Ep 287 Meet the multi-talented James O’Loghlin, author of the popular ‘New Kid’ series.

In Episode 287 of So You Want To Be A Writer: In this episode, you’ll meet the multi-talented James O’Loghlin. Learn why Allison is heading to the Whitsundays. Discover why you should write what you don’t know (yet) and hear about upcoming publishing opportunities. Valerie has banoffee and we have 3 copies of Six Minutes by AWC alumna Petronella McGovern to give away.

Click play below to listen to the podcast. You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Stitcher Radio. Or add the podcast RSS feed manually to your favourite podcast app.

Show Notes

Links

Allison is preparing for Whitsunday Voices Youth Literature Festival

Write What You Don’t Know (Yet)

Publishing Opportunities

Signs Of Life Anthology

Growing Up Indigenous In Australia

Writers in Residence

James O’Loghlin

James O’Loghlin is one of Australia’s most respected, entertaining and experienced corporate speakers, corporate comedians and media personalities, best known as the host of over 300 episodes of the much loved The New Inventors on ABC TV, and for his witty and entertaining programs on ABC Local Radio.

James O’Loghlin is the author of ten books, including six for children.

His popular series New Kid is published by Pan Macmillan. His latest book is The New Kid: Very Popular Me.

Follow James on Twitter

Follow PanMacmillan Australia

(If you click through the links above and then purchase from Booktopia, we get a small commission from this purchase. This amount is donated to Doggie Rescue to support their valuable work with unwanted and abandoned dogs.)

Competition

WIN ‘Six Minutes’ by Petronella McGovern

This podcast is brought to you by the Australian Writers’ Centre

Find out more about your hosts here:

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo

Or get social with them here:

Twitter:

@altait

@valeriekhoo

Instagram:

@allisontaitwriter

@valeriekhoo

Connect with Valerie, Allison and listeners in the podcast community on Facebook

So you want to be a writer Facebook group

Share the love!

Interview Transcript

Allison

Welcome to the program James.

James

Thank you. It’s great to be talking to you.

Allison

Excellent. All right. Now we’re going to go back to the beginning. What was the first book that you ever had published? And why did you write it?

James

The first book I ever had published was a slim children’s book called Andy’s Secret Weapon. And it was the early 2000s. And I was approached to write a children’s book. I didn’t know if I could. But it was only 5000 words. It was for the Hodder Headlines something series. Can’t remember. But it was about a kid who hated soccer because he was bad at it. And then worked out that he could find his place in the team by being really good at strategy and tactics, if he wasn’t that good at kicking.

Allison

And was this drawn from personal experience, James?

James

Oh yeah, a little bit. I wasn’t a great sportsperson at school. And I often felt a bit left out. But I thought that could be a way in for a kid to find his role in the team. We’re all good at something, aren’t we? And you sometimes have to struggle to find out what it is. And if you’re playing a sport, you think the thing you have to be good at is something physical, but maybe it can be something else. Something mental and tactical like it was for little Andy.

Allison

So when they approached you to write the book, this obviously came out of your TV presenter work? Is that why the approach was made?

James

Yeah, I guess so.

Allison

So when you were approached to write the book, had you ever written longform or even short form fiction prior to that? Were you someone who started writing as a kid? Or was it just a completely new experience for you?

James

Well, I’d always wanted to. I grew up as an only child and reading was very, very important to me. I used to do it all the time. And I always wanted to, more than anything else, write a book. But I always thought it would be too hard. I kept wanting to do it but getting distracted by things that were easier, like being a lawyer and stand-up comedy and being on radio and TV.

But I did have, at that time, like 40 or 50,000 words of a crime novel written that remains unpublished. Well, I haven’t finished it. I never finished it. But I had had a fairly significant go by that stage without having finished anything. Someone said, you can write this for kids. It’ll be 5000 words. I thought, well, that sounds much easier.

Allison

That sounds doable.

James

Yeah. And it was.

Allison

And so was a bit of a process for you? Did you just write those 5000 words and that’s pretty much what they published? Or did you have to do some work on structure and all of that kind of stuff with an editor?

James

Oh yeah, of course. With every book I’ve done lots of that. And I always think when I send it to a publisher, good, it’s perfect. And then you realise once they look at it and give notes that you initially reject and then about an hour later realise are very sensible, how imperfect your book was. And even if what I sent to the publisher was an eighth draft, it’s still nowhere near finished.

So each of the books I’ve written have changed a lot from sending to the publisher to being published with the help of great editors. Yeah.

