Media Release: Pikihuia Awards 2019 – now open!

MEDIA RELEASE
13 February 2019

Pikihuia Awards 2019 Search for Māori Writers

The search is on – the Māori Literature Trust invites Māori writers to submit their short stories for the 2019 Pikihuia Awards.

There are six new categories in this year’s awards. Robyn Bargh, Chair of the Māori Literature Trust says, ‘We have restructured the Pikihuia Awards this year to encourage Māori writers to enter regardless of what level they are at. We want to identify new writing talent, to encourage those emerging writers who have already shown promise, and finally we want to find the best of our published writers’.

The categories are:

  • First-time writer in te reo Māori
  • First-time writer in English
  • Emerging writer in te reo Māori
  • Emerging writer in English
  • Published writer in te reo Māori
  • Published writer in English

The winner of each category will receive a cash prize of $2,000, and two highly commended finalists in each category will receive a cash prize of $500 each. In addition, selected winners and finalists will be published in Huia Short Stories 13 – a series of contemporary fiction by Māori writers published by Huia Publishers.

The sponsors of this year’s awards are Creative New Zealand, Te Puni Kōkiri and Huia Publishers.

The competition closes at 5.00 p.m. on Monday, 8 April 2019.  The Awards ceremony in September will be a chance to celebrate the best of Maori writers.

Details about the awards and downloadable resources are available at www.mlt.org.nz.

ENDS

The Sea, It Calls.

It’s the second day of summer, and the kids are swimming while I stand with my toes in the sea, enjoying the water lapping against my skin and dividing my gaze between the girls and the notebook I write this in. 

It’s moments like these that I realize I should have pushed myself harder in the early months of Te Papa Tupu programme when the weather was bleak and it was too cold for this. But the sun is returning, and we’re in for warmer weather. Warmth = beach in my family; I often joke that I have selkies instead of children, and truth be told, this is not their first swim of the season; that happened months ago when braver souls were still staying rugged up inside. 

But I can’t take my laptop to the beach, and I can’t focus on revision while I’m half focused on making sure the kids don’t drown. At least I can get my journal written though. 

We had our final workshop last week. It was inspiring and heart-warming and uplifting, and probably my favourite one yet. The camaraderie between the group was really special and speaks to the past few months of connection. I’ll certainly miss the regular catch-ups, though I know the group will remain long after the mentorship is over. 

first draft

So here we are.

In some ways, that final gathering felt like it was the end, yet on another level, it’s definitely not. In order to get this book in to HUIA on time, I’m going to have to work pretty hard. Which is fine. I like deadlines, and I like pushing myself. The hardest parts are still to come though, and I have to acknowledge that my tendency to wait until I can see that deadline on the horizon – until I can hear its siren song calling me – before applying all my focus is a bad habit that I’m yet to shake. 

There is something heady about that shot of adrenaline that spikes your system when you’ve got a deadline heading your way. A breathlessness brought on by the uncertainty about whether you’ll make it across the finish line, a frantic pounding of the heart. Is this the wave that will slam you against the floor of the sea, or will you be able to keep your head above water?

Yeah, part of me lives for that. 

But right now, it feels a lot like I’m walking towards the shore through the retreating tide. Each step takes effort, but it feels like I’m going nowhere, like despite all my efforts I’m not making any progress at all. 

I’m mired. My feet sinking into the sand. Each grain is tiny, but they are numerous – like the issues that I have to fix in my book – and with the weight of those combined grains, it feels like I might never get out. Fortunately, I know from past experience that if I just wiggle my toes – if I work the issues one at a time – before I know it, there will be room to breathe, and I can step free. 

And then, suddenly, I’ll have cleared the water. I’ll turn back and look out to sea, and it will be gorgeous.

I certainly hope that’s how I feel when I submit this book.

Thankfully, it’s not uncomfortable to be where I am right now. In a sense, it’s almost comforting. I’m claimed by the story; each plot thread, each snippet of dialogue, each chapter a journey, a path to follow, interconnected and overlapping.
In fact, this might be the most excited I’ve been about this journey since we started. Like the fun times are done and now it’s all work. It’s me and the story. And my mentor, of course, my friends. 

As Nadine Anne Hura summed up so beautifully during our final workshop reflections, we might all be in our own waka, but we’re not alone.


