Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Cards on the Table- or 'I finished that sucker!'

my MA thesis submission cover- I got my daughter to pose!

I've recently been shortlisted for the Tessa Duder Award for YA Fiction; here's a bit about it and the shortlisted titles. My manuscript is one of 4 to make the cut and whilst I am confident that one of them is the winner and it isn't me, I am also over the moon that I got this far with my first draft. I also know that I have a lot of work to do on a second draft before I submit it to another publisher, but with the fantastic report and feedback of editor Anna Golden (sorry I can't link her anywhere but she's in Wellington and is just brilliant, thank you Makaro Press) I have definite things to go to work on to make my novel a piece of work that not only grips the reader but also makes sense!

So, can I tell you a bit about it? Not the plot and story- you'll have to wait for that, but how I came to write it. Just in case you think this is a flick of the wrist thing I just knocked off in my spare time. Like everyone, I have no spare time.

Wild Cards started as my Masters thesis project for the Scriptwriting MA I did at The International Institute of Modern Letters in 2003. This was a year I took out from freelance work to immerse myself in writing. That year I launched my first junior fiction novel 'Verity's Truth' (which had a contract before I started my studies) published by Scholastic. I also wrote 'Janie Olive- a Recipe for Disaster' that year in my uni break, as a holiday from writing. It was also subsequently published by Scholastic, and followed by 'Glory' a couple of years later. 

But Wild Cards, my thesis doc, the kids TV drama series with young teen protagonists sat with it's meritous grade, getting dusty on the shelf; my characters trapped inside in their world, mid dialogue, falling down plot holes.

I had a brilliant idea; why not write it as a novel? I addressed this in a post in 2008 here called A Novel in a Week which outlines my attack method. So given that was 8 years ago, what happened and why did it take so long? (I love this clip from Family Guy- Stewie on Brian's novel which best describes a writer's progress).

I started all fluff and feathers, full of squawk and thought I'd nail it for the Text Prize. That yearly deadline came and went. Several times. I thought that being a published novelist, I'd be in line for a Creative New Zealand grant or a funded residency to finish it. After unsuccessfully applying for several of these, and getting all bitter and twisted in the process, I gave up. The novel lay fallow, Jono, Becka and Evie once again in suspended animation. I'd pick it up every so often, write another chapter and get distracted. Wonderful author and friend, Melinda Szymanik cracked the whip every so often and I reported back with word counts. I gave my WIP to too many people to read and they all gave me different feedback. Then I felt like I had shown everyone my ratty undies and felt a bit embarrassed about it all. I had, as Stephen King says in his excellent memoir 'On Writing', let the steam out. It was all limp and soggy.

Then last year, at the Margaret Mahy Day where I received a a Storylines Notable Book Award for  my non fiction book, Ghoulish Get Ups (just thought I'd slip that in, still proud!), it was announced that the Tessa Duder Award would now be open to previously published authors. That's it, I said to all around me, I have a reason to finish that flippin' novel! I need crazy deadlines in my life - this is why I am not a fine artist, a result of my design school training in commercial art back in the day.

I had it all mapped out; I was going to finish my Wearable Art entries, do the Storylines author tour, and then get stuck into it. Except suddenly all my work came at once; a puppet for Maori Television, two more for a Corporate video, a huge commission for the new Waitangi Museum and craft items ongoingly for The WotWot's Pinterest page, not to mention a myriad of little illustration jobs and a picture book contract. I had a window of less than 8 days to get it done and submitted, if I worked really, really hard. It seemed highly unlikely- not the working hard, I'm good at that, but the time frame. However, I am nothing if not bloody minded.

So I did, but not alone. I asked my dear friend and highly successful author Tania Roxborogh, in the midst of her getting the family house ready to sell and move cities, (good god I owe her one) to read through my chapters as I wrote them, look for typos and inconsistencies, track changes and rough edit. I got up and was at the keyboard at 6am every morning (unheard of for me, being awake at that early hour). I wrote all day until midnight, every day. Tania my angel, sent through the edits, I'd make changes and get onto the next chapter. I wrote up to 8,000 words a day. In one particularly caffeine fuelled session I wrote 10,000. I was on fire. Nobody got fed and the house was a tip. I didn't go out, I lived in a tee shirt and jeans (I do not believe in pyjamas for writing and I have none, so there) and the cat took up residence in a filing tray beside my computer. 

And I finished it. I got it printed out and sent. The feeling of achievement was immense; like getting my wearable art creations in a box and off to Mainfreight for judging in Nelson. And I felt like I had released my characters into the wild, fulfilling their destinies and living their dreams. And in that process, done the same for myself.

