Above: Research for my novel, Middle Distance, reading the Bruce the Cat books to a variety of audiences, the hedgehog that inspired my Turbine Kapohau story, takahē, the Holidays Act, Moeraki inspiration.
In 2021 I focused on writing the first draft of a novel, so I didn't write and send away as many short stories as usual. However, I'm really pleased that the stories I did send out found excellent homes - Physical Education in takahē, What's The Point of Anything in Stasis, The Hedgehog in Turbine Kapohau, and Sea Legend in Te Herenga Waka University Press's Middle Distance anthology of long short stories.
Another short story, Honey Babe, is coming out in one of my favourite journals in early 2022, leaving just one story to find a home. Between the best of these stories, I've written about a third of a second collection of short stories.
In the first part of the year (before lockdowns and traffic light systems) I also had the opportunity to participate in a number of events including the Dunedin Fringe Festival, the Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival, and the City of Literature Readaloud Tour.
Looking at my writing spreadsheet, I sent away for 37 publication, competition, residency and grant opportunities during the year. Of those, five were accepted, three I withdrew, and four are still in the mix. In 2021 my superpower was definitely getting my stories placed in great outlets, whereas my kryptonite was residencies - I applied for 12 and didn't get any. (Even my self-funded residency was cancelled by lockdown!)
Rejections are interesting - sometimes they're just another line on my writing spreadsheet, but at other times opportunities seem almost tailor-made for me, and not getting those ones is always a bit of a knife to the heart. There were three of those this year.
That's why I'm particularly grateful to have been included in the Middle Distance anthology. The call for long stories came out just as I happened to be nearing the end of writing a long story. It's been a dream of mine to be published by Te Herenga Waka University Press (formerly VUP) for years, and this success really buoyed me throughout the year. Working with the wonderful editor Craig Gamble was like having a fairy godbrother, and I've loved reading the book and making connections with the other contributors.
Another big success was working with MP Ginny Andersen to amend the Holidays Act to include miscarriage as a reason to take bereavement leave. It's pretty cool to think that I had an idea for changing the law ... and changed it!
And as well as finishing the first draft of my novel I also finished the first draft of my doctoral thesis.
Despite these successes I finished 2021 feeling a bit 'meh' about my writing life, which is possibly just a consequence of the global pandemic we're dealing with making everything that little bit less fun. 2021 was also the year that I decided not to write and illustrate a third Bruce the Cat book, and to wind down the Bruce the Cat social media. It was the right thing to do, but also the end of a very special period in my life.
In 2022 I would like to finish my doctorate, finish another draft of my novel, and continue to write and place short stories with the ultimate aim of publishing a second collection. I'd like to continue to grow and develop as a reader and a writer.
Behind the scenes I'm working on a couple of collaborations, and I'd love to get them off the ground. They're both projects that require funding, so .. fingers crossed!
And I have an idea for another book and a couple of ideas for creative nonfiction pieces. Watch this space!
I'm coming to the end of my writing retreat in beautiful Moeraki.
I spent the first day revising a long short story, the next couple of days writing a humorous short story, and over the past few days I've worked up ideas for something that might become a bit longer.
A writer friend of mine stayed with me for the last two nights and we had loads of fun sharing story ideas and going on missions to the Katiki Point lighthouse (didn't see any penguins but saw loads of seals) and small settlement the Kaika ... and out for dinner at Fleur's Place seafood restaurant (luckily for us, they also have an excellent vegetarian menu).
It will be great to go home but I'll really miss the sound of the sea, the incredible, ever-changing views, and the abundance of creatures - from the baby silvereye that flew inside my crib, to the goose I spotted wandering down to the sea and going for a dip, to the absurd numbers of rabbits (you might round a corner and see ten of them sitting completely still in a clearing, as though they're holding some kind of bunny freemason convention), to the spotted shags and oyster catchers and pied stilts ... and of course the kekeno (fur seals).
In the meantime, I have a challenge set by the owners of the place I'm staying in - to eat as many of the courgettes from the garden as I can before leaving.
I'm two days into a week-long writing retreat in a quirky little crib in the pretty fishing town of Moeraki, where I'm working on some stories for a new collection.
I've been writing a fishing story called Sea Legend, and I'm in the perfect spot for a re-edit, with a view out over the sea from the table on the porch. As I worked on the story last year I had research help from a skipper and a former fisherman. The fisherman has stayed in touch and I sent him a copy of the story yesterday. He read it and came back with a couple of notes on gutting fish, but also very kindly said, "The feel of the story seems to match the experiences I had, the banter etc."
