hand up in class in case the teacher doesn’t praise you. It might mean as adults we don’t speak up for our wildlife and our environment, in case people think we’re weird greenie types.

So, I’ve been wondering. Maybe we could turn this praise thing around. What if we were to praise failure? What if we tried saying ‘Well done honey, you tried something new today, and you failed. Good on you!’ We would encourage risk taking, speaking out, not conforming. We’d nurture thinking outside the box. I think it would be a great way to use our addiction to praise.

You tried today, and you failed? Three thousand likes!

Book Launch

Don’t forget, a very important date in the life of Smooch & Rose! It’s book launch week, and we’re looking forward to seeing you on Wednesday night at Riverbend Books, Bulimba. Come and join UQP, Michael Gerard Bauer and me to officially send Smooch & Rose on its bookie journey!

Launch Invite

On Being Edited

Samantha Wheeler's Blog

Image credit: 123RS.

So you need something drop dead gorgeous for the ball? Something to really impress? You don’t go shopping with hubby … he’d rather be watching the footy right? And you don’t take your mum … she thinks you look great in everything. The reverse is true for your teenage daughter. She thinks you look terrible in everything. The best person for the job is …your fashion conscious, honest to a tee, girly best friend.

Together you’ll wade through the junk. Discard anything that shows off your nasty lumps and bumps or hides any assets you have left. You pull out the gems from the murky clothes racks and accessorise till they shine. Not too much bling, just enough. By the time the two of you finish, you’ll look divine. You’ll be so proud of yourself, you’ll start to wonder why you had doubts in the first place. And when it comes to the big night, you’ll be divine!

And so it is when you work with an editor.

Unlike your mum, she doesn’t love everything you write. Unlike hubby, she doesn’t get distracted and wander off to check the game score. And unlike the teenager (and some more ruthless critiquing groups), she’s kind and tactful with her comments.

Book with writing

Image credit: 123RS.

That’s not to say at first her comments don’t hurt like hot wax ripped from your upper lip. Sharp and painful, instantly swelling to red. But when the pain settles, you realise – wow, she was right! I do say ‘gasp’ and ‘hug’ and ‘smile’ a million times in one paragraph. And I do have too many physical reactions all centred around the heart.

And like your girly best friend who just told you your boobs looked flat in that, you need good advice. Just as you don’t want to arrive half baked at the ball, you don’t want your book to arrive in the hands of your readers half written.

Personally I loved being edited. Smooch & Rose was a much longer book when I first showed it to the publishers at UQP, and with their help I cut it virtually in half. That meant not only half the word count, but half the characters and half the sub plots too.

But what I loved the best was finding out about my habits and micro-writing style. Not using the same word again in the next sentence seems so obvious, but is something you miss when editing yourself. Using repeated physical reactions is another habit I was glad to have corrected. And then those movements and feelings that seem obvious to you, but aren’t to anyone else. Like where is that character now? Is she still on the floor, or has she got up? She’s been down there an awfully long time!

So if you’re wondering what it’s like to work with an editor, just think of the ball. Wouldn’t you rather be wearing the perfect gown? And really shine when your moment in the spotlight arrives? That’s a big fat Greek wedding dress ‘Yes’ from me!

New to writing? Consider these resources

Heartless or helpful

Koala on Road

Let’s keep him alive. Image credit: 123RSS.

In a recent article in my local newspaper Bayside Bulletin about koala road deaths, the president of the Koala Action Group, Debbie Pointing, made a suggestion that  koalas that had been killed by cars should be left on the side of the road for other motorists to see. The response to her suggestion was rather feisty. People said …

“It’s cruel and heartless to leave dead koalas for us to see.”

I admit that I dislike seeing road kill. My saddest sight are the dead wombats littering the side of the highway outside Canberra on the way to the Snowy Mountains. But they do remind me to look out for wildlife crossing the road. The fact is the animal has been killed. That’s the heartless thing. Does removing them change this? Not really. The council said …

“About 35 % of all koala deaths in Redland City are from cars.”

