Ep 235 Animal farts on the NYT bestseller list. And meet children’s author Deborah Abela.

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In Episode 235 of So you want to be a writer: The saga of #Cockygate continues and the curious tale of how animal farts made their way to the NYT bestseller list. Discover a cool writing initiative out of a New York airport. Plus, how to find the next book that your kids will love. We also have a special offer for our new course Professional Business Writing. And you’ll meet children’s author Deborah Abela.

Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here, or listen to us on Stitcher radio.

Show Notes

Shoutout

The Westminster Initiative from Australia:

I was recommended this podcast by a colleague as I am an aspiring writer. As a consultant, I travel weekly & this podcast has been fantastic – particularly during long waits in international airports & 4 day drives to Canberra & back. Listen to Val & Al – it’s brilliant.

Links Mentioned

Thrills, spills, heartbreak…could YOU write a bestseller and win £20,000? Enter the Daily Mail first novel competition

The ‘Cocky’ Trademark Author Just Got Cockier

Writers are creating personalized stories for travelers passing through LaGuardia

Animal farts lift researcher’s book to NYT bestselling list

Your Kid’s Next Read

Professional Business Writing

Writer in Residence

Deborah Abela

Deborah Abela is the author of the Max Remy series, Jasper Zammit (Soccer Legend) and Ghost Club series and The Remarkable Secret of Aurelie Bonhoffen

Grimsdon and New City are her cranky novels about kids living in a climate changed world. She is also the author of Teresa: A New Australian.

Deb has won many awards for her books including the USBBY Outstanding International Book Award, KOALA, YABBA, Aurealis & Speech Pathology Awards and the Maurice Saxby Award for services to children’s literature.

In 2016, her book The Stupendously Spectacular Spelling Bee, which is now available in the US, introduced us to India Wimple. And her latest book, out now in Australia, is the sequel, The Most Marvellous Spelling Bee Mystery.

Follow Deborah on Twitter

Follow Penguin Random House on Twitter

(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

Book giveaway – invent a new Nobel Prize category

Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

Connect with us on twitter

@altait

@valeriekhoo

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Interview Transcript

Allison

Deborah Abela is the award-winning bestselling author of 25 books for children including popular series such as Ghost Club and Max Remy, picture books such as Wolfie: An Unlikely Hero, and thoughtful books such as the Grimsdon novels and Teresa: A New Australian.

In 2016, her book The Stupendously Spectacular Spelling Bee, which is now available in the US, introduced us to India Wimple. And her latest book, out now in Australia, is the sequel, The Most Marvellous Spelling Bee Mystery.

Welcome to the program, Deborah.

Deborah

Oh, hello Allison. Thank you!

Allison

All right, we’re going to go all the way back to the beginning, through the mists of time. So you were a writer for Cheez TV. And then your first novel was the first Max Remy book. What was the path from TV to novels?

Deborah

I did a communications degree first. And so I knew I wanted to write but wasn’t sure how. And then I stumbled into this job in television. I worked for a production house called Southern Star and worked mostly on adult drama. And then kind of shifted across to Channel Ten and was still doing adult drama.

But I was in this office, it was very serious, adult drama is very serious, and then I kept seeing this woman walk past my office with armloads of toys, Easter eggs… It just looked very, very exciting, whatever she did. So I kind of tracked her down and said, “what do you do?” And she said, “well, I’ve actually just started this kid’s show and it’s only a couple months old. And I want to really grow the show, basically, and I need an assistant producer. Would you like to do that?”

And I’d had no experience whatsoever in producing. But I thought, oh my gosh, that is it. I’ve been sort of stumbling towards where I want to go. But I knew adult drama wasn’t quite right. But when she said write for kids, I just thought, that’s it. That is the thing I want to do.

So for about seven years we wrote and produced and directed and organised wardrobe and flights – you do everything when you’re the producer of Cheez TV. And I think I did stay… So it was about seven years.

And the show went to air six days a week. So you couldn’t not come up with an idea. So this was brilliant practice for – I know you have nothing in your head right now but you have to do it because this show can’t not go to air. We can’t have black going to air. So it was a great way of just sitting down and thinking – I have to come up with something by the end of the session.