Cassie Hart (Kāi Tahu) is a writer of speculative fiction and lover of pizza, coffee and zombies (in no particular order). She’s had short stories published in several anthologies and been a finalist for both the Sir Julius Vogel and Australian Shadow awards.

Why I Travelled Eight Hours in a Car to See a Lady I Don’t Know

‘These are no ordinary waters
We are not ordinary beneficiaries.
We are kaitiaki in the truest sense.
We are tangata whenua.
Anything that upsets these waters or interferes with their flow should never be permitted.’

Ron Wihongi, Ngawha Kaitiaki (1924–2016)

My flatmate gave me a strange look as I opened the car door.

‘Why are you going there again?’

To be honest, I didn’t really know how to answer. Why I was driving all the way to Kaikohe. An eight-hour-long car ride crawling through traffic on a beautiful sunny Friday afternoon was the last thing I wanted to do.

But I knew I needed to go.

Earlier this year, I tried to find Ngāwhā locals when I went to visit the hot springs. I needed to talk to them about the Ngāwhā prison. Get their perspective.

The nice man behind the counter wasn’t a local. He pointed me in the direction of a Māori lady bathing in the water.

‘She looks like a local, talk to her.’

‘Um, that’s my mum,’ I told him.

He grinned sheepishly and then shrugged his shoulders.

‘Sorry.’

I trawled through books and websites, trying to ‘research’. All I knew was that a prison was built in Ngāwhā, tangata whenua protested and a taniwha was somewhere in the middle. But I felt like I hit a brick wall every time I tried to ‘research’.

And then I had a breakthrough. Don’t ask me how it happened, but it did. I found a name and number online.

‘Hello?’ A lady answered.

‘Kia ora! Can I speak to Riana Wihongi please?’

There was a long pause.

‘Riana passed away.’

I felt terrible and apologised profusely. I told her that I didn’t know Riana and had never met her. I was writing a book based on the events that happened in Ngāwhā, and I wanted to hear someone’s perspective on it. Someone preferably from Ngāwhā. 

‘Well, I’m one of Riana’s friends and one of the protestors.’ Her name was Toi Maihi.

‘Come over to my house,’ she adds as if she lives just up the road.

But I lived in Tauranga and Kaikohe’s a bit of a drive away (eight hours!). I suggested I come and visit her in December sometime.

She agreed, but before we hung up, she clears her throat.

‘Before Riana died, she told me someone needed to write a book about this. I’m so glad you called.’

I went back to my computer, but my fingers couldn’t type anything. Something kept nagging at me. And I have learnt from past experiences, when you get that strong feeling you need to do something, you do it. Don’t ask, just do it.   

I pulled up into her home in Kaikohe two days later. A small woman with white hair opened the door. She’s tinier than I expected. Just as nice on the phone. She ushered me in and told me to take a seat.

She pushed a scrapbook in my hands. Toi had kept every newspaper clipping and photos of everything to do with the Ngāwhā prison. Before it was built, during and after. She even scribbled notes that were weaved throughout the scrapbook.

‘Who’s that?’ I asked, pointing to an elderly man holding a tokotoko. He’s wearing sunglasses, and there are two police officers walking alongside him.

‘I can’t remember his name,’ she says. ‘But he’s blind. One of the elders that were arrested for protesting.’

Arrested. I take another look at the photo and see the elderly man’s hands behind his back. I suddenly feel really sad.

I find out later Toi suffered a stroke earlier this year. She can’t remember names or faces any more. She even forgets words.

The closer I look at her, the more I see sadness all over her face. There’s anger. Hurt. A lot of pain. I wonder if it’s all from the Ngāwhā prison being built.    

‘We fought for four years,’ she said. ‘Four years.’

For hours she talked. I listened.

I learnt more about what really happened. What online news articles could never tell me.

I leant that Toi, with many other Ngāwhā locals, fought for years to stop the Government spending $100 million on a prison in Ngāwhā. Court battles, trips around the country to other iwi asking for help, multiple hīkoi, hui, court battles and protests.

I learnt about the people behind the protests. The faces behind the names. Many whom have passed away, during and after the protests.

I learnt more about the why. The spiritual aspect. That the healing and sacred waters of Ngāwhā are under the prison. That in the battle of Ōhaeawai, the Māori brought the wounded Pākehā soldiers down there to bathe so they would heal quickly. And how that water still heals the people of Ngāwhā today.

I learnt that Ngāti Hine offered a place for the Government to build a prison, but it was declined.