Koala crossing sign

Image credit: 123RSS.

We can easily step out of our warm, safe houses, jump into sound proof cars, turn up the radio and drive to work, forgetting that koalas are out there. We don’t give a second thought to the animals that may have lost their lives in the night while trying to find a mate or trying to find food. While I don’t want to see dead animals on my way to work, it may mean I think twice about speeding in a koala marked area. It might mean I lobby the Government to put more crossings in place, or to put stricter rules on developers about what they can and can’t do in koala populated areas.

So as gruesome as it might be, I tend to agree with Debbie. We need to be reminded of the other critters in our world. We are not the only ones entitled to use this land, and if seeing a dead koala helps save five more koalas, I say it’s worth the unpleasantness.

Further reading

Author – ity

Sunset at ByronThe weather wasn’t the only thing superb about the Byron Writers Festival last week. As usual, I learnt a bucket load. In my first session,  we were reminded that the word “author” stems from the word “authority”. Stories written with authority stand out.

Weak apologetic writing leaves readers unconvinced.

Peter Carey concurred. “Don’t be afraid,” he said, quoting his mother’s advice when he’d failed University. She simply told him; “worse things happen at sea”. But Peter did warn that writers shouldn’t be published until they are fully cooked. This should instil hope into those waiting for their turn on top of the slush pile. Keep writing. Your prose is like a good lamb shank. Time cooking will make it perfect.

IMG_0826Other wonderful tips came from Children’s and YA writers Libby Gleeson, Leigh Hobbs and Melina Marchetta. Libby said “Don’t ever ask kids for advice on your story. Rather, develop the idea in your head yourself”. Leigh Hobbs confirmed this, adding that you most definitely shouldn’t ask kids how to end your story. Melina said that getting the voice and the tone of a story right is harder than the actual story itself and all three agree that you should write what you want to write, not just what’s popular, or by trying to plan for a wider cultural context. Write what you’re interested in. These authors also said they never stopped editing. Even when their books are on the shelves, they can always see improvements.

Humble words from some of Australia’s greats.

Breakfast at The Byron Beach Cafe

Breakfast at The Byron Beach Cafe

And finally, a new author whose biography inspires, Fiona Johnson said, “when you get stuck, just remember the reason you’re writing. Keep the story close to you.” 

I’m already looking forward to next year. Breakfast at the Byron Bay Beach Café, whales breaching just offshore, a host of talented writers to aspire to. Not to mention the beautiful weather.

Stay Connected

Apple trees

Apple trees in Stanthorpe.

On a recent weekend getaway to Stanthorpe, I met the type of people I’d forgotten existed. People not afraid to get their hands dirty. People who’d decided to reconnect.

Whether that meant making jams or building stone walls, baking the most delicious apple pies or making beautiful candles or soaps, these people were connected. Connected to nature. Connected to themselves. Connected to each other.

That’s what connected them to me.

Driving around Stanthorpe reminded me of Sunday drives as a kid. We’d stop to pick strawberries, apples, peaches and plums, far more than we could eat, but we’d have so much fun we couldn’t limit ourselves to just a few bags. And who could resist a few stolen bites along the way? In the South of France a few years ago, we just had to stop in the cherry fields to munch on fresh cherries straight from the tree. Fruit full of sunshine. Same again in Stanthorpe. At Sutton’s Apple farm, we picked apples, many of them knobbly and bruised, but fresh, as nature intended.

Apple Pie

Delicious home made apple pie from Sutton’s.

I wonder if part of our modern malaise doesn’t come from feeling disconnected. These days we rush into Woolies, Coles or Aldi – time poor as we are – and grab up our pre-packaged food with no real connection to where it came from. We watch cooking and gardening programs without ever really getting the dirt between our own toes.

The pleasure of connecting with nature doesn’t diminish in adulthood.

Sam with Fry and dogs

Me with Fry and our dogs. Photo credit: Sarah Laing

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Alfie and Felix: the goats.