Allison

So your books for adults – and I’m quite interested in this because as you said, you started out in law. And you even said that you’d begun writing a crime novel. Which I was kind of wondering about that. It kind of makes sense. But your books for adults tend to be in that nonfiction memoir self-help useful guide kind of stuff. And then your children’s fiction is everything from hilarious fantasy to straightforward contemporary funny books. So why do you write fiction for kids and not for adults?

James

Oh well I will. And I am. And I’ve tried. So my next book, I hope, the one I’m working on now will be a novel for adults.

But I started off thinking writing for children… I mean, I don’t know if this is a common thing or not with the writers you talk to, but I found writing stories incredibly hard. Very satisfying, but incredibly hard. And I started off with what I now realise is a misguided notion that writing for children might be easier. Now, I don’t think it is easier. I think you’ve got to be just as clear structurally. I don’t think you can just write some amusing things with a nice character and some big monsters and kids will buy it. It’s got to be really tight and really good to get kids to turn the page.

But that’s the notion I started with. That writing for kids would be easier. And also when I started writing my last couple of novels for kids, which was about 2010 – 2011, by then I had three girls who would have been aged eight, five and two. And I thought, wouldn’t it be great to write a book I could read to them. So that really was a very strong motivation.

And we’ve gone through the process with each of my kids’ books of them reading it or me reading it to them. And happily, that’s been just as great an experience as I’d hoped it would be. I think it’s really, you know, very worthwhile. Even if the books don’t sell one copy, doing that’s fantastic.

Allison

Are they a little stable of beta readers for you? Are you reading them manuscripts and drafts? Or are they reading the finished thing? Are you getting told where the boring bits are, like I do?

James

Definitely. Definitely. They’re very kind in that they let me, or they read the finished thing when it arrives. But there’s at least one draft where I think I’m nearly ready to send to the publisher, I read to them. And when they get bored, I punish them.

Allison

Clearly.

James

No. I take a note. It’s a great opportunity to get some feedback from your potential audience. Which are my kids. And if they’re bored then they’re bored. And I’ve got to fix it.

When I was reading – I’m not very good at description. I was reading a bit where I described a forest. I’m not very good at description because I’m very impatient and when I read books with lots of description I always skip it. And one of my kids… But I painstakingly spent a page and a half setting up this forest. And I tried really hard and found it very difficult. And I just wanted to say it was a forest but I thought I should do more than that. And my daughter immediately just went, you know, I was reading this description and she said to me, dad it’s a forest! We get it. Okay. Forest. Tree. Move on!

Allison

Move on!

James

So that was good. Because I realise that maybe my tendency to not write that much description isn’t a bad one. And also I couldn’t say, no, no, you have to enjoy my description of the forest because I spent a long time doing it. If your audience tells you they’re bored, you’ve got to fix it. So yeah, it’s great having them there as that resource.

Allison

Fantastic. Okay, let’s talk about how you go writing a first draft then for one of your novels for children. Do you start with a situation, a character? Is it some kind of funny little thing that strikes you? What’s the process like for you?

James

For example, my first long book novel for kids is called The Adventures of Sir Roderick, the Not-Very Brave.

Allison

Which is hilarious.

James

And all it started with was the idea of the cowardly knight. And I thought that was kind of interesting. Because a knight, in the fantasy world, their job is to go and save the kingdom. But if you’re a coward, that means the last thing you want to do is to save the kingdom. So I started there with just a situation. A cowardly knight.

And then every bit of information that you have suggests more questions. So for example, a cowardly knight saving the kingdom suggests these questions: why would a knight be a coward? He must have been made a knight. He wouldn’t have picked it. So you have to work that out. What’s his saving the kingdom from? Why is he going to be able to do it if he’s a coward? Where does he go? What does he do?

So as soon as you start with something, you’ve got all these other answered questions. And you just basically work through trying to answer them, and then when you’ve answered them you’ve got a whole heap of more questions to answer. And I feel like you just keep doing that. Just keep writing yourself into unknown situations and then try and shine a torch around and find out more about where you’ve gotten yourself.

Allison

You sound like you’re building a case. You realise that, don’t you? But then you ask these questions, and then you get more questions, and then you need answers to those questions.

James

Yeah.

Allison

But it’s a very logical process for you then, from that perspective.

James

I guess so. I think the most important thing for me in a book is… Well, two things. It’s got to be entertaining. But also the story has to make sense. You’ve got to be able to stress test the story. I think we’ve all seen films or read books where at some point something happens that probably you don’t really understand why it happened. Which for me, if I lose faith in the story then I wander why I’m reading the book. And I’ll often put it down.

