NORMAN’S TOP WRITING TIP: Give it a go. What have you got lose, other than a little dignity and a small hit to the self–esteem if your story is not accepted?
Norman Jorgensen is one of Western Australia’s most versatile authors for young people, with 10 books published, including the highly regarded In Flanders Fields, and several more nearing completion. He is one of only three Western Australians ever to have received the prestigious Children’s Book Council Book of the Year Award in its 60-year history. He has been short-listed twice for both the WA Premier’s Book Awards and the WA Young Readers’ Book Awards and he has been honoured by the ASPCA Henry Burgh Awards in the United States.
Norman was born in Broome in 1954 when his father was the sole Post Master General Department’s Technician for the entire North West and lived there, blissfully, until his father was transferred to Mullewa then Narrogin and eventually Perth, where he now lives with his wife Jan, an enthusiastic children’s book devotee.
He has a deep love of books and literature and has worked in the book trade for much of his life, as a school book seller, publisher’s agent and as a bookshop owner, where he experienced the dubious joys of small business ownership.
His novel Jack’s Island, set on Rottnest Island during World War II has been well received, not only by teenagers who study it at school, but also by their parents and grandparents who seem to appreciate the way he accurately captured a simpler, more gentle Western Australia. His picture book with James Foley, The Last Viking has been well-loved by thousands of children and has won six awards. The sequel The Return of the Last Viking will be published in October 2014.
Norman is proud that his books are nearly always set firmly in Western Australia in a landscape that is recognisable to his readers and pleased that his young fans are still able to enjoy his work even though it is not set in Springfield, a rather unusual English boarding school, nor vampire-invested Forks, Washington.
For information about Norman and his books, visit normanjorgensen.com.au or http://www.fremantlepress.com.au/authors/262/Norman+Jorgensen?PeopleGroup=3
Why do you write? I love the creative side of the story making. I love seeing how a single word or a sudden flash of just one small idea can grow and expand until the sentences, paragraphs and chapters all add up to become a recognisable book with interesting characters and setting and conflicts. Jack’s Island developed from hearing someone being called a dafty. A Fine Mess was sparked by a poster of old comedians Laurel and Hardy hanging perilously off a building. The Last Viking was sparked years before when my nephew added horns to his bike helmet, but not developed until I saw James Foley’s illustrating style and asked if he would draw a boy Viking.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer? Judging by my recent efforts, I’d probably be a Professional Facebooker. I gather the working conditions and annual holidays are reasonable, but the wages are virtually non-existent.
What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published? Trying to think and sound like a real12 year old and one who was 12 now, and not my vaguely remembered version of what it was like when I was that age. If my story was going to appeal to the audience I was aiming at, I had to get that basic problem sorted first off. So often I would add in references that amused me but no modern kid would have any idea at all. When the first manuscript had its 1960s gloss removed, and did not sound condescending, it had a much better chance of being considered for publication.
What’s the best aspect of your writing life? I really like living in a magical made-up world with imaginary friends (and enemies) who I can actually push around. When I’m bored or alone, I love being able to drift off into my head to my latest pretend landscape and watch what my characters are all up to. I don’t have as much control over them as you would expect, and I’m often surprised to see what they do and what happens next. They can be such an obstinate bunch of man-made souls.
Working with an illustrator can be a genuine pleasure, and I am amazed at seeing how someone like illustrator, James Foley, can take a whimsical idea we have thrashing about, and with a few quick sketches, suddenly give it life and the possibility of a whole new saga. I find the illustrating process fascinating, and being involved has been an unexpected part of the joy of my profession.
And I especially love seeing a new book come out and holding the printed, bound pages with a striking cover for the very first time. It is a wonderful feeling.
I like sharing the reaction from audiences of school kids when I read something that appeals to them, and their excitement at meeting me. And I like the special way I get treated by strangers when I say I’m a writer. It is almost a pity my family and friends see just the real me.
And I especially love the happy band, we happy few, of other children’s book creators in this state with whom I hang about. Their talent is contagious and they are all so generous in their support of each other.
—the worst? Everything else that comes with job – the self salesmanship needed, rejections, having to edit, or be edited, the constant lack of money, writing unsuccessful jargon-filled grant applications, staying in seedy country motels, the uncertainty of knowing if a manuscript is any good or not after having just spent months working on it, revising a story over and over until can’t stand it anymore and can almost recite every damn word, days when only the wrong words land on the screen, being beaten at awards by books you privately think are not that good, reviewers who think all children’s books should convey a message or a moral lesson… Stop me now as I’m sounding like a sad and embittered old man.
What would you do differently if you were starting out now as a writer? I would treat my writing more like a business than a hobby and really work harder at it. I would go to typing school, and I would pay more attention to my English teachers at school, especially on the days we did grammar. I would travel more when I was younger so that I’d have more experiences to write about. I would listen more to everyone around me and pay more attention to all my senses. I would read better books, and more of them, so as to learn more from the literary masters and great storytellers. I would learn patience, because the publishing trade is so unbelievably slow and every aspect of the process takes forever.
What do you wish you’d been told before you set out to become an author? Writing it not just fun, but takes a lot of effort. Like all creative endeavours, it is said real skill needs a minimum of 10,000 hours of practice. At 20 hours solid writing each week, it will take 10 years to reach that figure, and even then success is not guaranteed, it just gets a little easier to find the words.
I wish too, I had been told how much work and time is involved that is not actual writing but promotion.
What’s the best advice you were ever given? Carry your notebook at all times. Ideas are fleeting, so need to be written down the minute they pop into your head as they will often never reappear. Great sentences can also arrive at such unexpected moments that unless you write them down they will be lost forever.
Write your own story and don’t try following trends. By the time your book is ready, the current trend for vampires or wizards or angels or horse stories or whatever will probably be passed and your book will look a bit sad and unloved on a bookshop shelf along with the other unsold copies of clones of Hunger Games.
And secondly, use two characters who talk to each other so that their dialogue can push the story along, instead of writing great long passages of descriptions and sentences that include, and then she… went….did…said, etc. This is actually another way of saying, show, don’t tell.
Thirdly, try not to take rejection too personally. Pick ya’self up, dust ya’self down, start all over again, and send your story to another publisher, and another and another.
The Last Viking by Norman Jorgensen (Illustrated by James Foley)
Young Josh is afraid of everything – he isn’t brave like the mighty Vikings his Pop tells him of. One day Josh decides to become a fearless Viking too. He calls himself Prince Knut, builds his own armour and sails a dragon-headed longship through stormy seas. When bullies threaten Knut, he must find the courage to defend himself – and lucky for him the Viking Gods, Odin and Thor, have been watching. They won’t let one of their own stand alone…