I learnt that Northland MP John Carter said he was ‘absolutely delighted’ when kuia and elderly were arrested outside the prison site for protesting.

I learnt about the travesty and injustice my people faced trying to protect our taonga and sacred land.

Toi walked me to my car and gave me a hug. It was a longer hug than a usual hug.

I went back to my car and broke down in tears. And then my car broke down, and I cried even more because my car was getting towed away, and I was stranded in Kaikohe with no idea how to get back to Tauranga (but that’s another story for another day).

But I’m so glad I made the drive to Kaikohe.

My previous ‘research’ was no substitute for the raw emotion I felt from meeting Toi.

It’s a story of heartache and oppression and injustice, but it’s also a story of hope and inspiration.

For like Toi Maihi said, ‘We will not let them trample on our mana.’ A story that I hope will inspire other tangata whenua to continue fighting. Because truthfully, the battle is only lost when we stop trying.


Shilo Kino (Ngā Puhi, Tainui) is a journalist who previously worked for Fairfax Media and has had stories published in Huia Short Stories. She speaks fluent Mandarin from serving a volunteer mission in Hong Kong. Shilo is delighted to be selected for Te Papa Tupu 2018.

Birth Pangs

I’ve been struggling with my writing lately. I’m working on a story set in the Hokianga in the 1950’s, based on true events that I am reshaping. Reimagining. I wasn’t there, obviously.

James George (mentor): ‘This is the strongest opening to any of the stories so far. Has real punch, and the economy, almost flatness of style really allows the implications to burn.’

My mentor’s comments are encouraging, yet I’m still having a hard time working on it. I sent the opening to Nadine (Hura) who said: ‘I got chills reading it. I got the feeling I wanted to look away, but I couldn’t stop reading.’ I replied that my writing often makes people uncomfortable, and she said ‘Do you feel resistance writing these subjects?’ Which is something I hadn’t even considered … that the countless ways I distract myself from sitting my ass down in the chair and writing aren’t always down to simple laziness and lack of motivation. That perhaps the themes in this particular story are difficult for me to face.

I’m surprised I didn’t consider this question of internal resistance myself, earlier. I’ve written before about subjects that are personally painful, like teen suicide. It never occurred to me that this could be challenging. It’s a curious blind spot.

I’m reminded of a printmaking class years ago, with the incredible artist and teacher Marty Vreede who talked about how there is a pain threshold when making art that you have to push through. And that one often isn’t aware of what the art is really about until the fullness of time reveals it later.

There was a quote that resonated with me during my art school days, written about the artist and my whanaunga, Ralph Hotere, and I’m paraphrasing here because Google isn’t helping. Something like ‘The meaning of suffering was the genesis.’ This holds resonance again for me now, especially as JG pointed out a biblical undercurrent in my current story.

I don’t really know where I’m going with this. I do know that I have to fight through my internal resistance and shut down any and all negative self-talk. Be kind to myself. This is brave work. Fuck Imposter Syndrome. I’ve cut the booze back, which helps. I’m present and clear-headed, mostly. Now I’m gonna sit my ass down in the chair and push the words out, one by one. And hope that it will all mean something, in the end.


Colleen Maria Lenihan (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) is a photographer. On returning to New Zealand in 2016, after fifteen years in Tokyo, she began writing short stories. In 2017, Colleen received an Honourable Mention for the NZSA Lilian Ida Smith Award and a scholarship from The Creative Hub and Huia Publishers. She is thrilled to be selected for Te Papa Tupu 2018.

Changing in Unexpected Ways

I’ve never been a very confident person. Even when I was very young, I was timid. My little brother seemed to get all the courage, and he approached the world like it owed him – the world responded as if he was right.

I envied him that, wished I could feel like I was worthy too.

It took me a ridiculously long time to see how wrong the belief that I wasn’t enough was. It took me even longer to begin trying to kill it with fire. But I’ve been working on it.

Some of this irrational belief stemmed from my crippling anxiety. For the majority of my life it’s tarnished everything I’ve done. The voices in my head constantly told me how stupid I was, how unimportant I was, how bad I was at just about everything, how the world would just be better off if I wasn’t around. I used perfection as a crutch, because if I couldn’t get it perfect then I couldn’t move forward and take the next step. The risks were minimal. Life was safer that way.

Of course, you can’t stay hidden when you’re a writer. At some point you actually have to send your stories out and let other people read them. At some point some of those stories are going to get published, and then people will occasionally leave reviews, and they aren’t necessarily going to enjoy what you wrote.