I like putting lots of jokes and entertainment and interesting obstacles in my books. But I also like the story to be something that could have happened.

Allison

So are you doing all of this work on the story before you start writing? Or are you doing it as you’re writing? Is that process, okay, I’ve got an idea. I’m going to start writing and see if I can answer the questions as I go. Is it more of that sort of discovery aspect?

James

No, it’s all mixed in together. Say you’re really hungry and you come across an apple tree, you’re just going to grab the easiest apple to grab. So say I had this idea for a cowardly knight trying to save the kingdom, I’d just write down whatever I could about him. Maybe start writing the story and wonder where it would go. And have a lot of unanswered questions and write them down. Why would he be a knight and where is he going? What’s that? And keep asking. But then maybe I’d have a clear idea of something that’s going to happen later.

Probably a good example is my latest book, The New Kid: Unpopular Me. Which is number two in a series. They kind of come together, those books, as a series of jokes. Like I want there to be two or three laughs at least on every page. And they’re vaguely based on my own childhood, growing up in Canberra. At least that’s the starting point. And I just try to think back to everything funny or embarrassing that happened and make them all funnier and more embarrassing. And then when I’ve got 20 or 30 incidents like that, see how I can string them together as a story. And then as that goes on, find more of a story within them. Because a book can’t just be 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 hilarious incidents. They have to be strung together as a story.

So I’ve kind of done that one backwards. I’ve started with the incidents and then created a plot from them. Whereas the other ones I’ve kind of done forwards, if that makes sense.

Allison

No, that does make sense. And it was a question I was going to ask you actually. Because obviously the humour of those books… So I gave the books, both of them, Unpopular Me and Very Popular Me, and this is your new kids series, to my 12 year old, who loved it.

James

Ah great.

Allison

Yeah. So Sam’s eleven, Sam’s trying to be popular. And he’s happily reading book two right now. But he reviewed the book for me, he and his brother have a book review site called BookBoy.com.au. And he reviewed the book. And the thing that made me laugh about it was that he described the humour as laughing on the inside humour. Which I really like.

James

Oh yeah. Someone sent me the review. I read it. It was very nice.

Allison

Yeah, which I really liked. So my question with that was do you, as you said, you came up with 20 or 30 jokes so to speak and then you put the story around them. But is that the way you go… So with Roderick, you didn’t work like that?

James

No, that was more story-based. That was more what can happen in the story? Where can he go? What are his obstacles? How can he find the bravery to do the things that need to be done? How can I twist everything halfway through the book so that everything you thought you knew actually might be premised on a lie? So I guess that was probably more of a traditional plot creation.

When I was growing up, and still, I love those books that two thirds of the way through there’s some revelation that makes you think oh my god! Everything I thought about that character is wrong. They’re not a baddy, they’re a goody. Or they’re not a good, they’re a baddy. Or something. And so I’ve tried to do that with the three longer kid’s novels that I’ve written because I love that.

So there’s a lot of plot construction. It comes very, very gradually and you go up a lot of false, follow a lot of false leads that don’t really lead anywhere until you actually find the thing that is surprising but is also coherent and works for this story. That’s why I try and do.

Allison

But the other interesting though is that the humour is present even in the other books, which are not a series of jokes strung together. The humour is present. So do you think that stems, is that just your natural writing voice? That’s just your… Are you looking for the funny in things? I mean, you’ve got a cowardly knight, which is always going to be fairly amusing from the beginning, right?

James

I think you’ve got to look for it.

Allison

And you had a talking dog as well, right? In one of your…?

James

Yeah. No, I think you’ve got to look for it. I used to be a stand-up comedian. And sometimes I teach people public speaking. And they say, how do you be funny. And I say, well, just keep looking for it. Everything you say, think, is it possible to twist this a bit so it’s a bit funnier and less straight.

And you do that with your book. You can write a scene that is very straight. You know, a person goes in for a job interview and there’s certain things that need to be accomplished in that scene to move your story forward. And you can write it straight the first draft. But then you say, okay, how can I make it more interesting? How can I make it funnier? And if you look hard enough, there’s always jokes to find or little funny situations. If it’s someone interviewing someone for a job interview, there’s a power imbalance you can exploit to find humour. Or maybe one of them has got a bit of tomato sauce from lunch on their chin that’s preoccupying the other one. If it’s something you’re always looking for, you’ll find something.

Allison

So you can edit the funniness in, basically. Like it doesn’t necessarily have to come from your natural writing voice in the first place?

James

Yeah. I guess so. Probably if you’re writing a story… Like at the moment, I’m writing a novel, a book for grown-ups.