To coin a few well worn slogans and phrases.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained, don't die wondering. Just do it. 

Saturday, February 27, 2016

A Student's Guide to Grocery Shopping

The students are in town, clogging up the supermarkets in confused packs. First years who didn't get into a hostel due to lack of foresight, money or a general cock up at the Uni end of things, or second years flatting for the first time since vowing never to stay in halls again because the food was so bad (you left My Food Bag at home with your blankie).

So here it is (having nutured 2 kids through tertiary education and flats):

The Student's Shopping Guide

Before you go to the supermarket, sit down with your other 5 flatmates and decide what you are going to buy. This is essential to the sanity of everyone else at New World who can't get past all 6 of you having a group think in the cereal aisle. Be especially wary of middle aged women trying to get past you; they have a tendency to let the trolley run over the back of your jandals, and pause whilst leaning heavily on the handle, inspecting the coffee specials. Or pretending to.

Whilst you are about it, catch a bus to Pak n Save in the burbs. You can't afford New World Metro right now; not until you are a law grad interning at Bell Gully. You will also change your career option 15 times over before you finish uni. So just get on that bus now and learn to love the stick man.

Back to the cereal aisle. Froot Loops are not cereal, neither are Coco Pops. They are fabulous for eight year olds birthday treats, and the munchies, but as you are 18 and don't know where to get weed in your new uni city, you will have to find something else. That gluten free cereal at $8 a box your family indulged you with is not a goer, so ditch the faddiness and buy porridge oats. Cheap as. Fills you up. Be Scottish. Macbeth wasn't gluten intolerant. He was never angry and bloated. Well, maybe, just a bit.

In your first flat, you will have a shelf each in both the fridge and the pantry. Your flatties will steal your favorite foods and leave you with yellowing broccoli and an empty marmite jar. If there is one thing you should buy over and above your budget, it's laxatives and Fix and Fogg chocolate peanut butter. Mix the two and leave on your shelf. This will out the thieves. Also buy extra toilet paper, but not the 3 ply awesome, silken- to- the- touch stuff at home. Get the budget stuff. They need to suffer.

You will probably buy huge packs of noodles, cheese and corn chips. This is standard fare for students. You will put on the Fresher Five kgs within days of flatting and it-will-never-go-away. Ever. Work out if you like the look and shop accordingly; you might well look better with it. In which case, Trident and Dorito and Rolling Meadow are your friends. Embrace them, and get bigger pants. Your mother WILL mention it when you go home for midterm break but it will be cloaked in solicitous terms of 'Are you eating properly?' whilst making you a salad.

Alcohol: forget craft beers, even if you are mature enough to grow a lumberjack beard. Ranfurly is within your budget. Student years are no time for snobbery, unless you ditch your arts degree and go brewing instead. Excellent choice by the way. 

Vegetables. Yes, those things you avoided for years and your mother spent countless wasted hours making smiley faces with, in the fruitless hope that you wouldn't get scurvy. You will think that potatoes are vegetable. They are. They are also best served deep fried with grated cheese (refer fresher five). Try some green things. Bottles of Mountain Dew don't count.

And whilst we are at it, fruit. Any is good. If you have a predilection for blueberries, you can have 2. That will deal to the entire grocery budget for the week.

Let's get personal now. Shampoo, conditioner and soap; use them. It will improve your chances of coupling at a dimly lit party. If you throw in a plastic bottle of Boysencider, you are quids in, with anyone. Unless they have their period, in which case give them tampons. They are so expensive; she will love you forever. Better than flowers or Michael Hill zircons. Anything is better than Michael Hill jewellery, to be fair. And before any guys here say 'But I need money for condoms!' let's get real here. They will go crusty in your warehouse stationery computer work station well before honours year, when if you very lucky, someone might give you the opportunity you've been waiting for. It probably won't involve prophylactics, but if you've kept your Python in check, you might just turn your deep dream into reality. In the meantime, hand over your share of the 'intimates' grocery budget to your female flatmates. It's a bitch running out.

Cleaning materials. I'm not going to spend any time here; you will not clean the toilet ever, the shower will grow species of mould you never knew existed, not even in Micro 101, and your sheets will crust over. You will hope pointlessly, that having a roster for chores means that your flatmates will stick to it. Especially if you used Comic Sans. That you used Comic Sans, in a flat full of design students, is the biggest reason your roster will be laughed at. You may as well pack up and find a bedsit now. Same goes for Lucida Handwriting.

I think that about covers it. You will at some point run out of food. Here are a couple of recipes my fellow students ate to get by, back in the day when faced with the same.

