Ep 241 Who writes fortune cookie messages? And meet Ali Berg, co-author of ‘The Book Ninja’.

Share on Pinterest
Share with your friends










Submit

In Episode 241 of So you want to be a writer: Meet the guy who writes the messages you find in fortune cookies and learn about real estate copywriting. And we chat to Ali Berg, co-author of The Book Ninja.

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

Omwriting from UK :

I am working my way through the library of old podcasts. Great chat, great advice and fantastic interviews. Love it.

Links Mentioned

Meet the guy who writes your fortune cookies

Real estate copywriting

Writer in Residence

Ali Berg

Ali Berg is a creative writer with over six years experience working in both London and Melbourne. She’s delivered fully integrated campaigns for some of the world’s most loved brands including Mercedes-Benz, ghd, The Body Shop, Cadbury, Good Friday Appeal, Samsung and more. She’s worked for both in-house and award-winning agencies including Leo Burnett, Grey Possible, CHI, The Red Brick Road and The Body Shop’s in-house creative studio. She’s also the founder of the Australian community initiative, Books on the Rail.

She co-authored The Book Ninja with Michelle Kalus, published by Simon and Schuster.

Follow Ali Berg on Twitter

Follow Simon and Schuster 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

Competition: Win double passes to the new film, “The Breaker Upperers”

Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

Connect with us on twitter

@altait

@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

Valerie

Thanks for joining us today, Ali.

Ali

Thanks for having me.

Valerie

Now, you have written a book, well you’ve co-written a book, The Book Ninja. For those readers who haven’t got their hands on the book yet, tell us what it’s about.

Ali

The Book Ninja is about a girl called Frankie who lives in Melbourne and she’s unlucky in love. And she uses her one true love in life, books, to try and find the perfect man of her dreams. So she leaves books on public transport with a note in the seventh last page trying to find a man with the same book tastes as her.

Valerie

Now, this is really, really interesting because you first came on our radar when you started Books on the Rail. And we spoke about you on the podcast, we did a blog post about Books on the Rail. Just for people who don’t live in Melbourne, and who may not be familiar, tell us a bit about Books on the Rail and how in the world it all started.

Ali

So Books on the Rail is actually… The Book Ninja is Books on the Rail come to life. Books on the Rail is a community initiative that I started with my friend and now co-author Michelle Kalus. And we started that in 2016. And we basically put books on public transport for people to find, read and then return.

At the moment we have about 5000 books circulating all over Australia, and 1000 book ninjas, which are people who help plant the books on public transport all over Australia as well.

Valerie

So why did you start this?

Ali

So I started it, I actually was living in London in 2014 and 2015 and I met a girl called Holly and I was friends with her and helped her to start Books on the Underground, which is the London version. And I thought it was such an Australian idea, such a Melbourne idea. And when I moved back to Australia in 2016, I brought it back. And then approached my friend Michelle who is a huge book lover as well. And we started it then.

And we just started by planting our own books on public transport, books from second hand bookstores. And then we were so lucky that publishers got wind of the idea and started sending us boxes of books for us to drop on public transport. And now we’ve got a whole crew of a thousand book ninjas around Australia that are dropping their own books all around for people to find and read and then return.

Valerie

So how do you determine which books you are going to leave on public transport? And also, is there some kind of system as to – you always put it on the second row of the left side? Or just put it anywhere?

Ali

No. So it’s completely random. We just put it on any bench or any seat. Preferably one that people aren’t already sitting on. And it’s basically, we just really put all different sorts of books.

The beauty of it, I think, is that we’ve put a whole lot of different books of different genres and different types. And a lot of people actually post on social media saying that they found a book of a genre that they wouldn’t usually read. Say historical fiction, and they usually only read non-fiction. And then really discovering that they like that genre and then reading it from then on.

Valerie

That’s fantastic. And is there any way to track where the books go? Or how many times they’re read? Or anything like that?

Ali

Not officially. The only way that we’ve been tracking it is through social media. So a lot of people, when they find a book, they get so excited and they upload it on to Instagram or Facebook or Twitter. And then they say that they found a book and then other people will reply to them saying, that was my book. And we’ve seen it I think travel about four times. That’s the record. But we have discussed putting a tracker on it or something like that to try and find exactly how far it travels.

Valerie

Yeah. So is there a criteria for the kind of book, in that are there some books that you won’t leave on public transport? Or do you follow any particular themes? What’s the criteria?

Ali

There’s no real criteria. We just want to put as many books out there as possible. Unless it’s inappropriate. But besides from that, we really put all different, we put all sorts of books out there.

We really like hero-ing indie authors or debut authors, as well as Aussie authors, as well. Which we’ve had a few, actually.