It is literally impossible to please everyone. Not even chocolate can do that, so I know I shouldn’t try either. But it was always there in the back of my head. And every single time I submitted a short story or published something I felt sick to my stomach, felt the bile in the back of my throat, felt tears welling in deep pools inside me as I waited to be told how crap I was. I wanted to hide under a rock or sit on the review sites until someone said something awful about me and I could have my certainty that I was a terrible writer confirmed.

But that never happened.

No one said awful things about my writing. (Aside from one guy who likened me to a terrorist or something, which stunned me and then made me laugh because I know without doubt that I’m a lovely person. I just sometimes write not so lovely things. Anyway, he didn’t say the writing was bad, and obviously, it evoked a response from him and that’s goal achieved!)

You might have picked up that I’ve said ‘was’ a few times so far, and that’s because that feeling has faded substantially. I think it’s a combination of things.

First up, I’m medicated now. I started taking this antidepressant to try and dull some of the awful pain I have from my Fibromyalgia, but the upshot is that my moods have balanced out and my anxiety has diminished. My confidence is—wait, let’s start that again. I actually have some confidence. I keep doing things and then being amazed at those things, and that’s a really nice feeling. I can finally hear my family, friends and fellow writers when they tell me I’m amazing or that they like something I did – for the longest time all those kind words were drowned out by the voice in my head negating all the things they said.

October was a big month for testing out this new way of being as I had a few writing related events on. First up, we were invited to the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement event in Wellington. Hone and I road tripped down for it, hung out with our mentor and fellow mentees, chatted to a whole range of amazing people working within the literary industry, and I didn’t feel scared at all. I was excited and inspired, and a little out of my depth, but I wasn’t anxious.

Premier House, Wellington

The next big thing was an appearance at Armageddon in Auckland – I was on a panel talking about an anthology that recently came out, in which I have a short story. Quite a different vibe to the awards but similar in that it’s another place full of people who are out celebrating the things they love.

I’ve never done a panel at such a big event, and on the few occasions I’ve participated in one, I was unable to think of anything else for the entire day before, or eat, or function. And yet, I was there signing books at the table, chatting to people, so busy and having fun that I almost forgot to feel nervous about the panel. When I did, it was a faint echo of past feelings. Enough that I could ignore it.

And it went well. I ENJOYED it. Like, really enjoyed it. I left wanting to do more, and then caught myself out, reminded that just a year or so ago this would have been impossible for me.

So, medication is wonderful. At least, for me, for right now.

Secondly, I’ve been noticing how supported we are. How well supported I am.

At Armageddon, the editor of the anthology made sure we were all comfortable and okay before the panel started and assured us that if we ran out of things to say, he could carry on talking until we found our feet. I don’t think we ran out of things to say, but when someone in the audience was getting a little difficult, the editor made sure to be clear about his feelings on the matter and show his full support of our work.

When we were at the awards, Brian Morris and Robyn Bargh were both there, introducing us to people and making sure we were all good. Our mentor, Whiti Hereaka, kept an eye out for us too, and I never once felt isolated despite being out of my comfort zone.

My mentor is amazing. I know I’ve said that before, but she’s everything I could hope for in a mentor. When I told her about my Fibromyalgia diagnosis, which is pretty recent, she came up with ideas for tweaking the schedule to make sure I could get to events that were important to attend (at the National Writers Forum), and knowing she was taking my needs into consideration meant that I could push through and do what I needed to.

Sometimes, it’s just that knowledge that someone has your back that makes all the difference. Knowing you’re supported and looked after, that someone is cheering you on and will be there to throw you a rope when you’re sinking. Without that, this writing gig is a whole lot harder, and for those dealing with extra struggles like mental/physical health, they really are essential.

I feel really blessed, really grateful for all the support I have, because I know not everyone is so lucky. And I’m so pleased that I actually have some confidence now, because I tell you what, it makes the revision process a whole lot easier when you’re not constantly second, third and fourth guessing yourself.


Cassie Hart (Kāi Tahu) is a writer of speculative fiction and lover of pizza, coffee and zombies (in no particular order). She’s had short stories published in several anthologies and been a finalist for both the Sir Julius Vogel and Australian Shadow awards.