And so we did six scripts a week, six shows a week. And every week of the year. So we even Christmas, January… So you pre-recorded shows so you could actually get a holiday. So it just meant your workload doubled for a couple weeks so you could actually go on holiday.

So that’s sort of how I fell into the kids thing. But while I was writing for kids and realised that, oh this, I love this. This is really, really exciting. That’s when I wrote my first novel, kind of on the quiet, just secretly, to see if I could actually do it. And it mushed together all the things I loved about writing for kids TV. Fast and furious. Funny. But also my love of cartoons, because Cheez TV was a cartoon hosting show.

So that sort of all came together in a spy genre, which was based on my love of Get Smart. And I wrote it, pitched it to about six different publishers, most of whom said no, but one of whom said, in fact, “I love it, can you write more of these.”

Allison

Wow. So you were writing six scripts a week, and you also were on the sly, whilst you were also assistant producing and doing all of those things you were doing, on the sly you were writing Max Remy?

Deborah

Yeah.

Allison

So how did you fit that in? That’s a lot of output.

Deborah

I know. But that’s what writers do, don’t they? We all do it. You just, you squish it in. I woke up really, really early and wrote for a few hours. Then I went off to work and organised llamas.

Allison

As you do.

Deborah

That’s right. Trips to the snow or cameras for whatever. And then I’d come home and before, like straight after I got home, I’d work for a couple more hours. And then I’d maybe see friends or fall into an exhausted heap.

I was just… I just loved it. I mean, you’ll know this Allison. When you get an idea and it won’t let you go, you can’t let it go. It didn’t kind of feel like extra work. Like, oh no, I’m home from work, I’ve got to work again. It was… They were both fun jobs.

Towards the end of Cheez TV it just actually became quite exhausting and it was kind of fun to leave that sort of conveyor belt of writing for an idea I could spend a year or six months on one idea, rather than have six whole scripts in one week.

Allison

So did you go from… So once Max Remy had been picked up, did you go straight from full on here I am, six scripts a week, very, very busy TV job to writing fulltime?

Deborah

Yep.

Allison

Is that what you did? Wow. That’s a massive change of pace.

Deborah

It was funny. And it completely freaked my partner out.

So I just knew… You know when you get that first shot? Like someone signed me up. And the wonderful Linsay Knight who was at Random House at the time signed me up. And I thought, I can’t blow this. This doesn’t happen very often. And in fact it’s never happened to me. No one has finally said, yes, I love your book.

So I knew I had to actually dedicate myself to writing. And I gave myself two years. And thought, I will live on Vegemite sandwiches. But if I don’t treat this seriously, I’m going to blow it. And that sort of scared me more than anything. That I’d been given this amazing opportunity, a publisher would have faith in me, and I’d squeeze it in. I thought, no, no, this has to be the main thing. And everything else has to now squeeze around it. At least for a little while. If in two years’ time I’m still, you know –

Allison

Eating Vegemite sandwiches.

Deborah

– eating Vegemite sandwiches, then I have to reassess.

Allison

Okay. So you essentially followed the Easter eggs into a new career is what you’re saying?

Deborah

I did. I followed the shiny foil.

Allison

I like it. You know, there’s worse things to follow!

Deborah

I think so too.

Allison

So looking back on that, and with that sort of background, do you think that writing for TV set you up for writing for children in a lot of ways? Like, as you say, you have to come up with an idea. Or do you think sometimes all of those ideas is actually just really hard to manage when you’re doing a book as opposed to television?

Deborah

Well, it’s very different writing. And in fact, that was one thing I enjoyed about writing novels. It was a different way of writing where you could put much more thought and energy and time, literally time, into it.

But the few things that it really taught me was, yep, just sit down and do it. Stop talking about it. Just sit down. Because this has to happen. Crews are organised, flights, cars, actors, props, guests are organised. You need to present something to all these people waiting for you, right?

And the other thing it taught me was, because it was television, kids would email every single day and say – that was rubbish, don’t do that again. Or, wow, that was funny. Or, how come you haven’t done this for a while? Or, why don’t you do this? And so straight away you’d get feedback about how terrible you were doing, or what they wanted more of.

