Thursday, November 25, 2010

Gems from the lips of Odo Hirsch

On Tuesday I had the great fortune to meet the highly acclaimed and prolific children’s and YA writer Odo Hirsch. The Melbourne-born writer lives in London, so it was wonderful to have the opportunity to hear him speak.

Odo’s first novel for children, Antonio S and the Mystery of Theodore Guzman, was published in 1997 and is still in print. Since then, he has published twenty books, and is still producing quality fiction at an impressive rate.

He began his talk by explaining that ‘Odo Hirsch’ is his pen name, and he chose it because he thought it sounded quirky yet believable. His real name is David Kausman, and he was still a practising doctor when he started writing. He wanted to keep his two careers completely separate; hence the pseudonym.

As he rarely speaks to groups about his writing, he said he hoped we would interrupt him with questions as often as possible; that way he’d tell us things we wanted to know. Here are some of the questions people asked him, along with his answers:

When you want to write a new novel, where do you start?
Sometimes I start with a character, sometimes with a concept or an idea. Regardless of where you start, you must have a sympathetic character with whom readers can identify… It’s the resonance that creates the affection. Readers must care about the character, and for that to happen they need be able to imagine themselves in the character’s position… You can have an anti-hero as the main character, but it’s much harder to do.

The Hazel Green books started with the character. You need an endearing and consistent character. But sometimes I start with a theme. One theme that is very important to me is exploration. So I create a world in which the character can explore.

What’s the hardest part of the book to write?
The beginning. You have to know where you’re going to go, because the beginning is the set up and lays the groundwork. When you’re just starting, it can be hard to know where the story will take you.

Why do you write?
Stories are a way of trying to work out something in your own life. Writing is a kind of wish fulfilment.

Do you have any advice to writers?
Write something you really believe in, something that is meaningful to you.

Where do you get your ideas?
You have lots of ideas, but you end up writing about the ones that really grab you and maintain your interest over time.

Do your novels have common themes?
Yes. Some of my books are quite similar on the surface, but if you look deeper, you’ll find they are really quite different. There may be themes that overlap, but each book will also have something that makes it unique.

How do you structure your day?
I just sit down and do it. People who want to write sometimes ask me for tips, and I tell them to create a space. That’s what you need. A quiet space where you can shut the door and immerse yourself into the world you’ve created. Your characters live there, so that place really has to be there in your head.

What makes a writer?
It’s all about creating that space. Everyone can write one book – no, that’s not true, you need a certain command of language and mastery of craft – but everyone has a story in them. It’s when you can write more than one that you make the transition from someone with an interesting story to someone who’s a writer.

Is it difficult?
I don’t regard it as work, but it is – it’s very hard work. But it’s a wonderful feeling when it all comes together in the end.

Do you read a lot?
Yes, but I don’t read much fiction. I read mostly history and politics, and that’s where I get most of my ideas. People are often surprised when I say that, but it’s true.

How do you decide what age you’ll write for?
Your ideas naturally gravitate towards a certain age group.

Some books are really easy to read, like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, where the language is very, very simple, and every kid can read it, but yours are not. Do you have a particular type of child in mind?
No, I write for children generally, but the child has to be reader.

Has this proven problematic with publishers?
Only when I was first trying to get my work seen by a publisher. Sometimes people in the publishing industry love to put you down. An agent who read my first book sent the manuscript back with the comment: "No child would read this book unless they were physically restrained." But the first publisher who saw it wanted it.

Courses in writing for children teach that the main character should be 2 or 3 years older than the target reader, but I read one of your children’s book where the main character was an old man. How did you get away with that? Was it because you were already successful and respected in the field?
The book you’re referring to is Pincus Corbett’s Strange Adventure, and it worked because the main character, the old man, was actually very childlike and childish, so children could identify with him. But yes, you do have more leverage once you’ve already had some success.

Could you comment on what it’s like working with an editor?
The editor always comes up with something worthwhile. You do have to be discriminating in what you accept because the editor doesn’t have your vision of the book, but a good editor really does improve the book. A good editor identifies problems and inconsistencies, but they have to ‘get’ the book; they have to understand your vision.

Do you have any advice on self-editing?
The age-old “Murder your darlings” really is the best advice. You need to keep the big picture in mind. It’s the big picture stuff that really matters. If you find yourself insisting on a particular sentence, or detail, that’s probably the bit that will have to go. Also, you never really finish. Your book is not a final product – it's a snapshot – a frozen picture of where it was at the time it had to go to print – and at that point you let it go.

How does your own personality impact on your writing?
I’m very analytical, and this is not necessarily a strength. If you’re too analytical, your writing can become quite dry. There has to be an emotional, intuitive element to writing, so I have to be careful not to over-analyse.

You’ve won a lot of awards. What effect does winning an award have?
It increases sales.

What are you working on at the moment?
I’m currently writing a sequel to Darius Bell.