We also host book clubs on the train. And we’ve hosted a few with Aussie authors. We’ve been lucky to have Sunni Overend has joined us. And she’s an author of two books. And then Graeme Simsion, as well, has joined us on the train, as well as the authors of the #LoveOzYA collection as well have joined us on the train. And it’s been really amazing to share all these Aussie authors with the Australian public.

Valerie

So you have your book club on the train and basically the author is talking about the book while you’re going Penshurst, Mortdale, Jannali, Sutherland, whatever?

Ali

Exactly, yeah.

Valerie

And presumably coming back. Because you’ve got to come back.

Ali

Yeah. Exactly. It’s a bit of a rocky ride.

The funniest was, or the most exciting and unusual, was the one with Graeme Simsion. He wrote a short story called “The Intervention on the Number 3 Tram” so we hosted it on the number 3 tram. And he read it. And it was such a crowded tram. We had no idea, but it was one of the most crowded trams. It ended up being, it was like it was peak hour. But only, there was about 20 people that joined us for the actual book club. But by the end of it, the entire tram was partaking in it and just random commuters were partaking in the actual book club, which was amazing.

Valerie

And is this all because you just love books?

Ali

Yes. Exactly. Just love books, completely, completely in love with books, like the main character of our book, The Book Ninja.

It’s been such a big part of both mine and Michelle’s, my co-author’s, lives. And it’s really what’s bonded, what’s made me and Michelle bond and what’s made us become best friends, just talking about all different sorts of books. That’s why we do it and that’s why we love it. And that’s why The Book Ninja as well really heroes and really talks about a whole lot of different books. I think we mention over 200 books. We’ve got a whole long list of books that are mentioned in The Book Ninja, at the back of the book.

Valerie

And so you and Michelle start leaving books on public transport and it takes off. At what point did you guys think, oh, we might write a book together? Because it’s quite a different activity.

Ali

Yeah, exactly. And I think it happened a bit unconventionally. What happened was, we had always talked about how we would love for someone to find a book and then find a romantic partner from that book. So basically, someone leaving a book and then someone else finding that book and then sort of forming a connection.

And we were so lucky to be able to speak to a whole lot of different publishers all the time for Books on the Rail, for just getting their books on public transport. And I had just a coffee with Anna O’Grady who is the head of publicity at Simon & Schuster. And we started discussing how we had always wanted to write a book and how we had this idea about someone finding a book and then finding a romantic connection from that.

And then it was from that coffee really that it sort of turned into this whole big thing. And we never believed that it would happen. We never really thought that anything would happen from it. But now it’s a book! And it’s been amazing. And it’s been such a learning curve. Especially doing a co-author, writing together with Michelle and I, it’s been amazing.

But we never thought it would happen. Now we’re on book two and we’re still pinching ourselves.

Valerie

That’s so exciting. Because you’ve done the creative writing course at the Australian Writers’ Centre in Melbourne. Why did you decide to do that course?

Ali

Yes. So I’ve always wanted to write. Since I was little, I’ve always wanted to be an author. It’s always been something that I’ve wanted to do.

I went into copywriting and worked as a creative copywriter in advertising for eight years. But have always secretly wanted to be an author. And decided to do the creative writing course with Nicole Hayes in Melbourne, just before I was about to leave for London. So I’d quit my job and I wanted to do something different and pursue my dream of being an author. And I did do the course and it was fantastic. It was the first time I had really shown my writing to anyone else, my creative writing to anyone else.

And then I did end up actually writing a manuscript, but never showed anyone as well. But then when I got back to Melbourne, we started creating Books on the Rail and discussing the idea of writing a book together. And then, yeah, it really happened from that.

Valerie

So give us an idea of timelines. You have coffee with Anna O’Grady from Simon & Schuster. And you just talk about this idea. Just give us a vague idea of timelines.

How long after that did you really agree on, look, we’re going to write a book. How long did you then take to write the book? With Michelle. And then we’ll go into how you did it, because co-writing’s a whole different ballgame compared to writing it by yourself.

Ali

Yes. It was a complete whirlwind. I think I had the coffee in November. I was freelancing at the time as a copywriter and I wasn’t able to meet Anna because it was during the day, but then my contract cancelled on me that morning so I had the coffee. But otherwise it wouldn’t have happened.

Valerie

That’s lucky!

Ali

Yeah, very lucky. And then I think we started writing… And then we signed with them, I think… We submitted a proposal in January, signed with them in April and then handed in our first draft manuscript in September.

Valerie

No!

Ali

So it was a very quick timeline.

Valerie

Oh my goodness! I have never heard of anything that quick! That’s highly, highly unusual. That is not normal. Because had you written anything by April?

Ali

No. We had… Sorry, we had. We had written four chapters which we had submitted for the proposal. But yeah, that was it. And it was a very quick turnaround.

Valerie

My goodness.