So this was the feedback, because of course we don’t get that while we’re in the middle of a novel. I mean, your editors or your lovely partners or your kids will say how much they love it. But this was good honest to goodness straight talking feedback.

Allison

Feedback.

Deborah

And that was great training for, okay, that doesn’t work. My adult self thinks that’s funny but obviously kids don’t find that very funny.

Allison

So how do you manage that, though, when you’re writing a novel and you’re not getting that feedback? Are you having to… Have you got yourself… Are you into that position in your head where you can go, you know what, I’d get an email about this. I’m not going to do that.

Deborah

Look, I’d like to think I’m a little bit better at it, at kind of gauging, actually, that’s my adult self thinking that’s funny.

But also I think as I’ve continued writing too, in fact I don’t think too much about the audience. I think more about the character and being true to the character and what would be the most exciting thing that this character could do next. So it actually becomes less about the audience.

And I remember hearing Markus Zusak once being asked a question about his audience. And he said, “oh no, I don’t think of the audience. They’re the furthest point from my head.” And I don’t know if he’d say it now. But he says my main obligation is to my story and to my characters and being true to them. So yeah, having written a couple of books now, I feel that actually to be more true.

Allison

So what’s your writing process then? Now that you obviously work fulltime as a writer. Do you write every day?

Deborah

I try to write every day, yep. And when I’m in the middle of a project, of course that’s easier. When I’ve just handed something in I do actually deliberately take a break where I don’t do anything. So I’ll just give myself, you know, it’s letting the fields lie fallow for a little while.

Allison

Moving the corn.

Deborah

That’s right. And that way, too, I find that ideas more naturally bubble up than me sort of trying to kind of shuffle them into a space. Because I find early days in a book, that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to shuffle ideas together. Whereas if I really let it just kind of grow, it’s more like the characters take over and the story takes over.

I don’t know if that’s how you feel when you are in that part of your process of writing. But I know a novel is working, or the story is working, when the characters do in fact seem to start to take over.

Allison

Yeah. I think you feel like you’ve hit the sweet spot of the story is unfolding as it’s meant to unfold. As opposed to you mixing and matching and trying to push things along.

Deborah

Yeah. Yes.

Allison

Yeah, I agree. When you sit down to write, do you have a routine? Is it a cup of tea in the morning and then you go, I’m going to do a thousand words? Or is it, I’ll just write for an hour. Is there an actual routine involved?

Deborah

Yeah. I get up and wash my face and then do yoga. And literally because it wakes me up. So we’ve got an attic in the house, that’s where my partner and I both work, and it’s nice and light and big and carpeted. And so I do some yoga stretching and stuff and I’m literally then awake and ready with a cup of tea and off I go.

So I try to be at my desk writing by six. And only because I don’t write at night very well. I can do it and I have done it, but mornings are way better for my brain.

And then if I’m at the beginning of a project, so my focus and my concentration isn’t as good yet, I do the pomodoro method. Do you know that one?

Allison

Yeah.

Deborah

Yeah. So I just literally sit down, time it. So for this stretch of time, I’m not allowed to do anything else other than write. And then when that time’s up, I can grab a cup of tea again or go to the bathroom or whatever.

I try also not to do any, not to look at the internet at all until midday. Because then you can’t fall down that rabbit hole of, oh, I’ll just quickly respond to my friends who asked me to a party this weekend, and then that becomes a whole chat about a whole other world. And then half an hour later you get back to you writing.

So I’m much more strict with myself early days into a project. And then as the project, as I get into it, I find I don’t have to do that stuff. I just do it by natural excitement for the book.

Allison

And with your pomodoro, do you do 30-minute bursts? Or do you do an hour? Or how do you split the time up?

Deborah

Again, early days, when I’m just starting, it’ll be more like a half an hour. And then it’ll be more like 40 minutes, and then an hour. And then often I get to the point where I don’t need it. I forget to even turn the timer on.

Allison

And are you only ever working on one project at a time? Or are you someone who flits between different projects or has lots of different ideas?