Allison

A book for grown-ups!

James

Yeah. I find myself writing scenes and saying, okay, that’s a first draft and it’s functional. That does what I need it to do. But how can I make it better? How can I make it more interesting for a reader? How can I give them a few laughs along the way? And going back and doing another pass at it for that purpose. So yeah, I think you’re right, what you said about editing it in.

Allison

Okay. And so when you’re writing for children, how much do you rely on personal experience for what kids find funny? As in drawing on things that you found funny or your own experiences. And how much would be research from observing kids and other books in the marketplace?

James

Oh, 100 and zero. No, they’ve all been my own. I have three kids at home, so I guess I observe their sense of humour every day. But I really think the differences in the sense of humour between a 12 year old and a 50 year old are over emphasised. Funny is funny.

Like we have, and I know lots of families who have sitcoms they watch together and they all laugh. Things that are made for grownups, like Brooklyn 99 or Parks and Recreation. My youngest, and she’s 11, and she watched those shows when she was a bit younger than that, her favourite show is The Office, the American Office. Which is deadpan quite sophisticated humour. And I think that’s very common, particularly these days now that the Netflix has allowed anyone to watch anything.

There’s only one real type of humour and that’s funny humour, I think. You can break it down lots of different ways. But something is either funny or it’s not. And if it’s funny, a 70 year old will laugh and ideally an eight year old will laugh. I mean, there’s a bit of a difference, of course, but I think it’s overrated.

Allison

Fair enough. All right, so switching gears a little bit, you have a very busy multifaceted career. You’ve got a fair bit of stuff going on there. How do you make the time to write your books? Are you someone who sets aside time every day? Or how do you go about it?

James

I try and set things up so there is time. When I first started, when I wrote my first novel for kids in about 2010/11, so Roderick, I just made one rule. And that was you’ve got to write for an hour a day. And the way I decided to do it was just not to watch television. Because after we put all the kids to sleep, we used to kind of collapse in front of the TV for an hour. And often watch something that was… I think that was before Netflix. Back in the dark ages when you just watched whatever was on.

So I said, okay, between 9… It would be pretty stupid to write a kid’s book and take time away from being with my kids, it would be kind of dumb. So I remember that after they go to bed, I’m going to do it for an hour. Nine til ten. And I’m a big believer in rules. That is, if you make a rule, you don’t have to agonise about whether you do it or not. You don’t have to think, should I write my book now or am I too tired? Gee I had a really busy day. You don’t have to go through any of that kind of self-talk and negotiating. You just say, well, the rule is you’ve got to do it for an hour or do and you haven’t done for an hour today, so that’s the next thing.

Allison

So you’re very tough on yourself?

James

No. I think it’s actually easier. I think it’s really tough on yourself to continue to negotiate about whether you should do something or not. To say, should I write now, should I not write now, I’m too tired, I should watch some crap telly because I’m sure that’s better for me. It’s just easier to have a rule and to follow it. That’s how I get things done, anyway. It just turns off all the arguments you have with yourself.

So that’s kind of how I did that. And now I just… I can write anywhere. I write on planes and taxies whenever. So I just do it whenever I’ve got nothing else on.

Allison

Just fit it in?

James

Yeah. And try and be… The other things I do, I’ll… What’s the word? Capricious, maybe.

Allison

I like it.

James

They come and they go and you think something’s going to happen and it doesn’t. And the great thing about having writing as a backstop is I have this job that suddenly falls through and gets cancelled or whatever. And I think, oh, that’s bad. But I’ve got more time for writing. As an emotionally stable artist would do. There’s always someone that needs me even if it’s just a document on my computer that might one day turn into a book.

Allison

So you have a longstanding interest in innovation and invention. You’ve presented television shows, written books, etc. What is it that draws you to that subject?

James

Well, I’m kind of fascinated by how we do things better. By how we… I guess, whatever your job is, you’ve got the choice to turn up and do it the way it was done yesterday. And a lot of us do that a lot. And that kind of works most of the time. Or to think about how we can do it better.

And I find whenever I’m writing a book, every morning I’m confronted by a blank page, which is every writer’s terror, because there’s nothing on it. You don’t know what’s going to be on it. But what it does, it kind of forces you to be innovative. If at the end of the day the page is full it’s because you’ve created something that may be good, may be terrible, but you’ve created something. So it forces you out into the unknown. You can’t write any sort of book without doing that.

