Saturday, October 29, 2011

Happy Birthday Koala!

On Wednesday (26th October) I had the good fortune of attending Koala's 25th Birthday celebration and awards ceremony. When Dancing in the Dark was shortlisted and I was invited to attend the birthday celebration, I wasn't sure I'd go. I'm so glad I did. I met about fifteen other authors, all wonderful and friendly. The event took place in the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre in Sydney, in a fantastic theatre packed with school kids.

The kids all came wearing party hats and each school had made a hat for one of the authors. We sang Happy Birthday to Koala. Each author told an amusing story about the best/worst birthday present ever received. Then there were book signings, and photos with kids, followed by lunch for the authors, publishers and organizers.

The event was fantastically well organized and a lot of fun. For more information about the Koala Awards (which are the NSW Children's Choice Awards), and to view the shortlists and winners, visit the Koala website.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Question of Voice

Apologies to readers who've been unable to post comments as a result of technical difficulties. (I've been having the same.) Here's a question Matt emailed to me about an earlier post on Alternating First Person Point of View:

I'm curious what your thoughts are on alternating between first and third person, or at least third person and third person limited. When writing, I feel my world is so much more immersive from a first-person perspective, but naturally I keep running into things I want the reader to know without the protagonist's awareness. I would also like to give readers a fair chance to identify with other characters. So I was thinking of having occasional third-person chapters peppered throughout my novel. What are your thoughts?

Here is my answer:

It looks like you're coming up against a problem most authors have to face - what narrative voice to adopt given the obvious strengths and limitations of each.

It's true that writing in the first person is very immediate and a good way to immerse your reader in the story right from the start, but the obvious limitation is that the reader can only know what the narrator reveals. The advantage of writing this way is that the reader experiences the story in the protagonist's shoes, and is generally surprised or shocked along with the protagonist at critical moments. However, this is not always the case. If you choose a naive narrator to tell the story - for example, someone mentally imbalanced or a child - the reader is able to 'read between the lines' in a way that the protagonist cannot, and therefore understands more than the protagonist can, even though it is the protagonist who has supplied the information. A good example of this is Room by Emma Donoghue.

As for your desire to give your readers a 'fair chance to identify with other characters', I believe this can be done when writing in the first person, even if it's from a single person's point of view. The most common way to achieve this is through dialogue - if you give the other characters a chance to speak and voice their opinions, you can make them fully relatable. What people say and do goes along way to shedding light on who they are, and what they think and feel. You can also use your characters to make comments about other characters, so if your protagonist seems to, say, mistrust one character and respect another, a different character can be seen to trust the very person not trusted by the narrator, and lack respect for a character the narrator admires.

Just as your first-person narrator can engage in conversation with other characters, so too he/she can overhear things they say - either unintentionally or deliberately. Similarly, he/she can receive/find letters, emails, diaries, etc.

Writing from the third-person intimate point of view can often give a similar sense of immediacy and intimacy as the first person, with the advantage that you can write different chapters from different characters' viewpoints without worrying about whether the voice sounds too similar - which would be my main concern with multiple first person viewpoints (though I must say that there are certainly many writers who manage multiple first person viewpoints competently and to great effect).

As to whether you should write primarily from a first person point of view but throw in a few third person intimate chapters from other characters' perspectives, my own feeling is that it may be difficult to achieve this without undermining the structural clarity of the novel as a whole. Alternating between third person distant and third person intimate is fairly easy, but won't solve your problem. Alternating between omniscient narrator and third person will allow you the flexibility to give differing viewpoints, but will be just as problematic for your novel in terms of narrative structure.

I feel the most elegant way to solve your problem would be to decide on either first or third person narration (whether single or multiple) and use the tools described above to shed light on other characters when the need arises.

However, there are no hard and fast rules about novel-writing. A draft is not written in stone, and sometimes the best way to know whether something will work is simply to try it. While I would not personally attempt a novel that mixes first person narration with third person narration in the way you describe, (at least, not at this point in my writing life), that's not to say you shouldn't. What may not work for me may work for you. Only you can decide.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Meg Rosoff at the Wheeler Centre

on Tuesday evening was as entertaining as expected. She began by speaking about her new book, There is no Dog, coming out in August. The title, she explained, was inspired by the image of a dyslexic atheist standing outside a church with a placard proclaiming 'There is no Dog'. Apparently, in the novel, God is a nineteen-year-old boy who creates a world, but does it badly. He is selfish and self-absorbed and doesn't care terribly much about his handiwork; the second in command, who genuinely cares, is left to clean up the mess.

Meg hit the literary scene with a bang when her first novel, How I Live Now, was published in 2004 and garnered a string of literary prizes, and her subsequent novels have also achieved critical and commercial success.