Let’s imagine you’re working on something right now and you have this genius idea for some other thing, because of course they always look so much more genius than whatever it is that you’re doing, what do you do with said genius idea? Do you follow it like the Easter egg foil? Or do you not?

Deborah

That is so true! Often I just think this thing I’m working on is a piece of garbage. But I’ve got this other brilliant idea! And so I do, I make time. And I’ll bang it out in whatever way; in a book or if I’m at the computer I’ll literally bang out a document, save it, put it on the desktop to remind myself later, oh that’s that genius idea I had earlier. And then keep going on the less genius idea that needs work.

Allison

And then you can come to the genius idea later.

Deborah

Yeah, that’s right.

Allison

And how long does it take you to write a book?

Deborah

I’m really slow. More and more, as I write, I’m actually putting more attention into the synopses, into the research, and getting prepared for it. Because then I find the story writes itself a little more easily. Whereas once upon a time, I’d have a meagre kind of synopsis and character ideas and breakdowns and stuff and then get into it.

I do actually write a chapter breakdown as well. And I think that’s from my TV days, from my TV drama days, where you did scene breakdowns. And even if it’s just a line. Chapter one, you know, Xavier breaks into a house, meets the kids of Grimsdon. Chapter two, they take him on… Whatever. Do you know what I mean?

Allison

Yeah.

Deborah

And one, it keeps me on track. It’s like a little metronome. And two, it makes sure that I have those beats in a novel where you’re building up to either – whatever language people use for it – but the first turning point, second turning point, my three acts are there. Everything, to make sure everything is headed towards the climax. And then I haven’t put an extraneous scene in.

And even for the novel that just came out, The Most Marvellous Spelling Bee, there was a chapter in there that I loved because it had such a beautiful moment between India Wimple and her grandma. And even early days my editor said, “I’m not too sure about this chapter and how it flows.” And I said, “I’ll rework it. Don’t worry.”

And so every single draft, hopefully the novel was getting a bit better, and I would rework that chapter. Until in the final workings of this book, I thought, you know what needs to happen to that chapter? Yeah, it needs to go! It just needs to get cut.

And I was keeping it because of that lovely moment for the character. But it wasn’t, it was actually getting in the way of the story. It wasn’t doing that lovely thing of being there for a reason. And I needed it to lead me to my climax. And so, bye grandma. I mean, I didn’t get rid of grandma, but I certainly got rid of that scene. And it just… It takes time. But also it’s that killing your darlings thing, isn’t it?

Allison

It is.

Deborah

Getting rid of lovely moments that you know are lovely but the book doesn’t need it.

Allison

But it does take you, as you say, you hang on to them for draft after draft after draft trying to kid yourself into the fact that it’s going to work, it’s going to be great. Don’t worry, it’s going to work. And then you eventually come to the point where you go, you know what? It’s got to die.

Deborah

It’s got to go. Bye!

Allison

See ya!

Deborah

It’s true. Oh well. And then it’s tighter. As soon as… Very often when I do this, I’ve done it even with characters, very often, the second after I do it I think, oh yeah, that works much better.

Allison

Do you always know exactly… Because you’ve written for a couple of different age groups. Do you know exactly which age group you’re writing for before you begin? Do you plan that? Or is it something that unfolds a bit as you start to write?

Deborah

I think it unfolds a bit. Yeah.

Look, I mainly sort of write for eight to twelve. But it feels like my books kind of skew more like, they might just go seven to eleven. Or they might go more like eight to 13. So they sort of roughly hang in that main group. But they are different. A book that then involves a seven year old is different to a book that is kind of hedging up towards a 13 year old, of course.

Allison

And do you have a word count in your mind before you begin? Are you aiming for a certain, you know, are you aiming at the 40 to 45 or the 50 to 55? Do you have an idea of how complex this is going to be before you start?

Deborah

Yeah, I do. The Spelling Bee books though were commissioned to be 30. They are more because I do get carried away. And so that’s what I needed to deliver or at least have as a ballpark. For some reason all my other novels are 46,000 words.

Allison

46? Precisely?

Deborah

Yeah.

[laughter]

Allison

I love it.