It’s Moments Like These You Need Mentees

Te Papa Tupu Mentees 2018
L-R: Nadine Anne Hura, Colleen Maria Lenihan, Cassie Hart, Hone Rata, Ataria Rangipikitia Sharman, Shilo Kino

A couple of weeks ago, Te Papa Tupu programme held its second workshop. This time it was in conjunction with the National Writers Forum in Auckland. The lead-up to it was pretty exciting, we were given a list of sessions and had to choose the ones we wanted to attend. As a new writer, I’ve never attended anything like this, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect, or what to attend. In a way, this is freeing because without knowledge or experience, you can’t really go wrong. Everything is going to be new and have something to learn. So I just chose the sessions I thought would give me some insight into the book I’m writing and the business side of being a writer today.

Before the forum itself we had the opportunity to catch up with our mentors (though this was cruelly interrupted by the vagaries of aircraft mechanical resilience) and to  experience a masterclass with Dr Anita Heiss. Dr Heiss took us through her journey to becoming an author. I was impressed by her tenacity and boldness. Her willingness to put herself out there and write the books that she wanted to write, to tell the stories she wanted to tell and, most importantly, impart the messages she wanted to impart. She asked us, ‘What are you trying to say?’ And in all honesty, I have no idea. I wrote a story, but it was just a story, and I suppose it has themes of a kind. It speaks of family and friendship and corporate greed and the dangers of a society run by and for commercial aims. But not deliberately and not in a considered way. Just accidentally.

I was left with so much to think about.

I travelled with my fellow mentee and friend Cassie (Hart). In this, I am super lucky, because I always have someone with me I know. A comfort in challenging and nervous times. Someone I can turn too and who will make sure I get to the airport on time. So, after the workshop, we went to the registration night, and it was amazing. We were early (because of Cassie), so we got to see most of the other attendees arrive. Just seeing this community of authors come together was amazing. Watching the room, I could see the camaraderie in the group. Old friends coming together, hugs and smiles, handshakes and kisses on the cheek. It was encouraging to just be a spectator in this group of authors and aspiring authors. To see this fabulously eclectic group congregate. Before too long, our fellow mentees and mentors arrived, and it was my turn to smile and hug and shake hands and kiss cheeks.

Over the next few days, I attended workshops on Writing Short (Pip Adam, straight up the most fun and engaging presenter of a workshop I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing), writing for Young Children (Kyle Mewburn, an artist of fart jokes and how to properly apply them for different ages). I attended lectures on the business of writing and getting published and promoted. I also attended a keynote by John Marsden that I never wanted to end. I could happily have spent the whole day listening to this wonderful storyteller talk. I attended a panel on writing YA that was full of sage advice and such inspiration. I was equally inspired by Lani Wendt Young’s journey and her experiences with self-publishing.

But equal to the content provided in the workshops were the times between them, where I’d meet back up with this amazing collection of authors that are my fellow mentees. We’d share stories and inspiration and crispy duck. I also met new people, other authors on the same journey I was on. I shared the love of story and character and verse and lyrics. I found a tribe I never knew I was a part of. And even after long days,I was energised, returning to my room to write and try to integrate some of what I’d learned during the day into my own work.

I left this weekend energised and invigorated. Awash with ideas and inspiration. And almost immediately slumped.The writing was hard. The challenges seemingly insurmountable. Life was full of other demands on my time and distractions. It was really hard, but I wasn’t alone. Because there is a Facebook group I can turn to. Set up by Cassie (who else?) at the start, it’s a place all the mentees can get together and share the trials and triumphs being a part of Te Papa Tupu presents. And here I found that a couple of the others were feeling the same way. I was not alone. I was quiet thought this time, I didn’t post much, but it was reassuring to read their conversations.

So here I am, finally back on the horse and finally applying the inspiration and learning I picked up to the words that are, for today at least, flowing out onto the page. I know I would have gotten back to this eventually. I’ve had slumps before and muddled through. But I also know that I wouldn’t be here yet if it wasn’t for the support of the tremendous wāhine I’m lucky enough to share this journey with. It is their passion, their energy and their wisdom that is on these pages as much as it is mine.


Hone Rata (Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Ruanui, Taranaki) is an aspiring author currently embroiled in the fraught journey that is preparing his first novel for publishing. Hone is pleased to have been selected for the 2018 Te Papa Tupu writing programme. He is excited to learn new skills and apply them to his novel.

A Void

It feels like I’m sending these journals into a void. Like an actual journal, for my eyes only, which is kinda freeing.