Cabbage Sammies:  a large raw cabbage leaf between two slices of budget white bread. Or vice versa if the bread is in short supply because your flatmate made toast with remainder whilst stealing your Fix and Fogg chocolate spread.

Swotting Stew: hot water with a pinch of mixed dried herbs, salt and pepper. 
And bam, the fresher five melts away, just-like-that!

Enjoy your first year of fending for yourselves. Next year, you'll have it sussed. Or sautéed.

Love, your Mum x

Thursday, January 14, 2016


I've been doing my annual studio clean up - this most often in results a new location and this year- a wall ripped out between 2 rooms of the house to create my ideal space. It won't ever be perfect of course, because my needs are small when it comes to fancy cars and luxurious holidays, but vast when it comes to accommodating hoarded inspirations and materials. I think the average creative person could live quite happily in a huge warehouse with one small bed in the corner, a couch and a rudimentary bench for cooking purposes, with the rest given over the work tables, drawing boards, computer gear, spray booths and a lot of book shelves.

I was cleaning out said shelves a couple of days ago- being ruthless with my collections of art, fashion, design and vintage books, managing only to get rid of a small box of things others have given me and I was not much attached to, when I found this. 

I have kept it for 37 years, my memento of the first rock concert ever I travelled to outside of Wellington, on a road trip. My buddies, Carla, Jo and me, all dolled up our New Wave best.
We were design students at the end of our first year at Wellington Polytech. We bought tickets; they may have been $22 each. When you could rent a room in a flat for that including expenses, that was a big investment. There was no thought about how we would travel, where we would stay and what we would eat. Bowie was the thing and all else, minor detail.

A few days out, Jo came up with a way of getting there, a lift there and back for 3 girls with a radio disc jockey ( she knew everyone). Sounded good, exciting even, so we rocked up to the ferry to meet him on the appointed day. I can't remember his name but to say he had a face for radio was entirely accurate. I won't go into finer detail, but his obvious expectations of a three, or was that four way? romp in Kaikoura on his expense account with nubile groupies, were dashed at the first offer of drinks in the ship's bar. Ewwww...we thought him ancient; he was probably only 30. We were saving ourselves for Bowie, metaphorically you understand.

The DJ dropped us on an early Canterbury evening (somewhat grumpily) in The Square. We had no idea where we would doss down for the night; the nearest camping ground was miles away and besides, we hadn't bought tents. The Christchurch Square, back in 1978 was an intimidating place with The Doghouse Burger joint being the main attraction. We feared we three gals in a phone box might become the New Objects of Desire if we didn't come up with a plan soon. We scratched our heads and thought. All we could come up with was Golden Years.  Then Jo had a golden moment of clarity:
'We could call my aunty...'
'You have family here?!'
'Well yes, but mum said I was only to call her if we were desperate.'

Carla and I looked around at the inhabitants of the Square. We couldn't imagine a more desperate situation. Aunty was called and in no time at all, a BMW arrived with Jo's cousin waving out 'Hoorah!' and we were transported to the poshest of houses in the swankiest of burbs and made welcome within an inch of our student lives. Whilst Jo was interrogated by her aunt for family news, Carla and I fell to our knees in grateful thanks at the altar of hot showers and fluffy duvets.
D day dawned- David! We'd see him, in the flesh, the Man Who Fell to the Antipodes.

Jo's cousin drove us to Queen Elizabeth II Park. Incongruous, stepping out of that beamer in our carefully ripped tights. We were in our finest semi punk arty attire. I wore a pair of green lurex leggings, a tiny tee, a black dinner jacket festooned with badges and vintage brooches and op shop stilletos from the 1950's. I was all set for a day and night on the stadium turf. We found our tribe; the others from our design school year and settled in for an afternoon of waiting for the coolest man (possibly alien) on earth to make his appearance. Jo was hopeful of a backstage pass.

The concert, when it happened, was a blur in some ways. Ask me to remember exactly the order in which anything was played and I couldn't tell you. Bowie was dressed in a jumpsuit and there were banks of lights and at one stage he was annoyed with people- something to do with waving fists. I didn't understand; I thought we were all being nice. I had yet to learn the word Fascist. I think I blacked out for a bit at some stage- blame the hours waiting in the sun doing what young people do to pass the time (Scrabble, Monopoly...) I was held up by the crowd, Station to Station chugging backwards and forwards through my whole body. I couldn't see much and some kind biker guy gave me his helmet to stand on. No mean feat to balance on one in stiletto heels. He was very chivalrous- I surely must have left dents in it.