Everyone has a different way of feeling connected. A girlfriend, feeling blue after a move interstate, cheered herself by making juice from fresh oranges picked from a backyard tree. Walking dogs, riding horses, spending time outdoors all appeal to me. My menagerie helps me connect. It’s hard not to smile hanging out with gentle goats or clucking chooks.

Dirt. Fresh air. Nature. That’s what makes me feel connected.

We all need a way to stay in touch with Mother Nature. Whether that’s growing parsley in a pot on the front deck, or wading through puddles in the park, it’s important to stay connected.

July 24th

Front coverFor anyone who’s given birth, you’ll know the feeling. Chest swelling. Heart bursting. The unbelievable joy knowing you’ve created something unique, precious and incredibly amazing. And you’ve delivered it safely into the world.

Such is the excitement and anxiety over publishing your first book. (I know: books vs babies… hardly seems a fair comparison, but right now, that’s how I feel.) 

It has taken a little longer than nine months and has required a different process than the quiet warm womb of it’s adoring mother, but nonetheless …

On July 24th Smooch & Rose will be ready to hatch.

Rose and her koala, first appeared in my writing notebook in May 2011 – thanks to Dr Kim Wilkins and the Year of the Novel at the Queensland Writers Centre. I’d started the course with an entirely different story in mind – a pacey page turner for adults with an environmental theme – but it just wouldn’t take off.

“Why are you fighting your voice?” Dr Kim wisely counselled.

That month my homework was to write the blurb for my new story. Jack Russell Lizzie, fuzzy koala Smooch, eleven year old Rose and her stalwart gran arrived on my page, suitcases in hand. Funny how two years later, after much editing and re-arranging, these four main characters stayed pretty much the same.

The story developed between the monthly sessions of YON: plotting, building transition points, fleshing out characters (what was Rose’s biggest fear?), drawing up scene maps, rising to a climax and rounding to a satisfying end, all under the guiding hand of Dr Kim. By the last session in November, the first draft was complete.

Pile of manuscripts

Just a few more edits!

Christmas holidays 2011 was a good time for editing, and I had two wonderful friends read and critique the story. I also paid a manuscript assessor to tell me what the major flaws were and where I could improve. By early 2012, I started submitting. I used the QWC magazine to check for submission opportunities and sent the story off to Allen and Unwin, Walker Books, Harper Collins and Hachette. Harper Collins were enthusiastic: they liked the writing. Allen and Unwin were generous and kind, but the climate was tough and the story wasn’t their type.  

Koala information

Some of my inspiration and research

Then registrations for the annual CYA Conference in July 2012 came around. I still hadn’t found a home for Smooch & Rose so I booked a pitch for another story to Random House, and one for Smooch & Rose to UQP. I hoped my determined Rose would fit with UQP’s list of warm, courageous books. It was the second time I’d pitched to UQP, and their wonderful publisher, Kristina congratulated me on the improvement in my writing since she’d met me three years before (go Dr Kim!). Just as I’d hoped, Smooch & Rose did hit a chord with Kristina, but more than that, some advice I’d received along the way about always being professional, networking, making sure you place yourself in front of the right people, however scary, held me in good stead.  

Sam with advanced copy

Me with the advanced copy of Smooch & Rose

Although much of the writing process was done in isolation, creating the finished product was by no means a solitary act. First there was the editing, which, for the record, is the most amazing process. It really helped me improve my writing. My story was too long for my readers’ age, with too many characters, and I repeated the same physical reactions: a lot! Next came the chapter illustrations and the beautiful cover, thanks to Aileen Lord. Seeing her professional art work was a very exciting reality that my story was going to hit the shelves. Then came author profiles and photos and marketing bits and pieces, all of which have been another part of the exciting journey. 

So, July 24th is a big day. Scary, exhilarating, but a dream come true. Six more sleeps …

For further information check out:

Queensland Writers Centre

University of Queensland Press

CYA Conference

How many koalas crossed the road?

One koala, two koalas, three koalas, four.
Five koalas, six koalas, seven koalas … what ….
None? Surely not?

Koala on branch

Image credit:123RS.