I had writer’s block until recently. Prior to that, I wrote a short story about a Japanese piano teacher who goes on a surfing trip to deal with a broken heart. This melancholy tale poured out of me in two or three days. Working in the second person for the first time gave me a sense of urgency that propelled the story forward, and I found that almost breathless quality made the writing experience deeply enjoyable.  I’ve learned that Voice Is Key. I’ve realized that once I have the voice right, the story flows. The words come from somewhere else. Every creative person knows this feeling. You become a channel for the universe to express itself through. We’re all jonesing to get back in the zone. Where do ideas spring from within this state? The nothingness of a blank page. The collective unconsciousness. The void.

My mentor, the novelist James George, has a startling intellect. The kind of person who makes you feel like you’ve somehow gained a couple more IQ points after listening to them. Or more accurately, desire to be smarter so you can fully comprehend all the gems they keep dropping. I told him I was struggling with my short stories. Unlike writing a novel, which you can potentially plot out and continue moving forward towards an ending, whenever I finish a story I have to start again. Almost from scratch. New protagonist, new POV, new plot, new voice. This is a complication with writing short stories for a cycle. How many ways can you write about a thing? And I wasn’t totally sure what that thing was. There were many things!

James spoke to me about the notion of a controlling idea. He talked about Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises about a damaged soldier coming back from war, a familiar Hemingway trope, and how this controlling idea gave Hemingway licence to roam through a landscape; to write about bullfighting and real drinking expeditions, changing the names only. JG explained that once the controlling idea is set in the reader’s mind, you can do that. I really liked the sound of this … how a controlling idea could give me some freedom to roam around too, in this psychological hinterland I’m conjuring that floats between Tokyo and New Zealand.

JG said, and I’m paraphrasing here, what truths are coming out? Is there a presence you can use as a controlling idea? The thematic presence is like a vessel where everything is being held like a bowl of soup; a series of reflections and responses to this central theme. It can be very subtle; a thematic resonance rather than a direct through-line. Every single thing doesn’t have to point to the master plot. Also, what are you leading up to here? Someone, after reading your short stories, will ask, well what do I make of all that? How close do I feel to the conflicts and ideas I’ve read about?

Plenty to ponder. I looked at the fifteen or so stories I’ve written and methodically listed their themes, which include loss, intimacy, the male gaze, mothers and daughters, the expat experience, dislocation and where is home anyway? A theme of running away emerged, which, although should have been obvious, took me by surprise. However, that was not my controlling idea. I realized that what’s really behind it all, although yet to be dealt with directly in any of my stories, is transgenerational trauma. Kinda heavy and something I’ve been trying to, well … avoid.


Colleen Maria Lenihan (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) is a photographer. On returning to New Zealand in 2016, after fifteen years in Tokyo, she began writing short stories. In 2017, Colleen received an Honourable Mention for the NZSA Lilian Ida Smith Award and a scholarship from The Creative Hub and Huia Publishers. She is thrilled to be selected for Te Papa Tupu 2018

Specificity

I’ve known for a while now that my biggest weakness when it comes to writing is in the detail. I mumble through stories using broad strokes rather than a fine-haired brush, and in doing so, I lose something.

Part of me thought none of these details mattered because they have no relevance to readers outside our country, and when most of those in the book biz will tell you that there is no market for adult genre fiction in New Zealand (written by New Zealanders) anyway, one must try and think about the global market.

But I was also scared of pinning things down too much in part due to my overwhelming fear of doing my culture wrong (I push through those fears, but that doesn’t mean I have less anxiety about them) or doing anything wrong, really. That risk of stuffing something up, offending someone, getting the facts wrong held me back and meant I skimmed over the top of things rather than going deeper. Which is where research comes into play in a big way, and I’ve gotten so much better at that in the last few months.

What I’ve come to see is that the importance of the specifics lies in their relevancy to me and to my characters. I’ve learned that when I imbue my work with these details it helps every part of my story come alive.

‘What I’ve come to see is that the importance of the specifics lies in their relevancy to me and to my characters.’

Because it’s the little things that matter.

When I was reading Bugs, by my mentor, Whiti Hereaka, I was struck by how well she does this. There was a moment when reading that it finally hit me how I could colour my world without overdoing it. And it was something so simple but utterly beautiful to me: when Bugs is learning how to clean a hotel room there is a mention that they clean the taps then wipe them down with a dry cloth so there are no water marks.