Whew, I didn't read The Catch, Into the Raging Sea, The Old Man and the Sea, Song of The Sea, Last Man Off, Trawler and The Perfect Storm, and watch about 77,000 YouTube videos for nothing! (The Perfect Storm and The Old Man and the Sea are both excellent. As for the YouTube videos, there are so many crazy sea videos out there and they're just fascinating. There is some terrifying footage of ships struggling on huge swells. But this timelapse of sunsets and sunrises at sea is very beautiful and soothing.)
Today I started working on a curious little story inspired by a recent hedgehog rescue. Hopefully by the end of tomorrow I'll have a sense of whether or not it's worth pursuing.
I also had a chat with director Charlotte Wanhill about a possible second season of web series Misconceptions, and I submitted a funding application for support writing that second collection of short stories. Fingers crossed!
Here's a sneak peek at what I'm working on...
I often write about topics that alarm me – climate change, animal cruelty, inequality, misogyny. As a result, the overall tone of Pet was one of ‘unease’, and I would like my next work to be more uplifting. Delight is joyous, hopeful, seductive. Bad deeds are punished, good deeds rewarded, and the beauty of nature abounds. Mythical creatures such as the Canterbury Panther share the pages with everyday wonders such as Queen bees, spotted toadstools and wild strawberries. In these stories the ‘goodies’ usually win and the villains – including an inconsiderate netball player and a lawbreaking skipper – get their just desserts.
Releasing two books seems like small fry in the context of a year that also included an operation, an accident, a family emergency, a devastating restructure at work, a security threat that impacted my place of work, oh and the small matter of a global pandemic.
It's hard to know what to make of this year.
On one hand, I'm so lucky to live in Aotearoa and to have been so lightly touched by the pandemic. And I'm even luckier to have so many amazing supporters who pre-ordered my children's book Bruce Goes Outside, and my collection of short stories, Pet, and made the publication of them both possible. Thank you so much!
On the other hand, it has been such a hard and disappointing time. Looking for photos for this update, there are few of me celebrating with others. There are no photos from the Pet book launch, because there wasn't one. The only images in my Pet folder are jaunty invitations to cancelled celebrations.
My books seemed to come out at the worst possible time - when magazines that review books weren't being published, just a few weeks before the Kete book review site launched, and when Level Two and Three restrictions made it impossible to celebrate with in-person launches. I had four launches scheduled for the year (in Dunedin and Auckland) and we were able to go ahead with one.
However, a really positive thing that came out of the pandemic was a change in arts funding that led to my surprise project of the year - a podcast!
Thanks to Creative New Zealand I had the incredible opportunity to work with 17 extraordinary talented actors and the amazing Otago Access Radio (OAR FM) crew to create a podcast for Pet. Creating that podcast and getting to meet so many wonderful people was a highlight of my year.
Other highlights included Steve Braunias and Newsroom coming to my rescue and enabling me to have an online book launch for Pet (thank you!) and the children at Port Chalmers Primary School following up on a workshop I held with them by presenting me with a book of their stories. Another highlight was being asked to be the guest speaker for a School Library Association of New Zealand event. The event organisers made me feel as though I was Stephen King! And my lovely work colleagues organised a spontaneous Pet book launch for me in an office space, complete with flowers and donuts! There is plenty to be grateful for this year.
So, 2020 has left me with a lot of complicated feelings - but here's my 'annual report'. It follows the same format as last year's.
Last year I had a goal to send away 100 submissions. This year I was too busy crowdfunding to write or submit much new work. I made eight submissions to journals, competitions, residencies and funding bodies, and had six declines. I received CNZ funding to create a podcast, and one submission is still outstanding.
Although my number of submissions was small, two of them were for opportunities that I desperately wanted. On the strength of Pet and its reviews I also approached several literary festivals, but haven't been invited to participate in any as a short story writer. Another disappointment was having to crowdfund my books. After the success of Bruce Finds A Home (lovely reviews, and 2000 copies sold) it would have been great to have received funding to assist with the publication of Bruce Goes Outside. And I would have dearly loved to have found a publisher for Pet. Crowdfunding is not a sustainable arts practice - something I might write about in an essay one day.
But as with everything this year, there have been silver linings to my disappointments. I was thrilled to be able to work with the extraordinary team at Mary Egan Publishing to release Pet, and I just love the cover design! The team at Mary Egan Publishing is amazing and I can't recommend them highly enough. And crowdfunding gave me the opportunity to connect directly with people who wanted to read my work! Wow! It blows my mind that there are people out there who are interested in reading what I write. Thank you so much for your support, it has meant the world during this challenging year.
Last year I said, "In 2020 I hope to publish both Pet and Bruce Goes Outside, and get a little further along on my doctorate of professional practice."