Deborah

I’ll get to the end of a novel, I’ll get to the end of ten drafts or whatever and think, yep, I think I’m done. Wordcount: 46. I don’t know why.

Allison

That’s hilarious.

Deborah

I don’t know if it’s in my head. Anyway, that’s the kind of writer I am. You’re getting 46. Unless you definitely want 30 and then I’ll give you 30.

Allison

You can have whatever you want.

Deborah

It’s true.

Allison

When you’re thinking up your next idea, do you have any sense of having to follow on from what you’ve already done? Because you’ve written 25 books. So I’m not talking about necessarily sequels, which we will get to in a minute. But as in the idea of children looking for a Deborah Abela book? Is that a thing?

Deborah

I… Because what I really, of course, just truly want to do and what I truly want to advise authors too is write with your heart out in front. Go with that idea that you dream about, you wake up, you think about it, with the characters who won’t leave you alone.

But it is, you know, after a while, kids do recognise you as a particular author with a particular kind of book. And even though my books might look sort of different, for me they’re all about kids trying to make their mark and facing these impossible tasks and having to stand up and realising they actually can stand up.

That is a consideration. What do I pitch next as Deborah Abela? And I guess that’s why sometimes authors of course change names if they’re bringing out a vastly different book. And I get that, I really understand why authors do that.

But that is absolutely a consideration. What Deborah Abela book is doing to be next. Yeah.

Allison

Yeah, it becomes part of it. Whichever way you look at it, you at some point become a brand, don’t you? In the sense of people are looking at the bookshelf and it’s like, oh, well, I have an idea of what to expect from Deborah. So that’s what we’ll go for.

Deborah

I think so. Yeah. And when you don’t have a marketing brain, especially, it’s also a tough one. But I get it. I get when people pick up one of my books, and even if they’ve read books before, I kind of get… Because I do it. If I pick an author who I’ve loved and then I pick up their latest book, I’m kind of looking for that same lovely feeling. Even if it’s a totally different story, I want to be in their good authorial hands again.

Allison

Very true. Well, speaking of good authorial hands, The Stupendously Spectacular – did you like my segue there? Are you proud?

Deborah

It was a nice segue! You’re a professional.

Allison

Look at me go. The Stupendously Spectacular Spelling Bee has been stupendously successful here in Australia, and of course is now off to the US, which is very exciting. Did you have a sequel in mind the whole time? Or is that something that has developed as the book has been so well received?

Deborah

Oh, no idea there was going to be a sequel. The Spelling Bee is about a very shy reluctant anxiety-riddled kid whose whole country town and beautiful family encourage her to enter a spelling bee. At the end, we find who wins. The end. That’s it, right. That’s it!

And so I remember, I work at a school one day a week in the library, and in fact – so, I’m not a fulltime author, of course, because I always forget about that little job – but I’ve been doing it ever since I left Ten just to still be with kids and still be in a library with books and stuff.

And I was there one day and these two little girls, Mia and Emma, came up to me and said, “oh we’ve just read The Stupendously Spectacular Spelling Bee. It’s great! What’s going to happen in the next one?” And I just looked at them and said, “well, there’s not going to be a next one. We know who won. That’s the end of the story. What could I possibly write about in a sequel?”

And they looked at me like I was the least smart adult they’d ever met in their life. “Um, the international competition!”

Allison

Of course. What were you thinking!

Deborah

I know! I thought, and I said to them, “oh my gosh, that’s genius. What do you think would happen?” And then they literally went away and came back with an A4 piece of paper. They’d really thought about it. This and this and the characters they could meet and the skulduggery that could happen.

And I said, “you know what, I’m going to take this to my publisher and see what she says.” And luckily Zoe Walton from Random really loved it and signed it up.

So thanks to Emma and Mia. And because I’m not very smart, obviously, and they are. So that’s how it came about.

And even though there wasn’t supposed to be a sequel – I mean, anyone who writes – you fall in love with your characters. And this is a particularly loving loveable gorgeous quirky family. And it was so nice to hang out with them again. I missed them. I realised when I was then – Random House said yes and it was signed up – I realised, oh goodie! I get to hang out with these people again. So it was really fun.

But no, it’s only here because of Emma and Mia.