See, simple right? But it made it real. I knew that hotels always look perfect, but it had never crossed my mind to think how they did that. This was a touch of insight that made this scene real to me. Like I was on the inside. Like the characters were real people with real knowledge.

I want my stories to feel real too, even when I’m writing about ghosts, possession, aliens or gods. And it’s particularly important for me that I do this with Butcherbird, but at the same time, that feeling of importance might be what makes it hard to do.

‘I want my stories to feel real too, even when I’m writing about ghosts, possession, aliens or gods.’

You see, I set this book on a fictional version of my grandparent’s farm. It was a farm I spent a lot of time on, nestled at the foot of my maunga, Taranaki. And so, it should be easy to make things real – I’m not writing about my family (Rose is definitely not my grandmother; I am not Jena), but I know what growing up in the country is like. I know the curves and folds of the land, the feel of the air, how cold the rivers coming off the mountain can be, the taste of water that comes from a spring and not town supply.

And yet almost none of those things are present in this book. Not even my mountain.

The view of the farm

When I was halfway through writing Butcherbird, my Nana had a massive stroke. We rushed home from Paraparaumu to be with her, but she never regained consciousness. I wrote bits of Butcherbird while holding her hand during her last days.

Writing this book gave me something to focus on that wasn’t the fact Nana was dying. She is so much a part of this book because of time spent by her side, both on her death bed and throughout my life, and because I was writing it as a love letter to that place we called home.

But it’s not home any more, and she’s not with us. Hasn’t been for almost a year now.

It took me another twenty-four days to finish the book, but I did, even though it was so freaking hard and I had to face death again within the pages. She was a pragmatic woman, and I could hear her telling me to just get on with it. And I did. I got on with it. I finished the book. And now, here I am, revising the book. And while sometimes it hurts to dig deep, I know that I have to reconnect to my initial desire for this work, and that’s going to require me to get specific, to get detailed.

And, yeah, I have some resistance to that. Because it still hurts. I miss her. And sometimes digging deep makes that ache a little harder to bear.

But specificity is important.

It’s vital.

When we were at the National Writers Forum in September this was one of the key things I took away from it – it turns out that the books from New Zealand authors best received both here and around the world were those deeply grounded in New Zealand’s culture, land and experiences. People want those details; they want our flavour.

‘… the books from New Zealand authors best received both here and around the world were those deeply grounded in New Zealand’s culture, land and experiences.’

I listened carefully to the keynote speakers over that weekend: Lani Wendt Young, Dr Anita Heiss and John Marsden. All spoke eloquently; their experiences and passion for writing blooming in our imaginations as they spoke due to the details they used to richly colour their lives.

It’s very clear to me now that the broad strokes I mentioned earlier aren’t doing me any favours. More importantly, it’s not doing my story any favours either. I’ve been bashing my head against this lesson for what feels like years now, but I think I’m almost there. I think I’m finally brave enough to dig deep and do the things that need to be done.

The writing life is a series of lessons – there are always more things to be learnt – but this particular one has been a mountain I’ve failed to climb many times before. It’s well and truly time I conquer it.


Cassie Hart (Kāi Tahu) is a writer of speculative fiction and lover of pizza, coffee and zombies (in no particular order). She’s had short stories published in several anthologies and been a finalist for both the Sir Julius Vogel and Australian Shadow awards.

Some Guidance Required

You know how I was saying that one day I might be able to introduce myself like this, ‘Hi, I’m Hone Rata. I’m an author’? The last month has shown me that while I might be able to say that, I can’t follow it up with ‘And I’m kinda good at it.’ Because if I have learned anything this past month, it’s that I have a great deal left to learn. A GREAT DEAL TO LEARN. Like the proper use of capitalisation for instance.

‘I’ve never read about how to story. I’ve never studied story.’

My whole life I’ve read story, watched story, listened to story, told story. But I’ve never read about how to story. I’ve never studied story. I’ve picked up a few things. Like it should have a beginning, a middle and an end. And that things should happen to people and that we should care about these people. So, I wrote this story. It’s pretty long: ninety-five thousand nine hundred and four words at the end of my last edit. That is twenty thousand more words than when I first thought I’d finished. And it’s not nearly done! Half of the notes my mentor leaves point out things I haven’t explained properly. Or mentions a character I haven’t fleshed out properly. Or weaknesses in the structure that need to be reinforced or plugged. Or worse, points out where the chapter should end.

