Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Happy end of 2015

I think it's as important to celebrate the year that's just past (or if it hasn't been happy, to at least acknowledge it), as it is to look forward to the new one.

2015 has been fun (and hard work) for me, launching a fledgling publishing company - Flat Bed Press - and a new children's novel - The Bold Ship Phenomenal.

I also always enjoy the turn of the year, as a chance to look forward with anticipation to the next one and to plan. I love to consider and get excited about the writing projects I have scheduled.

2016 for me will be another novel in the junior fiction series I am working on at the moment. It will also, hopefully, be a polished draft of the novel for adults I have been working on seemingly for ever. There's also a picture book in the publishing pipeline.

To celebrate both end and beginning, I'm running a book giveaway on Goodreads for the first two weeks of the year. All you have to do to enter is click the button (on the Goodreads site). Then wait and see...a bit like waiting to see what the New Year will actually bring.

I hope yours has its fair share of adventure and joy!

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Bold Ship Phenomenal listed as best Christmas buy

I'm chuffed that my book, The Bold Ship Phenomenal, was listed by The New Zealand Herald's Canvas magazine as one of the best books to buy for young readers this Christmas.

I'm doubly chuffed to be sandwiched between JK Rowling and the Thunderbirds. Hopefully some of their success will rub off. Bold Ships are go...

Enjoy a good scare? Author Sue Copsey tells us about her latest spooky story for kids...

I have just finished reading Sue Copsey's fabulous ghost story for kids - The Ghosts of Tarawera (Treehouse Books, 2015).

The Ghosts of Tarawera is book two in a planned series of New Zealand-based ghost stories for junior fiction and young adult readers (the first was The Ghost of Young Nick's Head (Pear Jam books, 2011)).

It's a wonderful, wonderful story, and a gripping read, which builds on and adds to the well-known ghostly appearances that preceded the Mount Tarawera eruption of 1886.

I've written a review of the book, which you can read on Goodreads (along with numerous four and five star reviews by other appreciative readers).

Sue kindly agreed to answer some questions about how she came to write the book, and what she has planned next - here's what she said. For more information, check out her website:

Interview with Sue

The Ghosts of Tarawera draws on the famous New Zealand legend about the ghostly waka that appeared before the Mount Tarawera eruption. What was it that drew you to this story? 

I well remember the first time I read about this legend. I was editing a school textbook about the Taupo Volcanic Zone, and in amongst all this serious science there it was, as reported at the time (1886) by many tourists as well as local Maori. I was drawn to the story because there were so many witnesses:  two groups of Europeans in sightseeing boats, as well as villagers on the lake shore. The sightseers reported seeing an impressive war canoe – nothing spooky about it – but the Maori realised it was supernatural as there hadn’t been a waka of that type in the area in living memory. Local Maori also recognised it as an omen of disaster, and 11 days later were proved right when Mt Tarawera erupted. I reckon Lake Tarawera’s phantom waka, which legend says will reappear if the mountain reawakens, is far more credible than the Loch Ness monster, and look which is more famous. That’s just wrong!

Your story is very evocative of the landscapes around Lake Rotomahana and Rotorua. Did you spend much time there while you were writing the book?

I’ve been to this part of the North Island many times, so I had a good feel for it. I love the mix of forest, lakes, hills, Maori culture and weird and wonderful volcanic features. You can feel you’ve slipped back in time, to when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

But also, Google Earth was my friend. While I was writing the book I had it almost permanently open as I zoomed in and out of satellite images looking for how the children would get across and around Lake Rotomahana before and during the eruption. When I’d finished, I hauled the family down to a bach near Mt Tarawera, and revisited the Buried Village, went on a boat trip on Lake Rotomahana, and kayaked on Lake Tarawera, making sure it all felt right, especially the atmosphere – I wanted the reader to feel they were really there, and recognise it if they visited.

What was the hardest part of the story to write, and why?

Writing the story was easy, it more or less wrote itself! But I was worried about getting the science right. I love popular science but wasn’t very good at it at school. Show me a physics equation and I feel a bit faint. I wanted to include lots of interesting facts about volcanoes and Mt Tarawera (I call it ‘education by stealth’), and to be absolutely sure I got it right, I asked GNS Science, who monitor NZ’s volcanoes and earthquakes, to check the manuscript for me. And so began the best correspondence I’ve ever had with an expert. Cornel de Ronde, who led the team that explored the lake floor at Rotomahana, contacted me, saying he loved how I was weaving all this geology into my adventure story, as he’s passionate about science education in schools. He was quite accepting of a few, ahem, liberties I took with the geology of the area in order to keep Joe, Eddie, Anastasia and Beckie alive. ‘They’d certainly die in an eruption such as you describe,’ he said. ‘But this is a moot point – it is a story, after all.’