Would you ever consider writing for adults?
Yes, I have considered it, and I think at some point I probably will.

And that’s it, folks. Hope you found something useful in what this wonderful and successful writer had to say.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Did you Know

that the highly acclaimed children's author, Oddo Hirsch, will be speaking at Sunflower Bookshop tomorrow (Tuesday November 23rd) at 4.45 pm for a 5.00 pm start? Entry is free (and includes wine and cheese) but you must phone to reserve a place. Sunflower Bookshop is located at 434 Glenhuntly Road, Elsternwick. Phone: (03) 9523 6405. I'm looking forward to hearing what this very accomplished writer has to say.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Writing Class - On Character

Do you know the difference between characterization and character? The former concerns itself with outward appearances – physical attributes such as height, build, hair colour or complexion. It also encompasses physical idiosyncrasies, which may or may not be indicative of a mental state. Perhaps your character has a nervous tic, or twitch, or walks with a limp.

Beginning writers often mistake characterization for character, but characterization alone is never enough. Aristotle said that character is revealed in the way a person acts when under pressure. If you want to understand your characters, ask yourself what motivates your characters. What are their deepest desires and greatest fears?

It is only through understanding the inner workings of their psyches that you’ll manage to create characters that ‘leap off the page’ and live on in the reader’s imagination long after the story itself has ended.

If you want to write an uplifting story, you’ll want your characters to change over time. Allow them to overcome their demons in the end.

In the interests of consistency, some writers make the mistake of showing the same character trait over and over, in different ways, so that the story becomes repetitive, and the character is denied a chance to grow. They mistake repetition for character development.

You may, of course, decide that your particular story demands a character who doesn’t change, doesn’t learn, doesn’t develop – and that’s okay if it’s done deliberately to serve your story.

Generally speaking, though, it’s only through allowing your characters to develop that you’ll create the kinds of characters with whom readers will want to identify. Readers want to struggle alongside the characters. They want to experience the fear, the courage, and the triumph.

If you allow them to do this, they’ll think back fondly on these flawed but inspiring characters, and remember them as wonderful friends they have come to know.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

In Need of a Blog Doctor

My blog is feeling poorly, and as a result you may find yourself unable to post a comment. A huge thankyou to Jen Storer for alerting me to the fact that there's a problem. I was going to suggest that you email your comments to me and I'd post them for you. However, I've just discovered that I too am unable to post a comment - and on my own blog!

If any of you technological whizz kids out there think you know what the problem might be, and how I might solve it, I'll be eternally grateful if you let me know. (Megs, are you listening?) I trust that in the near future I'll locate a blog doctor who can give my blog some TLC and nurse it back to health. In the meantime, I hope you continue to read and enjoy my posts.

Monday, November 15, 2010

You don't have to like my book...

but please be honest about your objections. An article in this week's Australian Jewish News quotes Rabbi Kennard as saying that my book "bases its presentation of religious Jewish life on inaccuracies and distortions (and) celebrates dishonesty...( that it' s full of)
misrepresentations, one-sided depictions and polemical arguments."
Yet he is unable to point to a specific inaccuracy, distortion, or misrepresentation. The fact is, words such as these can't be applied to the portrayal of fictional characters. The characters in my novel are just that - characters - and the way they behave is well within the realm of possibility. Just because he personally doesn't know any haredi people like those I've portrayed (or claims he doesn't), doesn't mean they don't exist.

As for the accusation that Dancing in the Dark celebrates dishonesty - that's simply absurd. The protagonist is extremely tortured and conflicted over the fact that she deceives her parents, and does so only because there is no other way she can achieve her dream.

But fellow writers, know that there will always be people who don't like what you write. There will even be people who object to the fact that you write. Why else are there so many articles and posts drifting around the blogosphere lately that bag the whole concept of National Novel Writing Month, telling people not to bother?

Laura Miller has written a post about why NaNoWriMo is such a bad idea, and Carolyn Kellog has written a beautiful one about why she's wrong. Veronica Roth writes sensibly about why
not writing is an important part of writing itself.

My own view? There may be times when a challenge like NaNoWriMo will be just what you need. There may be times when you'll need to stop and think. Rewrite. Edit. Think some more.

The publishing industry is full of people who will try to discourage you. A few years ago I did work experience at a publishing house that had just decided not to accept any more unsolicited manuscripts. The publisher - a woman who had been at the helm of that company for many years - told me that there were enough writers as it was. And when I asked her whether she thought that perhaps newcomers should be given a chance, she said, quite simply: 'They shouldn't be writing.'

Imagine what wonderful books we'd be missing out on if all new writers took that advice. Don't let the publishing industry put you down. If you want to write, then persevere. There will certainly be those who don't like what you write, but they don't have to. Why not write to please yourself? And if you do manage to write something you really love, chances are someone else will love it too.