Not far from my place a busy road regularly claims the lives of our vulnerable koalas. In fact, between 1997 and 2008, over 2000 koalas were hit by vehicles on Redlands roads.

Last year I noticed a big green bridge being built.

Yahoo! A wildlife crossing! So what if the poles looked a little slippery and steep? Someone must have done the research and decided koalas liked these crossings – right?

Wrong!

I recently had the pleasure of attending the Annual General Meeting of the Koala Action Group of Redland Bay, where guest speaker Cath Dexter, Senior Research Ecologist from the SEQ Koala Road Mitigation Project, spoke about her work researching the movement patterns of wild koalas, including the crossings that koalas make over some of the busiest roads in SE Queensland.

You have to admire the tenacity of Cath and her crew. They tackled radio collars that fell off, inaccurate recordings, vandals, koalas that insisted on crossing the same road over and over again, drought, fire, flood and sick koalas that just plain died.

But, after 3 years, their patience paid off. They had substantial tracking and photo evidence to make some definite statements about the way in which koalas moved around busy roads. No surprises there. Young male koalas crossed busy roads the most, and more frequently in the mating season. They crossed whenever they felt like it, not just in the middle of the night. They liked the trees in the median strips too and often visited these as feed trees, not just passing through.

Koala crossing

Fauna overpass on the busy road near my house. Image credit: Samantha Wheeler.

Then Cath talked about monitoring some “retro-fitted” wildlife crossings. These included tunnels and the fancy new over-pass near my place. She showed us some great footage of koalas, possums, snakes, kangaroos, and echidnas crossing under the roads in the modified drainage pipes.

It was so exciting to think these animals had their lives spared by these safe crossings. But not all roads can have tunnels built under them once they are constructed. So overpasses are more practical for existing roads. So the big question was … how many of the twenty four koalas living in my area had crossed over the shiny new Mains Road funded fauna overpass? Ten? Twenty? Three? All twenty four? We held our breath. Leant forward. Listened …

Cath quietly explained that no koalas had been seen crossing the new bridge. None!

Sponsored-Koala-research-Camera-276x207[1]

Photo of a koala using a modified underpass to cross under the road. Image credit: Griffith University.

Any possums? None. How could this be? As far as Cath knew the bridge prototype had not been tested as the “best practice” crossing for wildlife such as koalas before installation. The company that had built the bridge had not consulted Cath and her team before building it. Surely the prototype had been tested at a place like Australia Zoo with captive koalas before installation. Nope. My heart sank. So no koalas used the crossing? Nope. Why? Because there was no tree line run up to the crossing? Because the poles were too thick, too slippery? Cath didn’t know, but the lack of research into the crossing seemed heart breaking. It felt like it was all just a big political scam, made to look like the Government was doing the right thing for the koalas, made to make me and you feel good, but not really helping koalas? Surely not?

Overpass near Brunswick Heads

Overpass near Brunswick Heads. Image credit: Samantha Wheeler.

An audience member raised her hand. She was a koala ambulance driver with the daunting task of picking up injured koalas from the side of the road. She pointed out that the fencing either side of the overpass was helping reduce deaths. That was a relief. And the tunnels were undoubtedly working. I’d gotten goose bumps myself seeing the fat bottom of a koala waddling past the camera in a tunnel in a picture shown in Cath’s talk. Maybe the overpass just needed time? Maybe there were better designs? Cath said she doubted the new Government would spend any more money on overpasses or even if they’d spend any money on the upkeep of this one.

I came away feeling ashamed to think we were the kind of public who could be fooled into thinking a few green poles over a busy road were enough. Surely any new road or new developments should have safe wildlife crossings factored into the cost of construction? And the type of crossing that works best should be researched and prototyped? Cath’s evidence seems to point towards modified tunnels, but what about wide, treed bridges like the ones pictured here? If we fenced either side of the road to channel the wildlife towards these safe crossings, we really could save the lives of our vulnerable wildlife. Wouldn’t that be a better option? Token bridges shouldn’t be enough to keep us quiet. We want real solutions that help save the lives of real animals.

Further reading