What spooky tales did you enjoy as a child?

I liked the ‘true’ ones. Every village in Britain, where I grew up, had its spooks, and I had a book that listed just about every haunted house in the country. Thinking back, I must have been a weird child to have on holiday. Wherever we travelled in England, my twin loves of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, and local folklore meant that I was always searching for secret passages and ghosts.

Have you ever seen a ghost?

Honestly, I don’t know – but something odd happened that makes me strongly suspect I have. It was my wedding night (seriously – no chortling please) and Michael and I were staying in a turret room in a Victorian hotel near my home town of Rugby. I was in bed and Michael was in the bathroom. In one wall was a small door which, without warning, flew open. A figure was silhouetted in the doorway, bright light behind. Then it slammed shut again. A bit like those sightseers with the phantom waka, I didn’t think this was anything supernatural, I just assumed someone had got lost in the hotel’s maze of corridors and ended up at our room by mistake. When Michael reappeared, I told him what had happened and asked him to move a table in front of the door. He did so, looking at me oddly – he thought I’d probably been half asleep (and yes, a few glasses of champagne had been imbibed).

Next morning we opened this little door to see a fire escape leading out onto the turret roof. So how could anyone have been out there, and why had there been a bright light behind them? Could this have been something spooky?

Feeling a bit silly, I asked the receptionist if the hotel had any ghostly residents, only to learn that there were several (most usually a coach and horses, a headless man, and a hand), and that people were constantly reporting strange occurences. Seems the hotel was, and still is, notorious for its ghosts – and we had no idea before that night.

This is your second novel about New Zealand ghosts. Is there another one on the horizon? And if so, can you give us a hint about the ghosts involved?

Yes indeed! Peeping over the horizon is The Ghosts of Moonlight Creek. I wanted to set my next ghost story in one of New Zealand’s old goldmining settlements, and discovered the wonderfully named Moonlight, near Queenstown. Anastasia’s movie director father is filming a fantasy movie down there and invites Joe, Eddie, Beckie and Anastasia to the movie set as a treat after their scare at Mt Tarawera. However, they soon discover filming is being held up by unexplained incidents, and the crew are beginning to call it a cursed film. I’m about a quarter of the way through and can’t wait to find out what happens!

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Wooden Arms houses

Everywhere I go, I see Wooden Arms houses. Homes and buildings that have been used, inhabited, perhaps cherished, and now have been left behind.
I love these places – the stain of story that they carry in the grain of their wooden walls, the hollow in the tread of their step, the sign that once heralded both destination and function, but now only signifies loss. Absence.  

I’m also becoming increasingly aware that they are passing. Ghosts of buildings, a feature of any road trip landscape, but fading, literally, before our eyes. Wood. Tin. The rain will disperse them all.
These ones I snapped at Mangaweka recently. If you had the inclination you could buy four shops for a bargain price. I wish I had cause to uproot my family to Mangaweka. Think of the stories you would inherent. The ghosts that would creep from the corners at night, each with their history to tell. Priceless! 



This one is in a valley near where I live. I like to think the shuttered windows mean someone means to return to it someday. Or maybe they're still inside - one window is slightly ajar!


Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Room 8 is GREAT!

Look at this wonderful blog post by the kids in Room 8 at Pukete School. Thanks guys, I had such a nice time...

Room 8 is GREAT!: Author Visit! As a part of our Inquiry into books, ...: Author Visit! As a part of our Inquiry into books, we had a visit from a New Zealand author Sarah Johnson. We read her story Wooden Arm...

Here's the picture collage they sent me afterwards. So cool!

Friday, 18 September 2015

Golden giveaway for International Talk Like a Pirate Day

Weigh-heigh! Tomorrow is International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

To celebrate, I'm giving away a pirate flag and a bar of gold (Old Gold that is) with every book bought from my online store over the weekend. You can get to the store through the 'Sarah's Book Shop' button on my website.

 Remember to have rum on your cornflakes!

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Tui Allen has loaded this review about my book on Goodreads. Tui is an author in her own right, and our local New Zealand Society of Authors delegate, so it means a lot to me that she liked it so much. Thanks Tui.