Chapters! It’s a perfect example. When I wrote my story, especially at the beginning, I wrote to an audience. A small group of supporters I emailed my story to every night. I would put my kids to bed, watch a bit of TV with my wife and then sit down and write for a couple of hours. I’m not a fast writer, I don’t type quickly, so it’s a drawn out and laborious process. In two hours, I can write maybe a thousand words. So, I would write away into the evening or the early hours of the morning. And my chapters would end when I got too tired to go on. I’d see a break point coming up, I’d try to finish on a hook, to make it exciting for my email audience, then I’d save my document and go to sleep.

‘You need to write down the “beats” of your story, so you know where the tension rises and where it falls.’

Turns out that chapters should have a purpose beyond letting you go to bed. Who knew! They should have a beginning, a middle and an end. They should take a character on a journey, and the choices they make need to be inevitable. Each chapter should be like a little story of its own. They may or may not be made up of separate, thematically linked, scenes each one of which should kinda have a beginning, a middle and an end. These are general rules; some books don’t have chapters at all. But that’s because the authors made a choice, not because they went a really long time without going to sleep. I’m learning how to think about chapters as I write. At the same time, I’m learning how to give my characters distinctive voices. I’m trying to remember not to use too many tropes or clichés; trying to remember to show stuff happening, not just have it reported (action is more exciting). I’m struggling with expressing my characters’ emotions. And making sure things are happening while they are talking so they are not just disembodied heads chattering away (ironically, I have disembodied heads chattering away in my story, but you never hear what they have to say).

But before you can do that, you need to actually write down who your characters are and what they are like, what they think and why they are trying to achieve. You need to plan and document your world. How does it work? What’s it’s history like? It’s government, it’s economy? How does it view non-binary genders? What about gender politics? Matriarchy? Patriarchy? You need to write down the ‘beats’ of your story so you know where the tension rises and where it falls. I’m not sure my writing style suits this kind of preparation, but that doesn’t mean I can ignore it; it means I have to do it after I’ve written the story. I call it postparation. And this is important because I need to know this stuff so I can use that information while I am editing – to improve my consistency, and make sure the characters are acting in a way that makes sense and in a believable way (even if they are not supposed to be sensible and the things they do are unbelievable)

‘I struggled this last week to rewrite two chapters. I couldn’t figure out a good way to tell the pieces of story I needed to tell with the characters I needed to tell it with.’

There are so many balls to juggle that I didn’t even know I was holding. So many. And some chainsaws and knives and probably a bowling ball. But there are also butterflies and doughnuts and puppies. Not every note is an error to be corrected; some are notes of congratulations, inspirational suggestion or slight adjustments that I just know will make my words sing. And there is nothing like looking back on my writing and seeing how I have improved, how my story is better. And sometimes I think that maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to write a paragraph without using an adverb.

It’s hard, hard work. I struggled this last week to rewrite two chapters. I couldn’t figure out a good way to tell the pieces of story I needed to tell with the characters I needed to tell it with. I had three birds and only one stone. I just couldn’t get traction, and my deadline approached. In the end, I just decided to do it badly, make a ham-fisted job of it. Not because that’s what I want to do, but because once it’s on the page, I can go over it and refine it until the turd is nicely polished. And if I can’t polish the turd, if I can’t see the shine under the muck, my mentor can tell me where to start.

That’s the magic of this whole thing. Someone who is good at this, someone who can see the diamond in the rough, takes the time to give me advice. Tells me how chapters work. That adverbs are the devil’s work and that doing is better than telling. Leaves notes I can weave into the sheet to make music from laboured beats.

It’s invaluable; these pieces of advice, so hard to juggle today, will become second nature. When they are, then I’ll be okay at this. I’ll still need an editor; it’s really very hard to see your own errors. I’ll never stop learning. But maybe, I’ll be able to poop something closer to a diamond.

‘I’ll never stop learning. But maybe, I’ll be able to poop something closer to a diamond.’


I’ve attached a picture of the two chapters I edited this week, zoomed right out in Word. All the colours in the image are changes I’ve made. All the red dots are suggestions my mentor made on the first draft.


Hone Rata (Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Ruanui, Taranaki) is an aspiring author currently embroiled in the fraught journey that is preparing his first novel for publishing. Hone is pleased to have been selected for the 2018 Te Papa Tupu writing programme. He is excited to learn new skills and apply them to his novel.