When the show was done, we tottered off, happy and filled up with the joy of seeing our hero live on stage (which is whole lot better than being dead on it). We were all art students and he was an artist, and in our wildest fantasies, we could be him, because he was all of us. Girl, boy, actor, writer, performer, comedian, visionary and sexy, oh so sexy! Nothing at all like a Wellington DJ in his beat up Citroen. We could all be heroes one day; the world at our feet, for ever and ever.

I got home to the Fendalton pad that night to find almost all of my badges and glittery things had fallen off into the grass at the concert. Trodden into the ground, maybe even embedded in that motorcycle helmet? 'Disco Sucks' underpinned with a Diamante dog. I like to think that they are still there, buried in the soil, swallowed by the earthquakes, waiting for an archaeological dig. Little offerings from my pilgrimage to the first rock god I truly adored.

Post script- we know what happened to David, I was shocked when my daughter broke the news to me in a gentle phone call, before I saw my news feed. But what happened to us, the fans of '78?

Well two of us are working artists, me doing what I do, and Carla is a brilliant illustrator as well as choreographer- here is her website http://www.scruff.co.nz/

Jo, the beautiful well connected girl who looked like Nastassja Kinski, travelled the world, was a gifted photographer but sadly passed away from breast cancer not so long ago. I like to think that she finally meets Bowie in another dimension, when the line of fans clear and he is standing by the wall.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

My Brilliant Career

puppets in progress!
It's amazing how a blog can get away on you when you are busy. I started this one some years ago and over time it has gone from a sometimes twice weekly post to once a month if I'm lucky. I put all my current news on my facebook page and there's been lots going on this year; from a huge commission of a giant waffle costume, to book awards (I was a finalist), story tours, World of WearableArt, creation of an historic replica Treaty Flag, helping deliver a conference and puppets. All of the work incredibly varied and all of it wonderful. I can only say a huge thankyou to all the companies and organisations that this year said 'Ah that Fifi Colston, yes she is the one.' I and my bank account are eternally grateful.

And I am also grateful because sometimes it feels like you are never 'The One'- easy to go down a hole when you see someone has had 12k likes and as many shares for a clever little thing they crafted (I could have done that and actually have...), or got published at the age of 23 with a blockbuster novel (my novel was awesome too...) or landed some fabulous funded opportunity that involves attending international festivals (I wanna go and be special...) Or sold 800,000 of their picture books with no apparent effort  (my royalty statements are dismal after 30 plus years at this...) It's hard you know living up to other people. The reality is that most of us don't; we are viewers of seductive spin.

I, for instance, would only ever show you my good fortune, never my failures. I would not tell you here if my family was falling apart (whose family isn't at some stage?) or if I had serious health issues (there but for the grace of God), or that the bailiff was at the door (not this week anyway). I think it's important to remember that when you read anything out there in the public space; that people are not so much liars as ommitters of the truth. And that's okay, sometimes it's good to keep the bad stuff ringfenced and not let it out of the yard. You never know what people will do with a stray thought.

Ha! I planned to post a whole heap of pictures here of the results of my year's labours, so that anyone trawling the internet would see how successful I am. Funny how once you get writing, other thoughts occur isn't it?

Peg Bag: Fifi Colston

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Your 8 year old self

I was going to write a blog post about the amazing Storylines Festival that I've been part of and touring with for the last week. It was going to be about all the schools we visited and the fabulous kids I dressed up in costumes from my book and the two festival days and how it was a blast (and it was) but then, someone posted this thing on facebook:

I thought back to when I was 8 years old, writing, drawing and making stuff- which is what I do now and I adore my adult life's work. When I was eight, I idolised the likes of Valerie Singleton from the BBC's BluePeter, and Vision On with Tony Hart. These were art heros for me and I never thought back then, that I'd end up as all the arty things I am. I would have, back then, look at me now and say 'I want to be you!' 

It's useful to do that, look at yourself from a kids point of view, especially when the creative industry is full of unfulfilled expectations and bitter disappointments. These mostly arise from a need to be acknowledged and recognised (and paid) and it's like a drug. The more you get, the more you need until you can't see what you've done that was so good anymore. All you can see is what you failed to be (in your head!).

I immediately loved this idea of a young self perspective, and reposted it on my public page, which drew a wistful verging on regretful response. I wasn't quite prepared for that. I realised then that the my post wouldn't actually make anyone happy and might highlight where they thought they had dropped the 8 ball and 'damn that chipper flippin' Fifi for pointing that out. Thanks a lot!' (and lose a few hard won followers).

So let's get real here.
When you were 8, what was life like? This is how it was for me. 