Ali

Yeah. So it was a big year.

Valerie

All right. Okay. You get the book proposal, I mean, you get the book deal and then suddenly you and Michelle need to write this book and it’s fiction. How in the world did you divide it up? How did you agree on the plot? How did you determine was going to write what bit? Talk me through the whole process on a practical level.

Ali

Yeah, so it was very different to writing by yourself, writing by myself. We had to, we got together and at first we started writing piano style. So sitting next to each other and writing everything word by word together. And then realised that was completely not practical.

Valerie

No.

Ali

So then we plotted every single thing together. We had massive brainstorm days of just plotting exactly what was going to happen and writing down a huge plot map. Which is so different to how I usually write. I usually… Graeme Simsion has this thing that he says, you can either by a plotter or a pant seat, a pantser, which is sort of writing by the seat of one’s pants. And I am definitely, when I write by myself, I’m a pantser.

But as a co-author, I think you have to be a plotter. And we completely decided, there were no surprises, we knew everything that was going to happen. And then we split up the chapters and we wrote one chapter each. And then split them back and forth between us.

Valerie

So you wrote a chapter each. So you alternated chapters, is that what you’re saying?

Ali

Yes, we did. Yes. And then we eventually… We alternated chapters and then eventually it sort of became one voice and now, now we’ve sort of become one person. At the start, we didn’t really have a similar voice. And now we have exactly the same tone of voice. We’ve sort of created this person in between both of us that is a new tone of voice.

Valerie

Wow. So when you first started and you had very different voices, how did you then meld them together and make sure it sounded like one voice?

Ali

At the start, it was a much longer process. And we sort of, I think we worked on chapter one for a very long time, just trying, giving it back and forth to each other, just trying to make it into this one voice. And then we sort of got the hang of writing in a different voice, or in a voice that was sort of an amalgamation of the both of us. And then now we sort of, now there’s a voice that we have that is sort of written as a new person, almost. That we’re writing on behalf of a new person that we’ve created, and that’s their voice. And I think that’s how we write.

Valerie

Right. Wow. All right. So you hand in your manuscript in September. And what was the experience like after that? Was there much feedback? Were there structural changes? What was that experience like?

Ali

Yeah, it was good. So we handed it in September, and then got it back I think in October. And Simon & Schuster were amazing. They knew that it was of course our first book, and they really talked us through all the changes and made it really easy for us to make all the changes.

There weren’t that many changes in terms of… There was quite a lot of changes in terms of the prose, but then in terms of the actual storyline, not as many changes. There was a character that we had to refine and kill off a little bit. And that was probably the most difficult part.

And then besides that, it was easier than we thought. We had no idea what to expect. But it was quite a seamless process, which was really good. And I think it was actually easier having both of us there. During that time as well I got married. So it was a very busy time for me.

Valerie

Busy. Busy.

Ali

Which was so great to have a co-author as well, to have Michelle there, so she picked up the slack while I was getting married and busy. And then as well, she’s a teacher, so while she was doing reports, I helped her during that stage. So it was really good to have someone there doing the writing while you’re sleeping.

Valerie

What was the hardest thing about the process?

Ali

The hardest thing would’ve probably had to be sort of what I said before which was changing from being a pantser. So changing from just writing as I went and letting the characters lead the whole process, to plotting everything out and making everything, knowing exactly what’s going to happen before you actually write it. Because the ideas, before when I used to write, the ideas used to come to me as I wrote. But now, changing my style, I guess, to be a plotter.

Valerie

And so what was the most enjoyable thing about the process?

Ali

The most enjoyable thing, I think, was probably having someone else to write with. We have a lot of fun together. Especially the plotting sessions. Yeah. Writing together and brainstorming and we usually had a glass of wine and laughed a lot. And going on writing holidays, as well. We did a few of those where we got…

Valerie

That’s a good excuse!

Ali

Yeah, exactly. Just went away for the weekend and just shut ourselves off from the world and just wrote and wrote and wrote.

And then, I guess, a lot of the time, as a copywriter as well, writing a lot has been very solitary for me. But writing together with someone else has been really fun and exciting.

And now doing the promotion part of it, so the promotion for The Book Ninja. We’ve been on a few writing tours and going to writing festivals as well, has been so much fun doing it with someone else.

Valerie

Have you… When you were writing, did you end up continuing the whole book alternating chapters?

Ali

Yes, we did. Yeah, we did. So the very start, we tried a few things. We sat side by side and then we also tried… There’s a big blog presence in the book, so there’s lots of blog entries. And we tried doing one of us writing the blogs and one of us writing the rest of it. But then, no, in the end we decided that the easiest was for us to alternate chapters.