Rollicking but Meaningful Kiwi Novel for Kids

This is a rollicking good yarn on one level but so much more than that. It has something important to say to its audience, beyond the adventure itself.
I found it un-put-down-able and read until almost midnight to finish. I'm an adult, so not even part of the target audience.
The beginning was irresistibly captivating. The romance of a ship in a bottle especially one found as flotsam (or was it jetsam perhaps? Had some power SENT that bottle to Malachi?) I was encouraged to wonder about that by the author's intriguing decision to simply reverse the usual order of those two words. Jetsam and flotsam.
The story is about Malachi and his dad who are grieving the loss of Malachi's mother. Neither are functioning to their full capacity and neither were over it yet, but Malachi reaches out for adventure and new beginnings with the help and guidance of the action that takes place among the crew of the pirate ship playing out their own story inside the bottle.
It's a story with a message of conservation. Malachi's own voyage as a stowaway on a land-based "pirate ship" takes him into a world where the prisoners he rescues are precious NZ wildlife doomed otherwise to be stolen and sold.
The story ends with powerful glimmers of hope for the future for Malachi and his dad. I love a story that shows growth in the characters as this one does. With its strong links to the sea, and its theme of the wildlife of New Zealand this is a true Kiwi story. Where else in the world do kids get to wander along an empty ocean beach on their way to school in the morning?
The book is a beautiful product. Very child-proof. I tested it. The cover design is fresh and inspiring and there is an added bonus of charming greyscale chapter-head motif drawings.
All NZ school libraries should buy multiple copies at once and it should sell internationally to give the world a glimpse of NZ.

Friday, 21 August 2015

A launch, a festival and a trio of reviews

What a week!
On Saturday I launched my latest children's book (twice) at the Word CafĂ© writers and readers festival: once for adults and once for children. Both events were wonderful.

Here's the cake that my lovely friend Zoe made for the celebrations.

And here's my equally lovely friend Dawn MacMillan entertaining the kids like the true professional she is.

And here's me looking very pleased with myself.
Since then my book has had three great reviews online.

"I really recommend this book because it had a lot of describing words that made me get a picture in my mind of what was happening. I like the adventure throughout the book, it made me really exited for what happened next. I would recommend it to people who have a liking for adventure."
Thanks Kaia. I'm so pleased that my very first review came all the way from Sweden. The Bold Ship has already travelled a long way!

Sunday, 12 July 2015

They're here...

Advance copies of my new book, The Bold Ship Phenomenal.
Are those pirates' footsteps I see beyond them?
The rest of the shipment arrives at the end of this month. Watch this space!

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Conversations in self-publishing for the serially challenged 5: crunching the numbers

The Bold Ship Phenomenal is safely out of my hands – in China being printed – so I thought I would look at the thorny question of costs.
When I decided to publish the story myself, one of my publishing ‘values’, as it were, was that the book had to be a top-class production. This was important to me, not only because I trained in publishing, but because this was my product: I had to stand by it for as long as it endured in the world, and I wanted to be proud of it.

I’ve done my best, and with the help of all the talented professionals who’ve played their part in getting the book to this stage, I think we’ve got a great result. But of course all this help costs, and what became clear very early on (in fact, before I even started, when I did my first rough budget) is that I was unlikely to ever make any money on it. Luckily that was never one of my aims.

I’ve listed the costs I’ve incurred below, so that anyone setting out on this route can see the type of expenses involved, and where they might be able to save on costs by finding a cheaper option or doing it themselves (something I haven’t been very good at).
The figures given are rough – both to protect my suppliers’ modesty, and to reflect the range of prices I was quoted for particular tasks (which on occasion, varied widely).

This list is not the end of the expenses, there is still warehousing, and promotion, and GST and other taxes, and bad debtors (assuming I make any sales) to contend with. But these are the bulk of the up-front costs, and I hope you’ll find them useful. Figures exclude GST.
·        Editing – $600

·        Proofreading – $250

·        Illustration – $1200

·        Design – $2000

·        Printing – $4000

·        Freight – $500 (very roughly, as this part of the process is still to come)         

→Total so far = $9400, which for 1500 books, means that $6.26 per book is production costs.
For a $20 book, where the bookseller takes 40% ($8), and the distributor 25% ($5), and the GST accounts for 15% ($3), you can see the quandary.