Allison

That’s hilarious. So thanks to Emma and Mia and their fabulous plotting. What can we actually expect from India this time? Because you’ve done a huge, there was a huge character growth within that first book. Where do you go from that point? In the sense that, because of course it is a character, as most books are, it’s a character-driven story. And she’s had a huge amount of growth. And now she has to… What? What do you do?

Deborah

Exactly. That was the thing. Because she literally went from being so horribly terribly anxious in the first book. And that actually did come about with my work with kids over the years and I’ve noticed anxiety creeping into so many kids’ lives. And I thought, I’m going to do this. Because I’ve seen really capable beautiful amazing kids become swamped by this nervousness and anxiety.

So I thought that is one thing I do want to put in this book. But by the end, she does learn to go, actually, India – she’s got this voice inside her head that’s always really negative and terrible and at the end it kind of shuts up and goes away, because she kind of does literally stand up.

So what happens in a sequel? And so the mechanics of it, they get invited, the top three spellers from around the world get invited to the international competition in London. Which meant that I could take my top three characters from the book, spelling bee contestants from the book to London, which was fun.

But then it had to be about something else. And so in this one, there is a mystery. There is, you know, the spelling bee goes ahead, there are new characters to meet with their own trials and tribulations. There is some bullying that happens with some other contestants. And with one of them it’s with other kids. With one of them it’s with a parent that goes on. So there’s other different, I hope, interesting character arcs going on there too.

But what brings them all together is there is this skulduggery afoot and this series of accidents happen at the bee, and in the end the bee gets cancelled because it’s considered too dangerous to go on. But the kids smell a rat. So it’s up to them to then discover –

Allison

What’s going on.

Deborah

Yeah.

Allison

So you broaden the story, basically. You take it from a very personal growth story into a much larger broader platform, basically.

Deborah

Yeah. And whereas the first one is kind of about India really needing to trust herself, because her whole entire gorgeous country town trusts her, and she just has to find it within herself. This is more about this group of kids needing to come together and work on this as a team.

And for some of these kids, one kid in particular who is being bullied, he doesn’t have friends in his home, in his country where he’s from. And so this is another moment for him to kind of shine in a way he doesn’t normally in his own world. So they all have to come together and do it as a group.

Allison

It’s just interesting to see. Because it’s one of those situations where when you haven’t necessarily got that in your head right from the start and you’re faced with that issue of what do you do with this thing. It’s interesting. And as you say, broadening it out gives you so much more scope of what to do and where to go next, doesn’t it?

Deborah

Yeah.

Allison

So you’re very, very active in the children’s literature community, even winning the Maurice Saxby award for services to children’s literature. Do you feel that the job of a children’s author is not just to write stories but to get out there and foster that love of reading?

Deborah

Definitely. And for some people it doesn’t suit them and so, you know, people need to play to their strengths and do what makes them happy. Absolutely.

And I think… And because some of my books are a bit adventurous and derring-do and I particularly enjoy standing in front of either mixed audiences or a boy audience and saying, yep, I’m a girl, but here is my really exciting story that hopefully you’ll like because there’s swashbuckling and sword fighting and whatever.

I genuinely believe that kids love stories. That we know that there’s reluctant readers out there, we know that there are kids out there with not one book in their home. So when they’re at school, particularly in primary school, I think it’s all of our jobs, for those of us who write for kids, or parents, aunts, uncles, whatever, to try and get them while they’re young to have a love of books. Because I think it’s there. They just either haven’t found the right book yet, or they think books are daggy because they haven’t, again, found the right book yet.

So I adore it. I just, I love it! Like, I’ve had moments, any author has been to a school has had moments where you’ve thought, whoa, this is going to be tough. There was one time for example, I was in Alice Springs and about to launch into a session, and I had this little boy enter the room, walk up the middle of the aisle, he was the only one in the room at that point, and he stood right in front of me and said, “Hi, my name’s Jason. I’m always in trouble and I hate books.”

Allison

Awesome. Great. Nice to meet you, Jason.