Valerie

And so with that, though, how long would it take? Did you give each other, hey, every week, we’re going to write a chapter each? Or I’ll take one chapter, then I’ll give it you, you write the next chapter, then I’ll take the next week. Just on a practical level, how did it work?

Ali

So we gave each other a week to do a chapter, essentially. So we each did a chapter a week. Which was difficult if you were writing, it was a little bit more difficult if you were writing the chapter following the one that hadn’t already been written. So if Michelle was writing chapter two and then I had to write chapter three, but I hadn’t seen chapter two yet, it was a bit difficult.

It was good though that we had the really thorough plot map, so we knew exactly what was going to happen. But I always preferred being the one that would write the first chapter beforehand, but we alternated that as well.

Valerie

Cool. And so now you’ve mentioned that there’s a second book. Is this a sequel to The Book Ninja or is it something else?

Ali

It’s not a sequel. It’s a standalone. We’re currently writing it for it to come out next year in June. It’s still set in Australia and it’s still about books and about love. So it’s very bookish as well. But it’s a standalone, a standalone book.

Valerie

And do you think this is going to be the way forward? Basically co-writing with Michelle for the near future?

Ali

I think so. Yeah. I mean, you never know, you never know what’s going to happen. But I think so. I think we love doing it together and we’ve talked a lot about it. We both have fulltime jobs as well. But yeah, we love writing together. And now that we’re used to it, I think we can’t imagine writing alone. I don’t know. But we’ll see what happens. But yeah, we do really enjoy doing it. And for the near future, at least, I think this is what will happen.

Valerie

And so what are your fulltime jobs? And how do you fit this in? Do you set aside a particular time each week? Or what happens?

Ali

I run a small advertising agency in Melbourne called Hedgehog Advertising. With my brother, actually. I co everything. So I’ve co-authored the book and now I co-found the agency with my brother. And we’ve got a team of eleven and we do all creative advertising. And Michelle is a primary school teacher.

And we find it… It’s hard to balance work with writing. But we love writing. So we do it, we usually, I usually try and find a couple of days after work to do it and then one day of the weekend to write.

Valerie

A couple days after work and one day of the weekend. Right. Okay. And do you catch up with Michelle on a regular basis to see where you’re going? Or is it pretty much done over email once you’ve passed the plotting stage?

Ali

We usually catch up once a week, as well. We usually actually do it, we usually have a Saturday breakfast where Michelle or I will cook each other, will make each other breakfast. And then just discuss everything over breakfast. How we’re going, what we’re thinking. Whether the characters are changing. So that’s a ritual that we do. And it works. And it’s fun. Because you get to see your friend as well at the same time.

Valerie

That just sounds delightful!

Ali

Yeah, it’s great. Or if we’re having a hard time, it will be after work with a glass or two of red wine.

Valerie

Yes. Have you ever disagreed on things? Like, not minor things. But kind of thought, no, I really think the character should do this, and the other says, no, I want them to do this.

Ali

I think… We haven’t. We’re really lucky, we haven’t. A lot of people said it’ll either make or break our friendship. And I think it’s made it. But we haven’t really…

We probably only had one disagreement ever, which was we had a big… At the last year, I think, we had been writing for about a month. And we were going, one of us wanted to completely change the direction of the book. And then one of us wanted to keep going as it was. And then I think we found a happy medium in the end, and then we moved past that. But that was probably the only disagreement.

Other than that, it’s been all great. Which we’ve been really lucky that that’s happened.

Valerie

Yeah. Now, I usually ask our interviewees their top three tips for writing. But I’m interested more your top three tips on writing with a co-writer. What are some specific things that you think are important for other people who might be thinking of co-writing out there? Three things.

Ali

Oh, three things. I’d say one is to constantly communicate with each other. Because I know especially in the midst of it we could get in our own heads a little bit and just be writing things and be taking characters places and then forget to tell one another. And then the character has completely changed and you haven’t communicated. So just constantly communicating. Even if it’s an email or a Facebook message, just letting each other know what’s happening in your mind.

Valerie

Right.

Ali

Two, I’d say, is to plot everything. So to have plotting meetings. So we had that one big plotting meeting at the start, but then to have continuous plotting meetings with each other as you go. Because the plot does change. Even if you don’t want it to, the plot will naturally change slightly here and there as you go and as you’re writing.

And then three, I’d say, we always tend to read the same books as we’re writing. And it does help, I think. It sort of gets us in the groove of the sort of tone that we’re writing in, or the sort of style that we’re writing in. So reading the same books at the same time. And then also discussing what we like and what we didn’t like about the book at the same time always helps as well. So we have our own little mini book club for the two of us.

Valerie

Lovely. Lovely. Just sounds like you are having a whole lot of fun.

Ali

Yes, we are. We are.

Valerie

All right. And on that note, thank you so much for your time today, Ali.

Ali

Thank you. Thanks.


Comments