Monday, November 8, 2010

3 Ms - Me, Megs and Morton.

Today, at Megan Burke's suggestion, I went to hear Kate Morton at the Weeler Centre. First met up with Megs at Mr Tullk where we had cake for lunch (don't be fooled by the euphemistic "banana 'bread'") and discussed... what else?...writing and books.

 We talked about the need for story to determine the structure, and not the other way around (it's never a good idea to first impose a structure and then try to make the story fit) and interestingly, Kate mentioned, and agreed with, that very point.
She also talked about how she weaves together different timelines because her interest is not in history as such, but in how the past impacts upon the present.

Interestingly, she said that the 'contemporary' timeline in her latest book takes place in 1992, because it's easier for a writer not to have to take into account emails, mobile phones, and all the latest technology. To me this indicates a major difference between YA and general fiction. In YA fiction, 1992 would virtually be considered history, and 'contemporary' means right now, this minute, today. Publishers of YA fiction are concerned their books do not seem dated (unless they are intended as historical fiction).

Kate also read an extract from her latest book. It was beautifully written, beautifully imagined, and left the reader (or in this case, listener) wanting more. Over 3,000,000 copies of her books have been sold throughout the world, and though I haven't yet read any of them, I'm planning to now.

The controversy over Book Censorship at Mount Scopus College is still raging, with the article appearing as one of the four most popular articles on the online magazine. 76 comments so far, (including some very nasty ones about me) and the number is rising. Apparently, 94 people have posted it on their facebook page.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Ouch! I'm under attack!

Much as I was rearing to get back to working on my novel, it's a little hard to concentrate when I feel as though I'm dodging bullets. Don't know if any of you saw a tiny article in the Heckler (back page of The Age) on Sunday (October 31), revealing the fact that Dancing in the Dark has been banned from the library at Mount Scopus College. (You must be getting sick of hearing about it.)

The article did not go unnoticed by the editors of Galus Australis, an online 'forum for discussion and debate about Australian Jewish life'. Similarly, my session at the Melbourne Jewish Book Festival heightened the controversy. Galus Australis asked me for an account of what had happened, and also asked Rabbi James Kennard for his perspective on the issue.

In just 2 days, the issue has attracted nearly 50 comments. To read about, or contribute to, the debate, click here.

I haven't responded to any of the comments - I think the novel speaks for itself, and fortunately, a lot of people are arguing the case against censorship far more eloquently than I ever could.

I'll end this post with a question: Do you think censorship is ever justified, and if so, under what circumstances? Opinions welcome!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Done and Dusted, and That Second Novel...

Have finally completed all requirements towards my MA, which is a huge relief as I like to finish what I start. More importantly, I am now free to work on my novel. It was great getting back to my own writing after not having time to touch it for several weeks.

Writing novel Number 2 comes with its own set of problems - not so much in the writing itself as in the expectations, or percieved expectations, of the author. No one considered me a 'real' writer until my first novel was published. I knew I had it in me to write a novel, but as no one else knew it, no one expected anything of me.

It's quite different now. People regularly ask me when the second one will be ready, and how it's coming along. Given that the reviews of Dancing and Dark were overwhelmingly positive, I can't help wondering whether my second novel will 'live up to' the first.

I started about 4 different 'second' novels before settling on the one I chose. They all had potential, but with anything I write, I start out by exploring various story ideas, and it takes a while to find out which ones will 'stick'. I have to love the story. It has to be engaging enough to capture my attention for a number of years. I need a story with themes I can see myself discussing well into the future.

A question that presents itself is this: How similar to the first novel should the second one be? There are obvious problems if it's too similar - it will feel repetitive and not worth reading. But readers who've loved the first novel will want a degree of similarity - after all, there's a reason they're looking for another novel by the same author.

I once looked for another novel by an author who'd written a novel I'd loved - one of those wonderful British contemporary novels. I found one, but it turned out to be a spy novel I didn't enjoy, and failed to finish. It was so unlike the first novel that I thought it must be by a different author with the same name, but research revealed that it wasn't. It was the same author. Different genre.

Some writers (Sonya Hartnett comes to mind) switch markets and genres with remarkable ease, and every novel is a masterpiece. Others carve out a niche for themselves in a very specific market, and each book is a bit like reading more of the same. Most fall somewhere in between.

I'm hoping I'll get the balance right, and that readers will enjoy my second novel. (And sorry, I won't tell you what it's about until I have a completed draft and a signed contract.) In the meantime, I'm not going to worry too much about whether my second novel is too similar to the first or not similar enough. I'll just have to trust myself, and hope that I can come up with a second novel that I'll enjoy reading, and that others will too.

If you're a writer who's found that second novel problematic, I'd love to hear from you. If you're a reader with strong opinions about second novels, I'd love to hear from you, too. And if you have any idea why the bottom half of this post shows highlighted lines behind the text, please enlighten me. I'm still a blogging novice, especially as far as anything technical is concernd.