Deborah

Fantastic. Then he sat down right in front of me. And I thought, all I could think of, I tried so hard not to laugh. Because it was so honest. It was so honest. But I thought, all I thought at that second was, I’ve got an hour. And in that hour my sole job is I’m going to make you maybe at least consider perhaps the possibility that stories might be fun and you might borrow a book from your library one day.

And every time I walk into a room I think that’s my job. I need to walk in like I’ve never told these stories before.

And I’ve had teachers say, wow, you get so passionate about it. And I just think, well, what’s not to get passionate about? We’ve got these kids’ future in our hands. And I think it is as big as that. If we create passionate readers, we are setting them on such a good path to whatever they choose to do later.

Allison

Well, you’re actually well known for your excellent presentations. It’s something you obviously do a lot and you do really, really well. How do you prepare for them? Do you just have the same thing that you roll out every single place you go? Do you have a selection of different workshops that you do? What kinds of things? What’s the key to doing a great presentation?

Deborah

It depends on the school. I think you have to keep it a bit fresh to keep… For yourself. For preservation, as well. And I know authors who’ve said, you know, I got half way through a presentation and realised I was bored. And very often at that point in their career they take a break from presenting. And they come back. And I think that’s a good thing. I think it’s good for them and probably for their kids as well.

So I always prepare. And like any teaching you do, so I’ve done a lot of workshops, of course, I have a whole bunch of things now I can do that you gather over the years. You trial stuff. If it works, you keep it, if it doesn’t work, you throw it away.

And I think as you do it a bit more until your confidence builds that even if I’m in the middle of something, that even if it worked yesterday but today is totally bombing, I’m confident enough now that I can quickly wrap it up and move on to something else.

And I always over plan, because that’s important. Just in case, well, one, they might get through what you want to do with them quite quickly. But two, yeah, it may not work for this group. You might be doing something that they’re not quite enjoying enough.

The key to a good presentation is, I think, enjoy the kids.

A couple of things. Prepare. Really prepare. Know your audience. Do all that lovely checking first of how many kids am I going to talk to, chat with the teachers or the librarian so that they’re getting, you know, you’re giving them what they hope they’re going to get. So do all of that preparation.

Even to the point of – where can I park? Will I have AV? If it’s a big hall, can I have a microphone? Because by the end of the day my voice is going to be, you know, cactus. So do all of that logistical planning. Do I need to bring lunch? Where is the best way to enter the school? Because you know how sometimes there’ll be five different entrances for the school, but you can’t go in that because it’s for the parents, and whatever.

So do all that practical stuff. But prepare then what you’re going to talk about. And even though I have done it for a while, I always have a point form somewhere nearby. So I’ll have a book with: I’m going to start with this, and then tell that story, then I’m going to show this AV, whatever. I may never look at it, but it’s almost like it just feels like a little security blanket. So that if I do have a blank because I’m tired or whatever I can just sneakily look at it.

And enjoy the kids. I can’t stress that enough. If you walk in and you’re smiling… Often while they’re coming in I’ll chat to them and say, wow, great glasses. Because I very often have glasses envy. Or I overhear them something and say, yeah, I watched that movie too. Wasn’t it great? So you become a human being and a real person before the session even starts.

I do things too, like I’ll listen out for teachers, if they say things like, “Jack! If you play up during this session blah blah blah…” And they tell Jack off. And then at the first chance I get I try and get a Jack –

Allison

A Jack reference in somewhere.

Deborah

Say something nice to Jack. I try to say, “Jack, I bet you’d have a great idea for that wouldn’t you?” So I try as soon as I can to try and build Jack up. Because Jack’s just been kind of torn down. And I haven’t been able to say anything yet. So Jack’s probably sitting there going, “stupid authors. Why am I even here?” And I just think, okay, as quickly as I can I’m going to try and see if I can get Jack to think, oh no, this actually might be okay.

So I think they’re my big tips.

Mix it up if you can. I mean, having said that, I’ve sat in sessions where authors have just spoken for an hour and I’ve been transfixed. So if you can do that, brilliant. I think the younger the audience, that’s tougher to do. I think with high school audiences you can do it, and I think that is fine. I’ve seen, oh my gosh, I’ve seen so many YA authors and literally there’s been a mic and them and a story for the whole time and it’s been genius.