Except that it’s not a quandary, if you want to see your book in print. And looking purely at the dollar side of things overlooks the non-monetary gains, one of which has undoubtedly been the enormous help and support I have received from all the book professionals involved: worth every cent!     

Friday, 5 June 2015

It’s a first – twice

I’ve had two pleasant surprises and two firsts in one week.

First (of the firsts) is this online listing for The Bold Ship Phenomenal on Nationwide Book Distributors website.  They’re distributing the book for me, and they’re taking trade pre-orders now.

The second first is The Bold Ship Phenomenal’s first review. This is what Sue Copsey says about it on her blog.

“…The Bold Ship Phenomenal, due out later this year, made me cry as I edited it. It’s not a sad book though – the make-you-cry bit is just a small part. The rest is a page-turning adventure with a ship in a bottle as its star, and a strong nature theme. It’s classically New Zealand, but everyone, everywhere will love it. Take my word for it!”

Thanks Sue, although I hope there wasn’t too much crying going on (it’s not meant to be sad – well just a smidgen).

So what with two surprises and confirmation that printing is underway in China, it’s been a pretty exciting week all round. The Bold Ship Phenomenal, as a book, rather than a story, is beginning to feel real.

Friday, 15 May 2015

I need a new book-home, writing studio, bum

The really exciting thing about this photo is not my book (unfortunately), but where it’s taken.

The book (lucky thing) is now living in the writing studio of my wonderful writing colleague Dawn McMillan, where it is among very esteemed company (I hope it is behaving).

Dawn’s own (numerous) books are consistent best-sellers. In fact, I Need a New Bum (Libro International, 2012), rarely drops off the New Zealand bestseller list, and if it does, it soon bounces its way back up.


Why Do Dogs Sniff Bottoms (Penguin NZ, 2008) is also often there, and her recent picture book, Doctor Grundy’s Undies (Libro International, 2014) (about a pair of flash flying undies) is currently sitting on Whitcoulls Top 10 Books for Children list.

Notice in the picture, there's another of Dawn's books there too!

But Dawn doesn’t only write about bottom-related topics. Colour the Stars (Scholastic NZ, 2012) is about a boy describing to his blind friend what colours smell, feel, taste and sound like. What a fabulous idea! And just one of many when it comes to Dawn’s books      

But what I am really jealous of (going back to my book and the company it now keeps) is Dawn’s writing studio.

I suffer from shed-envy in general. I really, really love sheds, especially older rustic ones, and when I spot a promising shed, I love to imagine what I would do in it, if it were mine. There is something special about sheds – their self-containment, and sense of promise that they will, in turn, contain the user, freeing the person to create, build or dream, or any of the other things that people like to do in sheds.

But Dawn’s studio (which after all is just a posh shed) is truly one to be coveted. I have only seen it in this picture, but apparently, in addition to being gorgeous, it looks out over the beach.

To me it looks like writing heaven. No wonder Dawn’s books are so good. If you don’t yet know them, or do but want to find out more about Dawn’s shed and what happens there check out her website or blog.

They’re both as full of life as Dawn is, and she also runs a monthly competition to win one of her books.  Here she is with some of her fans from Te Puru school, doing what all good children's writers do best - reading a book.



Sunday, 19 April 2015

Conversations about self-publishing for the serially challenged 4: dotting your i’s

Looking at the title I chose for this series of blogs, I’m beginning to feel rather less serially challenged than when I began. I realise I’ve learnt a huge amount, along the way. That can only be a good thing if self-, or indie-, or hybrid-publishing is to become more the norm for New Zealand authors. I now have a much better idea of what is involved, and to be honest, it’s very exciting.
In past posts I have talked about it surprised me how creative the editing side of things is. Now as I move more into the actual publishing process what surprises me is how much fun it is. I’m having a blast. I guess that’s not surprising, given I love books (of course I’d enjoy making one of my own), but still it is not what I expected. Lots of work – yes – but very enjoyable too.

A friend who is herself considering self-publishing asked me recently what exactly I have been doing. I sent her the email below, in the hope it would help her process when she reached that stage. I hope it helps yours too.

What you'll need to do:
1.      Finish writing your book.

2.      Get it professionally edited – this step is kind-of optional, if you’re also an editor, but not really if you want a good product. It’s extremely hard to objectively edit your own work.

3.      Get it proofread ­– also only kind-of optional. The last thing you want is errors.

4.      Find and brief a book designer ­– there are plenty. Find one whose covers and internal designs you like, and who produces the type of books (in terms of format) that you’re after.