I was in transition from Pom to Kiwi. We had moved- a family of 5 with a father who had his career pulled out from underneath him and no tangible means of supporting us all. We ran away. We were migrants but mercifully not stuck in a container crate and left to die whilst politicians postured and ignored us. We stayed with the only people we knew in New Zealand for the whole of the summer until we were all sick of each other. My parents found a tiny flat. Dad found a job on Christmas Eve and our mother worked for the first time since she had got married at 21 (yes, women mostly gave up their jobs back then and got pregnant on their wedding night). 

We spoke funny, I didn't know what togs and lollies were. I may as well have spoken Greek. I came home from school by myself and wondered if I'd ever fit in. My school report said:
"She is a cooperative pupil and is generally accepted by the other children. She has a sensible outlook but is sometimes disturbed by apparently trivial incidents."
We could re read that to say what was really going on:
"She does what she is told and behind my back the other students ridicule her and when the chance arises do her physical harm. She is terribly lonely and has no clue what to do here."

So, at 8, all I wanted was not to be a roaring success in the art world, all I wanted was acceptance and a friend. At 55 I have it. I have worked hard to get there and when I annoy or upset people and realise it, I try hard to put that right. I don't always succeed, and this is why I don't engage in any kind of way other than very peripherally with Twitter. That's a place that's very hard to put things right once it's out of your mouth- and I have a big mouth!

Child me would be amazed that I have not one community but several- in publishing, wearable art, illustration, craft, walking, old high school friends and of course my family. I love them all. She would be very happy that I had got there (and had she known would have spent less time being miserable and crying into her pillow).

So, look not at what you are doing for a job, but who you are being in the world to the people in your life. And if you are being an asshat (my fav new American expression!) then stop it. Make your 8 year old self proud.

Oh, and Storylines is awesome- I get to meet a lot of kids who I once was.

Photo Credit- Clare Scott

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Selected/Unselected WearableArt and does it matter?

Wing detail

So the results have been rolling in by email for Selected/Unselected and we have been as a group on facebook on the edge of our creative seats to see if we have made the cut for the 2015 World of WearableArt Show. As one put it: 'I have wine ready either way and my husband has half packed his bags just in case he has to keep his distance for a few days lol'. And it's like that. People all over New Zealand and the world have been feverishly working away for months to get into this now very prestigious international show. It can be stress inducing and we have all been in high states of anxiety.

I tell a lie; I haven't been very anxious at all. Not this year.I've have been in the past- and burst into tears on the one time I didn't get into show. Out of 22 entries, that's a pretty good run. I made it mean all sorts of things but mostly I was just embarrassed that ME the stalwart and veteran of the show did something the judges didn't click with. Quel horreur! Sacre Bleu and all the other less printable epithets.

I put myself in the firing line each year with books and awards and Wearable Art shows You can go down a hole with both. You don't start out making your art to win awards and you know, none of them matter really. This is why:

I attended both my father's funeral last year (he died during the wow season and I attended the award show with my phone down my bra waiting for the call to say he had passed, whilst my sister held his hand), and my brother in law's funeral this past week (46, a car accident). One death was expected but no less painful to those left than the other unexpected one.

Not getting your 'baby' into the show or book into a national award can feel like a death. That's only because it seems like the end of possibility; recieving congratulations, the dressing up for the show, the frisson of excitement that you might actually get to walk up on that stage and recive an award = fame = money. But it's not a death. It's not final. In the same way that my father and brother in law have gone from this world, but they live on through their children. The things learned carry on.

I learned about appreciating who my father had been in this world. I also learned making wood grain patterns on EVA foam, using latex to stabilise paint, getting custom printed fabric from Spoonflower (I cannot love this site more if I tried). I had fun dressing up my models, getting photos done and sending it off. I had a clear idea of what I wanted to convey, and I conveyed it. It was a homage to my father who was a fighter pilot in his day. He loved flying more than anything (except his family perhaps). When Peg & Dolly come home to me, I will send the dress to my little grand niece for dress ups, and take the rest of it apart. The fabric will become cushions for my mum and my sisters and I shall mount the wings on the wall in a frame- they were replicas of my fathers RAF ones.

Here it is- starts off as a girl (Peg) and her peg doll (Dolly) who she helps transform into a plane with her head being the engine and propellor and her legs forming the wings- together they can fly!

And...it didn't get in. But that's o.k, because my father's spirit lives on :)

Late breaking news: another garment that I have worked on collaboratively with Josiene Van Maarseeven HAS got in. In the Weta Section, so we are thrilled. Can't show you pictures until after opening night though. This is her first time and I loved working with her- in fact, we are carrying on and doing some commercial projects together. She is an amazing pattern maker and sewer with superb attention to detail. Gotta love a team!


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