So what do I want for 2021? I'm not sure yet. I would love to write and illustrate a third Bruce book, but the sales of Bruce Goes Outside haven't been as strong as they were for the first book, so I don't think it would be practical to do so. I hope to have finished, or be close to finishing my doctorate this time next year. And on the writing front, I'm not sure. Will I focus on trying to become the best short story writer that I can be? Or will I follow the scent of a novel idea? That's something for me to mull over during the summer break.
As I finish this update I hear sirens. I look out my window to see what looks like the third serious house fire in my little town this year.
I hope 2021 is an easier and happier year for us all.
As a valued stakeholder of 'Kathryn van Beek: writer', please find your copy of my 2019 Annual Report below. The report is structured as follows: submissions, disappointments, successes, a tribute and a summary.
My goal was to make 100 submissions to journals, competitions, funding bodies etc, and I came close this year with approximately 81 submissions made.
These 81 submissions yielded 9 successes and 38 declines. Twenty-three submissions still await their fates, and I withdrew 11 submissions after the stories were accepted elsewhere.
Of those 38 declines, I would say that 35 were 'oh well' moments, while the other three led to full-blown 'what is the point in going on I should just impale myself upon my pen' crises.
I am also disappointed in myself for not finishing the illustrations for the second Bruce the Cat book (working on them now!).
A tribute to David
Writing the 'Best Book in the World' piece was one of the highlights of my year, and a real testament to the wonderful man behind the series - talented journalist and really nice bloke David Loughrey. Unfortunately David passed away recently. I don't know what to say except David, in the short time that I knew you, you really enriched my world. Thank you.
Summary ... and hopes for 2020
Though I didn't get the exact feather in my cap that I really wanted this year, I did pick up a bunch of other very nice feathers.
In 2020 I hope to publish both Pet and Bruce Goes Outside (my second children's book), and get a little further along on my doctorate of professional practice.
A huge thank you to everyone who has supported me this year. I love Aotearoa's literary scene - everyone I've met has been so generous and kind. Wishing all of you a happy and successful 2020.
Wow - I didn't see this coming! I'm thrilled to share that I'm the winner of the Mindfood 2019 Short Story Competition.
The story, Flotsam and Jetsam, (published in the August edition of Mindfood magazine) is described as the 'unexpectedly poignant adventure of schoolgirl Amy and her mother'.
The competition was judged by Rebecca Thorne (HarperCollins), Jenny Hellen (Allen & Unwin) and Michael McHugh (Mindfood Editor-In-Chief), who had some lovely things to say, including:
"A wonderful example of the power of short stories"
"There's a gradual reveal throughout the story, leading to a complex and heart-rending ending that's perfectly pitched"
"I am looking forward to reading more from this talented writer"
The competition will run again in 2020 and I highly recommend entering.
What a strange, fun and stressful week it's been!
Although it sounds a bit like some kind of swearword, 'Complete MS' is actually an abbreviation of 'Complete Manuscript Assessment'. Being a recipient of the programme means being matched with a literary guru who reads your manuscript and provides feedback on your work.
This year thirteen lucky writers were beneficiaries of the programme - and I was one of them!
The assessment couldn't have come at a better time for me. I was putting the finishing touches on my short story collection, Pet, and it was exciting to print out the full manuscript, get it boxed up and send it off to Auckland, not knowing who would read it or if they would like the cut of my jib.
I included a brief cover letter for my assessor, asking for specific feedback on:
A few short weeks later I received a detailed eight-page report filled with suggestions and advice. I received useful feedback on the above points and many more. I also had a Skype meeting with my lovely assessor where we discussed the feedback in more detail.
As a result of the assessment I have a bit further to go before submitting my manuscript to publishers, but I have an eight-page road map to help me get there.
The changes I have made, or am making, include:
As a result of my Complete MS experience I feel confident that my collection will be stronger and more professional when I do pitch it to publishers. My assessor has also left me feeling hopeful that I am on the right track with my writing.
A huge thank you to my assessor, and to the New Zealand Society of Authors (who run the Complete MS programme) for this opportunity.
Find out more about the Complete MS Programme.
Meet the other 2019 programme recipients.
2023 Burns fellow Kathryn van Beek has an MA from Victoria University Wellington - Te Herenga Waka’s International Institute of Modern Letters. She is a winner of the Mindfood Short Story Competition and the Headland Prize. Her collection of short stories, Pet, is available as a podcast, and her work has also appeared in Overland, takahē, Newsroom, and the Sunday Star-Times. She lives in UNESCO City of Literature Ōtepoti Dunedin with her two rescue cats.