A Harvard graduate, Meg said that 25 years in advertising was undoubtedly an excellent apprenticeship for becoming a writer, since advertising is about selling people something they neither want nor need - which is pretty much what a writer has to do. After all, 'no one really wants or needs your book. You have to make them think they do.'

Yet for all her humour, Meg has a sincere belief in 'the transformative power of storytelling', saying that 'the story you tell about yourself defines who you are. By changing the story, you can change who you are.'

To questions about her own process, Meg said: 'All my characters are kind of me, in extreme versions.' She admitted she is weak on plot so generally steals her plots from other books. She also said that there is more than one way to write a book - while she has written some books in the first person and it has felt like taking dictation, with other books she's had to struggle, painstakingly building the novel one bit at a time.

Meg spoke about the redemptive power of caring for somebody else, which I understand is one of the main themes she explores in her books. 'Once you're responsible for someone else, it's very freeing, because you can no longer be self-indulgent and self-absorbed.' Her point was that self-absorbtion is actually the cause of a great deal of pain.

Her tips for writers? Try not to use adjectives or adverbs. Aim for economy. Cut your manuscript by one third. Oh, and read a book called The Unstrung Harp by Edward Gory.

She clearly takes her own advice, as the extracts she read from her books were beautifully, sparsely written and superbly crafted.

You may be interested to know that when writing a novel, Meg runs out of steam at around 25,000 words (end of first draft), and the editor (a new one for each book since they always fall pregnant) is beside herself with worry, not seeing how Meg will manage to bring the story to the requisite length for a full-length book. And yet she does. Though her longest book to date was just over 50,000.

When asked her opinion on endings, Meg said only a cheerful person could write an unhappy ending, but that she herself is too depressive to get away with that, and must have an optimistic one. 'I could never write a really awful ending,' she said, 'because then I'd have to go off and kill myself.'

I can't tell you what I think of Meg Rosoff's books as I haven't read them. But I'm certainly planning to read them now.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

You Might Have Missed - Claire de Lune

by Cassandra Golds. An absolutely delightful fairytale for upper primary - old age. I loved every minute of this charming story about a young dancer who can't speak, and befriends a mouse who can. Magical, moving and magnificent, this wonderful book, first published by Penguin Australia in 2004, has received a great deal of well-deserved praise.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Happy Passover and Happy Easter!

Hope you all find time during the holidays to settle down to some enjoyable reading.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Books Read While Travelling


Me and Mr Booker by Cory Taylor - a disturbing story about the romantic/sexual relationship between a schoolgirl and an older, married man. A well-written, somewhat confronting novel. Highly recommended, but don't mistake it for a YA novel - this is strictly for adults, despite the protagonist's age.

I'd Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman - a serial killer makes contact with a woman he raped over twenty years earlier, when she was still a teenager. She's the only one of his victims who escaped with her life, and she wonders why she was the one who got away. Told from the alternating perspectives of the woman and the rapist/murderer, now on death row, this is a psychologically interesting story.

Daughters-in-Law by Joanna Trollope - like all her books, this one is very readable, written with Trollope's trademark elegance. It's a cosy, snuggle-up-with type of book. Doesn't try to solve the world's problems but does deal with relatable characters and their problems.

Room by Emma Donoghue - reminiscent of Sofie Laguna'a One Foot Wrong (not so much in the story itself as the voice of the young protagonist), this is a brilliant, heart-wrenching tale about a mother-and-son in captivity, and their flight to freedom. The novel is narrated by five-year-old Jack, who views the room as a safe haven rather than a prison and the outside world as the real threat. The novel is a poignant and powerful testimony to maternal love, and well-deserving of the many major literary prizes and awards for which it has been shortlisted.

Sing You Home by Jodi Piccoult - another book to sink your teeth into. This one tells the story of a a couple whose infertility problems lead to divorce. When she finds herself in love with a woman who may not be infertile, she wants to use her and her ex-husband's frozen embryos. However, he has undergone a religious conversion, and when he looks to his church for guidance, he is told that he should not allow these 'pre-born children' to be raised in a lesbian home. The tale is Interesting and unpredictable, and makes good holiday reading.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Dancing in the Dark shortlisted for the Children's Choice Book Awards 2011

So delighted to share this news. Shortly before leaving Israel on Tuesday, I found out that Dancing in the Dark had made the CBCA list of Notables. This morning, after a mere 3 hours sleep last night (yes, I'm still very, very jet-lagged), the week got even better when I opened my inbox and found out that it has also been shortlisted for YABBA's CCBA awards for readers in Years 7-9. It's gratifying to know that my novel has found its way into the hearts of the very readers for whom it was intended.

Lovely to come home. The trip was wonderful - a complete break from routine. Now it's time to get back to work on my second novel.