5.      Find and brief an illustrator – if you are using one. I have been lucky to have a friend whose work I know is wonderful. She’s doing my cover and internal illustrations. Otherwise, you may need to find a cover image you want to use (unless your designer does this for you).

6.      Decide on a publishing name and logo (if you are using one). Also, whether or not you are going to form a company. My accountant has advised the latter may be a good idea if I plan to publish more books, especially by other authors. Something to think about for the future.  

7.      Get an ISBN number, or several if you’re printing in different formats; from the National Library website. A very straightforward process, but you may need to query them if they tell you (as they did me) that you can’t have it until four weeks before the book is printed. Obviously this doesn’t work if you are printing overseas.

8.      Get a barcode – you can do this online. It’s based on your ISBN and costs around $30. I used Barcodes Limited (   

9.      Get quotes from a printer – I got a few, but you could get lots of quotes. There’s a big difference between them. I think I’m going to get the book printed in China, but actually some of the New Zealand quotes I got were getting close, in terms of costs.

10.   Organise a freight agent – if you’re printing overseas, this seems to be cheaper than letting the printers organise the freight, and there should be no hidden costs (fingers crossed). They should itemise all the subsidiary costs you’ll encounter when importing books.

11.   Find a distributor – there are several, but I have found them hard to raise a response from. I am unsure if this is because they are swamped with submissions from self-published authors or, conversely, are not yet used to dealing with them. You may have more luck if you have the designed product to show them. If you do get a response, they will send you their terms of trade, including how much commission they take and where they will try to place your book.

12.   Pay everyone, including the GST on the imported books. Kat says she got stung for this.

13.   Move onto the next big step: receiving, promoting and selling your book.

Whew! No wonder I’ve felt busy. But like I said, all good fun.  


Tuesday, 3 February 2015

The professional edit: Conversations about self-publishing for the serially challenged 3

I am two-thirds of the way through having the manuscript for my hopefully soon to be self-published book, The Bold Ship Phenomenal, edited, and what continues to amaze me is the extent of the changes that I, and now the editor, am making even at this late stage.

I work, in my day job, as a professional writer, so rewriting and rehashing and reimagining are no stranger to me. I actually enjoy them, and have no doubts that they strengthen a piece of writing.

It is the nature and size of these late changes that surprises. The Bold Ship Phenomenal has been through more structural and fine edits than I care to remember. It has been – rewritten, rehashed and reimagined. Yet I find I am revising whole scenes, adding new ones, strengthening connections, embellishing and excising details.

The process feels like tightening a belt, or a net, around the essence of the story, until its clarity is secured.   

I guess what I had not appreciated is how creative the external editing process would be, and in this respect, I feel I have struck it lucky with the editor I have chosen, Sue Copsey.

This no credit to me (all credit to Sue). Sue was a senior editor at Dorling Kindersley in London, before coming to New Zealand and freelancing for several publishing houses here. She is an established children’s writer in her own right.

There were no shortage of good options when I was looking for an external editor (one positive side of the current publishing crunch is that there are lots of talented publishing professionals now offering their skills on a freelance basis). But it was important to me that I found someone with experience working with children’s books. Children’s writing is different. It is magic and inspiration and wonder. Done well, it is transportation and transformation. An editor needs to get that. I feel confident that Sue does.

I’m also very grateful that she’s responded positively to my manuscript (thanks Sue). In the absence of a traditional publisher acting as gatekeeper, it can be hard to remain 100 per cent positive about the calibre of your work. Yet, paradoxically, it becomes even more important to maintain that calibre when you self-publish. This is your work, and there is only you to stand by it, so quality – of story, of process, of the finished product – becomes all.

I’ve found it helps to have supportive writer friends (‘Of course you must do it’), and I’ve also found encouragement to go ahead from an unlooked-for quarter – nature.
I love to walk (like lots of writer I find it a vital part of the creative process) and on recent walks I have increasingly stumbled upon signs from nature that support my decision to publish my story myself.

Now I don’t mean to sound like a fruitcake. I don’t mean that little birds have flown down and tweeted in my ear (or that whales have smiled at me or miniature pirates waved me on). What I have noticed is things in my environment, the west coast New Zealand environment, that have said to me – yes, this is what we are like, this is worth telling, this is wondrous and amazing, uniquely our own, there is a story in this: give it your best shot Sarah, it is worth writing about.