And I work with organisations now trying to… It’s interesting, they all know, everyone who works in an organisation in corporate Australia knows, that the pace of change is really fast. And if they keep doing things the same way they will go kaput. So they know that intellectually. But they keep getting side-tracked by doing the urgent over the important. So the urgent is whatever crisis happens today, whatever problems happen today. And they’re all important, but they have difficulty finding time to invest in working out how to do things better for tomorrow. And I think that’s a mindset thing.

I said to you that I find rules really easy. I try and tell people at work the same thing. Just make it a rule that five minutes every day you’ve got to think about how to do things better. Just 1% of your time.

Again, I think good intentions aren’t very useful. Whether you’re writing or if you want to think about how to make a business better. Good intentions are great at a conference, but they fade as soon as you get back to work and have 87 emails to answer. So I try and give them really clear methods to help them do that.

Allison

All right. Well, on that, the media is full of stories about how we need to teach our kids to think creatively and innovatively for the future.

James

Yeah.

Allison

Do you have any tips for parents who might be listening on ways that they can encourage their kids to do that? To think creatively? How do you teach someone to think creatively?

James

I think it’s natural. I think our job for the first five years of our life is basically to be creative and innovative. We just roam around making stuff up. We have a stick and we create this wonderful game out of it. So I don’t think kids have to be taught. They just have to be given the opportunity to. These days, when a kid says I’m bored, parents tend to cluster around. But if you pretend you can’t hear them say that, then probably you’ll find that in five minutes they’re doing something creative because they’ve had to.

It’s easier to play with an iPad than it is to invent a game. But if you can’t play on an iPad then the only option is to invent a game. So I guess, give them – and I’m not the first to say this – give them space. Like I tell adults when I talk to them about innovation, none of us don’t have the ability. We might be out of practice, but we all can be creative and innovative. And the first few years of our life proves that.

Allison

Do you think that… You said earlier that you were an only child and you read a lot. Do you think that your interest in all of this stuff stems from having to have entertained and amused yourself?

James

Yeah. That makes sense to me. Definitely. Yeah.

Allison

Excellent.

James

Well done.

Allison

I’m glad we got that sorted.

James

What do I owe you?

Allison

I’ll send my statement.

James

There’s a continuous straight line that’s fallen into place. But yeah, that does make a lot of sense.

Allison

All right. So we’re going to finish up today. It’s been absolutely great talking to you. We’re going to finish up now with our final questions, which is always your three top tips for writers. And I am of course expecting innovative and creative tips, James. So no pressure.

James

Um, okay. So the first tip if you want to be a writer is start somewhere with a tiny little thing. Start with a situation. There’s a knock on the door. A kid walks to school and sees a big hole. A kid comes home and his parents are gone. Just start with something. And then there’ll be all sorts of stuff that you don’t know. So find out. If someone knocks on the door, who is it? Friend or foe? What does the kid do? Does she run away or does she answer the door? If she answers the door, what happens? So just keep asking those questions. And the good thing is, you can’t be wrong when you answer. Whatever you say is right. Even if you find you’ve written yourself into a corner you can’t get out of, then you just back up. So the first one is start with a situation.

The second one is be cruel to your characters. Keep making things worse for them. Don’t kill them or else your story might over, unless it’s a ghost story. But just think about what’s the worst possible thing that can happen to them. And don’t worry about getting them out of a situation at first. You just get them into lots and lots of trouble. You’ll work out a way how to get out of it later on. So just keep raising the stakes and keep making things unpleasant for them.

And the third one, and this is probably the hardest one, is… Well, there’s two. Can I do four?

Allison

Yeah, you can do four.

James

I’ll do the last two very quickly. The third is try and turn off the little voice in your head that’s telling you it’s great and telling you it’s terrible. It just is. So we all have a common little voice that tell us all the time, that was great, that was terrible. While writing, it’s really loud, that voice. That’s a terrible sentence. And sometimes you’re writing things at night and it tells you it’s terrible, and you read it back the next morning and it tells you it’s great, or vice versa. So just try not to listen to the little voice. Just do the work.

And the fourth one is, I promise anyone listening, that if you start a story and you keep not stopping, you will eventually finish it. The only thing you need to do to finish a story is to keep not stopping. If you stop, you won’t finish it. But if you don’t stop, eventually you will complete a story.

Allison

Fantastic. And they were innovative and creative, so thank you so much for those four brilliant tips.

James

Oh good.

Allison

And thank you very, very much for your time. Best of luck with the amazing new kid series. Book two is out now, very soon. And we look forward to seeing what you come up with next.

James

Thank you. It was a great pleasure talking to you.

Allison

Thank you.

 


Comments