But for me, because I mainly do… I do kind of kindergarten through to six. I mainly do primary school. The little ones I get them moving, I get very interactive. But the year three to year six, I’ll mix it up. Tell a story, ask questions, show a video, have a PowerPoint. I’ll try as much as I can to mix it up.

Allison

Okay. So do you think that face to face works best for children’s authors when it comes to building that platform, getting the word out about their books? Do you do any other sorts of promotion as well?

Deborah

I do… So the odd festival and PD sessions. I really love doing Professional Development sessions with teacher librarians. Because I find a lot of teachers of course aren’t authors. Even though you do meet aspiring authors. And so they’re at a bit of a loss of… I mean, some teachers, I’ve met teachers who don’t read. And then they have to teach kids to write.

So I love going in. I’ve got this 20 page handout that I’ve built up over the years and I just give it away. And so I’ll go to PD sessions, talk them through activities that I’ve done. And I invite them, please mix this up, use a different stimulus, whatever works for you and your kids. But if you’re passionate about this, if you base this sort of activity on your favourite book that you’re reading now, or your favourite book as a kid, then hopefully that passion will rub off.

So I love doing those kind of sessions as well.

Allison

All right. So we’re going to finish up today with our final, final, final question, which of course is always our final, final question, the infamous – can you please give us your three top tips for authors?

Deborah

Yes. I mean, there are of course a lot of tips.

But the first one is really put your heart in front. Go with that idea you love. Of course, what you love may not be what a publisher thinks they can sell, what the sales departments think will sell in bulk. But I think it’s really, really important to be led by your heart.

I’ve seen, I think I’ve seen too many authors along the way do both things. Do “I’m going to write this book because these are really selling right now” and it doesn’t work. Because their heart’s not with them. But I’ve seen other authors go, “you know what, I don’t know if this will sell, but I really desperately want to write this story.” And in some cases, it’s been their most successful work. And I think because the reader can literally almost hear their beating heart as they turn the pages. So that would be my number one.

Read as much as you can. I mean, I don’t think these are unique, these tips. But I think they’re tried and true. And read as many kids’ books as you can. I’ve met kids authors who don’t read kids books. And some are that “I don’t read it because I don’t want to copy”. Even sort of accidentally and subconsciously copy. And I get that. Or they don’t read in their genre. They largely write a particular genre so they never read that. But I just, I’m obsessed and I love it. And I can’t wait to read the next kids book and see what did they do and how did they do it? And how are they so brilliant?

And just write as much as you can. Fiddle and play. And play! That’s the thing, too. One author I met a little while ago, they were commissioned, they handed in this book, and there was a back and forth going on with editorial. And then the publisher finally said, “you know what is missing? I can’t feel the joy in this.” And she said, “that would actually be my ultimate editorial comment.”

And the author knew exactly what they were talking about. Because they were kind of going, “I have to get this right and why isn’t it getting right?” And she realised she’d put so much pressure on her, she’d forgotten to be joyful about this thing.

And yes, there’s pressure. We know it. There’s pressure. Will this book even sell? And if it doesn’t sell, will they sign up anything else I ever do because that didn’t sell as well as the other books and other authors. But you’ve got to push that away. Push insecurity away. Push that voice in your head that says, “this is rubbish. Why would anyone read this?” And try as much as you can to block all of that out and just have a good time with your characters.

And remember the reason that you got excited about this idea. That it may have appeared as a genius idea one day while you were in a project. Go back to that initial – oh! Gasping kind of wonderment at this idea. And try and stick to that, as hard as it is some days, try and always find it.

Allison

Fantastic.

Deborah

That’s it.

Allison

Thank you so much for your time today, Deborah. It’s been a wonderful chat. I really, really appreciate it. And of course The Most Marvellous Spelling Bee Mystery is out now for middle grade readers of Australia. And The Stupendously Spectacular Spelling Bee is out now for the middle grade readers in the US, which is very exciting. And we hope that India takes over the world.

Deborah

That’s funny. Well, you know, she’s not as shy anymore. I don’t think world domination is in her remit. But thank you so much, Allison. It’s been really, really fun.

 


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